The North Coast 500: A Complete Guide

Find out all you need to know including what you'll see and how to get around the North Coast 500, North Scotland. 

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In light of Covid-19, the advice to everyone is to stay home and don't travel the North Coast 500 route at this time. But continue reading for a virtual tour of the North Coast 500 to discover what you'll see.  

What is the North Coast 500

The North Coast 500 is a 516-mile (830-kilometre) road trip around the northern coast of the Scottish Highlands. 

People do the North Coast 500 wanting to experience some of the most dynamic and exhilarating coastline which Scotland has to offer. Parts of the route continue to feel remote and hardly ventured - though counterbalanced by the increasing popularity of the route since it was first conceived in 2015. 

Here we take you on a virtual drive of the North Coast 500 in early March 2020, before the UK lockdown began, taking a clockwise tour of the route.  

So without further ado, we begin our drive. 

Inverness to Applecross

Section 1: Inverness to Applecross

In the first section, we travel from Inverness, the principal city of the Scottish Highlands and home to Inverness Castle, a rebuilt fortification where previous castles have existed for nearly a thousand years. 

Following the Beauly Firth westwards, you reach the town of Beauly and move out through the countryside around the Muir of Ord (00:00) and Marybank (02:08) before joining the A835 to Contin (03:06), Tarvie, Garve (05:34), Lochluichart (07:11) Achanalt (08:58) and Achnasheen (10:41). The road meanders with hills and lochs coming into and passing out of view. 

After Achnasheen, the road takes a south westerly direction down to Balnacra (15:58), Coulags and Lochcarron (18:47), where the landscape becomes greener and opens out into this pretty lakeside village. It then begins a gentle ascent, followed by a rocky decline to Kishorn (21:57) and then Tornapress (22:43) where the daunting road to Applecross begins. 

The road is a mix of single carriageway - and single track road from Achnasheen to Tornapress. It is variable quality and quite heavily potted in sections, therefore requires concentration. 

This section from Inverness to Tornapress (just before Bealach Na Ba) is just under 70 miles and can be completed in around two hours. 

Bealach Na Ba

Bealach Na Ba

Bealach Na Ba (or the road from Tornapress to Applecross) is possibly the most challenging part of the entire North Coast 500. It is certainly reason to consider doing the NC500 anticlockwise from Inverness; this way, you build up practice with the Scottish roads more gradually. 

The Bealach Na Ba is among the steepest roads in Scotland. It is a single track road with sheer drops and some tight corners. 

Even if the weather looks quite moderate at the foot of the road, it can have heavy wintry conditions at the summit, as you see in this video. For this reason, the Bealach Na Ba can be closed in adverse weather. However there is an alternative route to Applecross via Shieldaig. 

After you’ve begun the rocky climb up the single track road at Bealach Na Ba, the road winds up to the top of the mountains and you have increasingly dramatic panoramic views of the waters below. 

The road rapidly gains height and the conditions can become more wintry. The road concludes with a steep snaking S-bend as you pass over the top.  

The road opens out into ochre hillside and undulates towards the village of Applecross (09:04). The waters around the Applecross Peninsula start to come into view, as you commence this beautiful section of the route. 

The Bealach Na Ba road from Tornapress to Applecross is just over 11 miles and takes around 35 minutes. In order to do this section safely, you need to be confident that you can reverse comfortably on single track road. Read more on road safety here 

Applecross to Ullapool

Section 2: Applecross to Ullapool

Once past the Bealach Na Ba, the route continues around the Applecross Peninsula which offers stunning scenic drives with sea views out towards the islands of Raasay and Rona, near the Isle of Skye. 

Following the coast overlooking the blue waters of Applecross Bay, the road meanders over the rocky landscape, interspersed with smaller pools of water and the hills become more undulating towards Shieldaig (15:21).  

At Shieldaig (00:00), the road continues by the snowcapped peaks of Torridon near Annat (02:59) and proceeds north to Kinlochewe (08:59).  

