The North Coast 500 is Scotland’s answer to Route 66. It is a magnificent road trip long that covers some of the most beautiful scenery of the north-western Highlands and coastal regions. You can take anywhere between four days and three weeks to drive it, so check out these 37 EPIC things to do on the North Coast 500 and work on your itinerary!
This post contains affiliate links which I may make a commission from. Find out more here. I drove the NC500 as part of a paid project with Hostelling Scotland. All opinions are my own and there was no obligation to write this blog post. This post contains affiliate links, which I may make a commission from. Check my Disclaimer for more information.
The North Coast 500 (short NC500) offers a once-in-a-lifetime road trip through pristine Scottish landscapes and scenery. The far north-west of Scotland is very sparsely populated and the small and winding country roads connect one natural spectacle with the next.
There are so many places to visit and things to do on the North Coast 500, it can easily take a whole day to cover 30 miles.
This NC500 travel guide contains everything you need to know to plan your own North Coast 500 adventure –
- My 7-day North Coast 500 itinerary,
- All travel info for the route,
- A handy map you can save to your Google Maps,
- Practical travel tips for the road,
- My favourite 37 things to do on the North Coast 500 to pick & choose from,
- And a brief packing list to prepare you for this EPIC road trip.
Prepare to walk away with a list of scenic stops and detours from the main route, recommended activities and tours, yummy eateries, beautiful historic sites and many hidden gems off the beaten track.
Use my detailed Northwestern Highlands itinerary to plan your trip on the NC500!
Table of Contents
North Coast 500 Travel Guide
Where is the North Coast 500 and how long is it?
The North Coast 500 is a roughly 500-mile road trip around the far north-west of Scotland.
The circular route starts and finishes in Inverness, the unofficial Capital of the Highlands.
First, the NC500 leads south-west to the Applecross peninsula, Shieldaig and the Torridon mountains. It then turns north towards Gairloch, Ullapool and the mountainous Assynt region.
Passing some of the most beautiful beaches on the north-west coast, the NC500 eventually leads along the north coast towards John O Groats, the northernmost point of mainland Britain.
From here, the route leads south back towards Inverness. It closely follows the coastline with its castle ruins and quaint small towns, before offering the option for a detour on the Black Isle peninsula.
If you have at least 2 weeks in Scotland, you can combine the NC500 road trip with my Classic Scotland itinerary.
Listen to ‘The Slow Road’ – an episode about the North Coast 500 on my Scotland podcast!
North Coast 500 Map
Check out my map for the North Coast 500 including all scenic stops, recommended activities, places to eat & stay and useful facilities outlined in this post.
How many days for the North Coast 500 road trip?
There is no maximum or minimum for the North Coast 500 and I have certainly heard of people who drive the whole 500-mile loop in 2-3 days.
However, in my opinion, I don’t see the point of rushing and would argue that if you only have 2-3 days, choose one area of the NC500 and explore that more in-depth.
Otherwise, you will spend all day in the car without the option to spend a significant amount of time to discover the things to do in the North Coast 500 from this post.
We had 7 days to drive the route and I would one week to be the perfect amount of time to slow down and experience the road trip to the fullest. See my itinerary for the North Coast 500 in 7 days below.
If you have more time, by all means – there is much more to see and do and you could easily spend 2-3 weeks exploring every inch of north-west Scotland.
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Clockwise or anti-clockwise?
We drove the North Coast 500 clockwise, starting and finishing in Inverness. This seems to be the most popular option.
It is possible to drive the NC500 anti-clockwise too. However, keep in mind, that being the only car that goes against the stream can be annoying and tiring on single-track roads. You’d constantly have to navigate around other cars by using the passing places. Here are my top tips for driving on single-track roads.
Since we drove clockwise, the order of the things to do I suggest in this travel guide is also clockwise.
Transport on the North Coast 500
The North Coast 500 is a road trip destination and best done by car or with a campervan.
There is a train from Inverness to Thurso along the east coast. Regular buses runs along the major roads on the east and west coast, connecting the bigger towns and villages.
However, there are very few buses along the north coast. The Durness Bus runs a limited service between Thurso and Durness.
In short, you won’t be able to reach all the places listed in this travel guide on public transport. Neither will you be able to explore independently or stop at multiple sites each day, as bus services might not be frequent enough.
