Adventure

Stunning Scottish Highlands- driving the North Coast 500

 

The North Coast 500 route is in the far north of Scotland. It is a touristic route to rival any touristic route in the world.

Drive it, walk it, cycle it…however you fancy… just travel the North Coast 500!

Inspired by the Proclaimers song: I will walk 500 miles, the North Coast 500 links together existing and new scenic routes into a circular route of 500 miles, maybe more.  According to some itineraries one can drive it in as little as 3 and a half days, but having just returned from driving this spectacular route, I would definitely  recommend leaving yourself time and spending at least twice that long, if you can afford the time.

Even 2 weeks will seem too short in this beautiful remote part of the world.

The classic way to drive, for those who drove the original North West Tourist route (a part of NC500), was counter clockwise: head up to John O’Groats and then west along the Northern coast to Durness, where you turn South and head into the remote North west Highlands, before returning to Inverness.

Just to mix things up, we took a big motorhome and drove the route clockwise, leaving Inverness towards the West.

North Coast 500 Inverness  driving motorhome

The route soon took us through amazing mountainous scenery, interrupted by splendid Lochs- sea lochs and lakes-, rivers and waterfalls.

As one heads further West and then North you gradually loose mobile internet and then mobile signal altogether.  Roads turn to single track road with passing places and have snow markers, petrol stations are rare with only a single pump in places.  These parts of the Scottish Highlands are remote: No supermarket home deliveries, kids enduring an hour or more on the school bus twice a day to get to school, fuel costing more than at those rip-off motorway services, but what a scenery and environment one is rewarded with!  The people are friendly and helpful, often up for a chinwag.

Scotland NC500 North Coast 500 scenic route

There are especially beautiful stretches like the Bealach-Na-Ba, which takes you to Applecross.  (Sadly, on this stretch we had mist and rain with only momentary clear patches. It was as if we were being teased with glimpsed of what was out there, just so we’d come back.)

Scotland NC500 North Coast 500 Scenic Route

Bealach-Na-Ba, a supposedly most beautiful view is out there

Scotland NC500 North Coast 500 Scenic Route

Bealach-Na-Ba- instead of enjoying the views we had a snowball fight. 🙂

Scotland NC500 North Coast 500 Scenic Route

Bealach-Na-Ba- some vistas did open up, even if only partially

We interspersed our drive with walks suitable for the kids; taking in such great walks as Rogie Falls, Beinn Eighe Buzzard trail and Corrieshields Gorge.

 

Scotland North Coast 500 NC500 Inverness  scenic route ©Family{m}adventures

Beinn Eighe Buzzard trail – very family friendly

Scotland NC500 North Coast 500 Scenic Route

Rogie Falls

 

Scotland North Coast 500 scenic route 16 ©Family{m}adventures NC 500 scenic route

Corrieshalloch Gorge & Falls

 

 

The subtropical gardens of Inverewe are a rare treat to visit even at this time of the year, too early for most plants, but you still feel like you are somewhere so much further south.

 

Scotland North Coast 500 NC500 Inverness  scenic route ©Family{m}adventures

Inverewe subtropical gardens

Scotland North Coast 500 NC500 Inverness  scenic route ©Family{m}adventures

Young explorers completing the family trail at Inverewe Gardens…the reward, at Easter, Easter Eggs.

Climbing up on the short trail at Knockan Crag and spending some time at the fabulous, un-manned, but very interactive visitors’ centre gives one a totally new appreciation for the geology of the landscape and the great debate about tectonic plates.

 

Scotland North Coast 500 NC500 Inverness  scenic route ©Family{m}adventures

Knockan Crag- the visitor centre blends into it’s environment (see on the left edge)

Scotland North Coast 500 NC500 Inverness  scenic route ©Family{m}adventures

Knockan Crag

Around the Assynt peninsular the landscape changes from mountainous to more moonscape. If the waters are relatively flat and visibility half ok, it’s worth spending time at Stour Lighthouse, enjoying a coffee with the very knowledgeable Leigh, who runs the little café there… she may even help you spot some whales, porpoises or a golden Eagle.

 

Scotland North Coast 500 NC500 Inverness  scenic route ©Family{m}adventures

Stour Lighthouse

Scotland North Coast 500 NC500 Inverness  scenic route ©Family{m}adventures

Living the Dream Cafe

Heading further North the isolation becomes more pronounced on the 19 miles of single track road leading to Durness.  On this road we only saw deer, some sheep and a couple of passing cars.  (The road with passing places is really well laid out; the passing places frequent enough so no one really has to reverse.  Just chill and take in the scenery as you go.)

