From stunning coastlines to winding mountain roads, Scotland’s North Coast 500 offers some of the most incredible views of the country. The Scottish answer to Route 66, the North Coast 500 makes a full loop starting and ending with Inverness and working its way along the west, north, and northeast coasts. Based on my own road trip along the North Coast 500, I’ve put together a four-day itinerary that includes some of the best sights and hidden gems along the route.
Get an early start today; begin driving west from Inverness until you come upon the Rogie Falls, a series of impressive waterfalls that run into the Black Water River. The Falls are accessible through a short walking path from the parking lot which ends with a wooden bridge stretching across the river. Stand in the center of the bridge for the best views of the Falls, then take a short walk through the surrounding woods. If you’re there in August or September, you may even see the wild salmon running upstream.
From Rogie Falls, continue west towards Applecross and the Baelach na Ba Pass. The Pass is a famous road which winds its way up and around a tall hill, reaching heights of 2,050 feet. Take time to stop at the various viewpoints on the road to soak up the incredible views of the surrounding hills, mountains, and waterfalls. Follow the road down the other side of the hill to the town of Applecross where you can pick up lunch before heading north. End the day in Gairloch on the west coast where you’ll find great accommodation options and be in the perfect location to begin day two.
There’s nothing quite as awe-inspiring as a morning drive along the west coast of Scotland; from incredible beaches to castle ruins, you won’t be without beautiful sights to see. Follow the winding road north from Gairloch until you reach the city of Elphin, where you’ll find the Knockan Crag National Nature Reserve. Knockan Crag is famous for the Moine Thrust, an unusual rock formation which offers insight into how Scotland was formed as well as great views of the surrounding area.
Continue up the west coast towards Lochinver where just out of town you’ll see the ruins of Ardvreck Castle on Loch Assynt. Walk across the small pebble beach to gain access to the castle which is situated just on the edge of the loch, surrounded by pristine natural scenery. From here, head past Lochinver to Achmelvich Beach where you can walk along the white sand beach or cool off in the water during the summer. After the beach, follow the coastal road further north to the village of Kinlochbervie to rest for the night.
From Kinlochbervie, make the short drive north to the city of Durness, home to the incredible Smoo Cave. Walk through this sea cave’s huge mouth and you’ll find a covered wooden bridge taking you to an inner cave where a waterfall cascades into the Smoo burn. During heavy rain periods, the waterfall comes down strong, resulting in onlookers getting misted by the fresh water. After walking through Smoo Cave, treat yourself to some hot cocoa from Cocoa Mountain, a chocolate shop that sells delicious chocolate confections. The shop is somewhat hidden, tucked inside of the Balnakeil Craft Village, which can easily be found by following signs for the craft village posted in Durness.
Now it’s time to make your way east to Dunnet Head, the northernmost point of Mainland Britain. On a clear day here, you’ll be able to see Orkney Islands along with the top of Old Man of Hoy, a famous sea stack on Orkney. After Dunnet Head, make your way to John o’Groats, a little village known for being the northernmost town in the U.K. There’s a popular sign post called “Journey’s End” where you can take a picture, then enjoy some fish and chips from the local shop right on the coast. From here, start traveling south towards Inverness, stopping in the city of Wick for the night.
Just a few miles south of Wick are the Whaligoe Steps, located in the small village of Ulbster. The Whaligoe Steps were carved from the side of a cliff in the 1700’s in order to reach the natural harbor below. Climb down the 330 steps to capture dazzling views of the ocean and surrounding landscape, then make your way back up to grab a snack at the café there. Getting to the Whaligoe Steps can be a little confusing as there are no signs for them on the road. The best way to find them is to travel south on the A99 and turn left on the small road where you see the glass telephone box. You’ll pass a row of houses on your right and eventually come to a car park where you can park in a visitors spot and head down to the steps.
After Whaligoe, continue south to Dunrobin Castle in the town of Golspie. Dunrobin dates back to the 13th century and is one of the best preserved castles in all of Scotland. From the dozens of beautifully decorated rooms to the meticulously maintained gardens, it is one of the best places to wrap up your tour of the Highlands. From Dunrobin, travel along the northeast coast, back to Inverness to complete the North Coast 500! Spread the news of this accomplishment by picking up a North Coast 500 t-shirt from one of the shops in Inverness.