• NORTH COAST 500

    SIDE TRIPS, ISLAND ADD-ONS & EXTENDED ITINERARIES

  • NORTH COAST 500

    SIDE TRIPS, ISLAND ADD-ONS & EXTENDED ITINERARIES

    Am Buachaille seat stack silhouetted against the setting sun at Sandwood Bay, one of the best North Coast 500 side trips

NORTH COAST 500

SIDE TRIPS, ISLAND ADD-ONS & EXTENDED ITINERARIES

A journey on Scotland’s North Coast 500 makes for a spectacular road trip in itself, with plenty of highlights along the way. But for those with the time and inclination to stray from the main route, there is so much more to see and do down endless tracks leading to far flung nooks of the land. In this guide we’ll cover the best North Coast 500 side trips, island add-ons, and extended itineraries – perfect for those looking to slow things down and explore even more of Scotland’s natural wonders.

In addition to the adventures outlined in this guide, check out our top 15 North Coast 500 Highlights to help you plan the perfect trip.

WATCH THE VIDEO

Watch the behind the scenes version of our Scotland road trip on Instagram stories 

Watch the behind the scenes
version of our Scotland road
trip on Instagram stories 

NORTH COAST 500 SIDE TRIPS & EXTENDED ITINERARIES MAP

Use the map below to help lead you away from the NC500 to the places mentioned in this guide. You can also download an offline version to Maps.me.


To save this map to use online on desktop or mobile just tap the star symbol at the top. When you open Google Maps on your phone, navigate to ‘Saved’ at the bottom, then swipe along to ‘Maps’ at the top. You’ll find this map in your list of maps. On desktop, click the three lines at the top left, select ‘Your Places’, then ‘Maps’. Click the map, then scroll down and select ‘Open in My Maps’ to access the interactive version

Alternatively, just tap the rectangle symbol at the top right of the map in this blog post to view the My Maps version larger on desktop.

Unfortunately, it’s not possible to view this version of the map offline, but we’ve created a similar version for offline use as per below.


To use an offline map with all the same pins and hiking trails marked, first download Maps.Me (iOS/Android), then download our NC500 Side Trips bookmarks, and select open with Maps.Me. 

You can easily navigate by tapping the bookmark for your start point and selecting ‘route from’, then tap your end point bookmark and select ‘route to’. If you want to plot a different route to the one suggested by Maps.me, just tap a third (or fourth, fifth, etc.) bookmark between the start and end points and select ‘add stop’.

You can use Maps.me offline or online, but note that the attached photos and links for each bookmark will only appear when you’re online.


NORTH COAST 500 SIDE TRIPS

NORTH COAST 500 //

SIDE TRIPS

The North Coast 500 route journeys through some of Scotland’s most spectacular and varied scenery. It would be rude not to get out and see more of it up close, wouldn’t it? The below side tracks, hiking trails, scenic spots, and wild isles are all easily accessible from the main NC500 route, offering extra adventures that range from a few hours to a few days.

FIREMORE BEACH

There are no shortage of beautiful beaches along the NC500, but quite a few of our favourites can be found off the main route. Firemore Beach is one of them. Not only does it have a cool name, but it’s a stunning spot overlooking the Isle of Ewe, with the munros of the Fisherfield rising in the distance. Whitewashed houses dot the flanking rocky outcrops, and a basic campsite sits at the back of the beach (May 1 – Oct 31, £5 a night). The beach is divided in two by a chubby finger of rock jutting out into the calm water. It’s a great spot for a stroll or picnic, and as with all Scottish beaches, it’s most beguiling when the sun is shining.

Turn off the NC500 at Poolewe, Firemore is just 11 km along the coast. There is a car park (57.8318, -5.6851) at the beach.

Picture perfect whitewashed houses and mirror like reflections at Firemore Beach, an easy North Coast 500 side trip

Richly coloured orange red sand and eye-pleasing rock formations stretching up Firemore Beach, an easy side trip from the North Coast 500 route in Scotland

A lone figure walks along the shore at Firemore Beach with distant mountain views in the background

Picture perfect whitewashed houses and mirror like reflections at Firemore Beach, an easy North Coast 500 side trip

Firemore Beach reflection


Richly coloured orange red sand and eye-pleasing rock formations stretching up Firemore Beach, an easy side trip from the North Coast 500 route in Scotland

Richly coloured sand and eye-pleasing rocks


A lone figure walks along the shore at Firemore Beach with distant mountain views in the background

Distant mountain views from the shore



SHENAVALL BOTHY & THE FISHERFIELD FOREST

The Fisherfield Forest, also known as ‘The Great Wilderness’, is a truly remote area of Scotland. It is home to a number of munros as well as an iconic bothy. The NC500 goes right by the trailhead where you can start hiking into the heart of this wild land. It’s possible to make a circuit to Shenavall Bothy and back in one day, or spend a night or two at the bothy and tackle the challenging ‘Fisherfield 6’. Either way, make sure you are properly equipped for a challenging hike through boggy terrain. Get an idea of what the area is like with this great video.

