North Coast 500: Guide to Scotland’s Most Scenic Road Trip Route

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The North Coast 500 route is the best road trip in the UK. To make the most of your trip through Scotland, it is important to plan ahead. This guide to visiting the NC500 will ensure you have a smooth journey.

Loch Maree Scotland NC500 (Gemma Spence)
Loch Maree along the NC500

Written by guest author: Gemma Spence

Rated the best road trip in the UK, the North Coast 500 (NC500) showcases some of the most beautiful landscapes in the Scottish countryside. 

The route captures everything from historical sights dating back thousands of years, to some of the most pristine sandy beaches and rugged mountains along Scotland’s north coast.

Although the NC500 road trip is a popular driving route, there are actually limited facilities and amenities along the route. Due to how remote this part of Scotland is, pre-planning is necessary. 

To make the most of your North Coast 500 road trip, we’ve broken down everything you need to know. This article is chock-full of insider tips and advice to make your route more comfortable.  

What is the North Coast 500?

assynt viewpoint-3 NC500 (Gemma Spence)
Loch Assynt Viewpoint along the NC500

The North Coast 500 is a 516 mile scenic road trip route around the north highlands in Scotland. Beginning and ending in Inverness, the driving loop showcases some of the most unique and remote sights in the country. 

Dotted with tiny towns with minuscule populations, this part of north Scotland is incredibly remote. You’ll mostly be surrounded by vast wilderness occupied by a variety of wildlife from livestock to deer.

Along the winding roads you will be greeted by countless breathtaking views. You don’t even need to get out of your vehicle to appreciate the scenery—it’s all part of the experience. 

Launched in 2015 as part of the North Highland Initiative, the popularity of this route has increased visitor numbers to these harder to reach areas of Scotland. This has brought many economic benefits to these areas. 

People travel from all over the world to tour the NC500, some by foot, bike, motorbike or supercar. However, the most popular form of travel around the NC500 is by campervan or car.

Psst! Check out our guide to hiring a campervan in Scotland if you want to give a campervan a spin. 

NC500 Planning Guide

The North Coast 500 Route

North Coast 500 Route Map

The North Coast 500 route is split into 5 different regions: Inverness-shire, The Black Isle, Easter Ross, Caithness, Sutherland and Wester Ross. 

It officially starts and ends in Inverness, the unofficial “capital city” of the Scottish Highlands. From there it encircles the northernmost part of Scotland, hugging the coast line in a loop back to Inverness. 

Some of the most scenic areas on the route include:

  • driving through the mountains in Tongue
  • along the coastline in Durness
  • the Torridon mountain range

Psst! Don’t leave before you check out our bucket list of fun things to do in Inverness, including the unique Inverness Castle.

Highlights of the NC500

There are many highlights of the North Coast 500 that you will want to enjoy on your trip. Many of which are outside and are best visited in fair weather.

Dunrobin Castle

dunrobin castle-16 NC500 (Gemma Spence)

Dunrobin Castle is located on the east coast of the NC500, just north of the small town of Dornoch. 

The castle dates back to the 13th century. It has been home to the Earls and Dukes of Sutherland for over 700 years. Visitors can enjoy a stroll around the gardens, admiring the picturesque castle or taking a tour inside.

Duncansby Stacks

Duncansby Stacks_NC500 (Gemma Spence)

Some of the most iconic geological features on the NC500 are the Duncansby Stacks. Some tower up to 60 meters above sea level. 

The sea stacks were formed as a result of erosion against the cliffs. Over time land has crumbled away and left the stacks standing out at sea. 

This is a favorite spot for many to visit. It is located a short drive from John O’Groats, the most northerly village on Scottish mainland. 

Dunnet Head

Dunnet head NC500 (Gemma Spence)

The northernmost point on mainland Scotland is Dunnet Head. Located near the town of Dunnet in the Caithness region, it is a great place to visit on the NC500 route. 

This wild and rugged part of the coastline is found by following sign posts along a narrow single track road from the town out towards the coast. 

The towering cliffs at Dunnet Head reach a height of over 100 meters tall. It is common to see a lot of seabirds, including puffins, guillemots and razor bills, as well as dolphins, seals and sometimes whales in the water below.

Dunnet Lighthouse is situated at the top of Dunnet Head which was built in 1831 and is still in operation today.

Balnakeil Beach

This picturesque white sand beach makes for a great stop on your North Coast 500 road trip. The beach is wide and includes some large sand dunes, located near Cape Wrath on the north of Scotland.

