The North Coast 500 is Scotland’s most well known road trip, showcasing the beauty of the Scottish beaches and mountains all on the one road trip. 500 miles of epic coastlines, stunning beaches, endless horizons and beautiful wildlife are what awaits you along the north coast of Scotland. Get planning your trip of a lifetime with this guide and witness some the most beautiful scenery in the world for yourself.
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The North Coast 500 is the world-famous road trip stretching along the northern coast of the Scottish mainland. Officially launched in 2015, this 516-mile route has seen 30,000 new visitors head to the northern wilderness of Scotland, boosting the economy by more than £9million.
The official starting point of the NC500 is the northern capital of Inverness, which also happens to be the finishing point of this circular road trip. The best part of this route, however, is that you can start and finish it wherever you please, taking as long or as little time as you like on your trip.
In this guide, we will discuss the best time to go to on a NC500 road trip as well as the following
- Falls of Shin
- Duncasby Stacks
- Coldbackie Sands
- Smoo Cave
- Golden Eagle Zipline, Durness
- Sango Sands
- Cacao Mountain Cafe
- Handa Island
- Kylesku Bridge
- Castle Sinclair and Girnigo
- The Bealch na Ba
- Achmelvic Beach
- John O’Groats
- Chanonry Point
Enjoy the Falls of Shin
Heading north from Inverness, the next stopping point is the glorious Falls of Shin. To get here you can either cross the Dornoch Firth Bridge and turn west or simply follow the southern coast of the Dornoch Firth towards Invershin. The Falls themselves are easy to find, with lots of signposts leading to the car park.
The Falls of Shin is a small collection of cascading steps of waterfalls, rising about 15m from bottom to top and stretched over about 300m of the river. The main spectacle at this sight is the natural phenomenon of the leaping salmon, an annual display of the resilience and power of nature.
If you visit here during the summer, there is a possibility of seeing these migratory salmon in action, leaping metres into the air to ascend the falls. This migration takes place as the salmon return from the sea and begins to travel inland to mate and lay eggs. This is the first time we have seen this and it is a spectacular sight!
In order to get to the waterfalls, head down the hill from the car park, across the road, and you will find the waterfall at the bottom of the stairs. Unfortunately, the viewing platform is not accessible for wheelchairs. By the car park, there is a restaurant and cafe that is perfect to rest and grab a coffee before you set off again to the next stop.
Witness the wonderful Duncasby Stacks
After spending a night in our most spectacular camping spot yet, overlooking the beautiful horizon at the Duncansby Lighthouse, we had a quick breakfast and headed up over the hill to see the local marvel, the Duncansby Stacks.
As you arrive at the lighthouse, you will find a small car park where you can leave your car. From here, walk over the hill to your right and the incredible towers of rock will come into view. These colossal monuments to time are a fantastic photo opportunity and, if the weather is okay, are the perfect spot for some light reflection of your trip so far.
Discover the Hidden Coldbackie Sands
As you approach the small village of Tongue, keep an eye on the coast to your right. A glimmer of golden sands will appear far below, hidden behind the bushes that line the road. This secret paradise is known as Coldbackie Beach and is one of the most spectacular beaches on the NC500.
A layby at the side of the road will allow you to park up and begin the steep descent down towards the beach. This is quite a tricky climb, especially when the ground is wet underfoot, so take care and wear good shoes. Upon reaching the beach, take a moment to appreciate the seclusion around you and stretch your legs along the shore.
This is one of the most beautiful beaches we found on the NC500 and is definitely worth a visit.
Take a Boat Trip through Smoo Cave
Just outside of the small town of Durness lies a cave that has a history dating all the way back to the Vikings. As you enter the 50ft opening to Smoo Cave (one of the largest Sea Cave entrances in the UK), you begin a journey through time back thousands of years.
