• NORTH COAST 500 HIGHLIGHTS

    Two vehicles come face to face on the single track road near the top of the Bealach na Ba, one of the absolute best driving highlights of Scotland's North Coast 500.
  • NORTH COAST 500 HIGHLIGHTS

    The ruins of Ardvreck Castle in the late afternoon light on Scotland's North Coast 500 route.

15 OUTSTANDING NORTH COAST 500 HIGHLIGHTS

The 516 mile North Coast 500 was christened in 2015, unifying an existing network of roads into one scenic driving route with a catchy name and instant tourist appeal. Looping around the north of Scotland, the route journeys through some of the country’s most spectacular landscapes, with no shortage of white sand beaches, dramatic sea cliffs and rugged mountains. In fact, there’s so much to see and do that planning a trip on the NC500 can quickly spiral out of control. Trust us when we say you aren’t the first to be lost in a sea of route maps, itinerary planners, and Google image search results!

After travelling the route as part of a month-long camping road trip around the Scottish Highlands and Islands, we’ve whittled down our top 15 North Coast 500 highlights to help guide you back to shore and chart your own perfect plan.

  • A car drives below the distinctively shaped Quinag on Scotland's North Coast 500 route.
  • A car drives below the distinctively shaped Quinag on Scotland's North Coast 500 route.

Driving past the mighty Quinag in Assynt



All of the North Coast 500 highlights in this list are easily accessible from the main NC500 route. This makes it ideal for those sticking to a schedule and looking for short walks and activities to enjoy along the way. If you’re more flexible and have time to stray off the main route, we’ll be sharing our favourite NC500 side trips with you very soon.

NORTH COAST 500 MAP

Use the map below to help lead you around the NC500 to the places mentioned in this guide. You can also download our Maps.me bookmarks here, which can be used offline together with the app.

NC500 WEST COAST // LOCHCARRON TO DURNESS

NC500 WEST COAST //

LOCHCARRON TO DURNESS

OK, let’s not beat about the bush. The West Coast is where it’s at when it comes to epic scenery and the majority of the North Coast 500 highlights. Generally speaking, the entire route between Lochcarron and Tongue is spectacular, and the journey itself is a pleasure. The landscape and views are constantly changing, with dramatic shifts in geography from one region to the next. In our opinion, the majority of your time should be devoted to this half of the NC500.

BEALACH NA BA

The most thrilling (terrifying?) section of road on the route, driving up and over the Bealach na Ba is undoubtedly one of the highlights of the North Coast 500. The name translates to ‘Pass of the Cattle’ (‘Bealach’ means pass in Gaelic), and this old drovers’ road dates from 1822. There are numerous tight hairpin bends to negotiate as the single track road winds its way steeply up and over the Applecross mountains between Loch Carron and Applecross Bay. The views from the top over to Skye and Rum are spectacular. It’s also worth parking up and heading off on foot further up the hill to the TV mast, where you’ll have more epic 360° views.

A car winds round one of the final bends on the climb towards the Bealach na Ba, one of Scotland's most scenic roads and a true highlight of the North Coast 500.

A car approaches one of the final bends before reaching the Bealach na Ba



A car winds round one of the final bends on the climb towards the Bealach na Ba, one of Scotland's most scenic roads and a true highlight of the North Coast 500.

A car rounds one of the final bends
before reaching the Bealach na Ba



We first drove this road in 2009, a serious challenge for our old banger of a Vauxhall Corsa. By the time we were on the descent to Applecross, our poor wee car was literally smoking from the bonnet. Let that be a warning to any of you with equally decrepit motors! The Bealach na Ba is a definite no-go for large campervans, and it shouldn’t be attempted unless you’re a confident driver. Also note that it’s often impassable in winter.

A person climbs the rocky and grassy hillside above the Bealach na Ba for a better view across to the Isle of Skye.

Climbing the hill to get those views across to the Isle of Skye



A person climbs the rocky and grassy hillside above the Bealach na Ba for a better view across to the Isle of Skye.