Park at the layby at Corrie Hallie (57.8149, -5.1759) on the NC500, about 4km beyond Dundonnell and 17 km before Corrieshalloch Gorge. Check access restrictions for Shenavall Bothy on the MBA website in advance.

Want to know more about Scottish bothies?

HIKE STAC POLLAIDH

This is another great NC500 side trip for all you hikers out there. It’s highly rewarding in the effort vs views stakes, and isn’t too challenging at around 3 hours/4.5 km. You’ll know you’re in the right place when you see a jagged crown of a mountain rising out of the hillside before you…. it’s quite the sight!

  • The jagged crown of hard rock that is the popular Scottish mountain Stac Pollaidh, accessible on a side trip from the North Coast 500 route
  • The jagged crown of hard rock that is the popular Scottish mountain Stac Pollaidh, accessible on a side trip from the North Coast 500 route

The jagged crown of Stac Pollaidh



The loop trail leads round the base of Stac Pollaidh (pronounced ‘Stack Polly’), with stunning scenery unfolding as you go.

A lone hiker climbing the eastern side of Stac Pollaidh while the surrounding landscape lies in contrasting light and shadow

The views aren’t hard to appreciate on the loop trail around Stac Pollaidh



A lone hiker climbing the eastern side of Stac Pollaidh while the surrounding landscape lies in contrasting light and shadow

The views from the trail aren’t hard to appreciate



An optional but relatively straightforward summit of the east ridge dishes out even more amazing views. The true summit lies to the west and involves quite a technical scramble to reach  – it’s not for the inexperienced.

Looking south across Loch Lurgainn from Stac Pollaidh East Summit as the sun breaks through the clouds

Looking south across Loch Lurgainn from Stac Pollaidh East Summit



Looking south across Loch Lurgainn from Stac Pollaidh East Summit as the sun breaks through the clouds

Looking south across Loch Lurgainn
from Stac Pollaidh East Summit



Stac Pollaidh is one of a number of mountains in the region that rise quite spectacularly from an otherwise lowly landscape of undulating hills and lochans. These monoliths are iconic features of the unique scenery of Assynt and Coigach, and you’ll have them spread out before you on this fantastic hike.

Detour off the NC500 at Drumrunie, about 15 km north of Ullapool. The Stac Pollaidh car park (58.0345, -5.2072) is about 8km along the road, on the banks of Loch Lurgainn.

The view to the north from Stac Pollaidh: Cùl Mòr rises behind Loch Sionascaig, with the distinctive form of Suilven seen in the distance

The view to the north: Cùl Mòr rises behind Loch Sionascaig, with the distinctive form of Suilven seen in the distance



The view to the north from Stac Pollaidh: Cùl Mòr rises behind Loch Sionascaig, with the distinctive form of Suilven seen in the distance

The view to the north: Cùl Mòr rises behind Loch
Sionascaig, with iconic Suilven seen in the distance



ACHNAHAIRD BEACH

Another of our favourites on the west coast, and one of the best NC500 side trips for beach lovers and wild campers. This beautiful bay is extra special at sunrise, and at low tide when a flat expanse of pristine sand is exposed.

  • A person stands on the shore watching a dramatic sunrise at low tide on Achnahaird Beach in Scotland
  • A person stands on the shore watching a dramatic sunrise at low tide on Achnahaird Beach in Scotland

Watching the sunrise at Achnahaird Beach



The beach is backed by dunes and a huge grassy area, and although there are a few houses, it feels remote and peaceful. A winding trail above the shore leads from the car park to the beach, below which lie a number of hidden coves. In the distance, the hulking domes and jagged peaks of the Assynt mountains form the perfect backdrop. It’s a magical spot.

Continue a further 13 km west of Stac Pollaidh. There is a car park at the beach (58.0706, -5.3662) with bins, but no toilets.

Morning sun illuminates Achnahaird Beach, a possible side trip from Scotland's North Coast 500 route

The morning sun breaking through the clouds to illuminate the golden curve of Achnahaird Beach



Morning sun illuminates Achnahaird Beach, a possible side trip from Scotland's North Coast 500 route

The morning sun breaking through the clouds to
illuminate the golden curve of Achnahaird Beach



HIKE SUILVEN

Och, just the name sends shivers down my spine. Suilven is one of Scotland’s most recognisable mountains, and hiking to its domed summit makes for a pretty special addition to your NC500 trip. It’s a full day hike from the parking spot near Glencanisp Lodge. Otherwise, splitting the 20 km journey over two days is also a popular option. You can spend the night at Suileag Bothy, wild camp along the way, or even pitch up at the summit if the weather is in your favour. Nothing beats watching sunset and sunrise from this vantage point, that’s for sure.

