North Coast 500: Sign post at John O Groats

25 Unmissable Things to do on the North Coast 500

The North Coast 500 is Scotland’s answer to Route 66. It is a magnificent road trip just over 500 miles long that covers some of the most beautiful scenery of the north-western Highlands and coastal regions. You can take anywhere between four days and three weeks to drive it, so check out these 25 unmissable things to do on the North Coast 500 and work on your itinerary!

I drove the NC500 as part of a paid project with Hostelling Scotland. All opinions are my own and there was no obligation to write this blog post.
This post contains affiliate links, which I may make a commission from. 

 

Theoretically, you could drive the NC500 route in northwestern Scotland in 4-5 days. Some might do it in even less time – it’s only 500 miles after all! 

However, the North Coast 500 is just over 500 miles of pristine Scottish scenery crisscrossed by small and winding country roads. Once it took you 4 hours to do 30 miles and multiple photo stops you will be glad you planned in more time for your journey. You could spend up to 3 weeks or more discovering everything the region has to offer and choose from many attractions and activities pleasing nature lovers, outdoor freaks, foodies and culture buffs alike. One thing I will therefore not do in this blog post is to provide you with a detailed North Coast 500 itinerary – although I will give you a brief run-down on our 8-day road trip around the NC500.

Instead, I thought I’d share some of my favourite things to do along the NC500 with you. If you plan to tick them all off, you should have at least a week to spare for this journey. They include scenic stops and drives on the main route, activities and tours that require you to make a longer stop or drive a detour, and hidden gems that you’d never find if you followed all the other cars.

So without further, here are 25 unmissable things to do on the North Coast 500.

PS: We drove the NC500 clockwise and the things I suggest here follow this direction. If you drive the NC500 anti-clockwise I suggest you read this article in reverse.

North Coast 500 car sticker

Clava Cairns & Culloden

Before you leave Inverness, head out to Culloden Battlefield and Clava Cairns.

Culloden is without a doubt one of the most significant places in Scottish history. On 16 April 1746, the English army defeated the Jacobite forces of Charles Edward Stuart in one of the bloodiest battles Scotland had ever seen. Over 1,500 Jacobites were killed in an hour and then the battle was over. Today, the Battlefield is a historic site and memorial ground for the many people who have lost their lives here. There is a visitor centre and you can either walk the field by yourself or participate in a guided tour. 

Nearby Clava Cairns is a much older historic site. Here you will find four circular chamber tombs surrounded by standing stones that date back to the Bronze Age (about 2,000 BC). The site is free to enter and you can read about the excavation process and the assumed significance of the cairns on the boards around the compound.

A woman standing in front of a standing stone in Scotland
Sorry, not sorry. | PS: I never touch standing stones – imagine what erosion would do to them if everyone were to touch them! | Photo by Yvette Morrissey / Wayfaring Kiwi

Bealach na Bà Road to Applecross

The road to Applecross is among the finest roads in Scotland and makes for an incredibly scenic drive through the Highlands. However, this is not a drive for the faint-hearted! A sign at the beginning of the road warns drivers of the notorious single-track road that climbs up to 626 metres (2,054 ft) above sea level. At times it is as steep as 20% and is therefore not suitable for nervous drivers, motorhomes or campervans.

If you are in a small vehicle though, you are rewarded with mind-boggling hairpin bends and fantastic views throughout the drive. There is a car park at the highest point so you can catch your breath and once you have descended into Applecross you can take it easy along the scenic coastal drive to Shieldaig.

Applecross road Bealach na ba pass road

Shieldaig Peninsula Walk

Shieldaig is easily one of the prettiest seaside villages in Scotland with its colourful waterfront facing Loch Torridon. 

It is well worth stopping here for a few hours and taking in the gorgeous scenery on a walk. There is a lovely loop walk around the Shieldaig peninsula which offers stunning views and lots of opportunities to spot wildlife, like otters and sea birds. It is just under 5 km (3 miles) and takes only 1.5 hours – or a little more if you bring a picnic, for example from the Loch Torridon Smokehouse in the village.

