Driving the North Coast 500 in Scotland
Scotland's North Coast 500 is one of the world's most stunning driving routes. On one side of the road are dramatic cliff-top castles, rocky outcrops covered in noisy seabirds, and beaches that wouldn’t look out of place in the Caribbean, while on the other are misty mountains, vast peat bogs, and wooded glens where deer roam.
And while the scenery can change in an instant, the weather is no less varied. One moment you're hiking along a cliff path, admiring views out to distant islands, while the next you're seeking shelter in a cosy pub or local museum as an Atlantic squall sweeps in. But once you've completed a road trip around Scotland's wild and remote far north, you'll realise you wouldn't have wanted it any other way.
What is the North Coast 500?
Launched in 2015, the North Coast 500, also known as the NC500, is a 516-mile driving route that circumnavigates the northernmost part of mainland Scotland. The city of Inverness is the starting and finishing point, and from there the route heads up the east coast to John o'Groats, before turning west along the top of Scotland, and then down the west coast to Ullapool and Applecross. A final inland section takes you back to Inverness.
Whether it's paddleboarding, kayaking, whale- and dolphin-watching boat trips, hiking, cycling, golf, fishing, horse riding, and even the occasional ceilidh you're after, you’ll find plenty of activities along the way. You can also immerse yourself in local food and drink, including at whisky distilleries and seafood smokehouses, plus there are many lovely pubs, restaurants, and cafés to stop off at.
You can plan your route with this interactive map of the North Coast 500.
The North Coast 500 route
It takes about three hours to drive north from Inverness to John o'Groats. It's a fairly easy route, so you can cover it on the first day of your trip at a leisurely pace with one or two stops. If you’re a golfer, your progress may be a lot slower, though, as there are many excellent courses along this stretch of coast.
From its starting point, the NC500 winds its way through Easter Ross, hugging the shorelines of a series of inlets, and passing through towns and villages like Dingwall, Evanton, and Tain (home to the Glenmorangie distillery). You can also take an alternative route across the Black Isle (it's actually a peninsula), where attractions include Fairy Glen, a pretty wooded valley with waterfalls, and Chanonry Point, where you can spot dolphins from the beach. Further north, the magnificent Dunrobin Castle and Gardens makes a good stop, while the surrounding Sutherland coast has wide-open seascapes that you can see as you travel the main A9 road.
In Caithness, close to the town of Wick, you can stop for photos of the dramatic clifftop ruins of Old Keiss Castle and Castle Sinclair Girnigoe. John o'Groats is worth a brief stop for a selfie by its famous signpost, but you’ll find better scenery a couple of miles east, at Duncansby Head. A walk along the cliffs there rewards you with views of the jagged twin sea stacks known as Duncansby Stacks.
From John o'Groats, the NC500 heads west, following the A836 road. It's worth stopping at Dunnet Head, the northernmost point of the island of Great Britain, where there's a lighthouse and, on a clear day, views of across to the Orkney Islands, including the famous Old Man of Hoy rock formation. If you have time for a detour, you can cross to the Orkneys from the ports of Gills Bay and Scrabster. On the other side of the town of Thurso — a good place to stop for supplies — you can call in at Puffin Cove, where in 2019 the RSPB recorded 3500 pairs of puffins.
As you head further west, the scenery becomes more dramatic; once-distant mountains get closer, and there are many pretty beaches and inlets — Ceannabeinne and Balnakeil beaches are among the most gorgeous stretches of sand. In between the two you’ll find Smoo Cave; once used by Vikings and whisky smugglers, it's now a visitor attraction thanks to the waterfall within it.
The far northwest corner of Scotland is home to Cape Wrath, which you can only visit via an organised mini bus tour and a ferry. It's well worth the detour, though, as on a clear day, can see both the Western Isles and the Orkneys from this wild, rugged headland. South of Cape Wrath, Sandwood Bay is one of the UK's most remot and arguably most beautiful beaches. It's a few miles' walk from the nearest car park, so it's usually quiet.