Smoo Cave

smoo cave_NC500 (Gemma Spence)

One of the more unique sights to see on the North Coast 500 is Smoo Cave, located in the village of Durness. 

This fascinating sea cave is formed of three chambers, one at the entrance, the second featuring a waterfall cascading from a hole in the ceiling and freshwater pool and the third chamber at the back of the cave. 

Smoo Cave is believed to be the deepest freshwater pool in Scotland reaching depths of 20 meters. Additionally, Smoo Cave dates back to the neolithic period and it is believed it used to be used as a shelter by the Vikings during their raids along the coast of Scotland.

Achmelvich Beach

achelvich bay-8 NC500 (Gemma Spence)

One of the most well known beaches in Scotland is Achmelvich Beach. This is due to its white sand and remote location amongst the rugged coastline of this part of Scotland. 

Achmelvich Beach is located 3 miles north west of the small town of Lochinver. It is accessed by following a winding single track road around the bottom of the mountain, adding to the charm of how remote this area of Scotland is.

When you visit Achmelvich Beach, make sure to look out for Hermit’s Castle, Europe’s smallest castle that dates back to 1950. 

Waterfalls near the NC500 route

Fairy glen Falls NC500 (Gemma Spence)
Fairy Glen Falls

Due to the significant rainfall in Scotland there are numerous waterfalls located around the North Coast 500 route. Some of the best waterfalls to visit are Clashnessie Falls, Wailing Widow Falls, Fairy Glen Falls and Rogie Falls. 

Whaligoe Steps 

Whaligoe Steps NC500 (Gemma Spence)

The Whaligoe Steps are one of the more unique sights to visit on the North Coast 500. The 365 steps lead you down to a small harbor surrounded by towering 250 feet cliffs. 

These steps have been in place for over 200 years and are restored regularly by locals.

Bealach Na Ba

top of Bealach na ba_NC500 (Gemma Spence)

The Bealach Na Ba is one of the most famous roads in Scotland due to its picturesque design winding through the mountains and overlooking Loch Kishorn. 

You can expect to have incredible views along this route and it’s actually widely considered one of the best places to visit in Scotland

Note: It is advised that large vehicles don’t drive this road, due to how steep and narrow it is.

John o’ Groats

John O_Groats NC500 (Gemma Spence)
John o’Groats

A village on Scotland’s north coast, John o’Groats is also famous because it’s the northernmost point of mainland Britain. In fact, there is a well known route to travel the entire length of the UK, from Land’s End to John o’Groats.

A stop here isn’t complete without snapping a photo in front of the famous John o’Groats sign post.

Endless lochs on the NC500 route

Lower Diabeg_NC500 (Gemma Spence)
Lower Diabeg

Scotland is also home to some of the most scenic freshwater lakes called lochs. Along the NC500, the lochs are surrounded by mountainous backdrops and make for some pretty incredible scenery. 

Loch Assynt, Loch Maree, Loch Eriboll and Loch Torridon are some of the most beautiful lochs in Scotland and can be visited on the North Coast 500 route.

Corrieshalloch Gorge

Corrieshalloch Gorge NC500 (Gemma Spence)jpg

Corrieshalloch Gorge is a National Trust Scotland site in the Wester Ross region of the NC500. A visit to the gorge includes a nice walk around the woodland trails, crossing the high suspension bridge that overlooks the Falls of Measach which tumbles 45 meters into the gorge below.

Ardvreck Castle 

Ardvreck Castle NC500 (Gemma Spence)

Standing on a rocky outcrop in Loch Assynt are the ruins of Ardvreck Castle, which dates back to the 15th century. There are no facilities here however you will be able to see Ardvreck Castle as you are driving along the road.

Stac Pollaidh 

Stac Pollaidh is one of the most popular mountains in the Scottish Highlands. 

The Stac Pollaidh hike is a 4km (2.5-mile) circular trail located near Lochinver. The trail includes 612 meters (1,479 ft) of elevation gain and takes around 3 hours to complete. 

Be prepared for the weather to change quickly if you decide to hike Stac Pollaidh.

Kylesku Bridge

Kylesku Bridge NC500 (Gemma Spence)

One of the most iconic sights on the North Coast 500 is the Kylesku Bridge. This curved metal bridge crosses Loch a’ Chàirn Bhàin in one of the most scenic and mountainous areas in the Sutherland region. 

