As more of us looked to the UK for our summer holidays last year, Kerry Gallagher headed to the highlands for a road trip around Scotland’s North Coast 500
The North Coast 500, or as it has more recently been nicknamed – ‘Scotland’s Route 66’ – has been growing in popularity over the last few years, and it’s easy to see why. Starting and ending in Inverness, this 500-mile round trip navigates the nooks and crannies of Scotland’s glorious coastline taking in sweeping beaches, mountain landscapes, seaside towns and captivating views.
Before starting the official route, I would highly recommend setting aside a day to explore Loch Ness, just 30 minutes from Inverness.
Urquhart Castle (left) is well worth a visit and Fort Augustus at the southern tip, marks the joining of the Caledonian Canal and is home to a fascinating series of locks stepping down into the loch.
The NC500 starts at Inverness Castle, and I chose to drive anti-clockwise – heading up the east coast first. During my planning I had seen many debates about the east and west coasts, with many citing ‘west is best’. I won’t take sides, but what I will say is don’t overlook the east coast – there is plenty on offer.
I was particularly taken with the seaside resort of Dornoch with its impressive cathedral and stunning beach. Dunrobin Castle resembles a French chateau in a magnificent setting overlooking the Moray Firth. While in Wick, the dramatic ruins of Castle Old Wick and Castle Sinclair Girnigoe provide stunning views across the rugged coastline.
Travelling further north leads to John O’Groats, and the iconic signpost, where a photo stop is a must!
From here I walked the coastal path to Duncansby Head, which is a beautiful walk with rewarding views, and the opportunity to see seabird colonies nesting in the cliff faces. Across the northern stretch of the NC500 there’s plenty of stopping points to admire more of the breathtaking scenery, including Dunnet Head – the most northernly point of mainland Britain, and Strathy Point. As you turn your eyes inland, you’ll notice a more mountainous terrain appear with views of Ben Loyal and Ben Hope.
Tucked in the north west tip I spent one of my favourites days, exploring Smoo Cave, Durness Beach (right), and hiking Faraid Head and Balnakeil Bay.
It was along this section I encountered single track roads for the first time – thankfully not as daunting as I had imagined. If, like me, you’re unfamiliar with driving single track roads it’s worth reading up to prepare yourself, as there are many more to come along the west coast. Including an optional detour along ‘The Wee Mad Road’, a rollercoaster like track which requires caution, but offers the chance to stop and see Clashnessie Falls, and Achmelvich Beach.
The west coast is simply stunning, and I found I settled into a routine of days spent alternating between adventurous hikes and relaxing at beautiful beaches. This coastline is also peppered with some picture-perfect seaside towns and villages, including Lochinver and Ullapool, the latter being a great place to take a boat trip out to the Summer Isles where wildlife sightings may include dolphins, eagles and puffins, to name but a few.
The west coast is also blessed with a vast number of lochs to explore, my favourites being Loch Assynt, Gair Loch, Loch Maree.
And perhaps I saved the best until last with Loch Torridon. I spent a wonderful afternoon hiking the paths of Upper Loch Torridon (left) and onto the Falls of Balgy, this varied circuit offered spectacular views throughout.
After navigating more coastal roads you come to the winding single track road of Bealach Na Ba, with epic hairpin turns and steep ascents through the scenic mountains of the Applecross Peninsula. There is an alternate route if you wish to avoid this road but if you are a confident driver, it is an exhilarating drive to experience. The route now takes you back inland, travelling east towards Inverness. There are a couple of noteworthy stops such as Rogie Falls, but all too soon the journey comes full circle.
This is a trip that exceeded all my expectations and while I packed so much into just nine days, I feel Scotland has so much more to offer that I could happily return again and again.
Find out more
The North Coast 500 was launched in 2015 linking several roads into one touring route, easily signposted throughout. You can choose to drive the route either clockwise or anti-clockwise, but plan ahead to ensure you can fit in everything you wish to see. Accommodation and restaurants can get fully booked quickly, especially in the summer months.
Go to avisworld.com/silvertravel for car hire details.