Climbing the hill to get those views across to Skye



APPLECROSS INN & BAY

The Bealach na Ba leads to the tiny, isolated village of Applecross, a beguiling bay with the Applecross Inn at the heart of the community. It’s hard to define what makes this such an appealing spot. The beach is more rocks and seaweed than golden sand, and there’s nothing in particular to ‘see’ or ‘do’. Yet it’s the kind of place that induces an overwhelming sense of peace and tranquility. Maybe it’s the gorgeous sunset views over to Raasay, Skye, and Rona. Or perhaps the relief at having conquered the steepest road in the UK. But most likely it’s the warm welcome and outstanding food at the Applecross Inn, a place that lingers long in the memory.

Applecross Inn with lights on both in and out as night approaches.

Delicious food, quality beer and a warm welcome awaits at the excellent Applecross Inn



Applecross Inn with lights on both in and out as night approaches.

Delicious food, quality beer and a warm
welcome awaits at the Applecross Inn



Applecross is an especially great spot for campers, with an official campsite above the beach, and plenty of unofficial wild camp spots lining the shore (always Leave No Trace). There’s a community run toilet block near the pub (leave a donation), and you can even get an ice cream from a gleaming Airstream! It’s safe to say that if it’s raining with zero visibility, the charms of Applecross may be lost on you. But the food at the Inn tastes great in all weather and is not to be missed on your NC500 trip!

A tent is pitched on the grass behind the beach at Applecross Bay on the North Coast 500 Route.

There are plenty of great spots for a bit of wild camping in Applecross Bay



A tent is pitched on the grass behind the beach at Applecross Bay on the North Coast 500 Route.

There are plenty of great spots for a
bit of wild camping in Applecross Bay



SHIELDAIG TO KINLOCHEWE

While pretty much the whole of the NC500 is a feast for the eyes, some sections are particularly jaw-dropping. The road between Shieldaig and Kinlochewe is one of them. Torridon is synonymous with epic mountain scenery, and the giants of Liathach, Beinn Eighe, Beinn Alligin and friends will make you feel very small.  Between Shieldaig and Torridon you’ll be treated to expansive views over Upper Loch Torridon and the mountains. Carrying on to Kinlochewe, you’ll feel like you’re driving right through the middle of them, dwarfed by soaring monoliths on both sides.

Looking across Loch Torridon towards the mountains in the late afternoon golden light.

Looking across Loch Torridon to the mountains from a North Coast 500 roadside viewpoint



Looking across Loch Torridon towards the mountains in the late afternoon golden light.

Looking across Loch Torridon to the mountains
from a North Coast 500 roadside viewpoint



 If you’re into hiking, be sure to plan a stop here. Beinn Eighe Nature Reserve has a number of waymarked trails of varying lengths and difficulties, and Torridon village makes a good base for more strenuous full day hikes. Check out various options on Walkhighlands.

Cottages in the afternoon sun next to the River Torridon on Scotland's North Coast 500.

Stopping to admire valley scenes



Mountains in both sun and shadow with dark clouds above making a dramatic scene on the road between Torridon and Kinlochewe on Scotland's North Coast 500.

Dwarfed by towering mountains on the road to Kinlochewe



Mountains in both sun and shadow with dark clouds above making a dramatic scene on the road between Torridon and Kinlochewe on Scotland's North Coast 500.

Dwarfed by mountains on the road to Kinlochewe


Cottages in the afternoon sun next to the River Torridon on Scotland's North Coast 500.

Stopping to admire valley scenes



CORRIESHALLOCH GORGE

The NC500 runs right by this mile-long gorge, but you’d never know it was there unless you park up and set off to explore on foot. A quick 30 minute round trip is all you need to be dazzled by the narrow, 60 m deep gorge, complete with suspension bridge and waterfall.

The bridge and waterfall in Corrieshalloch Gorge on the North Coast 500 route.

Looking up the gorge from the viewing platfrom



Looking down from the bridge to the waterfall in Corrieshalloch Gorge on the North Coast 500 route.

Admiring the waterfall from the bridge above



The bridge and waterfall in Corrieshalloch Gorge on the North Coast 500 route.

Looking up the gorge from the viewing platfrom


Looking down from the bridge to the waterfall in Corrieshalloch Gorge on the North Coast 500 route.