The iconic dome of the Scottish mountain Suilven, seen through Suileag Bothy window

Suilven view from Suileag Bothy



Sleeping bags and mats laid out on the wooden sleeping platforms inside Suileag Bothy

Handy sleeping platforms and plenty of space to get comfy inside the bothy



The iconic dome of the Scottish mountain Suilven, seen through Suileag Bothy window

Suilven view from Suileag Bothy


Sleeping bags and mats laid out on the wooden sleeping platforms inside Suileag Bothy

Handy sleeping platforms and plenty
of space to get comfy inside the bothy



The hike itself is pretty straightforward until you reach the base of Suilven, after which it’s a steep climb up a gully to the ridge. At this point, all your struggle and strife will be forgotten as the whole of Assynt and beyond stretches out before you. Turning right, the final section up to the summit requires a bit of scrambling over big rocks with drops on either side. It can be a bit hairy in windy weather, and if you don’t cope well with heights you might freak out at this last bit. I did, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. Well, maybe just a tad.

Turn off the NC500 at Lochinver, heading 1.5 km east up the Canisp Road towards Glencanisp Lodge. Park at the car park (58.1461, -5.2172) near Loch Druim Suardalain and hike from there. Be sure to follow The Bothy Code if staying at Suileag, and always Leave No Trace when camping.

A sunburst rises over the distant mountain and bathes Suilven's eastern summit with its golden glow

The sunrise hitting Suilven’s eastern summit



A sunburst rises over the distant mountain and bathes Suilven's eastern summit with its golden glow

The sunrise hitting Suilven’s eastern summit



HANDA ISLAND

This uninhabited island off the west coast near Scourie is a haven for seabirds, and the perfect NC500 side trip for birdwatchers and island lovers alike. Handa Island is a nature reserve, managed by the Scottish Wildlife Trust. Around 100,000 birds breed here over the summer months (Apr-Jul), including puffins, razorbills, guillemots, great skuas, and fulmars. It also boasts spectacular scenery, with dramatic cliffs, sea stacks and sandy beaches.

Volunteer rangers meet passengers off the small ferry boat and give a quick talk on the scenic and wildlife highlights of the island, after which you’re free to explore. There’s a 6.5 km walking trail that takes around 3-4 hours to complete. Make sure you’ve got water and supplies with you as there are no facilities on the island (other than a composting toilet and small souvenir stand). The Shorehouse Seafood Restaurant at Tarbet harbour is the ideal spot for lunch or dinner after your island adventure (open 12 pm – 7 pm, Mon – Sat).

Detour off the NC500 5 km north of Scourie, heading west to Tarbet (about 4 km). A privately operated passenger ferry plies the 10 minute route between Tarbet and Handa in season, from 9 am to 2 pm, Mon – Sat (weather permitting). The last ferry back from Handa is at 5pm. The boat takes around 12 passengers at a time, and there’s no set schedule, it just runs back and forth on demand. It costs £15 return (cash only) and you can’t book in advance, so just show up at the harbour. Leave your car at the harbour car park (58.3893, -5.1428).

See More From Scotland

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

SANDWOOD BAY

Sandwood Bay is one of the most remote, wild, and pristine beaches in Scotland. But to get a glimpse of it, you’ll need to put in some effort. It’s only accessible on foot (or bike) via a well maintained 7 km trail from the carpark at Blairmore. When you round the corner and get your first panoramic view of the beach, you’ll be more than delighted to have embarked on this NC500 side trip.

Sandwood Bay on a cool and overcast morning, the coastline extending into the distance towards Cape Wrath

Sandwood Bay on a cool and overcast morning, the coastline extending into the distance towards Cape Wrath



Sandwood Bay on a cool and overcast morning, the coastline extending into the distance towards Cape Wrath

Sandwood Bay on a cool and overcast morning



The golden sand stretches for a mile up the coast towards Cape Wrath, battered by the wild Atlantic ocean on one side, backed by machair covered dunes on the other. Beyond the dunes lies the freshwater Sandwood loch, the beach and dunes forming a long thin island of sorts in between the bodies of fresh and saltwater.

