In the next of our series of road trips around Scotland, we drive the most epic of them all: North Coast 500 Route. Also known as the NC500, this biggie ranks as one of the world’s best road trips.
Coming in at 516 miles (825km), it’s the longest of all the Scottish road trips and the one that requires the most planning and time. But those extra preparations will be more than worth your while as you discover possibly the most spectacular scenery you’ll see anywhere. As it makes its way from Inverness up the east coast and then down the west to Inverness again, the NC500 will be a road trip for you all to remember.
Why drive the North Coast 500 Route
Considered on a par with Route 66 and the Great Ocean Road, the NC500 is for you if you’re looking for the ultimate road trip. The North Coast 500 Route ranks up there with the very best, offering challenging driving and breathtaking scenery from start to finish.
It also gives you the chance to discover miles and miles of unspoilt landscapes – the North Highlands rank among the remotest parts of Europe – along with more miles and miles of deserted beaches. But the NC500 also takes in unique flora and fauna, a good dose of Scottish history, foodie feasts and enough adventure sports for even the biggest adrenalin addicts.
How long to allow for the North Coast 500 Route
The sheer distance of the NC500 means you’ll be hard pushed to cover the road trip in less than five days. Bear in mind too that the route consists of country roads and many of these are single track. And then there are all the side trips – the North Coast 500 Route has literally hundreds of sights and activities that lie off the official route and will probably take your fancy.
Bottom line? Allow at least seven days, ten if you can. But don’t worry if you don’t have enough time – those who know the NC500 say that once you’ve taken this Scottish road trip you’ll be back for more!
When to drive the North Coast 500 Route
There’s no right or wrong time of year to take the NC500. Each season offers its own delights, weather and attractions.
Spring: this season brings longer days and warmer temperatures, and it’s good for dolphin and whale watching.
Summer: you’ll enjoy the longest days (there’s no complete darkness at the height of summer), seabirds at their busiest and Highland Games in many of the towns and villages en route.
Autumn: make the most of the most colourful time of year when the trees shed their leaves. It’s also one of the loudest in the glens when stags bellow and rut.
Winter: even in the coldest season with the shortest days, you’ll see the sights of crisp snow on the mountains and Northern Lights twinkling in the skies.
Highlights on the North Coast 500 Route
516 miles allow for dozens of attractions, many very well-known while others are yours to be discovered. Along its six regions – Wester Ross, Sutherland, Caithness, Easter Ross, Black Isle and Inverness-shire – the NC500 packs in wonderful things to see and do. They include:
Think icing-sugar sand and turquoise waters. Not quite as warm as the Caribbean or Mediterranean but despite the lower temperatures, you’ll have the beaches you discover on the NC500 practically to yourself. Some of these stunning sands are on right on route while others require a little detour. Don’t miss Sandwood Bay, a four-mile walk from Blairmore that rewards you with an exceptionally beautiful beach and the eerie sight of Am Buachaille sea stack.
The North Coast 500 Route takes in no less than 37 Munros. A good place to start bagging the 277 mountains in Scotland over 3,000ft high. The route also boasts a long list of lower mountains too as well as rolling hills. And it isn’t just about the height – expect to discover lonely lochs, hidden glens and plenty of firths and straits known as kyles. The NC500 is, after all, about scenery with a capital S.
This Scottish road trip takes you to some of the oldest landscapes in Europe. The rocks in the Northwest Highland Geopark date back 3,000 million years. Explore the unique sea stacks, cliffs and mountains, all made up of seriously ancient geology.
As far as human history goes, this part of Scotland also has a good sprinkling of historical sights. They include the burial sites of Celtic saints, stunning castles and amazing brochs, stone towers built during the Iron Age. The North Coast 500 Route takes in several examples of this unique Scottish landmark.
Like the rest of the Scottish road trips, NC500 provides you with the chance to see some of the country’s most emblematic wildlife. Discover deer in the glens, see golden eagles up high, watch seals and sea otters basking on the beaches and marvel at dolphins and whales surfing the waves. Not to mention red squirrels, puffins and osprey…
This part of Scotland is something of a gourmet larder with some of Europe’s freshest natural produce on its doorstep. Waiting for your dinner plates are possibly the world’s finest seafood, most delicious salmon (fresh or smoked), tenderest game and most succulent red fruit. And to wash it all down, craft beers, sparkling water and of course, a wee dram or two. The North Coast 500 Route is home to numerous whisky distilleries, handily placed en route.
This might be a road trip, but the NC500 is best enjoyed outside your car. The 516 miles offer plenty of outdoor activities ranging from sedate to exhilarating and for all ages. On the water, try your hand at canoeing, snorkelling or white-water rafting. On land, take to the mountains or hills for a stroll, hike or serious climb. Or relax at one of the retreats – yoga, art, writing, meditation…
Where to stay on the North Coast 500 Route
Seeing as this road trip is so much longer than all the others, it makes sense to include two accommodation options. Both give you the chance to explore the surrounding area – the 516 miles of the NC500 merit as many days as you can give them. But if neither quite takes your fancy, we’ve got plenty more for great group holiday homes in Scotland. Take a look.
Georgian glamour with modern comfort
The NC500 takes in a few castles so you might want to see what it’s like to live like kings on your journey. This mansion has castle roots that go back to the 16th century when it was one of the fortresses belonging to Clan Gordon. Nowadays, it offers regal accommodation in stunning Georgian living rooms with a modern kitchen and eight bedrooms with, as you’d expect, superking-size beds. The Royal Burgh of Dornoch lies on the doorstep and the stunning Embo Beach is just a short walk down the drive. Book your stay here.
Lodge with the sea on your doorstep
The NC500 is mostly about the coast so it’s fitting that this modern lodge has a seaside position. It’s so close to the sea in fact that the waves lap at the end of your garden, all two acres of it. Sitting at the top of Scotland on Cape Wrath with the Kyle of Durness on its doorstep, the lodge offers spacious and uber-comfy accommodation for 12. You’ll all be blown away by the sea and mountain views – don’t miss the seals and sea otters on your beach – and enjoy the luxury extras that include a cinema room and full-size snooker table. Book your stay here.
Not convinced you should take a Scottish road trip? Read more in this series:
- Fife Coastal Route
- Angus Coastal Route
- Argyll Coastal Route
- Borders Historic Route
- Clyde Valley Historic Route
- Deeside Tourist Route
- Forth Valley Tourist Route
- Galloway Tourist Route
- Moray Firth Tourist Route
- North & West Highlands Route
- Perthshire Tourist Route
- 10 reasons to take a Scottish road trip
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