What to see and do on this part of the route
Best things to see and do on the way
This guide to the NC 500 continues from part 1. It assumes you are travelling the route anti-clockwise from Inverness.
This town may be your last opportunity to refresh yourself and stock up before heading west into the wilder parts of the North Coast 500 route. Local attractions are the ferry from Scrabster to Stromness on Orkney, and both Thurso and Scrabster have sandy beaches. You can walk from the west end of Thurso along the low cliffs.
(From Thurso you will be travelling though remote areas with few facilities, and the next major town on the route is Ullapool, 139 miles or 223 km distant.)
Travelling west, still on the A836 you will pass Dounreay nuclear power station on the right, the first in the country and now being decommissioned.
At Melvich you could stop for a break at the golden sand beach, or at another at Strathy, slightly further west.
Strathnaver / Bettyhill
The small Strathnaver museum beside the Tourist Information Centre covers the local events during the Clearances, which were dark days in Scotland’s history. The museum is run by volunteers.
Before reaching Tongue it is worth stopping at Coldbakie/Bàgh Challbacaidh to for a short walk down to the golden sand beach. On the road again you will start to see some of the mountains to the west and south, such as Ben Hope, which will dominate the landscape on the rest of the route. From Tongue itself you can walk to Castle Varrich / Caisteal Bhairraich, a ruin on a knoll beside the Kyle of Tongue.
You will drive around this scenic sea loch on a windy single lane road, so be sure to use the passing places when necessary, both to let oncoming traffic through and to let faster following traffic pass you.
Durness / Diuranais and Cape Wrath
The attractive, spread out village of Durness has an information centre and many features of interest. Smoo Cave (parking right by the main road) is a spectacular limestone cave, 50 feet high at the entrance and 200 feet long. There are information boards next to the car park. Balnakeil to the west has a craft village and a sandy beach.
South of Durness village on the Kyle of Durness you can take a passenger ferry across (summer only) and then travel 11 miles / 18 km on foot, bicycle or using a minibus service to visit Cape Wrath, Scotland’s most northwesterly point. There is a café at the lighthouse. You return the same way.
Southwest to Scourie
The A838 becomes single track again as you travel towards the west coast. At Loch Inchard you can make a diversion to Kinlochbervie, a fishing port.
This small crofting village has a picturesque beach and services. North of Scourie you can take a narrow unclassified road to the tiny village of Tarbet, where you can sail on a ferry to Handa island which is a reserve run by the Scottish Wildlife Trust for the benefit of many species of seabirds.
Heading south again through mainly uninhabited but beautiful country you will reach the tiny village of Kylesku with a bridge over the narrows. Diversion - five miles / 8 km south of the village on the A894 you can stop and have a hike to the highest waterfall in Scotland, called Eas a' Chual Aluinn. This involves crossing the outflow at the north end of Loch na Gainmhich and will take about 5 hours return. Full route details at: https://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/ullapool/eas-a-chual-aluinn.shtml
Loop to Lochinver
The route of the North Coast 500 though takes you west on the single-track B869 to pass north of the mountain Quinag through the tiny settlements of Drumbeg, Clashmore, Stoer and Clachtoll, to finally arrive at Lochinver. This part of the route is probably one of the two most challenging of the whole drive, with a very narrow, twisting road which can be busy in summer with locals and tourists and many tight bends, and many sheep on the road. However it is a beautiful area. One highlight, if you are interested in archaeology, is the newly excavated broch at Clachtoll, which you can go inside. Another highlight is the Old Man of Stoer, a high sea stack you can reach by walking along the cliffs. Achmelvich has a small, beautiful golden sand beach.
This is a small fishing port with all services and a range of accommodation - click here. There are good short walks at the Culag Woods just south of the village.
From Lochinver you can either detour through Coigach and Inverpolly (a wonderful place for hillwalking challenges, including the famous Stac Pollaidh), or go east on the A837 heading to Ullapool. Passing Loch Assynt, you may stop at the ruined Ardvreck castle, by the loch shore. It was built in the late 16th century by the Macleods.
Three km / 2 miles past this small settlement heading south you can stop to walk up to the interesting Inchnadamph caves, also known as the Bone Caves. This is another unusual limestone area, and in the four caves have been found bones of animals which inhabited the area during the last ice age, including reindeer, brown bear, polar bear and Arctic fox, as well as some more recent but still prehistoric human bones. You can go a short way inside.
Heading south again you will have views of the spectacular mountains called Suilven, Canisp, Cul Mor and Ben More Coigach. Stop at the Knockan Crag National Nature Reserve (part of the North-West Highlands Geopark) for displays about the geology and wildlife of the area and an interpretive trail.
This attractive village, set on the shores of Loch Broom, would be a good place to stop for a few days, as there is so much to do in the area, mostly involving exploring the outdoors. A good first stop would be the Visit Scotland Information centre at 6 Argyle Street. There is also a museum at 7 West Argyle St, with information about local history and the huge amount of emigration from the area. You can enjoy day cruises to the Summer Isles run from the harbour, and a car ferry goes to Stornoway on Lewis.
If the Ullapool area is your choice for a stop for a day or two, check accommodation options here.