 

Scotland North Coast 500 NC500 Inverness  scenic route ©Family{m}adventures

North Coast 500 – Still on dual track

Scotland North Coast 500 NC500 Inverness  scenic route ©Family{m}adventures

Rounding the bend at Durness and heading East a quick visit to Smoo cave- Britain’s largest sea cave entrance and its quirky guide- then driving on towards the spectacular Kyle of Tongue.   The Kyle has huge sandbanks at low tide, fabulous with the kids!  This is a place I would’ve loved to have more time in our itinerary and spend a day playing on the sandbank, watching bird and relaxing.

 

Scotland North Coast 500 NC500 Inverness  scenic route ©Family{m}adventures

Smoo Cave

Scotland North Coast 500 NC500 Inverness  scenic route ©Family{m}adventures

Tongue of Kyle- even in drab weather the beauty is evident

As we drove on Eastwards the landscape became flat and almost boring, that is until one realises that this is the largest single area of peat marshes in the world, supporting a phenomenal array of wildlife from bugs to birds. Looking out the left we spotted wide sandy beaches, that were beckoning us to stop and play in the sand. Alas, again, time was short we had to move on.

 

Just before Thurso, the most Northern town on mainland Britain, we passed our first traffic light in nearly 400 miles.  The town itself held a pleasant surprise: a great visitors centre Caithness Horizons with enthusiastic staff and a great film of the Northern Highlands.

 

Scotland North Coast 500 NC500 Inverness  scenic route ©Family{m}adventures

Our first traffic light in 400 miles

Scotland North Coast 500 NC500 Inverness  scenic route ©Family{m}adventures

Caithness Horizons, the visitors center is fabulous. It will empart a real appreciation of the area on you.

Scotland North Coast 500 NC500 Inverness  scenic route ©Family{m}adventures

Caithness Horizons

Visiting Dunnet Point the most Northern point of mainland Britain saw me smash my phone to smithereens and avoided us the promised vistas as the fog set in. None-the-less we ticked it off our bucket list, as we did snapping a picture of ourselves at the slightly sunnier John O’Groats.

 

Scotland North Coast 500 NC500 Inverness  scenic route ©Family{m}adventures

A memorable visit to Dunnest Point, mainland Britain’s most northerly point for me… that’s for sure!

Scotland North Coast 500 NC500 Inverness  scenic route ©Family{m}adventures

The obligatory photo at John O’Groats

We were privileged to have a short tour at the Castle of Mey, that usually only opens later in the year, before we veered South.

 

Scotland North Coast 500 NC500 Inverness  scenic route ©Family{m}adventures

Castle Mey- a little jewel in most northern part of Scotland

Scotland North Coast 500 NC500 Inverness  scenic route ©Family{m}adventures

Castle Mey- the garden was just springing into life after the long winter, but the beauty was already evident.

The landscape changed again: flat, more fertile lands were evident from the farming activities, villages more frequent (though more untidy too).  Larger swooping bays, the occasional ruins of a tower or a former castle, lots of deserted stone houses with only the 4 walls standing.

 

Scotland North Coast 500 NC500 Inverness  scenic route ©Family{m}adventures

Agriculture and torrets, small castles and defensive towers sprinkle the landscape

Wick was another lovely stop:  A very quaint little town, boasting the shortest street in the world, Ebenezer Place, with the fabulous Bistro #1 which provided a welcome stop and treat of culinary delights.

 

Scotland North Coast 500 NC500 Inverness  scenic route ©Family{m}adventures

Not to be missed: the world’s shortest street

A quick stop at Whaligo steps, treading the 365 steps that used to be.  (Sadly, now only 337 due to some bored youths venting through vandalism.) These steps were used by women carrying the catch of the day from the boats to the market in Wick. Down at the bottom we stood and imagined life, as Davy, the grandson of one of the last boat owners, had regaled for us.

 

Scotland North Coast 500 NC500 Inverness  scenic route ©Family{m}adventures

Whaligo Steps

As we drove further south along the East coast we took a small detour to some 4-5000 year old burial grounds, The Grey Cairns of Camster. This stretch of the coast is incredibly rich in prehistoric and historic monuments, evidence that these have been fertile lands providing a home for people for 1000s of years.

Scotland North Coast 500 NC500 Inverness  scenic route ©Family{m}adventures

Grey Cairns of Camster- ancient burial and ritual grounds

 

Nipping into some pretty harbours like Lybster and Helmsdale, that housed hundreds of boats in their heydays, now with only a handful.  They now rely on the tourist trade more than the fish trade.

