The North Coast 500 has been billed as Scotland’s answer to America’s Route 66 but this Scottish road trip is unlike anything you’ll see in the USA. The North Coast 500 takes you through the Scottish Highlands seeing legendary castles, extraordinary coastal scenery, and famous whisky distilleries lining the winding single track roads. The NC500 is one of the great road trips in the world.
When planning your North Coast 500 trip be sure to give plenty of days to explore the sights. We spent a very two weeks on this spectacular driving route through the Scottish highlands and we’ve put together the ultimate NC500 Trip Planner to help you make the most of your time in the Scottish highlands.
North Coast 500 Guide
Dave and I have done a lot of road trips. We’ve come to the conclusion that they just might be our specialty. We’ve driven a car from England to Mongolia in the Mongol Rally, we were the first media to drive Ireland’s entire Wild Atlantic Way (the longest coastal route on earth) and yes, we have driven through large chunks of America’s Route 66.
When we had the opportunity to drive the North Coast 500, we jumped at the chance, we have always wanted to see the Scottish Highlands and this route takes you through the best of them. We love marking our map with must-see attractions, stocking up on snacks, putting together a playlist, and hitting the road.
The North Coast 500 loop counterclockwise from Inverness and we’ve put together the ultimate plan to help you plan ahead and make the most of your time in the Scottish highlands.
What is the North Coast 500
The North Coast 500 (NC500) is a scenic route that runs along the northern coast of Scotland, covering a distance of approximately 516 miles (830 km). It was created as an official loop around the north coast of Scotland, but the roads have always been there.
The official North Coast 500 was launched in 2015 to boost the Northern Highland economy and has now become a popular tourist destination offering stunning coastal views, rugged landscapes, and a chance to visit picturesque villages and towns.
The route starts and ends in the city of Inverness, taking visitors on a circular journey through the Scottish Highlands and along the coast of the North Atlantic, and down the west coast.
Along the way, travelers can visit iconic landmarks such as the Bealach Na Ba Pass, the ruins of Ardvreck Castle, and the white sands of Achmelvich Beach. The route also passes through several communities, providing opportunities for visitors to experience local culture and hospitality.
The NC500 has gained recognition as one of the world’s most scenic road trips, attracting visitors from all over the world who come to explore the natural beauty of Scotland’s rugged north highlands. When you visit Scotland, you are going to want to experience at least a portion its spectacular scenery.
Where is the North Coast 500
Our North Coast 500 drive started and ended in Inverness, the Capital of the Scottish Highlands. We drove counterclockwise along the north coast of Scotland in a 516-mile (830km) circle route through some of the most beautiful landscapes in the country, stopping at many towns and attractions before returning to Inverness.
The North Coast 500 is located in the North West corner of Scotland winding its way up the east coast, along the the north and down west coast of Scotland starting in Inverness.
NC500 Car Rentals
The best way to explore the North Coast 500 is on a road trip is by driving. If you don’t already live in the UK and have your own car, you’ll want to book a rental car well in advance. There are plenty of places to book rental cars in Scotland. We use Rental Cars Connect to find the best deals on any rental car. You can compare prices on their website.
Hot Tip: Be sure your rental car is a smaller car as roads are often single track roads along the North Coast 500 and a small car is easy to navigate through the North Highlands. The roads through the Scottish Highlands are winding and narrow there are several hairpin turns. Small cars can also fit easily into the passing places to let faster drivers overtake you. Rental cars are scarce these days, so be sure to book well in advance. Compare prices at RentalCars.com
Day 1: North Coast 500 – Inverness
We started our North Coast 500 road trip in Inverness and spent two days enjoying this historic city. Inverness is the main city on the North Coast 500 route and it is the capital of the Scottish Highlands.
The capital of the Scottish Highlands, Inverness is home to the very famous Loch Ness where you can search for Nessie herself. That was our main interest when visiting Inverness, but there are plenty of other things to see and do.