You can find a detailed route description here.

Shieldaig in Scotland
Photo by Yvette Morrissey / Wayfaring Kiwi

Detour to Lower Diabaig

The main road of the North Coast 500 route is scenic as it is, but there are many little detours you can drive to reach even more off the beaten path villages and mountains views. The detour from Torridon to Diabaig is one of them.

As you drive to the end of Torridon village, keep going as the road gets smaller and narrower and continue past a sign that advises learner drivers and campervans to turn around. However, if you are in a campervan or a nervous driver definitely follow this advice! The road to Diabaig is one of the most beautiful NC500 add-ons, but it is definitely not for the faint-hearted.

The narrow single track road winds its way up to a viewpoint at 250 metres above sea level. To reach it you have to master various steep hills and hairpin bends, all the while looking out for incoming traffic. The views as you descend to Diabaig are fantastic and the small village at the end of the road offers a scenic harbour and the seaside cafe Gille Brighde (closed Mondays & Tuesdays).

When you have had enough of the views, take the same road back to Torridon and continue on the main route of the North Coast 500.

PS: We used the OS North Scotland Road Map to find and navigate these detours!

 

A woman standing at a viewpoint, sea, mountains.

Hiking at Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve

The Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve is the UK’s oldest and also one of its largest. It stretches from Loch Maree over the peaks of Beinn Eighe towards Liatach and Torridon. Its biodiversity of fauna and flora make it a site of special scientific interest and attracts a wide range of botanists, biologists and geologists.

There are many trails at Beinn Eighe, some of which climb the peaks of the mountain and require at least a full day and lots of mountain experience. However, there are also easier trails that are more accessible to NC500 road trippers. 

One of my favourite stops along the North Coast 500 was the afternoon we spent at Beinn Eighe. We chose the Mountain Trail which starts and finishes at the Coille na Glas-Leitir car park on the shore of Loch Maree. The trail is waymarked – a rare occasion for mountain trails in Scotland – and is just over 6 km (4 miles) long. It takes 3 to 4 hours to complete.

After climbing steeply through the Caledonian pinewoods the trail emerges above the tree line and becomes very rocky. Cairns mark the trail from here and they can be a little hard to spot sometimes – keep your eyes peeled. Sturdy hiking boots are an absolute must and so is a general comfort with light scrambling. Once you emerge at the top, the trail flattens out and leads across the windy plateau. The views of Beinn Eighe and other surrounding mountains are gorgeous! The trail loops around and descends through the pinewoods back to the car park. 

Pick up an educative leaflet at the car park for more info and find a detailed trail description here. Learn more about the nature reserve here.

Hiking the mountain trail at Beinn Eighe in Scotland.

Detour to Redpoint Beach

Just before the main route Kerrysdale and Gairloch, turn left for another scenic detour. The narrow single-track road to Redpoint leads through several small villages and finally, to a gorgeous red sand beach. 

If you have a bit more time and would like to stay in the area, get in touch with Gairloch Trekking Centre who offers guided pony trekking in the area. Imagine riding across this beautiful beach!

 

Hillbillies Bookstore in Gairloch

I love quirky cafes and bookstores and the Scottish Highlands are certainly full of them! Hillbillies Bookstore and the adjacent cafe Mountain Coffee Company are a must see on the North Coast 500.

The cafe offers a variety of refreshments and snacks as well as cakes, teas and coffees in a quirky setting among model gondolas, national park stickers and shelves fill with adventure books. These shelves continue in the bookstore next door and hold anything from Scottish poetry to contemporary crime novels and vegan cookbooks. It’s a treasure trove!

North Coast 500: Books at Hillbillies Bookstore in Gairloch

Beach Day at Big Sand 

We stayed at Gairloch Sands Youth Hostel, which gets its name from its proximity to the beautiful beaches of the area. Behind the hostel – a 20-minute walk or 5-minute drive – lies Big Sands, a sandy beach with views of the mountains of Torridon and Skye.