From here, you go north west to Gairloch (15:19) and Poolewe (17:57) before heading to Aultbea (20:38), Laide (21:29), Badbea (25:42), Dundonnell (27:06) and eventually joining the A835 where you make the gradual descent along Loch Broom to Ardcharnich (34:09) and Ullapool (35:26). In Ullapool, you are greeted by a row of white buildings, overlooking the harbour water and see the neighbouring peaks in the distance. 

The road from Applecross village to Shieldaig around the coast is just over 25 miles and just over an hour.  

Sheidaig to Ullapool is just under 92 miles and around 2.5 hours driving. Once you are past Torridon, the road is predominantly single carriageway and feels quite straightforward by comparison with the challenges of the first section, between Inverness and Shieldaig. 

Ullapool to Durness

Section 3: Ullapool to Durness

From Ullapool (00:00), you head north on the A835 through Ardmair (01:19) to Elphin (05:04) and Ledmore (06:28). Once out of Ullapool, the road undulates through mountain and waterside scenery. 

You join the A837 towards Inchnadamph (08:22) and the road follows Loch Assynt before finally descending into Lochinver (12:36), a coastal village situated at the mouth of the River Inver. 

Turning before Lochinver (00:00), you enjoy the beautiful Assynt Coastal Route (00:21) a drive of just under an hour along the A837 and B869. 

The single track road meanders tightly over undulating hills through rocky scenery and plant life. It offers expansive sea views around Clachtoll (03:14), dotted with white houses over green pastures, grazed by sheep, then passing through Clashnessie (05:17) and Drumbeg (08:48). The road gradually opens out and ascends, offering progressively more impressive views across lakes and hills, before returning to the more moderate A894 (16:14).   

From here, you head towards Unapool (00:00) where you see beautiful wide lochs approaching Kylesku Bridge (00:40) with Loch A Chairn Bhain on the left and Loch Gleann Dubh on the right.  

The road ascends and descends undulating around rocky terrain and becomes slightly greener, entering the village of Scourie (04:01). Continuing to Laxford Bridge (06:49), the landscape opens out. You pass the white houses by Rhiconich River (08:13) and the land gradually turns to a more earthy, brown terrain. 

Some impressive peaks start to emerge on the right; you pass along the Kyle of Durness with sheep grazing along the roadside, before you enter the village of Durness (14:19). 

This whole section from Ullapool to Durness including the scenic Assynt Coastal Route takes just under 3 hours (just over 94 miles). 

The coastline from Lochinver to Unapool is around 24 miles and takes just over an hour. 

Apart from the scenic coastal drive at Assynt which is entirely single track, the remainder is a mix of single carriageway and single track road. 

Durness to John O'Groats

Section 4: Durness to John O’Groats

From Durness (00:00), you take the A838 around Loch Eriboll and towards the Kyle of Tongue. Much of this stretch is single track.  

You pass around the elevated sandy coastline of Durness (00:00), meandering by disparate white houses until you snake along the single track road by Loch Eriboll and into sparser brown landscape.  

The landscape flattens out as you descend to the bridge over the Kyle of Tongue and up to the village of Tongue (12:47), after which the A836 turns south for Altnaharra and Lairg (13:08). 

Continuing east along the A836, you pass by a succession of small beaches near the villages of Bettyhill (05:03), Strathy (09:45) and Melvich before reaching the county border between Sutherland and Caithness (12:29).  

The coastline from Thurso (00:00) offers expansive views towards Dunnet Head, the most northerly peninsula of the British mainland, as well as the nearby Orkney Isles. After driving through the village of Castletown (02:20), you follow the sand dunes around Dunnet Bay on the approach to Dunnet (03:45).  

Onwards to Mey (05:15), you pass the grounds of the Castle of Mey and descend by the harbour at Gills Bay (06:37), which is one of three harbours on the north coast with ferries to Orkney. Eventually you arrive in John O’Groats Harbour, with the old John O’Groats Hotel perched overlooking the water of the Pentland Firth. 

This section from Durness to John O’Groats is around 90 miles and takes around 2 hours 40 minutes. There is a single track road from Durness around Loch Eriboll which then reverts to predominantly single carriageway until John O’Groats. 