A wind whipped Sandwood Loch surrounded by machair covered dunes basking in the afternoon sun

A wind whipped Sandwood Loch surrounded by machair covered dunes basking in the afternoon sun



A wind whipped Sandwood Loch surrounded by machair covered dunes basking in the afternoon sun

A wind whipped Sandwood Loch in the afternoon
sun, surrounded by machair covered dunes



Am Buachaille rises in front of the cliffs at the southern end of the beach, a striking sea stack that looks particularly magical at sunset. In wilder weather, the waves at Sandwood Bay can get pretty fierce, clumps of sea foam lining the shore. It’s a great place to wild camp, either on the beach itself or hidden in the sheltered dunes. Just be sure to adhere to the Scottish Outdoor Access Code and leave no trace.

Turn off the NC500 at Rhiconich towards Kinlochbervie. It’s 13 km to the car park at Blairmore (58.4908, -5.0998). There are toilets, bins and water taps at the car park. There are no facilities on the trail. Allow around 4-5 hours for the return hike.

Am Buachaille seat stack silhouetted against the setting sun at Sandwood Bay, one of the best North Coast 500 side trips

Am Buachaille is an impressive sea stack in front of the cliffs at the southern end of the beach



Am Buachaille seat stack silhouetted against the setting sun at Sandwood Bay, one of the best North Coast 500 side trips

Am Buachaille sea stack at sunset



OLDSHOREMORE & SHEIGRA BEACHES

OLDSHOREMORE & SHEIGRA

If you’re making the side trip to Sandwood Bay, be sure to visit the nearby beaches of Oldshoremore and Sheigra too. They are also great alternatives to Sandwood if you’re looking for beaches that don’t involve a long hike to get to.

Oldshoremore is the bigger of the two, a beautiful crescent of golden sand backed by flat grassy dunes. A rocky headland juts out at the northern end of the beach, beyond which lies another hidden beach that you can reach on foot.

The sun shining on the wide expanse of Oldshoremore Beach, a short side trip away from the main North Coast 500 route in Scotland

The sun shining on the wide expanse of Oldshoremore Beach



The sun shining on the wide expanse of Oldshoremore Beach, a short side trip away from the main North Coast 500 route in Scotland

The wide expanse of Oldshoremore Beach



Sheigra Beach is cosier, a narrow bay tucked between rocky outcrops with a stream flowing into it. There’s a basic campsite setback from the beach at Sheigra (no facilities, small honour payment).

A person stands looking out from the golden sand beach at Sheigra, a narrow bay flanked by rocky outcrops

Looking out from the beach at Sheigra, a narrow bay flanked by rocky outcrops



A person stands looking out from the golden sand beach at Sheigra, a narrow bay flanked by rocky outcrops

Looking out from the beach at Sheigra, a
narrow bay flanked by rocky outcrops



Oldshoremore car park (58.4773, -5.0828) has toilets and bins. Sheigra car park (58.4936, -5.1158) has no facilities.

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CAPE WRATH LIGHTHOUSE & KEARVAIG BOTHY

Cape Wrath (a dramatic name that actually derives from the norse for ‘turning point’) sits at the most northwesterly point of the mainland. It’s a remote and wild area of land, largely owned by the Ministry of Defence (MOD). While Cape Wrath is still part of the mainland, it is effectively cut off from the rest of Sutherland by the Kyle of Durness and huge expanses of boggy moorland. Therefore, only the most adventurous access the area: by a combination of small ferry boat and dirt track minibus service; or, for the truly hardy, tramping through the moors on the final stretch of the Cape Wrath Trail.

The small metal ferry boat pulling into the shore after crossing the Kyle of Durness next to the North Coast 500 route in Scotland

It doesn’t get much more basic than this: the ferry boat across the Kyle of Durness



The small metal ferry boat pulling into the shore after crossing the Kyle of Durness next to the North Coast 500 route in Scotland

The ferry boat across the Kyle of Durness



A tour with Visit Cape Wrath (Easter to mid-Oct) takes around 3-4 hours, including a 22 mile round trip journey on the bumpy track from the jetty to the Cape Wrath Lighthouse. You’ll learn all about the history of the region from the comical guides, and have time to explore the coastline around the lighthouse. The sole occupant of the lighthouse runs the Ozone Cafe, where you can get basic drinks and snacks.

Classic Stevenson Lighthouse colours



Cape Wrath Lighthouse sitting atop rocky cliffs at the most northwesterly point of mainland Scotland

The lighthouse sits at the most northwesterly point of mainland Scotland



Cape Wrath Lighthouse sitting atop rocky cliffs at the most northwesterly point of mainland Scotland

Cape Wrath Lighthouse sits at the most
northwesterly point of mainland Scotland


Distinctive Stevenson Lighthouse colours



 If you have time, we highly recommend spending longer at Cape Wrath, sleeping over at Kearvaig Bothy. Set back from idyllic Kearvaig Bay, this is one of Scotland’s best coastal bothies. It’s fairly large, with a few rooms downstairs, plus an attic. We’ve written a whole guide to staying in bothies which you can read here.

