The North Coast 500 is one of Scotland’s most popular road trips. Going in one big loop, it takes you along the gorgeous coastline of the top portion of Scotland. The scenic route is actually 516 miles long and starts in Inverness. Since first moving to Scotland, I had been talking about all the adventures that I hoped to go on. As I talked to others, the North Coast 500 was one that was repeatedly recommended to me. I knew before I left for the states that I would want to take this trip, and when I finally got the chance, I was stoked!
Deciding to take the trip was easy but deciding where to stop along the way was tricky business. For anyone who has looked, like with most things, there is advice for days online about where to go and what to see. Planning trips is always a fiasco; that’s why I always stick to my tried and true habit of winging it, but with Covid-19 running rampant, I had to plan a little bit more than I normally would.
As I am sure you know about me by now, I am a huge hiker. So, for me, I knew that I was going to want to see the best of the best and get some exercise in while doing it. I scoured the internet trying to decide which stops were the best for me and about how long it would take me to enjoy each one. With over 500 miles to see and only three days to see it, I had to be picky with where I would stop and for how long. It ended up being an absolutely fantastic and utterly gorgeous trip, and I am here to share it all with you. This post will focus on our first day of the trip, be sure to look check out days two and three as well.
On the first day, I wanted to be able to accomplish seeing the entire east coast side of the trip, making my way from Inverness to Thurso. This portion covers 111 miles and there is a lot to call your attention to. As you can see by the NC500 map, the road hugs the coastline of the topmost part of this beautiful country. There is so much to see and do that I could have easily spent two weeks slowly making my way along, but I only had three days to make this trip happen; I was gonna have to be picky and narrow it down. After traveling alone for most of my adventures, I finally had a friend with me for this trip. We drove from Aberdeen to Inverness and stayed the night there. It was the end of November and darkness fell early. We had to make the absolute most of our time. Starting there, we could get up early in the morning and make the most of each day.
First Stop: The Black Rock Gorge
Since it was the end of November, the days were short; we have limited time to go, do, and see. The sunrose around 0830 and set before 1600 (4pm). We didnt even have a full 8 hours of daylight, but we were determined to make the absolute most of it.
Once again, I was using my Wild Guide to help me pick where to go. I have made a list of all of the main stops I hope to make and the first one of the day was the Black Rock Gorge. This also happens to be one of the places where they filmed a clip of the Harry Potter movies. I was excited. If you have never seen a gorge, I recommend it. It is always a wonder to see the power of water and its ability to carve out the earth and create some of the most breathtaking places on earth.
The Black Rock Gorge is in Evanton, Scotland. Like many places across Scotland, this place holds a local myth which tells the story of a noble woman that lived there, the Lady of Balconie, who was lured to her death by a mysterious man in green.
The main path is easy to get to; the trail totaling 2.5 miles. It was a muddy trail, lined with trees that followed a small winding river. It was a beautiful early morning walk for us, the air crisp and fresh. When you reach the gorge, there are bridges that cross over the top so you can look down into the deep cleft. An incredible spectacle to behold, the gorge is a deep, narrow, and winding divide cutting down through the earth reaching a depth of 120 feet (36 meters). Rapid waters have worn down the sediment of the red sandstone conglomerate of the Allt Graad. I hope you’re not too afraid of heights, this cavernous splice in the earth can leave you gasping for breath.
On our way out we were able to find our way back to the village easily after passing an absolutely adorable wooden playground complete with a hand-carved Nessie sculpture with a tail made out of tires!
Second Stop: The Village of Badbea
Heading north from the Black Rock Gorge we cruised along the NC500 highway, A9. The sky was a mix of blue, grey and white. I can see why many people simply enjoy taking this trip simply for the drive. It was fantastic. It wasn’t long until we made it to our next stop, The Village of Badbea.
From around 1750 to 1860 an eviction of a large number of tenants across the Scottish Highlands and Islands were evicted and moved to different locations. This was known as the Highland Clearances. The village of Badbea was one of the clearance villages that families were settled into. Perched precariously along the cliffside, you can easily find the village ruins and a large memorial built in honor of those who endured the Clearances.
Little remains of the stone homes and longhouses that the families built and lived in but the thought of having to live there was quite heartbreaking. Apparently, while the men and women worked the land, parents would have to tie a rope around their children and tether them to rocks or posts to keep them from being blown over the edge of the cliffs by the strong gusts of wind.
It was a very quick but certainly interesting stop. It didn’t take long for us to make it out to the village and back. I think we spent less than 30 minutes there.
Third Stop: Whaligoe Steps
Our next stop took a bit more time but was absolutely worth it, and one of my favorite destinations. Just south of Wick, we stopped along A99 at the Whaligoe Haven and Steps. It wasn’t the easiest place to find, but luckily I had my handy guidebook to help us along. It is actually easier to find the Cairn o’ Get but then take the road opposite from it towards the sea. It feels almost like you are trespassing and at one point you are essentially wondering through someones back garden. There is a small concrete pad at the end of a row of houses where you can park your car, and from there, follow the few signs down towards the cliffs.
Once you pass through the back garden of the home nearest the steps, you will see the first section of flagstone steps that descend down into the harbor. We had a friendly cat come up seeking a few pats as we made our way through. If you turn left instead of right down the steps you can also get a view of a very pretty waterfall.
