The North Coast 500 boasts some of the most beautiful beaches, coastlines, hikes, and historical sites that Scotland has to offer. Being local we are blessed with the ability to visit the North Coast 500 time and time again. Here is our list of 25 things not to be missed on your Scottish adventure. Our list comes complete with a handy NC500 Map of their locations. Hopefully you will add some to your North Coast 500 itinerary.
The official starting point to the North Coast 500 is Inverness Castle. Inverness is commonly regarded as the gateway to the Highlands and the city has plenty to offer a tourist. Inverness is a great starting point for your travels. I would highly recommend a night here before you set off to explore what the rest of the Highlands has to offer. Inverness is home to countless delicious restaurants, traditional bars, and beautiful riverside walks.
Inverness Castle sits prominently above the city centre, looking down over the River Ness and beyond. The site of the modern castle was established by King Malcolm III. He built a stronghold here in 1057 after destroying Macbeth’s castle at Crown Hill. Inverness has been subject to many attacks throughout its turbulent history. Famous Scottish monarchs such as Robert the Bruce and Mary Queen of Scots have both laid siege to the Highland stronghold. It also fell at the hands of Bonnie Prince Charlie during the Jacobite rising. The Castle we see today dates from the 1830s. It was built as a new Sheriff’s court and prison and is used as a court to this day.
Spending the first night of your NC500 itinerary in Inverness is a fantastic opportunity to get your bearings. We recommend a walk from the castle down to River Ness and along its banks until you reach Ness Islands. It is a beautiful way to experience the city, especially when it is all lit up a night.
As you head North up the A9 from Inverness you will find yourself driving past a prominent monument high on the hill to your left. I give you our first suggested stop, Fyrish Monument. Fyrish is a popular short hike near Evanton, that takes a couple of hours to complete up and down. If you get an early start, the top of Fyrish is an amazing place to catch a beautiful Scottish Sunrise.
Fyrish was built by Sir Hector Munro in the late 1800s after he returned from India. He returned to the Highlands to find many local families destitute and starving due to the notorious Highland Clearances and made it his mission to provide work in their time of need. He paid the men to carry the stones up the hill and build the monument! The main monument itself is well known, however there are two other structures hidden on the hill. If you would like to find them also then check out our detailed blog on the hidden monuments of Fyrish!
This is a great addition to your NC500 itinerary that allows you to stretch your legs before continuing North.
As you travel further North you will come to the royal borough of Tain. About 9 miles east of Tain on the northern coast of the Tarbat Peninsula lies the quaint fishing village of Portmahomack. Portmahomack boasts a picturesque sandy beach, a traditional harbour, dolphin watching and golf. It also has the unusual distinction of being on the East Coast but facing west. This makes its sandy peninsula is a fantastic place to experience a Highland sunset.
As if that wasn’t enough to entice you to this hidden gem, Portmahomack is also a site of massive historical importance. It is one of the earliest Christian sites uncovered in Britain and the first Pictish monastery to be excavated. Finds from the excavations of this site are on display in St Colman’s church at Portmahomack. The beaches on the east coast of Scotland have always existed in the shadows of their western cousins. However, if you make a short detour to this seaside village, I promise you wont be disappointed.
4: Dornoch: The Witches Stone and more.
Dornoch is a beautiful seaside town with a long sandy beach, a world class golf course, and a fascinating past. Royal Dornoch is considered one of the best golf courses in the world. People come from all over the globe to play 18 holes on its beautiful natural fairways.
The beach is a safe blue flag sandy beach perfect for families with its shallow water and sheltered dunes. If you are lucky enough you might even spot a rare dolphin frolicking off the coast.
Within the town itself points of interest are Dornoch Cathedral, Dornoch Jail, a 5-star museum, and countless cafes and restaurants for you to sample.
Perhaps one of the most fascinating things about Dornoch is that it is where the last “witch” in the UK was legally executed. Janet Horne was tried and executed for witchcraft in 1727. Janet was stripped, smeared with tar, paraded through the town on a barrel and burned alive. Nine years after her death the witchcraft acts were repealed in Scotland.
The spot where she met her grisly fate is marked by a small stone in a garden of a cottage in Littletown. It’s a fascinating if slightly morbid place of interest to add to your NC500 itinerary!