The west coast has the most stunning section of the NC500, thanks to its many lochs, mountains, and island views, not to mention colourful sunsets, and it's best to take things at a leisurely pace. There are plenty of opportunities to trek across moors dotted with small lochs, above which rise spectacular mountains. Hikers can bag Munros including Ben More Assynt and Beinn Alligin, as well as less-lofty peaks like Stac Pollaidh and Canisp. On a clear day, the views from their summits of botht the west coast and the islands beyond are incredible.
Ullapool makes for a good stop if you need supplies, and you can also take a trip from its port to the Outer Hebrides — ferries depart for Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis. South of Ullapool is the stunning area surrounding Torridon, including the Applecross Peninsula, from where you can see over to the islands of Raasay and Skye. You can also decide on whether to complete the NC500 circuit by heading back to Inverness, or drive an hour or so south to Kyle of Lochalsh and cross the bridge to Skye.
Either way, you'll need to negotiate the steep and winding road up to Bealach na Bà (the Pass of the Cattle), which is arguably one of the most spectacular sections of road in the UK. It's no leisurely drive in the hills — in fact, signs warn you that only experienced drivers should attempt it, and it's best to hit this single-track road early in the morning to avoid the heaviest visitor traffic. The views from the car park at the top are awesome, while the final zig-zagging downhill section offers no less gorgeous scenery.
It's then a 70-mile drive through beautiful highland scenery to Inverness, where you can explore the castle, the cathedral, and the Victorian Market, or continue to Loch Ness, only a 20-minute drive south of the city.
Top tips for travelling the North Coast 500
Spend at least a week completing the route
The NC500 is more than 500 miles long, and while some sections are relatively straight roads, others are winding, narrow mountain routes with lots of potential photo stops, so aim to spend at least seven days exploring. The route is not prescriptive, though; you can make detours or skip sections, depending on your interests and how much time you have.
Do the eastern side first
The roads on the Inverness-John o'Groats section of the NC500 are wider and straighter than those in the west, so you can cover distances in a shorter time. And while this stretch of coast is pretty, it's more desolate and featureless than the west, so you'll be saving the best until last.
Travel outside of peak summer
While the North Coast 500 is popular throughout the year, the roads (especially the single tracks of the west coast) can get particularly busy from June-September. Whatever the time of year, try to book accommodation well in advance to avoid disappointment.
Prepare for all kinds of weather
The days are long from May-September, so there's plenty of daylight for exploring. However, midges can be a major irritation during these months, so bring insect repellent and a head net. During winter and spring, roads can close due to snow, so always seek local advice if you're considering travelling at that time. Northern Scotland can experience all kinds of weather throughout the year, so bring warm and waterproof clothes, even in the height of summer.
Plan your route in advance, taking into account details like distances, opening and closing times, and daylight hours. Make sure you have breakdown cover as you could break down a long way from the nearest garage. Mobile internet signal can be intermittent in the area, so do any important downloads before you set out. Fill up with fuel where you can, as petrol stations are often far apart or might be closed if you arrive late at night.
Accommodation on the North Coast 500
You’ll find all types of accommodation, including guest houses, B&Bs, and hotels, along the NC500. There are also many campsites; glamping pods are very poplar along the route. For a more budget-friendly option, wild camping is allowed in much of Scotland, but always make sure you leave no trace. You can find out more about the wild camping rules here.
Inverness is about 170 miles north of Glasgow by road (approximately three hours), and around four hours by train. Alternatively, you can fly to Inverness from UK cities including London, Manchester, Belfast, and Birmingham, then hire a car from the airport or city centre. In addition to regular cars, local vehicle hire options include camper vans, classic cars, and even Land Rovers with roof tents. Some of the smaller roads along the NC500 can be difficult to negotiate in larger motorhomes, so consider this when hiring a vehicle.