There are large car parks on either side of the bridge where you can park to enjoy the views or take some photos.

Psst! If you have time to discover more of the country, don’t miss these epic places to visit in Scotland.

Things to know before you go

Due to how remote this part of Scotland is, it is advised to plan for your trip to the North Coast 500 before you leave to ensure you have a smooth trip.

Book hotels and accommodation in advance 

With the popularity of driving the NC500, it’s no surprise the restaurants and accommodations along the route can book up far in advance. 

We recommend booking your accommodation as soon as you decide on your North Coast 500 itinerary to make sure you have somewhere comfortable to rest your head. 

Campervan facilities on the NC500

If you are traveling the NC500 in a campervan or motorhome, we recommend using the app Park4night. This will help you to plan where to rest your head for the night and where to find freshwater and waste facilities along the route. 

Staying connected on the NC500

Helmsdale NC500 (Gemma Spence)

Being so remote, it is likely that you will struggle to have good cell signal along the North Coast 500. We always recommend having an offline map downloaded in case you need it. (You can do this one Google Maps – download the offline version of the map.) 

We recommend getting a SIM card through EE for the best connection around the route.

Reduced facilities

Being in a remote part of the country, you will come across fewer petrol stations and supermarkets along the North Coast 500. In some areas there aren’t any small shops either so make sure you are prepared before you go. 

We recommend planning out your fuel and food stops ahead of time, so you don’t find yourself running out of gas with no petrol stations in sight. 

Best time of year to drive the NC500

top of Bealach na ba_NC500 (Gemma Spence)
Bealach Na Ba

The North Coast 500 can be driven at any time of year. However the best chance for good weather would be during the spring or summer months. 

From April onwards, seasonal businesses begin to reopen and outdoor activities such as boat trips and tours will begin running again. 

The traffic around the North Coast 500 will be busy during school holidays therefore we would suggest avoiding these times if possible.

Psst! You’ll find our guide to the best time to visit Scotland helpful to get the full breakdown on what makes each season distinct and unique to help cater to your trip.

Tips for driving the NC500

wester ross camp NC500 (Gemma Spence)
Water Ross Camp along the NC500

Follow these tips to give yourself the best experience while driving the North Coast 500 route. 

  • Plan your route ahead of time as many of the roads will be narrow and single track, driven on the left. Some roads are not entirely suitable for larger vehicles, especially when heavily trafficked, as some roads have drop off verges. 
  • Do not pass cars unless in a passing lane. There are passing lanes situated along many of the single track roads. It is important to be aware that these are used for passing only and not as a parking space. 
  • While admiring the scenery, look out for wildlife such as deer as it is common for them to be seen near the roads, especially at night.
  • Petrol stations and supermarkets are scarce around the NC500 so it is important to plan your trip with this in mind. You will come across local shops in the villages around the route but for more unique products, you may only be able to purchase these in the supermarkets.

Psst! For more tips and advice, read up on our guide for driving in Scotland.

What to pack

No matter what time of year you visit Scotland, it is always worth being prepared for the changing weather and remote areas you may be visiting. 

  • Bug net: If you are visiting the North Coast 500 during the summer one of the most valuable things you can pack is a midge net. This might sound dramatic if you don’t plan on going off track but trust me, you will be glad you have it if you get caught out with the midges.
    • You won’t need to worry about this if you are visiting in the winter months.
  • Comfortable, waterproof shoes or boots: Even if you don’t experience rain, the ground may still be wet from past storms. 
  • Waterproof jacket: just in case you experience wet weather on your trip. 
  • Dress in layers: these will come in handy as you can dress for whatever weather you are faced with and remove layers should you need to. 

Insider Tip: It is advisable to have your itinerary written out alongside a physical map and download Google maps offline or use a SatNav for directions.

For more ideas on what to pack, download our FREE Scotland packing list.

Scotland Packing List Mobile Banner

Where to stay along the North Coast 500

Fionn Croft Shephards Hut NC500 (Gemma Spence)
Fionn Croft Shepherds Hut in Gairloch

There is a selection of great places to stay around the North Coast 500 route, offering a choice to a variety of budgets. These vary from cabins and glamping pods that offer self catering facilities to hotels and campsites. 

Due to the popularity of the NC500 the restaurants and accommodations can book up very quickly and far in advance. 

Once you’ve committed to the trip and if you have a good idea of a North Coast 500 itinerary, we recommend booking your accommodation to make sure you have somewhere comfortable to rest your head. 

