Cycling the North Coast 500

By Charlotte Murray

Often quoted as being Scotland’s version of the USA’s route 66, the North Coast 500 is an epic route that takes in some spectacular roads boasting unrivalled views. The route covers 516 miles (816 km) and is comfortably rideable between five and seven days for those used to back-to-back riding days. Whilst ‘officially’ a driving route, it makes a brilliant road ride.

Some may choose to follow the classic route, however, Mark Beaumont and the people behind the official route joined forces to create an alternative cycle-friendly route. Something to consider.

The NC500 begins in Inverness, a northern city in Scotland and heads west over to Applecross before venturing north and roughly following the coastline back round to Inverness. The route offers a taste of everything from high mountain ranges and isolated beaches, to historic castles and a true sense of wilderness. You’ll get plenty of opportunities along the route to sample some of Scotland’s finest food and drinks.


As with all such routes, accommodation can vary wildly from a 5* all-inclusive hotel to a bivvy bag that you carried yourself. Choosing accommodation for a trip like this is an entirely personal endeavour depending on the level of luxury you enjoy.

Scotland has plentiful options for both ends of the spectrum, offering historic, luxurious castles to wild and remote camping spots so it’s worth spending some time considering your options and what would make your trip the most enjoyable for you. The official North Coast 500 website provides a handy itinerary planner which provides a mapped list of accommodation providers along the route, allowing you to plan with ease.

Supported or unsupported? 

There are a great number of ways that you can enjoy a long-distance trip depending on how much you are willing to carry and the number of home comforts you’d like. You have 3 options really:

Unsupported: You’ll carry all your gear on your bike and camp or stay in hotels/B&Bs etc along the route.

Self-supported: This is only really an option if there is more than one of you (and maybe more than two if you don’t like cycling alone) where one person is the support driver and the rest cycle. This could be one person the whole trip, one person each day or one person for a portion of the day. They would carry food and drink, your luggage, tools for repairs and maybe even a spare bike. The driver could do food runs whilst the rest cycle and arrive at your accommodation early to check in. If something goes seriously wrong, you’ve got the safety net of a vehicle.

Supported by an external provider: As an individual, you’re unlikely to be able to get baggage transfer as these services usually surround routes that attract walkers – and the NC500 largely doesn’t. However, Ticket to Ride have stated that if you are a group of six or more, they may be able to provide service upon request.

Join a supported group: Professional package tour providers such as Peak Tours offer completely supported rides on set dates. This could be an ideal option if you’re a lone cyclist who’d like to meet others riding the route. 

5 Highlights on the North Coast 500


OK, you’ve not even left yet but there’s something to be said for the most northerly city in the UK. Fuel yourself for the ride ahead by exploring some of the culinary delights of the city before heading to Inverness castle for a history lesson.

Bealach Na Ba, Wester Ross

Considered one of the UK’s toughest stretches of tarmac but it’s also one of the most scenic. You’ll hit this road relatively early on in your journey just before Applecross, setting sights high for an epic journey. At 11.1 miles long (17.9 km), it’s considered the holy grail of British hill climbs. Think hairpin turns, with switchbacks winding their way up the mountain pass from near sea level to 2,054 ft (624 metres). Saying that, with an average gradient of 7% (and a maximum of 20%), it should be a piece of cake if you’re not on a loaded bike – but we’ll let you be the judge of that.

Stac Pollaidh (pronounced stack polly), Assynt

If you’re factoring in a day off the bikes but still have itchy feet, this steep pinnacled ridge offers a fantastic opportunity to experience a relatively small Scottish mountain for tired legs (the true summit can only be reached by scrambling but can be avoided).

John O’Groats

John O’Groats is famous for being Great Britain’s most northeastern tip. Popular with tourists visiting and/or travelling the longest distance between two inhabited British points on the mainland, this small village also offers a chance to stretch the legs on a great coastal route with unrivalled views out across the North Atlantic Ocean.

The Whaligoe steps, Caithness 

If you’re wanting to get off the beaten track, the Whaligoe steps are 7 miles south of town and not particularly popular with tourists. But that doesn’t make them any less special.

Built in the early 1900s into two sea cliffs, the steps were originally intended for fishermen to access Whaligoe’s natural harbour. There are more than 350 steps which take you down to the Bink, an artificial flat grassy area above the beach. They make for an interesting insight into a time gone by. Watch your step!


If you’re travelling in the summer months, midges can be a nuisance in Scotland. Be sure to pack midge repellent or a head net if you plan to be sat outside for any length of time.

The official driving route organisers recognise that people will, of course, want to cycle this fantastic route and have taken the time to provide information and guidance to cyclists here.

Don’t forget to adhere to the Scottish Outdoor Access Code when you’re exploring the great outdoors to ensure these beautiful places can be enjoyed for years to come.