Billed as the UK‘s answer to Route 66, the North Coast 500 is one of the country’s most epic car journeys. It brings together 516 miles (830 km) of stunning coastal scenery, soaring mountains, far-flung fishing villages and crumbling castles in Scotland’s Highlands. Gearing up for one of the world’s most jaw-dropping drives? Tick off these bucket-list stops on the North Coast 500 along the way.
What exactly is the North Coast 500?
The North Coast 500 is a relatively new road trip route which launched in 2015. Unlike Route 66, the North Coast 500 isn’t actually one single road, but a network of existing roads that loop around the northern highlands. Starting in Inverness, the route winds through six regions: Black Isle, Caithness, Easter Ross, Inverness-Shire, Sutherland and Wester Ross. Most people start in Inverness and head anti-clockwise around the loop.
When is the best time of year to do the North Coast 500?
You can drive the North Coast 500 any time of year, but we suggest travelling in April or September. Summer is a lovely time to make the drive too, though you’ll need to compete with more crowds for accommodation. It’s worth keeping in mind that many restaurants, shops and tour operators only operate during peak season too.
How long does the North Coast 500 take to drive?
It takes between 5–7 days to complete the whole loop, covering between 70–100 miles per day. But, if you have limited time, we suggest bypassing a few sections, rather than trying to complete the whole route at record speed.
Is the North Coast 500 difficult to drive?
For the most part, the North Coast 500 is safe, though a little challenging in more remote areas. This is particularly true along single carriageways and single-track roads, where you’ll often encounter blind summits and sharp bends too. That said, if you’re comfortable driving elsewhere in the UK, you shouldn’t run into too many issues. Helpfully, there are “passing places” every few metres, so you’ll rarely need to reverse yourself out of a sticky situation!
Bucket list stops along the North Coast 500
Possibly founded by King David in the 12th century, Inverness is a lovely, lively city. It’s also the only major city in the Scotland highlands, so it’s well worth spending an afternoon or day here. The Inverness Museum & Art Gallery offers a fascinating insight into the history of the region, alongside works from celebrated local artists and crafters. History buffs take a peek at Inverness Castle too, which sits high on a hill in the city centre. A 20-minute stroll south of the castle along the river is Ness Islands. Stop here for a picnic among the fir, beech and sycamore trees and potter around the red towers of St Andrews Church on the way back.
2. John O’Groats and Dunnet Head
Located in Caithness, John O’Groats is the most northerly village in Mainland Britain. Stop for the obligatory photo here, before heading to Dunnet Head, the most northerly point in the country. This wild and rugged peninsula is lined with spectacular sea cliffs and grasslands that are home to razorbills, puffins and kittiwakes.
3. Ben Hope and Munro bagging
Bagging a munro in the Highlands is real bucket list stuff. A Munro is a hill taller than 3,000-ft (914 metres) tall – and they’re scattered all across the country. There are 37 Munros located along the North Coast 500, but Ben Hope is the most northerly of them all. They say that the Vikings gave the mountain its name, which means “Hill of the Bay”. At the summer equinox, the sun never vanishes entirely from the horizon. Best of all, it’s relatively easy to reach from the North Coast 500, just a four-hour round trip from Loch Hope.
4. Sandwood Bay
Proof that you don’t need to head to the Bahamas for white sands and turquoise waters, Sandwood Bay repeatedly ranks as the most beautiful beach in Britain. The shell-white and pink sand beach is flanked by rolling dunes and cliffs, just in front of Am Buachaille. The remote bay has no access, so it’s pretty secluded even in the height of summer. To reach the beach, head out on a four-mile leisurely stroll from Blairmore.
This pretty fishing village has gained a reputation amongst foodies. Famed for its hand-dived scallops and sweet langoustines, it’s the ideal place to sample some of Scotland’s finest fare. Don’t miss Lochinver Larder’s award-winning venison and cranberry pie either. From here, it’s just a few miles to the Falls of Kirkaig. For trips to the Summer Isles, head across the bay to Ullapool. From here, you can hop on one of many wildlife cruises offering up the chance to spot dolphins, seals and birds.
6. The Assynt Peaks
It’s hard to convey the otherworldliness the Assynt’s sugarloaf peaks, so you’ll need to visit yourself to see what we’re talking about. It’s prime hiking territory here too. Suliven, one of Scotland’s most recognisable mountains, is a popular trek that requires trekking several miles into the wilderness just to get to the base. Quinag, the tallest of the three peaks, offers jaw-dropping views of Suliven, Canisp and the westerly coastline. Or, if you’re after a more leisurely stroll, look to Stac Pollaidh.
7. Bealach na Bà Road to Applecross
This road consistently ranks as one of the most scenic – and most dangerous – roads in the world. It’s a notorious single-track road of twists, hairpin bends and switchbacks that climb to 626-metres (2,054 feet) high across Applecross’s lunar landscape. At its steepest, it has gradients approaching 20%, which means that it is unsuitable for learners, motorhomes and campervans. But the views are well worth the white knuckles. Steady your nerves with a half-pint at Applecross Inn.