WITH the lure of rugged mountains, glittering lochs, inviting stretches of coastline, winding passes and magnificent beaches, the North Coast 500 takes some beating.
Often billed as Scotland’s answer to America’s Route 66, the scenic 516-mile (830km) circuit – which starts and finishes at Inverness Castle – passes through Wester Ross, Sutherland, Caithness, Easter Ross, the Black Isle and Inverness-shire.
Here are some of our favourite highlights (in no particular order) to look out for on this bucket list road trip.
Rogie Falls, Inverness-shire
Found about 20 miles north-west of Inverness, Rogie Falls near Contin is an amuse-bouche to whet the appetite for what is to come.
Along the North Coast 500 (NC500) you will have the opportunity to encounter many spectacular waterfalls, including Britain’s highest with the mighty Eas A’Chual Aluinn, as well as the thundering Falls of Shin and the Falls of Measach at Corrieshalloch Gorge.
Rogie Falls on the Black Water may not be the biggest or grandest on the route, but it is a magical spot. The waterfalls and a suspension bridge above the river are only a short walk from the car park. In August and September, there’s an excellent chance of seeing wild salmon leaping upstream.
The Fairy Lochs and US bomber crash site, near Badachro, Wester Ross
A walking route, which begins and ends near the Shieldaig Lodge, leads to the Fairy Lochs and the crash site of a Second World War B-24 Liberator.
The plane had taken off from Prestwick in Ayrshire and was returning to the US, via Iceland, on June 13, 1945, when it struck the summit of Slioch. An attempted crash landing saw the aircraft collide with rocks, scattering wreckage across a wide area in and around the Fairy Lochs.
Today, pieces of fuselage can still be seen in the bogs, with a propeller and an engine visible in the water. The crash site – where all 15 crew and passengers perished – is classed as a war grave and a memorial plaque has been erected.
The NC500 is no slouch in the beach department. One of the most charming is Clachtoll with its turquoise waters. A great base is Clachtoll Beach Campsite where the wooden walkways through the dunes will have you on the white sands within minutes.
The potential for wildlife sightings will make your heart soar. Porpoises, dolphins, minke whales, orcas, otters and birdlife, including golden eagles and sea eagles, have all been spotted here.
Must-see attractions nearby include the Stoer Lighthouse and the 60-metre-high sea stack known as the Old Man of Stoer (not to be confused with the Old Man of Storr in Skye).
Ullapool Bookshop, Wester Ross
It would be remiss to visit Ullapool and not pop into this wonderful independent book shop. Located close to the harbour and ferry terminal, the shelves are packed with titles about Scottish history and landscapes, as well as outdoor pursuits such as hillwalking, kayaking and cycling.
There is also a good selection of biography, general fiction and children’s books, not to forget postcards, maps and local fishing guides. Next door is Lochbroom Hardware and The Captain’s Cabin which sells gifts and crafts. All three are run by the same family.
Whaligoe Steps, near Lybster, Caithness
How many steps are there at Whaligoe Harbour? Depending on who you ask it can be anything between 330 and 365. And no matter how many times you count them, the result is curiously different. Magic or simply bad maths? Either way, it is good fun trying to figure it out.
Whaligoe Steps, which zigzag 250ft down the cliffs to the small harbour below, were built by Captain David Brodie in the late 18th and early 19th century to serve a fleet of herring boats.
Note: Whaligoe Steps are currently closed for repair and maintenance work. Check the NC500 website for updates
Bealach na Ba, Wester Ross
This winding, single-track road through the mountains of the Applecross peninsula comes with hairpin bends and jaw-dropping views.
There has been controversy and much debate in recent months, however, about whether Applecross should be withdrawn from the NC500 due to concerns about traffic issues, aka the double-edged sword of tourism. That conversation continues to rumble on.
Bealach na Ba – which means “pass of the cattle” – may not seem very far on the map, yet it packs a punch. Starting from near sea-level at Tornapress next to Loch Kishorn, the road rises to 2,053ft (626m), reaching 20 per cent at its steepest gradient.
There is a viewpoint at the top with panoramas across to Skye and beyond on a clear day. Trundle downhill into the village of Applecross where the prospect of a hearty feed awaits at the Applecross Inn and its swish chippy van Applecross Inn-Side Out.
Be sure to pay a visit to The Coalshed, a treasure trove of art and crafts, handmade jewellery, framed local photographs, toys and gifts.