Guided Tours of the North Coast 500
If you don’t want to rent a car for any reason, the best option to still experience the North Coast 500 is to book a guided tour.
Scottish tour company Rabbie’s offers a 3-day NC500 tour from Inverness. Their 5-day Highland Explorer tour from Edinburgh also takes in the southern part of the NC500. Their 10-day Orkney and Outer Hebrides tour spends a few days in the northern and eastern parts of the NC500.
North Coast 500 Itinerary
Our trip lasted nine days. On the first day, we drove from Edinburgh to Inverness with a few stops along the way. Then we spent 7 days on the road trip. On the final day, we drove back down to Edinburgh.
You can maximise your time on the North Coast 500 by flying in and out of Inverness Airport. It is small, but there are many international flights to Inverness.
This is the NC500 itinerary I followed on my first trip. However, I’ve been back to visit specific sections again and explore them in more depth.
Day 1: Inverness to Torridon via Applecross Pass, Distance: 115 miles, Overnight at Torridon Youth Hostel
Day 2: Torridon to Gairloch incl. Beinn Eighe hike, Distance: 35 miles, Overnight at Gairloch Sands Youth Hostel
Day 3: Gairloch to Ullapool, Distance: 58 miles, Overnight at Ullapool Youth Hostel
Day 4: Ullapool to Achmelvich Beach incl. sea kayaking, Distance: 39 miles, Overnight at Achmelvich Beach Youth Hostel
Day 5: Achmelvich Beach to Tongue incl. boat trip to Handa Island, Distance: 87 miles, Overnight at Tongue Youth Hostel
Day 6: Tongue to Helmsdale via John O Groats, Distance: 112 miles, Overnight at Helmsdale Youth Hostel
Day 7: Helmsdale to Inverness via Black Isle, Distance: 86 miles, Overnight at Inverness Youth Hostel
As you can see, we brought down our daily mileage significantly in order to make time for activities. I recommend you do the same.
If you have more time, it is worth breaking up the drive from Tongue to Helmsdale or adding a few days in Orkney.
You might also like: My Top 20 Places to Visit in Scotland
Top North Coast 500 Tips
The North Coast 500 is an EPIC road trip destination.
However, it is important to keep in mind that many roads in north-west Scotland are narrow and winding. There are many single track roads, particularly in the far northern regions and many of the detours I suggest in this post also make use of steep single track roads.
A highlight on the NC500 road trip is definitely the hairraising Bealach na Bà road – one of the highest mountain pass roads in the UK and sometimes as steep as 20%.
Here are some tips for driving on the North Coast 500:
- Familiarise yourself with rules for driving on single-track roads.
- Don’t park in passing places.
- Allow faster cars behind you to pass you if it is safe to do so.
- Hire an automatic car if you don’t know how to drive a manual car.
- Obey the road signs, particularly when you hire a campervan. Some roads are too small or steep for campervans and other large vehicles.
For more tips, read my post about driving in Scotland.
The North Coast 500 is one of the most popular road trip destinations in Scotland.
I highly recommend booking your accommodation in advance, particularly if you travel during the summer (May to September).
We stayed at youth hostels throughout our road trip and I found them to be a fantastic, budget-friendly option for solo travellers, friend groups and families alike.
The hostels on the North Coast 500 are not party hostels but directed at mature travellers who are looking for short-term self-catering accommodation on a budget.
Couples should note that not all hostels have private rooms available and some only have bunk or twin beds instead of double beds.
All hostels on the North Coast 500 have shared kitchen facilities making these the perfect place to stay if you are on a budget or need to prepare your own food for dietary requirements.
During peak season, I also recommend booking campsites in advance – especially if you travel by campervan.
The Access Right does not apply to motorised vehicles, which means that it is not your right to park your car, campervan or motorhome by the side of the road to spend the night. Managed campsites or caravan parks should always be your first choice.
If you decide to park and leave your car to hike to a wild camping site, consider the advice of the Access Code with regards to parking.
You might also like: 20 Tips for Wild Camping in Scotland (Tent + Campervan)
Shops, restaurants and petrol stations
The infrastructure in northwest Scotland is definitely sparser than in other parts of the country. However, due to the popularity of the North Coast 500, the region has seen many new businesses such as shops, restaurants, cafes and activity providers.
There is no shortage of petrol stations (gas stations) all along the route. It is never a bad idea to fill up in larger towns where prices are cheaper.