Smoo Cave is one of the most fascinating stops you can make on the NC500 and is one we highly recommend. Inside the cave, you are able to board a small boat and enter deeper into the realms of the hidden world beneath the surface of Durness. Alongside a local tour guide, you can walk deep into the caves, hearing stories of how the Vikings used this area to store their boats from the stormy seas outside.
Thanks to the hard work of the locals, the cave network here is ever-expanding, with new caves being discovered every year. A lot of the cave openings are currently inaccessible due to being underwater, however, it is believed that during the time of the Vikings, the lower sea levels meant that the cave floor was actually about 10ft lower than it is today, giving access to the huge expanse underneath.
You can visit the Smoo Caves at any time of the day, with the main cave remaining open to the public 24-7. If you wish to explore deeper into the cave system, which is only accessible by boat, you will need to take part in an organised tour. The tour is subject to the local weather, as even a little rainfall can make the cave inaccessible. Due to this there are no advance bookings.
Catch an adrenaline rush at Golden Eagle Zipline, Durness
Have you ever been ziplining? Well now is you chance and what better place to do it than on the most northerly zipline in Scotland and over one of the most beautiful white sandy beaches in Scotland. You will reach speeds of up to 40mph and be flying across the beach at 37m high.
This activity is very much weather dependent so we would recommend keeping an eye on their Facebook page to check if they are running. No booking is required and the opening hours are between 10am-6pm.
Cost – £14 per person.
Stay near Sango Sands
Starting off the day in Durness, if you haven’t already paid a visit to the famous Sango Sands then now is the time to do it. If there is one part of Scotland that catches most people by surprise, it is the number of stunning beaches that it has. Most of the pictures of the beaches along the northern coast of Scotland could be mistaken for the Caribbean, and Sango Sands is no exception.
This beautiful stretch of sand is overlooked by one of the best campsites on the NC500, Sango Sands Oasis, and is popular for wildlife watching and watersports. From the shores of Sango Sands, it is not uncommon to see seals, dolphins and even whales making their way along the coast.
Visit the best chocolate cafe – Cacao Mountain Cafe
There are two of these amazing cafes on the NC500 route, one in Dornoch and one in Durness. They serve delicious hot chocolate, cakes and homemade chocolate bars. Well worth a visit on route.
Take a Boat Trip to Handa Island
The remote Handa Island is one of the best day trips that you can take on the NC500 route. The island is around 300 hectares in size and the highest point of over 120-metres. The island Scotland Wildlife Trust nature reserve, home to over 100,000 wild seabirds and a greatly significant area in terms of birdlife and marine vegetation.
It is possible to visit the island by catching a ferry from the local port across to the island, where you will be met by an RSPCA volunteer who will give you a quick induction to the island. These volunteers take turns to live on the island and study the local wildlife, and so they are able to provide great insight into what you can expect to see on the island. They will also warn you of where you are and are not allowed to go on the island, depending on the breeding season.
The island itself is quite small, with a walking loop around the entire island taking only a few hours. The walk around the island is absolutely breathtaking, made even better by the stunning views of mainland Scotland across the light blue water. Keep an eye out for dolphins and whales off the shore and as you make your way across to the island by boat.
The small, ribbed boat from Tarbet across to the island, normally running between April to September. The furry runs six days a week, with no service on Sundays, and is of course art the discretion of the captain based on weather conditions. If you wish to know more about the ferry, you can find contact details on the website.
Marvel at the Kylesku Bridge
Driving south from Scourie, you will eventually reach the prominent construction of Kylesku, a contrasting sight against the rugged background of the Scottish highlands. This modern-looking bridge is famous for its sleek and beautiful design, which stands defiant against the breathtaking landscape of the North Coast 500.
This is not a culturally significant stop on the NC500, however, it is a worthwhile one nonetheless and is a definite photo stop.
Visit the ruins of Castle Sinclair and Girnigo
The history and splendour of the castles around the NC500 are simply fascinating, none more so than the ancient remains of Castle Sinclair and Girnigoe. By far our favourite castle around the North Coast 500, these silent remains tell a beautiful tale of how life in the north of Scotland used to be.