Visit applecrossinn.co.uk and facebook.com/The-Coalshed-672664329417253/
Tarbat peninsula, Easter Ross
Author Helen Sedgwick recently told The Herald that Tarbat peninsula is where she goes when seeking inspiration, driving past green fields and clusters of pretty houses, with sweeping views of long sandy beaches, before following the single track to the Tarbat Ness Lighthouse.
She says: “The landscape becomes dominated by the deep, glistening grey blues of the sea, the jagged blacks and browns of the rocks, the thorned yellow of gorse, and the distinctive red and white stripes of the lighthouse. The rest of the world fades away.”
Duncansby Head, Caithness
Once you have taken the requisite photograph with the John O’Groats sign for the photo album, your next stop should be Duncansby Head, the furthest point from Land’s End by road (not to be confused with Dunnet Head which is the northernmost point of mainland Britain).
The Duncansby Head Lighthouse was built by David Alan Stevenson in 1924, while just off the coast stand the Duncansby Stacks, craggy red sandstone pinnacles sculpted by the waves over thousands of years, where the Pentland Firth meets the North Sea.
The Black Isle
It might seem a bit of a cheat to give the Black Isle its own dedicated section, but there’s so much packed into this little corner that it would be a disservice not to mention a few.
Wildlife lovers should head to Chanonry Point and North Kessock for dolphin watching. There are the enchanting nature-packed trails of Fairy Glen Falls at Rosemarkie and RSPB Udale Bay, a habitat for migratory pink-footed geese, can be found near the picturesque village of Jemimaville.
History buffs will enjoy a visit to Hugh Miller’s Birthplace Cottage and Museum in Cromarty dedicated to the life and work of the geologist, folklorist and fossil hunter. For a caffeine fix, check out Slaughterhouse Coffee at the Ferry Slipway in Cromarty.
Visit rspb.org.uk; nts.org.uk and facebook.com/slaughterhousecoffee/
Sandwood Bay, Sutherland
This natural bay with pink-hued sands is regularly hailed as one of the most beautiful beaches in Britain and with good reason: it is stunning.
Flanked by cliffs, the mile-long beach gets its colour from pinkish sandstone found in the area. To the southwest stands the sea stack of Am Buachaille, while directly behind the bay lies Sandwood Loch.
Sandwood Bay is off-the-beaten track and only accessible via a four-mile hike from the car park at Blairmore, passing lochs and through peat moorland to the coast. The path is maintained by the John Muir Trust.
Corrieshalloch Gorge National Nature Reserve, Braemore, Wester Ross
The name Corrieshalloch may translate from Gaelic as “Ugly Hollow”, but don’t let that misnomer put you off. This mile-long box canyon is a place of beauty.
A Victorian suspension bridge allows the thrilling spectacle of the fast-flowing River Droma and Falls of Measach to be observed at close quarters.
While those may be the headline stars, this National Nature Reserve has no shortage of interesting nuggets to discover, such as first-hand evidence of how glacial meltwater can sculpt our landscapes.
The surrounding woodland is home to a rare type of cranefly, while the microclimate of the gorge encourages many species of ferns to thrive.
The Bone Caves, near Inchnadamph, Sutherland
Victorian geologists John Horne and Ben Peach stumbled across a collection of animal bones here in the late 19th century. Further excavations of the caves uncovered remains belonging to wolves, lynx, Arctic foxes and even a polar bear, believed to date from the last glacial period.
Human bones and artefacts have also been discovered. The Bone Caves are two miles south of Inchnadamph on the A837 and easily accessed on foot along a mile-long path.
If caves are your thing, Sutherland won’t disappoint. Another geological gem is Smoo Cave near Durness. Carved deep into the limestone cliffs, it comprises three impressive sections: a large sea cave entrance, a waterfall chamber and a freshwater passage.
Visit nature.scot and smoocavetours.com
The world’s shortest street can be found in Wick. Ebenezer Place was officially measured at 2.05 metres (6ft 9in) in 2006. The street has only one doorway: the entrance to No. 1 Bistro, which is part of Mackays Hotel.
In 1883, the owner of the building was instructed to display a name on the shortest side of the hotel, and this became 1 Ebenezer Place. It was officially declared a street in 1887.
Loch Maree, Kinlochewe, Wester Ross
There is oft much-heated debate about what is Scotland’s most beautiful loch, but this is surely a front-runner? Loch Maree is the equivalent of a super model – it has no bad angles.
The views from the meandering A832 road through Glen Docherty are sublime. The mountain fortress of Slioch reflected in the water is a classic calendar shot. Ditto, the photogenic backdrop of the handsome hulk of Beinn Eighe to the south.
