The North Coast 500 (NC500) route is Scotland’s answer to the famous American Route 66. Starting and finishing in Inverness, the route takes in just over 500 miles of fabulous north-west Scotland scenery and numerous attractions. The circular route can be completed clockwise or anti-clockwise and meanders through the counties of Caithness, Sutherland and Ross-shire. It is not a route for speedy driving but rather a place to take your time, stopping frequently to relish the views and finding lots of interesting highlights to enjoy along the way. Our Drive & Hike: North Coast 500 & Orkney trip offers the chance to combine the 500-mile drive with two nights on Orkney and plenty of walking and sightseeing opportunities. Here we reveal 10 highlights of the NC500.
Wonderful waterfalls: The Falls of Rogie are located on the Black Water river near the Victorian spa village of Strathpeffer. You can get close to the falls by walking a suspension bridge. The bridge is a short stroll from a car park. In August and September, there's a good chance of seeing wild salmon leaping upstream.
Bealach na Ba
Alpine climb: The famous Bealach na Bà (Gaelic for "Pass of the Cattle") from Applecross is an Alpine style road climb that zig-zags upwards from sea level to 626m. Expect knuckle clenching hairpin bends that switch back and forth up the hillside with gradients that approach 20 per cent in place. But, oh, the views are worth the drive up those bends!
Over the sea to Skye: Enjoy heady views on a clear day as you drive the north-west coastal road. The views across to the islands of Skye and the Hebrides are breath-taking.
Fresh seafood: There are many places to enjoy eating freshly caught Scottish seafood. A highlight might be ordering an impressive seafood platter at the Applecross Inn. Why not pop into the Applecross Smokehouse, too, while you’re in the area?
Beautiful lochs: It’s difficult to pick out one loch as a highlight in this stunning area but if forced to we might choose Loch Maree. The loch is home to myriad islands and is even reputed to have a monster (just like its more famous sibling, Loch Ness). Also to recommend are the fairy Lochs near the former fishing village of Badachro and Loch Broom, wiht its breath-taking vistas whatever the weather.
Bountiful beaches: The sandy beaches in the north-west of Scotland are a sight to behold. Stretch your legs on the sandy beach at Gruinard Bay in Ross & Cromarty, or walk the white sands of Achmelvich beach, near Lochinver. In Sutherland, Sandwood Bay can be discovered via a six-mile walk. There is no motorised access to this fabulous stretch of sand but it is well worth the rugged walk in – and out again.
Hills and mountains: Look inland at any point during the drive of the NC500 and you will be spoilt for choice with the many hills and mountains to see – and hike. Perhaps you’ll choose Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve, in the Torridon area, with walks to suit everyone, from a gentle stroll on a lower-level trail to a majestic Munro (mountains in Scotland with a summit of more than 914.4m or 3000ft). Iconic Stac Pollaidh with its summit of 612m is another great hiking possibility. The views from the top are superb.
The tops of Scotland: Cape Wrath in the most north-westerly point on mainland Britain and boasts a remote and mystical atmosphere. You can take a bus tour to the lighthouse at Cape Wrath and also enjoy a variety of guided walks. The cliffs in this area are some of the highest in the UK. On the northern coastline is another famous "top of the UK" landmark, John O’Groats. This is usually the end, or start, point of a Land’s End to John O’Groats bike ride. However, the real northerly tip of mainland Scotland is Duncansby Head, where towering cliffs, seabirds and wild waves offer the perfect backdrop for a walk on the wild side.
Going underground: Smoo Cave, close to the Sutherland village of Durness, is set into limestone cliffs and extends to a length of 200ft, a width of 130ft and a height of 50ft. We’ll tell you no more because you should discover this natural wonder for yourself.
Discover dolphins: Heading back towards Inverness, you’ll travel the eastern coastline of the north-west of Scotland. At Chanonry Point on the Cromarty Firth, a spit of land offers one of the best chances in Britain of spotting dolphins from the land. There are also plenty of boat trips to see wildlife in this area.
This is an updated version of a blog which was originally posted in 2013.