5: Golspie, Big Burn Gorge and Ben Bhraggie
My favourite walk on the east coast of the Scottish Highlands is Big Burn Gorge in Golspie. It definitely warrants inclusion in your NC500 itinerary. Big Burn Gorge is a dramatic short walk through a gorge with a beautiful waterfall, and wooden bridges criss-crossing across the water. It really is a breath-taking place. If you are going to stretch your legs during your road trip there is no better place to do it.
If you have a little more time you can incorporate Ben Bhraggie into your walk as well. Ben Bhraggie is a 400m hill that sits behind Golspie. On its summit is the large imposing statue of the 1st Duke of Sutherland. A man notorious for his prominent role in the Highland clearances. From the top of Ben Bhraggie you get an amazing view across the North Sea. You can then walk down the back of the hill and head onto Big Burn Gorge. To learn more about this magical place click on the link below.
6: Dunrobin Castle
Just North of Golspie sits the magnificent Dunrobin Castle. The white, French inspired castle was transformed from a stronghold into a mansion house in the 1840s by famous British architect, Sir Charles Barry. It genuinely looks like it could have been dreamt up in a fairy-tale. I half expected to see Rapunzel hanging her long hair from one of the tower windows when I first laid eyes on the magnificent piece of baronial architecture.
Dunrobin Castle is one of Britain’s oldest continuously inhabited houses dating back to the early 1300s. It has long been home to the Earls and Dukes of Sutherland.
The picturesque castle sits in beautiful, manicured gardens and is well worth a visit during your North Coast 500 trip. You can admire its beauty from afar for free or pay to roam its grand halls and corridors between the months of March and October.
7: Yarrow’s Archaeological Trail
Yarrow’s Archaeological trail is an exciting circular trail linking cairns, a hill fort, a standing stone, Bronze Age hut circles, and an Iron Age broch. The walk begins and ends at a clearly marked carpark. The trail is rich in prehistoric remains and individual monuments have display panels to give you more information.
The walk takes between 1 and 2 hours and can be boggy in places so wear wellies or waterproof footwear.
This is a walk with a difference, especially for those in love with the settlements of Scotland’s ancient past. If you have even the slightest interest in archaeology, I would highly recommend adding this to your NC500 itinerary.
8: Nybster Broch
You won’t find a prominent brown tourist sign pointing the way to this hidden gem, but if you have an interest in ancient history this is a spot not to be missed! The Caithness Archaeological Trust calls Nybster Broch “one of the most spectacular Iron Age settlements in the north of Scotland”.
The Broch was clearly built on an easily defendable position with one side flanked by spectacular, steep cliffs. Nybster Brooch was more than just a fortress though, as can be identified by the large number of auxiliary buildings dotted around the thick stone walled round house. Historians believe that people lived here for over 1000 years throughout the last Iron Age.
The carpark is off the A99 Wick to John o Groats Road. A short coastal walk will take you past Mervyn Tower (a monument built for Sir Francis Terry who first excavated the broch in 1900) and down to the Broch site. Just another historical gem for you to discover on your trip around the NC500!
9: Castle Sinclair Girnigoe
Castle Sinclair Girnigoe is a spectacular set of castle ruins built flush into a dramatic cliff edge on the far North East of the Scottish Highlands. The ruin sits rather precariously on an unstable cliff. Much work has been carried out to prevent further deterioration of the scheduled monument. Castle Sinclair Girnigoe is located about 3 miles north of Wick on the east coast of Caithnes. It is commonly thought to be one of the earliest seats of Clan Sinclair. It actually consists of two castle ruins: the 15th-century Castle Girnigoe; and the early 17th-century Castle Sinclair.
If you’re not aware of this castle you could easily miss it as it’s off the beaten track and poorly signposted. The benefits of this is you might avoid the crowds . I would highly recommend a stop at this wild and wonderful historical site.
10: John O Groats Signpost
Many people feel that no trip to the far North is complete without on obligatory visit to the John O Groats sign. The iconic sign is one of the most photographed signs in Britain. It was installed in 1964 to mark the most northerly town in mainland UK. Originally the sign was operated as a tourist money maker. The landowner at the time charged people to stop and take photographs! Luckily, the privilege is now free, so make the most of it and get your own photo next to the recently upgraded sign
John of Groats is predictably touristy with shops and cafes a plenty. In many ways it is in sharp contrast to some of the other stops on the NC500. However, I think it’s worth a visit to get that iconic selfie and to soak up the views over to Orkney. I mean, did you even do the North Coast 500 if you don’t have a photo here?