We only stopped for a few photos, but since the beach is sheltered from the strong winds you could easily bring a picnic and spend a whole day here.

Big Sand beach near Gairloch

Corrieshalloch Gorge National Nature Reserve

Leaving the coast and driving inland to loop around to Ullapool felt a bit like a disappointment – until we reached Corrieshalloch Gorge. I love a surprise, so when I stepped onto the suspension bridge above the gorge, I was blown away by how narrow, deep and long it was. I was expecting a gorge alright, but this one went above and beyond what other gorges look like!

Corrieshalloch Gorge is up to 60 m deep and 1.5 km (1 mile) long. The River Droma rushes through the rock over a series of waterfalls, cutting it deeper and deeper over millions of years. The woodland trails make for a lovely walk to break up the drive and you get a lovely view of the waterfalls and bridge from the viewpoint further down the gorge. 

Learn more here.

North Coast 500: A tiny human standing above Corrieshalloch Gorge
Photo by Yvette Morrissey / Wayfaring Kiwi

Quirky Shops in Ullapool

Ullapool is a small seaside town in a stunning setting. Because of its size, the ferry connection to Lewis and its halfway point along the NC500 it is easy to think of it as nothing more than a practical place to refuel and go for a shop. This, however, would not be fair on Ullapool!

The town has some amazing food options, especially if you like fresh seafood, and a thriving pub and live music scene. I loved our lunch at West Coast Delicatessen (vegan options available) and exploring all the quirky shops. 

I loved the selection at Ullapool Bookstore, including the children’s book The Guillemot Who Wouldn’t Jump which is written and illustrated by a local artist Jenny Rant. The White Rabbit on Argyle Street is a treasure trove for antiques and map lovers and has a selection of vintage fashion as well. I also enjoyed our visit to the local VisitScotland iCentre – the staff there was super helpful and knew everything about everything in the area! They are a great resource if you are looking for more recommendations or tour options.

 

Stac Pollaidh Hike

The mountains north of Ullapool offer some challenging days out for experienced climbers, but there are also a few that are easy to incorporate into your North Coast 500 road trip. Stac Pollaidh (also called Stac Polly) is one of them. 

The hike is just under 5 km (3 miles) and takes just 2 to 4 hours. From the top, at 612 m you will be able to enjoy great views of the surrounding higher mountains, the coastline and the Summer Isles offshore. The true summit requires a fair bit of technical scrambling, but even without that this mountain makes for a great half-day hike on your way north from Ullapool. Get a detailed trail description here.

Unfortunately, Stac Polly has to wait for me until next time because we did the next activity instead!

Kayaking to Summer Isles

Yvette and I were both super keen on sea kayaking on the North Coast 500. There are many companies that take people kayaking all over the NC500, for example in Plockton, Gairloch or Ullapool, but booking an excursion is not always straight-forward. You have to email, check for availability and then there is the thing with the weather – no one enjoys sea kayaking when it’s rainy or windy, so your trip might have to be cancelled. 

We picked up several flyers and recommendations at the VisitScotland iCentre in Ullapool, called around and ended up booking a spontaneous half-day sea kayaking trip with Will from Kayak Summer Isles. Will was 2015’s Scottish Adventurer of the Year for sea kayaking around the entire coast of Scotland and climbing all the Munros in winter, and has set up this company to share his love for the coastal waters of Ullapool. 

Will took us out to the Isle Martin, the furthest outlier of the Summer Isles and the one with the most impressive sea cliffs (40m tall and another 40 m under the surface). Along the way, he pointed out local wildlife, shows us sea urchins and sea stars, deep-sea anemones which we could see thanks to the low tide and several seabirds like fulmars, shags and guillemots. We even spotted an otter pup munching on a sea urchin among the sea kelp! Will also shared some of his adventure stories from Scotland and abroad and as a professional photographer offered to take some stunning photos of us in our kayaks.

