Scotland is a truly incredible country, that we’ve been lucky enough to visit three times. It’s absolutely beautiful, especially the farther north you go. Having already been to Edinburgh, Glasgow, Loch Awe, and Isle of Skye, we opted for the North Coast 500 this past summer. The North Coast 500 is the ultimate UK roadtrip! It’s 516 scenic miles around the Northern Highlands of Scotland, some on single track roads. Many people enjoy the camper van experience, but we decided to stay at different inns and Air BNBs along the route.
Most people start the NC500 in Inverness and take the western route, which is what we did. Since Inverness is a 10 hour drive from Suffolk, we drove up the day before, and then spent a day in Inverness before heading out on the roadtrip. We stayed at a place called The MacDonald Street Snug, on AirBNB and it was perfect for us. Inverness is a charming small city, but there isn’t tons to do there. The first night we ate at Prime Steakhouse, and the Chicken Balmoral was delicious. Our trip was right after lockdown restrictions lifted in Scotland and we were lucky to get in without at reservation. Check this place out when you’re in Inverness; we’ve noticed the beef tastes so much better in Scotland!
Day 1: Inverness
We spent our 1st day on the NC 500 in the Inverness area. Inverness has a quaint downtown area complete with shops, restaurants, a castle, and brewery. I was determined to find a red tartan plaid Harris Tweed bag, and I succeeded. We wandered the city and had lunch and beer at Black Isle Brewery. Interestingly enough, we stopped at the sister location in Fort William the summer before, on our way back from Isle of Skye. The pizza and porter were delicious. We then walked from town to the water at Carnac Point, where Beauly Firth and Moray Firth meet. The scenery is always amazing in Scotland and this was no different.
Our afternoon was spent doing Scottish things! We don’t like Scotch. Even though I quoted Ron Burgundy “I love Scotch…” for a solid two years in the mid 2000’s (hey don’t judge, it was before memes were around) I still don’t love Scotch. But every time we are in Scotland, we think “maybe we’ll like it THIS time”. So of course we had to go to a distillery to take a tour and try to fit in. Guess what? We still don’t like Scotch, but we had a great time touring Glen Moray distillery and learning how it’s made. The guides were friendly and our tour came with a tasting. It’s just something you have to do when in Scotland and there are many to choose from in the Highlands, especially around Speyside.
Day 2: Inverness to Wick
I learned my lesson in Iceland trying to cram too much into one day, and I tried to tone it down, but with little success. I get major FOMO easily, and that goes for trips as well. I always feel like we have to see EVERYTHING. Our first stop for the day was Chanonry Point, known for dolphin watching. It’s dependent on the tides, but in the mornings you can see dolphins within a foot or so of the shoreline, as they come to feed. We ended up spending two hours here, most of the time spent waiting for the for the dolphins. The spot was serene, and as a beach lover, I could sit in the sand and watch the water all day. The dolphins came (and some were jumping) just minutes before our parking expired (and it was about a half mile to the car park). We were able to watch them for a bit but had to leave. Make sure to bring coins for parking and get there early because the spots fill quickly. Even if you don’t see the dolphins, the beach is still beautiful.
Our next stop was the Big Burn Waterfall Walk in Golspie. This is an easy, but beautiful walk through a gorge with wooden bridges. As the name suggests, there are also waterfalls. The walk is around 2 miles, and it’s not difficult. This would make a great family walk. As an added bonus, it’s not far off the NC500 and it has parking! We love hiking (though this wasn’t exactly a hike) and the chance to get exercise on vacation, so I’m glad we stopped here.
Dunrobin Castle was the next stop on the list, and the highlight of the day. We arrived in time for the falconry display was really impressive! We were able to see hawks, raptors, and other birds of prey fly. I highly recommend checking out the schedule before you visit. The outside of the castle is possibly the most magical we’ve seen yet; it looks like it’s straight out of a fairytale with perfectly manicured gardens and beautiful turrets. The inside is more rustic than I anticipated, but I’m glad we went through it.