11: Duncansby Head: The Stacks of Duncansby
If you would rather take a photo at the spectacular true north-eastern tip of mainland UK, then this is the place to do it. Duncansby Head may lack in fame compared to John of Groats, but it obliterates its western Neighbour in terms of unspoiled natural beauty. You really need to add this to your NC500 itinerary
If you continue an extra couple of miles from John of Groats on a single-track road then you will reach the Duncansby Head Lighthouse. From here you will get some unbelievable views North to Orkney. Don’t make the same mistake as many and return to your car from here! The true delight requires a short walk South behind the lighthouse.
There is a clear path to follow that will first take you to the Geo of Sclaites. This is a long crevice cut deep into the cliff-face before you. The geo is a breeding ground for seabirds. If you visit during May or June you will see a variety of birds including kittiewake, razorbills and puffins!
Further down the path are two of the most breath-taking coastal sights in the UK. Thirle Door and the Stacks of Duncansby. Thirle Door is a massive rocky arch protruding from the cliff face. The Stacks of Duncansby are imposing, red sandstone pyramid shaped sea stacks standing guard of Scotland’s Coast.
12: Torrisdale Bay
As you travel along the north coast of the Scottish Highland’s you will be blown away by the dramatic coastlines. One of my favourite beaches on this section of the drive is Torridsale Bay.
The mile long, golden sandy beach sits on the North Coast of Sutherland between Bettyhill and Torrisdale. It is much easier to see than it is to reach, so it is nowhere near as busy as some of its counterparts on the west coast of Scotland.
To reach the beach you can park in Invernaver (although parking can be extremely limited) . From here the walk to Torrisdale Bay is less than two miles. It’s a little bit off the beaten track, but if you would rather walk on its golden sands and dip your toes in its crystal clear water than simply view it from afar, then I would definitely recommend the walk be factored in to your NC500 itinerary!
13: Ben Hope
Ben Hope is the most northerly of Scotland’s Munros (a mountain over 3000 feet) and has one of Scotland’s most spectacular viewpoints. The isolated peak allows for breath-taking panoramic views. My favourite being that of the sea stretching north towards the Arctic.
If you are a keen hiker and have a good general level of fitness, I would highly recommend this hike. It typically takes between 4-6 hours. The hike combines difficult sections with breath-taking views. It leaves you with the feeling of truly being immersed in the wilderness of Northern Scotland.
The mountain stands at 927 metres and the climb is steep and rocky in places, however if you make it to the top you will be standing on the highest point on the North Coast of Scotland. What an achievement that would be during your tour of the North Coast 500!
14: Durness, Golden Eagle Zipline and Smoo Cave
Durness is one of the most famous stops on our trip around the North Coast 500. It boasts a rocky coastline, immaculate sandy beaches with turquoise water, wildlife, and unbelievable walks. There really is a bit of something for everyone in this thriving Highland village and you really should add it to your NC500 itinerary.
Golden Eagle Zipline
One of the most fun activities to take part in near Durness is the Golden Eagle Zip Line. This one isn’t technically free unless you merely observe, but hopefully all the other free NC500 adventures we have shown you will leave you a little extra to spend on this experience. The Golden Eagle Zipline allows you to jump from the top of a 120-foot cliff and fly down the long zipline at up to 40mph over the stunning Ceannabeinne Beach. It is an experience not to be missed!
Smoo cave is a dramatic sea cave set into the fabulous limestone cliffs about a mile from Durness. The cave can be explored by walking down the steps to the left or the right and following the path and bridges that reach right inside its walls. You can walk to the heart of the 50ft, floodlit sea-cave. If you want to venture deeper still, there is a boat trip that takes you further into its dark caverns. This runs during the day and is well worth the small fee!
15: Sandwood Bay
Sandwood Bay holds the lofty reputation as being the most beautiful beach in the UK. A title which holds off some stiff competition from beautiful bays dotted down the west coast of Scotland.
