The iconic North Coast 500 route, also known as the NC500 encapsulates the very essence of Scotland’s rugged and majestic north coast. From historic castles to dramatic cliffs, mystical lochs, and quaint, charming villages, the NC500 is a journey of discovery, providing a rich tapestry of stunning landscapes, captivating wildlife, and unforgettable cultural experiences. It’s not just a road trip; it’s an adventure!
Nicknamed “Scotland’s Route 66”, the North Coast 500 was launched in 2015 and has become a beacon for travellers worldwide. This 516-mile scenic route starts and ends at Inverness Castle, spiralling around the North Highlands. As we traverse this route together, we’ll delve into the must-see places, tips for travel, culinary delights, stunning wildlife, and the best ways to capture your memories. Remember, it’s not about the destination but the journey.
This guide aims to help you plan and make the most of your NC500 adventure, providing expert insights, tips, and recommendations for a truly unique journey. Whether you’re a seasoned traveller, an occasional vacationer, or a family looking for the perfect getaway, there’s something here for everyone.
So, buckle up and get ready for the adventure of a lifetime! Below is a detailed roadmap of the incredible experiences and sights you can anticipate on this epic Scottish journey, the North Coast 500.
Spotlight on the Start Point – Inverness Castle
As the saying goes, every great journey begins with a single step. And on the North Coast 500, that step is taken at the historic Inverness Castle, the symbolic starting and ending point of the NC500. Nestled in the heart of Inverness, the cultural capital of the Scottish Highlands, this imposing red sandstone castle offers sweeping views of the River Ness and the city’s vibrant landscape.
Inverness Castle is a stronghold of history. Though the castle was built in the 19th century, its roots date back to 1057, and it has witnessed countless battles and sieges. While it serves as a courthouse today, visitors can explore the North Tower, which has been converted into a viewpoint that offers a panoramic vista of Inverness.
Whether immersing yourself in the castle’s historical allure, snapping photos of the enchanting landscape, or simply relishing the beginning of your epic adventure, Inverness Castle is a fitting and inspiring start to your NC500 journey.
Before you depart, stroll along the River Ness, visit the local market, or explore the Victorian Market for an authentic local experience. Inverness is not just the gateway to your NC500 journey; it’s a vibrant city full of history, culture, and charm.
Expert Tips for Visiting: Best Times, Duration, and Essential Items
Embarking on the North Coast 500 is an adventure unlike any other, and like all adventures, it requires careful planning. Regarding timing, the best time to travel the NC500 is from late spring to early autumn, typically between May and September. During these months, you’ll enjoy longer days, better weather, and the stunning beauty of the Highlands in full bloom.
However, even in the best of seasons, Scottish weather can be unpredictable, so be sure to pack a range of clothing to accommodate all weather conditions. Waterproof clothing, sturdy walking shoes, and warm layers are essential. Don’t forget essentials like a road map, a first aid kit, and a good camera to capture stunning landscapes.
The journey’s duration depends on how deep you want to delve into the experience. At a minimum, allocate five to seven days to travel the NC500. However, if you truly want to immerse yourself in the Highlands’ culture, heritage, and natural beauty, consider extending your trip to two weeks.
Accessibility and Facilities
The North Coast 500 is well-served by a network of facilities, making it accessible for all travellers. You’ll find plenty of petrol stations, rest areas, convenience stores, and public toilets along the route. Most towns and villages also have well-stocked supermarkets where you can replenish your supplies.
Regarding accommodation, the NC500 offers many options, from luxurious hotels to charming bed and breakfasts, rustic campsites, and cosy self-catering cottages. It’s advised to book your accommodation well in advance, especially during peak season.
The route is well-marked and generally easy to navigate. However, do bear in mind that some sections are single-track roads, requiring caution and courteous driving. It’s always a good idea to familiarise yourself with the ‘Passing Places’ rule for these roads.
Remember, the North Coast 500 isn’t a race. Take your time, enjoy the journey, and be respectful of other road users and the environment.
Local Cuisine: Indulge in the Flavours of Each Region
As you travel along the North Coast 500, you’ll have the opportunity to savour the rich flavours of Scottish cuisine. From freshly caught seafood to hearty Highland beef, locally produced cheeses, and famous Scottish whiskies, your taste buds are in for a treat!
Fishing villages like Ullapool and Lochinver are known for their superb seafood. Enjoy a meal at a local restaurant, where the day’s catch is served up in a variety of delicious dishes. Whisky lovers must visit the Glenmorangie distillery in Tain, where you can learn about the distilling process and sample some of Scotland’s finest single malts.
