If you are looking for information on the North Coast 500 in Caithness and Sutherland: the route, the weather, where to stop and how to find the best places to eat and drink then look no further!
Here’s our top tip before you dive into all the action:
BaseNC500 is the new way to explore the North Highlands
Don’t just go with the flow, of traffic that is, because the ultimate way to explore the North Coast is to choose a base and immerse yourself in the amazing local landscapes, community, food and drink, wildlife and activities.
And you won’t miss out on all the other great areas around Sutherland and Caithness because it’s incredibly easy to take day trips to all the special sites you want to visit!
So go on, find where your heart belongs on the North Coast 500 and choose to stay there. You may find you never want to leave.
The information below will help you plan out your North Coast 500 trip in Caithness and Sutherland. For further information on the full North Coast 500 route you can visit the North Coast 500 website as well as local tourism sites.
- What is the North Coast 500 / NC500?
- Travelling the route
- Is there public transport on the NC500?
- When to visit the North Coast 500?
- How many days for the North Coast 500?
- Is the NC500 dog-friendly?
- Is the NC500 family friendly?
- How much does the North Coast 500 cost?
- What’s the weather like on the NC500?
- Are there midges on the North Coast 500?
- What wildlife is on the NC500?
What you choose to see as you travel the North Coast is very much up to you! Whether your interests are in our beautiful sandy beaches, stunning coastal scenery, delicious food and drink, arts and culture or fascinating historical sites there is something to suit everyone.
You will find a lot of information available about sites and experiences around the North Coast 500 online and we would encourage you to make use of online resources, guide books and, best of all, local knowledge as you travel.
On our site you will find helpful area guides, visitor attractions and a heritage map which will give you a head start on planning your NC500 trip sections for Sutherland and Caithness. Not to mention all the incredible sites just off the North Coast 500 that shouldn’t be missed!
We have a wealth of visitor attractions around Caithness and Sutherland which are open to the public. View below for further information.
The Venture North Heritage Map is not just for heritage sites, we include beaches, waterfalls, film locations, nature reserves and much more. If you are looking for a one-stop shop for every available visitor site in Caithness and Sutherland then this is it.
You can also download the Heritage Map on Google Play or Apple App Store to take with you when you travel.
Each listing contains information about the visitor site, such as opening hours and site accessibility, and an external link, where available, to a local website for further detailed information to plan your visit.
Our area guides cover the entirety of Caithness and Sutherland and are continually updated to ensure best accuracy of information for our visitors. If you are looking to find out more information about a specific town, village or area this should be your first port of call.
As well as information about the activities and experiences available in each area you will also find links to local community websites and interest groups so you can make the most of local knowledge as you travel.
If you haven’t decided where you are staying yet in the North Highlands but want to find out more about a specific interest then you must take a look at our interests pages. Covering everything from beaches, castles, surfing, golfing, distilleries and much more, these pages are continually being added to and updated.
Sutherland and Caithness have such a diverse range of interests you can explore, so why not do something you already love but also challenge yourself to try something new! Have you tried hiking up a mountain? Perhaps you would like to go bird-spotting? Or even just relax and pamper yourself with a well-earned spa break.
Caithness and Sutherland cover a large area of the North Highlands and there are local tourism sites available for different towns, villages and communities within our counties. These are a great resource for planning your trip and you will find excellent local advice and events on them.
Assynt – Discover Assynt
Brora – Brora and District Website
Dornoch – Visit Dornoch
Durness – Durness.scot
Helmsdale – Helmsdale.org
John O’Groats – Visit John O’Groats
Kinlochbervie – Kinlochbervie.info
Kyle of Sutherland – Heart of Sutherland Tourism
Thurso – Discover Thurso
Talk to Locals
One of the best ways to find out what to do, where to go and what’s best to see on and around the North Coast 500 is to talk to the locals who live there!
When you pop into a café for your morning coffee why not ask them what they like to do in their area. Or as you top up on your food supplies at a local shop you could ask them where they would recommend to visit.
You’ll be amazed at the sites that don’t make it on to Instagram because they’re not widely known about - so don’t just rely on online information!
And let’s not forget, the best memories are made when you step out of the car, explore and slow down. Make sure you leave enough time in your schedule to enjoy the experience instead of having a tick-list that you are rushing to get through.
There are a whole range of accommodation options available to you as you as you travel the North Coast 500 and central Caithness and Sutherland. We would advise that you plan ahead and book well in advance to make sure you don’t miss out.