The attractively whitewashed Kervaig Bothy, perfectly situated in the spectacular bay of the same name in the far northwest of mainland Scotland

The attractively whitewashed Kearvaig Bothy, perfectly situated in the spectacular bay of the same name



The attractively whitewashed Kervaig Bothy, perfectly situated in the spectacular bay of the same name in the far northwest of mainland Scotland

Attractively whitewashed Kearvaig Bothy, perfectly
situated in the spectacular bay of the same name



The beach is spectacular, with cliffs rising either side. You can hike up the cliffs to the right of the bothy heading about 2 km east to Clò Mòr, the highest sea cliffs on the mainland. You’ll get a great view of ‘The Cathedral’, a twin-spired sea stack on the way. A puffin colony breeds on the cliffs between May and mid-August.

  • A distinctive sea stack called 'The Cathedral' sits below towering cliffs at Kearvaig Bay on the north coast of Scotland
  • A distinctive sea stack called 'The Cathedral' sits below towering cliffs at Kearvaig Bay on the north coast of Scotland

The Cathedral



Access to Cape Wrath is restricted during MOD exercises, which usually take place over a couple of weeks in Spring and Autumn. Check here for more info. Weather and tidal conditions affect the operation of the ferry, and therefore the minibus service too. No advance bookings are taken, so just turn up at the slipway at Keoldale. Find ferry times here. It’s possible to take bikes on the ferry, but you may have to wait until all the foot passengers have been taken across first (it’s a small boat). Ferry £6.50 return, minibus tour £13 return (cash only). There is parking near the slipway (58.5534, -4.7874).

There is a takeaway food van at the turn off from the main NC500 road at Keoldale. The closest public toilets are in Durness, and there are no facilities at Cape Wrath until you reach the lighthouse. The minibus can drop off/pick up at the trailhead leading to Kearvaig Bothy, or you can walk the 12 km each way from/to the slipway along the track. Please ensure you are fully prepared and stick to The Bothy Code when staying at Kearvaig.

HIKE BEN HOPE

Ben Hope is Scotland’s most northerly munro, and a relatively straightforward one to conquer. The 7.5 km hike takes around 5-6 hours, following a well trodden path from the car park to the summit and back. You’ll be treated to magnificent views over Loch Eriboll, the Kyle of Tongue, Ben Loyal, and beyond. Weather permitting, of course.

Turn off the NC500 at Hope, between Durness and Tongue, and drive 13 km south to the Ben Hope trail car park (58.3902, -4.6325). As with any hike in Scotland, be prepared for all 4 seasons in a day, no matter how good the forecast looks.

The sun breaks through the clouds to light up the Kyle of Tongue, with Ben Loyal to the left and Ben Hope to the right

Ben Hope to the right, Ben Loyal to the left; separated by the Kyle of Tongue



A hazy Ben Hope marks the skyline across the moors, seen from the North Coast 500 route in Scotland

Ben Hope rising above the moors



TALMINE BEACH & SKINNET BAY

TALMINE & SKINNET BAY

A short detour off the main road at the Kyle of Tongue will lead you to Talmine Beach and the sprawling Skinnet Bay, two lovely spots that make a great NC500 side trip.

Talmine is a small crofting community with a basic campsite right by the beach, and some glamping pods nearby. The Reaper is a very photogenic wreck of a fishing boat that lies decaying on the beach. It was destroyed by fire while tied up at Rispond Pier in Loch Eriboll in 1976, the hull being towed to Talmine for restoration. It was never repaired though, and its carcass remains a prominent feature of the beach to this day, a giant wooden ribcage slowly wasting away.

The wreck of the Reaper on the beach at Talmine, a short distance from the North Coast 500 route in Scotland

The Talmine Reaper



A person looks in interest at the wooden ribcage of the boat wreck at Talmine

The wreck is fascinating to observe, full of so many textures and details



A person looks in interest at the wooden ribcage of the boat wreck at Talmine

The wreck is fascinating to observe up close, full
of so many eye catching textures and details


The wreck of the Reaper on the beach at Talmine, a short distance from the North Coast 500 route in Scotland

The Talmine Reaper



Skinnet Bay is tucked beneath the road, accessible via a footpath leading through grazing fields of green grass and orangey-brown bracken to the white sands below. It’s most impressive at low tide, when a huge swathe of beach curving round the bay is revealed. It looks over to Coldbackie Beach (one of our NC500 highlights), with views down the Kyle of Tongue to Ben Loyal and Ben Hope. It’s an incredible spot that not many people venture down to, and the perfect place for a peaceful stroll or picnic.

