We created this "North Coast 500" itinerary long before anyone ever coined the slogan “NC500”.
In fact, we originally called it the "North Highlands Tour", but we have to admit that NC500 is a catchier title.
Our directions take you from Inverness on a clockwise tour around the scenic highlights of Scotland’s North coast. And, if your schedule allows, you can also add in a visit to the fascinating archaeological sites of Orkney.
We do this route in a Clockwise direction because most tourists do it in the other direction, so the traffic is a bit lighter if you go Clockwise.
Allow a minimum of 5 days to drive this tour route.
The guide contains extra day trip suggestions for extending the tour to 15+ days.
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Guide Updated - 4 February 2024
Approximately 400 miles / 640 Km
5 to 15 Days
Arrive in Inverness -
We provide a stopover guide that covers attractions, scenic spots, activities and restaurants in Inverness and the surrounding areas.
If you arrive early in Inverness, you may wish to follow our guide for a driving route around the Black Isle where you can discover the charming 18th century village of Cromarty and embark on dolphin spotting boat trips.
Stopover in Inverness area
Inverness to Gairloch -
We suggest a route that starts by swinging you past Loch Ness with opportunities for visits to Urquhart Castle and the “Nessie” attractions.
As you travel between Loch Ness and Gairloch, you can stop at a Victorian Spa village to sample the mineral waters, cross an impressive cascade on a bouncy wire bridge, picnic by the shores of our favourite loch, explore some of the best beaches in Scotland and enjoy a pint in a charismatic old inn with a great sea view.
Your day ends in Mike’s favourite place, Gairloch, which is surrounded by the spectacular mountain scenery of Wester Ross.
Driving Distance: ~92 miles
Stopover in the Gairloch / Laide area
Gairloch Day trips -
Gairloch is arguably one of the most beautiful corners of Scotland for beaches and wilderness scenery. We propose a choice of day trips with a relaxed pace.
Stopover in the Gairloch / Laide Area
Gairloch to Ullapool / Lochinver -
Head up the North West coast through magnificent Highland scenery to the active fishing village of Ullapool. Along the route you can explore great beaches and test your courage by crossing a 200 feet deep gorge on a bouncy little foot bridge.
When you get to Ullapool, you can watch the fishing boat activity in the harbour and then sample the delicious fresh catch in an award winning fish & chip shop. The village is a vibrant place with several good restaurants and range of pubs where you'll find live music and entertainment most nights of the week.
If you wish to extend the day, you can follow our directions for a back road drive to Lochinver that takes you past the distinctive peaks of Stac Pollaidh, Suilven and Canisp. These mountains emerge like rocky icebergs from the wild moorland of the Inverpolly Nature Reserve. This is an area of true wilderness and we recommend some hikes of varying degrees of exertion.
Driving Distance: ~55 miles
Stopover in Ullapool or Lochinver
Ullapool to Thurso -
This is a drive through a truly untamed landscape where nature rules and you can drive for miles without seeing a house. There aren’t many man-made attractions along this route, but this is compensated for by the geology which has created dramatic mountains, rugged coastlines and some glorious sandy bays.
A “must see” is the impressive cavern at Smoo Cave. It is possible to take guided walks into the caves, but to do this you first need to take a small boat ride.
From Durness, you travel east along the northern coast of Scotland and the landscape becomes gradually flatter as you approach Thurso. This region suffered terribly during the Highland Clearances when whole communities were destroyed to make way for sheep farming. There are several good museums that tell the story of the people that once lived here.
The drive ends in Thurso, but you could catch an evening ferry to Orkney and we have supplied details of the various ferry services available.
Driving Distance: ~140 miles
Stopover in Thurso / Orkney
Explore Orkney -
From Thurso, you have the option of taking the ferry crossing to the Orkney Islands and we have provided a guide that gives you all the information you need for planning a stay on these islands. The guide includes suggestions for 4 day trips to explore the Orkney Mainland and the smaller islands of Hoy and Rousay.
We guide you to all the famous sites of Orkney (Ring of Brodgar, Maeshowe, Skara Brae, Italian Chapel, Old Man of Hoy), plus lots of quieter attractions that the are missed by the mainstream tourist trail.
As always, we recommend walks, picnic spots, the best value attractions and restaurants.
