Achmelvich Beach

Scotland: North Coast 500 Itinerary with Route Planner

In May 2021 we headed on a two week trip to Scotland where we completed the North Coast 500 road trip around the North of Scotland. This was easily the best road trip I have been on. Here I highlight our full North Coast 500 itinerary including all of the locations we visited before and after finishing the NC500. I have included details of the places we visited, and also shared those that we didn’t get a chance to, but that may be useful to your personal itinerary. This includes things to see and do along each stretch of the journey. You can also check out more tips on completing the NC500 here!

Places to stop on route to the start of the NC500

We spent a few additional days in Scotland before officially starting the NC500 route. I have included the route below as these nights provided a really amazing start to our Scotland adventure (you can press the share icon on the map to save or email it to yourself).

Edinburgh

Our drive from home in Leeds to Inverness allowed us to spend a night in Edinburgh without going off route, and Edinburgh is now definitely one of my favourite cities in the UK!

We didn’t have long here and the weather wasn’t great, but we had enough time to have a walk around the small streets and pop to some cafes.

Things to see & do in Edinburgh:

  • Dean Village
  • Edinburgh Castle
  • The Old Town
  • Carlton Hill

My favourite food and drink:

  • Milkman Café
  • Dishoom Restaurant (great gluten free options!)

Where to stay:

  • We stayed at Travelodge Central where we were able to get a room for £33 within walking distance of the main sights.
Edinburgh Cafes

Cairngorms

On our way to Inverness, we took the scenic ‘Snow Road’ through the Cairngorms National Park. I highly recommend this if you have time. It’s a slightly longer drive, but well worth it for the views (Cairngorms snow roads map above). 

Cairngorms Snow Roads

Braemar

We stopped at the village of Braemar in the Cairngorms, where we did a short walk to the viewpoint below the bigger summit of Morrone of Morven. There are several pubs and shops in Braemer and it is a great stopping point to break up the journe

Loch Ness and Cannich

As we approached Inverness, the official start of the NC500, we headed west towards Loch Ness. We stopped at a viewpoint (marked on the map above) where there are steps leading down to the loch.  This was only 30 minutes away from Inverness, and in this area you can also visit the nearby Urquhart Castle and the hamlet of Fort Augustus. It really felt like the adventure was beginning at this point as we started to see the beautiful scenery of Scotland.

Loch Ness Viewpoint

The reason for this detour was partly because we had booked two nights in a glamping pod in Cannich, before the official start of the NC500Craskie Estate can be booked via their website and also on Airb&b. I’m sure the pictures below make it clear why I have included details of this stopover! There are several pods at the estate overlooking a valley view, and often deer roaming nearby. Even when overcast the landscape was so beautiful. We had a BBQ each night despite the cold weather.

 

Glamping near Inverness
Glamping Scotland

From here we had time to explore the nearby nature reserve of Loch Affric, only a 30-minute drive from where we were staying. A great spot for hiking including a number of Munros, and a circular walk around Loch Affric, which you can walk all or part of. As we were driving back we noticed a sign for ‘Plodda Falls’ which we would later learn is one of the highest waterfalls in the Highlands – truly a hidden gem which we very happy to stumble across! There is a walk along different viewing platforms both to the top and bottom of the waterfall. 

Plodda Falls. Waterfall near Inverness, Scotland
Plodda Falls
Reflection on Loch Affric
Loch Affric

7 day North Coast 500 Itinerary

Overview

Below is a summary of our NC500 best stops and how long we spent in each place! I would advise developing your own North Coast 500 itinerary based on how much you wish to see in each area. For example, we spent more nights on the West coast as we wanted to do more hiking and wild camping here than on the East coast.

Inverness to Helmsdale (1 night)

Helmsdale to Ceannabeinne Beach (wild camp x 1 night)

Ceannabeinne Beach to Achmelvich Bay (wild camp x 2 nights)

Achmelvich Bay to Ullapool (1 night) 

Ullapool to Gairloch (2 nights) 

Gairloch to Applecross (1 night)

NC500 route planner with stops:

Day 1: Inverness to Helmsdale

70 miles (without stops) 

NC500 things to do:

–  Chanonry Point: one of the highlights of the first day was stopping at Chanonry Point, known to be a good area for dolphin spotting from the beach! There is a small car park near to the beach. Be aware of tide times as you are most likely to see dolphins at rising tide (one hour after low tide). You can check the tide times here. We were not able to get there at the best tide time ourselves, but we were very lucky to still see dolphins swimming in the bay when we arrived!