Perched perilously close to the cliff edges, just north of the town of Wick, these beautiful castle remains look like they are straight out of a fantasy film. The castle itself has had quite an eventful history, including multiple seizures, grand expansions, and family murder. The earliest parts of the castle are believed to date back to the 15th century, with expansion projects being continuously added all through to the siege of 1680, which damaged the castle so badly it was never inhabited again.
For the next 340 years, the castle remains slowly fell into decay until the beginning of the 21st century, when the Clan Sinclair Trust was formed in order to restore sites like this to a safe standard for visitors. The magnificent work these volunteers do can be seen all across the country, including the newly installed bridge access to the castle ruins of Sinclair and Girnigoe.
Upon your visit to this site, it is asked that you leave a small donation for the continual maintenance and restoration of projects such as this across Scotland.
The castle grounds are open year-round and are on a donation basis only.
Drive Britain’s Highest Road – The Bealach na Ba
There are two ways to reach the small village of Applecross, one leading around the peninsula to the north and one snaking its way directly over the mountains. If you are driving a large vehicle or are not comfortable driving on narrow, winding roads with steep drops, then I suggest you take the scenic route to the north.
The Bealach na Ba is one of the world’s most spectacular drives. It sits as the third highest road in Scotland and has the steepest ascent of any road in the UK, reaching an altitude of 626 metres. Named “the pass of the cattle“, the Bealach na Ba was once the only route from Applecross to the rest of the country and was used by farmers to transport livestock to the markets in central Scotland.
Today it is famous for its narrow, twisting turns, similar to those in the Italian Alps, as well as its stunning view of the sea from its highest point. On a clear day, it is possible to see all the way to the Isle of Skye and the beautifully haunting outline of the Cullin mountain range.
Scotlands most beautiful beach? – Achmelvich Beach
A beautiful white sandy beach with crystal clear water, what more could you want? Well.. maybe the water being a tad warmer! Achmelvich Beach is located near Lochinver in Sutherland on the west coast of Scotland. When the weather is nice, this beach is comparable to what you would see in the Caribbean. Don’t forget your camera!
Reach the top at John O’Groats
The most famous sight in the northern coast of Scotland and end of the countrywide, 874-mile trail from Lands End to John O’ Groats is the famous landmark signpost marking the end of the road. This signpost is one of the most photographed signposts in the world and draws thousands of visitors every single year, all eager to capture a picture at the edge of the world.
The sign that you visit today is actually a replacement of the original, which was installed in 1964 on private land and required a fee to have a photo taken beside it. In 2013 the original site was bought as part of a hotel renovation project, and upon completion, a new sign was installed in the original location available to public access.
If you wish to view the original and have your picture taken with customisable text on the sign, you can do so at the John O’Groats Caravan Park 180m from the original site.
See the Dolphins at Chanonry Point
Just to the north of Inverness, slightly off track and definitely off the beaten path, the small peninsula known as Chanonry Point is the best place in the Moray Firth for dolphin spotting.
If you want to get even closer to these magnificent creatures, there are a number of dolphin tours available from Inverness, including the Dolphin Spirit tours that leave from the north of the city on the east bank of the river. One of the best things to do in Inverness.
Before You Leave on the North Coast 500
Before you head off on your trip around the NC500, there are certain things you will need to get organised to ensure a smooth trip. These include how to get around the route, including being aware of single track roads, etc., what to pack for Scotland, where to stay along the route and what travel insurance to book.
How Do I Get Around the NC500?
Given the remote location of the NC500 and the majority of the sights along the route, the best way to get around this road trip is by driving. There are of course other methods that are still popular, such as cycling and hiking, however, if you have a short amount of time on the route, neither of these are very suitable.