Admiring the waterfall from the bridge above



ARDVRECK CASTLE

This ruined 16th Century castle sits broodily on the shore of Loch Assynt. It’s thoroughly photogenic and a popular pit-stop on the NC500. There’s a carpark on the main road nearby and it’s a short 5-10 minutes walk to reach the castle.

The ruins of Ardvreck Castle in the late afternoon light on Scotland's North Coast 500 route.

Ardvreck Castle on the shores of Loch Assynt, with the path to the ruins lying underwater after heavy rainfall



The ruins of Ardvreck Castle in the late afternoon light on Scotland's North Coast 500 route.

Ardvreck Castle on the shores of Loch Assynt, with
the path to the ruins underwater after heavy rain



ASSYNT COASTAL LOOP ROAD BETWEEN ARDVRECK AND KYLESKU BRIDGE

This is another one of those jaw-dropping sections of the NC500. It took all of about 5 minutes for Assynt to become one of our favourite places in the whole of Scotland. If you’re running short on time, you may be tempted to skip the 55 km coastal loop in favour of the 12km direct route to Kylesku Bridge. Don’t!* You’ll be missing out on so many North Coast 500 highlights.

*Unless you’re in a motorhome, and then I’m afraid this road is not suitable for your beast of a vehicle

Now, I’m no geologist, but I love a good rock formation. And it just so happens that this area is home to the oldest rocks in Europe – 3 billion year old stripey pink and grey-green Lewisian Gneiss. These rocks, along with the peculiar ‘cnoc and lochan’ characteristics of the region (low hills punctuated with hundreds of small lochs), create a unique landscape unlike any other in Scotland. Add to this a backdrop of towering Torridonian sandstone monoliths like Suilven, Canisp, Quinag and Cul Mor, and I challenge you not to be thoroughly enchanted.

The unique landscape of small lochs and rocky hillocks in Assynt, seen on the Assynt coastal loop road section of Scotland's North Coast 500.

The unique ‘cnoc and lochan’ landscape of Assynt is a pleasure to observe as you drive around the coastal loop road



The unique landscape of small lochs and rocky hillocks in Assynt, seen on the Assynt coastal loop road section of Scotland's North Coast 500.

The ‘cnoc and lochan’ landscape of Assynt is a
pleasure to observe while driving the loop road



But that’s not all. This little patch of scenic paradise is also home to some cracking beaches, waterfalls and (of course) a white and yellow Stevenson Lighthouse. Clachtoll and Achmelvich are two must-see beaches on this NC500 loop route, especially at low tide. There is a hidden cove to the left of Achmelvich, and another nice beach (Vestey’s) with dramatic rocks rising from the sand a short walk to the right. Both Clachtoll and Achmelvich have campsites, while the latter has a youth hostel too.

The golden sand of Vestey's beach backed by dramatic rocks, mossy grass, and a white cottage. The beach is close to the popular Achmelvich beach on Scotland's North Coast 500 route.

From Achmelvich beach walk over the hill to the north to get this dramatic view of Vestey’s Beach, then scramble down for a closer look



The golden sand of Vestey's beach backed by dramatic rocks, mossy grass, and a white cottage. The beach is close to the popular Achmelvich beach on Scotland's North Coast 500 route.

From Achmelvich beach walk over the hill to the
north to get this dramatic view of Vestey’s Beach,
then scramble down for a closer look



The beach at Clashnessie is also beautiful, and from here there’s a 2km roundtrip walk to the impressive Clashnessie falls. Ever fancied sleeping in a lighthouse? Well you can at Stoer, a short detour off the main route, and also the starting point for a 7km roundtrip hike to The Old Man of Stoer sea-stack.

