The ultimate guide to driving the North Coast 500

The NC500 is 516 miles of asphalt that weaves its way around the Highlands, taking in everything from stunning coastal scenery to rugged mountains and remote fishing villages...

While the UK is a small place, it certainly packs a punch when it comes to driving roads. For a tiny island, disconnected from the driving mecca that is mainland Europe, this green and pleasant isle plays host to stunning roads like the Cheddar Gorge, Black Mountain Pass and — best of all — the North Coast 500.

Tucked away in the far north of Scotland, the North Coast 500 — or the ‘NC500’ as it’s best known — is the name given to 516 miles of asphalt that weaves its way around the Highlands. Taking in everything from stunning coastal scenery and white sandy beaches, to rugged mountains, remote fishing villages — not to mention a healthy dose of whisky distilleries — the NC500 stands proud as one of the world’s most spectacular road trips. Here’s our ultimate guide to making the most of it.

Day 1: Inverness to Dornoch

Let’s start off gradually, shall we? As the most populated place in the Scottish Highlands (and the most accessible airport), Inverness is the natural starting point for most. While the journey from there to Dornoch only takes an hour, there’s a lot to take in as you wind your way up the coastline, past the famous Glenmorangie distillery and into the home of the Royal Dornoch Golf Club.

From Inverness, head north on the A9 across the Beauly Firth on the Kessock Bridge and stick on the road as it passes over Cromarty Firth and the Dornoch Firth.

Bedding down in the town for the first night, check into Links House hotel. Made up of three Victorian buildings with views out to sea, the houses make for a fine first stop on a Highland driving adventure.

Day 2: Dornoch to John o'Groats and Thurso

From Dornoch, the distance clocks up as you venture towards the most northern point of the UK — the village of John o’ Groats.

Taking its name from the site where Jan de Groot built his famous house in the reign of James IV (1488 – 1513). The Dutchman struggled so much with his children squabbling over precedence, that he built an octagonal house with eight doors, one for each of his seven sons and himself, and an eight-sided table so that no one occupied the head of the table. But that’s enough of a history lesson – back on the road.

After a visit to ‘the end’ of the British Isles, set off west, down the coast and check into the Castle of Mey for the second night’s stay, which lies between o’Groats and Thurso.

Once the Caithness residence of the late Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, the property has the Granary Lodge on the grounds, which can be booked for accommodation.

Day 3: Thurso to Scourie

Rising from a night in Royal surroundings, it’s up and away for a three-hour blast across the top of Scotland. Hugging the north coast and heading west through Thurso and beyond, the road narrows to a single lane track at times, which wraps and winds its way around the coastline. It can be slow progress but it’s worth it to take in the outstanding views.

Once around the top, the route drops down south at Durness, clipping off the far west corner of Scotland in favour of a more direct route to the village of Scourie in Sutherland, an ideal stopover for day three.

Known for it’s fishing, the village is home to the Scourie Hotel, which has views over the white sands of Scourie Bay and towards Ben Stack, Foinaven and Arkle.

Day 4: Scourie to Torridon

From Scourie, it’s another three-hour drive down the coast to Torridon. For those in a hurry, there’s a faster (-30mins) route that trims off a little lap past Loch Ewe and Loch Maree but if you can spare the time it’s worth the extra miles for the views alone.

But before then, there’s the iconic bridge at Kylesku. Just 15 minutes drive south from Scourie, the Kylesku Bridge curves its way over crosses the Loch a’ Chàirn Bhàin, giving way to stunning views over Quinag mountain and beyond.

Finishing up at Torridon, the small village is home to The Torridon hotel, a magnificent hunting lodge built in 1887 by William King-Noel, the first Earl of Lovelace and husband to Lord Byron’s only legitimate daughter, Ada, who helped write the first computer programme. Aside from the surprising family history, the hotel is a stunning Victorian Highland hideaway perched on the shores of Loch Torridon.

Day 5 - Torridon to Inverness

Departing Torridon, it’s almost a straight 1.5-hour cut across the Highlands back to Inverness. Passing by more lochs and hills, the drive is the final opportunity to take in the true beauty of Scotland’s great Highland wilderness before reaching the relative hustle and bustle of Inverness.

Totalling 500 miles — or thereabouts, depending on how sidetracked you allow yourself to get — the NC500 is undoubtedly the best way to take in all the Scottish Highlands have to offer. All that’s needed is an appetite for adventure and a suitable vehicle, which can range from a camper van to classics and even supercars depending on your preference. Take your pick.   

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