–  Fairy Glen Walk: not far from Chanonry Point is a short 3km woodland and waterfall walk. You can find details and the map for this walk here.

–  Tarbat Ness Lighthouse: near the small fishing village of Portmahomack, the Lighthouse is positioned on the North West Tip of the Tarbat Ness peninsula. You can park at the Tarbat Car Park with just a short walk over to the lighthouse and viewpoints. From here you can spot dolphins and seals and enjoy a walk along the coast.  The village of Portmahomack is also worth a stop to see the beach and coloured houses. We also heard good things about the Oyster Catcher seafood restaurant but unfortunately it was closed on the day we visited. 

Dornoch Beach: A must see beach en route with car parking; it might seem busy at first but be sure to keep walking and find your own spot as this golden beach is miles long. We perched on some rocks to make some coffee on the camping stove!

Golspie: A small seaside village with a long stretch of sandy beach and shops. One of the many walks on the NC500 is the Big Burn Walk. Another short walk leading through woodland and waterfalls. Full route and details here. 

Dunrobin Castle & Gardens: A fairytale castle located just outside of Golspie. There is a £12.50 entrance fee for adults. You can find more information and plan your visit here. 

Brora Beach: A beautiful 2 mile long sandy beach, running alongside a golf course. Perfect for wildlife spotting and beach walks.

Where to stay:

We stayed at Pipers Cave Guesthouse in Helmsdale. There are many guesthouses / Airbnb options along the way.

 

Watching Dolphins at Chanonry PointNC500
Chanonry Point Dolphins
Portmahomack, small fishing village in Scotland. Coloured houses NC500
Portmahomack
Dornoch Beach. Sandy beach NC500
Dornoch Beach
Tarbat Ness Lighthouse and yellow flowers
Tarbat Ness Lighthouse
Dunrobin Castle. Spectacular Castle with sea views
Dunrobin Castle
Brora Beach. Sandy Beach NC500
Brora Beach

Day 2: Helmsdale to Ceannabeinne Beach

138 miles (without stops)

This was a long but beautiful day of travelling for us as we headed over to the north coast.  There is a lot to see on this section of the road trip and could easily be split into two days to be able to see and stop more along the way if preferred. There are many beaches and our favourite stop had to be Duncansby Stacks where we also saw orcas in the sea!

 

 Things to see and do:

Whaligoe Steps: A highly recommended stop on the NC500, 337 steps down a cliff side to a natural fishing harbour- unfortunately the steps were closed for maintenance when we were on the route. However, we would have definitely stopped if we had been able to. Find out more information to plan your visit here.

 

Castle Sinclair Girnigoe: A few miles North of Wick lies the two castle ruins overlooking the sea. You can park at Noss Head Car Park and follow the footpath to the castle ruins. Note there is a short walk to get there. The car park is free of charge. 

 

John o’ Groats: A short obligatory stop at John O’Groats on our way to Dunnet Head. If I am honest we did not wish to spend much time here as we found the surrounding coast and Duncansby Head a lot more picturesque than John O’Groats itself. However, you could say a photo at the famous sign is essential on this trip!

 

Duncansby Head/Stack: The most north easterly point of both Scottish and British Mainlands. There is parking nearby to Duncansby Lighthouse (Duncansby Head Car Park). To get to Duncansby Stacks you must follow the footpath towards ‘Geo of Sclaites’. Be sure to stop at this point as well as it is a great place for wildlife watching – we saw many puffins on the cliffs when we were there in late May. You get a great view of Duncansby Stacks from here as well (as seen in the photo below). Or you can continue walking onwards to get even closer. You could easily spend a few hours exploring here if you are splitting this stretch of the road trip.    

 

Castle and Garden of Mey: The most northerly inhabited castle in Scotland. On our trip the castle was still temporarily closed due to the pandemic. Check its re-opening and visiting tips here. 