I’d say as far as kayaking trips in Scotland go, this was my favourite yet!

Kayaking near Ullapool with Kayak Summer Isles
Photo by Kayak Summer Isles

Ardvreck Castle

Ardvreck Castle might just be the most popular castle in the west of the North Coast 500. The castle dates back to the 16th century and stands in a prime location overlooking the wide-spanning Loch Assynt. After the Clan MacKenzie took control over these lands from the Clan MacLeod in the 18th century, they built a more modern house nearby, Calda House. The house was destroyed in a fire in 1737 and both buildings lie in ruins today.

You can climb the ruins, however, be respectful and mindful of the strong winds that rush through this area.

North Coast 500: Ardvreck Castle

Achmelvich Beach 

There really is no shortage of beautiful beaches on the North Coast 500. West, north, east coast – all three have beautiful beaches with clear water and the finest sand. One of my personal favourites was Achmelvich Beach. 

Achmelvich is slightly off the main route of the NC500 and requires you to drive down a small single-track road for a couple of miles. It is definitely worth the effort though once you reach the end of the road! The beach has some of the whitest sand I have seen in Scotland and is well-sheltered from the wind. You might even be brave enough to put on your swim suit!

A footpath leads over the rocky outcrops over to the next bay which is even more secluded and a perfect sunset spot! 

To get the most out of your visit to Achmelvich Beach, I recommend staying at the Achmelvich Beach Youth Hostel, which is right next to the beach.

A woman walking on a beach in Scotland North Coast 500
Photo by Yvette Morrissey / Wayfaring Kiwi

Handa Island 

Speaking of paradise beaches – Handa Island should definitely be on any beach lover’s NC500 bucket list! 

Handa is a small uninhabited island near Scourie that is managed by the Scottish Wildlife Trust. A small passenger ferry takes visitors from Tarbet to the island (approx. 10 minutes, £15 per person) where they are greeted by a welcome committee of volunteer guides. While the beaches are truly stunning, the main reasons people flock to the island during the summer is its wildlife. Skuas nest on the rocky slopes of the island and thousands of sea birds form colonies along the cliffs. 50-60,000 guillemots visit the island every year!

There is a 6 km (4 miles) trail around the island which takes about 3 hours to complete. The volunteer guides will give you a little map, but the path is very easy to follow. You might also meet some of the resident scientists who spend all summer on the island to research different species of plants and birds. I would set aside at least 4 hours to visit the island – the more the better.

You can find out more about Handa Island here.

North Coast 500: Beach on Handa Island

Sandwood Bay Hike

Since we only had one day in the area, we had to make a choice between Handa Island and Sandwood Bay and ended up visiting the island since it was new to both of us. 

According to Yvette though, Sandwood Bay is one of the most magical places in the northwest of Scotland. I highly recommend adding an additional day here before heading to Durness and doing the hike to the beach!

The clear track leads from Blairmore car park near Kinlochbervie all the way to Sandwood Bay. The hike takes about 4-5 hours round-trip, but add a few hours to enjoy the beach in its full glory! It is most famous for Am Buachaille, a giant sea stack!

Find a detailed route description here.

Smoo Cave

Smoo Cave near Durness is a very special place and a must visit on the North Coast 500. It is a combined sea cave and freshwater cave which means it has been formed from two sides at the same time. It has one of the largest sea cave entrances in the UK – over 50 ft high! 

There is a car park at the bottom and you have to walk down quite a few steps to reach the cave, but it is worth the effort. If you visit during the day, you can even head inside the cave on a guided walk or a boat tour and explore the rear chambers of the cave. After hours you can only go as far as the first chamber, but that is still really impressive.

North Coast 500: A woman walking down the stairs to Smoo Cave

Durness Zipline

I first read about the Golden Eagle Zipline in a blog post about family-friendly activities on the North Coast 500 (and subsequently asked the author to write a guest post about visiting Scotland with kids)!