The biggest supermarkets can be found in Inverness, Ullapool, Thurso, Wick and more frequently as you near Inverness. Smaller villages usually have shops too, such as small Spar shops or village shops run by the local community.
There are generally a lot of restaurants in towns and villages along the North Coast 500. However, if you are vegan, you might want to pack your own lunches and book self-catering accommodation as vegan options can be very limited.
We mostly cooked ourselves, but here are some of the restaurants where I really enjoyed the vegan options:
- Black Isle Bar, Inverness
- West Coast Delicatessen, Ullapool
- Stacks Coffee House & Bistro, John O Groats
- The cafe at Timespan Museum, Helmsdale
You might also like: How to travel Scotland as a Vegan
Guidebooks + Maps
There are many maps and guidebooks for the North Coast 500. Here are the ones I found useful on our trip:
- North Coast Journey: The Magic of Scotland’s Northern Highlands by Brigid Benson: This book had lots of tips for detours, scenic stops and historical context.
- OS Road Map 1 – North Scotland: A detailed road map that covers all areas of the North Coast 500.
Make sure to pick up the official North Coast 500 tourist map along the route as well (for example at the VisitScotland Inverness iCentre, 36 High St).
37 Things to do on the North Coast 500
Inverness is the start and finish point of the North Coast 500, but it would be a shame to rush through without exploring the city itself.
After a walk through the centre – visit Leakey’s Bookshop – and a stroll along the River Ness, make your way up to Inverness Castle. The castle is currently closed to the public , but the viewpoint from the top (£5) offers sweeping views of the city and surrounding areas.
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Clava Cairns & Culloden Battlefield
Culloden and Clava Cairns are two significant historical sites just outside of Inverness – well worth a visit in your way out of the city.
On 16 April 1746, the English army defeated the Jacobite forces of Charles Edward Stuart in one of the bloodiest battles Scotland had ever seen. Over 1,500 Jacobites were killed in an hour and then the battle was over.
Today, the Battlefield is a historic site and memorial ground for the many people who have lost their lives here. There is a visitor centre and you can either walk the field by yourself or participate in a guided tour.
Nearby Clava Cairns is a much older historic site. Here you will find four circular chamber tombs surrounded by standing stones that date back to the Bronze Age (about 2,000 BC).
The site is free to enter and you can read about the excavation process and the assumed significance of the cairns on the boards around the compound.
Bealach na Bà Road to Applecross
The Bealach na Ba road to Applecross is among the finest roads in Scotland and makes for an incredibly scenic drive through the Highlands. However, this is not a drive for the faint-hearted!
A sign at the beginning of the road warns drivers of the notorious single-track road that climbs up to 626 metres (2,054 ft) above sea level and has several hairpin bends.
At times it is as steep as 20% and is therefore not suitable for nervous and learner drivers, large motorhomes or campervans.
If you are in a small vehicle though, you are rewarded with mind-boggling hairpin bends and fantastic views throughout the drive.
There is a car park at the highest point so you can catch your breath and once you have descended into Applecross you can take it easy along the scenic coastal drive to Shieldaig.
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Walk on the Shieldaig Peninsula
Shieldaig is easily one of the prettiest seaside villages in Scotland with its colourful waterfront facing Loch Shieldaig.
It is well worth stopping here for a few hours and taking in the gorgeous scenery on a walk.
There is a lovely loop walk around the Shieldaig peninsula which offers stunning views and lots of opportunities to spot wildlife, like otters and sea birds. It is just under 5 km (3 miles) and takes only 1.5 hours – or a little more if you bring a picnic, for example from the Loch Torridon Smokehouse in the village.
You can find a detailed route description here.
Torridon is a tiny village at the foot of the Torridon Hills. Aside from stunning mountain views, it also boasts lovely views across Upper Loch Torridon.
Torridon is a popular homebase for hillwalkers and mountaineers who make the most of the variety of Munros and lower peaks in this area.
The small village shop is well-stocked and doubles up as a cafe. There is an easy walk out a rocky headland across the road from the shop. The path leads down to the water and to the ruins of Am Ploc church.
If you love outdoor activities (hiking, kayaking etc), Torridon would be a great homebase for a few extra days in the area.
Detour Road Trip to Lower Diabaig
The main road of the North Coast 500 route is scenic as it is, but there are many little detours you can drive to reach even more off the beaten path villages and mountains views. The detour from Torridon to Diabaig is one of them.