A person walks along sand at Skinnet Beach on Scotland's north coast

Strolling down the wide expanse of sand at Skinnet Beach



A person walks along sand at Skinnet Beach on Scotland's north coast

The wide expanse of sand at Skinnet Beach


The bracken and machair covered sand dunes at Skinnet Bay near the North Coast 500 route in Scotland

Looking out from the dunes



Turn left off the NC500 just before the causeway over the Kyle of Tongue. Talmine is about 5 km away. There’s a car park at the beach. Park by the road (58.5215, -4.4252) to walk down to Skinnet Bay.

WHAT NOT TO MISS ON THE NORTH COAST 500

NORTH COAST 500 ISLAND ADD-ONS

NORTH COAST 500 //

ISLAND ADD-ONS

The North Coast 500 route takes you right by the jumping off points for some of Scotland’s most beautiful and fascinating islands. If you have time to include an island-hopping adventure in your overall itinerary, then we highly recommend it!

THE OUTER HEBRIDES (WESTERN ISLES)

Ullapool, the largest town on the west coast NC500 route, is also the departure point for the ferry to Stornoway, the largest town on the Isle of Lewis (and indeed the whole of the Outer Hebrides). The Western Isles are truly stunning, with white sand beaches, windswept coastline, and a distinct island vibe.

Stornoway itself is an interesting place, packed with traditional pubs, fine restaurants, craft shops, and a castle. But the real beauty lies beyond the town, with loads to explore on Lewis and neighbouring Harris. The 5000 year old Callanish Standing Stones are the most significant historical site on the island, predating Stonehenge. Harris, connected by road to Lewis, is more mountainous and home to some incredible beaches like Luskentyre, Scarista, Seilebost, Horgabost, Borve and Huisinis. To be fair, Lewis has some pretty great beaches too, with a cluster of beauties around Uig, including Mangersta, Carnish, Uig Sands and Reef Beach.

Golden sand stretches along clear aquamarine water on the coast of Harris in Scotland's Western Isles

Pristine beaches lining the southwest coast of Harris



Golden sand stretches along clear aquamarine water on the coast of Harris in Scotland's Western Isles

Pristine beaches on the southwest coast of Harris



Lewis and Harris are connected by ferry to the rest of the Outer Hebrides, so it’s possible to explore more islands further south, depending on how much time you have. Otherwise, head back to Ullapool and carry on with your NC500 loop.

Check ferry schedules and fares for Ullapool – Stornoway here.

THE ORKNEY ISLANDS

The southernmost of Orkney’s 70 odd islands is just 16 km off the northeast coast of Scotland. On a clear day you can easily see the Orkney Isles from John O’Groats and Duncansby Head, two popular stops on the North Coast 500. You can reach Orkney by car ferry in around an hour, making it a great island add-on to your NC500 road trip.

The scenery on Orkney is similar in many ways to that of the east coast – undulating farm land, wind and wave battered cliffs, and a spattering of attractive beaches. But Orkney is also home to an impressive number of significant archaeological sites, and has a fascinating 20th century wartime history.

MAINLAND

Mainland Orkney, Burray, and South Ronaldsay are all connected by Churchill Barriers, causeways built during WWII as naval defences but now used as vital road links between the islands. You can explore plenty of Orkney’s historical highlights on a road trip around these three islands. Don’t miss Skara Brae (a 5000 year old group of Neolithic houses) and the Ring of Brodgar (4500 year old standing stones). The best coastal walks, dramatic cliffs, and sea stacks can be found at Yesnaby, the Brough of Birsay (only accessible at low tide), and The Gloup at Deerness. The Bay of Skaill, Dingieshowe, Newark, and Waulkmill are our favourite beaches on the mainland. Kirkwall is the capital, but smaller Stromness is the most atmospheric town on the island.

The distinctive sea stack and dramatic cliffs at Yesnaby, on Orkney's main island

The distinctive sea stack and dramatic cliffs at Yesnaby, on Orkney’s main island



The distinctive sea stack and dramatic cliffs at Yesnaby, on Orkney's main island

The distinctive sea stack and dramatic
cliffs at Yesnaby, on Orkney’s main island



HOY

For outdoor lovers and those particularly interested in the wartime history of Orkney, a ferry trip to the nearby island of Hoy is also recommended. Its landscape is completely different to the rest of Orkney, with mountains and moors reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands. It’s no wonder the vikings named it ‘High Island’. History buffs should check out the Scapa Flow Museum at Lyness. Hikers, head for stunning Rackwick Bay and the Old Man of Hoy, the most famous sea stack in Scotland. There’s a wonderful beach-side open bothy at Rackwick which makes a great base for a night or two. It’s one of the few to even have a flushing toilet!

