The North Coast 500 route or NC500 is a 500 mile scenic route around the north of Scotland. It takes in costal views and majestic mountain across a diverse backdrop of ever changing landscapes. I completed the tour over two summers and took in a number of mountains and munro summits along the way. From the big city lights of Inverness, to the remote beaches of Durness, the NC500 offers unique locations to visit that you won’t find anywhere else on earth. With Scotland recently being voted the most beautiful country on the planet now is the perfect time to book the holiday of a lifetime. Sit back and let me guide you through the top places to visit on route and which mountains to make sure you don’t miss out on.
The North Coast 500 starts and finishes in Inverness the home of the Scottish highlands. Following the A9 road north you will drive up the east coast past the whisky country of Glen Morangie, cross the Dornoch Firth and onwards to Wick.
From here you swing around the top corner of Scotland avoiding the beautiful distractions of the Orkney islands. Your journey so far will be rewarded by reaching the most northerly part of the mainland in John O’Groats. You are now travelling along the far north of the country and will pass a number of remote scenic areas, such as Durness.
Around the half way point you slowly begin to head south in the direction of Ullapool. Along the way passing the majestic mountains of Torridon and Dundonnell. Finally you will reach some of the highest roads around the UK in Applecross, before heading east back to your starting point in Inverness.
Mountains to see en route
There are a number of famous mountains to see while you are exploring the North Coast 500 route. Close to Inverness at your start point, Ben Wyvis would make an excellent choice for a first munro outing and its excellent path make it both family and dog friendly. I walked to the summit recently with Shadow in under 4 hours, enjoying great views over Easter Ross and beyond.
Further north nestled between Tongue and Durness is Ben Hope. If you want to climb the most northerly of all the munros this is your chance. Covering a distance of just under 5 miles and with around 950m of ascent, Ben Hope is a short but steep walk in the mountains. The starting point is in Strathmore with a small car park just west of the mountain itself. Access is along a single track road for the final 10 miles so try to avoid peak times if possible. Views from the summit stretch out across the desolate barren terrain of Sutherland to the north and arctic circle.
Other notable mountains on the way include Ben More Assynt, Conival and An Tellach. These munros offer a much tougher challenge. An Tellach from a starting point in the idyllic village of Dundonnell, requires graded scrambling if you wish to traverse its pinnacles. While the climb to Ben More and Conival begins at Inchnadamph and crosses some rough pathless terrain that can prove boggy during wet weather. These mountains require a higher level of fitness and experience than Ben Wyvis or Hope so if you are attempting these please ensure you are fully prepared for a long day out.
Places to visit on the North Coast 500
Travelling on the NC 500 you have a wealth of places to explore, from stone age caves to boutique shops. Here are some of the highlights from my trips you might enjoy too.
- Smoo Caves – Located in the north west coastal village of Durness, this cave network is the perfect place to visit for the budding geologist or historian. Its unique properties have been formed by erosion from the sea, with an inner chamber formed from fresh water passages culminating in a spectacular waterfall. The front of the cave is free to enter but its definitely worth paying the local guides a small fee to go by inflatable boat inside and find out the background to the area as they have a wealth of knowledge to share.
- Coca Mountain – Situated within the small craft village of Durness Coca Mountain would make a great location to relax and unwind after a long day travelling on the NC 500. Inside you will find a gourmet chocolate shop and cafe that will keep those with a sweet tooth more than happy. You can watch new products get made in the on site kitchen and then place your order for some to take home. This is a great opportunity to visit what is probably the most remote and unique chocolate shop in Europe.
- Beaches – With so much remote and unspoilt coast line along the full length of the north coast 500 route its little wonder beaches feature on this list. There are too many to list them all and you will find new ones along the way but some highlights include; Scourie Bay, Sango Bay, Dunnet Bay and Achnahaird Bay. Its safe to say whatever beach you choose you will find clear blue water that rivals that of the Caribbean and a backdrop devoid of large volumes of people. Pack a picnic basket and enjoy an amazing day out, just be sure to include warm clothes as although picturesque it can get chilly out there.
- Arts & crafts – Many of the villages you will travel through reply on tourists to survive and try to provide unique sustainable businesses to employ local people. A great example of this is Tain Pottery who create hand painted craft ceramics in their small on site workshop. You can pay a visit to see how their products get made and the amount of work that goes into each one. Browse through their library of goods on offer and then pick some to take home for yourself or as a gift.
- Whisky Distillery – Recommendations for places to visit in Scotland wouldn’t be complete without a whiskey distillery. Glen Morangie whisky distillery dates back to the 1700’s so its fair to say they have a deep knowledge about how to produce one of the best bottles in the Scottish highlands. The site provides tours of the distillery that can be booked on the day if you would like to find out a bit more about the process and see behind the scenes. Before you leave visit the shop and pick up a bottle to take with you to keep that little bit of the highlands with you.
What are you waiting for?
The North Coast 500 was one of my favourite road trips to date. There is so much to see and do that you will never get bored or be unable to find something that appeals to a wide variety of people. If you simply just enjoy driving you will be delighted by the traffic free roads and stunning scenery. You can drive for miles without coming across a single car or human being, so if you want to get away from it all this would be the perfect road trip. What more do you need to know? Start planning your own visit to the Scottish highlands for your next vacation and hit the road! Have you driven the NC500 route? I would like to hear about your trip in the comments.