In April I hit the road to complete one of the most spectacular drives in the world: Scotland’s North Coast 500.
The North Coast 500 is Scotland’s answer to Route 66, and takes you through some of Scotland’s most dramatic scenery. Beginning and ending in the capital of the Scottish Highlands, Inverness, this epic road trip takes you on a circuit over 500-ish miles around Scotland’s coast.
This wasn’t my first visit to the north-west; in 2018 I solo-hiked the length of Scotland, so I was familiar with the area. I knew just how beautiful the north-west is, so I thought I knew what to expect.
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I was wrong- seeing this area by car was a completely different experience! I expected that there would be the odd highlight, but the scenery is consistent and there are plenty of places to visit on the North Coast 500.
I compiled a summary of our adventure, including the North Coast 500 highlights you can’t miss.
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Summary of our Accommodation on the North Coast 500
Sea views from Gairloch Sands Youth Hostel
Day 1: Inverness Youth Hostel
Day 2: Torridon Youth Hostel
Day 3: Gairloch Sands Youth Hostel
Day 4: Ullapool Youth Hostel
Day 7: Helmsdale Hostel
What you should pack
I’ve written a comprehensive guide on how to pack for a trip to Scotland, but here are a couple of extra things I recommend packing:
- Sat Nav [I use Google Maps which was pretty accurate]
- I relied on the book North Coast Journey: The Magic of Scotland’s Northern Highlands to plan our adventure
- This map came in very handy to help track our progress along the route
- The ViewRanger app also contains all the OS maps in Britain and is useful for hiking or going off the beaten track
Day 1 | Inverness
The view from Inverness Castle Viewpoint
We arrived in a sunny Inverness and checked into our hostel before taking some time to explore the city. We had dinner at the Black Isle Bar before heading back to our hostel to relax before our first day on the North Coast 500.
Here is a summary of the highlights in Inverness:
1. Inverness Castle Viewpoint
Our first bucket list item was to soak up the best view of the city at the Inverness Castle Viewpoint. For only £5 you can climb to the top of the tower for 360 views of the city!
2. Leakey’s Bookstore
I’m a huge book nerd, and Leakey’s Bookshop is one of my favourite bookstores in the world. Leakey’s is Scotland’s second largest secondhand bookstore and is located inside the building of an old Gaelic church that dates back to 1793.
3. Clava Cairns
Located a short drive from Inverness is an ancient burial ground from the Bronze Age: Clava Cairns. These eerily well-preserved burial cairns are surrounded by standing stones- and it literally feels as though you’ve walked onto an Outlander set!
4. Culloden Battlefield
The Culloden Battlefield is the site of the last battle to be fought on British soil. Many visitors (myself included) often note there is a feeling of sadness as you walk across Culloden Moor. It’s easy to understand why- between 1600-2300 men lost their lives in the short and bloody battle which lasted just 40 minutes.
The battlefield itself is free to visit, but there is a fabulous interactive exhibition in the visitor centre that is well worth the small fee. Other highlights include the clan gravestones, a cairn and the Old Leanach Cottage which is believed to be the only remaining building from the battle.
We actually split these activities up over 2 days; we did some before we started the NC500 and some at the finish- which I highly recommend doing because this is a lot to achieve in just one day!
Day 2 | Inverness to Torridon
Beautiful views of Torridon on the drive to Lower Diabaig. Photo: Kathi Kamleitner
We had our fill of breakfast at the hostel, getting our Hostel Handbook stamped before we checked out. After a quick grocery shop we hit the road. Our plan was to drive over 100 miles to Torridon and stop and explore the scenery along the way.
5. Bealach Na Ba
The Bealach na Bà was a nail-biting experience yet one of the most beautiful passes I’ve driven through and has to be seen to be believed. It is the third highest road in Scotland at 626 metres. This pass is not ideal for nervous drivers or campervans, as the road is a single lane and very steep with many tight switchbacks!
Applecross is out-of-this-world incredible with its white sandy beaches (Sand Bay in particular) and towering mountains as you make your way to Torridon. If you’re lucky you may drive past a free roaming herd of Highland Cattle as we did!
Shieldaig, a charming wee fishing village, is always a favourite stop of mine. The village was founded in 1800 in order to train seamen for war against Napoleon. After his defeat, Shieldaig remodeled itself as a fishing village. The village is bigger than Torridon, so it’s a good place to grab lunch or dinner before checking into your accommodation in Torridon.
