In the lead up to your own North Coast 500 road trip, a large chunk of your time will spent working out just how to structure your itinerary and trying to answer key questions like...
Where to stay each night? What activities can't you miss? Are there any restaurants or distilleries along the way that you simply have to visit? Will you leave enough time for hikes and walks up Munros or to spot some wildlife? Are you being realistic in terms of daily driving times?
Unfortunately, we can't give you definitive answers to all of the above. After all, with so much variety on offer up in the Highlands, we'd be lying if we told your there was one perfect way to drive around and structure your North Coast 500 trip. Instead, we have decided to provide you with an overview of our own NC500 route - along with some of the highlights we saw in each section - to give you some help and ideas for designing your own itinerary.
Although we didn't manage to stop off and visit everything we hoped for on our eight-day roadtrip, and there are probably some gems we missed, we did see and do a great deal on the route which we can happily recommend to others alongside our own valuable lessons learned about driving Scotland's answer to Route 66.
We will also leave you with the most important piece of advice before any roadtrip: there is no right route and no wrong route, there is only the route that is best for you and your own adventure!
Day One: Arriving in Inverness
We drove from Aberdeen to Inverness, although it is possible to arrive by plane, bus or train as well.
The afternoon was spent wandering around the city of just under 50,000 residents, including browsing the beautiful second-hand bookshop called Leakey's, before enjoying some beer and cider with views of the river and pretty sandstone castle.
A real highlight of the evening was visiting Hootananny's for an evening of live traditional Scottish music. The bar had a good mix of locals and tourists and the music and atmosphere got us both really excited for the forthcoming week in the Highlands.
Miles on the clock: 0
Where we stayed: An Grianan Bed & Breakfast, Inverness
Day Two: Inverness to Applecross
After a lovely cooked breakfast at An Grianan, we picked up our jeep from Focus Vehicle Rental. A quick stop off at the Morrison's supermarket near the centre of town allowed us to stock up on essential snacks and drinks for the upcoming few days.
We knew the highlight of today's section would be the notorious Bealach na Bà road, however we wanted to start the route with open eyes and to drink in the first few hours of scenery. After a couple of arguments with the GPS insisting on sending us on the main road out of Inverness, we hit the sort of winding, single track countryside road which would be a common sight on the route.
The weather wasn't with us in the early part, with a blanket of mist restricting visibility, but we could already see that some of the landscapes were going to be unforgettable.
We stopped off at Rogie Falls before another break in the pretty village of Lochcarron to enjoy the emerging late afternoon sun and take in some of the views, before a quick photo opportunity in front of the famous red and blue sign at the foot of Bealach na Bà, which has the greatest ascent of any road in the UK.
It's a beautiful and challenging drive with hairpin bends and steep gradients. At the top, there is a small car park and viewing point, with the a cluster of islands visible in the distance. If you want a higher vantage point, there is also a small walk from the carpark. The descent into the peninsula of Applecross, with the blues of the calm water, the sweeping greens of the landscapes and the setting sun, hinted that this was going to be a road trip to remember!
Departure & arrival: 12 p.m - 6.30 p.m.
Miles on the clock: 89
Where we stayed: Hartfield House Hostel, Applecross
Road type: Most stretches of road on this section are single-track, narrow country lanes and the Bealach na Bà is a particularly challenging drive (caravans, campervans and learner drivers are advised to avoid it in fact).
Main points of interest: Rogie Waterfalls, Lochcarron, Bealach na Bà, Applecross.
Day Three: Applecross to Loch Assynt
There were a number of miles ahead of us on Day Three so an early-ish start was required. After photographing some gorgeous 'Heilan Coos' near our hostel and spying some wild deer in another field, we hit the open road towards Torridon.
We chanced upon the prettiest little house by the water, drove past fields of sheep and had regular stop-offs to enjoy the views which just got better at every turn. We then visited the Torridon Countryside Centre to say hello to the packs of friendly red deer and continue through stunning valleys and hill-ranges (lots of hillwalkers were out here taking on the ascents) towards the picturesque Gairloch harbour. We grabbed a much-needed takeaway coffee at Coast Coffee Company and enjoyed it overlooking one of the village's pretty beaches.
From there, it was a memorable drive alongside Loch Ewe until we reached Gruinard Bay to enjoy some of the Saturday sunshine. It was about 24 degrees at this point, with not a cloud in the sky, and the beach was simply amazing.
As the day was catching up with us, we did our best to refrain from more spontaneous stops along the rest of the route (this is actually quite difficult!) until we made it to Corrieshalloch Gorge (there's also an incredible view over a lush green valley just before you reach it).