I love zip lining and the idea of flying high above one of Scotland’s beautiful beaches while looking out over the sea was just too much to handle for me. We had to do it!

Unfortunately, we ran out of time and had to head on to our next accommodation, but this zipline will not get away that easy – I will be back!

 

Detour to Dunnet Head Lighthouse

Fancy visiting the northernmost point of mainland Britain? Then do the detour to visit Dunnet Head Lighthouse! 

The lighthouse is only 66 feet tall but sits on cliffs that rise 300 feet above sea level. Next to the lighthouse, you can walk along the cliffs and spot sea birds nesting at these soaring heights.

North Coast 500: Dunnet Head Lighthouse

John O Groats

John O Groats gained fame as the northernmost point of mainland Britain (today we know it’s at Dunnet Head Lighthouse) and is thus the natural endpoint of so-called end-to-end walks and cycles. End-to-enders are walkers or cyclists who make their way across 1,407 km (874 miles) from Land’s End in Cornwall to John O Groats in Scotland. The most common off-road walking route is even longer – 1,900 km (1,200 miles). 

At John O Groats you can visit the famous signpost point out Land’s End, New York, Edinburgh, Orkney and Shetland. There are a few shops and restaurants – I recommend Stacks Bistro for vegan options – and several boat tours leaving from the little harbour.

North Coast 500: Sign post at John O Groats

Duncansby Sea Stacks

From John O Groats make your way to the lighthouse at Duncansby Head – it’s just a 5-minute drive. A coastal path leads along the mind-boggling cliffs here until you are face to face with the two Duncansby Sea Stacks. The winds here can be treacherous so if you decide to go through the gate at the end of the path and on to the unprotected side of the cliffs, take a lot of care and watch the edge.

The site is recognised as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and the cliffs of the headland offer plenty of nesting space to thousands of sea birds. If you are lucky, you can even spot puffins here!

North Coast 500: Puffin at Duncansby Head

Helmsdale

Helmsdale was one of the biggest surprises along the North Coast 500. The town was only on my radar because we spent a night at Helmsdale Youth Hostel to break up the drive back. 

Some people we met on the road had suggested that the east of the North Coast 500 was not quite as scenic and exciting as the west. So I prepared myself for a quick and uneventful drive back to Inverness. How wrong I was!

Indeed, the east coast is not as mountainous as the west and since you drive on a much larger road (the A9) it looks like there is not much to do. When in fact, you just need to make a little extra effort to seek out the beautiful spots along the east coast!

Helmsdale is one of them, a lovely small seaside town which is surrounded by gorse-covered hills and isolated beaches. It would be a great home base to spend a few days in the area and discover places like Lybster, Latheronwheel, Dunbeath Castle, Berriedale Braes and Ousdale Broch.

 

Dunrobin Castle 

What Ardvreck Castle is for the west, Dunrobin Castle is for the east of the North Coast 500. Even if the two could not be more different!

The castle looks like straight out of a fairytale. With its 189 rooms, it is one of Scotland’s largest castles and is surrounded by a well-landscaped garden. The entrance ticket costs £12 (£7.50 for children) and includes the castle and the gardens. If you are on a budget – or simply don’t have the time to tour that many rooms, you can walk down a road on the right side of the castle and take photos of it from the seaside.

Open 10 am to 5 pm (summer), website

North Coast 500: Dunrobin Castle

Big Burn Falls Walk

This hidden wee gem is a quick and easy walk just outside Golspie near Dunrobin Castle. Park at the little car park next to a stone mason’s and follow the waymarked trail for Big Burn Falls. 

The path leads through lush green vegetation to a series of waterfalls! 

North Coast 500: A woman at a waterfall near Golspie

The Black Isle

The Black Isle peninsula really is worth a trip of its own. There is a lot to do – from the RSPB bird sanctuaries at Udale Bay or Fairy Glen, to the delights of a tour at Black Isle Brewery. The Moray Firth to the east of the peninsula is home to a thriving bottlenose dolphin population – to see them get aboard a dolphin cruise from Cromarty Bay or peel your eyes at Chanonry Bay. We were not lucky enough to spot any dolphins as it was raining, but we did see some seals bobbing in the water.

