Next up in our Scottish road trips series, we explore the north-west coast, home to some of the wildest landscapes in Great Britain. The North and West Highlands Route meanders around the coastline from Ullapool to John o’Groats along 158 miles (254km).
Far-reaching sea and loch views are a given along much of the route – as are sightings of hundreds of sea birds. If you’re a fan of nature as wild as it comes, add this one to your must-do road trips list.
Discover why you should take a Scottish road trip.
Why drive the North and West Highlands Route
This road trip takes in the best of wild Scotland. Think vast open landscapes and lots (and lots) of water, both sea and lochs, along with lofty mountains. Some of the oldest rocks in Europe also feature heavily (literally!) along this route, the North and West Highlands Route is also home to steep cliffs, emblematic lighthouses and Scottish heritage.
The actual driving comes scenic all the way and along some of the quietest roads anywhere in Europe. Time this Scottish road trip for outside July and August and you may be the only ones on the road. That said, the route lies dotted with quaint villages and some great things to do. Kids will love the animal and bird spotting, plus there’s plenty of room to run around. Everyone in your party will enjoy the sandy beaches and some of the freshest air in the country.
Did you know? The North and West Highlands Route forms part of the North Coast 500 Route, the most epic of Scottish road trips.
- Book your base for exploring the North and West Highlands Route
Highlights on the North and West Highlands Route
This is one of the longer Scottish road trips and its 158 miles include plenty en route. Along with stunning vistas everywhere you look, keep an eye open for the following highlights:
A great start
The North and West Highlands Route begins in the pretty village of Ullapool, home to some historic houses that date back several centuries and some glorious beaches. You’ll also want to see the famous Corrieshalloch Falls, set in an ancient gorge with tumbling water at the end. And don’t miss the walk to Rhue Lighthouse with its commanding position at the head of Loch Broom. Make this your introduction to the stunning sea views that will accompany you almost all the way.
500 million years of rock
The route then heads due north and passes through the North West Highlands Geopark, home to some of the oldest rock formations in Europe. Stop off at the Knockan Crag National Nature Reserve, famous for being the site where scientists solved the geological mystery of plate tectonics. See the science in the Rock Room and then step outside for the dramatic geology itself and yet more stunning landscapes.
After Knockan Crag, the North and West Highlands Route curls west and hugs the coast. This is wild country with just a smattering of villages, sandy bays and remote islands on the horizon. You can explore Handa Island (boat trips run from April to September), a unique spot home to no less than 100,000 seabirds including puffins, razorbills, Arctic terns and great skuas, who nest in the lofty sandstone cliffs. Offshore you may spot dolphins, basking shark and minke whale. Don’t miss the ruins of the only village, last inhabited in 1847.
Caves and crafts
The drive now leaves the west coast behind and hits the northern shoreline. The village of Durness includes two must-sees: Smoo Cave, complete with a 50-feet high entrance, sinkhole and underground waterfalls, is the stuff of legend; and Balnakiel Craft Village established in the 60s and a thriving community of artists and artisans. Make this the place where you buy souvenirs from your Scottish road trip.
Crofts and clans
Your drive continues along the northern coast, zigzagging along inlets and around lochs, all stunningly scenic. Across the causeway bridge is Strathnaver Museum where you can discover the history of croft life and learn about the infamous Highland Clearances when hundreds of locals were forcibly evicted in the early 1800s. Don’t miss the beautiful Pictish Farr Stone whose elaborate carvings date back to 800AD. The MacKay Clan, one of the largest in this part of Scotland, also features at the museum.
As north as it gets
Slightly further along the coast at Thurso lies the most northern point in Great Britain. The walk to Dunnet Head, home to a RSPB Nature Reserve, rewards you with views of dramatic cliffs and the island of Orkney on the horizon.
All Scottish road trips should include a castle and this one is no exception. The Castle and Gardens of Mey with its typically Scottish turrets enjoys a privileged spot overlooking Pentland Firth. Built in 1572, it was restored to its former majestic glory by Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in 1952. She used it as a holiday home until 1996 and you can visit her rooms that often surprise with their “comfort and ordinariness”. The children in your party will enjoy the animal centre, home to a good collection of farm animals and a petting zoo.
Dunnet Head might be as far north as you go, but John o’Groats takes the prize for the most north-westerly point. In this remote spot, you can walk to Duncansby Head with its iconic twin sea stacks and towering cliffs. Orkney and the rest of the 69 islands in the archipelago sit on the horizon and lie just 40 minutes away by ferry.
Where to stay on the North and West Highlands Route
This Scottish road trip gives you a real taste for the outdoors and for remote locations so for your accommodation, why not stay in a traditional Highland lodge?
This one lies set in picturesque woods, just a short distance from Loch Shin. The 13,000 acres of land and gardens are yours to explore and this is a great holiday let for large groups of keen walkers and mountain bikers. Inside, the lodge provides spacious accommodation for up to 13 and has all those Highland touches – think tartan, tweed, roaring fires and absolute comfort.
Considering exploring the North and West Highlands Route? Let us help you find the ultimate large group accommodation from which to base your adventure. Start your search
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 Coast 500 Route
- Perthshire Tourist Route
- Highlands Tourist Route
- 10 reasons to take a Scottish road trip
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