This is for those of you who love a good road trip. Who love nothing more than getting into their car, snacks sticking out the glove compartment or balanced precariously on the passenger seat, a killer playlist pulsing through the speakers, and nothing but stretches of landscape and road before you.
We know it’s not for everyone, but for those who love it, you’ll get what we mean. It comes as no surprise, but we love a good road trip here at Rabbie’s. Our driver-guides don’t shy away from the road, from new experiences, and from meeting new people. Some road trips are more than an opportunity to explore new places; they’re a chance to spend quality time with a loved one. Other times you get out on the road alone and everything is before you. Everything is up to you. That’s freedom of a unique kind.
That’s why we love a good road trip.
Enter the North Coast 500, or NC500 route, considered one of the best road trips in the world. A bold claim, but here’s why we are so immensely proud of this route. There’s something for everyone, from snorkelling to whisky tasting, hiking to gourmet foodie experiences, the NC500 is for anyone who wants more than a memorable trip. It’s for those who want a true experience.
There are hundreds of miles to explore (516 miles to be exact) and the route is the perfect opportunity to explore further afield. Don’t just stay on the route, head off the beaten path, explore traditional Scottish villages, discover hidden spots, wander along sandy beaches, and gaze up at a Munro shrouded in mist.
The choices are endless, and perhaps a little overwhelming. We understand that sometimes deciding where to start and what to do is a difficult task. But that’s why we exist. And, honestly, it’s an absolute pleasure to help people plan their small-group tours. So, let’s start with the basics:
We hate to say it, but you have a choice to make. Do you want to visit in autumn or winter? If you do, you can cosy up beside a fire. Enjoy the vibrant colours of Scotland in autumn or the snowy wonderland of winter. The roads are quieter, and you might even get lucky and spot the Northern Lights on a dark and crisp night.
Or do you want to visit in spring or summer? The days stretch on forever, which means you have more than enough time to see everything you want to see. More animals come out to play, including everybody’s favourite sea clown, the puffin. The oceans are calmer and warmer, allowing you water babies a chance to get out on a boat trip, or swim in a wild loch. Communities come to life, holding events and Highlands Games, music and food festivals, you name it.
What are the 6 Ps? Prior Planning Prevents P*ss Poor Performance.
While there is something to be said for spontaneity, there’s a balance to find with trips like this. We’d recommend planning the big things: your accommodation (especially if travelling in spring or summer), your mode of transport, your route, and your main stops. A great way to go about it is to give yourself at least five to seven days (if not longer) to do the route, choose your overnight bases and use them as a point from which you can explore the local area. It’s on those days or mornings off the route where you could keep things flexible and see how you feel on the day.
There’s a great saying: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad preparation.”
No matter what time of year you’re planning to visit Scotland, remember that it’s part of the UK and the weather can be very unpredictable. We always advise to pack for every kind of weather, especially for an extended road trip. A sturdy waterproof jacket is a must, plus good walking shoes. Layers are a great way to plan for every eventuality, and waterproof bags might just save your phone in a sudden downpour.
For those travelling in winter, check out our What to Pack for a Winter Break in Britain blog. In summer, be ready for the midges (but don’t let that deter you!) with some repellent. We’d also advise ensuring you have a reliable GPS system, and bring a physical NC500 map with you in case of technological failures.
Now for the fun bit. As mentioned, there are endless options along the NC500 route, so we thought we’d list a few of the must-visit places to help narrow it down. From hidden gems to popular destinations, activities to landscapes, keep reading for some inspiration.
Sandwood Bay Beach
Sometimes a destination is made that much better when you’ve earned it. Sandwood Bay has been named one of the most beautiful beaches in Europe but not everyone will visit, since there’s a nine-mile round trip walk involved across an undulating moorland landscape to reach it. This mile-long beach has an air of mystery and secrecy to it, and is flanked at one end by a dramatic sea stack known as Am Buachaille (the Herdsman).
Surrounded by moorland and machair, you’re in for a treat if you choose to visit Sandwood Bay. The machair is home to over 220 species of wildflower, so perhaps a spring visit is in order? Its remoteness lends to a lack of light pollution, meaning you might get lucky and spot the Northern Lights during winter. Not to mention it's home to a huge variety of fauna, from golden eagles to otters, mountain hares to grey seals.