John O'Groats to Inverness

Section 5: John O’Groats to Inverness

From John O’Groats (00:00), you proceed from the harbour south along the A99 towards the town of Wick (06:04). The road winds along vast spacious landscape, with increasing glimpses of the open waters, punctuated by old castle ruins. You pass into the town centre at Wick and past Mackays Hotel (06:42), located on the shortest street in the world. 

Leaving Wick (00:00), you enter spacious green landscape as the road weaves along the coast. Wide ocean views come into sight from over the cliffs. Passing the turnings for Whaligoe Steps and Lybster Harbour (03:28), you drive through Latheron (04:36) and eventually the privately owned Dunbeath Castle comes into view, before arriving in Dunbeath itself (05:39).  

Passing over hills and descending into the hairpin bends at Berriedale Braes (07:20), you crossinto the county of Sutherland (10:08). Driving along the cliff top roads, you eventually enter the village of Helmsdale (10:52).  

Proceeding along the A9, beaches shift in and out of view. You reach the villages of Brora (14:50) and then Golspie (16:48), passing Dunrobin Castle just before entering Golspie village. Either Brora or Golspie can make a useful coffee stop. 

The road continues to hug the coastline once out of Golspie village (00:00). Passing over the River Fleet, you meander near Dornoch and eventually cross the Dornoch Firth into the area of Ross & Cromarty (04:23).  

The NC500 route continues through Glen Morangie, following the signs to Dingwall and dropping down to Conon Bridge, Muir of Ord and Beauly before proceeding east to Inverness and the castle. 

In this video, we diverge just after Ardullie and continue on the A9 passing over the Cromarty Bridge and into the Black Isle (11:13). You continue over the Kessock Bridge (14:11) across the waters of the Beauly Firth and into Inverness city centre. 

The journey from John O’Groats to Inverness is around 133 miles going via Dingwall and Beauly; or 120 miles (nearly 3 hours) through the Black Isle and over the Kessock Bridge. 

While the road is a little potted around John O’Groats, it’s basically single carriageway and fairly straightforward except for some steep inclines around Berriedale. 

NC500 or Skye

Is the North Coast 500 worth it – should I do the North Coast 500 or the Isle of Skye?

If you want to see spectacular Scottish countryside, the North Coast 500 is absolutely worth it. The terrain and landscape is various and exhilarating. 

For those unsure whether to do the North Coast 500 or to visit the Isle of Skye, it is possible to incorporate Skye into a North Coast 500 journey. If you break from the North Coast 500 at Strathcarron, drop down to the Kyle of Lochalsh and pass over the Skye bridge. 

Usually a minimum of two or three nights is recommended to see the highlights of Skye. Probably a minimum of four or five nights is advisable for the highlights of the North Coast 500. Although this is fantastic countryside and the more time you can give yourself, the more opportunity you have to explore and enjoy the places you visit. 

The North Coast 500 route necessarily involves more driving than Skye: the North Coast 500 is over 500 miles of coastal driving and is probably more challenging along the steep single track road you encounter - such as the Bealach Na Ba, at Applecross and the Assynt Coastal Route, near Lochinver. Although both of these sections have alternative routes which are less difficult. 

To explore all of the Isle of Skye’s main island, you can easily drive 300 miles. The roads around Skye are predominantly single carriageway and the single track roads are not so steep as some of the harder parts of the North Coast 500.  

Planning Your North Coast 500 Trip  

Is the North Coast 500 signposted? 

You have road signs but not specifically indicating the NC500 route. GPS navigation can be intermittent at points. Therefore a good quality paper road map is essential. 

Should I go clockwise or anticlockwise along the North Coast 500 Route? 

You can do either.  

The advantage of driving the route anticlockwise is that the route gets progressively more scenic, with Applecross, one of our favourite parts, being in the concluding section. 

In addition, the road from Inverness north to John O’Groats is single carriageway and reasonable quality. You don’t encounter any single track road until you are nearly as far as Durness. 

