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The best things to do on your NC500 road trip, Scotland

Updated On 6th August, 2021

The North Coast 500, or NC500 is one of the best road trips in Scotland, and even one of the best road trips in Europe. Some of the best places to visit in Scotland are the top spots on the NC500 road trip, and with so many places to visit and things to do on the NC500, it’s no wonder that it’s on most Scotland bucket lists

If you’re wondering ‘what is the NC500’, you’re in the right place. The NC500 is the ultimate road trip around Scotland, a 516-mile circular route around northern Scotland. With some of the best coastal views in Scotland, there are many beaches on the NC500 and stops on the NC500 that will completely take your breath away. 

There are also plenty of places to go hiking on the NC500, including some of the best hikes in Scotland. From exploring the likes of Rogie Falls to Loch Coulin and Loch Clair, there are plenty of places to visit on the NC500 as part of your Scotland road trip. Scotland’s North Coast is also full of fun activities if you’re looking for things to do on the NC500; as well as hiking you’ve got water sports, climbing, camping and more!

From going on challenging day hikes to trying water sports, from wild camping in Scotland under the dark skies to exploring some of the picturesque towns on the NC500, my time in Scotland has been nothing short of adventurous! 

In this NC500 travel guide I am going to share with you the best things to do on the NC500, the best places to visit on the NC500, the best stops on the NC500, what to see on the NC500 and my favourite adventures so far. Get your pen and paper ready to create the ultimate bucket list on NC500 must see places!

Stay tuned for more posts, like my itinerary for the NC500 and top tips for the NC500!

A complete guide to Cairngorms National Park, Scotland

With this Google Map, you can have all my tips and recommendations at the touch of your fingertips. These are all the things I wish I knew and spent a lot of time researching before my 4-week adventure. 

This Google Map Legend includes:

  • Best walks, hikes, viewpoints, beaches and activities
  • Lochs and waterfalls to visit
  • Road trip tips (campsites, laundrettes, lunch spots)
  • My favourite places for coffee, brunch and dinner
  • Things you must add to your bucket list!
  • Travel guide links within each location

The best things to do on the NC500 road trip...

1. Enjoy the scenic drives.

Now I know this sounds obvious, since it’s a road trip, but really take the time to enjoy the view while you are driving the NC500. The NC500 is home to some of the best scenic drives in all of Scotland… in fact, sometimes it’s hard to believe that some of these views are in the UK and not abroad. 

Don’t get me wrong, the whole route (along the coast and inland) is full of stunning scenery, but some of the best scenic drives on the NC500 are detours off the main road. You’ll need to drive carefully as these roads are often narrower, single-track roads, and sometimes quite steep, but the views are well worth the more challenging drive. 

Some of the most epic scenery I saw on the NC500 includes detours such as… 

  • Bealach na Ba to Applecross
  • Torridon to Diabaig
  • Gairloch to Redpoint Beach
  • Clachtoll to Rhicarn
  • Rhiconich to Laxford Bridge
  • John O Groats to Duncansby Head
The best things to do on your NC500 road trip, Scotland

2. Enjoy some wonderful walks and hikes on the NC500 route.

There are so many walks and hikes on the NC500… it really is one of the best places to go walking in Scotland and even in the UK. with breathtaking mountain views, stunning moorland and coastal paths, it’s enjoyable come rain or shine! 

There are loads of walks and hikes on the NC500 for you to try, no matter whether you’re a beginner hiker or if you’re looking for a bigger challenge. (If you’re a beginner hiker, check out my hiking top tips here!). The NC500 is home to a variety of landscapes, so whether you want hills or cliffs, waterfalls or heather moors, there’s something for you here. With so much on offer, it’s no surprise that walking and hiking are some of the best things to do on the NC500.

Some of the best places for walks and hikes on the NC500 include: 

  • Shieldaig Peninsula
  • Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve
  • Corrieshalloch Gorge National Nature Reserve
  • Stac Pollaidh (Stac Polly)
  • Blairmore car park to Sandwood Bay
  • Big Burn Falls
P.s. you don’t have to do big hikes if that’s not your thing. There are plenty of opportunities around the NC500 to just pull up and have a poodle to the end of the cliff, peninsula or beach. For example, when I arrived at Achmelvich beach (pictured below) I made a coffee and took 25 minutes to wander over the rocks for a view back over the beach. 
The best things to do on your NC500 road trip, Scotland
Loch Lomond National Park, Scotland-6

3. Visit some of the best beaches in Scotland.

The NC500 offers mile upon mile of stunning coastline for you to explore! One of the best things to do on the NC500 is to pack your swimsuits and get in the water. Honestly, the NC500 is home to some of the best beaches in Scotland, so if you’re looking for beaches with fine white sand, and mile upon mile of coastline for you to walk on, the beaches on the NC500 will be just what you’re looking for. 

Some of the best beaches on the NC500 include: 

  • Redpoint Beach
  • Big Sands
  • Achmelvich Beach 
  • Handa Island
  • Sandwood Bay
  • Smoo Cave
  • Sango Sands
  • Sinclair’s Bay
  • Torrisdale Bay
The best things to do on your NC500 road trip, Scotland

4. Go chasing waterfalls on the NC500.

One of the best things to do on the NC500 has got to be seeing the waterfalls. They’re absolutely gorgeous! Furthermore, waterfalls hold a special place in Gaelic tradition, often being places where supernatural creatures were located, even though it it said that evil spirits couldn’t cross running water.

