Forget Route 66. Turn your steering wheel away from the Great Ocean Road and forget about the Pacific Coastal Highway. If you want to drive, ride your motorbike or cycle under big skies along the open road enjoying some of the world’s finest scenery – not to mention savour boat fresh seafood, epic beaches and gorgeous wee villages – for me there is only one great long distance road adventure. And that is Scotland’s very own North Coast 500.
When the North Coast 500, or NC500 for short, was dreamed up in 2015 I have to admit that I was a bit sceptical. After all I’d driven many sections of it before. I thought that it was a bit of a gimmick and would never catch on. It has. Big time! I discovered this when I drove the route recently and I’m so impressed that I am already planning a return trip with my young family.
Accommodation can be few and far between in some of the remote areas that the North Coast 500 snakes through. Handily there are a flurry of Scottish youth hostels on hand to help out. These include Inverness (where the NC500 starts and finishes), SYHA affiliate Applecross, Torridon, Gairloch Sands, Ullapool, Achmelvich Beach, Durness Smoo and SYHA affiliate Tongue. All of the hostels on and around this epic 500 mile route from Inverness through Wester Ross, Caithness, Sutherland, Easter Ross and the Black Isle are well used to the needs of travellers tackling the newest of the world’s great driving routes.
Here are my five reasons why you too should head out on the highway – or rather pleasantly remote roads and seriously cool single track – and discover the North Coast 500 for yourself. The open road awaits. What are you waiting for?
Driving the North Coast 500
Been there, seen it, done itEveryone loves ticking a box, especially if their friends have not ticked it yet! The NC500 is still relatively new and, although numbers are seriously rising month by month, people who have done it are still members of quite an exclusive club. You can literally buy the NC500 t shirt or the mug now with local businesses along the route cottoning on to the fact that this is the start of something seriously special and that people want to mark the achievement of negotiating 500 miles of some of Europe’s most remote roads. Once you’ve done it you can go back and cherry pick your favourite places to return to or maybe switch modes of transport next time.
The scenery you encounter en route really is mind-blowing. Take just one region, Wester Ross, for example. Here you can enjoy seriously big skies as you forge from the North Sea at Inverness across the mountainous spine of Scotland to Loch Carron on the wild Atlantic west coast. You then skirt the northern shores of the loch, with views of the Skye Cuillin before tackling the infamous Bealach na Ba. This jaw-dropping mountain pass sees the road rise from sea level to over 2,000 feet. At the other side you drop to Applecross with Skye unfurling in front of you.
Crossing the Bealach na Ba
Then it’s north for more drama on the road to the Scottish youth hostel at Torridon and sea lochs, Munros and stags en route to Gairloch Sands Youth Hostel. Sweep further north up through Wester Ross and more mountain and sea unfolds on the road to Ullapool and Achmelvich Beach Youth Hostels and you are still just in Wester Ross!
Robin admiring the scenery on the North Coast 500
That Easy Rider or Convoy Vibe
Think of a great road movie and along with the romance there is a sense of camaraderie amongst the characters. I really felt this when I travelled the North Coast 500 too. The motley collection of cars, motorbikes, cycles and campervans taking on the route all share the experience. I found that I kept bumping – mercifully not literally – into people I’d met days earlier at the various stops I made. A few of them I kept in touch with on social media and I’m planning on catching up with a couple on their next visit to Scotland. It’s great embarking on a route feeling like you are part of something and the NC500 really offers that.
I’ve been to over 100 countries, but for me Scotland offers the finest beaches anywhere in the world. Handily the North Coast 500 takes you to within striking distance of some of the most dramatic beaches in the country. Even more handily there are a brace of hostels right by two of my favourite beaches, Gairloch Sands and Achmelvich. Both offer clean puffy sands backed up by sand dunes and views out across to the Isle of Skye. I recommend allowing plenty of time to do the NC500 (at least a week) and in that building in some chill time by the beach. For an adventure consider slipping off the main route and travelling to legendary Sandwood Bay. This remote beach lies four miles from the nearest road so it’s ultra remote, but well worth the effort of getting to.
Robin on a walk during his North Coast 500 trip
Hidden Gems off the Route
One of the beauties of the North Coast 500 is that as well as negotiating the 500 miles you can also make wee detours to discover hidden gems of your own. I definitely recommend going off piste in Assynt and Coigach and exploring both the beaches and the mountains.
At Stac Pollaidh
Stac Pollaidh is one of my favourite mountains in Scotland, with scrambling to suit all levels and seriously epic views. In Sutherland I suggest wildlife lovers should detour to RSPB Forsinard nature reserve, while in the Black Isle you could veer off in search of bottlenose dolphins.
Biography for Robin McKelvie
Robin McKelvie (www.robinmckelvie.com) is a Scottish travel writer, broadcaster and blogger who has been covering his native land since the 1990s. A member of the British Guild of Travel Writers, Robin is the author of a number of guidebooks, including National Geographic’s Scotland guide. He regularly contributes to a variety of newspapers and magazines across five continents, such as the Times and the Scotsman, as well as doing travel slots for BBC radio. Robin can be found on Twitter at www.twitter.com/robinmckelvie.