The beach has nearly 1.5 miles of pink tinged sand and faces directly into the North Atlantic. It is flanked by cliffs on either side, backed by massive sand dunes and bears witness to the impressive sea stack of Am Buachaille just off its coast. It really is a spectacular unspoilt beach.
Remarkably, you will rarely see Sandwood Bay teeming with people, and that’s because it is a considerable walk from the nearest road to reach this unique spot. To get to the beach park your car at Blairmore and walk down the path for 4 miles. If you’re a lover of beaches (and who isn’t) you really need to set aside a day of your NC500 itinerary to visit this magnificent spot.
16: Wailing Widow Falls
The Wailing Widow Falls is a spectacular 30m waterfall sitting around halfway between Loch Assynt and Kylesku. The falls are hidden just off the A894 and can easily be missed. The falls can be viewed from the top or the bottom. I would recommend the bottom for a close and personal view of the cascading water.
Legend has it that the falls got their name after a hunter fell from the top of the falls while hunting on a foggy day. His mother, consumed by grief, threw herself from the same spot the next morning.
To get to the falls you park at a small parking spot just off the A894 and follow the water up to the base of the falls. It’s a short but fun walk scrambling up and down the side of the stream.
The falls drop from Loch Na Gainmhich above and cascade into a small pool at the bottom. If you’re fond of a wild swim this is an unbelievable spot to immerse yourself in the cold water. This stop is not to be missed on your North Coast 500 adventure.
17: Achmelvich and Clachtoll
Achmelvich and Clachtoll are both beaches so beautiful that it seems a crime to lump them together under one heading. However, their proximity to one another and the sheer number of beaches to choose from on the west coast of Scotland forces me to do so.
Achmelivch and Clachtoll sit around 5 miles from each other on difficult stretches of single-track roads. Visiting them both in the same day is an excellent way to make sure you don’t have to make the journey twice!
Achmelvich is famed for its beautiful bay, white sandy beaches, and turquoise water. It has become one of the most popular beaches on the North Coast 500 route. There is a large car park and toilet facilities on site to cater for its many visitors. The cliffs that flank either side of its turquoise waters are dotted with wild sheep, and you might be lucky enough to spot some dolphins in the bay. It truly is a natural paradise.
Clachtoll Bay is another beautiful white sandy beach with turquoise water. The terrain around the cove is as equally rugged as Achmelvich, although the cliffs are not as high or commanding. This is a great spot for swimming, kayaking and other water sports. The beach can get extremely busy due to the large campsite behind the beach. Clachtoll is another idyllic spot not to be missed out of your NC500 itinerary.
18: Bone Caves
The bone caves consist of four dramatic caves set into a high limestone cliff called Creag nan Uamh (Crag of the Caves). The Bone Caves got their name due to the large number of animal bones found in them during excavations. The intriguing remains include those of a northern lynx (the only one ever found in Scotland), a possible polar bear, an artic fox and a brown bear. Despite this there is no suggestion that humans ever inhabited the caves. There are numerous theories on how the bones ended up where they did.
Astonishingly, two sets of human bones have also been found buried in the caves. The remains suggested intentional burials and the bones have been dated to between 2500-2700 BC!
The walk to the bone caves is scenic and entertaining. It starts from a small car park off the A837 and takes around 1 hour each way. On route you pass a waterfall, cross a narrow burn, and walk through a beautiful Scottish Glen. You then walk up a steep ascent to the caves. The path is narrow and runs close to the cliff edge so tread carefully! The caves are a beautiful place to have a spot of lunch . A visit here is a great way to spend a morning or afternoon on your NC500 trip. Make sure to add it to your NC500 itinerary!
19: Knockan Crag
Knockan Crag lies within the North West Highlands Geo park around 13 miles north of Ullapool. It is a site of massive geological importance that holds the key to 500 million years of history, colliding continents, and tectonic plates!
If you’re into Geology then this place really can’t be missed. It was here that scientists first discovered what caused older layers of rock to sit on top of much younger ones. A discovery that changed the way we understand the evolution of the countries and continents we know today!
Even if rocks aren’t your thing, it’s a brilliant fun hike with stunning views, cool rock sculptures and excellent photo opportunities. I would highly recommend adding this to your NC500 itinerary for a fun and informative afternoon!