Day 3 | Torridon to Gairloch Sands
Big Sand Beach, Gairloch. Photo: Kathi Kamleitner
8. Detour to Lower Diabaig
After checking out of our hostel we decided to take a detour to Lower Diabaig. What a great decision that was! Fortunately I’m a fairly confident driver and found the hairpin bends and blind summits more fun than terrifying. If you can find somewhere safe to pull over, the drive offers some lovely views of Torridon from above. Lower Diabaig is another fishing village known for its lochside Gille Brighde Cafe and Restaurant [check their opening times on their website before visiting], red telephone box, and picturesque pier.
9. Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve
Next we decided to lace up our hiking boots and do a hike that had been on my bucket list for some time: the Mountain Trail in Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve. The 6.5km hike was a good challenge and has spectacular views of Slioch, Loch Maree and the ridges of Beinn Eighe. This hike is Britain’s only waymarked mountain walk and you’ll begin from the Coire na Glas Leitr car park, walking through ancient Scots pines before you almost scramble up quartzite rocks to a breathtaking panoramic view from the summit. Keep your eyes peeled for golden eagles that inhabit the area!
10. Red Point
We took another detour to a beautiful red sand beach called Red Point. At the end of the road there is a car park, and the walking trail that continues past the car park is a lovely trail that will take you all the way back to Lower Diabaig! This would have been a great walk to do, had we the time. A little further north there is another carpark which overlooks the beach and has magnificent views of the Isle of Skye.
Day 4 | Gairloch Sands to Ullapool
Magnificent Wester Ross. Photo: Kathi Kamleitner
Ullapool is a fishing town located on the shores of Loch Broom, and the gateway to Stornoway and Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, which are a short ferry ride away. The town is well-equipped with accommodation, pubs and quirky shops. It is also a great place to restock any supplies you need at the Tesco supermarket located in the middle of the town.
11. Big Sand Beach
Big Sand Beach was located just around the corner from our hostel. It’s a lovely white sand beach that has views of the Isle of Skye and the mountains of Torridon. It is well worth a slight detour to visit this beach- even if you just drive past.
12. Hillbillies Bookstore
Hillbillies Bookstore is a quirky bookstore located in Gairloch with a great selection of outdoor adventure books and everything else. The Mountain Coffee Company next door also has great coffee and cakes- so it’s a perfect stop for book lovers.
13. Corrieshalloch Gorge National Nature Reserve
Our next stop was Corrieshalloch Gorge National Nature Reserve- an incredible mile long gorge which is 60m deep! There is a suspension bridge you can cross that allows you to stare deep down into the gorge. There is also a short and easy woodland walk to a viewing platform which offers views of the suspension bridge. In spring you may be lucky enough to spot a sea of wildflowers in the gorge below. Animals in the area include ravens that nest in the ledge near the bridge, trout swimming in the river below, and other woodland birds.
14. The White Rabbit
When we arrived in Ullapool we had some time to kill before checking into our next hostel, so we had some lunch and had a look inside The White Rabbit- an antiques store that is heaven for any vintage lover. They sell antiques, collectables, furniture, china, glassware and Bric-à-brac items. The White Rabbit is like walking into Wonderland- and there is plenty of Alice memorabilia too.
15. Fish and Chips at The Seaforth
It would be a sin to visit Ullapool and not try the seafood staple- fish and chips! The Seaforth is my favourite chippy in Ullapool. You can grab takeaway if you’re on a budget or eat in at their restaurant, but either way the food tastes great. Go for lunch or dinner, just make sure you go!
Day 5 | Ullapool to Achmelvich Beach
Sunset at Achmelvich Beach
We awoke to blue skies in Ullapool which meant one thing: it was time for some outdoor activities!
16. Kayaking at Annat Bay
We booked a half day sea kayaking tour with Ullapool local, Will, who owns Kayak Summer Isles. Will was named the Scottish and UK Adventurer of the Year in 2015 after he completed a 364 day solo circumnavigation of Scotland by sea kayak! It was fascinating to talk to him about his adventures in Scotland and his knowledge of the area.
We kayaked around Isle Martin, a wee island that is recognised now as a bird sanctuary, where we saw fulmer’s, shags, guillemots, and oyster catchers. We also saw a handful of aquatic wildlife, including cushion starfish, spiny starfish, common sea urchins, deep sea anemone, a seal and an otter!
17. Ardvreck Castle
After departing Ullapool, we drove through my favourite part of Scotland: Assynt.
I hiked through this area on the Scottish National Trail last year, but I never made it to Ardvreck Castle, so I was super excited that it was on the NC500 route! It sits overlooking Loch Assynt, and is one of the most beautiful ruins in Scotland (in my opinion). The castle is over 500 years old, and was once the seat of Clan Macleod.