And don’t be afraid to explore your options. You may think that you’d like to travel the whole route in a campervan, but after a little research discover that you’d prefer to explore one area and stay at a cosy traditional B&B.
BaseNC500 is the best way to visit the North Highlands and we can’t recommend planning to stay at one base for your trip enough! You’ll have all the benefits of immersing yourself into the local community and area, with the option to make day trips to any other sites you fancy visiting.
There are many hotels available to stay around the entirety of the North Coast 500 and central Sutherland and Caithness. Many of these have unique features and offer a range of price options as well as bars and restaurants, activities and dog-friendly policies.
Check our accommodation listings for some ideas on hotels in the area.
Bed and Breakfast is a traditional accommodation option and one of the most popular choices when travelling the NC500 and central Caithness and Sutherland. You get the benefit of a home away from home and all the local knowledge that comes from staying with local residents.
We have a range of local B&Bs in our accommodation listings.
One of the most popular new forms of accommodation along the North Coast 500 and central Sutherland and Caithness, glamping pods give you the opportunity to scale back on the size of your accommodation footprint without scaling back on the comfort.
Check out glamping pods in the area in our accommodation listings.
Self-catering could mean renting a luxury cottage for an intimate stay, a large house for a party gathering with friends and family, or a camping yurt to get away from it all and back to nature. The possibilities are endless!
View some of our great unique self-catering options around the North Coast 500 and central Caithness and Sutherland on our accommodation listings.
There are a few hostels around the North Coast 500 for those looking to save on their accommodation budget, or even just looking to meet fellow like-minded travellers and share their adventures with new friends.
View our accommodation listings for ideas on where you can stay around the North Coast 500.
Motorhomes, Campervans, Caravans
The North Coast route through Sutherland and Caithness is largely suitable for motorhomes, campervans and towing caravans, however, you should always carefully plan ahead for the road conditions and your driving confidence.
Some smaller roads off the NC500 are marked as not suitable for these kinds of vehicles and you should never attempt to travel these roads unless you are in a car.
Read through our Travelling the Route information in the FAQs for further information on travelling the North Coast 500 and general travel advice for Caithness and Sutherland.
When planning to camp overnight in your own vehicle you should always aim to stay at a designated campsite with appropriate facilities. Camping overnight in a vehicle does not come under the classification of wild camping.
Read our section on Wild Camping for more information.
Check out our Tourism Map (link incoming) for a map of campsites and waste disposal points around the North Coast 500 and central Sutherland and Caithness.
If you choose to stay at an undesignated parking spot or camping area please be respectful of the local landscape, wildlife and flora and fauna. Ensure you leave the site with no trace of your stay and encourage others to do the same.
Camping at a Campsite
There are many beautiful campsites all around the North Highlands where you can pitch up your tent and enjoy a great night’s stay. Some of these campsites have facilities available on-site, and some are deliberately minimal.
It’s always best to plan to stay at a designated campsite when travelling the NC500 and central Caithness and Sutherland as you will have the security of knowing that you are safe and welcome while also supporting the local economy.
You’ll also have the chance to meet others travelling the North Coast and get to share your stories, top tips and must sees!
Under the Scottish Outdoor Access Code there are specific guidelines for wild camping in Scotland. These apply to all wild camping around the North Coast 500 and central Sutherland and Caithness, and you should read our FAQs section on wild camping for more information.
As a general rule of thumb, wild camping is only appropriate if you are in a wild and remote area at a distance from any houses, roads and farmland. If you choose to wild camp you should carry all your rubbish and waste away from the site with you, leaving no trace of your presence.
Caithness and Sutherland have incredibly beautiful landscapes and, while these are perfect for remote wild camping, we need your help to protect these precious places.
If you’ve been dreaming of fresh local cuisine with an emphasis on the local then the North Highlands is the place to be!
As you travel you will pass many of the harbours and farms where local seafood and fresh produce is landed and grown, and you’ll have the chance to meet many of these local producers and growers.
From bars and restaurants to cafes, clubs and bistros, there’s something that little bit different on and off the North Coast 500 for everyone.
Visit our bars and restaurants listings for some ideas of what is available in the area.
Whether you are vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, dairy-free or have another special dietary concern there are a wealth of eating options for these around the North Coast 500 and central Sutherland and Caithness. Some venues advertise their menus online and some in-person.
We would recommend calling ahead in advance if you have any concerns as it’s possible that while a venue may not advertise a special menu they will still be able to cater for your diet with advance notice.
If you fancy creating great dishes for yourself while you travel then there are plenty of local food and produce shops as you travel the North Coast 500 and central Caithness and Sutherland. We advise shopping local so you don’t miss out and help support the local economy.