St. Andrew’s Cathedral Abertarff House dating back to 1592 Nessie Islands – Islands connected by beautiful walkways and gardens Golf and Spa at Kingsmills Spa Read our full article Things to do in Inverness
Day 2: North Coast 500
There are plenty of things to do in Inverness and in the surrounding area, so you will definitely want to spend some time here. Here are a few top attractions to see before moving along the North Coast 500.
Inverness is the main hub for exploring Loch Ness. People visit the legendary Loch Ness in search of the Loch Ness Monster, but it is worth exploring the sandy beaches and scenery around Inverness as well.
The visitors center in Drumnadrochit is fun and kitschy and is a must-stop to learn about the history of the Loch Ness Monster, but exploring the massive lake is the highlight.
Drumnadrochit and Glen Affric
If you have more time, you can stay in Drumnadrochit, there are plenty of B&Bs in the area. If you are staying in the area take a drive to Glen Affric to take in its stunning landscape and view the beautiful Plodda Falls. This is the spot where the tour busses stop though so be prepared for large crowds and traffic.
Be sure to watch the sunset from Dores Beach and you may even run into the Nessie Hunter who has set up camp right in this spot to keep watch for the elusive monster.
Urquhart Castle is another must-see stop on the lake. It is a beautiful ruin that has survived many a battle over the past 1000 years. The setting overlooks Loch Ness and the rolling hills of the Scottish Highlands, I can see why people fought over this beautiful setting.
Where to Stay in Inverness
Accommodation Suggestion: Kingsmills Hotel and spa with swimming pool and breakfast included. We stayed here and absolutely loved it.
The Kingsmills Hotel is located on a golf course just outside the downtown core. Set in a large historic mansion on a massive treed property with spa and pool. We stayed in the newer spa portion of the hotel and the rooms were spacious, and comfortable. Parking is free and breakfasts are included. Check it out on TripAdvisor / Booking.com
The Rocpool Reserve Hotel is another recommended hotel: Trip Advisor / Booking.com
Suggested places to eat: Rocpool Restaurant or Dores Inn at Loch Ness in Dores after you’ve watched the sunset.
Day 3 – Drive North to Dornoch
Today you will leave Inverness and make your way to Dornoch for the start of your east coast drive up North Coast 500 Road trip. Your next overnight is just a little over an hour’s drive away, but it is the perfect base for your next set of explorations as there is a lot to see and do in the area.
Along the A9 towards the NC500 offers many things to see and places to stop. Dornoch is famous for the Dornoch Castle and makes a good base to explore the whisky route.
Don’t just beeline it to the next town, be sure to pop into these highlights on your way out of Inverness before hitting the North Coast 500 Route.
The Culloden Battlefield is one of the best stops on the North Coast 500 road trip. As you make your way through the Scottish Highlands, make sure to stop at one of the most historic sites on the itinerary. The modern visitor’s centre opened in 2008 and is a stark contrast to the empty land where one of the bloodiest battles on British soil took place.
On a spring day in 1746, more than 1200 men were killed in just one short hour. It was the final battle of the Jacobite uprising and it came to its fateful end.
Visitors are given headsets triggered by GPS telling them the story of the bloody battle as they walk both sides of the battlefield. One of the most powerful moments comes when you enter the interior museum and stand inside a room projecting a 360-degree reenactment of the battle. You are surrounded by the cries of the warriors meeting their fate.
If you are fascinated with Highland history (as we are) this is a place where you can easily spend hours. For more information see Culloden Battlefield Visitor’s Centre
Clava Cairns is not far from the Culloden Battlefield and is a good stop for this day of sightseeing on the North Coast 500. Cairns are ancient stone cemeteries dating back 4000 years. There are several cairns along the nc500 but none as famous as Clava Cairns.
Clava Cairns was used as the inspiration for the Outlander series (this is the place where Claire was transported back in time) you can understand why Diana Gambon felt time travel could happen here.