As you drive to the end of Torridon village, keep going as the road gets smaller and narrower and continue past a sign that advises learner drivers and campervans/motorhomes to turn around. However, if you are in a campervan or a nervous driver definitely follow this advice!
The road to Diabaig is one of the most beautiful NC500 add-ons, but it is definitely not for the faint-hearted. The narrow single track road winds its way up to a viewpoint at 250 metres above sea level. To reach it you have to master various steep hills and hairpin bends, all the while looking out for incoming traffic.
The views as you descend to Diabaig are fantastic and the small village at the end of the road offers a scenic harbour and the seaside cafe Gille Brighde (closed Mondays & Tuesdays).
When you have had enough of the views, take the same road back to Torridon and continue on the main route of the North Coast 500.
PS: We used the OS North Scotland Road Map to find and navigate these detours!
Hiking at Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve
The Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve is the UK’s oldest and also one of its largest. It stretches from Loch Maree over the peaks of Beinn Eighe towards Liatach and Torridon. Its biodiversity of fauna and flora make it a site of special scientific interest and attracts a wide range of botanists, biologists and geologists.
There are many trails at Beinn Eighe, some of which climb the peaks of the mountain and require at least a full day and lots of mountain experience. However, there are also easier trails that are more accessible to NC500 road trippers.
One of my favourite stops along the North Coast 500 was the afternoon we spent at Beinn Eighe. We chose the Mountain Trail which starts and finishes at the Coille na Glas-Leitir car park on the shore of Loch Maree.
The trail is waymarked – a rare occasion for mountain trails in Scotland – and is just over 6 km (4 miles) long. It takes 3 to 4 hours to complete.
After climbing steeply through the Caledonian pinewoods the trail emerges above the tree line and becomes very rocky. Cairns mark the trail from here and they can be a little hard to spot sometimes – keep your eyes peeled. Sturdy hiking boots are an absolute must and so is a general comfort with light scrambling.
Once you emerge at the top, the trail flattens out and leads across the windy plateau. The views of Beinn Eighe and other surrounding mountains are gorgeous! The trail loops around and descends through the pinewoods back to the car park.
You might also like: My Favourite Hikes in Scotland – From Easy Trails to Munros
Detour to Redpoint Beach
Just before the main route Kerrysdale and Gairloch, turn left for another scenic detour. The narrow single-track road to Redpoint leads through several small villages and finally, to a gorgeous red sand beach.
If you have a bit more time and would like to stay in the area, get in touch with Gairloch Trekking Centre who offers guided pony trekking in the area. Imagine riding across this beautiful beach!
Books & Local History in Gairloch
I love quirky cafes and bookstores and the Scottish Highlands are certainly full of them! Hillbillies Bookstore and the adjacent cafe Mountain Coffee Company are a must-see on the North Coast 500.
The cafe offers a variety of refreshments and snacks as well as cakes, teas and coffees in a quirky setting among model gondolas, national park stickers and shelves filled with adventure books.
These shelves continue in the bookstore next door and hold anything from Scottish poetry to contemporary crime novels and vegan cookbooks. It’s a treasure trove!
Another great place to visit in Gairloch is the Gairloch Museum. The exhibitions showcase the history, culture and natural heritage of the area, including a replica croft house showing how people used to live.
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Beach Picnic at Big Sands
We stayed at Gairloch Sands Youth Hostel, which gets its name from its proximity to the beautiful beaches of the area. Behind the hostel – a 20-minute walk or 5-minute drive – lies Big Sands, a sandy beach with views of the mountains of Torridon and Skye.
We only stopped for a few photos, but since the beach is sheltered from the strong winds you could easily bring a picnic and spend a few hours here.
Gardens on the Scottish west coast are fascinating. You’d imagine that this far north, the climate would be too harsh for anything but gorse and heather – but the Gulf Stream actually has a huge impact on the local flora.
Inverewe Garden near Poolewe is home to plants from across the world, many of which are rare species (£13, FREE for National Trust for Scotland members. Join here!).
Some of the highlights are a collection of Californian Redwoods, Himalayan blue poppies and various species of rhododendron.
Corrieshalloch Gorge National Nature Reserve
Leaving the coast and driving inland to loop around to Ullapool felt a bit like a disappointment. Where are all the views?