Some local producers offer meal kits or recipe suggestions so you can still enjoy the best of our local cuisine from the comfort of your accommodation, or even when you’re back home!
As well as local food and produce shops there are a wealth of extremely talented artists and creators around the North Coast 500 and central Caithness and Sutherland. These might have their own studio spaces or share their work through a local craft and gift shop.
For unique and memorable souvenirs from the North Coast 500 we would recommend that you take the time to browse these local stores as you’ll be amazed at what you find.
View our local shopping listings for more information about our great options.
The North Coast 500 and central Sutherland and Caithness are packed full of interests and activities, making your choices for your trip endless! Do you want to walk wild and remote paths? Experience vibrant local festivals? Taste the best of the local food and drink? The North Coast has it all and more.
Take some time to think about what you enjoy and what you want to get out of your trip. It might be that your interests take you away from the well-travelled routes and sites, and that’s no bad thing! Your trip can be as unique as you are.
Once of the biggest questions we hear is how long should I plan for my North Coast 500 trip?
The answer to this really depends on you! You could spend as few as five days exploring an area, or as many years living here through the seasons and experiencing the changes.
We would recommend that you decide first whether you would like to travel the whole route in one go or section it off bit by bit and explore each area in more depth. There are advantages to both options and this will in part be driven by your interests and time available to you. Our top tip is that you will get to experience much more if you choose to immerse yourself in one area.
View our itineraries section for more ideas on what you can look to achieve in a certain number of days, if you’re looking for a specific theme, or ideas of what there is to see and do in an area.
Package or Self-Made Trip
There are tour guide options for the North Coast 500 as well as the option to plan your own trip. Once again it will very much depend on your own interests and time available as to which option would be better suited for you.
The advantages of a package trip is that you will get to share the experience with a group of like-minded travellers without the worries of planning your accommodation or activities in advance, as well as the valuable insight of a tour guide who will be able to give you more information on the area.
The advantage of planning your own trip is that you can tailor your experience to your own wants and desires and focus on these. You will also have the freedom to change plans as you discover new sites and activities along the trip and have more flexibility around timings and destinations.
When to Visit
Another commonly asked question is when is the best time to visit the North Coast 500 and Scottish Highlands? For a more detailed answer check out our When to Visit section in the FAQs, but our short answer is that there is no bad time to visit the Highlands!
Each season brings its own joys, and each is distinctly different to the others. In fact, many visitors choose to visit the North Coast again and again through different seasons to experience these changes and discover the area anew.
Travel the North Coast 500 Clockwise or Anti-clockwise
One of the biggest questions everyone has when planning their trip is whether they should travel the North Coast 500 in a clockwise or anti-clockwise direction. Both are just as good as the other so this will be entirely up to you and there is no specific advantage or disadvantage to travelling the route in either direction.
Once again, many visitors will actually travel the route in one direction and then return again to travel the route in the opposite direction!
Don’t forget: our top tip is that you will get the most out of your visit if you choose to base yourself at one place instead of travelling the whole route! BaseNC500 means more immersive travel and a better experience for you and our local communities.
We strongly recommend booking ahead for all your accommodation, eating and activities wherever possible before you travel the North Coast 500. It is an extremely busy route at certain times of the year and our remote facilities and infrastructure means that there is a point where you will find it difficult to enjoy your stay as fully if you are not booked ahead.
We would also strongly recommend booking direct with providers rather than through booking sites as this means that the full payment will go direct to that provider. Providers will often offer special deals as well which are not available through booking engines so don’t miss out!
Visit our suggested itineraries page for a range of free itineraries and guides on what to see, where to stay and how to make the most of your trip to Caithness and Sutherland.
We're regularly developing new itineraries and suggestions so keep an eye out for our updates.
The North Coast 500 is a coastal driving route taking in more than 500 miles of beautiful scenery in the North Highlands of Scotland.
The name North Coast 500 is because the route covers over 500 miles of roads, with the option to add additional miles in the form of loops along the official route. In total the official route is 516 miles long.
The North Coast 500 starts and finishes as a circular route at the Highland capital of Inverness. Inverness is easily accessible by air, road, and rail public transport links.
If you choose to travel the route anti-clockwise you will take the A9 road north from Inverness up to John O’Groats, and if you choose to travel the route clockwise you will take the A835 road north-west from Inverness and then the A832 road west towards the west coast.