Our next stop was Cairn Laith, only a few minutes from the castle. Parking is a little tricky – you park across the street and then cross over the carriageway. A whippy truck vendor helped direct us on the correct path. Cairn Laith is an Iron Age broch, and this type of fortification is found only in Scotland. The ruins of the ancient dwelling are free to explore, and you can walk through the former settlement. A source of great joy to me, were the numerous friendly sheep from the nearby farm!
This day was a lot of driving, but everywhere we visited was close to the A9. About an hour down the road from Cairn Laith is Whaligoe Steps, which lead to gorgeous cliffs. We arrived just as the sun was low and golden in the sky and it was a spectacular view at the bottom of the steps. Be careful as you go through private property to get there; make sure you stay on the path and park in the designated spots.
Our last stop of the day was Old Castle of Wick. It proved to be an excellent spot to fly my drone (I’m still learning) so I was thankful for that. The castle ruins are on the cliffs, on a strip of land surrounded by water. As is typical with the Scottish coast, the dramatic cliffs made it a stunning place to visit. It’s believed the ruins are from the 14th century. After the castle, we headed to our Air BNB where we stayed for two nights, giving us the option to cook instead of eat out every night.
Day 3: Wick to Thurso (and back to Wick to sleep)
The day began with a short drive (30 minutes) to Duncansby Stacks. There was a large parking area, and plenty of trails to explore. This area was another great place for me to fly the drone, and get some pictures of the beautiful coastline. We stayed here for around 90 minutes or so, and the spot was beautiful. If we had more time, I would’ve liked to walk more along the coast.
Our next stop was John O’Groats. John O’Groats is the northeastern tip of Great Britain, and the distance between John O’Groats and Lands End (Cornwall) is the furthest you can drive on the British mainland. Like Lands End, it has a white signpost and is popular with tourists. Clearly, I am no exception. We headed there and did the touristy thing for a little bit, and then took a boat tour of the cliffs and coast. It was so amazing to see the puffins and seabirds, as well as the jagged coastline! We really wanted to do a day trip to the Orkney Isles, but the tour was sold out. That’s definitely something to do look into if you’re planning ahead.
From John O’Groats, we headed to the Castle of Mey for a tour. Prebooking was essential when we went and the Castle and Gardens are open June – September. The Castle was purchased in 1952 by the Queen Mother and remained in her care until 1996 when she gifted it to a trust. The guides tell interesting anecdotes about her time in the residence, including visits from the Royal Family. There are also gardens, petting zoo, and tea room on the property, making this a fun family stop.
From the Castle of Mey, we headed to Dunnet Head. Dunnet Head is the northernmost point on mainland Great Britain. From there you can see some of the Orkney Isles on a clear day. There are walking trails, and views of the coastline. We didn’t spend too long here, but it was worth a quick stop.
Our last stop for the day was Peedie Sands Beach. It may sound surprising, but Scotland has some incredibly beautiful beaches (even if I am too much of a wimp to get in the chilly water). This beach was no exception. Following the map to get there took us down a gravel road and lead us a few parking spots near a sandy trail. It was sandy and hilly walk down to the beach, but we enjoeud the serene, peaceful views once we were there. We had the beach almost to ourselves, which was a wonderful plus.
Day 4: Thurso to Kinlochbervie
Today’s drive was a little longer, because we weren’t actually leaving from Thurso – we had stayed in Wick for two nights. Puffin Cove was our first stop and it is not to be missed! Not only is it beautiful, but you’re surrounded by hundreds of puffins flying from the cliffs to the sea. It was amazing; I’m obsessed with these gorgeous creatures. It’s a bit hard to find, and there isn’t a lot of parking, but it’s worth a stop. You can put it in your GPS and get approximate directions, but there are no advertisements for it. Coming from Thurso, you will see a Welcome to Caithness sign, and that’s your cue to pull over and park on the side of the road in the gravel. Follow the dirt trail about three quarters of a mile to the cove. The trail gets wet and rocky, and it gets steep towards the bottom, so you’ll want sneakers or hiking boots. It’s worth it to be so close to the puffins! I don’t normally consider birds to be cute, but for some reason I’m obsessed with puffins.