Then we reached Corrieshalloch Gorge and got excited again. I love a surprise, so when I stepped onto the suspension bridge above the gorge, I was blown away by how narrow, deep and long it was.
Corrieshalloch Gorge is up to 60 m deep and 1.5 km (1 mile) long. The River Droma rushes through the rock over a series of waterfalls, cutting it deeper and deeper over millions of years.
The woodland trails make for a lovely walk to break up the drive and you get a lovely view of the waterfalls and bridge from the viewpoint further down the gorge.
The brand-new Corrieshalloch Gateway to Nature Centre at the car park has a cafe, toilets and a ranger-on-site service. It’s a great place to learn more about this special gorge or simply take a comfort break.
Ullapool is a small seaside town on the shore of Loch Broom.
Lying about halfway through the NC500, it makes for a great stop with its restaurants, shops and pubs. But it is well worth a closer look.
The town has some amazing food options, especially if you like fresh seafood, and a thriving pub and live music scene. I loved our lunch at West Coast Delicatessen (vegan options available) and exploring all the quirky shops.
I loved the selection at Ullapool Bookstore, including the children’s book The Guillemot Who Wouldn’t Jump which is written and illustrated by a local artist Jenny Rant. The White Rabbit on Argyle Street is a treasure trove for antiques and map lovers and has a selection of vintage fashion as well.
I also enjoyed our visit to the local VisitScotland iCentre – the staff there was super helpful and knew everything about everything in the area! They are a great resource if you are looking for more recommendations or tour options.
Top tip: From Ullapool, you can catch the Calmac ferry to Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis and spend a few additional days exploring the Outer Hebrides. Two nights is the minimum to have enough time to see the best things to do on Lewis.
Hike up Stac Pollaidh
The mountains of Assynt north of Ullapool offer trails for all levels of experience. There are challenging climbs for experienced mountaineers, but also a few moderate hikes that you can easily incorporate into your North Coast 500 road trip.
Stac Pollaidh (also called Stac Polly) is one of them. The hike is just under 5 km (3 miles) and takes just 2-4 hours.
From the top, at 612 m you will be able to enjoy great views of the surrounding higher mountains, the coastline and the Summer Isles offshore. The true summit requires a fair bit of technical scrambling, but even without that this mountain makes for a great half-day hike on your way north from Ullapool. Get a detailed trail description here.
Kayaking to Summer Isles
Driving along the beautiful coastline of northwest Scotland made me anxious to get out of the car and into a sea kayak.
There are many sea kayaking outfitters and activity providers on the North Coast 500, for example in Plockton, Gairloch or Ullapool, but booking an excursion is not always straightforward. You have to email, check for availability and then there is the thing with the weather – no one enjoys sea kayaking when it’s rainy or windy, so your trip might have to be cancelled.
We picked up several flyers and recommendations at the VisitScotland iCentre in Ullapool, called around and ended up booking a spontaneous half-day sea kayaking trip with Will from Kayak Summer Isles.
Will was 2015’s Scottish Adventurer of the Year for sea kayaking around the entire coast of Scotland and climbing all the Munros in winter, and has set up this company to share his love for the coastal waters of Ullapool.
Will took us out to the Isle Martin, the furthest outlier of the Summer Isles and the one with the most impressive sea cliffs (40m tall and another 40 m under the surface).
Along the way, he pointed out local wildlife, shows us sea urchins and sea stars, deep-sea anemones which we could see thanks to the low tide and several seabirds like fulmars, shags and guillemots. We even spotted an otter pup munching on a sea urchin among the sea kelp!
Will also shared some of his adventure stories from Scotland and abroad and as a professional photographer offered to take some stunning photos of us in our kayaks.
I’d say as far as kayaking trips in Scotland go, this was my favourite yet!
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Ardvreck Castle might just be the most popular castle in the west of the North Coast 500. The castle dates back to the 16th century and stands in a prime location overlooking the wide-spanning Loch Assynt.
After the Clan MacKenzie took control over these lands from the Clan MacLeod in the 18th century, they built a more modern house nearby, Calda House. The house was destroyed in a fire in 1737 and both buildings lie in ruins today.
You can climb the ruins, however, be respectful and mindful of the strong winds that rush through this area.
There really is no shortage of beautiful beaches on the North Coast 500. West, north, east coast – all three sides of the route have beautiful beaches with clear water and the finest sand. One of my personal favourites was Achmelvich Beach.