Areas of the North Coast 500
The North Coast 500 covers a large area of the Northern Scottish Highlands and travels through six distinct local areas and counties. Scottish county boundaries are there for administrative purposes but also provide a strong sense of local identity for many of the residents.
The North Coast 500 is primarily a coastal route but there are many beautiful areas inland in central Caithness and Sutherland which are easily accessible from the route and well worth exploring.
The North Coast 500 was launched in 2015 in response to an identified gap in tourism in the North Highlands and commissioned by the Duke of Rothesay. Since its launch the route has gained immense popularity with many visitors choosing to explore this incredible and remote region of Scotland.
The North Coast 500 route is supported by a collection of Public Sector and Corporate and Business Partners. Individual landowners own the land on which the route is situated, and the roads and public facilities are managed by the Highland Council along with local Councils and Trusts.
Ownership of North Coast 500 Ltd is in the hands of Wildland Ventures.
Maps, Guidebooks and Apps for the North Coast 500
There are a wide variety of excellent maps, guidebooks and apps available for the North Coast 500.
Venture North has produced a tourism map (link incoming) of Caithness and Sutherland to help you as you travel, containing information on public toilets, waste disposal, public parking and much more. View it here online (link incoming) and look out for a printed copy at tourism information sites as you travel.
Venture North has also produced a Heritage App which contains all the tourism and interest sites in Caithness and Sutherland both large and small. You can download the Heritage App on Google Play or the Apple App Store. Or you can view the map on our site here.
Is the North Coast 500 suitable for campervans, motorhomes and caravans?
Within Caithness and Sutherland the North Coast 500 is suitable for campervans, motorhomes and caravans. For more specific information on road sizes and quality carry on reading below.
Single Track Roads in the Scottish Highlands
You may have heard that a significant portion of the North Coast 500 is on single track roads, and this is entirely true.
Single track means that the road only has one lane, so traffic will always be heading towards each other and drivers will have to make use of ‘passing places’ to allow vehicles to pass or overtake. Road Safety Scotland have produced guidance for driving on rural roads and we have some simple suggestions here to make everyone’s journey more pleasant.
These are vital infrastructure for the smooth flowing of traffic on single track roads and you should never use a passing place as a parking space.
Please use passing places to allow faster vehicles behind you to overtake as well as for oncoming vehicles, this is proper use of the road and will be appreciated enormously by locals.
Please pay attention and follow all road signs. Although the North Coast 500 is suitable for large vehicles some of the smaller roads branching off it are not suitable and will have signage banning certain vehicles.
Be considerate of your driving confidence and be aware that distances will take longer to cover on single track roads. Some sections of the North Coast 500 may look close together but you should always allow a little extra time for your journey.
Expect the unexpected. As you travel through the remote Scottish Highlands you may find that the road ahead has wildlife on it such as deer, cows or sheep, or that there is an accident or obstacle blocking the route. In winter it is particularly important to be prepared with a winter safety kit in your vehicle in case of blockages or delays.
Hills on the North Coast 500
Within Sutherland and Caithness there are occasional hills on the North Coast 500 route, however, if you are on the route there should be no expected difficulty in getting up or down these hills.
The steepest hill section within Caithness is the Berriedale Braes which have ample warning signs allowing you to slow down and select a low gear before descent and ascent. This section of road, although a steep gradient, is single carriageway so you will not be sharing a lane with oncoming traffic.
Road quality on the North Coast 500
Road quality varies on the North Coast 500 as it covers a huge area of the Scottish Highlands and is a mix of A and B roads.
The roads in central, west coast and north Sutherland and Caithness are largely single track road and generally in reasonable repair along the NC500. Keep an eye out for potholes as these are not unexpected, and it’s always best to pass vehicles at designated passing places as sometimes the land beside a road can be soft.
The A9 road north of Inverness along the east coast is a single carriageway which is also usually in reasonable repair. This is the main trunk road north with a large number of lorries and for this reason we would recommend extreme caution for any cyclists looking to cycle the main A9. For drivers there is no special caution recommended except to be sure that you don’t miss out on all the wonderful small villages just a turn off the A9.
Driving off the North Coast 500
Leaving the North Coast 500 to explore the many wonderful areas and villages around the North Highlands is a fantastic idea and we can’t recommend it enough!
Just be sure that you observe the road signs to make sure that your vehicle size isn’t banned from any of the roads and be respectful of private driveways and entrances.
Many visitors don’t realise there’s so much to explore off the North Coast 500 so we would recommend planning ahead and asking the locals to make the most of your trip.