Loch Maree is a freshwater loch that measures 12 miles long and two-and-a-half miles wide. It contains more than 60 scattered islands, many with natural woodland, fragments of the ancient Caledonian Pine Forest.
Beinn Eighe, which became Britain’s first National Nature Reserve in 1951, forms a long ridge with many spurs and summits, two of which are Munros.
The village of Kinlochewe has some great places to eat. The Gorse Bush and Kinlochewe Hotel offer enticing menus with a cornucopia of locally sourced produce such as meat and game, fish, scallops and langoustines.
Visit nature.scot and kinlochewehotel.co.uk and thegorsebush.com
Conjure an image of a picture postcard fishing village. There’s a good chance that what you came up with would look very like Helmsdale on the east coast of Sutherland.
The area has an intriguing history with links to the Highland Clearances, herring industry, gold rush and salmon fishing – as well as being the site of a former 15th-century castle where a murder plot involving poison is reputed to have inspired William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Overlooking the village and harbour stands The Emigrants, a memorial statue depicting evicted families during the Highland Clearances. Be sure to visit Helmsdale’s excellent museum and arts centre Timespan.
Sir William Alexander Smith Memorial Museum, Thurso, Caithness
Dedicated to the life of the Boys Brigade founder Sir William Smith, who was born at Pennyland House in Thurso, this small museum contains memorabilia – including photographs, badges and books – dating from 1883 to the present day.
Open to the public by appointment only. Visit thebbmuseum.org
Inverewe Garden and Estate, Poolewe, Wester Ross
On the shores of Loch Ewe, this incredible garden and estate is home to the world’s most northerly grove of Jurassic trees. Wollemi pine was thought to have died out two million years ago, but the species was discovered in Australia in the early 1990s. Eight were planted at Inverewe in 2009.
Rare species thrive in this former wilderness area-turned-heritage garden aided by the effects of the Gulf Stream. Its exotic plants and trees include Himalayan blue poppies, Californian redwoods, daisy bushes from New Zealand, Tasmanian eucalypts and rhododendrons from China, Nepal and India.
Mermaid of the North, Balintore, Easter Ross
She sits atop a rock at Balintore beach. A beautiful 10ft-high bronze cast sculpture of a mermaid whose tale – or should that be tail? – is woven into the rich tapestry of folklore in Easter Ross.
According to legend, a local fisherman caught a mermaid and forced her into marrying him by hiding her tail. Many years later, after bearing his children, she found her tail and escaped back to sea. The fable goes that the mermaid would return to shore each day with fish for her offspring.
Balintore is one of three small settlements, alongside Hilton and Shandwick, on this stretch of the Moray Firth coastline known collectively as the Seaboard Villages. The Mermaid of the North, created by Hilton artist Steve Hayward in 2007, forms part of the Seaboard Sculpture Trail.
Balnakeil Craft Village, near Durness, Sutherland
Home to artists and independent businesses, Balnakeil Craft Village is a great spot to pick up gifts or treat yourself to something nice.
Highlights include Mudness Ceramics where Martina Macleod makes bowls inspired by rock pools, kelp and seaweed at nearby Balnakeil Beach.
Cast Off Crafts – as its name suggests – is filled with unusual bits and bobs. One such speciality is beach-combing finds, such as driftwood, shells and sea glass, that have been upcycled or transformed into decorative pieces.
The chocolatier Cocoa Mountain, meanwhile, proffers a range of mouth-watering creations. Don’t miss the divine hot chocolate made to an “original Highland formula”.
If you are feeling adventurous, Golden Eagle Ziplines at Ceannabeinne Beach is only a 10-minute drive away. The zip line – a cable with a pulley and harness attached – is suspended 100ft (30m) above the sands and stretches 745ft (227m), with participants reaching speeds of up to 40mph.
Visit balnakeilcraftvillage.weebly.com and facebook.com/goldeneagleziplines
Dunrobin Castle, Golspie, Sutherland
With its dreamy French chateau-style conical spires and turrets, Dunrobin Castle wouldn’t look out of place in a Disney fairy tale.
This sprawling pad, which boasts 189 rooms, has been home to the Earls and Dukes of Sutherland since the 13th century – it was first mentioned as a family stronghold in 1401.
The gardens were based on Versailles and laid out in 1850 by the architect Sir Charles Barry, who also oversaw the castle’s Victorian extension and more famously designed the Houses of Parliament in London.
Visitors are able to peruse 18 rooms, as well as having access to the gardens and museum. There is a tearoom selling soups, sandwiches, cakes and pastries. Falconry displays are held regularly in the gardens.
For more information on the North Coast 500, visit northcoast500.com