Achmelvich Beach is slightly off the main route of the NC500 and requires you to drive down a small single-track road for a couple of miles. It is definitely worth the effort though once you reach the end of the road!
The beach has some of the whitest sand I have seen in Scotland and is well-sheltered from the wind. You might even be brave enough to put on your swimsuit!
A footpath leads over the rocky outcrops over to the next bay which is even more secluded and a perfect sunset spot!
To get the most out of your visit to Achmelvich Beach, I recommend staying at the Achmelvich Beach Youth Hostel, which is right next to the beach.
Achmelvich Beach Youth Hostel is one of my accommodation favourites: Unique Places to Stay in Scotland – from hotels to B&Bs!
Old Man of Stoer
The Old Man of Stoer is a spectacular sea stack that towers 60 m (200 ft) above the sea.
To get there, continue north on the single-track road past Achmelvich and make your way to Raffin. There is a car park by the Stoer Lighthouse. From there, it’s a 2-mile walk along the coast.
The path is rough, but the coastal scenery is stunning. You may even be able to spot whales and dolphins in the waters below. Return the same way, or continue on a loop trail – here is a description.
Boat trip to Handa Island
The paradise beaches of Handa Island should definitely be on any beach lover’s NC500 bucket list!
Handa is a small uninhabited island near Scourie that is managed by the Scottish Wildlife Trust. A small passenger ferry takes visitors from Tarbet to the island (approx. 10 minutes, £15 per person) where they are greeted by a welcome committee of volunteer guides.
While the beaches are truly stunning, the main reason people flock to the island during the summer is its wildlife. Skuas nest on the rocky slopes of the island and thousands of seabirds form colonies along the cliffs. 50-60,000 guillemots visit the island every year!
There is a 6 km (4 miles) trail around the island which takes about 3 hours to complete. The volunteer guides will give you a little map, but the path is very easy to follow.
You might also meet some of the resident scientists who spend all summer on the island to research different species of plants and birds.
I would set aside at least 4 hours to visit the island – the more the better. You can find out more about my visit to Handa Island here.
You might also like: The Best Places for Wildlife Watching in Scotland
Sandwood Bay Hike
Sandwood Bay is one of the most magical places in the northwest of Scotland. I highly recommend adding an additional day in the area between Ullapool and Durness to make time for the hike to the beach!
A clear track leads from Blairmore car park near Kinlochbervie all the way to Sandwood Bay. The hike takes about 4-5 hours round-trip, but add a few hours to enjoy the beach in its full glory! It is most famous for Am Buachaille, a giant sea stack!
Find a detailed route description here.
Smoo Cave near Durness is a very special place and a must-visit on the North Coast 500. It is a combined sea and freshwater cave which means it has been formed from two sides at the same time. It has one of the largest sea cave entrances in the UK – over 50 ft high!
There is a car park at the top and you have to walk down quite a few steps to reach the cave, but it is worth the effort. If you visit during the day, you can even head deeper inside the cave on a guided walk or a boat tour and explore the rear chambers of the cave. After hours you can only go as far as the first chamber, but that is still really impressive.
Sango Sands is a breathtaking beach in Durness, particularly famous for its viewpoint boardwalk. I’m sure you have seen it before on Instagram!
There are a campsite, restaurant and bar here, making this a perfect place to spend the night.
I first read about the Golden Eagle Zipline in a blog post about family-friendly activities on the North Coast 500 (and subsequently asked the author to write a guest post about visiting Scotland with kids)!
I love zip lining and the idea of flying high above one of Scotland’s beautiful beaches while looking out over the sea was just too much to handle for me. We had to do it!
Unfortunately, we ran out of time and had to head on to our next accommodation, but this zip line will not get away that easy – I will be back!
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Tongue is a small village that sits on the edge of the Kyle of Tongue – a shallow sea loch with sandy ground. When the sun is out at low tide, the water turns into an abstract landscape painting with all hues of blue. It’s stunning!
There is a small car park near a War Memorial and fantastic views just across the road.
If you have a bit more time, you can hike to the ruins of Castle Bharraich (Varrich). It only takes about an hour to get there and back. Here is a walk description.