The standing stones and circular cairns feel like magic. The Cairns of Scotland were burial tombs used to house the dead and today, visitors can stroll the grounds and walk right into the centre of the tombs feeling the peace and quiet of the sacred site. It’s free to visit so don’t miss it!
It’s time to move on from Inverness and cross into the Black Isle portion of the driving route. Black Isle is a peninsula located just north of the city of Inverness. Despite its name, Black Isle is not an actual island but rather a peninsula, bounded by water on three sides: the Cromarty Firth to the north, the Beauly Firth to the south, and the Moray Firth to the east.
The name “Black Isle” is said to come from the fact that when viewed from a distance, the area appears to be black due to the forests that cover much of the peninsula. Black Isle is a popular stop on the NC500 for those who want a taste of the route with its scenic villages away from the larger towns, beaches, and wildlife reserves. You can easily explore Black Isle on a day trip from Inverness.
Road Trip Snacks
North Coast 500 Road Trip Snacks – We stocked up on water and snacks in Inverness, but there are plenty of local shops along the route. One of our favorite stops for local meats & cheeses, fresh fruits, and local treats, be sure to stop in at Roberston’s The Larder.
You can also meet the farm animals including Highland Cows. If you are worried about not seeing the famous highland cattle along the route, (don’t be) you’ll have a good chance here. It is located on the route from Inverness to Glen Ord Distillery.
Located in the heart of Black Isle, The Singleton Distilerry is the closest distillery to Inverness so it can easily be done as a day trip from there. What makes a visit to Singleton unique is that it is one of the few distilleries in Scotland that still malts its own barley and their Singleton blend can only be bought in Scotland or if you visit Asia.
For us, it was also the first time we’d seen wooden fermentation barrels. Every other distillery tour we’ve ever taken was stainless steel.
The end of day 3 on your North Coast 500 trip ends at Dornoch Castle. Dornoch is a destination unto itself with the castle at its center. The Scottish highlands are filled with old castles that have been converted into hotels. Do yourself a favor and book a night at least one castle hotel.
Dornoch Castle is located right in the market square of Dornoch directly across from the Dornoch Cathedral. This 12th-century cathedral is such a draw that Madonna had her son Rocco christened here.
The castle sets the tone for this unique Scottish road trip. The pub makes you feel like you are sitting in a 17th-century tavern as the fire roars and the whiskey pours. The set dinner menu is divine and the rooms make you feel like royalty.
Dornoch Castle and Whisky Bar
Dornoch Castle is home to one of the best whisky bars on earth. It was voted the #1 Whisky Hotel of the Year by whiskybase.com. It’s the whisky bar that is the main attraction. Sitting inside the thick old stone walls with the giant fireplace roaring with flame you feel as if you’ve stepped back in time to when clans ruled the land.
The extensive whisky stock has won awards as the best whisky bar in the world and is currently the reigning number 1 whisky hotel of the year as named by whiskybase.com.
Having the distillery tour helped us to understand the distilling process of Scottish whiskey and gave us insight into aromas and flavors when we decided to taste a few drams at Dornoch Castle’s whisky bar. This truly made us feel like we were taking a tour through history and our guide Alistair was as passionate about his scotch as he was informative.
We ordered a tasting flight of three whiskeys after chatting with the bartender who will help us decide what shots to choose. He will pick your brain to see what type of Scotch you prefer and offer up choices of different whiskeys at different prices to suit your needs.
Note: Scotland spells whisky without an “e”. So when you visit Scotland, be sure to spell it the way they do in Scotland, it’s whisky NOT Whiskey.
Where to Stay in Dornoch
Dornoch Castle – We loved our stay in the historic Dornoch Castle. Whenever we visit Ireland or Scotland, we always try to stay in a castle for a truly authentic and historic experience. Trip Advisor / Booking.com
There is also The Dornoch Hotel you can see more information on Trip Advisor / Booking.com
Royal Marine Hotel – Just a little farther up the East Coast is the Royal Marine Hotel which was voted one of the best places to stay in Britain. Just an hour from Inverness along the North Coast 500, this is a good place to make a base while exploring the east coast of Scotland. Check rates and availability on Expedia.com
Day 4: North Coast 500 – Dornoch to Wick
Click here for an interactive map of NC 500
Day 4 of your North Coast 500 road trip is all about the whisky and the spectacular scenery of the North Highlands. The drive from Dornoch to Wick takes approximately 4 hours but as with every part of the NC500 route, you’ll end up taking much longer as there is so much to see and do.
