Scotland's answer to America's Route 66, the North Coast 500 (NC500) touring route promises to reward those who travel it with a superlative Scottish experience: from towering mountains and mysterious lochs, to secret beaches and fairy-tale castles. Sound like just the adventure you've been craving? Here's the lowdown so you can start dreaming of your future trip.
What is the North Coast 500 and where does it go?
The North Coast 500 is a 516-mile scenic route that starts and ends at Inverness Castle. It brings together all of the best bits of the North Highlands via wild coastal roads, historic towns such as Ullapool, and picturesque seaside villages. You can even look forward to stopping off at John O'Groats – famously Britain's (almost) northernmost tip – or island hopping with a ferry tour of Orkney, one of Scotland’s major archipelagos.
The helpful folk at NC500 have put together themed itineraries to help you get the most out of your future trip, including one on Luxury and another on History, Heritage and Archaeology. You can also explore the NC500 route map, while further itineraries are available with a NC500 membership.
What can I see and do along the way?
Whether you're looking for rare wildlife, adrenaline sports, amazing food and drink, or just spectacular views, you'll find it all along the North Coast 500.
Take your time travelling through the Black Isle – not an isle at all, but a peninsula – and you'll be able to wonder at mystical glens and waterfalls, snack on woodland berries and sit in sunny bays spotting dolphins. A couple of gems to add to your future itinerary include Fairy Glen Falls, a short walk from Rosemarkie Beach, and Chanonry Point, a prime spot for dolphin watching.
For another splash of natural beauty, you can look forward to discovering the vast ravine at Corrieshalloch Gorge National Nature Reserve, a short drive from Ullapool. Formed millions of years ago by Ice Age glacial meltwater, the mile-long box-canyon’s focal point is a number of cascading waterfalls. Complete with Victorian suspension bridge, viewing platforms and surrounding walking trails, stop off here for a glimpse of some of Scotland’s most spectacular scenery.
In Wester Ross, you can drive along Bealach na Bà – a startlingly beautiful stretch of road offering views (on a clear day) as far as the Outer Hebrides. Dating back to 1822, the single lane mountain pass weaves its way through the Applecross Peninsula. Depending on when you visit, you should check the weather conditions as the road is often impassable during the winter months.
Looking for a picturesque Scottish village to add to your bucket list? Shieldaig offers sparkling loch shores, traditional white cottages and an abundance of stunning mountain views. Another stop off in Wester Ross is Plockton, one of the highlights of the Highlands. Nestled in a tranquil bay with views across Loch Carron, this National Trust for Scotland conservation village is bursting with heritage, as well as secluded beaches, fresh seafood and traditional music. There’s also the option for road trippers to swap four wheels for a sea kayak, on a guided expedition!
Then over on the rugged north east coast there's Caithness. Here you'll find the Castle of Mey, a royal holiday home, lively fishing ports and an abundant food and drink scene. Get ready to feast on modern Scottish dishes using local produce at restaurants like No.1 Bistro at Mackays Hotel, which has the added quirk of being located on the shortest street in the world! Just a 10-minute drive from this romantic dining spot and hotel are the historic Whaligoe Steps, a set of 337 steps that snake down a 250ft cliff towards a picturesque natural harbour. A short walk away you’ll also find Cairn o’Get, a Neolithic stone burial chamber which offers a glance into Scotland’s ancient history.
If you’re an intrepid adventurer, you can look forward to exploring Smoo Cave, a 50ft-high sea cave nestled in dramatic limestone cliffs. Found just one mile from the town of Durness, in the very north of Scotland, the cave’s rugged contours are floodlit, so you don’t need to worry about forgetting your head torch.
If you're a fan of hit costume drama Outlander, you won't want to miss Culloden Battlefield in Inverness. Its visitor centre details the last battle to take place on British soil through a wealth of artefacts and an enthralling 360-degree immersive theatre experience.
How long does it take to travel the entire route?
You should allow a minimum of five to seven days to explore the NC500 route, although there are plenty of potential stopping points, depending on your interests. During peak season, some parts of the route can take more time to complete.
What time of year should I go?
The weather in Scotland, as in the rest of Britain, is changeable, but May to September usually brings the warmest temperatures. Peak summer season tends to be busier than at other times of the year, and you may find that roads are quieter in April/May and September/October.
Are there places to stay along the route?
There are plenty of places ready to welcome you with warm Scottish hospitality, from decadent castle hotels to family-run guest houses. Alternatively, why not get back to nature and bed down in the great outdoors? Wild camping is allowed in Scotland, provided that you leave no trace.
When you’re ready to start planning your Scottish getaway, it's best to book your accommodation in advance, especially if you're visiting during the summer. The beauty of the route means you'll be travelling off-the-beaten-track, sometimes to quiet villages where there's only a couple of sought-after B&Bs.
Restrictions on travel to and around Britain are in place due to Covid-19. You are encouraged to always check individual websites for the latest information, as details are subject to change.