The next stage of the North Coast 500 takes you south down Loch Broom on the A835.
If you are interested in archaeological sites you could take a diversion to see the multi-period fort remains called Dun Lagaidh at Blarnalearoch at the end of the minor road on the west side of Loch Broom (NH 143913). There is a vitrified fort occupied from the 8th to the 6th centuries BC, and a later Iron age dun.
Carry on down the A835 and on to the turnoff onto the A832 at Corrieshalloch. There is a National Nature Reserve at Corrieshalloch gorge, where a short walk from the car park takes you down into wild, narrow river canyon with a suspension bridge. There is a viewing point a few hundred metres further on.
The road to Poolewe and Gairloch which you are now following passes the mountain An Teallach on the south, considered to be one of the most magnificent in Scotland; you can park close to the Mountain Rescue station if you are up for the 1062 metre climb (7-11 hours return). Route here: https://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/ullapool/anteallach.shtml
You continue on the scenic drive up Little Loch Broom, passing Gruinard Bay nd its beach, which is worth a stop, and Laide.
Beside Poolewe are the famous, and in summer, very busy Inverewe Gardens (entrance charge) run by the National Trust for Scotland. This has a huge, well established collection of trees and plants, including many not seen elsewhere in the Highlands. Inverewe House, where you can walk around inside, is a recreation of the mansion in its heyday, and worth seeing. You’ll need 2-3 hours here to appreciate the gardens and House.
Continuing west you will reach this pretty village, with a new museum, which is worth stopping at. It is set in a repurposed bunker, but feels spacious, with modern displays and particularly good information about local wildlife and the geology of the north-west Highlands. By the hill behind the museum an archaeological trail leads to many prehistoric hut circles. There are wildlife cruises from the village also. Just west of Gairloch at Strath there is a remarkably good bookshop. Gairloch has many rental options if you want to stay in the area.
Beinn Eighe and Loch Maree
The next part of the route on the A832 is stunning, as it takes you past Loch Maree, with its 60 wooded islands. Just before the end of the loch you can visit the Beinn Eighe visitor centre, with displays about the unique wildlife and geology of the National Nature Reserve which encompasses the whole mountain range. Walks up into the northern part of the reserve start at the Coille na Glas-Leitir car park further to the west. If you plan to do the challenging climb of Beinn Eighe itself, access is further on, on the North Coast 500 route, on the south side of the range in Glen Torridon.
Carrying on, looking across Loch Maree you will see the bulk of Slioch (981m) dominating the northern skyline. The area to the north of Slioch itself has some of the remotest country in Scotland, with no road access but many Munros (mountains over 3000 feet) and it presents great opportunities for climbers and walkers prepared to camp out.
Passing though Kinlochewe and turning onto the A896 down Glen Torridon (single track) you will reach the village of Torridon. The village has the NTS Torridon Countryside Centre with wildlife information, video shows and walking paths and routes. A deer park is closeby. This is a good base for an ascent of Liathach, the highest mountain in the area (1053m / 3455 feet) and another challenging climb.
From Torridon you drive on to the village of Shieldaig, which has more accommodation options ( houses and cottages for rent in Shieldaig ) and then decide whether to head south on the A896 to Lochcarron (single track), or to do the much longer coastal loop around Applecross on its narrow, unclassified road. The Applecross road require’s the driver’s full attention at all times, you will have to use the passing places a lot. (The road onwards from Applecross is not suitable for car towing caravans or motor homes, so if this is the case for you skip Applecross and proceed south from Sheildaig.)
Passing through Kenmore, Fearnmore and Cuaig you eventually reach Applecross itself, which has shops and fuel and the Applecross Inn. The wonderful outlook is to Raasay and to the mountains of Skye over the sea. Having visited Applecross village and shops you must turn back to the road signposted Lochcarron, going inland to continue on the North Coast 500, on the Wester Ross Coastal trail.
The road from Applecross to Lochcarron is probably the most exciting part of the whole route, as you will be travelling on a very narrow road over high passes through the mountains, round hairpin bends and negotiating steep hills. Highlight is the Bealach na Bà or Pass of the Cattle, and the road reaches 626 metres or 2054 feet above sea level.
This village also has full facilities and many accommodation options. From here you will be heading east on the A890 /A 832 through Glen Carron and Strath Bran, following the railway line. As you travel east you will notice the landscape become more cultivated and less rugged.
After joining the A835 at Gorstan, you will be heading south and you can make a stop at the attractive Rogie falls, which are close to the road and which look their best after rain, so you will probably be in luck! You may see salmon leaping up the falls.
Just three minutes south of Rogie Falls you can turn east on the A834 to visit Strathpeffer.
This attractive village, once a spa, has an interesting Museum of Childhood (entry fee) and a Pictish stone nearby – the Eagle stone (Clach an Tiompain), dating to the 6th-8th centuries AD. Its two symbols are an engraved eagle, and a horseshoe symbol with three rings. Above the village to the east is an Iron Age vitrified fort, Knockfarril, which has clear wall line and great views.
The end of the road
From Strathpeffer, you can go on to Dingwall, and then to Inverness, to complete your circuit of the North Coast 500.