There are several distilleries in Northern Scotland where road trippers can pick up a bottle of their favorite Scotch whisky. It is worth stopping at least once but if you want to spend longer in the area, check them all out on a day tour. From the town of Dornoch, there are half a dozen distilleries to visit that are from mere minutes to only a couple of hours away.
Balblair Glenmorangie Dalmore Dunnet Bay Pulteney Distilleries are all nearby.
If you are looking for something outside of distilleries, make your way to the Black Isle Brewing Company. Black Isle is an organic brewer with a wide range of organic beers and seasonal specials.
If you are a whisky lover, Dornoch castle or Royal Marine Hotel is the perfect place to base your travels as you explore the distilleries of the route. Visit their website for bookings and availability.
Open from April 1 to October 15, visiting Dunbrobin Castle is a must. You can visit the gardens and grounds year-round. We parked our car and walked down the steps to a magnificent view of this 800 year-old castle. It’s different from other castles in Scotland resembling a French Chateau rather than the stark stone structures in other parts we saw.
Dunrobin castle has been home to the Earls and Dukes of Sutherland since the 13th century.
This castle can be visited from Dornoch, or you can plan as we did and make it a stop along the way to our next destination which in our case is Wick. Read all about Donrobin Castle here.
Where to Stay – Ackergill Tower Hotel
Something we loved about driving the North Coast 500 was the chance to stay in historic castles. There are many unique accommodations along the route from farmhouses, B&Bs, lighthouses, and luxury estates. Making our way up the East Coast towards the northernmost tip of Scotland, we stayed at the Ackergill Tower Hotel.
We enjoyed a delicious meal in this grand hotel. Like Dornoch Castle, Ackergill Tower is an accommodation that is a destination. The Tower is an incredible 600-year-old stone tower that stands proud on the shores of Sinclair Bay. The Northernmost point of Scotland. This luxurious highland estate is as romantic as it is remote.
Dining in the great hall, we ate a delicious three-course menu before retiring to the sitting rooms for an after dinner drink. It felt fresh out of Downton Abbey. As we sat by the fire we read about the history of the castle and wondered what life might have been like back in time.
The most famous story of the castle tells the tale of Helen Gunn, known as the Beauty of Braemore who was kidnapped on her wedding night and held prisoner in this very tower. To escape her fate she leapt to her death. It is said that her ghost haunts the halls to this day.
Day 5: Wick to Dunnet Head
Once we reached the Northern Tip of Scotland, the scenery turned to dramatic views. This was probably our favorite area to explore on the road trip. Everyone told us the west coast was the best, but the northern tip was stunning. We could have spent at least two more days exploring the walking trails along the coast.
It is the area where you see those massive sea cliffs and sea stacks housing migrating seabirds and seals. If you like hiking and wildlife, you’ll love this area.
If you want to get down inside something similar to the Geo of Sclaites, the Whaligoe Steps is a superb trek. The Whaligoe Steps consist of 330 steps leading down to one of the most inaccessible harbors in Scotland. Dating back to the mid 18th century, the Whaligoe Steps were used by fishermen’s wives to haul fish up in their baskets. At its prime, 24 fishing boats were working these waters fishing for herring.
Wick Heritage Centre
If you want to learn more about the fishing and history of the area, the Wick Heritage Centre is the place to go. Wick was Europe’s premier herring fishing port during the 19th century and dedicated guides volunteer their time to tell share their historical knowledge.
There are many artifacts on display and rooms furnished to portray the past. To get directions and look up hours visit the Wick Heritage Centre website.