 

Dunnet Head: A must visit because this is the most northerly point of Great Britain! Visit the lighthouse and enjoy looking out over the sea. On a clear day you can see as far as the Orkney Islands from this point. It is also possible to see puffins along the coastline.

 

Melvich Beach: A secluded beach with sand dunes on the North Coast. There were a few people surfing here during our visit. 

 

Where to stay:

Wild camping spots on the NC500 are everywhere! We stayed at the popular wild camping spot Ceannabeinne beach. There were quite a few people there with the same idea but there was still space for numerous tents and you can walk to the other side of the bay to have a bit more privacy. Further down the coast is Sango Sands Oasis campsite overlooking the sea.

Castle Sinclair Girnigoe NC500
Castle Sinclair Girnigoe
John o' Groats signpost NC500
John o' Groats
Duncansby stacks in Spring with flowers
Duncansby Stacks
Melvich Bay, secluded sandy beach on the NC500
Melvich Bay

Day 3-4: Ceannabeinne Beach to Achmelvich Bay (2 nights wild camp)

60 miles (without stops) 

 

Day 3 was a shorter day of driving as we made out way to Achmelvich Bay. We were planning to wild camp for a couple of nights and found a perfect beach wild camping spot at Achmelvich Beach. We ended up staying for two nights in the same area (took down the tent each morning) as there was a mini heatwave and we wanted time to appreciate this beautiful place.

 Things to see and do:

Smoo Caves: These caves are located directly on the NC500 route and so there is no detour to get here. You can park in the Smoo Caves car park and follow the trail and steps down to the cave and explore the wooden walk ways and small beach. You can then climb back up the steps on the other side and back round to the car park making a great short circular walk. It is also possible to arrange tours to venture further into the caves. 

 

Coca Mountain: a SCOTTISH CHOCOLATE SHOP!! What else is there to say! check it out.

 

Sango Bay: Stop here to visit the viewpoint popular on instagram – Sango Bay Viewpoint. Be aware that this spot is right next to the busy Sango Sands Oasis campsite – as you walk there it feels like you are walking through the campsite and so if you prefer quiet, secluded spots this may not be for you. You can’t go wrong with a walk along Sango Bay beach or carry on driving to the quieter Balnakeil Beach (small car park at the end of the road).  

 

Handa Island: Further down the coast you can catch the Handa Ferry to explore Handa Island. Known to be home to a diverse wildlife, with puffins and sightings of dolphins and otters. The ferry costs £20 per adult and you can check the times and contact here. We did not have enough time to go to Handa Island as you do need at least a half day to properly complete this trip. However, we did go to the Shore House Restaurant overlooking the bay which was lovely.

 

Loch Stack: A freshwater lake with a small hut with views over the mountains. This is worth a stop for a walk or to simply enjoy the views. To get here you go slightly off route turning left along the A838 at Laxford Bridge.

 

Wailing Widow Falls: This amazing waterfall can be viewed from both the top and the bottom of the waterfall, with car parking bays at both points. We walked along the top to see the view (as seen in the picture below). Be sure to wear hiking boots as it’s boggy in parts and there is no set path. Within about 10 minutes of the top car park you should reach the falls and view over the loch at the top. 

 

Clachtoll Beach: Clachtoll Beach is located just further north of Achmelvich Bay. There is a small beach car park and walk down to the sandy bay. We found it a lot less crowded here and worth it for another beach stop!

 

Where to stay:

Near to Achmelvich Bay are the NC500 camping pods and several campsites along the coast.

Wailing Widow Falls, spectacular waterfall on the NC500
Wailing Widow Falls
Sango Sands popular instagram viewpoint
Sango Bay Viewpoint
Ardvreck Castle, in the middle of a lake
Ardvreck Castle
Lake with small wooden house viewpoint Loch Stack NC500
Loch Stack
Achmelvich Beach at sunset wild camp NC500
Achmelvich Bay
Smoo Cave overlooking the sea below the cliffs
Smoo Cave

Day 5: Achmelvich Bay to Ullapool

40 miles

This was another shorter day of driving to accommodate some hiking into the trip. There are plenty of viewpoints along this drive and parking bays to pull over and enjoy! 

Things to see and do:

 Ardvrek Castle: Located next to Loch Assynt you can view Ardvrek castle from the road (A837) or park in one of the parking bays and walk over to the castle. 