See More From Scotland

An abandoned boat wreck on the Isle of Mull.
Peanmeanach Bothy on the Ardnish Peninsula in February
Culross: Scotland's Best Preserved 17th century town
An abandoned boat wreck on the Isle of Mull.
Peanmeanach Bothy on the Ardnish Peninsula in February
Culross: Scotland's Best Preserved 17th century town

NC500 NORTH COAST // DURNESS TO JOHN O’GROATS

NC500 NORTH COAST //

DURNESS TO JOHN O’GROATS

On this section of the NC500 you’ll see just how different the west and east coasts of Scotland really are. Somewhere around Strathy, roughly halfway between the mainland’s most north-westerly and north-easterly towns, the entire landscape changes. The jagged coastline and brooding inland mountains of the west transform into the flat rolling moorlands and peat bogs of The Flow Country, and a more linear coastline with cliffs, beaches and farmland extends for miles. Along this northern stretch, the main North Coast 500 highlights all lie in the west, between Durness and Bettyhill.

BALNAKEIL BEACH & FARAID HEAD

The north coast of Scotland boasts yet more wonderful beaches of all shapes and sizes. West facing Balnakeil Beach is wide and sweeping, a crescent of white sand backed by dunes. It’s a lovely sheltered spot for a swim (in warmer weather) and the sunset views over Cape Wrath are cracking. You can continue walking along the beach to reach Faraid Head, home to nesting seabirds and a good place to spot seals. Nearby Balnakeil Craft Village and Cocoa Mountain cafe are also worth a visit (especially for the artisan chocolates).

The sweeping golden sands of Balnakeil Beach near Durness, the most northwesterly town in Scotland and one of the main hubs on the North Coast 500 route.

The wide, sweeping crescent of Balnakeil Beach curving round towards Faraid Head



The sweeping golden sands of Balnakeil Beach near Durness, the most northwesterly town in Scotland and one of the main hubs on the North Coast 500 route.

The sweeping crescent of Balnakeil Beach
curving round towards Faraid Head



SANGO SANDS

Durness is the most north-westerly town on the Scottish mainland, and also the biggest in the area, so you’ll likely make a stop here to stock up on supplies, or stay overnight. It’s also home to Sango Sands, a wild stretch of beach backed by grassy cliffs. Huge rocks are scattered along the shore and a little out to sea, as if a giant dropped a load of crumbs from his rock bun as he picnicked on the cliffside. There’s a campsite in prime position on the cliffs above, and plenty of other accommodation options in town.

A person stands looking out at the sea past the huge rocks on Sango Sands, one of Scotland's most northerly beaches and a popular place to visit on the North Coast 500 route.

Taking a moment to appreciate the impressive scene at Sango Sands



Two large black rocks embedded in the sand on the shoreline at Sango Sands in northwest Scotland.

Getting up close with those huge rocks



A person stands looking out at the sea past the huge rocks on Sango Sands, one of Scotland's most northerly beaches and a popular place to visit on the North Coast 500 route.

Appreciating the impressive Sango Sands


Two large black rocks embedded in the sand on the shoreline at Sango Sands in northwest Scotland.

Getting up close with those huge rocks



SMOO CAVE

Yet another North Coast 500 highlight near Durness, Smoo Cave is an amazing sight. It’s a huge sea cave with freshwater inner chambers formed from rainwater dissolving the carbonate dolomite rock. The outer sea cave chamber is accessible year round (it may be out of bounds during high spring tides though), and is just a short walk down cliffside steps from the car park above.

Smoo cave lies beneath the North Coast 500 route and the town of Durness, facing out towards the North Sea.

Smoo Cave sits directly below the town of Durness and the North Coast 500 route



Smoo cave lies beneath the North Coast 500 route and the town of Durness, facing out towards the North Sea.

Smoo Cave sits directly below the town of
Durness and the North Coast 500 route



From April till September you can access the inner freshwater chamber on a boat tour, but if it’s been raining the chamber will be flooded and the tours cancelled. On the plus side, the waterfall near the entrance should be in full flow. It’s free to enter the cave and waterfall chamber, and the tour costs £6 (just sign up on the spot). Ongoing excavations are revealing more channels within the cave, which may link up with other caves along the coast and reveal one giant cave system – check it out in this great video.

The waterfall rushing down from above in the inner chamber of Smoo Cave, one of the North Coast 500's must see sights.

The waterfall lies at the end of a wooden walkway inside the cave



A person walking between rockpools inside the main cavern of Smoo Cave, one of the North Coast 500's must see sights.

