NC500 | The Ultimate Must See Attractions from West to East

Time was a struggle when planning our North Coast 500 adventure. As we only had 5 nights to spend touring the Scottish highlands, we had to narrow down a long list of must see spots. Luckily we have friends who live along the route which meant we could base our choices on their recommendations as well as squeezing in visits with them. We've since returned to explore our favourite parts in more depth. To help you plan your own trip, I thought I'd share our highlights in the order you'd find them if travelling the NC500 clockwise, from West to East.

Please remember that to many people the Highlands are home. The last couple of summers has seen an increase in antisocial behaviour from visitors to the North Coast 500, as well as irresponsible camping practices which are harmful to the environment. We visit these places because of their beauty, so why would you want to spoil that for others? Treat the land and the locals with respect, and leave nothing but footprints when you pass through.
Please read this article from Caithness resident Gail Brown for a better understanding of the issues currently being faced by North Highland locals.

The Torridon hills against a blue sky, reflected in the loch

We travelled from Aberdeenshire to Inverness, opting not to spend time here as we'd been before, albeit a very long time ago. From there we headed straight to the west coast, which turned out to be our favourite. For most people the first stop after Inverness is Rogie Falls, however we recently headed just a little off the main NC500 route, detouring to hike Ben Wyvis, rather than towards Applecross.

Arms in the air, at the summit of Ben Wyvis

Ben Wyvis - At 1046m, Ben Wyvis (meaning Awesome Mountain) is Inverness' nearest munro, which stands tall against it's flatter surroundings. It's a pretty strenuous hike up to the plateau, followed by a straightforward but tedious trek to the summit, returning the way you came. It took us around 6 hours in total. There is a small car park where the walk starts, but no toilet facilities so please bare this in mind if making your way here. A layby 400m away can be used for parking if the car park is full. As always, you should treat this mountain with respect and be fully prepared before climbing it - pack layers, waterproofs, hiking boots, food, plenty water and a map and compass that you know how to use. As it's also a nature reserve, it's recommended that you walk in a single line on the main path as much as possible to avoid further erosion to the mossy plateau. In clear weather the scenery is spectacular!

Burger at the Torridon Inn NC500


NC500 West Coast

The Torridon Inn - We made a few stops between Applecross and Gairloch, deciding to stop at the Torridon Inn for a walk and pub lunch. The food was delicious although service was a little slow, but the views across the loch on our walk were the highlight! I'd love to spend more time exploring here and bag a couple of the Torridon munros, but that's an adventure for another day.

Victoria Falls NC500

Victoria Falls - The scenery on the west coast is unrivalled and you're going to have to allow yourself plenty time to get from one place to another - purely for the fact you will stop in awe of everything! Look out for the brown tourist signs along the road so you don't miss viewing points and gems like Victoria Falls. Don't expect to find these blue skies though; we struck lucky with our timing and drove the NC500 during a very unusual Scottish heatwave!

Loch Maree view NC500

Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve - Wanting to take in views of Loch Maree, we stopped at the Coille na Glas-Leiter car park where we found two trails sign posted. Opting for the woodland walk over the mountain trail, we started to worry we'd gone the wrong way when the path seemed to be climbing higher and higher! Fortunately it soon came back down again, and the 2.5k route took us only 20-30 minutes. It didn't however take in much of the loch. If we'd kept driving a bit further we'd have come across the Slattadale car park which I believe is better for loch views. This is all part of the Beinn Eighe national nature reserve which also has a visitors centre nearby!

paddling at Mellon Udrigle beach NC500

Mellon Udrigle Beach - After a night of BBQ's and far too much gin in Gairloch, we took a little detour from the route to reach the highly recommend Mellon Udrigle beach. It's a beauty! Sheep were roaming freely and we met only two other couples as we spent the morning paddling in the sea. It felt like we were somewhere way more tropical than bonnie Scotland!

Langoustines in garlic butter, at the Seafood Shack in Ullapool

The Seafood Shack, Ullapool - As we were camping along the NC500, we mainly used our wee stove to cook meals but day three's lunch was one we were told not to miss! The Seafood Shack in Ullapool serves up locally sourced seafood and shellfish, cooked fresh in the shack and served in a cute wee outdoor space. I highly recommend the cullen skink and langoustines in garlic butter.

Looking out to the views from a rocky outcrop on Stac Pollaidh

Stac Pollaidh - Short but steep, if you only hike one hill whilst in the Assynt area, choose Stac Pollaidh (612m). It's tough but manageable for anyone with a decent level of general fitness, and the jaw-dropping views make it well worth the effort. We followed the Walk Highlands description, ascending to the Eastern summit of the ridge, but returning the same way we came up, rather than completing the circuit around it. We took around two and a half hours to complete the walk. Stac Pollaidh's true western summit requires some serious scrambling skills to get to so we didn't even attempt it! As always, be fully prepared with proper hillwalking gear before attempting to conquer this mountain.