The sea encroaches on the rocky shore of Rackwick Bay on Hoy, one of the Orkney Islands

The early morning sun shining on the rocky shore of Rackwick Bay



The sea encroaches on the rocky shore of Rackwick Bay on Hoy, one of the Orkney Islands

Early morning in Rackwick Bay



SANDAY

The name pretty much sums this island up. Sanday is a further 90 minutes by ferry from Kirkwall, and has the best beaches of all the Orkney Islands. In fact, the beach on the Tresness Peninsula is one of our favourite in the whole of Scotland. If you have time to play with, Sanday makes a great addition to your NC500 island side trip.

A person walks along the unspoiled beach of the Tresness Peninsula on Sanday

Unspoiled sand stretching for miles along Sanday’s Tresness Peninsula



A person walks along the unspoiled beach of the Tresness Peninsula on Sanday

Unspoiled sand stretching for miles
along Sanday’s Tresness Peninsula



Car ferries run from Scrabster to Stromness (90 minutes, check schedules and fare here), and from Gills Bay to Saint Margaret’s Hope (60 minutes, check schedules and fare here). To get to Hoy you can take the car ferry from Houton on Mainland Orkney to Lyness, or the foot ferry from Stromness to Moaness. It takes about 30 minutes (check fares and schedules here). To get to Sanday, take the car ferry from Kirkwall. It takes anywhere between 1 hour 45 minutes and 2.5 hours, depending on whether it stops at Eday island en route. Check fares and schedules here. Loganair operates inter-island flights from Kirkwall to Sanday – you can check schedules and book via Skyscanner.

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NC500 EXTENDED ITINERARIES

NORTH COAST 500 //

EXTENDED ITINERARIES

The classic North Coast 500 route cuts across Scotland between Inverness and Lochcarron to the Applecross Peninsula, before looping around the north. But if you’re looking to extend your journey and explore more of Scotland’s islands, lochs, and rugged coastline, we’ve got some suggestions for you.

SOUTHERN LOOP VIA LOCH NESS, THE ROAD TO THE ISLES, & SKYE

Our favourite NC500 extended itinerary includes a loop around the Isle of Skye, the Small Isles, and the Morar Peninsula, connecting to Inverness via Loch Ness. You could take as long or as short a time as you like, picking and choosing which places to visit along the way, but ideally you’ll want at least 7-10 days to enjoy this NC500 itinerary add on.

Below is a rough outline of the route to take and highlights along the way. We’ve ordered them based on a clockwise route, coming at the start of your North Coast 500 extended itinerary, but if you’re travelling anti-clockwise you can easily add it on to the end of your trip.

INVERNESS TO FORT WILLIAM VIA LOCH NESS

Kick off (or finish up) your NC500 road trip with a journey along Scotland’s most famous loch, and hike up its highest mountain, Ben Nevis (near Fort William).

FORT WILLIAM TO MALLAIG (THE ROAD TO THE ISLES)

This is a great stretch of road, leaving the highland hub of Fort William behind and heading for the beautiful beach studded coastline of the Morar Peninsula. The Small Isles of Rum, Eigg, Muck and Canna lie off the coast, giving the road its moniker. Highlights along the way include the Glenfinnan Viaduct (of Harry Potter fame), hikes and wild camping opportunities on the Ardnish Peninsula*, and the beautiful beaches, campsites, and small fishing villages between Arisaig and Morar (featured in classic feel-good film Local Hero).

*note that Peanmeanach bothy is no longer an open bothy

Cooling off on a sunny day in late summer on the Ardnish Peninsula



Cooling off on the Ardnish Peninsula



THE SMALL ISLES

You can visit the Small Isles by passenger ferry from Mallaig (leave your car at the large car park by the port).

Rum is the wildest of the four, and a great place for outdoor and wildlife lovers. The island is a National Nature Reserve, home to a large population of red deer, a 60,000 strong colony of Manx Shearwaters, golden and white-tailed eagles, and some adorable Rum Ponies. The Rum Cuillin give Skye’s mountain ranges a run for their money and make for an adventurous full day hike. A less challenging walking trail leads to beautiful Kilmory Bay, home to a lovely sandy beach and the greatest number of red deer (you can learn all about them and keep lookout in the deer hide).

There are two coastal bothies on opposite sides of Rum, one at Guirdil Bay and the other at Dibidil. You can wild camp on the island, or pitch up at the community campsite near Kinloch village and the ferry terminal. There are also a few glamping options, a bunkhouse, and a B&B. Check here for more info.

