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The slow lane of the NC500: How to travel responsibly on Scotland’s wildest road trip

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Christopher Wilson-Elmes

Sawday's Expert

5 min read

The NC500, short for North Coast 500, is a route that runs right round Scotland’s ragged northern coastline, from Inverness in the east to tiny Applecross in the west. Although the road had been there for years, the idea of the route as a stunning road trip through the northern wilderness was created in 2015. Our guide to the NC500, from our Scotland-based travel writer, Chris Elmes, is full of tips to help you explore this windswept and scenic area of the Highlands. As the NC500’s own website says, “it’s much more than a road.”

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Why would I enjoy it?

This is proper rural Scotland – dramatically scenic, with narrow roads winding through hills that loom above you and along the edge of the sea. Along the way you’ll find incredible hikes, superb wildlife watching, the remnants of Pictish history and beaches that look like they should be washed by the Mediterranean, although the water temperature is only for the brave.  

What are the different regions?

There are six main sections of the NC500 – The Black Isle, Caithness, Easter Ross, Inverness-shire, Sutherland and Wester Ross (no, not that one). The Black Isle, which is neither an island nor black, Inverness-shire and Easter Ross are the south-eastern sections and easiest to access thanks to having Inverness as a central point. Caithness is the north-east tip and Wester Ross, unsurprisingly, is the bit down the western coast, past Ullapool. That leaves Sutherland, the largest and most remote section, which winds across the very northern edge of the mainland UK. 

Do I need to do the whole thing?

Not at all. The exact route is 516 miles, but the six regions the NC500 is divided into each make for a good few days of wandering. We’d actually recommend NOT trying to do the whole thing at once, because going slower gives you a chance to engage with and support the local businesses you’ll find along the way.  

Isn’t there some controversy around it?

Well, sort of. While it has undeniably been good for local tourism, some think that it’s put too much strain on infrastructure, although new investment is coming to help ameliorate problems that come with limited facilities, especially for campervans. The main concern is that convoys of caravans and drivers distracted by the scenery cause traffic jams and accidents on the narrow roads, while there are also some people who see the roads as a challenge and race round the route in high-powered sports cars.    

So how do I do it responsibly?

The best piece of advice we could give you is to visit fewer locations and spend a few days in each. While the NC500 is billed as a road trip, that doesn’t mean you have to sprint round the whole thing. Staying in one or two places for longer will mean interacting more with local businesses and getting a better feel for where you are. Travelling outside of peak summer months is a great idea too, as the roads and beauty spots will be clearer, although you should still try and use passing places as much as possible to let people overtake. It may be a scenic road trip for you, but the locals are trying to get to work!  

Are there alternatives to the NC500?

In fact, yes! Building on the success of the NC500, another innovative team created The Heart 200, a tour of central Scotland, a few years ago. The site is an invaluable resource for anyone who wants to venture over the bridge from Edinburgh and explore all the way up to the Cairngorms. Being much further south, it’s more accessible than the NC500 and yet still features the landscape of the Trossachs, the river-striped east and historic Stirling.  

How to get started – places and bases

The first thing to do when you’re planning your NC500 trip is to pick an area, a section of the route or, if you’re lucky enough to be taking in the whole thing, a direction of travel. Here are some places to base yourself for the whole, or part of your trip.

Inverness – The Inverness-shire section

The little town on the bend between the firths of Moray and Beauly regularly tops Best Places to Live lists, so spending a few days here is a treat and you might even end up a permanent resident. Craigiewood and Fettes Farmhouse, both just over the bridge north, put you in beautiful coastal countryside with Inverness on hand for days out and supply gathering before you hit the road.

Browse our special places to stay near Inverness >

Ullapool – The Wester Ross section

A fishing town on the shores of a sea loch in the far north west of Scotland might not sound like a holiday destination, but Ullapool is a wonderful little place. It’s become something of hub for watersports and hiking in the area and, sticking out on its spit of land into the water, it makes for a scenic pit stop and an even better base. Curved Stone House and Treetop House both give you great views and easy access to town. 

Browse our special places to stay in Ullapool >

The Applecross Peninsula – The Wester Ross section

At the southern end of the Wester Ross section you can explore the loop out onto the Applecross peninsula, looking over to Raasay and Skye. It’s a remote area with a single road running round the outside of a loch-speckled wilderness and no shortcuts except the narrow, twisting and vertiginous Applecross Pass. Stay at Badan Mhugaidh or The Net Store at the northern end, or The Birdhouse in the south.  

Browse our special places to stay near the Applecross Peninsula >

Explore our collection of special places to stay in Scotland > 

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Christopher Wilson-Elmes

Sawday's Expert

Chris is our in-house copywriter, with a flair for turning rough notes and travel tales into enticing articles. Raised in a tiny Wiltshire village, he was desperate to travel and has backpacked all over the world. Closer to home, he finds himself happiest in the most remote and rural places he can find, preferably with a host of animals to speak to, some waves to be smashed about in and the promise of a good pint somewhere in his future.
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