It may be the new kid on the block but the North Coast 500 has been making big waves among the world’s most famous road trips. Launched as recently as May 2015, the 516-mile (830-kilometer) circuit around the far north coast of Scotland has already won legions of fans for its breathtaking scenery, scores of historical and cultural attractions and the kind of wilderness you only get in Europe on the continent’s fringes.
1. Inverness: The capital of the Highlands
Set on the shores of the stunning Moray and Beauly Firths, Inverness needs little introduction. Culloden Battlefield and Loch Ness (of monster fame) are located just outside the city. The city’s beautiful castle also serves as the official start and end point of the North Coast 500. Still a working civic building and court house, the castle’s North Tower opened to tourists for the first time as recently as spring 2017, offering spectacular 360-degree panoramas across Inverness and the local area.
Inverness Castle Viewpoint
Address: Inverness Castle, IV2 3EG Inverness
Opening Hours: Seven days a week. April to May, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. June to August, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. September to October, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Website: Inverness Castle Viewpoint
2. Bealach na Ba
The Bealach na Ba, which translates to ‘pass of the cattle,’ is, as the name suggests, a former route taken by cattle drivers on the route to market in the Scottish Lowlands. But that name fails to convey the scale of the pass. Now part of the North Coast 500 route, it rises from sea level up a series of hairpin bends to more than 2,000 feet (600 meters), making it the third highest road in Scotland, and back down to sea level at Applecross. The dramatic scenery has proven particularly attractive to film makers, appearing on Hollywood screens as recently as 2017’s “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.”
Address: Applecross, IV54 8LR Wester Ross
Opening Hours: Food served 12 p.m. to 9 p.m. daily. Bar opening times vary. Check website.
Contact: +44 1520 744262
Website: Applecross Inn
After the Bealach na Ba, the route passes the beautiful village of Applecross before swinging north. Highland cattle can regularly be seen milling around in nearby fields and even on the road, so be careful on blind corners. After passing the picturesque village of Shieldaig, which is well worth a stop and has several accommodation options, the road comes to Torridon. This area is especially popular with mountain walkers and boasts several Munros, mountains in Scotland with summits above 3,000 feet (900 meters).
Address: Shieldaig, Wester Ross
4. Loch Ewe
This large sea loch, which has the romantically named Isle of Ewe at its heart, has two further claims to fame. It was one of the main staging posts for the Arctic Convoys, which helped to equip Russia with vital hardware during the dark days of World War II. The remains of fortifications associated with such a strategic spot are still in place around the loch, particularly at Cove, where a memorial pays tribute to the many people who took part in the convoys and those who, sadly, failed to return.
Address: Inverewe Gardens, Poolewe, IV22 2LG Wester Ross
Contact: +44 1445 712952
Website: National Trust for Scotland
5. Corrieshalloch Gorge and Ullapool
Corrieshalloch Gorge is a spectacular gash in the earth formed at the end of the last ice age. The 1.5-kilometer (1-mile) long and 100-foot (30-meter) deep gorge is almost hidden from the passing road, although a short walk from a dedicated car park will provide superb views of it. A small suspension bridge crosses the gorge above the Falls of Measach, while a little further downstream, a viewing platform extends out over the gorge for those brave enough to set foot on it.
Address: Wester Ross, IV23 2PJ The Highlands
Price: Free (although donations are encouraged)
Opening Hours: All year
Website: National Trust for Scotland
6. The mountains of Stac Pollaidh and Suilven
The distinctive silhouettes of these peaks will grab the eye of anyone who completes the route. Stac Pollaidh, pronounced Stack Polly, is a particularly popular ascent for many. A side road passes right beneath it, where there is a dedicated car park for those keen to take on the challenge. However, although it is not uncommon to see families and even household pets on the summit ridge, Stac Pollaidh should not be underestimated. The ascent to the ridge is a steep one, and those tackling it need to be reasonably fit.
North West Highlands Geopark
Address: Sutherland, The Highlands
Website: North West Highlands Geopark
7. Durness, Sango Bay and Smoo Cave
The small coastal village of Durness, which boasts a campsite, shops, and hotels, is a great place to break up your trip. It is home to the beautiful beach of Sango Bay as well as the stunning Smoo Cave, which is easily reached via a cliff-side path from its own free car park (with toilet facilities). Durness is also not far from Cape Wrath, the northwesterly extreme of the British mainland, which is reached via a nearby seasonal ferry and connecting minibus.
Cape Wrath Ferry
Address: Keoldale, Kyle of Durness
Opening Hours: Operates seven days a week, May to September. Check website for timetable.
Website: Cape Wrath Ferry
8. John O'Groats, Dunnet Head and the Stacks of Duncansby
Although John O'Groats is famous for being the northeast corner of the Scottish/British mainland, this is not strictly accurate. The spectacular Duncansby Head sits roughly a mile (1.6 kilometers) further east, while Dunnet Head, located around 10 miles (16 kilometers) west, is the furthest north you can go without getting your feet wet. However, all three locations are well worth a visit.
Address: Caithness, The Highlands
Website: Visit John O'Groats
9. Go dolphin watching on the Black Isle
The North Coast 500 skirts the Black Isle, a peninsula of land sandwiched between the Cromarty and Moray Firths. It is home to such charming and historic burgh towns as Cromarty and Fortrose and is a superb spot to catch some of the Highlands’ spectacular wildlife. Sightings of whales, dolphins, and birds of prey are possible pretty much anywhere on the entire route, although the dolphin viewing area on Chanonry Point, just outside Fortrose, is particularly popular with humans and aquatic mammals alike.
Dolphin Trips Avoch
Address: Harbour Office, Pierhead, Avoch, IV9 8PT Ross-shire
Opening Hours: Sailing times differ from day to day depending on the tide. Check in advance.
Contact: +44 1381 622383 or email [email protected]
Website: Dolphin Trips Avoch
The best road trip in the world? Quite possibly
With these and many other attractions along the route, it is easy to see why the North Coast 500 has swiftly made it onto many people’s lists of the world’s top 10 road trips. But is it the best? Why not pay a visit and decide for yourself?