Rob is an avid traveller and self-confessed 'man of the world'. He is passionate about his home city, Manchester, & travelling the world.
An Overview of the NC500
The NC500 (the NC standing for 'North Coast') is a 500-mile coastal route that takes in the west, north and east coasts of the far north of the Scottish mainland. The route is especially popular with cyclists and those travelling in a motorhome or campervan. This is, in part, due to the sheer availability of places to pitch up and sleep for free as part of the Scottish Outdoor Access Code. But it's also incredibly popular due to the numerous historical sites of importance along the route, not to mention the stunning landscapes and geological points of interest at pretty much every turn.
Most travellers traverse the route in a clockwise manner, usually starting in the south at Inverness to the east or at Lochcarron in the west. Some stretches of the route can take a long time due to the provision of winding single-track roads for those in vehicles. However, this is all part of the experience. The NC500 is not to be rushed. Take your time, enjoy the scenery and stop for frequent rest breaks to take it all in.
For the remainder of this article, I'm going to share with you some of the key highlights of the route—places you absolutely will not want to miss. I'll also share some personal tips to help you 'discover' places where you will find few other travellers so you can enjoy the remote tranquillity all to yourself.
Bealach Na Ba and Applecross
Applecross is a small settlement on the west coast with stunning views across to the Isle of Skye. If you're lucky, you can witness an incredible sunset here—a location that rivals the best spots in the world for stunning sunsets.
The NC500 route goes to Applecross and to get there (there's only one way) you will drive through Bealach Na Ba (pass of the cattle). This is an incredible mountain pass with numerous hairpin bends leading up to a summit of just over 600m above sea level. Take extra care if driving in the winter months as you will almost certainly experience snow and ice at the top.
This is one of the most dramatic mountain roads in the world—giving the likes of Switzerland and Austria and real run for their money. Be sure to plan plenty of time as it's not exactly fast going due to the single tracks roads and the tight twists and turns—and of course you're going to want to make time for photo breaks!
Eventually you will drop all the way down to sea level and arrive at the beach. Find a spot to park up and spend the night. Fingers crossed on getting that magical sunset!
The Seafood Shack at Ullapool
If you're travelling in a clockwise direction then Ullapool is pretty much your last chance to stock up on supplies from a supermarket. It gets pretty remote the further north you go from here.
While in Ullapool be sure to have a meal at The Seafood Shack, where you can get delicious fresh seafood meals at a surprisingly good price considering it's formidable reputation. Ullapool also includes a couple of fish and chip shops (I recommend Deli-ca-sea) and a fishmonger's next door. There is also a deli and a couple of coffee shops.
Something that surprises many visitors to the Scottish highlands—myself included—is the breath-taking quality of the beaches. There are beaches along the west and north coast that rival some of the very best in the world. And Achmelvich Beach is one of them. Crystal clear waters, with a gorgeous turquoise hue, together with soft white sand and dramatic backdrops. Achmelvich is paradise.
The beach is at the end of a single-track road and gets fairly busy in the summer (but nowhere near as busy as a beach on a hot day in England!). There's a free car park (no overnight parking) with a short stroll to the beach. The main beach will be where most people spend their time but if you head over the small hill to the right-hand side you will find a near-identical beach that will likely be completely empty!
Another incredible beach can be found at Durness at the north-west tip of the Scottish mainland. There's a large campsite called Sango Sands overlooking the beach, which offers pitches directly on the cliff edge so that it feels as if you are on the beach. The beach itself is absolutely stunning and not to be missed.
Also at Durness is Smoo Cave, just a short walk from the beach and from the Sango Sands campsite. Entry to the cave is free but there is the option to take a paid guided tour into the cave. There are lots of local legends connected with the cave which are fascinating to learn about. The tour itself doesn't take you very far but it's very interesting nonetheless.
Balnakeil Craft Village and Balnakeil Beach
About a mile in the other direction, in the small village of Balnakeil, is the Balnakeil Craft Village, a collection of mostly single-storey pre-fab buildings originally erected by the Ministry of Defence in the 1950s. However, whilst MoD built them, they were never actually commissioned into use and lay empty for many years.
Eventually, the local council acquired them and put out a call for tenants to come and occupy them. The call was answered by a number of artists, and so a culture was established around arts and crafts. In the 1980s, the tenants were given the opportunity to acquire the buildings, so today the whole village is owned and operated by the artists themselves. A stop-off for chocolates at the Cocoa Mountain chocolate shop and cafe is recommended!
A bit further down the road is another incredible beach and another MoD station (although this one is in use). The beach at Balnakeil is more rugged than at Sango Sands and is even quieter with a real sense of remoteness as it faces across to Cape Wrath and the perennial drizzle and rolling clouds.
John O Groats and the Duncansby Stacks
What would a tour around the north coast of the British mainland be without a stop off at John O Groats—the most northerly tip. There's not a lot here, to be quite honest, but there's a pleasant walk to stretch those legs. Orkney is 8 miles further north and the Shetland Islands a further 135 miles away.
A few miles over to the west is the impressive geological formations in the sea known as the Duncansby Stacks. Well worth parking up and heading along the cliff tops to see the stacks and listen to the array of birds that have colonised them.
The Oil Rig Graveyard at Cromarty Firth
The Firth of Cromarty, along the eastern coast of the Scottish Highlands, is where decommissioned oil rigs are sent to die. Along a stretch spanning several miles, there are a number of oil rigs that have been transported into the Cromarty Firth to be broken down and scrapped.
It's quite an incredible sight and one that inspires reflection as to where we're currently at on our industrial journey as we move towards a zero-carbon economy. These oil rigs stand there as a remnant of the past, looking as out of place against the green backdrop of the Scottish Highlands as they do against a backdrop of 21st-century progress. A sight not to be missed.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Robert Clarke
Glen Rix from UK on August 02, 2021:
Interesting. I have often visited the northern area of Scotland as I have family there. it is a stunningly beautiful area. The drive along by the Moray Firth is spectacular. But I have yet to visit the east coast. Your article is a useful reference for when I eventually make the trip.
I was in Aberdeenshire only three weeks ago and did a day trip along the A93, which runs through Royal Deeside, to Braemar. Can highly recommend.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on August 02, 2021:
This is a very informative article about the Scottish highlands, Robert. The beauties are absolutely beautiful. I would love to visit.