Travelling the North Coast 500 Sustainably
It is absolutely possible to travel the North Coast 500 and central Caithness and Sutherland sustainably, in fact we have a blog about travelling the North Coast 500 by electric vehicle which you can read right here.
There is a network of electric charging points right across Caithness and Sutherland and you can view these live online or through our area tourism map. By planning ahead to charge your vehicle as you travel you will find yourself naturally creating an itinerary which allows you time to slow down and enjoy all our amazing areas.
It is also possible to travel the North Coast 500 by public transport and we have included a section on this below. As sustainable travel becomes increasingly important we are looking forward to seeing development of our public transport infrastructure and welcoming many more visitors by rail and bus.
Cycling the North Coast 500
Cycling the North Coast 500 is becoming an increasingly popular way to experience the best road trip in Scotland. By choosing to cycle all, or sections, of the North Coast 500 you will find yourself immersed in the landscape and beauty of the North Highlands. Read our blog on cycling the North Coast 500 to find out more.
Did you know that there is a cycle alternative route to the A9 which takes you through the central area of Caithness and Sutherland? We would recommend this for anyone who does not wish to cycle on the main A9 trunk road on the east coast.
Hiring a car, motorhome or campervan for the North Coast 500
There are many options for hiring a car, motorhome or campervan for the North Coast 500 and central Sutherland and Caithness. Some visitors choose to rent a vehicle at the start of their visit and some choose to make some of the journey by public transport and rent a vehicle for the sections where they would like a little more flexibility.
There are local vehicle rental options available in Caithness and Sutherland and we would encourage you to consider these options as you travel to help support our small communities.
Please read through our sections on Wild Camping and the Scottish Outdoor Access Code for more information if you are planning to camp with your car, motorhome, campervan or caravan on the North Coast 500. Vehicle camping is not classed as wild camping in Scotland.
Public Transport To/From Inverness
Inverness is well-served by a variety of public transport links, many of which continue on to the North Coast 500 route.
Scotrail provides rail services to Inverness and also further north on the Far North Line. View our section on NC 500 public transport below. There are carriage spaces available for bicycles so you can take your two wheels with you for an adventure. You can also take the famous Caledonian Sleeper from London at night and wake up in the Highlands.
There are many bus services to Inverness from across Scotland and the UK, including an overnight service from London. Bus is a very cost-effective way of travelling sustainably as well as taking a similar, if not shorter, amount of time as rail.
Inverness Airport is the main air hub for the Highlands with multiple services from across Scotland, the rest of the UK and Europe. Development is underway to improve public transport links to and from the airport so you will be able to enjoy an even more seamless journey in future.
Public Transport on the North Coast 500
The provision of public transport on the North Coast 500 and for central Sutherland and Caithness varies depending on the time of year, so it is important to plan your journey in advance to ensure you don’t miss out.
The Far North Line serves the North Highlands of Scotland, taking you north of Inverness along the east coast until you reach the most northerly towns in the UK, Wick and Thurso. Visit Scotland has produced an excellent rail itinerary to help you make the most of your trip.
Bus is one of the best ways to experience the North Coast 500 by public transport as there are many links to smaller communities, particularly in the north and west of Sutherland, which are not served by rail connections.
The following are our bus options for Sutherland and Caithness
There are no public airports currently in Caithness and Sutherland although development plans for Wick John O'Groats Airport are currently ongoing.
There are several ferry links in Caithness and Sutherland:
There are multiple marinas and harbours around the North Coast 500 where visiting leisure vessels can berth. The marinas and harbours in Caithness and Sutherland are:
When is it busy/quiet on the North Coast 500?
The North Coast 500 is an exceptional road route to travel at all times of the year. Each season offers something different for our visitors and there are benefits to all of them. To read more about each season on the North Coast 500 and in central Sutherland and Caithness carry on to the answers below.
In general, the North Coast 500 tends to be busier in the summer and quieter in spring, autumn and winter. If you are looking to escape the crowds we would recommend travelling outside of the summer months.
North Coast 500 in all seasons
Each season is beautiful and offers something new for visitors. Here are some of the pros and cons of each season to help you decide the best time for you to visit:
Spring – March, April, May
- Beautiful spring colours are everywhere
- New lambs and calves can be seen in the fields
- Seasonal breeding birds begin to arrive
- Often the weather is warm and settled in May
- Weather can be a little unpredictable during the lambing season – we call this the ‘lambing showers’ and it’s not usual to get all four seasons in one day!