Our next stop was Castle Varrich, an hour down the road. The ruins aren’t that impressive, but the view is amazing over the water, and worth the walk up the hill. We followed our GPS, parked in a residential area and then headed down the dirt path through the trees and up the hill. It’s about an hour walk round trip. We even braved the metal structure to go to the top of the tower!
Finding beautiful beaches was a theme on this trip. Our next stop was Ceannabeinne Beach. We hopped out for a quick stop, but if you want to be more adventurous, they have a zip line as well. Another “beach” stop was Smoo Cave. The cave is a seawater cave near the beach, in the limestone cliffs. Inside the cave there is a waterfall. This is somewhere we wished we’d been able to explore more. We were able to go in the cave, but since we arrived later in the day, the tours were sold out. They don’t do advance booking, so arrive early if you want to explore the cave. We also stopped at Sango Bay viewpoint, but it was cold and windy, so we didn’t stay long. We warmed up with some hot chocolate and truffles from Cocoa Mountain, which came recommended. It was tasty, and a bit expensive, but we never say no to chocolate. Durness is a popular place to stay on the NC500 as it has some restaurants and beaches. We weren’t able to find availability, so we stayed at the Kinlockbervie Hotel, about 40 minutes south. The people were friendly, but the hotel was a little dated. They did have a nice breakfast that was in included.
Day 5: Kinlockbervie to Ullapool
This day was full of short stops, and many of them were right off the main road. Our first stop was at the Assynt Viewpoint, but it was too foggy to see anything so we kept driving. The Kylesku Bridge stop has a nice viewpoint and you can stop on both sides of the bridge. After that we continued on to Wailing Widow Falls, which does have a parking lot. The path to the falls is right along a creek, and you walk on wet, uneven rocks, so wear boots or trainers (sneakers). It was a short rock, nothing strenuous, just unstable on the rocks.
Clashnessie Falls was our next stop, and it was definitely one of those “expectation vs reality” moments. Google it and you’ll see what I mean. The pictures I had seen were of a beautiful waterfall with a lot of volume. We when walked up I thought we were in the wrong place because there was barely a trickle of water! We did get to see some cute sheep nearby. I’d say skip this one if you’re short on time; there wasn’t much parking nearby either.
We tried to go to the Old Man of Stoerr (not to be confused with Old Man of Storr on Isle of Skye) but couldn’t find the way there, and just gave up. Instead, we headed to Alchmelvich Bay, a well known beach in Northern Scotland. The beach is beautiful, and there is a campsite nearby. Some brave children were swimming, while we were bundled up in sweatshirts and a jacket. Scotland is beautiful – but it’s not known for the weather. After the bay, we drove through the town of Lochinver which was a pleasant surprise. The small village on the water was charming. We decided to park and walk around and found a cute Pie Shop/Food Truck for lunch! I had the chicken,leek, and mushroom pie and it was fantastic. I highly recommend Lochinver Larder for your lunch stop!
As we made our way to Ullapool, we stopped at Knockan Crag Nature Reserve for a short walk with beautiful views. The reserve aims to educate people about the geology and history of the land. There are displays and signs with information to read as you walk along. I didn’t know until we visited, that Scotland was actually part of North America millions of years ago! The short walk up, also rewards you with some incredible views. This is definitely worth a short visit!
Our home for the night was at the Riverside Hotel in Ullapool. It was a large B&B with a nice room, and good breakfast. It was also in a good location to explore the port village of Ullapool. This was one of the larger villages that we stayed in, and we enjoyed walking around. We had hoped to eat at the Seafood Shack, a popular place for local food (menu changes daily based on what they bring in) but we arrived too late. In hindsight, I wish we had more time to stay in Ullapool, and explore the surrounding areas and do some hiking.