Remember, part of the adventure is immersing yourself in the local culture, and there’s no better way to do that than through food. So, whether you’re tucking into a traditional haggis or savouring a dram of whisky, embrace the culinary journey as part of your unforgettable North Coast 500 experience.
Photography Tips: Capturing Unforgettable Moments
One of the most magical aspects of the North Coast 500 is its breathtaking beauty. From the enchanting Loch Ness to the dramatic cliffs of Caithness, every turn presents a new vista to capture.
Aspiring photographers will want to make the most of the golden hours, early morning, or late evening, when the light is softer, casting a beautiful glow on the landscapes. Key photo spots along the NC500 include fairy tales like Dunrobin Castle, the spectacular Kylesku Bridge, and the awe-inspiring Bealach Na Ba pass mountains.
But remember, sometimes the best photos are unplanned. The random highland cow by the roadside, the splash of a leaping salmon in a quiet stream, the way the light breaks through the clouds after a passing shower. Stay alert, and be ready to capture those serendipitous moments.
And don’t forget, photos are a great way to share your North Coast 500 adventure, but don’t let them distract from the experience. Sometimes the most beautiful moments are the ones you sit back and savour with your own eyes.
Nature and Wildlife Highlights: Discovering the Local Biodiversity
The North Coast 500 isn’t just about breathtaking landscapes; it’s also home to a rich array of wildlife. From puffins nesting on the cliffs of Caithness to the majestic red deer of the Highlands, the wildlife experiences on the NC500 are unforgettable.
Key wildlife-watching spots include the Moray Firth, renowned for its bottlenose dolphin population. Or visit the RSPB nature reserve at Forsinard Flows to explore the peatlands and possibly spot nesting birds and roaming deer. And for marine wildlife, the waters off the coast of Wester Ross are teeming with seals, otters, and even the occasional whale.
Remember to keep a respectful distance and avoid disturbing wildlife. It’s their home we’re visiting. And most importantly, always carry binoculars; they’re your ticket to up-close encounters while keeping a respectful distance.
Accommodation and Dining: Best Options around the NC500
From cosy bed & breakfasts to luxury hotels and rustic campsites, ample accommodation options along the North Coast 500 route suit all budgets and preferences.
In Inverness, the Rocpool Reserve Hotel offers luxury accommodations and fine dining. Along the route, Torridon is home to the Torridon Hotel, an upscale choice with an excellent restaurant. In contrast, the rustic Syha Hostel in Achmelvich Beach offers budget-friendly options in a stunning coastal setting.
For the foodies, the NC500 is dotted with fantastic dining options. The Kylesku Hotel in Sutherland, the Albannach in Lochinver and the Applecross Inn in Wester Ross all offer delicious local fare with stunning views.
Whether you’re looking for a luxury retreat or a charming homestay, early booking is recommended, especially during peak season.
Responsible Travel: Tips for Sustainable and Respectful Experiences
As you embark on your North Coast 500 adventure, it’s crucial to travel responsibly. That means respecting the environment, supporting local communities, and protecting the natural and cultural heritage of the Highlands.
Avoid littering, stick to marked paths, and respect wildlife. Try to support local businesses, whether dining at local restaurants, buying souvenirs from local artisans, or staying at locally owned accommodations.
When wild camping, follow the Scottish Outdoor Access Code: leave no trace, respect the privacy and livelihoods of residents, and stay safe.
Travelling the North Coast 500 offers an incredible opportunity to experience the stunning beauty of the Scottish Highlands. Let’s ensure we leave it as we found it, for future generations of travellers to enjoy.
Cultural and Historical Insights: Understanding Each Place’s Significance
The North Coast 500 is steeped in history and culture. As you travel along the route, take the time to delve into the stories and traditions that shape the Highlands.
Visit the ancient standing stones of the Clachan Chalanais on the Isle of Lewis, or delve into the area’s Viking heritage at the Timespan Museum in Helmsdale. Discover the haunting history of the Highland Clearances at the Strathnaver Museum, or explore the traditional crofting lifestyle at the Gairloch Heritage Museum.
Each place you visit on the NC500 has a story to tell, a piece of the jigsaw that makes up the rich tapestry of the Highlands’ history and culture. It’s these stories, these insights that transform a trip into a journey, an adventure into an experience.
Attractions on the NC500: Expanding Your Adventure
In addition to the natural beauty, the North Coast 500 route is dotted with attractions to enhance your adventure. For the history buffs, there’s the ruins of Ardvreck Castle, the prehistoric Broch of Gurness, or the Culloden Battlefield.
For nature lovers, the Inverewe Gardens, the enchanting Corrieshalloch Gorge, and the stunning Smoo Cave are must-visits. And don’t forget to visit the many beautiful beaches along the route, such as Achmelvich Beach, Balnakeil Beach, and Gairloch Beach.