Summer – June, July, August
- Endlessly long summer days
- Weather can be beautifully sunny and settled in June
- June and early July can be good puffin-spotting times
- Often weather can be wet during July and August
- Dreaded midges tend to be at their worst in summer
- Roads, visitor sites and accommodation are often busy
Autumn – September, October, November
- Often there are lovely crisp sunny days in September and October
- Stunning autumn colours are everywhere
- Nights getting darker mean beautiful dark skies and stars
- Stag rutting season is a true Highland experience
- Midges will often still be around in September
Winter – December, January, February
- Beautiful dark nights means star gazing and the Northern Lights
- Deer are easily visible as they winter in the glens
- It’s the grey seal pupping season
- Roads, visitor sites and accommodation tend to be quieter
- Glorious winter sunrises and sunsets that are unforgettable
- Some tourism businesses and sites are closed during winter months
- Public transport may be more limited
We would recommend that you take as many days as possible to explore the North Coast 500 and central Caithness and Sutherland. As well as the numerous sites along the route itself there are a myriad of adventure options just off the route wating to be discovered.
We are currently developing itinerary suggestions for Caithness and Sutherland but in the meantime you can visit our Heritage Map to see all the amazing places we have to visit.
As a rough guide we would recommend no fewer than 5 days to explore the route. You will have to make some tricky choices about what to see and what to miss, but if you tailor your visit to your interests you will still have a great time.
We would also recommend that you consider basing yourself in one location rather than attempting the whole route in one go. BaseNC500 means you can enjoy staying in the same place each night and making day trips to your desired sites, helping you get the most of your visit without all the packing and unpacking!
If you are looking to take your four-legged friends with you as you travel the good news is that a huge number of sites and accommodation around the North Coast 500 and central Caithness and Sutherland are dog-friendly for well-behaved pets. In fact, the North Highlands is one of the best playgrounds you can imagine to explore with your canine companions.
Some sites will have information advertised on their websites and social media and it is always worth getting in touch with business owners if you are looking for further information as they will be happy to provide answers and give you the best advice.
The Scottish Outdoor Access Code also has helpful advice on being a responsible visitor with your dog.
Yes! The North Coast 500 is hugely popular with families and there are lots of accommodation and activity options for all family sizes and ages. Whether you want to build sand castles on the beach, go alpaca trekking, splash around on paddle boards or cycle on wooded trails, you won’t be bored in Caithness and Sutherland.
Local businesses will often have the best advice on what you can see and do as a family so don’t be hesitant to ask questions, your best memories might be just around the corner.
The amount that you spend on your North Coast 500 trip will be entirely up to you. Whether you are looking for a luxurious getaway or a budget backpackers trip there are multiple options available for food, accommodation and activities.
As with most of Scotland the weather on the North Coast 500 can vary dramatically depending on the time of year and even which side of the coast you are on. The west coast tends to have more dramatic weather and storms while the east coast tends to be more sheltered and settled.
It’s always best to be prepared for all seasons when you are travelling to the North Highlands as it’s not unusual to have snow flurries as late as May or June and even in the height of summer you can’t guarantee sunshine.
However, what we often say up here is that if you don’t like the weather just wait 5 minutes, because it’ll have changed by then! You know you’ve truly experienced Scotland when you’ve had all four seasons in one day.
The best thing to do is check with your accommodation provider on what they would recommend for the time of year, and always take a pair of wellies and waterproofs with you just in case.
So, you’ve heard about our famous Scottish midges and are wondering whether you will encounter them on the North Coast 500? Read on below to find out more.
What are Scottish midges?
Midges are very small flying insects which bite to feed on wildlife, livestock and humans. They often swarm in their thousands so it is very difficult to avoid them should you end up in an area with ideal midge conditions.
Are midges dangerous?
No, midges are not inherently dangerous as they do not carry any diseases. However, their bites can be extremely itchy and if you are allergic to them you may experience a stronger reaction.
An insect that has more potential to be dangerous in the Scottish Highlands is the tick. Click here for more information on ticks and lyme’s disease and learn about precautions.
Are there midges on the North Coast 500?
Yes, there are usually midges on the North Coast 500 in the warmer months. Depending on frosts they may not appear until early summer and may disappear as early as autumn, however it is always best to expect them and be prepared.
In general midges tend to be more prevalent in wild and boggy areas and less problematic in towns and villages. You may find that there are more midges on the west coast than east coast.
How to avoid midges on the North Coast 500?
There are several options to avoid midges on the North Coast 500, some you might like to consider are:
- Travelling at a cooler time of year so there are less midges
- Wearing midge hats or suits
- Covering up as much skin as possible with clothing
- Using an insect repellent
- Burning insect repellent candles (where appropriate)
- Choosing to remain indoors at times of day when they are at their worst
The wee bitey beasties may still get to you but there’s a good chance you’ll survive to tell the tale.