Driving clockwise from Inverness, you reach the spectacular and slightly hair-raising Bealach Na Ba pass in Applecross, potentially on your first day, which is possibly the most challenging section to drive - although some parts of Assynt (such as the Assynt Coastal Route) are also quite difficult. 

Is the route suitable for caravans or campervans? 

The majority of the route is suitable for caravans and campervans, providing that you are able to reverse without difficulty on a single track road into a passing place (sometimes with significant roadside drops).  

Parts of the route which should not be attempted with a campervan or caravan are listed by the North Coast 500, together with further guidance.

If you are unfamiliar with driving a campervan/caravan and with driving on Scottish roads, we would recommend you take a car on your first attempt of the North Coast 500. 

NC500 Highlights

Planning Your Itinerary 

North Coast 500 Recommendations for... 

Scenic Drives 

The route is hugely varied but for the most spectacular, challenging and scenic drives, we particularly enjoyed the Bealach Na Ba, Applecross Peninsula and the Assynt Coastal Route. 

Castles  

Dunrobin Castle in Golspie is a fairy tale, French-inspired castle and the largest in the northern Highlands. 

The Castle of Mey near Thurso is an intimate stately home formerly belonging to the Queen Mother and offers a touching insight into the Royal Family’s connections with Caithness. Castle of Mey 

Walking 

Torridon and Assynt offer beautiful walking and hiking opportunities with famous peaks including the Beinn Eighe and Liathach in Torridon; Stac Pollaidh, Cul Beag, Ben More Coigach and Conival near Ullapool; and Suilven, Ben Loyal, Ben Hope and Quinag in Sutherland. See Walkhighlands to research walks. 

Beaches 

There is a concentration of beaches in Durness and Assynt including Sandwood Bay, Oldmoreshore, Sango Sands and Balnakeil Bay near Durness as well as along the Assynt Coastal Route although beaches are peppered throughout the coastline of Caithness and Sutherland. 

History 

Key historical events affecting the Northern Highlands include the Jacobite Rising (Culloden Visitor Centre, Inverness Museum); the Highland Clearances (Inverness Museum, Strathnaver Museum, Dunrobin Castle); as well as the rise and demise of the nineteenth century herring fishing industry (Whaligoe Steps, Wick Heritage Museum). 

Archaelogy 

Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments include Clava Cairns (Inverness) and Camster Cairns (Caithness); brochs, cairns and other ruins are peppered around the north east coast. 

Traditional Live Music 

Good live music and pub scenes are found in Inverness (Hootananny, The Gellions, Johnny Foxes) and Ullapool. 

Food 

The west coast of Scotland has a particular reputation for its fresh seafood in areas including Kishorn, Torridon, Ullapool and Lochinver. Prime quality fresh fish is also found in Scrabster (Captain Galleys, Scrabster Seafood Bar) near Thurso (Caithness Smokehouse) and in Wick (Mackays Hotel, Bord De L’Eau). 

For chocolate lovers, Cocoa Mountain is an independent Highland chocolatier operating in Durness and Dornoch.  

North Coast 500 Books

North Coast 500 Books 

If you’re thinking to do the North Coast 500 in future, there are some good books which we recommend to plan your itinerary and explore what to see. 

The North Coast 500 Guide Book by Charles Tait 

A comprehensive reference book, this is our favourite guide with over 250 pages of heavily illustrated text and lots of nuggets of useful information.  

The book covers potential detours to areas surrounding the NC500 route including Loch Ness, the Orkney Isles, the Isle of Skye and Harris & Lewis, as well as a comprehensive index of itineraries for each section of the NC500 route and plenty of annotated maps. 

The Rough Guide To The North Coast 500 

A bite sized introduction to the NC500 route, this is less than 100 pages picking out the highlights of each area and what not to miss. 

North Coast Journey by Bridget Benson 

An affectionate narrative account of the North Coast 500 with lots of hints and tips for hidden beauty spots and favourite stop-offs en-route, including maps and evocative illustrations.   

Further Resources

Explore more of the Northern Highlands