 

Scotland North Coast 500 NC500 Inverness  scenic route ©Family{m}adventures

Lybster- imagine, this little port used to be heaving with 100s of boats. How times have changed!

Golspie and Dunrobin Castle of fabulous places to stop and spend time; understand how people used to live and live now.  The falconry display orchestrated by the incredibly talented Andy is a must see.

Scotland North Coast 500 NC500 Inverness  scenic route ©Family{m}adventures

Dunrobin Castle is gorgeous!

Scotland North Coast 500 NC500 Inverness  scenic route ©Family{m}adventures

Dunrobin castle falconry display is a must see!

Along the route the Glenmorangie distillery (our favourite brand of the golden tipple) was in a silent period, which meant we saw it at a time of repairs happening instead of the 24-7 operation it is for most of the year.  We still got a wee dram on the house though.

 

Scotland North Coast 500 NC500 Inverness  scenic route ©Family{m}adventures

Glenmorangie whiskey distillery

We celebrated the near end of our epic journey of the North Coast 500 with a relaxed meal at Storehouse of Foulis, before heading into Inverness. Here we all got certificates:

 

Scotland North Coast 500 NC500 Inverness  scenic route ©Family{m}adventures

Storehouses of Foulis

Scotland North Coast 500 NC500 Inverness  scenic route ©Family{m}adventures

This is such an amazing journey I would highly recommend it to anyone- single, family, young, old- happy to cover a 500 + miles.

 

The best time of year to do it is May, I reckon- most places are open and fully running and there are no midges (those annoying little biting insects) yet. If you have travelled this route or are planning to, I’d love to hear from you.

 

The sun set on our final day as we were heading into Inverness, we glimpsed back and saw the stunning sky and scenery. We waved a reluctant good bye.

The sun set on our final day as we were heading into Inverness, we glimpsed back and saw the stunning sky and scenery. We waved a reluctant good bye.

 

 

 

If you liked this post and would like to find out about more family friendly adventures, please Subscribe to our 2 weekly updates

Read the detailed day by day account click below:

Day 1: Inverness to Kinlochewe

Day 2: Beinn Eighe, Bealach Na Ba, Applecrosss

Day 3: Inverewe Gardens, Corrieshalloch Gorge, Ullapool and Ardmair

 

North Coast 500 Scotlands newest scenic route ABSOLUTELY STUNNING

This post first appeared on Family{m}adventures.  The copyright belongs to Family {m}adventures. No part of it, text or images, may be reproduced, used elsewhere without explicit permission from the author.

Categories: Adventure, Road trip

37 thoughts on “Stunning Scottish Highlands- driving the North Coast 500

  • The moment I saw your picture on instagram of the map I was inspired, I really want to do this, love how varied all your stops on the way were.

    • Monika

      There is so much to do along the route Penny everyone’s tastes can be catered for. I want to go back to spend more time whale watching and bug hunting on the peatlands.

  • This is an incredible trip. I’m not surprised you wished you had more time – it looks as though each of these places warranted a day or two at least, to stop and savour. Such beautiful pictures!

    • Monika

      I reckon one could spend the whole of the school summer holidays slowly enjoying the route, there is something different for every single day. The number of places tempting us to stop as we drove by: as the driver I spotted them, but didn’t tell the kids because they, like me, would’ve wanted to stop!

    • Monika

      Nell, there were just too many things along the road which beckoned for us to stop! Even spending the whole 6 week school holiday, one could find something or somewhere new every single day.

  • Christine

    Loved your report, we’re planning the route in July, also heading clockwise. I have a 6m VW motorhome and wondered how you found the road to Applecross? Our motorhome is 20 years old so slightly worried it won’t make it along that section of the road!

    • Monika

      Christine, I thought the Bealach Na Be road was steep, but not as bad as I thought it would be. You sort of tend to go slow along it anyway to savour the sight… even when you have as little as we had. I have a video of the whole route which I plan to put on YouTube in the next couple of weeks. Maybe subscribe so you don’t miss it.- https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCY7x8e1_mgHBE76qNpzOWmA

    • Monika

      Christine, I think you end up going up Bealach-Na-Ba pretty slowly and savouring the views anyway …even if they are non-existent as they were for us. There are plenty of passing places and stops along the way, so if the old lady is struggling just stop, let her engine cool and carry on. There is a lovely campsite at Applecross, which we sadly didn’t stay at, but from chatting to folks there, it’s worth staying at.
      The coastal road to Applecross is less interesting, though you do get stunning views of Skye.

      • Christine

        That’s great, will look out for the video might just have to be brave and go for it!

