Scotland’s answer to US Route 66, the North Coast 500 (NC500) Touring Route promises to reward those who travel it with a sumptuous Scottish experience: from towering mountains and mystical ridges to secret beaches and fairytales. – Story till the palace. Just like the adventure you’ve been craving? Here’s the lowdown so you can start dreaming of your future travels. Ultimate Scotland road trip
What is the North Coast 500 and where does it go?
The North Coast 500 is a 516-mile scenic route that begins and ends at Inverness Castle. It brings together all the best bits of the Northern Highlands through wooded coastal roads, historic towns like Ullapool, and picturesque seaside villages. You can expect to stop at John O’Groats – famous Britain’s (nearly) northernmost tip – or island hopping with a ferry tour of Orkney, one of Scotland’s major archipelagos.
The helpful folks at NC500 have put together themed itineraries to help you make the most of your future trip, one on luxury and the other on history, heritage, and archaeology. You can also explore the NC500 Route Map, while further itineraries are available with an NC500 membership.
What can I see and do along the way?
Whether you’re looking for rare wildlife, adrenaline sports, amazing food, and drink, or just spectacular scenery, you’ll find it all along the North Coast 500.
Take your time traveling through the Black Isle – not an island at all, but a peninsula – and you’ll be able to marvel at the mysterious glow and waterfalls, snack on woodland berries, and sit in the sunny bays spotting dolphins. Some gems to add to your future itinerary include Fairy Glen Falls, a short walk from Rosemarkie Beach, and Chanory Point, a prime spot for dolphin watching.
For another splash of natural beauty, you can look forward to exploring the vast ravine at Korishaloch Gorge National Nature Reserve, a short drive from Ullapool. Formed by Ice Age glacial meltwater millions of years ago, the focal point of the mile-long Box-Canyon are numerous cascading waterfalls. Complete with a Victorian suspension bridge, viewing platforms, and surrounding walkways, stop here for a glimpse of some of Scotland’s most spectacular scenery.
In Wester Ross, you can drive along Bealach na Bà – a shockingly beautiful stretch of the road offering views (on a clear day) up to the Outer Hebrides. Dating back to 1822, the Single Lane Mountain Pass weaves its way through the Applecross Peninsula. When you travel, you should check the weather conditions as the road is often impassable during the winter months. Ultimate Scotland road trip.
Looking for a picturesque Scottish village to add to your bucket list? Shielding boasts sparkling beaches, traditional white cottages, and spectacular mountain views. Another stop in Wester Ross is Plockton, one of the highlights of the Highlands. Nestled in a tranquil bay overlooking Loch Caron, this National Trust for Scotland conservation village is full of heritage as well as secluded beaches, fresh seafood, and traditional music. On a guided expedition, there’s even the option for road trippers to swap out the four wheels for a sea kayak!
Then there’s Caithness on the rough northeast coast. Here you’ll find the Castle of May, a royal holiday home, a lively fishing port, and plenty of food and drink. Get ready to feast on trendy Scottish cuisine using local products at a restaurant like the No. 1 Bistro at Mackay’s Hotel, which has the added quirk of being located on the shortest street in the world! Only a 10-minute drive from this romantic dining spot and hotel is the historic Whaligo Steps, a set of 337 stairs that descend a 250-foot cliff overlooking a picturesque natural harbor. A short walk away you’ll also find the Cairn O’Gate, a Neolithic stone burial chamber that offers a look into the ancient history of Scotland.
If you’re a die-hard adventurer, you can look forward to exploring Smoo Cave, a 50-foot-high sea cave set in dramatic limestone cliffs. In the very north of Scotland, just a mile from the town of Durness, the cave’s rugged contours are flooded, so you don’t have to worry about forgetting your head torch.
If you’re a fan of the hit costume drama Outlander, you won’t want to miss Culloden Battlefield in Inverness. Its visitor center details the final battle on British soil through a wealth of artifacts and a fascinating 360-degree immersive theater experience.
How long does it take to travel the entire route?
You should allow at least five to seven days to explore the NC500 route, although there are several possible stopping points depending on your interests. During the busy season, some parts of the route may take longer to complete.
What time of year should I go?
The weather in Scotland, like the rest of the UK, is variable, but May to September usually brings the warmest temperatures. The peak season of summer is busier than at other times of the year, and you will find that the roads are quieter in April/May and September/October.
Are there places to stay along the route?
There are plenty of venues ready to welcome you with warm Scottish hospitality, from decadent castle hotels to family-run guesthouses. Alternatively, why not get back to nature and go to bed in the great outdoors? Wild camping is allowed in Scotland as long as you don’t leave a trail.
When you’re ready to start planning your Scottish getaway, it’s best to book your accommodation in advance, especially if you’re visiting during the summer. The beauty of the route means you’ll be traveling off-the-beaten-track, sometimes in quiet villages with only a few sought-after B&Bs.
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