North Coast 500: a driver’s guide
The North Coast 500 is billed as “The Ultimate Road Trip” and it’s a pretty fair description…
The “NC500” was a tourism initiative launched in 2015 to encourage more people to visit northern Scotland. Aimed at sightseers, outdoor enthusiasts, foodies and cyclist amongst others, it has also become very popular with petrolheads due to the fantastic, empty roads it offers.
The NC500 route – optimised
The official route is 516 miles in total starting and finishing in Inverness and taking in some of the best driving roads in Scotland. That said, if you are going first and foremost as a driver there are certain sections you might want to miss out.
We’d drive it in an anti-clockwise direction as the roads and scenery between Inverness and Wick on the east coast – whilst still pretty amazing – aren’t as good (or quiet) as the north and west coast sections, so best get those out of the way first.
To the north coast
The official route takes you up the A9 all the way to Wick, but we’d recommend leaving the A9 about 30 miles from the start at Alness and follow the B9176 to Tain via Struie Hill. This is a stunning piece of twisty tarmac, particularly in the autumn, and beats the A9 hands down.
The A9 north to Wick is one of the busier sections of road on the route passing through the many small coastal towns with fine views of the North Sea. A visit to John O’ Groats is more of a box-ticking exercise than anything else as there really isn’t much to see. The real delights of the route await west of Thurso.
The A836 heading west across Caithness’s Flow Country is where the fun really starts. Both the views and the roads get better and quieter the further west you head towards Sutherland, much of it beautifully resurfaced courtesy of the EU. These are fast open roads which suit any car, however exotic. The 40-odd miles from Sandside to Hope are sublime – and the scenery is incredible.
The next 40 miles from Hope to Laxford Bridge are mainly single track roads with passing places – still great fun but you will make much slower progress. Smoo Cave and Ceannabeinne beach are both definitely worth a visit
The road south to Ullapool from Laxford Bridge is definitely 50 miles of fantasy driving. The roads here are so good you will often see production mules testing or manufacturers out on a photoshoot – the Kylescu bridge is a favourite photo location of Aston Martin. We’d divert from the official route which takes you out towards Lochinver on some tight, fiddly but very beautiful single track and simply follow the A894/ A837 south.
Ullapool is a great place to stop for some seafood but make sure you don’t get stuck in the traffic disembarking from the Lewis ferry as the A835 is an absolute peach all the way back to Inverness. Inverness isn’t on the agenda yet though as you’ll turn right onto the A832 at the Corrieshalloch Gorge (well worth a visit) and follow it all the way to Kinlochewe. This is a drive you will genuinely never forget – the only downside is that you will struggle to tear yourself away from the wheel to enjoy the truly spectacular west coast scenery.
From Kinlochewe, you head into Torridon and Applecross which is home to arguably the most spectacular scenery in Scotland. If you love the hills, it will be hard to resist pulling on your walking boots here. The roads tighten up and narrow again and we would suggest adopting a more gentle pace. The Torridon hotel is a place like no other in an amazing location, so we would recommend a couple of nights here to enjoy the sights, sounds and tastes of this amazing part of Scotland before completing the remainder of the NC500.
From Torridon, you are on the final stretch home back to Inverness, but not before tackling one of Britain’s highest mountain passes – the famous Bealach Na Ba. The official route takes you on twisty coastal single track roads to Applecross, but we think the best way up the 626m Pass of the Cattle is from the east.
The road up the Bealach can get busy in the summer with cars, motorhomes and cyclists so we’d advise getting there early if you have ambitions to give it a bit of welly. The hairpins at the top are steep and tight too and have outwitted many a differential in their time so take it easy and check the weather forecast. The views from the top are spectacular and the fish and chips in Applecross very good.
The final leg from Strathcarron to Inverness is on fast A-roads (A980/A832) and we’d recommend taking a short detour from Achnasheen back to Kinlochewe to enjoy the following bit of tarmac which you will no doubt have seen if you have researched the NC500 – but amazingly it isn’t on the route!
As you leave the hills behind the temptation will be to enjoy some spirited motoring but these roads back into historic Inverness are notorious for speed traps so take heed. You’ll no doubt want to enjoy some of the delights of Inverness after a hard drive and it’s not short of good food and accommodation.
The best way to enjoy the NC500 is almost certainly – and ironically – slowly. Each leg of your journey will feel different as you navigate across the changing vastness of northern Scotland. For this reason, we recommend stopping for a couple of days at the end of each leg so you can truly appreciate what Scotland has to offer. A good three-stage itinerary would be Inverness to Tongue – Tongue to Torridon – Torridon to Inverness.
Where should I stay?
There are lots of suggestions on the NC500 website. Accomodation can get booked up quickly and standards vary wildly so do your research. Bunchrew House Hotel in Inverness, The Tongue Hotel and The Torridon have long been favourites of petrolheads. Wild camping is allowed in Scotland so that is a fantastic option and offers more flexibility but remember that the humble Scottish midge will be extremely keen to make your acquaintance between June and the end of August…
What can I do or see?
If you love the great outdoors, then the world is your oyster. You’ll just need to choose the right wheels for the job to carry all your kit – our guide to the best cars to take on the NC500 may help. We’re not joking, this is the best way to enjoy your trip!
The whole area is rich in culture, incredible scenery and offers some of the best eating experiences in Europe if you know where to look – the local produce, particularly seafood – is amazing.
The NC500 website has lots of good suggestions.
When should I go?
May or September are the optimum times. The weather is normally kind(-ish), the tourists and midges aren’t around and there is plenty of daylight. April can still spring some nasty weather surprises so not ideal for fast cars. The autumn colours will look spectacular in October and it doesn’t really get dark in June.
What do I need to know?
Things to look out for:
- Weather – high winds and very wet conditions are a possibility at any time. November to April you may experience snow and ice. Snow and landslips can occur which means long diversions
- Wildlife – Scotland abounds with wildlife so the opportunities of connecting with it are endless – something you really don’t want to have to deal with. Sheep and deer should be your main concern, so drive safely
- Fuel – petrol gets more and more (ie very) expensive the further you get from Inverness, so best to fuel up there, in Thurso and Ullapool. Small filling stations can run out and not all offer a Sunday service so don’t get low on fuel if you can help it.
- Locals – respect the locals. Arriving in a tiny Scottish hamlet at high speed in a noisy, expensive car won’t endear you to anyone and you’ll probably be sitting in the bar with the residents later on. The distances between villages on the north coast can be big (30-40 miles), so some of the local residents may also be used to driving far faster than you may expect.
- Surfaces and debris – road surfaces can change fast and dramatically. One minute you’re on a beautifully manicured ribbon of finest A-road tarmac and the next you’re on a potholed track the width of two sheep and covered in loose gravel with a high-speed local coming the other way. You definitely don’t want a puncture or damage as the nearest help is likely to be Inverness (or possibly even further).
We’d advise doing your research and going prepared – get your car checked beforehand and take tyre sealant and an air compressor.
We would also encourage you to respect your fellow North Coast 500 users and drive safely. Remember, they’ll probably catch up with you at the next fuel or food stop. Police officers are few and far between in northern Scotland, but they are well aware what you are doing up here in your Porsche if you get our drift.
How should I get there?
Inverness has good air and rail links, but the best way to get there is undoubtedly to drive. The NC500 makes up part of a longer 850 mile route known as the Lap of Scotland which starts and finishes in Edinburgh which takes in the Perthshire, Argyll and the Cairngorms as well.
Once you are north of Newcastle or Preston there are a myriad fun ways of getting to Edinburgh – we’ll share them with you soon.