The North Coast 500 route hits the top-left corner of the mainland at Durness. Just outside the village is the beautiful Balnakeil Beach, where cows often wander along the sand. Check out the nearby Balnakeil craft village, created in the 1970s from a disused military camp and now a creative community of artists. Don’t miss the hot chocolate and sweet treats at Cocoa Mountain. Since you’ve come all this way, it would be rude not to take a side trip to Cape Wrath, the most north westerly point of mainland Britain. It’s owned by the Ministry of Defence and often used as a training area, so it can only be reached by a small ferry and connecting mini-bus service in summer. The cape features a Stevenson-built lighthouse and spectacular cliffs filled with seabird colonies, including guillemots, razorbills, fulmars, puffins and kittiwakes.
Heading east from Durness, the gorgeous Sango Bay has panoramic views of the North Minch. There’s also an excellent campsite and visitors centre. Nearby, and set into the limestone cliffs, is Smoo Cave, where a walking path leads right down into the huge mouth of the cave. At 15 metres high and 40 metres wide, it’s an impressive sight. Follow the path inside to see the magnificent 25 metre waterfall. You can also take boat trips further into the cave from April to September, weather permitting.
The route continues east and is single track in most places, often with more sheep and deer for company than other vehicles. There are superb views of Ben Loyal and Ben Hope as you head towards Tongue. The Kyle of Tongue itself has stunning white beaches and sparkling water, and the village makes a good overnight stop. Other sights include Strathy Point, with the first Scottish Lighthouse built as an all-electric station and Dunnet Head, the most northerly point of mainland Scotland where you’ll have views right across the north coast on a clear day. Close to Thurso is the Castle of Mey, holiday home to the late Queen Mother for nearly 50 years. You can stroll through the stunning castle gardens, visit the animal centre then refuel in the tearoom.
The North Coast 500 route finally reaches the north east corner of mainland Scotland at John O’Groats. Be sure to take the obligatory photo at the famous sign, then head a whisker further east along the single track road to Duncansby Head. From the lighthouse it’s a three kilometre walk across the grassy cliff tops to the Stacks of Duncansby, two stunning sea-stacks with dramatic cliffs as their backdrop.
From here the journey turns south. The north east coast has a stark beauty with open fields and rugged sea views. For history buffs there are a number of prehistoric sites located slightly inland but well signposted from the main road, including the Cairn o’ Get, Hill o’ Many Stanes and Grey Cairns of Camster. Less easy to find are the Whaligoe Steps. Keep an eye out for the crossroads where a sign points to the Cairn o’Get monument. Take the road opposite past a row of fishermen’s cottages until you come to a car park. You can then walk down the steep man-made stairway of 365 flagstone steps that leads to a natural harbour. Protected by two 250ft-high sea cliffs, the harbour provides a popular nesting place for terns and oystercatchers. In the 1700s the steps were used by fisherwomen to carry creels of fish from the vessels landing at the harbour below.
Just outside Golspie is Dunrobin Castle, the largest castle in the Northern Highlands. Its origins lie in the Middle Ages although most of the current castle was built in the 19th Century. There are regular falconry displays and the beautiful gardens are great for a wander. Further south is the historic village of Dornoch, famed for its stunning beaches and the Royal Dornoch links course which is consistently been voted among the world’s top golf courses.
This east coast stretch of the NC500 route has much to offer for whisky fans, starting with Old Pulteney in Wick. While the popular seaside village of Brora is known for its unspoiled beach (you may spot dolphins and minke whales), it’s also home to the Clynelish Distillery. There’s also the famous Glenmorangie near Tain, as well Balblair near Edderton and Dal-more near Alness. All five distilleries offer tours and samplings.
It’s worth making a final pit stop at the Storehouse of Foulis at Evanton. You can enjoy home cooking including enormous fresh scones while taking in views of the Cromarty Firth and Black Isle. There are often seals lounging on the shoreline nearby. From there it’s a short drive back to Inverness to finish your epic journey.
This blog was originally featured on the True Highlands blog