20: Stac Pollaidh
If you only intend on doing one hike during your time on the NC500 I can’t recommend Stac Pollaidh enough! The combination of a well-maintained path, a dramatic ridge and spectacular panoramic views across the Assynt peaks and Atlantic ocean makes Stac Pollaidh one of the best short hikes in Scotland.
The 612 metre peak sits just off the A835. From the moment you pull into the small carpark at the bottom of the mountain all you want to do is climb its impressive craggy ridge. A 1-2-hour hike will take you to the top and you will be rewarded with the most breath-taking views. A fun and straightforward scramble takes you to the Eastern summit where the views become even more impressive. The photo opportunities on this hike are endless. The Western summit is far more difficult to access and should only be attempted by seasoned climbers.
The path continues back down in a loop and takes you back to the carpark. It is a truly magical experience, with vast untouched beauty visible from every angle. If you want to experience rugged, wild Scotland, make sure you don’t give this a miss! If you want to ensure a parking spot why not get an early start and get to the top in time to see a spectacular NC500 sunrise.
21: Corrieshalloch Gorge
Corrieshalloch Gorge is a truly spectacular gorge that shows just how deep glacial meltwaters can cut into rock. The mile-long canyon is dramatically deep and the short walk around its edges is breath-taking.
A short but steep walk takes you to a Victorian suspension bridge that crosses the deep gorge. As you cross the bridge you can be excused for getting a serious case of jelly legs as you peer though the wooden slats beneath your feet. The bridge is a great vantage point to see the magnificent falls of Measach.
On the other side of the bridge is another short path leading down to a metal viewpoint. Standing at its furthest point gives the strange feeling of being suspended precariously over the massive drop, however the photo opportunities here are not to be missed!
This unbelievable site of natural beauty can easily be scheduled into your NC500 itinerary, and will only take up an hour or so of your day!
22. Gruinard Bay
Gruinard Bay has three stunning pink-tinged sandy beaches with beautiful views across to the Coigach Hills. As you walk along the tranquil, peaceful beaches you will no doubt find an array of interesting rocks and stones. They are among some of the oldest in the British Isles and the world!
As I mentioned before there are so many beaches that could be included in your NC500 route. I have debated long and hard which ones to include. Gruinard Bay has been included not only for its beauty, but also for the peace and tranquillity that comes from a lesser known spot.
My favourite of the three beaches can be reached by a short walk over the top of a small hill and down through some trees. The view when you reach the crest of the hill is spectacular. You see the beach appear in all its glory with sand dunes to its rear and rocks on either side creating a picturesque, sheltered, cove.
An awesome bonus is that the road to Gruinard Bay is inhabited by a number of wild mountain goats. They are an absolute delight to observe and photograph and a nice change from the sheep that usually dominate the roads of the NC500!
23: Beinn Eighe Mountain Trail
Beinn Eighe Mountain Trail is the only waymarked mountain trail in Britain. It is a beautiful hike that leads you through ancient woodland and over rugged crags to the spectacular heights of the mountain ridges. It is a varied and fun walk/scramble that takes about four hours to complete. The route is steep and a little tricky in places so it can be a challenging. However, it’s tons of fun!
The first section of the walk takes you from the beautiful Loch Maree up through a forest of ancient Scots Pinewood- one of the largest remnants of ancient woodland in Scotland. As you come out of the woods the path grows steeper and more rugged, with fun scrambles up huge sections of interesting rock formations. The waymarks certainly come in handy here as its not always obvious which way to go. The trail continues across the top past small lochans and down the other side beside a massive gorge.
If you enjoy a hike and love being surrounded by unspoiled, ancient natural beauty then this is definitely not a spot to be missed on your North Coast 500 adventure. If you don’t fancy the strenuous mountain trail there is also a more relaxing woodland trail.
24: Applecross and Bealach na Ba
Applecross Peninsula sits between the mainland mountains and the Isle of Skye and is home to just a couple of hundred people. It boasts out of this world beaches, calm waters and gentle rolling hills.
Perhaps as famous as the location is the road you drive to reach it: The Bealach na Ba
The Bealach na Ba is a winding single track road through the mountains of the Applecross peninsula. It has sharp bends and steep climbs and certainly isn’t for the nervous driver or a cumbersome motorhome! The road has the steepest ascent of any road in the UK and is the third highest road in Scotland.