Top lodging recommendations

Where to stay along the North Coast 500

Old Drynie House NC500

Old Drynie House, Black Isle: A true B&B with stunning water views, spacious private rooms, and a traditional, formal Scottish breakfast served in a group setting. 

John O'Groats NC500

Natural Retreats, John O’Groats: Luxury, self-catering eco-cottages with spectacular views of the ocean and Orkney Islands. Locally-sourced, sustainable materials are used throughout each cottage, alongside modern amenities including large flat-screen TVs with PS3 video game consoles. Onsite bicycle rentals are available. 

Kyle of Tongue Hostel NC500

Kyle of Tongue Hostel & Campsite: A former historic shooting lodge turned hostel, this is a fantastic affordable accommodation option with both private and shared rooms, plus a campsite. 

Camping on the NC500

loch brora-07 NC500 (Gemma Spence)
Camping at Loch Brora along the NC500

Many people choose to drive the NC500 in a campervan or motorhome as there are many campsites around the route. 

If you plan to hire a campervan or motorhome for your NC500 road trip, it is advised to book this in advance as dates will book up fast. You can use the Park4night app to search for waste disposal facilities and fresh water taps around the route.

If you decide to take a tent and camp around the North Coast 500, check out The Scottish Outdoor Access Code which permits camping in a tent in remote areas of the country as long as no trace is left. 

If you plan to have a fire, it is important to raise this off the ground to avoid burning the ground. Any toilet waste should be completed and buried away from water sources. Read up on the 7 principles of Leave No Trace before you go!

Camping around the North Coast 500 is most efficient if you are arriving late in the day and leaving early in the morning.

Psst! This Scotland camping guide has everything you need to know about camping in Scotland, plus some of our top recommended campsites around the country.

NC 500 FAQs

Applecross NC500 (Gemma Spence)
Applecross, Scotland

The North Coast 500 road trip requires a lot of planning to make the most of your trip. Below are some of the most frequently asked questions about the NC500.

How long does it take to do the North Coast 500?

Driving the North Coast 500 can take as long as you need it to. There are so many sights to see that you may not have time to see everything if you try to pack it all in a short amount of time.

We would recommend spending at least 7 days on the North Coast 500, however, 14 days would allow you to drive the 516 mile route at a more enjoyable pace.

Is the North Coast 500 worth it?

The North Coast 500 has been named the best road trip in the UK on many occasions. So we’d say it is definitely worth a trip up to the Highlands of Scotland to see what all the fuss is about.

Where does the North Coast 500 start and finish?

Inverness NC500 (Gemma Spence)
Inverness, Scotland

The North Coast 500 route starts and finishes in Inverness, the capital city of the Scottish Highlands. 

It is up to you which direction you want to go – clockwise or counterclockwise along the route. Many travelers choose to go east to west to enjoy the incredible scenery on the west coast of Scotland at the end of their trip.

Is the North Coast 500 hard to drive?

Bealach na ba applecross-2 NC500 (Gemma Spence)
Bealach Na Ba

The North Coast 500 is a popular tourist route, therefore the roads can be very busy with campervans, caravans and even lorries. 

It is important to take care on the narrow roads and use the passing lanes when necessary. However it is not a difficult drive, as long as you are comfortable driving on the left side of the road. 

Do you need a 4×4 vehicle to drive the NC500?

A 4×4 vehicle isn’t required to drive the NC500 route.

What is the best route for the North Coast 500?

The North Coast 500 route follows the scenic coastline around the north coast of Scotland. The direction that many people prefer driving is from east to west.

What is the most scenic part of the NC500?

Torridon Pass_NC500 (Gemma Spence)
Torridon Pass on the NC500

Everyone will have a different opinion on where the most scenic part of the North Coast 500 is. However, we think driving through the Torridon Mountain range showcases some of the most incredible scenery in Scotland.

Why is the NC500 so popular?

The NC500 showcases some of the most remote and scenic areas in Scotland. There is an immense amount of history in the area as well as geographical diversity from towering mountains to white sandy beaches.

The NC500 has also been named the best road trip in the UK on many occasions adding to the popularity of the route.

Guest Author - Gemma Spence

About the author

Gemma Spence and her partner Campbell are the explorers behind Highlands2hammocks. We aim to inspire alternative living and can be found living in our home on wheels, Ellie, or traveling to destinations around the world. 

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