The North Coast 500, or NC500 for short, has quickly become a popular and even iconic road trip here in the UK. Taking travellers right to the very north of mainland Scotland, the route starts and finishes in Inverness, and covers 500 miles (naturally) of Scotland’s beautifully rural, winding and mountainous roads.
View of Loch a Chroisg from the car window.
It’s been on our hit list for a little while, ever since I saw an advert in a magazine comparing it to Route 66 as one of those “must drive” trips, and earlier this summer we made good on our wish and headed north with a couple of friends to complete the journey. We’re no strangers to Scotland, and have visited some of the areas on the itinerary before on other road trips, but there was something about this particular route that appealed and had us jumping in a camping-paraphernalia-filled car to drive the 400 miles up to Inverness.
Despite the iconic nature of the trip, I have heard quite a lot of negativity surrounding how busy the roads have become, leaving people in traffic jams on single track roads, having to squeeze past cars that have been parked in the way, and being unable to get accommodation for the night as it’s all fully booked. I’m told some locals don’t like it because tourists make the place cluttered and dirty. And I can see why that might be a well-founded opinion – there were busy places for sure, and I did pick up other people’s litter. But I’m sorry to say it didn’t put me off at all. I love a road trip and wanted the views! So, with a relaxed attitude, choosing our week carefully, and deciding to camp in the main, we knew we were in for a real treat, however much traffic we found.
Map reading our way around the NC500.
Having travelled from our home in Lincolnshire up to Inverness in one, very long, day, we chose to split the rest of the NC500 route into five days of around 100 miles each, give or take. We wanted plenty of time for each mile, meaning we could stop whenever we felt like it, go for walks, explore the places we were driving, and ultimately have a proper holiday as well as a road trip. In this short series of blog posts, I want to share the highlights from each of those five days, along with some notes about our chosen campsites and food stops, in the hope that I might inspire you to plan your own NC500 road trip.
View on a hike to Bone Caves.
DAY ONE | INVERNESS TO APPLECROSS
Inverness is the traditional start point of the NC500 road trip, and most people choose to do the loop in a clockwise direction, starting by heading cross-country to the west coast before hugging the coastline for the rest of the route. The main reason is that this means you will always drive on the coast side, making it super easy to pull over and stop when you notice a view that warrants more than just staring out of the window.
River Ness, Inverness.
We stayed in a B&B in Inverness called Crown Hotel Guesthouse, which was in a nice quiet location but close enough to walk into town for food. Our B&B room was spacious and comfortable, with a separate bathroom on the landing just a few steps away (dressing gowns were provided!). The only down side was that the parking in the whole area was permit holder’s only during the day, and so we just had to chance it on the Sunday morning when we were eating our breakfast and getting ready to leave as the owner didn’t have a permit available for us to use. Thankfully we got away with it but I don’t know if I’d have risked it on a week day.
One of my favourite things about road tripping is the moments spent in restaurants while waiting for food to arrive, with maps spread out across the table, working out routes and places to stop and getting excited for the next day. We were quite late and being a Saturday night it was busy in the restaurants in Inverness, but we were able to get a table upstairs in Riva, an Italian pizzeria right by the River Ness, that turned out to be a great and very good value.
After a great breakfast and filling the cars with fuel (you won’t find petrol stations on every corner up here in Scotland), we headed out of Inverness and onto the A835, heading west towards Applecross. Our first stop was just a few miles out of the city at Rogie Falls, a famous series of waterfalls on the Black Water river.
Woodland at Rogie Falls.
There are a couple of trails leading to the falls from the parking area, the shorter is accessible and takes just a few minutes, while the longer detours through woodland and along the river before landing you in the same place. We took the longer path, which was easy to follow thanks to the blue posts, and although uneven in places, an easy walk well worth the extra few minutes.
Rogie Falls on the Black Water river.
This area is famous for its salmon, and at the right time of year you can watch them leap up the falls on their way to the breeding areas, but even without the sight of the jumping fish this was the perfect way to start our NC500 trip and I’d make sure you have it on your itinerary.
Posing at Rogie Falls.