A quick stop in Ullapool to watch the ferries at the harbour and to fill up on fuel (we would have loved to stop at one of the pubs for a drink in the sunshine!) and we kept on going through lovely scenery all the ways up to Loch Assynt. There, we stopped to take some photos of the beautiful ruins of Ardvreck Castle on Loch Assynt (which are supposedly haunted) before finally making it to our accommodation for the evening. Our host at Ruddyglow, Patricia, thankfully managed to secure us a reservation for dinner in Kylesku at short notice (this was a Saturday and most places were fully booked) and, after that, we enjoyed the sunset over the loch with a cool and refreshing G&T. A long long day, but excellent roadtrippin'!
Departure & arrival: 9.30 a.m - 7.00 p.m.
Miles on the clock: 241
Where we stayed: Ruddyglow Park B&B, Loch Assynt
Road type: Most stretches of road on this section are single-track, narrow country lanes but there were some sections of very decent trunk road, particularly closer to Ullapool.
Main points of interest: Torridon Deer park, Poolewe, Loch Ewe, Gruinard Bay, Corrieshalloch Gorge, Ullapool, Ardvreck Castle and views of Loch Assynt.
Day Four: Loch Assynt to Tongue
Now, this is the day where our route is a little different to the standard. We spent a fantastic morning kayaking around the Summer Isles with NorWest Sea Kayaking (highly recommended!) but as our meeting place that particular day was near Achiltibuie, which is an hour or so off the NC500. That detour meant that we didn't get back onto the official route until 2.30 p.m.
With time catching up with us, it meant we had to rush through quite a lot of the scenery which was actually the most beautiful we saw on the route so that we could make it to our final destination by a reasonable time.
Outside of Lochinver, you'll find two of the best beaches the UK has to offer - Achmelvich and Clachtoll - and these definitely have to be on your itinerary! When planning for this section however, do be aware that roads from Lochinver to Kylesku are some of the most challenging that we faced on the entire route. Tight and narrow with numerous blind summits and corners, you'll need to be very cautious on these and, although the mileage count will be low, they will take you much longer than you think to pass through safely.
However, once we crossed the iconic Kylesku Bridge, it was good, quick, double-sided road through to Scourie Bay and a little beyond until a return to single track roads (with lots of sheepies) leading towards Durness. After popping in for a quick visit to Cocoa Mountain (nice hot chocolate and truffles), we pushed on towards the pretty village of Tongue in order to make sure we could make our reservation at the highly recommended restaurant at the Tongue Hotel.
This section of the route has some truly wonderful scenery and sights - just make sure you leave yourself more time to enjoy it all than we did!
Departure & arrival: 2.30 p.m - 7.30 p.m.
Miles on the clock: 346 (note that we have deducted the extra mileage to go kayaking from our totals)
Where we stayed: Rhian Guest House, Tongue
Road type: As we said above, the roads from Lochinver to Kylesku are a challenge - make sure you drive with adequate caution and make good use of the passing places. After Kylesku, you've got some lovely tarmac to eat up before a return to single-track country roads nearer Durness and towards Tongue.
Main points of interest: Beaches at Achmelvich and Clachtoll, a number of signposted viewpoints, Kylesku Bridge overlooking the water, Sandwood bay and other beaches in and around Durness, the Smoo Caves and Cocoa Mountain in Durness, the view over the Kyle of Tongue at sunset with the Castle Varrich ruins, the village of Tongue.
Day Five: Tongue to John O'Groats
After a hectic day driving over 170 miles in the sunshine, we gave ourselves a well-earned lie-in before setting off to John O'Groats. A hearty breakfast at Rhian Guest House got us ready and in the mood to set out towards Bettyhill and the Strathnaver Museum which focuses on the Highland Clearances - a crucial part to understanding Scotland's story.
Following this, we had spontaneous stops at a cluster of gorgeous and empty beaches - Farr Bay, Strathy Bay and a wee picnic in Melvich. The sun was shining, the water a lovely blue and, once we found a sheltered spot away from the wind, we couldn't have asked for anything better. We also met another lovely bunch of Highland Cows on the way to Strathy Point.
Onward past the Dounreay Nuclear Facility and through Scrabster and the town of Thurso, via a petrol station stop, we took in the dunes at the impressive Dunnet Bay. Next on the list was our much-anticipated tour at Dunnet Bay Distillery - founded and run by a husband and wife team who are creating excellent artisan gin and vodka (read this post on distillery and brewery tours we recommend on the route).
After a tasting, we took the road off the route up to the lighthouse at Dunnet Head - the most northerly point of the UK! With the wind blowing a gale but clear skies all around, we could see the Orkney Isles across the water and watch the birds in the cliffs before we drove the last leg of today's section and made it to the iconic John O'Groats!
