The North Coast 500 – a guide to Scotland’s ultimate road trip

Kylesku Bridge

Discover everything you need to know about this famous circular route that starts and ends in Inverness.

The Scottish Highlands have so much to offer, but if you’re a visitor, you might not know where to start. The North Coast 500 provides an excellent framework, taking you on a journey exploring some of the finest coastline Scotland has to offer with plenty of history, adventure and accommodation along the way. If you have a week to spare then it’s worth taking some time to explore this incredible road trip.

What is the North Coast 500?

The North Coast 500 is a 516-mile (or 830-kilometre) route around the north coast of Scotland. It begins and ends at Inverness Castle, which is situated on top of a hill, giving a wonderful view of the landscape you’re about to conquer. The trail, launched in 2015, was inspired by the famous Route 66 in America and has been recognised as one of the best coastal routes in the world.

Heading clockwise from Inverness, travellers move inland towards the west coast before reaching the town of Applecross. From there, head north through towns like Torridon and Ullapool before reaching the titular north coast, and drive through some of the most northerly points of Scotland as you head eastwards towards John O’ Groats, before eventually heading south through Wick and later Dingwall as you arrive back in Inverness. But there’s far more to it than that.


NC500 Map

How should I travel on the North Coast 500?

If you’re familiar with The Proclaimers, they might suggest that you walk the 500 miles – which some people choose to do – but it may take a while. Others who like a challenge, take the route by bike. But as you might expect, we think a car is the best way to enjoy the coastal roads of Scotland.

Luckily there’s an Arnold Clark Car & Van Rental branch in Inverness, so you can pick the perfect vehicle to enjoy your journey in comfort and style. We’re also one of the corporate partners of the route, so our friendly staff will be happy to give you any advice about your journey.

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

Most itineraries recommend taking a minimum five to seven days to take in the sights and enjoy the drive, however, you can do it faster if you’re just there for the drive. Remember, this isn’t a motorway but a collection of rural roads, so there’s plenty of twists, turns and narrow sections where overtaking isn’t possible. And at peak times, you may find slower vehicles towing caravans on the road, so it pays to be patient. But there’s no rush, there’s bound to be a good view or a point of interest along the way. Just look out for the brown signs which point you towards culture and heritage sites.

Everything moves at a slower pace in the north of Scotland, so it’s worth taking your time to enjoy your surroundings and make the most of your trek around this stunning coastline.

What can I see on the North Coast 500?

Well, it all depends on what you’re looking for. There are so many options so it’s best to plan ahead and pick out the points of interest otherwise you might be overwhelmed by choice. Luckily, you can find a range of itineraries on the North Coast 500 website incorporating a range of destinations along with dates and timings. And even if you choose not to follow these to the letter, there’s plenty to pick and choose for inspiration. Here are a few of our picks.

Dunrobin Castle

If you’re looking for history…

Located in the village of Helmdale in the north east of Scotland, Timespan is a museum and contemporary art gallery which believes in using culture for social change. They commission four major projects every year, so there will always be something new to see.

Not far from Inverness, Culloden was where the 1745 Jacobite uprising came to an end. Today, you can see the battlefield with flags marking the battle lines. You can then visit the museum and learn the story of the uprising and see artefacts from the time, and even experience the battle in the museum’s 360-degree battle immersion theatre.

Located 50 miles north of Inverness, Dunrobin Castle is the most northerly of Scotland’s great houses, and with 189 rooms, it’s also the largest in the region. The castle began construction in 1835 with Sir Charles Barry remodelling it in the Scottish Baronial style, or perhaps it looks more a fairy tale castle depending on your point of view. It also has immaculately kept gardens which are well worth a visit.

Find out more about historical sites on the North Coast 500.

Whiskey Glasses

If you want to visit distilleries…

Scotland is famous for its whisky but in recent times it’s also become a global gin destination, and you’ll find a fair few breweries too. Of course, never drink and drive so if you want to enjoy these tours and sample the local produce, it’s vital to set up base locally.

On the banks of Dornach, among the Barley fields, you’ll find the Glenmorangie Distillery Visitor Centre where you can take a tour and find out how they’ve been making their famous single malt whisky since 1843.

For something a little more artisan, visit Badachro Distillery where you’ll find a family run distillery producing Badachro Gin. Located in Badachro Bay with stunning views towards the Outer Hebrides, it’s a visit every gin fan will savour.

For beer fans, the Black Isle Brewery is Scotland’s only organic brewery, with all their own grain grown within the local fertile soil, along with fruit and vegetables. There are tours where you can meet the team and enjoy free samples.

Find out more about North Coast 500 distilleries.

People Surfing

If you’re looking for adventure...

There’s so much to do in the great outdoors around Scotland’s coast. If you want to attempt sea kayaking, you can do this at Gairloch Canoe and Kayak Centre or Sea Kayak Plockton where you can take in the local scenery from a new perspective.

Hamlet Mountaineering creates bespoke adventures for every group so whether you’re experienced or a novice, you can try this thrilling activity.

If you’re staying at The Torridon Hotel, you can take part in their activity programme. It incorporates mountain biking, clay pigeon shooting, coasteering, gorge scrambling and so much more.

Find out more about North Coast 500 adventure activites.

Golfer

If you want to play golf…

You can’t go too far in Scotland without running into a golf course, and to take advantage of this, North Coast 500 offers a golf passport which provides discounts on a number of courses on the route. From new courses, like Ullapool Golf Club opened in the 1990s, to the older like Strathpeffer Spa Golf Club founded in 1888, there are courses to challenge every golfer, all set in picturesque surroundings.

Find out more golf courses.

Where should I stay on the NC500?

As with any trip, it pays to plan ahead. There’s plenty of accommodation along the way but it’s always good to know exactly where you’ll be spending the night so you can plan your route accordingly. Whether you’re looking for luxury, or planning to hunker down and camp, there are plenty of options.

You can find out more about accommodation on the official North Coast 500 website.

Litter Bag

Anything else I should know?

Much of the NC500 is rural so it’s important to follow the Scottish Outdoor Access Code which is designed to help people enjoy the outdoors responsibly. That means taking responsibility for your own actions, respecting others, caring for the environment and keeping your dog under control. You can find out more about the Scottish Outdoor Access Code here.

Remember, Scotland is still under COVID-19 restrictions, so some of the attractions may be closed or have restrictions on numbers or opening hours, so it’s best to check these details before starting your journey.

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