There are said to between 365 to 330 steps leading down to the harbor. We ended up debating over it ourselves saying that it was actually around 350 steps total. They are wide and flat and generally well-kept but please still be careful as you make your way down. They wind and weave their way against the edge’s grassy and flower-filled earth with a quick decline. It was a beautiful day for us and the blue sky was filled with white clouds and seabirds gliding overhead.
At the first landing, you will find a large flattened area with a ruined stone hut on one end which is the remains of the Salt Store where the fishermen cured the fish. From there, you are led further down into the rocky inlet that is surrounded by 250 foot high cliffs. The water was clear and lapping quite gently against the rocky shore. The tide was far enough out that we were able to meander our way around the backside. We found the remains of a headless seal (which I terrifyingly almost stepped on) and more stacks of smooth grey stones on the back edge against the cliff.
The steps date back into the late 1700s and were used by the fishermen and their wives to carry large, heavy loads of fish up the village above. Along with the Salt Store, you can also find what remains of a rusty winch and the barking kettle and fireplace where they heated tar for waterproofing nets and floats. Just one trip up and down the steps will make you appreciate the kind of hard labor that the locals endured. It was a beautiful location and very enjoyable to experience.
Fourth Stop: Castle Sinclair
From the Whaligoe Steps, we continued north only about 3 miles before making it to the Castle Sinclair Girnigoe. The first castle was built in the late 1400s and sits just along the water’s edge. These ruins were some of the neatest I had seen since moving to Scotland. The castle’s dramatic location along the coast gave way to some of the most beautiful sweeping views. It is located on a peninsular that is surrounded by the sea on every side.
Like many castles, this one has an interesting past filled with its fair share of violence and hardship. In the 1500’s, the fourth earl of Caithness, George Sinclair, actually imprisoned his own son and slowly starved him to death over the course of 7 years.
The ruins that are left today include a tower gate, tower house, large hall, and defensive wall. With over 300 years of harsh coastal elements and an unfortunate amount of vandalism, most of the castle is nearly destroyed. There has been significant effort being put forth to restore the castle, however, or to at least keep was is left. We walked all around the castle in each area that was open to us, sticking our heads out the castle windows and looking into the crashing waves below. It was just us and a lot of fun to explore.
Fifth Stop: Duncansby Head
Heading further north from the Castle Sinclair, we drove just about 35 minutes to the very top right corner of Scotland and found ourselves at one of the most beautiful locations I have ever seen, Duncansby Head. Just northeast of John o’ Groats, Duncansby Head is marked by a lighthouse and is well-known for the prominent sea stacks that rise from the sea along the cliffside.
With our hours of daylight rapidly declining, we parked the car and decided to run our way across the coastal grasses to try and make more time for ourselves. I had seen a lot of beauty in the last few months traveling around Scotland but I was truly taken aback when I reached this extremely striking spot. Looking across at the Thirle Door and the Stacks of Duncansby, I was once again completely in awe of mother nature and her beauty. Seabirds soared, the waves crashed, and all along the pebbled beaches far below us we could hear the loud barks of what seemed like hundred of seals.
If there was any one location on our entire trip that I would have liked to spend more time at, it would have been this one. It was so extremely beautiful, I could have easily spent hours there walking along the cliffside and taking it all in. Sadly, our time there wasn’t long. We had one more place on our list to try and see before sundown, Dunnet Head.
Sixth Stop: Dunnet Head
I had listed Dunnet Head as a must-see simply because it is the most northerly point of mainland Scotland and all of Great Britain. I liked the idea of being able to stand at the very tippy-top of this beautiful country and look out across the oceans where I could see one of my favorite isles, Orkney.
Walking this time, we made our way from the car park out to the cliffs passing a few other families and travelers. The car park is large and close to the Dunnet Head Lighthouse which you pass on your way to the cliffs. Interestingly, I found out that this lighthouse was built by Robert Louis Stevenson’s grandfather in 1831 who was a lighthouse designer. Though most visitors go to this spot just for the lighthouse. we wanted to do a bit of cliffside walking, so we climbed over the fence and wove our way west along the cliff’s edge.
The day had gone by so quickly, and I was a bit sad to see the sunset despite its beauty. We took a seat and looked out across the water and reflected on the day. It had been so beautiful. At this point in time, I only had a little over a week left in Scotland before I would be returning to the states and it felt so incredibly bittersweet. I wanted to get as much of that Scottish air into my lungs as I could before I left, but the sun was set and we needed to get over to Thurso to check into our hotel for the night and find some food.
Last Stop: Thurso
Thurso is a sweet little town that sits at the junction between A9 and A836 and is just a few minutes west of Dunnet Head. There were a few hotels and restaurants to choose from and we were looking for cheap! We stayed at the Muthu Royal which was a very traditional and simple place with plaid carpets and clean rooms. It was one of the least expensive hotels in the town and worked great for us. Though there was a hotel restaurant, it wasn’t open at the time. So, after a shower and change, we found ourselves walking around downtown a little bit and found the Y Not bar and grill. We had an absolutely delicious dinner and a few drinks before heading back to catch some shuteye. Although, the day had passed quickly, all the walking, climbing, and traveling at worn us out.
The next day would start early and we planned to catch the sunrise right there in Thurso at the Holborn Head before heading out again.