The parking for Stac Pollaidh can get pretty busy so always have a plan B to fall back on if you can't get a space. Do not park in passing places.

Gordon standing in the entrance to one of the Bone Caves, looking out over sun drenched hills

The Bone Caves, Inchnadamph - A much easier, but just as satisfying walk in the area, is to the Bone Caves at Inchnadamph. So called because of the various animal bones discovered in the natural caves set in limestone cliffs. This whole area is full of fascinating geology, and it was while researching this that two men stumbled across the remains of polar bear, wolf, lynx, arctic fox and more. It's now known that these bones are "the most complete record of the last glacial period found in Scotland". The walk takes around two hours, with only a small incline up to the caves, taking you through some spectacular scenery, and passing a natural spring too. It would be a fascinating place to explore even without the chance to roam the caves!

path to Ardvreck Castle, NC500

Ardvreck Castle - I'm a big castle geek, which is only a good thing when you live in Aberdeenshire - the home of Scotland's castle trail. Up in the Highlands however, there aren't quite so many so we had to stop at Ardvreck! Located on the banks of Loch Assynt, the Macleod's 15th century castle is now a ruin, but with that landscape it's still a thing of beauty. There's a roadside car park with a path leading straight to the castle, and a short walk away is Calda House too. 

View of wailing widow falls with loch and hills in background

Wailing Widow Falls - Along the NC500 you'll find many picturesque waterfalls, but this one has to be my favourite. Cascading down from Loch na Gainmhich, to the gorge below, the story goes that a grieving mother threw herself over the edge of the falls after her son tragically fell from the same spot during a deer hunt. Hence the name Wailing Widow Falls. 

There are a couple of options for viewing this one. Either park at the layby next to the loch, where you can follow the loch's edge to the falls and cross to the other side for the view pictured above. Alternatively, use the car park at the bottom of the hill, and follow the path to the base of the cascade. Some brave folk even take a cool dip in the pool below! Which ever route you take, please be careful as both options can be slippy.


Achmelvich beach

Achmelvich Bay - Around Lochinver is some of the most beautiful, unique scenery I've ever seen. Just north of the village you'll find Achmelvich Bay. Turquoise water and pure white sands give this beach it's tropical vibes, and makes it one of the most stunning beaches on the NC500. A perfect spot for wild swimming and other water activities.

Hermit's Castle Achmelvich NC500

The Hermit's Castle - Hidden away in the hills behind the caravan park at Achmelvich is Europe's smallest castle, known as the Hermit's Castle. The story goes that an Englishman spent months building this one man shelter on the cliffs in the 1950's, only to spend less than a week there and abandon it! It's an easy wee hike up to the castle but do be careful as you can only step inside through a tall, narrow slit like doorway on the cliff edge.

Bird's eye view of the secluded beach and crystal clear water at Clachtoll

Clachtoll - My personal favourite of all the North West highland beaches, is Clachtoll. We've stayed at the campsite here a couple of times and it's an unreal place. Think evening strolls along the shore, hiking up to watch the sunset from the rocks, or enjoying a wee picnic on the pure white sand. It's also a great place for paddleboarding with a little sandy inlet to paddle over to away from the main beach. The water is crystal clear! 

There is a car park and public toilets at Clachtoll beach, and a tiny wee shop called Flossie's just by the road.

Silver sports car driving over the Kylesku bridge

Kylesku Bridge - A little North of Wailing Widow Falls, you'll find yourself driving across this much photographed bridge. Built in the 1980's, it was designed in this dramatic curve to enhance the landscape, rather than detracting from it. Up until it was opened in 1984, a ferry was the only way to cross between Kylesku and Kylestrome. 

Last time we stopped here we actually got to watch a film crew capturing footage for a Jaguar ad! There is a small car park at the North side of the bridge, and across the road is a very small hill which provides a great vantage point for aerial shots. We also spotted a couple of deer chilling in the shade below the concrete structure. On the South side, the Kylesku Hotel comes highly recommended for a good feed.

Gordon in shorts and shades on a beautiful day at Oldshoremore beach, with helicopter in background

Oldshoremore Beach - If you're not all beached out, your next stop should absolutely be Oldshoremore. Follow signs for Kinlochbervie to reach this jaw-dropping part of the coast. You'll find a small car park (with toilet facilities), and just a short stroll up over the dunes will lead you to the most incredible view of this sweeping bay. Lovely, lovely place to relax and feel the sand between your toes. Download All Saints' Pure Shores and hit play - it was made for this!

Entrance to Smoo Cave Durness NC500

NC500 North Coast

Smoo Cave - Durness was our first stop on the North coast (check out Cocoa Mountain for the best hot chocolate, apparently!) and our next destination; Smoo Cave. Gordon was looking forward to this one!