Finally, whisky distilleries like Glen Ord, Clynelish, and Old Pulteney offer fascinating tours and tastings for those seeking a tipple.
Evening Delights: Relaxation and Activities Post-Visit
After a day on the North Coast 500, unwind and relax with some of the Highlands’ evening delights. Enjoy a hearty meal at a local pub, sample a dram of local whisky, or take part in a traditional ceilidh (traditional folk music and dance).
Alternatively, head to one of the many beautiful beaches for a sunset stroll or, if lucky, catch the mesmerising display of the Northern Lights in the northern sections of the route.
Remember, the North Coast 500 isn’t just a journey; it’s an experience. And the evenings are as much a part of that experience as the days.
Safety First: Tips and Emergency Information
While the North Coast 500 is a safe and well-travelled route, it’s always important to take precautions and be prepared for emergencies. Keep emergency contacts handy, familiarise yourself with the nearest medical facilities, and always let someone know your plans, especially if you’re hiking or camping.
Road safety is crucial, particularly on the single-track roads in the Highlands. Drive with care, use passing places correctly, and remember that in Scotland, we drive on the left!
Finally, respect the unpredictable Scottish weather. It can change rapidly, and conditions in the mountains can be very different from the lowlands. Always check the forecast and be prepared for all weather.
**Conclusion: A Summary of Must-See Places on the North Coast
The North Coast 500 is more than a road trip; it’s an unforgettable journey through some of Scotland’s most spectacular landscapes, rich history, and vibrant culture. From historic castles and mysterious lochs to magnificent mountains and wild coastlines, the NC500 offers an experience that will linger in your memories long after the journey ends.
So pack your bag, hit the road, and discover the magic of the North Coast 500 for yourself.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
1. When is the best time to travel the North Coast 500?
While the North Coast 500 can be travelled at any time of the year, the best months are generally May to September, when the days are longer, and the weather is typically milder. However, travelling in the off-season can offer quieter roads and a different perspective on the landscapes.
2. How long does it take to travel the North Coast 500?
Most people take between 5 and 7 days to travel the North Coast 500, allowing time to stop at attractions, enjoy the scenery, and experience the local culture. However, if you’re short on time, it can be done in 3 to 4 days. If you have more time, consider spending a couple of weeks to truly immerse yourself in the experience.
3. What are the must-see places on the North Coast 500?
While there are countless places to explore on the North Coast 500, some must-see highlights include Inverness Castle, the Fairy Glen Falls, Dunrobin Castle, the Bealach Na Ba pass, and the stunning beaches such as Achmelvich and Balnakeil.
4. Can I camp along the North Coast 500?
Yes, camping is permitted in many areas along the North Coast 500. There are designated campsites with facilities, and wild camping is also allowed in certain areas under the Scottish Outdoor Access Code. Always leave no trace, respect the privacy and livelihoods of locals, and stay safe.
5. What is the food like on the North Coast 500?
The food along the North Coast 500 is a culinary journey through Scotland’s larder. From fresh seafood, locally reared meats, and delicious cheeses to traditional dishes like haggis and clootie dumpling, the food is a highlight of any NC500 journey.
6. What wildlife can I see on the North Coast 500?
The North Coast 500 is rich in wildlife, including red deer, highland cows, puffins, seals, otters, and even dolphins and whales. Key wildlife watching spots include the Moray Firth, Forsinard Flows, and the coasts of Wester Ross.
7. What are the best photo spots on the North Coast 500?
There are countless photo opportunities on the North Coast 500, with stunning landscapes, historic sites, and wildlife. Some key photo spots include Dunrobin Castle, the Kylesku Bridge, and the Bealach Na Ba pass.
8. How can I travel responsibly on the North Coast 500?
Travelling responsibly on the North Coast 500 means respecting the environment, supporting local communities, and protecting the natural and cultural heritage. This includes avoiding littering, sticking to marked paths, respecting wildlife, and supporting local businesses.
9. What are some cultural and historical highlights on the North Coast 500?
The North Coast 500 is rich in history and culture, with ancient standing stones, historical museums, and traditional crofting communities. Highlights include the Clachan Chalanais standing stones, the Timespan Museum in Helmsdale, and the Gairloch Heritage Museum.
10. What can I do in the evenings on the North Coast 500?
Evenings on the North Coast 500 can be spent enjoying a local pub meal or a dram of whisky, participating in a traditional ceilidh, or taking a sunset stroll on a beach. If you’re lucky, you might even see the Northern Lights.
Happy travels, and enjoy your adventure on the magnificent North Coast 500!