Detour to The Crask Inn
The Crask Inn must be one of the remotest inns in Scotland. It lies along a single-track road between Tongue and Lairg. Driving there from Tongue takes about 45 minutes, although you’ll want to stop to admire the scenery every few miles.
The Crask Inn was built around 1815 and has served as a rest stop for weary travellers for generations. Food is served daily and rooms are available if you’d like to spend the night.
Scenic highlights along the way are the Loch Craggie viewpoint, the winding drive along the shore of Loch Loyal, the ruins of an old sheep-fank building on the loch and the small village of Altnaharra with views of Loch Naver.
From Altnaharra you can also pick up the Strathnaver Trail which highlights sites of interest for the history of Highland Clearances in this area. You can visit Clearance villages, abandoned settlements, burial grounds and monuments for the people who were forced to leave their homelands.
If you follow this trail all the way to Syre and Bettyhill, you’ll miss a short section of the NC500, but you won’t miss our on any of the upcoming places to visit.
The Beaches on the North Coast
On the north coast of Scotland, you’ll find a string of golden sandy beaches. There are many beaches you could visit between Tongue and Thurso. Here are two of my favourites:
- Farr Bay, Bettyhill: This small beach lies behind the village of Bettyhill. You can park at Bettyhill Tourist Information or near Farr Bay Inn and approach the beach through the sand dunes. The beach faces slightly north-westerly and is relatively sheltered.
- Strathy Beach: This sandy beach forms where the River Strathy flows into the ocean. You can park at the Beach car parkby the cemetery and follow a grassy path down to the beach.
- Melvich Beach: This large beach lies near the village of Melvich. A rough track leads to a small car park and a grassy footpath takes you through the dunes to the beach. Allow time to also explore the estuary of the Halladale River.
The Strathnaver Museum is located in a former parish church and tells the history of the area from the Bronze Age to the early 19th century.
This part of the northern Highlands was one of the worst affected by the Highland Clearances and this museum is a fantastic place to learn about this era.
The museum also has a room dedicated to its collection of Clan Mackay memorabilia and can assist with family history research.
Detour to Dunnet Head Lighthouse
Fancy visiting the northernmost point of mainland Britain? Then do the detour to visit Dunnet Head Lighthouse!
The lighthouse is only 66 feet tall but sits on cliffs that rise 300 feet above sea level. Next to the lighthouse, you can walk along the cliffs and spot sea birds nesting at these soaring heights.
John O’Groats gained fame as the northernmost point of mainland Britain (today we know it’s at Dunnet Head Lighthouse) and is thus the natural endpoint of so-called end-to-end walks and cycles.
End-to-enders are walkers or cyclists who make their way across 1,407 km (874 miles) from Land’s End in Cornwall to John O’Groats in Scotland. The most common off-road walking route is even longer – 1,900 km (1,200 miles).
At John O’Groats you can visit the famous signpost pointing out Land’s End, New York, Edinburgh, Orkney and Shetland. There are a few shops and restaurants – I recommend Stacks Bistro for vegan options – and several boat tours leaving from the little harbour.
Walk to the Duncansby Sea Stacks
From John O Groats make your way to the lighthouse at Duncansby Head – it’s just a 5-minute drive. A coastal path leads along the mind-boggling cliffs here until you are face to face with the two Duncansby Sea Stacks.
The winds here can be treacherous so if you decide to go through the gate at the end of the path and on to the unprotected side of the cliffs, take a lot of care and watch the edge.
The site is recognised as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and the cliffs of the headland offer plenty of nesting space to thousands of sea birds. If you are lucky, you can even spot puffins here!
Old Keiss Castle
The ruins of Old Keiss Castle stand on sheer cliffs overlooking Sinclair’s Bay. The castle looks like it is clinging on to dry land for its life and it’s a fascinating site to visit.
The castle dates from the late 16th/early 17th century. In the 18th century, its owners built a new Baronial-style townhouse a stone’s throw away (known as New Keiss Castle) and left the old castle to the elements.
It’s best to park at Keiss Harbour and walk to Old Keiss Castle along the shore.
Caithness, the northernmost region of Scotland, has more brochs than any other part of Scotland. Brochs are circular drystone towers that were built during the middle Iron Age, between 400 BC and 100 AD.
They can be very tall – even 10-13 metres – and have incredibly thick walls. This makes them architectural wonders of the prehistoric time.