  • Looks amazing, I love Scotland. We drove up to Gairloch a couple of years ago (one of my earliest blog posts). This year I’ve booked the overnight sleeper to Mallaig with a plan to visit Eigg and Skye if I can find some reasonably priced accommodation. Not looking forward to the midges in August though, I always get bitten loads.

  • Carole Gledhill

    We too recently completed the NC500 by motorhome. Amazing the differences in places we stopped and visited to yourselves, so much rich variety to enjoy! You can read about our trip at https://sunseekingwithlizzie.wordpress.com/tag/north-coast-500/ We plan to do it again sometime!

    • Monika

      Oh thank you for sharing your trip Carole! Totally fascinating how we find different places. I really look forward to other blogposts emerging on NC500 and how people are doing it.

  • Julie

    I’m hoping to do this soon. Can’t believe the route doesn’t cover the Black Isle just north of Inverness where you can spot dolphins regularly.

    • Monika

      Julie, I think it sort of does, as you drive through it. We were planning to camp at Rosemarkie Camping and Caravan Club site, but sadly ran out of time. Our launch pad was also the Tourist information centre just over the bridge from Inverness on the Black Isle.
      If you are into dolphins and whales definitely plan to spend time at Stour lighthouse enjoying some cakes with Leigh!

  • What a great post, I love following your trip and such great pictures. I love my country, but you definitely take it for granted living here. Must do the tourist bit x

    • Monika

      Thank you Susan. You are indeed lucky to be living closer to this wonderful part of the country. I hope you get to enjoy more of the countryside as the weather improves a bit and the days get longer.

  • Lewis Moir

    Your trip looks really amazing! Me and my girlfriend are heading off to do it this week. I noticed you seemed to plan it with all the markers on your instagram picture, are all the sights easy enough to find / marked out or is it best to plan ahead? Thanks!

    • Monika

      Lewis, with kids one needs to be organised. 😉

      If I were you, I’d stop at the tourist office just after you cross the bridge out of Inverness on the A9. The VisitScotland lady there was remarkably helpful, they had most of the brochures for things along the route, they also have Ordinance survey maps if you are interested in more hiking.

      Our highlights, though the whole route is spectacular, were: Bealach-Na-Be (even in the mist), Beign Eighe (where there are some more advanced trails too with far reaching vistas if the weather permits), Stour lighthouse, Knockan Crag, Kyle of Tongue, Castle of Mey (check if they are open already, they are undergoing renovation so this year, 2015, are opening slightly later) and Dunrobin Castle.
      Eat at- Applecross Inn, #1 Bistro & Storehouses of Foullis.

  • Beatrice

    Hi Monika,
    Your trip looks like it was amazing! Thanks for sharing. We would like to go this summer but we have two young kids (one is baby still) and I wonder if it is a little crazy to do this now. We don’t have a motorhome so would need to find places to stay for the night. Also, my husband claims we could do it in a few days….is that realistic? It seems a bit short and would be a shame to rush through all these wonderful places.
    Thanks!

    • Monika

      Hi Beatrice,

      It’s not crazy at all to consider the NC500 with young kids!… it’s the sort of thing I’ve always done. 😉 So yes, it is worth doing with young kids. I did quite a bit of trekking with my 2 yo last Easter in Northumberland. (http://mumonthebrink.com/2014/allen-banks-northumberland-far-can-22-month-old-toddler-walk/) You just adjust to their pace. A good child carrier rucksack will help you go miles.

      Yes, you can drive it in fewer days, but why would you? You’ll spend an awful lot of time in the car, with the kids restless. The pace you are driving up in the Highlands is a lot slower than you expect. Partly because of the scenery, partly because the roads are windy, narrow and interspersed with single track sections. One advantage with young kids is that you will be able to plan your days in such a way that you drive when they are napping though.

      Build in plenty of beach time too… there are some amazing beaches up there.

      You will be able to find different sorts of accommodation up there and you can also camp. If you camp I would highly recommend Inverewe Gardens Camping and Caravan Club site and Ardmair Holiday park- both on the lochside.

      The falconry display at Dunrobin castle will have your older one in awe, as will the museum (which we adults are likely to find not so appealing)

      Take midge nets and insect repellent (from my previous experience of Scotland in the summer)

      I’m just pulling together the details of our trip into a mega blog post. Maybe subscribe so you don’t miss it, and by the sounds of it you’re the sort of family who do our sort of madventures, so I can tempt you with more adventures going forward.