Day 6: Ullapool to Lochcarron
As much as we loved this trip, it did start to become a bit tiring checking in and out of hotels each day. The North Coast 500 (and Scotland in general) is amazing, but it is a lot of driving. Our first stop of the morning was the Corrieshalloch Gorge Nature Reserve, which is a peaceful and beautiful place to take a short walk. Hopefully you aren’t afraid of heights, because you cross over a suspension bridge that spans a huge gorge (it’s a mile long!). There are signs that tell you how many people can cross the bridge at once!
The theme of this trip (other than fog and rain) seemed to be waterfalls (much like our Iceland trip). Scotland has a ton of waterfalls, and we skipped a bunch of them, but still saw the good ones. One that is definitely worth visiting is Ardessie Falls, about 20 minutes from Corrieshalloch Gorge. The area isn’t well marked, and we parked on the side of the road in what appeared to be a parking lot, but I’m not sure if it really was. The trail wasn’t well marked – we did guessing and exploring and basically walked UP. The descriptions we read online said a short, steep walk, and they were right. It was really wet and muddy, so wear boots or wellies. You are rewarded with a series of waterfalls that continue down the hill with pools of water in between. We crossed over rocks with streams and running water; you can get right up to the water fall which is exciting. The view over the Loch is also beautiful.
While we had our itinerary planned and jam packed for this trip, there were many opportunities along the way to pull over and admire the views. After leaving the falls, we headed to the Applecross Peninsula to drive through the Torridon Hills. We pulled over a few times to admire the Highland Cattle (coos!), Loch views, beaches, and scenery.
The highlight of the day was supposed to be driving through the hills on the Applecross Peninsula, which looks out to Isle of Skye. The area is known to be one of the best winding drives in the country, with incredible views. I’m sure that is all true, but unfortunately for us, it was extremely foggy and we saw very little. At the top it was just a cloud of white! The famous Beleach Na Ba view point was extremely windy and with very little visibility – a bummer, but what can you do!
Our stop for the night was in the village of Lochcarron. We stayed at the Castle Cottage, which was right across the street from the Loch. The place was a charming B&B with wonderful owners. The breakfast was great, and there was parking nearby. Our room was quiet and cozy, with views of the Loch. That evening we headed to the Carron Restaurant for dinner, which was about a 10 minute drive away.
Day 7: Lochcarron to Foyer’s Bay (Loch Ness)
After a cooked to order breakfast at our B&B we hit the road on route to our last stop – Loch Ness! Our trend of waterfalls continued, with a visit to Black Water Falls, for an easy 2 mile hike along the rapids. This was a beautiful walk, perfect for families. You basically go down one side of the river, cross a bridge, and come up the other. An easy walk to stretch our legs was needed after a week spent in the car.
We drove down along Loch Ness, towards Fort Augustus, admiring the views. We attempted to get in Urqhardt Castle, but it was pre-book only and we couldn’t get in. We stopped at a Loch Ness statue nearby (on google maps) that is basically in the parking lot of a large gift shop & restaurant. It’s touristy, but a good stop for getting Scotland gifts. We collect ornaments, and found the cutest tartan plaid Nessie ornament. At the “bottom” of the lake we stopped in Fort Augustus for a few hours. We took a cruise of the Loch with Cruise Loch Ness. This was fun and informative; the narration told about the loch and why/how it’s been impossible to confirm what is below the surface. Loch Ness holds more water than all the lakes in England and Wales combined! When it rains (and it rains often in the UK!) the rainwater carries peat from the land into the lake. As a result, the water is dark and murky, and has very little visibility. It’s impossible to see what is in the water, so there very well could be a monster down there!
Our last stop on our trip, was Foyer’s Bay Country House, near Falls of Foyer along Loch Ness. We were going to do the Falls of Foyer hike, but we were honestly sick of waterfalls at that point. Instead we had a dinner at a pub just outside of town, and spent the evening in the lounge of the B&B drinking gin and tonics and chatting with other guests. This B&B was by far the best on our trip; it was such a great experience in a beautiful setting, and the owners were friendly. We’d love to go back to this area and spend more time. We were sad we only stayed for one night. The NC500 has become increasingly popular, especially amongst people living in the UK. It was one of the highlights of our summer, and we can’t wait to go back to Scotland!