A sea cave formed by erosion from the North sea, it joins with a freshwater cave to create this incredible dramatic space, with a waterfall cascading down through the roof. Natural light beams in highlighting it's beauty even more. You can take a tour into the cave to see the inner chambers in their full glory, although we decided not to.

Top of Ben Hope NC500

Ben Hope - I knew from the start that I wanted to bag a munro during our North Coast 500 tour. There's some amazing mountains on the West coast but when I read about Ben Hope, I knew it was the one! What better to climb than the most Northern munro in Scotland?

Heading a little off the official NC500 route from Durness, we detoured down to Loch Hope and wild camped* for the night. We were up bright and early and had reached the top by 10am! It's a steep climb, and I struggled on the way up - I think I moaned the whole way! But it's also a quick one, taking us about 5 hours in total, so didn't take us off plan too much.

*Wild camping is legal in Scotland but there are a few rules - the main one being leave no trace! Read the Scottish Outdoor Access code here.

Dunnet bay Distillery NC500

Dunnet Bay Distillery - From Ben Hope, we quickly found our way back on course and made our way to Dunnet Bay Distillery - the home of Rock Rose gin and Holy Grass vodka. They offer tastings in their fabulous Boat Shed style tasting room, which I would have 100% booked in for if I hadn't wild camped, climbed a mountain and not yet showered. Luckily they also have a wee shop which I nipped into to stock up on gin!

It's also right next to Dunnet Head which is actually the most Northern point of mainland Britain, despite John O'Groats being the more commonly recognised.

John O'Groats NC500
Duncansby Stacks NC500

NC500 East Coast

John O'Groats & The Duncansby Stacks - Speaking of John O'Groats; check out the nearby Duncansby Stacks, snap that picture with the sign, grab an ice cream at Flavours and then move on. There's not much more to it than that. We stayed overnight and wished we hadn't.

Whaligoe Steps North Coast 500

The Whaligoe Steps - 330 steps down a cliff edge to a small natural harbour dating back to the 1800s, the Whaligoe steps are not for the faint hearted. They're well maintained but a bit uneven in some places, and not somewhere you'd want to be when it's blawin' a hoolie as we say in Scotland! Imagine how strong the fisher women must have been carrying baskets of herring up the steps every day!

At the top is the Whaligoe Steps Café which I've heard good things about, although from our experience don't go in the morning. Read more about the steps on A Highland Blend, where you'll find lots of Caithness inspiration for your NC500 trip!

Gordon at Dunrobin Castle NC500

Dunrobin Castle - I spent the whole of our journey here telling Gordon all about how it was used as the filming location for the gardens of Versailles in Outlander... only to get there and realise that was Drummond Castle Gardens!

On the plus side, Dunrobin is a stunning castle that looks more like something out of a Disney fairytale than the usual rugged Scottish strongholds we are used to seeing. It sits on a terrace above a gorgeous garden, where you can even enjoy a falconry display, and overlooks the Moray Firth. Entry costs £12.50 per adult and includes access to the castle, museum and gardens.

Black Isle Brewery NC500

Black Isle Brewery - The final stop of our North Coast trip, was the Black Isle Brewery, on the Black Isle peninsula by Inverness. The brewery is in a lovely secluded countryside spot and the best thing is, the tour was free! Our guide was a lovely friendly lady who invited us to join another couple for the tasting before the brewery tour itself. Well worth checking out.

Looking down on Gruinard Bay
Blonde Highland Cow

Of course there are a lot more attractions along the North Coast 500, but these are our top picks. We plan to revisit more places in the future so I'm sure I'll be adding to the list over time. It's worth noting that some tours are seasonal and only operate on certain days or at certain times so please check their websites before planning your visit. I'd also recommend booking your accommodation in advance, and taking your time. Don't rush your way around the route, slow down and find time to relax and enjoy it properly.

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9 comments:

  1. I love Scotland! I did a highland tour when I studied aboard. Looks like a need to go back and check out some of these cool places! Especially The Whaligoe Steps and the cool castle :-)

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  2. I've been wanting to see and visit a castle! Your travel from west to east was such a full pack of touristy sites. The beach is simple and calm too :) All of these are great getaway and seems not really that crowded. Hope I could visit scotland soon :)

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    1. we are spoiled for choice with castles to visit here so you'll love Scotland!

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  3. I was supposed to go back to Scotland this summer and I am so sad it got cancelled. Black Isle Brewery looks amazing as does the ice cream. I would love to see Smoo Cave as well.

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    1. aw I hope you can reschedule your trip in the not too distant future!

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  4. These pictures are amazing! This road trip is now high on the bucket list. Thanks for sharing :)

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    1. Definitely one to put at the top of the list!

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  5. Done nc500 in july 2021.amazing views peacefull calmfull great experience.once in live time though.

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