One of these brochs in Caithness is Ousdale Broch. It lies just north of Helmsdale and offers fantastic views of the North Sea. The broch was mentioned in the Norse Orkneyinga Saga which describes the history of Orkney and Shetland, and archaeological surveys of the area have documented close links to Norse incomers.
The broch was first excavated in 1891, but increasingly falling into disrepair until the Caithness Broch Project consolidated the structure and reopened it in 2020.
There is a small car park just off the A9 and a gravel path with information panels that lead down to the broch.
Helmsdale was one of the biggest surprises on our North Coast 500 road trip. The town was only on my radar because we spent a night at Helmsdale Youth Hostel to break up the drive back.
Some people we met on the road had suggested that the east of the North Coast 500 was not quite as scenic and exciting as the west. So I prepared myself for a quick and uneventful drive back to Inverness. How wrong I was!
Indeed, the east coast is not as mountainous as the west and since you drive on a much larger road (the A9) it looks like there is not much to do. When in fact, you just need to make a little extra effort to seek out the beautiful spots along the east coast!
Helmsdale is one of them, a lovely small seaside town which is surrounded by gorse-covered hills and sandy beaches.
To learn about the local area and its role during the Highland Clearances, visit Timespan Museum. There is a cafe here too and tables on a terrace overlooking the River Helmsdale.
Other places to visit in the village are the colourful harbour and the Emigrants Monument.
Helmsdale would be a great home base to spend a few days in the area and discover places like the Whaligoe Steps, Lybster, Latheronwheel, Dunbeath Castle, Berriedale Braes and Ousdale Broch.
Detour to Forsinard Nature Reserve
Much of the very north of Scotland is covered by a vast expanse of blanket bog called the Flow Country. To get an introduction to this beautiful landscape, head inland from Helmsdale and drive northwest to Forsinard.
Forsinard Nature Reserve lies at the heart of the Flow Country. There is an RSPB visitor centre at the train station in Forsinard and two way-marked trails to take you safely into the bog.
The short walk (allow 45 minute to 1 hour) leaves from right across the train tracks. Follow a boardwalk to the viewing tower and enjoy fantastic views of the area. The flagstone back takes you past dark bog pools and interpretation boards tell you more about the unique flora and fauna of this bog.
The longer walk (allow 2.5 hours) is a loop trail and leaves from Forsinain farm. It takes you through different stages of natural and restored blanket bog, and offers many opportunities for wildlife spotting.
Driving from Helmsdale to Forsinard takes approximately one hour. You can also get here from Melvich in about 30 minutes.
What Ardvreck Castle is for the west, Dunrobin Castle is for the east of the North Coast 500. Even if the two could not be more different!
The castle looks straight out of a fairytale. With its 189 rooms, it is one of Scotland’s largest castles and is surrounded by a well-landscaped garden.
The entrance ticket costs £12.50 (£7.50 for children) and includes the castle and the gardens. If you are on a budget – or simply don’t have the time to tour that many rooms, you can walk down a road on the right side of the castle and take photos of it from the seaside.
Open 10 am to 5 pm (1 April to 31 October)
Big Burn Falls Walk
This hidden wee gem is a quick and easy walk just outside Golspie near Dunrobin Castle. Park at the little car park next to a stone mason’s and follow the waymarked trail for Big Burn Falls.
The path leads through lush green vegetation to a series of awe-inspiring waterfalls.
The Black Isle
The Black Isle peninsula is worth a trip of its own, but it is also a perfect final place to visit on the North Coast 500.
There is a lot to do on the Black Isle – from the RSPB nature reserve at Udale Bay and the waterfall walk at Fairy Glen, to the delights of a tour at Black Isle Brewery.
The Moray Firth to the east of the peninsula is home to a thriving bottlenose dolphin population – to see them get aboard a dolphin cruise from Cromarty Bay or peel your eyes at Chanonry Bay. We were not lucky enough to spot any dolphins as it was raining, but we did see some seals bobbing in the water.
The Black Isle is a lovely final stop before returning to Inverness.
Are you ready for your own North Coast 500 adventure?
Before you decide on am NC500 itinerary and how many days you spend on this road trip, go through this list of things to do on the North Coast 500 or inspiration. Write down which places are highest on your bucket list for you and work out an itinerary based on that.
The Trip Planning Workbook in my Scotland Travel Resource Library is the perfect tool to help you plan a great NC500 road trip. Get it here.
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