The North Coast 500, (NC500) or Scottish 500 Tour, is a 516 mile circular road trip around the coastal edges of the northern Highlands of Scotland. “Road trip?”, we hear you say. Yes, but chill your walking boots, at BCH Camping we would never suggest taking in the entirety of the glorious Scottish landscape from inside a vehicle. Along the route of the NC500 there are many places to stop, layer up and stretch your legs, and we’ll point your compass in the right direction. More on that later.
What is the North Coast 500?
As a road trip, the NC500 is something else! It boasts rugged landscapes, sandy beaches, a wealth of wildlife, museums and heritage sites, castles, whisky distilleries, rivers, forests, lochs, and Munros
(Scottish mountains with a height of over 3,000 feet). The route was created in 2014 by the North Highland Initiative to entice visitors to extend their aspirations beyond the usual, popular tourist spots. The NC500 is now a major Scottish tourist attraction with tens of thousands of visitors having driven the route already, and many others putting it on their bucket list.
The North Coast 500 route
Going clockwise, the NC500 stretches from Inverness, along the west coast to Applecross, north to Ullapool, up to Caithness and John o' Groats, south along the east coast through Dingwall and back to Inverness. The route can be done either clockwise or anti-clockwise, it makes very little difference.
The six main areas you will pass through are Inverness-shire, Wester Ross, Sutherland, Caithness, Easter Ross and the Black Isle. Mid May to September is midge season and also when the route is most busy, so if this concerns you, plan accordingly.
How long does it take to complete the North Coast 500?
Depending on how often you plan to stop, the route generally takes anything from 5 days to two weeks, unless you want to be super-speedy and complete it in 3-4 days, but it would be a shame to rush along such a beautiful route.
Preparation will ensure you get the most from your adventure, so when you’ve decided how long you want to take, research places along the way and create a comprehensive itinerary to plan your route around the ones you want to explore. Although there are petrol stations along the route, keep the fuel tank at least a third full. Book any accommodation in advance and have a food plan that includes an in-car stash. The northern Scottish Highlands is not the territory of the 24/7 retail outlet!
Don’t expect to be able to rely on phone or internet connectivity, as the signal is intermittent throughout the route. Likewise, a map and attention to road signs will prove to be more reliable than a sat nav or Google Maps.
What are the driving conditions like on the North Coast 500?
Let’s just say that the winding single tracks, hairpin bends, blind corners, exposed edges and wandering sheep all add to the fun! At the foot of Bealach na Bà, a single track through the mountains of the Applecross peninsula in Wester Ross, there is a sign that declares it is not suitable for learner drivers, and in truth that could apply to many of the roads along the way.
It’s certainly not for the faint hearted, but don’t let it put you off. You simply need to have your wits about you, be vigilant and adopt the Rain Man mantra that you are an excellent driver! There are plenty of passing places which should be used correctly and not for a game of “passing place chicken”. The route is popular with camper vans, caravans, motorhomes, motorcyclists and bicycles, and as long as everyone is respectful of each other’s right to be there, problems should be at a minimum. That said, fans of 4th
gear and above may be disappointed…
Along the North Coast 500 route
Why is the NC500 so popular? Apart from the thrill of the open road, there is so much to see and do along the NC500.
- Bottlenose dolphins can be seen at Chanonry Point, North Kessock and Fort George, and The Scottish Dolphin Centre can be found at Spey Bay
- Duncansby Head, Dunnet Bay, and Strathy Point are popular spots for whale watching
- There are wildlife boat tours available in the Caithness area
- The RSPB has several reserves around or near the NC500
- The Dunnet Head Nature Reserve is home to many different species of sea birds including puffins and razorbills
- Red deer are particularly prevalent in the fields along the western and southern parts of the route.
- Inverness Castle
- Dunrobin Castle
- Ardvreck Castle
- Castle of Old Wick
- Castle Sinclair
- Castle Girnigoe
- Castle Leod
- Castle of Mey
- Castle Varrich
Distilleries and Breweries
Most whisky distilleries are found along the eastern part of the route between Inverness and Dunnet. These include:
- Glen Ord
- Dalmore Distillery
- Old Pulteney
Non-whisky options include the Black Isle Brewery for beer, and Dunnet Bay Distillery known for its gin and vodkas.
Heritage sites and museums
- Inverness Museum & Art Gallery
- Fort George
- Clava Cairns
- Cawdor Castle
- Culloden Battlefield
- Urquhart Castle
- Beauly Priory
- Groam House Museum
- Tarbat Discovery Centre
- Timespan Heritage & Art Centre
Walks along the North Coast 500
As promised, here some walks to break up the road trip along the NC500. There are plenty others that may be more suitable to your personal taste so, as mentioned above, do your research!
This would be a very early stop-off, but surely it can never be too early for a waterfall! Rogie Falls is at the end of a short walk down through forestry to the Blackwater River. The falls can be observed from a suspension bridge, with the opportunity to see salmon across the far side in an artificial channel. The terrain is forest footpaths with some rocky ground.
Ben Wyvis is the first mountain encountered on the NC500 which dominates the landscape above the Moray Firth. A path leads through the forest up onto the mountain's western side, after which an easy walk on a wide, grassy plateau leads to the summit.
Loch Clair and Loch Coulin
One of the most stunning sections of the whole NC500 is Glen Torridon. It is mountain grandeur at its best. If the ascent of Liathach or Beinn Eighe is too much (known to rank amongst Scotland’s most challenging peaks), there is a circular route that visits Loch Clair and Loch Coulin which offers unforgettable views.
You may recognise Slioch mountain as it features on many a scenic calendar. It towers above Loch Maree but despite its imposing frame, there is a fairly easy route from the south-east side along the shores of the loch.
Beyond Ullapool is where the landscape changes, bringing in steep, commanding mountains. Knochan Crag is described as a Scottish natural beauty that offers a “fascinating geological snapshot of Scotland's remote past”. There is a nature reserve and visitor centre. Well worth a visit.
Cul Mor and Cul Beag
Cul Mor and Cul Beag sit in Coigaich which offers some of the most stunning scenery in Scotland. Although neither of these hills reach Munro height, they have very individual character. A quick hike up nearby Stac Pollaidh, around 4 miles west of the NC500, would be time well spent!
Get in touch
If you do embark on the NC500, we’d love to hear your stories and recommendations so get in touch by email
. Alternatively, if there are any other destinations or hikes you would like us to feature in a blog, just let us know. In the meantime, BCH Camping
can supply a wide range of camping
and outdoor equipment and accessories via our website