Stopover on the Orkney Islands
Thurso to Inverness -
From Thurso, we guide you across empty moorlands to the North Sea where you turn southwards to follow a road that hugs a coastline of rugged windswept cliffs. The route is punctuated by austere little villages perched above rocky inlets that once sheltered fleets of fishing boats.
Highlights along the route are Dunrobin Castle, the ornate home of the Dukes of Sutherland, the opportunity for a whisky tasting at Glenmorangie Distillery and a wander around the picturesque village of Dornoch with its charming little cathedral and famous golf course.
On the last leg to Inverness, we propose a choice of routes that let you choose between visits to a pretty Victorian spa town where you can sample the mineral waters, OR a short ferry crossing to the Black Isle where you may see some wild dolphins in the Cromarty Firth.
Driving Distance: ~112 miles
Stopover in Inverness area
Day Trips from Inverness -
Inverness is a great touring base for exploring the Highlands and we supply you with directions for a range of day trips:
Stopover in Inverness area
To help you book the best places to stay, we offer a guide to Recommended Accommodation along the route of this tour.
We personally visit all the accommodation featured in the guides and only select places where we would wish to stay ourselves. Read More...
When you "Checkout", you will have the option to buy the Accommodation Guide.
When you buy a Secret Scotland Tour Itinerary you will receive a Discount Code that gets you a 10% reduction on the cost of Car Hire from Arnold Clark Rental.
Simply use the Secret Scotland code when you book via the Arnold Clark website and your car hire discount will automatically apply.
I convinced my other half to get the Scenic Tour 4-5 Days guide (even though he very much wanted to do it all himself), and it was the best experience ever. In fact, ever since this trip, we're trying to re-create the experience. Of course, Scotland can hardly let anyone down, but this guide truly made it an adventure. We found so many hidden and not so hidden gems, and everything was perfectly laid out for us so that all we had to do was decide how much time we had and what we wanted to see next. I can't recommend it enough and wish more guides like this existed!
Excellent! We thought the information provided was fantastic and allowed us to see things I am sure we would have missed. Mike was very helpful in sending the itinerary through again for us when we had trouble with our downloads. Would definitely recommend this site. We have been travelling for a number of years and normally would just rely on the internet and books but decided to give this a go. So glad we did.
Secret Scotland is EXCEPTIONAL in providing guidance for itinerary planning and accommodation referrals for those wanting a self guided driving vacation in Scotland.... Simple to use. Thorough in suggesting ‘must see’ venues. Complete - sites, restaurants, pubs and experiences.” That is how I would describe what they do and provide. Exceptional accommodation recommendations. HIGHLY RECOMMEND.
The itinerary Secret Scotland provided was a trip saver. We loved the suggestions for sight seeing, eating, and places to stay, but the best part was the detailed driving directions. Driving on the opposite side of the road from the opposite side of the car was a little easier without having to worry about how to get there! We will definitely use this service the next time we visit Scotland!
Secret Scotland's itineraries, accommodations guides, and other resources are incredible value with great attention to detail. Their owners, Mike and Aury, are experienced and honest, and they helped us so much as we attempted to narrow down a very long list of things we hoped to do during our time in Scotland. I feel so much more prepared for our trip and can now just look forward to our approaching vacation!
We have just got back from an EXCELLENT holiday following the Borders to Orkney route suggestions.
We can't say enough about how much the detailed information enhanced our experience in Scotland. We had a wonderful time seeing so many interesting sites that we would have passed by without your guide.
Thank you so much.
These guys really are the best. We used Mike's Flexi Days East to West itinerary last July and it was truly indispensable. His itinerary is full of detail, including driving directions and options. Mike is also very responsive if you have any questions. We had such a wonderful time we are going back again this year, and we will be using his itineraries again for our planning. I would also recommend his accommodations guide.
Just like pictures of Scotland can’t do justice to the magnificence of the actual landscape, words can’t do justice to the brilliance and sheer volume of work you put in your guide. The level of detail provided on each stopover sheet, in all the different itinerary options and on all the B&B features exceeded even my most crazy expectations.
Mike and Aurey from Secret Scotland prepared a fantastic itinerary for us. It was a huge ingredient in the success and huge enjoyment that we got from our trip. It was absolutely worth every penny and there is no way we could have seen so much and so well without their itinerary. We felt like we belonged in Scotland, we knew what we were doing and what it all meant at every step. We recommend their services wholeheartedly. Scotland is such a marvelous place. Thank you Mike and Aurey... and we will be back!