At this time of year, the sun doesn't set until 10.30 p.m. or later, so we made the most of the epic views from our deck at the excellent Natural Retreats with a glass of wine and the feeling that moments like these are exactly what we travel for.
Departure & arrival: 10.30 a.m - 6.30 p.m.
Miles on the clock: 428
Where we stayed: Natural Retreats, John O'Groats
Road type: The majority of this section was on very decent 'A' roads, so the driving was pretty easy-going.
Main points of interest: Strathnaver Museum, Farr Bay, Strathy Bay, Melvich Beach, Dunnet Bay, tour at Dunnet Bay Distillery, Dunnet Head, Castle of Mey, John O'Groats signpost!
Day Six: John O'Groats to Dornoch
Our itinerary left us with fewer miles to cover on the last two days, so we were - theoretically - planning to go at a very leisurely place in Caithness. However, never underestimate how quickly the time passes whilst you're driving the North Coast 500; it'll be 5 p.m. before you even know it!
After taking some pictures in John O'Groats, we drove the short distance to Duncansby Head where we were hoping to catch a glimpse of some puffins. However, after several days of stunning sunshine, the weather had turned into rolling mist and fog, so the visibility was very poor. A walk through a field of sheep took us towards the photogenic Duncansby Stacks but unfortunately they were completely obscured - next time eh?
The short drive to Wick, with a detour to the Sinclair & Girnigoe ruins, took us in for a short tour around the Old Pulteney Distillery and photo opportunity at the underwhelming 'shortest street in the world'.
We drove past the entrance to the turn-off to the Whaligoe Steps before we actually found it - and we're glad we did as they're definitely worth a quick visit. Back in the car, we continued on to walk around the gardens of the incredible fairytale-esque Dunrobin Castle before a wee stop off at a pub in Golspie. Then, it was only a few more miles until we reached Dornoch - the prettiest town we saw on the entire route.
Departure & arrival: 10.00 a.m - 5.00 p.m.
Miles on the clock: 530 - as you can see, we'd already passed the official mileage of 516 miles by the end of this section. The main reasons being that a number of attractions require a little driving off the route, some driving within towns and doubling back on ourselves because we wanted to take photos.
Where we stayed: Dornoch Castle Hotel
Road type: The country roads have all been left back in the north as from here on in it's good quality trunk roads (however there are some wicked bends on the descent down to Dornoch).
Main points of interest: Duncansby Head and Stacks, Sinclair & Girnigoe ruins, Ackergill Tower, Old Pulteney Distillery, Whaligoe Steps, Grey Cairns of Camster, Dunrobin Castle, Dornoch Beach, the village of Dornoch and the Castle Whisky bar.
Day Seven: Dornoch to Kincraig
We wanted to treat ourselves to a little bit of luxury with a stay at the wonderful Kincraig Castle Hotel, hence why we only went twenty or so miles down the road on this day - however we packed in some attractions from further along the route into today's section.
There are several excellent distilleries in the surrounding area, so we paid a visit to Glenmorangie for a tour and tasting (unfortunately for Andrew he was driving!) and spent a little time in the pretty town of Tain. A little detour to Shin Falls to watch the salmon leaping before trying to spot some dolphins the Cromarty Firth from Chanonry Point (however the timing didn't work out - try to make it there an hour after low tide to increase your chances). We also stopped in at Storehouse of Foulis for a coffee and to buy some of their delicious tablet (seriously, it's incredible!), but we unfortunately couldn't spot any seals from their lookout point.
In the late afternoon, we arrived at our castle for the evening, enjoyed a fantastic meal at their restaurant and, over a carefully selected whisky, looked back upon what had been a fantastic roadtrip in the Scottish Highlands.
Departure & arrival: 10.30 a.m - 5.30 p.m.
Miles on the clock: 553 miles (this is our mileage for the time driving the actual route - Inverness to Inverness. In total, with all our detours and diversions to spots off the main route, we actually clocked 739 miles on our Highlands roadtrip!)
Where we stayed: Kincraig Castle Hotel
Road type: All good quality roads, but not as fun or picturesque as those elsewhere on the route.
Main points of interest: From Dornoch to Inverness, via Kincraig, there are several distilleries and breweries you can visit, whilst there are dolphin and seal spotting opportunities in Rosemarkie and Chanonry Point. Dornoch beach, afternoon tea at Kincraig Castle or a stop off at Storehouse of Foulis' farm shop stocking the best of Scottish food and drink are all excellent stop offs before you reach Inverness.