      M x

  • LJ

    The Falls of Shin is a must – in Golspie between the Golspie inn and the mill, fish suppers at la Mirage in Helmsdale is a must, stop off at Dornoch (lovely tourist shops) and take the detour to Embo (gorgeous beach and a great playpark at the campsite with indoor amusements and swimming pool) follow the road and it will take you back on to the A9.

  • […] post on Family Madventures, about her road trip in the breathtaking Scottish Highlands, made Penny want to pack her family in a camper and drive off into the sunset. So much so that […]

  • lila laird

    we are doing the nc 500 in july with motorhome

    • John Jarvis

      Please let us know how you get on given some official sites say it’s difficult for Motorhomes.

      • Monika

        John, We had no problems at all. I drove the whole distance in the 7.3m Rimor Katamarano while the kids and my husband travelled in the back playing or looking on. The passing places on the single track sections are frequent and we found all other drivers really polite…even white van drivers. 😉
        I think I will look back at my notes and write a specific post about driving.
        Do let me know how you get on, I’d be happy to share your experiences.

  • lila laird

    liked your posts very much so we thought we would try it

    • Monika

      Fabulous Lila! I don’t think the route will disappoint. Make sure you take lots of insect repellent with you and do tweet or FB me any pictures you have of your trip.

  • John Jarvis

    I’d love to do it in my 6.5metre Burstner motorhome, but I’m anxious (as a somewhat nervous and getting on a bit newbie) about the road conditions. Your experience has given me confidence that my wife and I could at least try it even though we’re in our late sixties. Thank you for sharing your experience.
    John Jarvis

  • Donna

    Great read and very informative. We are doing the NC 500 anticlockwise in May this year. Am super excited. !!

  • john kavanagh

    just planning my clockwise trip for the NC 500,(1st week in Aug) I have only 6 days but am sure i will get to savour the moments and such beautiful scenery etc, this was a great article to read and well presented, ,photo,s are great too, info is hard to find but i am sure as we stop off along the way that there will be plenty of literature to pick up showing the paths to interesting places

    thanks again,

    John

    • Monika

      Have a fab trip John! You can drive it in 6 days, remember you’ll have much longer days than we did in April. On the ground there is quite a lot of information, the tourist offices are amazing, with really enthusiastic staff.

      • john

        Almost forgot to post an update, well, our trip was absolutely super, blessed with the weather, pure sunshine and 15- 18c every day, we started off in Edinburgh and went clockwise in an 8 day trip by hire car, Inverness, Fort William, over the Bealach, to Applecross, ( the scenery is absolutely breathtaking, each long winding curve producing more and more), the Bealach climb was on a blue sky day and the view a t the top is so magnificent, I thought of those who had the misfortune of arriving here on a gloomy misty day and never got to see the view from the top, on to Ullapool, winding our way round the coastline, ( good tip is to bring a large flask, cos there are so many panoramic places to stop and have a cuppa, having a flask induces you to stop, and just listen to the absolute silence and take it all in ), then on to a spectacular 8hr slow drive to Durness , taking left turns purposely instead of right turns just to get semi lost in the amazing scenery, Durness, well, we arrived on a glorious sunny day to paddle in the chilly clear blue waters on the some of the finest beaches I have stood on, I spoke to one Welsh couple who had taken 3 weeks in a campervan to do what we did in 4 days to get to Durness, (that just indicates the scale and the tons of little beauty spots that are there to find), and they arrived at Durness 5 days earlier than us and just stayed because with the sun shining it would just nuts to leave such beauty behind, …we continued along the north coast to John O Groats, again in t shirts and shorts, we then drove down the east coast , hugging the coastline which was boring compared to the west coast, until we reached the georgous town of Aviemore, the gateway to the Cairngorms national Park, would love to post pics but dont see the way to do so, …i will do it again, except this time i will drive up the west and instead of driving the eat coast i will just come back down the central section so to speak and drive back to Ullapool and get the ferry to the Hebrides which i believe are stunning, …no matter what transport you decide to use the roads are well kept and though narrow a times have well placed passing sections every 50- 100 mtrs, the food is great…in some places the fish n chips are to die for , my memorable one was the Am Fuaran Bar (Achiltibuie), we had it brought outside by the beach…..i am also planning a short trip on the canals, probably a 3 day from Glasgow to Edinburgh….i guess i could write for hrs about the trip but just thought I would give an overview…would i recommend??, you bet i would, put this on your bucket list, if you are a biker put it on sooner!!…anyone any questions etc I would be glad to try and answer….thank you for reading

  • Hi

    I was just wondering if you ever finished writing up your NC500 trip? I think the last part I could find was Part 3?

    Thanks,
    Euan

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes:

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>