Loch and Mountain Views
Driving on a road trip is more than just a way to get to each stop when your road tripping, it’s part of the holiday. So a journey of 100 miles might look like two to three hours on paper, but can easily take double that – or more – when you account for all the stops. We made regular stops in laybys and random carparks, simply because the views were too good to just drive through. A couple of highlights were the views across Loch Achanalt, which is one of a million stunning lakes in this part of the world, and the view of Loch Maree from Glen Docherty, which involved a very slight there-and-back detour from the traditional NC500 route because we spotted the viewpoint marked on the OS Road Map we were using to navigate.
Looking across Loch a Chroisg.
The view of Loch Maree from Glen Docharty.
Lunch with Lesley Joseph
We stopped at a promising looking café at Lochcarron Golf Club that appeared popular with cyclists, but it was absolutely rammed and there was nowhere to wait for a table as the weather was disgusting outside, so we continued on the road into the village, planning to stop whenever we saw something else. It turned out to be a great move, we came across the Waterside Café in Lochcarron and had a very warm welcome and a fantastic lunch of tea and cake. One thing we discovered right at the start of this trip was that we would eat well – homemade Scottish food is just so good; soup, cake, bread, oatcakes, more cake, always washed down with a good cup of tea. While in this little café by the Loch a film crew came in, about ten of them, with Lesley Joseph, you know of Birds of a Feather fame! I don’t really follow celebrities and rarely recognise them, but when you have such a distinctive voice it’s hard not to stand out.
The Waterside Cafe, Lochcarron.
There’s a Spar shop in Lochcarron, and if you’re looking for supplies before heading to Applecross this is the place to get them.
Bealach na Ba
Probably the most famous road on the whole NC500 road trip, the Bealach na Ba Pass is a narrow, winding and high level mountain pass that heads up and over the hills and down into Applecross. It’s one of those roads that cyclists ride for the challenge, and we were looking forward to driving it – for the views. Until a couple of days before the trip we were going to be doing this by motorbike, as we often do our road trips, but the weather forecasters was not being kind, and we switched to using the car instead to make sure we could enjoy the trip in a little bit of comfort even if the sky was being mean.
The famous Bealach na Ba sign.
Us and our friends on the NC500.
The hour or so we were on this particular road was enough for us to know we’d made the right choice. The cloud was super low, the wind very strong, and rain hitting us sideways. Visibility was poor and on a single track road like this with very few passing places you really want to be able to see where you are going, and we just couldn’t.
Great views and weather at the top!
Perfect day for driving a mountain pass…
We passed a couple of cyclists taking on the challenge, both pushing rather than riding, one struggling even to do that thanks to the strong head wind. It was just horrible. Once at the “view point” at the top, which we nearly missed as the visibility was so poor, we could see no sweeping vistas or in fact anything at all, and while we did jump out for a quick snap to help us tell the story later, we were pleased to have the luxury of getting back in the car to drive down into Applecross. Such a shame we didn’t get the views but the weather can’t be helped and that’s just the nature of road trips – you win some, you lose some.
Coming out of the clouds and down into Applecross.
We arrived at Applecross Campsite, which we had pre-booked as encouraged to do so on the website, in driving rain. Tent camping here is in a couple of fields, and as long as you are the required three metres from the next tent, you can pitch up anywhere. We chose to stay in the top field reasonably close to the site office and decent enough ablutions block, because of the weather.
Our tent set up at Applecross Campsite. Read my review here.
If it had been nice we’d have happily used the footpath and walked down the steep slope to the village for dinner. But it wasn’t so we were lazy and took the car down to the sea to one of the two choices in the village – the Applecross Inn. We each ordered Haddock and Chips, which lived up to the “award winning” status on the menu and fitting for being sat looking out over the water, followed by their home-made ice cream. It was busy in the pub, but we enjoyed the warm welcome and free wifi before heading back up to the campsite.
Red Deer in Applecross.
Red deer are a common site at Applecross and the surrounding area, and we watched a herd of about twenty of them just outside the campsite, just wandering around. I’ve never seen deer jump up onto their hind legs to feed before, and it was a real privilege to watch them make the most of the rural village surroundings.
Red Deer at Applecross.