One of the many reasons you may have chosen to visit the North Coast 500 and central Caithness and Sutherland is to see some of our incredible wildlife and birdlife! Depending on the time of year you travel, and where you choose to visit, you may see some of the following:
The gentle giant that everyone wants to see and snap a picture of. Don’t be alarmed by the large horns, as long as you keep a distance and don’t attempt to approach or distress the animal you will find that they are quite happy to show their best side to the camera.
Please do not enter a field to approach any Highlands Cows as they are farm animals.
You may see Highland Cows around the North Coast 500 who are not enclosed in a field, indeed they may even be on the beach! In these circumstances you should enjoy the experience but avoid approaching the cow as they are still farm animals.
During April to early July is the best time to see puffins on the North Coast 500 as this is when they are present for the breeding season. There are many excellent sites at which to safely view puffinries in Caithness and Sutherland without disturbing the nesting birds.
It must be stressed that these are wild birds and so should never be approached. If you suspect that a puffin may be in distress you can contact the RSPB and alert them to the matter.
Please do also take care when around puffin viewing sites as there are often large cliffs with sheer drops. Always keep an eye on your surroundings and take photos safely.
These beautiful birds of prey arrive in Scotland in the spring of each year for the breeding season before leaving once again in the late summer/early autumn. Once considered extinct in the UK there have been remarkable efforts to reintroduce breeding pairs to their native habitats, including various sites along the North Coast 500 and in central Sutherland and Caithness.
Due to the nature of their protected status nesting sites are often closely protected information, however if you would like to learn more about osprey in Scotland you can visit the Scottish Wildlife Trust webpage.
Some of our incredible visitors to the North Coast every year, we often have sightings of orca pods along the Scottish coastline during the summer. Each pod has distinctive features and you can view the 2021 Scottish Killer Whale Photo Identification Catalogue online.
Seal pupping sites are popular feeding grounds for killer whales so our remote northern coastlines make the perfect place to witness nature’s beauty and ferocity.
There are two main breeds of seal that you might encounter along the North Coast 500: grey seals and common harbour seals. Both are sensitive to the approach of humans so please try to avoid disturbing them, particularly when they are resting on the land at their haul-out sites.
The pupping season for grey seals in Scotland is normally around November and December each year, and for common harbour seals is normally around June and July. At this time there will be many young seal pups within the colonies and it is important that they, and their mothers, are not alarmed or startled, so please keep your distance.
Watersports users are asked to take particular care when kayaking, canoeing, swimming or stand up paddleboarding near seals as the silent nature of these sports may mean that hauled-out seals are startled if they don’t hear your approach.
Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises
Whales, dolphins and porpoises are common visitors along the North Coast 500! If you are fortunate you may be treated to an energetic display and one of the best ways to see this is with an approved wildlife tour.
Each species has their own distinctive characteristics and times of year that they like to visit so check out the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust for more information.
Deer are a common sight around the entirety of the North Coast 500 and central Caithness and Sutherland. In the summer months they tend to stay higher up on the hills so you may have to keep your eyes peeled to spot them, but in the autumn and winter months they descend into the glens and are everywhere.
The deer rutting season takes place in autumn each year so you may hear challenging stags roaring in the glen as they clash with each other. Please take care not to get too close at this time as they are wild animals.
Deer stalking seasons run from July to February each year so extra care should be taken when walking in the hills and you should follow all instructions along paths related to access during stalking.
In the winter it is common to meet deer on the roads so please take extra care when driving and be prepared to slow down.
Being a responsible visitor is all about making our fantastic destination a better place for everyone. Here are some suggestions on how you can help protect our areas and environment as you travel:
- Plan ahead and book ahead
- Take time to talk to locals and engage with communities
- Consider travelling sustainably
- Shop, eat and stay local as you travel
- Consider visiting at quieter times of the year
- Respect historical and cultural sites
- Respect our landscapes and wildlife
- Think about how you can give back to local areas through donations or volunteering
- Make the most of your trip by slowing down and engaging in your experiences
- Stop at visitor sites that are already too busy - instead carry on and come back later
- Park at sites that are not designated for camping
- Ignore signage that is there for information and safety
- Dispose of litter or waste anywhere except a designated site
For more detailed information and suggestions on visiting the North Coast 500 responsibly take a look at our Visiting Responsibly section. (link incoming)
The following information relates to wild camping as referred to in the Scottish Outdoor Access Code. That is, lightweight camping in tents which is done in small numbers and for no more than two or three nights in one place.