WWII American Bomber Wreckage
Here’s something a little more unique and perfect for you history lovers out there. Head to the incredibly picturesque village of Shieldaig in the Northwest Highlands and head along a route behind Shieldaig Lodge. Beyond, you’ll find some stunning fairy lochs and the crash site of a World War II B-24 Liberator. It’s a relatively easy 45-minute walk out to the quiet spot, which has been classed as a war grave.
Grey Cairns of Camster
Time for a little detour, one we know you’ll love. This unique spot is somewhat hidden, reached by driving five miles along an unclassified single-track road. But it’s worth the drive to see the Grey Cairns of Camster.
What is a cairn? Best familiarize yourself with this word if you’re heading to Scotland. A cairn is a man-made stack of stones, usually raised as a marker or a burial ground. They vary greatly in shape and size, from rough piles of stone to sharp structures that look like mini Egyptian pyramids.
These cairns are said to be some of the best preserved in Britain (their remoteness may have had something to do with that), which is impressive considering they’re an estimated 5,000 years old. Excavations were done in the 1800s and inside they found burnt human remains, flint tools, pottery, and two skeletons.
Don’t let that put you off heading inside the cairns yourself. The passage to enter is relatively low and narrow, but it’s worth crawling through to see how the inside of the cairns are lit by natural light coming from the outside.
Bag a Munro
Here’s a phrase you should know if visiting Scotland. ‘Bagging a Munro’ has nothing to do with shoving a person called Munro into a bag. In Scotland, this is a popular pastime where hikers challenge themselves to climb as many of the peaks as they can.
Hills don’t count. In Scotland, a Munro has to be more than 3,000 feet tall and there are 282 of these mountains across Scotland, 37 of which are along the NC500. The choice is yours as to which one (or ones) you do, just make sure to be prepared for the hike and take precautionary measures.
Don’t forget your camera, either. The views are worth every step.
A gorge by any other name
Let’s be honest, the word gorge isn’t great to begin with. And when that gorge takes on a name like ‘The Ugly Hollow’, you’re bound to have some reservations. But trust us, this dramatic mile-long canyon is well worth a visit.
Around 2.6 billion years ago, the River Droma cut its way through the Corrieshalloch Gorge before dropping 100 metres, forming a series of waterfalls, including the 45m high Falls of Measach.
Not sure who named it ‘The Ugly Hollow’ because all we can see is a dramatic, powerful, thunderous waterfall surrounded by sharp and moss-covered rocks. It truly is a stunning place to visit. Whether you go to simply take a photo from the suspension bridge above, or join a canyoneering expedition through the gorge, this is one memorable stop on the NC500.
The Black Isle
Oh, we just love a dramatic name. The Black Isle. Sends shivers down the spine, doesn’t it? The Black Isle is one of the best areas for wildlife watching along the North Coast 500. It’s a great spot to set up base for a night or two, giving you the chance to deeply explore the area.
Love dolphins? Head to Chanonry Point or North Kessock and keep an eye out. Search for fairies at the Fairy Glen. Get up close to some stunning birds of prey, red kites, and watch as they’re fed at Tollie Red Kites. Venture into the depths of Cairds Cave, if you so dare. Just make sure you come back out again so you can continue your adventure along the NC500.
Oh, and now is the perfect time to refuel. No, not your car. You. Head into the Black Isle Brewery for a bit of fuel.
Mi broch es tu broch
Back in the Iron Age, the folks inhabiting Scotland built a plethora of drystone hollow-walled structures known as brochs. These ancient dwellings might be incredibly old, but they are impressive and imposing structures made of stone, sometimes built as high as 50 feet. Some argue that, given their size, brochs were defensive structures. But perhaps they were the homes for the rich and powerful.
Much speculation and mystery still surrounds the why behind brochs. Why were they built? What did the insides look like? Why are so many found in the north of Scotland? The questions go on. Luckily for you, you don’t have to answer those. All you have to do is choose which one you’d like to visit. Perhaps Cairn Liath? Or maybe Dunbeath Broch? Nybster Broch? Dun Dornigail?