If you are lucky enough to drive this route on a clear day, you will witness spectacular views to outlying islands and mainland mountain ranges. The descent into Applecross is equally dramatic. If you time your visit right you might be rewarded with a beautiful sunset to finish your day. I don’t think any NC500 itinerary is complete without the inclusion of this notorious stretch of road.
25: Rogie Falls
The final stop on our North Coast 500 tour takes us to the popular Rogie Falls circuit, near Contin. A short walk leads you through a rich forest and down to the Blackwater River where the Rogie Falls are located. The walk takes about an hour to complete. It can get quite busy during season, but there is a large carpark and toilets on site.
You get the best view of the stunning falls from a dramatic suspension bridge. This is a great place to take a photograph- albeit it a little wobbly!
Between June and October you can often see salmon trying to jump the main falls to reach the upper part of the river to spawn. Rogie Falls is an amazing spot to combine a forest walk, a beautiful waterfall and quirky Scottish nature. I would definitely recommend it as a stop off point on your North Coast 500 adventure.
It was torturous to try and narrow down everything that the North Coast 500 has to offer to 25 recommended stops. It is an area of such immense natural beauty that no single trip can fully do it justice. In recent years the route has become increasingly popular and its easy to forget that for many people these areas are simply home.
To help make your trip as seamless as possible I would like to recommend 3 key bits of advice when travelling the NC500
Plan your NC500 itinerary in advance!
The NC500 route is now becoming so well known and popular that accommodation, hotels, and campsites can booked out well in advance. If you aren’t taking the wild camping or campervan route, then I highly recommend booking months or even a year in advance to ensure you are able to stay at the stops you desire. Long gone are the days you could just pitch up and find accommodation. Proper planning is going to be key for you enjoying your stay and getting the best that the area has to offer. The same goes for restaurants and other attractions- you may need to book in advance in order to get a table in that place you really want to try!
Respect the Area
If you are taking the wild camping/campervan route then please remember to be respectful. 90% of tourists are fantastic, but there are always a few who think that staying overnight in historical monuments, or outside people’s houses is a good idea. Remember the highlands is simply home to many of us. Wild camping by definition should be well away from roads and out of view of anyone else. Try to find places off the beaten track to park or camp so that you can escape all the other tourists and give the locals some respite.
Mind where you go!
Ideally if you plan to travel “wild” you should travel in a self contained way. However, if you are camping or don’t have a toilet on board your motorhome then at least be respectful and follow some basic loo etiquette. If you’re caught short (and I think every one of us has been at some point) then going somewhere away from the road, paths, people and water streams is essential. Don’t do your business in caves, historical ruins or other enclosed spaces (no-one wants to see or smell that)! If you really need to do that number 2 outside then take a shovel and bury! Don’t leave toilet paper and baby wipes behind. It’s absolutely disgusting for visitors and locals alike.
It’s not in anyone’s interests to be disrespectful as it will only put a negative spin on your trip. Travelling in a way that respects the beauty you are surrounded by and the people who inhabit it always makes for a more positive experience!
Don’t Underestimate the Roads!
If you’re not from the Highlands of Scotland it is extremely likely that you are going to encounter roads of which the like you have never seen! Many stretches of road are single track and can be more rustic than you may be used to. Make use of the many passing places not only for oncoming traffic but also to let faster moving traffic pass you from behind. These beautiful stretches of road should definitely be driven at a pace you are comfortable with but keep the locals in mind and make use of the numerous opportunities to let them past.
Bigger isn’t always better!
Also, take the roads into account when choosing what vehicle to travel in. I have seen many large campervan wing-mirrors bite the dust, due to them just not being that suitable for the width of the roads. I would recommend a smaller campervan or car over a more cumbersome vehicle every time! Also don’t assume that 60 miles will take you 60 minutes. On many of these roads, and especially with the volume of traffic that is now being seen, it could take much longer. Factor this into your trip and don’t bite off more than you can chew!
To help you locate all of the places on our list and start planning your NC500 adventure we have made a handy map for you to have a look at!
Hopefully this post has set you up a little bit better for your NC500 adventure! If you have any questions or comments please get in touch and we will do everything we can to help you have the best visit to the Highlands possible.
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