Unforgettable vistas, ever-transforming terrain and seemingly endless detours: Scotland’s North Coast 500 can host the road trip of your dreams.
Meandering tracks, captivating terrain and bountiful secret spots to uncover: Scotland’s North Coast 500 is the perfect coalescence of experiences to create the self-drive trip of your dreams.
Picture a holiday where you spend days behind the wheel among some of the world’s most exhilarating scenery. Where sweeping coastal panoramas melt into towering snow-capped mountains and hairpin bends reveal lochs of the deepest blue. This is just another day on Scotland’s North Coast 500 – known as the country’s answer to the USA’s ‘Route 66’. It is fast becoming one of the UK’s most desirable touring experiences.
Stick with tradition and begin in Inverness, a charming city that is the Scottish Highlands’ answer to metropolis – albeit on a very compact scale. It’s a wonderful base from which to uncover the complex history and power struggles of the Scottish clans with visits to Culloden Battlefield and Cawdor Castle. Head even further back in time, but not very far from Inverness, and explore the ancient site of the Clava Cairns, latter day inspiration behind the Outlander stories of Diane Gabbidon.
Leaving the legends of Loch Ness behind – after attempting to spot its most famous resident, of course – you can opt to travel the North Coast 500 clockwise or anti-clockwise. Choose the former and you will begin in the north west. Dense forestry, isolated beaches, majestic Scots pine, reflecting lochs, pristine harbours and crumbling castles will come into view as the road twists and turns. Not for the faint-hearted, the drive over the hairpin ascent of the Bealach na Ba is optional as you can also detour to the glorious Applecross peninsula via a more gentle coastal route.
Continue north through the ancient rocky mountains of Torridon, offering photo opportunities aplenty whatever the weather. The chances are you’ll experience two, three or even all four seasons within a few hours. The National Trust’s Inverewe Gardens is a popular stop where you can wonder at the softening impact of the Gulf Stream on the harsh environment of the Highlands. Who knew palm trees could flourish this far north? Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife too – from golden eagles to stately deer and cute red squirrels.
Eventually you will hit the north coast of mainland Britain, an evocative wilderness, pockmarked with small villages and settlements and blessed with expansive sands and crashing waves. The ribbon-like road snakes its way along, switching from wide straights to twisty stretches of single track according to the demands of the surrounding terrain. Poignant reminders of the Highland Clearances lie all around – when the people were forcibly removed from their homes to make way for more profitable sheep. It’s difficult to imagine that this remote area was once much more densely populated.
In the far north east you will reach John O’Groats, with its famous, photogenic signpost. Contrary to popular belief, you’ll actually find the most northerly point on mainland Britain at nearby Dunnet Head, where a photo opportunity with the lighthouse is an absolute must-do for keen travellers. Your journey will then veer south into the picture-perfect region of Caithness, where culturally rich towns such as Tain and Dornoch are ready to greet you at every rest stop you need along the way. This is a great corner for a distillery visit if a little Scotch whisky experience is high on your holiday wish-list too.
Your life-affirming North Coast 500 road trip concludes in the same place it began – though it may seem like a lifetime has passed by the time you return to Inverness. The breath-taking sights and sensations you will have experienced throughout your trip will stay with you forever.
Some say it is easy to whiz around the North Coast 500 in just two or three days but where is the fun in that? If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well in our opinion. That’s why McKinlay Kidd’s classic self-drive journey spans eight nights, giving you the time to really get under the skin of the area and to explore off the beaten track. Alternatively, extend your trip further to enjoy a leisurely fortnight exploring the roads. If time is a little more at a premium, we can arrange a fly-drive trip for you with a hire car from Inverness. Or if you are venturing this far north, why not extend your stay to include the far-flung archipelago of Orkney, packed with war-time, Viking and Neolithic history? If you have an affinity for the finer things in life, our premier version of the route is sure to delight, taking in luxury accommodation in remarkable settings.
If you would prefer to begin in a different spot or pick up your car after a few days in the fascinating cities of Edinburgh or Glasgow, we would be happy to tailor-make your holiday to ensure you can leisurely explore as many places as possible. We are passionate about the North Coast 500 because we have traced its length and breadth so many times, seen it in so many different lights and have uncovered many secluded gems over the years. No matter the length of your trip, we’ll provide you with a full set of recommendations to help you meander away from the main roads.
Finally, if the idea of driving on roads which are at times narrow and twisty does not appeal, you could always sit back and relax, travelling slowly through the North Highlands by train. This exclusive McKinlay Kidd itinerary includes characterful accommodation, transfers and train journeys all pre-booked for you. Locally-guided experiences with our hand-selected experts allow you to really uncover the character of the transcendent Scottish Highlands, including the Isle of Skye.
However you wish to experience Scotland’s North Coast, just get in touch and our award-winning team will be delighted to compose your perfect trip.