Dunnet Bay Distillery
Scotland may be known for its Scotch, but Gin is making a huge mark in the country. Tours operate from May to Sept at 3 pm on Mon, Wed, Fri and on Saturdays at 11 am and 1 pm.
This was probably our favorite area to explore on the North Coast 500. Everyone told us the west coast was the best, but the northern tip was stunning. It is the area where you see those massive sea cliffs and stacks housing migrating seabirds and seals. If you like hiking and wildlife, you’ll love this area.
Ackergill Tower – Overnight
The Ackergill Tower Hotel became our base for exploring this portion of the Scottish Highlands and we stayed here another night.
Like Dornoch Castle, Ackergill Tower is an accommodation that is a destination. The Tower is an incredible 600-year-old stone tower that stands proudly on the shores of Sinclair Bay. The Northernmost point of Scotland. This luxurious highland estate is as romantic as it is remote.
The most famous story of the castle tells the tale of Helen Gunn, known as the Beauty of Braemore who was kidnapped on her wedding night and held a prisoner in this very tower. To escape her fate she leaped to her death. It is said that her ghost haunts the halls to this day. Check out Ackergill Tower to book your accommodation
Day 6: North Coast 500 – Wildlife and Scenery
Dave and I love taking tours. As much as we enjoy exploring on our own, we find that helps us discover hidden gems and areas we would never have thought of visiting. We spent a half day exploring with Caithness Wildlife Tours. Guide and owner Kate is a marine biologist and outdoor lover who takes visitors to see view seabirds, seals, and other wildlife in the area.
But she also showed us historic sites such as Mary Ann’s Cottage dating back to 1850 and The Castle of Mey. The Queen Mother bought and restored the Castle of Mey and King Charles still visits each summer.
Castle of Mey
It was the impressive views of Dunnet Head and Brough Harbour that really took our breath away. But what we loved the most was learning the interesting facts of the area from Kate. For example, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin was a regular visitor to the area and nearly bought an estate in Caithness for a recording studio.
He never did buy the studio, but he did rebuild the harbor and there is a plaque with his name on the Harrow Harbour commemorating the reopening.
Castle Sinclair Girnigo
Located just a short walk or drive from Ackergill Tower the ruins of Castle Sinclair Girnigo is an imposing sight on the coast. We saw this from the road, but when we decided to go for a walk to it, the rain came down in full force.
There was one particular moment when we really appreciated being on the tour. We had stopped with Kate to view seals in the harbor (a regular tourist would miss seeing this on their own) and she told us to turn around.
The harbor was nice, but the scene behind us was beautiful. The peaceful setting housed an old mill and quiet brook that was just screaming to be photographed. Other tourists drove right on by looking at us instead of the scene and missed this highlight of the coast.
If you look up images of the North Coast 500 on Google, chances are you’ve seen countless images of Duncansby Head. Hiking here is spectacular with many walking paths along the coast. Located just a mile and a half from John O’Groats, make your way to parking at the Duncansby Head Lighthouse.
If you have more time, you can hike directly from John O’Groats to take in the entire spectacular view. It is the most northern point of mainland Scotland, We had limited time, so we started our hike from the lighthouse and made our way to the awe-inspiring stacks. It’s only about a 10-15 minute walk, but along the way, make sure to stick to the coast so you can view the dramatic narrow sea gullies known as the Geo of Sclaites.
After marveling at the views here, we moved along the North Highlands to the stacks of Duncansby Head. There’s a path right along the coast overlooking the stacks so you can view them from all directions.
Geo of Sclaites
Be sure to keep an eye out for seabirds. Different are constantly migrating through the area at all times of the year. Including puffins! A Geo is a deep inlet of water with high seacliffs and while there are plenty along the northern coast of Scotland, none are quite as dramatic as the Geo of Sclaites.
Rock formations date back 4000 years and you can take walking paths right to the edge of the cliff to see migrating birds and the spectacular scenery.