Please be aware that vehicles are not included as wild camping and if you choose to park your vehicle overnight anywhere that is not a designated site you may be asked to move on by the landowner.
- Camp at a distance from any dwellings or roads
- Leave no trace – take all litter and belongings with you
- Use a camping stove
- Follow all local advice to prevent fires
- Use public toilets where possible
- Keep at least 30 metres from water sources if relieving yourself in the wild, and bury any human waste – UPDATE: Highland Council are currently asking all wild campers to carry out waste
- Have respect for others and a high regard for safety
- Camp in enclosed fields or working land - such as crops or livestock
- Light an open fire – such as campfires, BBQs or fire bowls
- Cut down or damage trees
- Cause damage or obstructions to property – such as blocking an access route
More information about wild camping:
Wild camping in Scotland: the essentials – Guidance from Mountaineering Scotland
Where to go in the Outdoors – Guidance from Mountaineering Scotland
Wild camping advice for Canoeists – Information Leaflet by the Scottish Canoe Association
Camping advice for horse riders – Guidance from the British Horse Society Scotland
Vehicle camping in motorhomes, campervans, cars or caravans should only be undertaken at designated campsites around the North Coast 500 and central Sutherland and Caithness. There are many sites available and by camping there you will be helping to support local economies as well as minimising your impact upon the environment.
If you choose to park at an undesignated site please follow all of the wild camping guidelines above and ensure that you leave no trace of your visit.
Please be aware that motorhome, campervan and caravan toilets should only be emptied at designated waste disposal sites. Many campsites will allow you to empty your waste for a small fee even if you are not a paying overnight guest.
You can find a map of waste disposal sites in Caithness and Sutherland here. (link incoming)
More information about vehicle camping:
Caravan holidays and camping in Scotland – VisitScotland online resources
Guidance for campervan users – Guidance from the Campervan & Motorhome Professional Association
Scotland has some of the greatest land access rights in Europe and with these rights come certain responsibilities. These responsibilities can be headed under three main themes:
respecting the interests of other people
caring for the environment
taking responsibility for your own actions
As a responsible user you are strongly encouraged to:
Be responsible when dog-walking
- Bag and bin any dog waste
- Keep your dog under proper control – especially around livestock
- Do not allow your dog to approach animals or people uninvited – if in doubt use a lead
- Do not allow your dog to disturb wildlife
Be responsible when camping
- Use a stove rather than light a fire
- Use designated campsites when possible
- Leave no trace behind
- Carry a trowel to bury your poo
Be responsible when visiting
- Do not disturb seals on the shore
- Avoid deer stalking areas
- Do not disturb wildlife on riverbanks and loch shores
- Respect the interests of other people enjoying the water
- Don’t block entrances, cause an obstruction or damage verges when parking
- Always use a car park when possible
- Take all your litter away with you
- Respect other users enjoying the space
- Avoid busy areas and choose a quieter destination
For more information and to read the full Scottish Outdoor Access Code visit their website.
There’s a whole country beyond the North Coast 500 waiting to be explored and the North Highlands and Islands are one of the most incredible parts of it! If you’ve been looking to take the road less-travelled and explore beyond the North Coast 500 then some of the areas below might be just right for you.
Easter Ross lies just to the south of Sutherland on the east coast of Scotland and boasts a magnificent collection of beaches, wide-open spaces and historical sites.
A true gem of the North Highlands, the Black Isle is only a short distance away from the Highland capital of Inverness but is bursting with wildlife, beautiful walks and quirky sites.
Wester Ross is truly one of the most breath-taking areas of the Scottish Highlands. Filled with incredible scenery, remote communities, and active adventures.
The Highland capital overflowing with history, culture, stories and more. Discover the streets of Inverness and then venture further to Loch Ness to see if you can spot our famous beloved monster Nessie.
Caithness is the gateway to Orkney which is home to thousands of years of Scottish history and culture. A small group of islands which provide an unforgettable experience.
Shetland is the most northerly part of the UK with a unique and distinctive culture and heritage. Home to many incredible festivals, rare wildlife and of course the stunning Northern Lights.
The Outer Hebrides are a world of their own with fascinating landscapes, incredible beaches and strong local culture. An opportunity not to be missed.
ISLE OF SKYE
The Isle of Skye is undoubtedly one of the most well-known places in the Scottish Highlands, deservedly, for its sheer wild beauty and other-worldly feel.