A view of the sun setting behind Canna from Guirdil Bay on the west coast of Rum

Watching the sun set behind Canna from Guirdil Bay on the west coast of Rum



A view of the sun setting behind Canna from Guirdil Bay on the west coast of Rum

Watching the sun set behind Canna from
Guirdil Bay on the west coast of Rum



Eigg has the largest population of the four small isles and is a good option for a more relaxed island trip. It has some great beaches, a dramatic pitchstone ridge rising from the southern end, and a laidback community vibe. Indeed, the entire island is owned and managed by a community trust, and runs completely off renewable energy. Find out more about Eigg here.

Check ferry schedules for getting to/from The Small Isles here.

ISLE OF SKYE

From Mallaig you can hop over to Skye on the 45 minute car ferry to Armadale. Skye probably needs little introduction, being the most famous island in Scotland and a massive tourist magnet. For this reason, we definitely recommend visiting in the off-season (avoiding Jul-Aug), and exploring the lesser known corners of the island.

That being said, two popular spots you’ll definitely want to check out are the bizarre and otherworldly Quiraing, a massive landslip, and the jagged pinnacles around The Old Man of Storr. Other favourite areas of ours are the Elgol Peninsula and Loch Coruisk, Rubha Hunish and The Lookout Bothy, and Glenbrittle. Check out this great post from What If We Walked? for tips on avoiding the crowds at the main tourist hotspots, plus a bunch of other short walks on Skye.

Check ferry schedules for Mallaig – Armadale here.

The jagged pinnacles of The Storr in a moody mist on the Isle of Skye in Scotland

The jagged pinnacles of The Old Man of Storr on a morning of moody mistiness



The jagged pinnacles of The Storr in a moody mist on the Isle of Skye in Scotland

The jagged pinnacles of The Old Man of Storr
on a morning of moody mistiness



SKYE TO LOCHCARRON VIA PLOCKTON OR EILEAN DONAN

From the Isle of Skye you can head back to the mainland via the bridge to Kyle of Lochalsh. From here you can take the scenic coastal route north to Lochcarron, stopping off at idyllic Plockton on the way. Otherwise, continue on the main A87 road, with a detour to iconic Eilean Donan castle, before retracing your route a little and turning off north to Lochcarron on the A890. At this point you’ll have joined the NC500, ready to tackle the Bealach na Ba.

THE MORAY COAST

Extending east from Inverness is the Moray Coast, a beautiful stretch of north-facing coastline dotted with historic fishing villages, spectacular beaches, dramatic cliffs, and bizarre rock formations. It’s a thoroughly underrated region of Scotland, and a perfect addition to an NC500 road trip. It’s best to allow at least 2-3 days to explore the various highlights.

BEST BEACHES & COASTAL WALKS

BEACHES & COASTAL WALKS

The best beaches are at Findhorn, Roseisle, Hopeman, Lossiemouth East, and Cullen. They are all connected via the 72 km Moray Coast Trail. Hopeman has a string of particularly photogenic colourful beach huts. The cliff top trail leading east from Hopeman to the arched sea cave at Cove Bay makes for a gorgeous short walk (3 km return/1 hour).

The coastal section from Portknockie to Cullen is also particularly scenic. Start at Bow Fiddle Rock, working your way round the coast for 3 km, and reward yourself with a steaming bowl of Cullen Skink at the Cullen Bay Hotel.

The uniquely shaped Bow Fiddle Rock on Scotland's Moray Coast

The uniquely shaped Bow Fiddle Rock at Portknockie on the Moray Coast



The uniquely shaped Bow Fiddle Rock on Scotland's Moray Coast

The uniquely shaped Bow Fiddle Rock
at Portknockie on the Moray Coast



MORAY SPEYSIDE

Situated a little inland, Elgin is the largest town in the area (and Del’s hometown). It’s an attractive place, with lots of historic buildings to admire and interesting info plaques dotted around. The huge ruins of Elgin Cathedral are particularly impressive. Refreshment wise, Cafe Kombucha does great vegan food, and Against The Grain is our go-to for friendly service and top notch craft beer.

Head even further inland and you’ll find yourself in malt whisky country, home to Scotland’s largest concentration of distilleries. Connoisseurs will no doubt enjoy following The Malt Whisky Trail.

NORTH COAST 500

SIDE TRIPS, ISLAND ADD-ONS & EXTENDED ITINERARIES

And that’s a wrap. We hope you enjoyed our guide to the best North Coast 500 side trips, island add-ons, and extended itineraries. May it help you explore beyond the NC500 on your next Scotland adventure.

P.S. Do you have a favourite place that we’ve overlooked? Share your experiences in the comments below!

ORGANISE YOUR TRIP


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The Best North Coast 500 Side Trips, Island Add-ons & Extended ItinerariesThe Best North Coast 500 Side Trips, Island Add-ons & Extended Itineraries
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