Where to Stay near Dunnet Head
Ackergill Tower was the perfect base for exploring the northernmost point of Scotland. This 16th-century tower has a lot of history, and you can sit by the fire reading about its checkered past as you enjoy a dram of whiskey. Dining in the great hall, we ate a delicious three-course menu before retiring to the various sitting rooms for an after-dinner drink.
We love road trips! We included the North Coast 500 in our best road trips we’ve ever taken.
Day 7: Dunnet Head to Tongue
This stretch of the nc500 takes you across the top of Scotland. It was surprising to look at our map and see just how far north we were. Northern Scotland is the equivalent of being halfway up the Hudson Bay in Canada’s north, or just one-degree shy of Oslo, Norway, Stockholm Sweden, or St. Petersburg, Russia. It’s no wonder Northern Scotland reminded us so much of Iceland!
Surfing in Scotland
It was also really surprising to find out that this area is a popular surfing destination. World surfing events are held here. We didn’t brave the water, but while driving through the likes of Armadale Bay and Melvich, we did see surfers in the water taking on the swells. These bays are still way up in the north coast of Scotland so I can only imagine what the temperatures were like.
We were a bit too early in the season for kayaking and when we go back to Scotland we will definitely give it a go. But we did see a few experienced kayakers in the water. Looking at the rough seas, we decided it was best left to the professionals at this time of year. We’ll brave the North Sea when the weather is a little more inviting.
Hopefully, by the time you go, the ruins of Castle Varrich will be open. It was under scaffolding when we arrived as we were told that they had just discovered a bone and it was being excavated. It should be open now for you to see.
You can hike from the Tongue Hotel. It is believed that the castle was built in the 14th century upon an old Norse fort. So you can be sure there is a lot of history just waiting to be discovered here.
Kyle of Tongue
Instead of driving directly along the A383 to cross the Kyle of Tongue, take the scenic route around the tip of the loch for extraordinary scenic views. We had the single track roads all to ourselves. We’d spy a lake, park the car and hike to extraordinary views.
We spent the day here before meeting up again with the A383 at the Kyle of Tongue Bridge. We made sure to cross the bridge for a full view of the highlands before turning around again to continue our journey.
Overnight at Tongue Hotel
The Tongue Hotel It has a cozy atmosphere with large rooms, and there’s always someone offering a drop of sherry when you arrive. There is a dining room and in town there is a store close by to stock up on supplies for the rest of your road trip. See prices on Trip Advisor / Booking.com
Ben Loyal Hotel is another suggested place to stay on this portion of the north coast 500. Located on Main Street Tongue. View it on Trip Advisor / Booking.com
Day 8 – Tongue to Balnakeil
This is another fabulous stretch filled with long deserted sandy beaches, more coastal hike and one incredible cave.
One of our favorite things on our trips was to explore the Smoo Caves. Stopping in the town of Durness, the Smoo Caves are beautiful to see inside and out. There are boardwalks leading down to the caves on either side giving you views of the steep path. A bridge lets you cross the river leading in from the sea while looking into the giant cavern.
Many people just go into the caves and take a quick look, but we highly recommend taking a geological tour. Previously it was run by Colin who spent his lifetime excavating these caves. We had the privilege of doing a tour with him, but sadly he passed away in 2019.
Check out the website for more information on his tours and the geology of the caves. It’s a fascinating read and you’ll find yourself getting lost in the facts.
A beautiful stretch of sandy beach can be found just out of town and it is definitely worth visiting. Not only is it very picturesque, but you’ll also experience the unique feeling of walking on a beach while military vehicles drive by with great purpose.
The Royal Naval gunnery ranges are located out here and military personnel comes to this area to train. You constantly hear guns and bangs in the distance making you wonder “what on earth is going on out there?”
There is a scenic cemetery located on the site by the beach housing an old church and tombstones. It’s very photogenic and John Lennon’s aunt is buried here.
John Lennon visited the area many times to see his aunt and there is a memorial in the town of Durness. He revisited it again with Yoko Ono and it is said that some of his happiest memories took place here.