Explore the interior!
Turning off the main North Coast 500 route and going off the beaten track can lead to a world of discovery and adventure. Along these quiet roads surrounded by spectacular mountain scenery, lochs, rivers and glens, there is so much to see and do for all the family.
Venture off the beaten path for a couple of days and explore the interior of the North Coast 500 route. Why not choose a base to explore from? There are so many roads which access the east, west and north coasts easily, yet you’ll feel as though you’re miles away from the route most driven. Ledmore, Laxford Bridge, Hope, Tongue, Bettyhill and Melvich, to name a few, all offer scenic, remote locations to base yourself for a day or two on your travels, allowing you to explore all the intertwining roads within Caithness. Remember, the 516 miles of coastline that make up the North Coast 500 is not the only route to travel – the inland areas of the North Highlands are destinations within themselves! In this post, we’ll help you get off the beaten track and explore more of the beautiful Highlands.
The heart of Sutherland
Sutherland is situated in the far North Highlands, and covers 2,300 square miles. It is known to be one of the most sparsely populated areas in northern Europe, with scenery second to none with dramatic mountains, lochs and beautiful beaches. It is also the only county that has access to the east, west and north coasts of Scotland.
Set up base – a remote Highland retreat!
The heart of Sutherland is easily accessed from several points on the North Coast 500 and is only a short drive off the route to most of the attractions. Why not venture off the beaten track for two/three days and stay within the interior of the route? You’ll find an abundance of quaint, remote B&Bs, self-catering providers and wild Highland estates dotted around to escape to.
If you prefer a cosy B&B, look no further than Ceol Mor B&B, which is situated in a quiet location overlooking the Kyle of Sutherland. While there is a feeling of remoteness here, you’ll still be only a 10 minute drive from Lairg, Bonar Bridge and Rosehall. Alternatively, Invercassley Cottage B&B is a converted traditional Scottish croft, believed to be over 200 years old! With stunning views from every window and a garden full of birds and wildlife its a perfect place to unwind. Its just a short walk from the local hotel that serves delicious evening meals and on the way why not stop off to admire the beautiful Cassley Falls waterfalls where at certain times of the year you can watch the salmon leap.
Experience the wild side of the Highlands at Alladale Wilderness Reserve, a 23,000-acre gem in the Highlands. Alladale offers three types of accommodation on site: the luxury Victorian lodge, two comfortable self-catered cottages, and a rustic bunkhouse tucked away deep in the reserve. Alternatively, take a short detour via The Altnaharra Hotel, a stunning, traditional Highland retreat that has been attracting guests for almost 200 years.
Check out our interactive map for more inspiration. If you are struggling to find accommodation in Ullapool or Lochinver, the heart of Sutherland is just a 15 minute drive from the Ledmore Junction.
Blessed with an abundance of wildlife
Due in part to the virtually unspoilt nature of much of the countryside, the low level of human habitation and in part to the unique climates, the North Coast 500 is the ideal location to spot a variety of wildlife in their natural habitats.
Fancy a wildlife tour?
Invercassley Cottage B&B in Rosehall offers a choice of wildlife trips to choose from during your stay. From a Landrover safari trip in the morning or evening, to a full day tour of the Scottish Highlands with an experienced guide, Invercassley B&B can help you experience some of the best views of the birds and wildlife that live there. Binoculars and telescopes are provided for guests’ use.
Alladale Wilderness Reserve in Ardgay is famous for ‘rewilding’, which involves reforestation and reintroduction of plant and animal species. With a bit of luck, you’ll see their Highland cattle as well as majestic red deer, golden eagles and other wildlife species. Between mid-May and late September, take the chance to visit Glencalvie Falls and watch the salmon jump upstream; take a guided hike or a 4×4 trip.
Photos: Invercassley Cottage B&B
Harness the healing power of nature
Alladale offers an incredible range of events and retreats which allow you to spend time in the great outdoors, learning more about the healing powers of nature, and leave feeling recharged. Whether you’re looking for a challenge, or just seeking a leisurely experience, Alladale’s programme allows you to delve into the activities you love – all within one of Scotland’s last truly wild locations.
Every Scotch whisky distillery is different: from its location and water source, to its still shape and wood policy. These are all determining factors in its ultimate outcome – its taste. Every Balblair Vintage is strongly individual; each bottles captures the unique essence of a year. Whisky here is only ever selected for bottling at its peak of perfection, handpicked to represent the very best that Balblair has to offer. The Balblair Distillery visitor tour is intimate and personal, offering three levels of Distillery tours. Find out which tour suits you best. Book now.
Find a forest rich for exploring at Ferrycroft. There’s plenty to see and do, whether you’re spending an hour here, or a full day – from fun activities in the four-star visitor centre to splendid views of Loch Shin from the top of ancient Ord Hill. This is a rich and fascinating place with high-quality archaeology, interesting wildlife and pretty forest trails. Search for salmon leaping upstream at the Falls of Shin visitor centre, and explore the range of trails through mixed woodland. Read our article here.
Just a stone’s throw from the famous Falls of Shin in Sutherland, the Invershin Hotel is a superb base for groups. The hotel’s bar hosts regular live music sessions – while these are often held on Fridays, sessions can be spontaneous, so you may be fortunate enough to hear some real Highland music whichever night you’re staying!