There are so many stunning waterfalls here, go and chase them all! It can be hard to choose. Some of my favourite waterfalls on the NC500 are:

  • Fairy Glen 
  • Clashnessie Falls
  • Falls of Shin
  • The Ugly Hollow
  • Rogie Falls
  • Eas A’Chual Aluinn
  • Big Burn Falls
Loch Lomond National Park, Scotland

5. Go wild camping on the NC500 for a night.

If you love the solitude of a ‘wild camping’ experience and a night under the stars, there are plenty of great places to go wild camping on the NC500. As part of Scotland’s access legislation, the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, you are allowed to camp on most unenclosed land. This type of camping is lightweight, done in small numbers and only for two or three nights in any one place.

One of the best things to do on the NC500 is to find a quiet space away from roads and attractions, pitch up a tent, and enjoy being at one with nature.

Note that the rules are different if you want to camp with a campervan – you should have permission to park or a permit, although if you are respectful, wild camping with a van away from big attractions and main roads is often tolerated. There are plenty of places to stay on the NC500, so finding a site you like shouldn’t be a problem! 

See more about responsible van life here. 

Get the ultimate camping packing checklist here. 

Alternatively, if you don’t want to go camping on the NC500, there are loads of cool Airbnbs overlooking the lochs or with stunning coastal views! Check out the best airbnbs in the UK here. 

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6. Learn about Scottish history at the many castles on the NC500.

There are many historical sites and castles on the NC500, and one of the best things to do on the NC500 is to learn about Scottish history in these places. Whether you want to observe ancient ruins or visit a preserved and restored castle, there are plenty of places to visit on the NC500 if you are a history buff or just have a small interest.

Some of the best historical sites and castles on the NC500 include:

  • Inverness Castle (great for views across the whole city!)
  • Clava Cairns
  • Culloden Battlefield
  • Ardvreak Castle
  • Old Keiss Castle
  • Dunrobin Castle
The best places to visit in Scotland

7. Go stargazing on the NC500.

While you’re in Scotland, one of the best things to do on the NC500 is to look at the stars. Just imagine… lying back on the sand, listening to the lap of the waves, and watching the wonders of the night sky with the naked eye. You can see even more if you have a telescope or a pair of binoculars.

Scotland has some of the largest areas of dark sky in Europe. Dark skies are found in rural areas that are free of urban light pollution. From a city centre you can only see fewer than 100 stars with the naked eye, but under a dark sky you can see over 1,000, and you can even see the Milky Way, shooting stars and satellites!

One of the best things to do on the NC500 is to appreciate the dark skies and snuggle up under the stars! Being free from light pollution, the NC500 is one of the darkest places in Scotland, making it the perfect destination for stargazing. The NC500 is a haven for astronomers, with nine Dark Sky Discovery Sites. The best time to go stargazing on the NC500 is from September-April.

If you’re really lucky, you might even get a chance to see the Northern Lights on the NC500, which are seen above the magnetic poles of the northern and southern hemispheres. 

Check out how to improve your travel photography in this blog post. 

8. Explore some of the picturesque towns on the NC500.

If you’re looking for places to visit or places to stay on the NC500, make sure you don’t miss out on the cute villages and market towns. Soak up a bit of Scottish culture as you wander around the streets, grab a cup of tea or a pub lunch, and chat to some of the locals. The communities are full of variety, culture and character.

The best market towns and villages on the NC500 to visit include…

  • Helmsdale
  • Ullapool
  • Gairloch
  • Shieldaig
  • Torridon
  • Inverness (ok, not a town, but a great city to visit on the NC500!)

Check out the best places to visit in Scotland here.

The best things to do on the Isle of Skye...​

9. Enjoy watersports and outdoor adventure.

If you’re looking for an active adventure, the NC500 is a great place to try watersports! On the NC500 you can do watersports such as paddleboarding, coasteering, sea kayaking and more. If you’re into kayaking, there are lots of places to go from Torridon, Plockton, Gairloch or Ullapool. My personal favouite would be sea kayaking around Summer Isles! 

Another one of the best things to do on the NC500 is to enjoy some land-based outdoor adventure. Something on my NC500 bucket list is the Golden Eagle Zipline in Durness. Imagine how beautiful it would be ziplining over one of the most beautiful beaches in Scotland!?

A complete guide to Cairngorms National Park, Scotland

10. Visit the northernmost point on mainland Britain.

If you’re wondering ‘what is the northernmost point on mainland Britain’, or if it’s John O Groats or Dunnet Head, you’re in the right place. Many of us consider John O Groats as the northernmost point on mainland Britain. In fact, the expression “from Land’s End to John o’Groats” (a distance of about 870 miles) means “from end to end of Great Britain.”

While John O Groats is lovely, and has the famous road sign pointing to locations all over the world, did you know that the northernmost point on mainland Britain is actually a lighthouse in Dunnet Head? The lighthouse is 66 feet tall and sits on cliffs with stunning views that rise 300 feet above sea level. Here you can enjoy coastal walks along the cliff edge with magnificent views of the Duncansby Sea Stacks, and really feel on top of the world… well, on top of Britain, anyway!

I can’t lie, John O’Groats is a little underwhelming, much like Land’s End. But it’s great to get that shot!!! 

The best things to do on your NC500 road trip, Scotland

What are your favourite things to do on the NC500?

Where are your favourite places to visit on the NC500? Any stops on the NC500 you’d add?

Love as always and happy adventuring,

Mollie.

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