Atmospheric Smoo Cave



The waterfall rushing down from above in the inner chamber of Smoo Cave, one of the North Coast 500's must see sights.

The waterfall lies at the end of a wooden walkway


A person walking between rockpools inside the main cavern of Smoo Cave, one of the North Coast 500's must see sights.

Atmospheric Smoo Cave



CEANNABEINNE BEACH

This is a beautiful spot, with the NC500 running right above it on the road east of Durness. The beach sits at the foot of some rocky cliffs – a trail leads down from the road over grassy slopes and past a stream to the white sand below. It’s best visited at low tide, when there’s more of the beach to enjoy and you can access various inlets further along.

Two surfers walk across the sand in the afternoon sun at Ceannabeinne Beach, not far from Durness on the North Coast 500 route.

Two surfers making their way back up Ceannabeinne Beach in the afternoon sun



Two surfers walk across the sand in the afternoon sun at Ceannabeinne Beach, not far from Durness on the North Coast 500 route.

Two surfers making their way back up
Ceannabeinne Beach in the afternoon sun



This area is the site of a small ruined settlement where the villagers were forced off the land during the Highland Clearances. There’s a walking trail with information boards that leads you around the ruins, and to the cliff tops where fantastic views await. There’s also a zipline running across the beach (£12 per flight, Easter – end Oct).

COLDBACKIE BEACH

The north coast of Scotland has no shortage of weather battered beaches, and Coldbackie is one of our favourites. The NC500 road runs right above it but the beach itself is a bit obscured from view. You need to walk down from the layby through grassy dunes to reach it (around 5-10 minutes), so it still feels wild and hidden.

A person and their dog walk alone on the wind whipped Coldbackie Beach, a 5-10 minute walk down from the North Coast 500 road above.

Cliffs and dunes rising above a windy Coldbackie Beach



A diamond shaped rockpool, framed by jagged shards, on the shore at Coldbackie Beach.

Rockpools by the shore



A person and their dog walk alone on the wind whipped Coldbackie Beach, a 5-10 minute walk down from the North Coast 500 road above.

Cliffs and dunes rising above Coldbackie Beach


A diamond shaped rockpool, framed by jagged shards, on the shore at Coldbackie Beach.

Rockpools by the shore



The smooth golden sand beach is backed by near vertical dunes topped with grass, bracken and machair. Rising above them is a dome shaped rocky mountain. It’s a spectacular sight, best appreciated from the rockpools by the shore. Looking out over the water there’s a view of the Rabbit Islands and Skinnet Bay on the other side of the Kyle of Tongue. Up close the dunes are like wonderful works of art, sculpted into fascinating shapes and forms by the wind – which can be quite brutal here, by the way. We enjoyed all of these views through sand encrusted eyes and left with our faces well and truly exfoliated.

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NC500 EAST COAST // JOHN O’GROATS TO INVERNESS

NC500 EAST COAST //

JOHN O’GROATS TO INVERNESS

On the east coast NC500 route the driving becomes much less challenging, so it’s possible to cover longer distances in shorter periods of time. In our opinion the North Coast 500 highlights here are focused on a few specific points of interest, as opposed to the journey itself. Dornoch and Helmsdale are probably the nicest spots to stay overnight on this section of the route.

DUNCANSBY STACKS & LIGHTHOUSE

After journeying along the north coast, the NC500 route takes an almost 90° turn south and starts down the east coast. At the tip of the most north-easterly point of the mainland lies Duncansby Head, home to some impressive sea stacks and a good old yellow and white Stevenson Lighthouse. There are two huge sea stacks, pointed at the top and conical in shape, like a couple of giant party hats rising from the sea. There’s another arched rock feature jutting out from the cliffside in front of the stacks. It’s a wonderfully wild spot, overlooking the Pentland Firth to the Orkney Isles. There’s a car park near the lighthouse but you’ll need to walk along the cliffs for 10 minutes to get a view of the sea stacks.

Duncansby sea stacks on a very overcast and moody day.

The Duncansby Stacks are an absolute must for your North Coast 500 itinerary



Duncansby sea stacks on a very overcast and moody day.