18. Achmelvich Beach
Achmelvich Beach is another popular North Coast 500 detour, and you can even spend a night at the hostel located a short walk from the white sand beach like we did! Achmelvich is very remote, which means there is very little (if any) reception, but to be honest you want to unplug in an area like this. If you get a nice evening, spend it on the beach watching the sunset over the ocean. It is truly spectacular.
Day 6 | Achmelvich Beach to Tongue
Birdwatching on the cliffs of Handa island
The next day was a big one: we rose early to squeeze in a variety of activities on our way to the north-east end of Scotland.
19. Kylesku Bridge
You’ll drive over this famous curved concrete box girder bridge as you head north, but make sure you pull into the parking area either end to admire the incredible architecture and views of the surrounding mountains.
20. Detour to Handa Island
Handa island is a small island which has a marked path that takes around 3 hours to walk. It has abundant birdlife and during the summer around 100,000 breeding seabirds make their nests in the giant cliff faces. We spotted fulmers, skuas, razorbills and guillemots; during spring you can also spot puffins!
Catching the 10 minute ferry across to the island is only £15 return, so if you’d like to include an island on your North Coast 500 adventure, Handa Island is a brilliant option!
21. Smoo Cave
Smoo Cave is conveniently located next to the Durness Smoo Youth Hostel. The combined sea and freshwater cave has one of the largest cave entrances in Britain at 50ft high! This natural marvel is free to visit and well worth a stop.
Day 7 | Tongue to Helmsdale
The Duncansby Stacks, John O’Groats
On our second to last day we left the mountainous terrain in Sutherland behind us to drive to Caithness, which boasts the most northern point of Scotland.
22. Dunnet Head
Dunnet Head is officially the most northern point of Scotland, and there is a cute traditional lighthouse here that marks the occasion. Aside from the lighthouse, there are some beautiful sea cliffs to admire.
23. John O’Groats
John O’Groats is a popular tourist attraction and often mistaken as being the most northern point of Scotland due to this. For many ‘End to Ender’s’ this is the finish line. Stacks Coffee House and Bistro is a great place to stop off for lunch before snapping a photo of the famous sign.
24. Duncansby Stacks
The Duncansby Head sea stacks are some of the most impressive in Scotland. A short walk will take to a viewpoint of the stacks; puffins can also be spotted in the sea cliffs, and we were lucky enough to spot a family of three! You can also continue walking around the coastline and up a steep hill to the south of the stacks for another perspective. The Great Stack is over 60 metres high!
25. Castles along the coast
After John O’Groats, there are two notable castle ruins located on the coast. Keiss Castle, a castle ruin that stands on cliffs overlooking Sinclair’s Bay, and Bucholie Castle, which is located on an isolated rocky stack, are only 7 minutes apart.
Day 8 | Helmsdale to Inverness
Dunrobin Castle. Photo: Kathi Kamleitner
Staying in Helmsdale was a great way to ease ourselves back into civilisation. I hadn’t really noticed how far I’d let my mind wander away into the Scottish Highlands until the single track roads started to merge into highways. There were still a few notable stops on our journey back to Inverness, however.
26. Dunrobin Castle
Dunrobin Castle is a castle right out of a fairy tale! Easily Scotland’s most spectacular stately home, Dunrobin is the family seat of the Earl of Sutherland and the Clan Sutherland. It resembles a French chateâu and has over 189 rooms, framed by large, vibrant gardens.
27. Big Burn hike
After exploring Dunrobin Castle, we stretched our legs by hiking the Big Burn in Golspie, a fairly easy walk which led through woodland to a beautiful waterfall. The route for this hike can be found here.
28. Chanonry Point
We had one last stop on our way to Inverness- Chanonry Point for some dolphin spotting. Unfortunately no dolphins were spotted but we did see a seal bathing in the sea. TIP: if you know tide times for a particular day, you can work out the best time to see the pod of dolphins.
And that’s a wrap!
We were pretty tired by the time we reached Inverness, checking back into Inverness Youth Hostel before driving back to Edinburgh the following day.
The 8 days that it took us to complete the North Coast 500 were pretty full on, but I have zero regrets about how we did it. We had the perfect mix of outdoor adventure, culture and history.
Staying in hostels along the way is a great way to save money on accommodation, plus you get to meet some pretty cool people!
I hope you enjoyed my North Coast 500 highlights. If you enjoyed it, why not share it on Facebook, Twitter or pin it on Pinterest for later.