Sometimes it’s best for both the environment and for your sense of adventure to leave the car securely parked and head out on two wheels, rather than four. If you’re planning to cycle the North Coast 500, take the Sustrans main cycle route through the North Highlands.
Clay pigeon shooting
The North Highlands have an abundance of shooting and fishing experiences available to seasoned field sports enthusiasts, complete beginners, and all stages of expertise in between. Clay pigeon shooting at Alladale Wilderness Reserve is a popular choice with groups travelling the North Coast 500.
Witness the unspoiled Scottish wilderness from a calm spot by the water. As one of Scotland’s most established sporting hotels, The Altnaharra Hotel offers all the facilities and support you’ll need to enjoy salmon, sea trout and brown trout fishing in the north Highlands. Hire one of the hotel’s boats and head out on one of the numerous nearby lochs for a day of fishing, organised by the hotel by prior arrangement. With experienced ghillies available to offer fishing guidance and advice during your stay, and a rod room well stocked with tackle and equipment for you to buy or hire, The Altnaharra Hotel is the ideal location from which to base a fishing trip.
TroutQuest offers fly fishing holidays, short breaks and fly fishing tuition throughout the Northern Highlands. Why not join them for a guided salmon or trout fishing excursion?
Something else to keep in mind is that if you’ve been lucky enough on the river while you’re exploring inner Caithness, The Ulbster Arms Hotel will cook your catch for dinner.
Alladale Wildnerness Reserve also offers world class trout fishing. With a choice of 10 lochs, you can spend days here! The nearest loch from the roadside is an hour’s climb up the hill. Two of their more remote lochs are historically stocked with Arctic Char and only for experienced anglers. Salmon fishing is occasionally available between August and September.
Why don’t you spend the day foraging for your meal? You’ll be surprised by how much of what grows on the reserve is not only edible, but delicious! Let one of the reserve’s expert rangers show you how to identify the best local herbs and mushrooms, before chef Thomas Park creates an evening meal using all the foraged ingredients collected that day from the reserve.
Explore the Strathnaver Trail
The Strathnaver Trail links 29 archaeological sites, starting off at the Strathnaver Museum – pick up a map and Trail Guide here to help plot your route. Work your way from Iron Age brochs to Bronze Age cairns and hut circles, carved stones dating back to Pictish times and pre-Clearance settlements; all of these sites lie within a compact geographical area, so you’ll be well placed to tick a large number off your list in one go. Among these 29 sites are 12 ancient monuments, each one linked to a different time period in modern history.
The blanket bog at Forsinard Flows is one of the world’s rarest habitats. It has taken 8,000 long years for the deep peat soils to develop. Peatland waders such as golden plover, dunlin and greenshank arrive to breed along with other seasonal wildlife during May and June. Late spring and early summer is the best time to see peatland birds, while later in the summer, rare plant life and insects such as dragonflies and great diving beetles take centre stage. Keep an eye out on the boardwalk for common lizards basking in the sun!
When night falls, the Forsinard Flows lookout tower is a unique vantage point for stargazing and spotting the Northern Lights at the right time of year.
There are plenty of hiking opportunities along the North Coast 500, so get outdoors and make the very most of the North Highlands.
The 23,000 acre Alladale Wilderness Reserve has so much to discover that you can go on a different hike every day. Take three days or more and escape to the wilderness – why not book a guide for the day, who can show you places that you may not be able to find by yourself? On the way, the rangers will teach you all about the plants, trees and animal species on the reserve, and about the history of this unique part of the Highlands. Alternatively, recharge those batteries with a retreat, or test your survival skills with the Bear Grylls Survival Academy.
Four miles north of the Forsinard Flows visitor centre is the Forsinain trail. This four-mile long trail was developed by the peatlands partnership and takes about two hours to complete. Travelling through the farm at Forsinain, the trail takes you up onto the hill towards this natural bog and former forestry plantation, which the RSPB is in the process of restoring back to natural peatland habitat. The trail returns to the car park along the banks of the Halladale River. Information on all these trails is available at the Forsinard Flows visitor centre.
If you’re planning to visit the North Coast 500 for an extended period of time, why not incorporate some volunteering into your travels? RSPB at Forsinard offer a two-week residential volunteering package, focusing on practical conservation, allowing you to learn and gain new experiences in the great outdoors, along with your family or a group of friends. For more information, visit the RSPB’s website.
Bag a Munro
Ben Hope is the most northerly Munro in Scotland, and ideally located by Lairg, just a short distance from the most northerly stretch of the North Coast 500 route. Check out information from Tim here, and our article about safety in the hills.
The ‘Great Sutherland Gold Rush’- in 1868 Suisgill Estate was famous for gold panning with hundreds of people flocking to the area to try and make their fortune. Although ‘Gold Fever’ was short lived Suisgill Estate still permit recreational gold panning on certain parts of the estate. Try your hand at this engrossing past time! Please see our gold panning article.
The remote magic of the west!
Have you seen this view before? This famous stretch of road is actually 3 miles outside of Kinlochewe. The conveniently placed car park offers one of the most iconic views along the North Coast 500, looking down Glen Docherty towards Loch Maree.