As for public transport, the use around the NC500 is understandably difficult due to how remote each location is, however, with the increasing problem of congestion along the route, this is a good option to research if you have time. If it is something that interests you, you can read a public formed itinerary of how to get around the NC500 by public transport over here.
If you are looking to rent a cosy, reliable and luxurious campervan for your trip along the NC500, we highly recommend hiring through Bunk Campers. We toured with these guys around the up-and-coming Heart 200 road trip in Scotland’s central highlands and could not believe the comfort and customer service we experienced with their vans.
What Should I Pack for the NC500?
When it comes to packing for a trip along the NC500 there is one item of clothing that you are going to need all year round: a waterproof. It rains in Scotland on average 250 days a year, meaning that during your 7-day NC500 road trip you will probably experience at least a drizzle of rain. Due to this, the number one item on any Scotland packing list is a good waterproof jacket.
As for the rest of the year, the temperature in Scotland and the central heartlands is reasonably mild for most of the year. During the winter months, you will most likely experience snow, however, temperatures usually sit around freezing, so it is not too cold. For your reference, the average temperatures in Scotland are listed below during each season.
Spring (March, April, May) – 5-10 degrees C
Summer (June, July, August) – 15 degrees C
Autumn (September, October, November) – 5-10 degrees C
Winter (December, January, February) – 0-5 degrees C
As you can see, the weather never really gets above the teens, with anything over 25 degrees C considered a heatwave. The best way to pack for your trip to the highlands is with layers that can be added and removed as you need them. You will definitely need a hat and gloves during the colder months and will most likely need sunscreen to protect you on the long days in the open.
Given the beautiful sights and scenery that you are no doubt going to see around Scotland, we highly recommend packing a good camera for your trip. If you want to read more about the cameras we use and why we love them, check out the link below.
Where Should I Stay on the NC500?
The remoteness in the highlands of Scotland will leave you with little choice of accommodation in each location along the NC500, however, there are still enough options to choose from to ensure a comfortable trip. These are mostly in the shape of B&Bs, Airbnbs, converted cottages and other quirky accommodations.
Depending on how adventurous you are, there may be more accommodation choices than just the above, often with an even better view. Caravan and camping sites are abundant along the NC500, drawing camping enthusiasts from all over the world. For some of the most spectacular bedside scenery along the North Coast 500, we recommend packing a tent and getting in touch with nature for the week.
As we travelled along the North Coast 500, camped in our trusty Vango tent on a mixture of campsites and wild sites. Wild camping is a fantastic way to enjoy the beauty of the highlands, however, it must be done respectfully. Read our full guide to Wild Camping if you wish to give it a go so you know everything you need to for a comfortable and sustainable trip.
What is the Best Travel Insurance?
No matter what type of adventure you are heading on, whether it is a mountain adventure or a relaxing beach destination, one thing we all need to be aware of is that accidents can happen. The last thing you want is for an unexpected medical emergency to ruin your trip of a lifetime. Luckily, that is what travel insurance is for.
Whenever we travel abroad, we get covered with World Nomad’s Travel Insurance, a reliable, friendly and extremely affordable method of covering yourself on any adventure. With years of experience working for backpackers around the globe, the service they provide is perfect for whatever type of trip you have planned.
So there you have it, all of the best things to do along the North Coast 500, including castles, cliff views, and beaches. If you have visited the NC500 recently, let us know what you thought of the sights listed above, or if you have any suggestions let us know in the comments below.
As always, sharing is caring so make sure to share this photo guide with your family and friends and inspire them to head off on their own North Coast 500 adventure. If you are planning the trip for yourself, make sure you have a look at the rest of our Scotland content for more inspiration to our beautiful home country.
When you set off on your own adventure, be sure to tag us in your photos on Instagram and we will share them with the rest of our community. In the meantime, why not follow us over there to see what we are currently up to and keep up with us on our Instagram Stories.
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- 7-day North Coast 500 Itinerary – FREE, Detailed and Unforgettable!
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