 

 Knockan Crag Trail Walk: You can find detailed information about the nature reserve and walking trails here. There are three different trails. We walked the High Crag trail which is sign posted and takes just over an hour to walk. 

 

Stac Pollaich Hike: This circular hike takes you near to the top of Stac Pollaich. To reach the true peak involves some further scrambling / ridge walking which we were unable to do in the weather but it is nonetheless an amazing hike to consider. Find the full route here

 

Where to stay:

There are many hotels and B&Bs in Ullapool town. We stayed at the Arch Inn. We enjoyed our stay as a bit of luxury after camping! I would advise to book in advance as this was our most expensive stay and we booked well in advance. Don’t miss out on visiting the Seafood Stack for some food and walking along the bay for sunset in Ullapool. 

Knocken Crag Walk overlooking landscapes.
View from Knocken Crag Walk
Walking up towards Stac Pollaich
Looking towards Stac Pollaich

Day 6: Ullapool to Gairloch

55 miles

We stayed just outside of Gairloch on this part of the journey to explore the area. As an alternative you could consider staying an extra night in Ullapool and exploring from there, or staying further south in the Torridon area – especially if you like hiking. We didn’t have much time to explore Torridon but it is worth a stop.

Things to see and do:

Corrieshallcoh Gorge: We hadn’t planned this stop but happened to drive past it and have a look. The photo below is taken from a suspension bridge which you can walk across to view the gorge and waterfall from both sides. There are several different walking trails to be taken from where you park near the main road. It is only about 10 minutes to reach the suspension bridge from the parking bay if you just want to see the sights but don’t have the time for a longer walk.

 

Ardessee Falls: A short walk to more beautiful waterfalls. Full description can be found here

 

Gairloch South Beach: the photo below shows this beach located just outside of the village of Gairloch.

Corrieshalloch Gorge
Corrieshalloch Gorge
Gairloch Beach, sandy bay NC500
Gairloch Beach

Day 7: Gairloch to Applecross

60 miles

The final stretch of the West Coast took us along the iconic mountain road, Bealach na Ba. Whilst I was initially nervous about this drive, it was well worth doing. Then it is a must to take time to enjoy the beautiful village of Applecross, one of the final stops of this road trip. We went to the Applecross Inn where we had an amazing dinner overlooking the sea (make sure to pre-book).

 Things to see and do:

Beinn Eig Mountain Trail Hike: I really recommend this hike if there are good weather conditions. It is a 6.5km trail reaching an elevation of 550m. There are some steep and rocky sections and so some navigational skills are required. You can park at the Beinn Eighe Visitor Centre where there are more details about the different walks and there were some leaflets available when we visited. More information can be found hecre.

Shieldaig: A small idylic village with a handful of pubs and restaurants looking out over the beach front. Many people use this as a stop-over point as opposed to Applecross. Worth a stop or considering using here as an overnight stay. 

 

Torridon: A small village beneath the mountains. The area does appear quite desolate and is suited to anyone who enjoys hiking and doesn’t mind having fewer amenities. Torridon campsite is a free campsite (donations are possible) with limited facilities, suitable for tents but not campervans or motorhomes. This has more of a wild camping feel. 

 

Bealach na Bà: a winding mountain road leading to the Applecross peninsula. The road is single track with some tight hairpin bends. There are some passing places if cars are coming the other way. This is one of the highest and most scenic drives in Scotland. There is parking at the top to get out and enjoy the views. There is a short video below of the drive. We drove in the direction towards Applecross from Tornapress.

Where to stay: We stayed at the Applecross Campsite in one of the camping pods (these were very basic, you need to bring your own camping mats so is very similar to staying in a tent). It is a great campsite right next to the village with nice facilities .

Beinn Eighe Mountain Trail overlooking lake and mountains
Beinn Eighe Mountain Trail
Shieldaig small fishing village
Shieldaig

Upon reaching Applecross the last stretch of the NC500 road trip heads East to the start point at Inverness. Instead of continuing this way we drove south to the Isle of Skye for the final few days of our Scotland Adventure.

I hope this has helped to discover some locations to add to your own North Coast 500 itinerary, enjoy! For more tips on completing the NC500 you can check out my other blog post here!

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