The Duncansby Stacks are an absolute
must for your North Coast 500 itinerary



CASTLE SINCLAIR GIRNIGOE

A short detour off the NC500 towards Noss Head, just north of Wick, will lead you to Castle Sinclair Girnigoe. This ruined castle sits precariously on the cliffs above a small natural harbour. There’s some restoration work ongoing, but you can wander around the ruins and down to the water. It’s a wonderfully atmospheric spot.

The clifftop ruins of Castle Girnigoe Sinclair on Scotland's northwest Caithness coast.

Castle Girnigoe Sinclair sits atop layered cliffs on the rocky north coast



A wooden bridge leads into the ruins of Castle Girnigoe Sinclair, a top historical attraction on Scotland's North Coast 500 route.

Entering the ruins by wooden bridge



The clifftop ruins of Castle Girnigoe Sinclair on Scotland's northwest Caithness coast.

Castle Girnigoe Sinclair sits on layered coastal cliffs


A wooden bridge leads into the ruins of Castle Girnigoe Sinclair, a top historical attraction on Scotland's North Coast 500 route.

Entering the ruins by wooden bridge



And for Lighthouse Lovers out there, you can tick off yet another one of Stevenson’s masterpieces at nearby Noss Head.

The white and yellow Stevenson lighthouse at Noss Head, just off the North Coast 500 route.

This distinctive white and yellow lighthouse overlooks Sinclairs Bay on the Caithness coast, just a few miles from the North Coast 500 route



The white and yellow Stevenson lighthouse at Noss Head, just off the North Coast 500 route.

This distinctive white and yellow lighthouse
overlooks Sinclairs Bay on the Caithness coast,
just a few miles from the North Coast 500 route



WHALIGOE STEPS

Completely hidden from view on the road, the marvel that is the Whaligoe Haven only becomes apparent once you’re on the descent down the 330 Whaligoe Steps. This man-made staircase leads down the cliffside to a natural harbour used to land herring boats in the early 18th century. Women would gut the fish in the harbour, then carry creel-loads up the steps and on to the fish market in Wick, 7 miles away. Barrels of salted herring would be prepared in the harbour, then loaded onto schooners for export.

The Whaligoe stone steps descending a rocky cliff face on Scotland's far northeast Caitness coast.

The steps lead down the cliffside



A person sits looking up at the rocky cliffs at Whaligoe Haven, a stunning natural harbour that can be seen on the North Coast 500 route in Scotland.

Looking back up to the to the cliffs and steps above from the impressive Whaligoe Haven



The Whaligoe stone steps descending a rocky cliff face on Scotland's far northeast Caitness coast.

The steps lead down the cliffside


A person sits looking up at the rocky cliffs at Whaligoe Haven, a stunning natural harbour that can be seen on the North Coast 500 route in Scotland.

Looking back up to the to the cliffs and steps
above from the impressive Whaligoe Haven



It’s an incredible spot with 76 metre cliffs rising all around, and a waterfall hiding around the corner – definitely one of our biggest highlights from the NC500 east coast section. There’s also an award-winning cafe at the top of the steps so time your lunch stop accordingly.

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DORNOCH BEACH

Dornoch Beach is our favourite on the east coast NC500 route. The historic town is also a nice place to wander.

Seaweed draped rocks glowing in the sun at low tide on Dornoch Beach, one of the key east coast attractions on Scotland's North Coast 500 route.

Seaweed draped rocks are revealed at low tide while the golden sand beach stretches on behind for miles



Seaweed draped rocks glowing in the sun at low tide on Dornoch Beach, one of the key east coast attractions on Scotland's North Coast 500 route.

Seaweed draped rocks revealed at low tide



The beach looks out over the Dornoch Firth and carries on for miles up the coast. The golden sand is punctuated with rocks and backed by low-lying grassy dunes. It’s a great spot for a windswept stroll along the coast.

15 NORTH COAST 500 HIGHLIGHTS

So, that’s it, our top 15 North Coast 500 highlights. We hope they help you navigate your way around the very best bits of the NC500. Got your own North Coast 500 story to tell? Let us know in the comments below.

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