I Smoo, you Smoo, we Smoo
Basically, we just like saying this word. Smoo. We’re rambling in relation to a place called Smoo Cave, a spectacular sea cave set into limestone cliffs in the county of Sutherland, near the town of Durness.
Formed by a burn (a watercourse like a stream or river) that runs into the rear chamber, as well as erosion by the sea, the cave has the largest entrance to any sea cave in Britain at 50 feet high.
It can be explored by boat or on foot, but note that the water levels in the cave are affected by the weather, and in the warmer months you may not be able to see the waterfall inside.
Fit for Kings and Queens
Half the fun of travelling in countries like Scotland is visiting the castles and pretending it belongs to you.
…No? Just us?
Anyway, whatever your reason for visiting, there are several great Scottish castles along the NC500 that you should add to your bucket list. For those who love a good ruin, check out Ardvreck Castle. Dating back to around 1490, it has managed to stick with us and stands on a rocky promontory in Loch Assynt. Like any good Scottish castle, there are many stories and much history associated with it, including a possible betrayal and £25,000 reward.
Speaking of dramatic ruined castles with interesting history, don’t miss Castle Sinclair Girnigoe. What’s great about this castle is you get two for the price of one: the 15th-century Castle Girnigoe; and the early 17th-century Castle Sinclair.
Luckily, some of our castles are still intact, so if you’d like to walk the halls of some, that’s definitely possible. Dunrobin Castle is the largest great house in Northern Highlands with a whopping 189 rooms. It’s been inhabited since the early 1300s and still standing strong. It’s a little less Scottish and a little more French, resembling a French château with towering conical spires.
Or you might check out the Castle of Mey, which has a bit of a sad familial history. It was built by the 4th Earl of Caithness for his second son William. Sounds sweet, right? Well, the Earl wasn’t as great a father as he sounds, since he’d imprisoned his other son John in the castle for six years. Poor John was planning his escape when William came to visit. William found out about the escape plot and told dear old dad. John murdered William for the betrayal... then John was in turn murdered. So, who inherited the castle? The third son, George. Here’s hoping he managed to live a bit longer than his brothers...
Bealach na Bà
Bless you. Just kidding. It’s not gibberish, we promise. It’s Scottish Gaelic for ‘Pass of the Cattle’ which is just lovely imagery, wouldn’t you say?
Bealach na Bà is a spectacular winding single-track road through the mountains of this wonderful region known as the Applecross peninsula. Built back in 1822, it’s a road of incredibly tight hairpin bends that switch back and forth up the hillside and gradients of up to 20%. But don’t let that put you off!
Best attempted in a sturdy car (but nothing too large like a campervan) during the warmer months, it will definitely stick with you as a memorable point on the trip.
And while you’re there, appreciate the fact that you’re in the remote region known as Applecross. The name dates back to around 1300 years ago and is believed to be one of the earliest settled parts of Scotland. The wild peninsula is wonderfully atmospheric, making you feel as though you are on the edge of the world.
Reach the end of the world
This tiny little village has a big claim, it sits at the end of the world. Only kidding. But John o’Groats is Britain’s most northerly point and staring out over the North Sea, it hits you: look where I am. Look how far I’ve come. Look at the world we live in.
This iconic location has the jaw-dropping scenery that is necessary on any road trip and the village itself is a lovely stop on your route. It’s a stone’s throw from glorious beaches, not to mention it’s one of the best places in the UK to see puffins during their breeding season during spring and summer.
You might only be part-way through your journey when you visit John o’Groats, but you’ll stop and wonder how on earth you’ve already experienced so much beauty and adventure.
The NC500 is a truly Insta-worthy drive. Over every horizon, you’ll find something worthy of your gaze. You’ll be treated to local delicacies from seafood to whisky, learn all about Scotland’s history and folklore, all the while admiring landscapes you only thought possible in fantasy novels.
If you’d rather sit back and enjoy the views without the worry of driving, we have a 3-day North Coast 500 tour that leaves from Inverness. Whether we’re behind the wheel or you are, adventure is inevitable.