The Black Isle is a lovely final stop before returning to Inverness.

Lighthouse at Chanonry Bay.

Before you decide on a North Coast 500 itinerary and how many days you spend on this road trip, go through this list of things to do. Write down which ones are must-have experiences for you and work backwards from that list. To make it even easier, I put together a free downloadable NC500 Bucket List which you can download for free!

Download your FREE NC500 Bucket List!

 

PS: This was our itinerary

Day 1: Inverness to Torridon via Applecross, 115 miles
Overnight at Torridon Youth Hostel

Day 2: Torridon to Gairloch incl. Beinn Eighe hike, 35 miles
Overnight at Gairloch Sands Youth Hostel

Day 3: Gairloch to Ullapool, 58 miles
Overnight at Ullapool Youth Hostel

Day 4: Ullapool to Achmelvich Beach incl. sea kayaking, 39 miles
Overnight at Achmelvich Beach Youth Hostel

Day 5: Achmelvich Beach to Tongue incl. Handa Island, 87 miles
Overnight at Tongue Youth Hostel

Day 6: Tongue to Helmsdale via John O Groats, 112 miles
Overnight at Helmsdale Youth Hostel

Day 7: Helmsdale to Inverness via Black Isle, 86 miles
Overnight at Inverness Youth Hostel

Are you ready for your own North Coast 500 adventure?

 

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7 comments on “25 Unmissable Things to do on the North Coast 500

  1. I’m lucky enough to live on NC500. Our days out consist of visiting two or three of the places you mentioned. I congratulate for getting so much out of your journey and also taking your lovely little detours. Sadly many people see how fast they can get round, this is not what the NC 500 is about as you discovered. It’s an exploration not a race.

    • I completely agree! We only had a week and it felt rushed – there are so many places I missed and I wanna go back to all the places we saw – how is that even possible 🙂 You’re lucky to live up that way! Thanks for reading and taking the time to leave a comment!

  2. Yaaaayyy I’m so glad you gave Helmsdale a shout out!! I love it there, such a cute little town and I never see anyone mention it. There used to be a diner in the house next to the bridge, which was fantastic. I was really sad when it shut down because that was a perfect stop off on the way down (or up!). Dunrobin Castle is one of my favourite castles in Scotland, and Golspie itself is a really nice town. I’ve STILL never done the west coast, so that’s on the list for this year. There are so many places along there that I need to see!

  3. Loved following along on your trip and this is a great detailed post that should help all planning the NC500. I will be doing many of the things you have listed in June but will unfortunately have to skip others. I guess it is a chance to return for more on another opportunity!

    • Absolutely! Like I said in the post, we had to make choices too because you can only fit so much into a week. But I can’t wait to go back and zoom in on different regions!! Have a great trip 🙂

  4. Mary Jane Reyes

    I am planning a trip to Scotland in May 2020. The North Coast 500 is something I would be very interested in doing. All the photos were breath taking. I would like to know if this particular trip is wheelchair accessible or could modification be made .

    • Hi Mary Jane, many thanks for your comment and question. I can’t speak from experience, but can offer a bit of insight: I would imagine that depending on the vehicle you have, some roads, such as the one to Diabaig might be too small to drive [not sure how big your vehicle is though]. In terms of activities and walks, a lot of the walks we did, such as the Mountain Trail at Beinn Eighe, Handa Island or the coastal walk to the Duncansby Stacks were not paved or wheelchair accessible. Disability Information Scotland is a good resource for access in Scotland, http://www.disabilityscot.org.uk/accessible-outdoors-scotland/, and there is a great travel blogger focussing on accessible travel called Emma, https://www.simplyemma.co.uk/. I hope these resources are of greater help than me and that you can travel the NC500! All the best, Kathi

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