10 awesome detours off the NC500 route - planning a Scottish road trip
Are you planning a road trip this summer? Scotland's NC500 is up there with Route 66 and the Great Ocean Road as one of the world's most beautiful journeys. We had an amazing time exploring this gorgeous route in June 2021 and have a blog up with our top places to stop on the NC500. If you have a little more time to stretch out your itinerary and really get your teeth into this stunning part of the world, here are our top 10 detours to take off the NC500 route:
1. Dolphin spotting at Chanonry Point
30 minutes drive from your starting point of Inverness, the capital of the Scottish Highlands, head out to Chanonry lighthouse close to Fortrose on the Black Isle to seek out the Moray Firth's resident bottle nose dolphins. To maximise your chances, aim to arrive about an hour after low tide, as the dolphins are most active on a rising tide, chasing fish.
There is a pay and display car park behind the lighthouse, bring a camping chair and binoculars and keep you eyes peeled for dorsal fins and splashes as the dolphins jump out of the water!
For more nature, visit the RSPB reserve Fairy Glen Falls - beautiful woodland and waterfalls in a hidden glen, full of birdlife, and another interesting stop nearby is the red stone ruins of Fortrose Cathedral, once the seat of the Bishops of Ross.
2. Investigate the legends of Loch Ness.
30 minutes in the other direction from Inverness is possibly the most famous Scottish destination, Loch Ness. 36km long, at its deepest point Loch Ness goes down 230 metres and sits on the Great Glen Fault line. Its peaty waters are pitch black - the perfect hiding place for a monster... in fact there have been sightings of the long necked Nessie for over 1500 years!
Drive round to the southern most end and the small town of Fort Augustus, keeping an eye out for red squirrels and Highland Cattle. You can take a boat out onto the water for a scenic cruise - we love Cruise Loch Ness , whose boats have radar capabilities, juuuust in case anything big swims underneath...
While you're there, you can take a walk up the amazing staircase of Fort Augustus locks and visit the crumbling Jacobite ruins of Urquhart Castle, one of Scotland's largest castles.
Up the other end of the loch in Drumnadrochit is the Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition, a multi media museum that walks you through 500 million years of history and explores the legends of the loch. Don't miss the Nessie shop which sells virtually any monster merch that you can think of and Scottish gifts.
3. Nairn Beach
30 minutes east of Inverness is the Victorian sea side resort town of Nairn, home to a wild and windy white sand beach that makes for a lovely detour from the NC500. Apparently Nairn is one of the driest and sunniest spots in Scotland, and the beach has held a Scotland's Beach Award for nearly 30 years! With a sea front promenade, two Championship golf courses and numerous tea rooms and a harbour that runs dolphin spotting boat trips in the summer, this town is a nice contrast before or after exploring the rugged scenery of the NC500.
If you'd like some history, close by is Cawdor Castle (you might recognise the name from it's literary connection to Shakespeare's Macbeth), still inhabited today, you can explore 12 rooms inside the castle, the gardens and the surrounding woodland.
4. Culloden Battlefield
The site of the last pitched battle on British soil where Charles Edward Stuart's (better known as Bonnie Prince Charlie) Jacobite soldiers fought the Duke of Cumberland’s government troops in 1746 in the hopes of restoring the Stuart monarchy to the British thrones, . It was a violent and bloody battle, with around 1,600 men killed in less than an hour, 1,500 of them Jacobites, and effectively ended the Jacobite Rising.
You can walk the battlefield where coloured flags mark the lines of both armies as the battle commenced, and there is a memorial cairn and stones for the different clans involved in the battle, marking the graves of the fallen.
The visitor centre has a museum that sensitively tells the story of the battle from both sides through immersive multimedia and artefacts found on the battlefield including weapons.
5. Leaping salmon at the Falls of Shin
Come off the NC500 once you've crossed Dornoch Firth after Glen Morangie and head inland towards Lairg. In summer months, you can watch Atlantic salmon leaping up the thundering Falls of Shin as they head back upstream on their migratory routes.
6. Orkney Islands
This magical archipelago about 10 miles off the very northern tip of mainland Britain can be reached by boat from John O'Groats as a foot passenger (summer only, lands at Burwick), or if you'd like to take your vehicle over you'll need to drive 20 miles further west along to coast line to Scrabster for the ferry to Stromness.
There are 70 islands, 20 of which are inhabited and they are a treasure trove of historic sites like the 5000 year old Neolithic UNESCO World Heritage site of Scara Brae, lively Viking towns like Kirkwall, ancient stone circles and the WWII naval base of Scapa Flow.
7. Dunnet Head
While John O'Groats and it's famous signpost are known around the world as the northernmost point in Britain, did you know that's not actually true? To really stand on the top of mainland Scotland you'll need to drive 15 miles west to Dunnet Head, a lighthouse and RSPB reserve where you can see puffins and guillemots on the cliffs from May - August. There is a stone marker with the text "most northerly point of mainland Britain" that you can take a photo with.
8. Isle of Skye
Take a day or two on this astonishingly beautiful island off the west coast of Northern Scotland. The wild landscapes look straight out of an ancient fairy tale and this is a great destination for amazing hiking. Climb up to the Old Man of Storr, explore the unearthly Quiraing, walk in the footsteps of dinosaurs and visit the enchanting Fairy Pools.
Skye is really easy to visit, as a bridge links from the mainland between Kyle of Lochalsh and Kyleakin on Skye.
The final leg of the NC500, back across the neck of Scotland to Inverness, isn't the most interesting or inspiring part of the route, so the next two detours take you further south in Scotland instead.
9. The 'Harry Potter' viaduct
30 minutes drive from Fort William is the STUNNING Glenfinnan Viaduct . Tall and grey, this enormous viaduct curves across the valley and is most famous for being featured in several of the Harry Potter films. Just like the Hogwarts Express, the Jacobite Express still puffs its way across the viaduct (you can check the schedule here) which makes for some beautiful photos - there is a hiking trail up the hill to the left of the arches where you can get great views. There is a pay and display carpark just off the main road with a path leading right to the foot of the viaduct.
10. Oban and the Inner Hebrides
Further south still, the town of Oban is the jumping off point to the Isle of Mull and the other Inner Hebrides. You can take the ferry across to Mull, or join a tour to explore more of the islands. We have a review blog about our day with West Coast Tours who took us to Mull, Staffa and Iona for boat trips, puffins, an ancient abbey and some seriously amazing scenery.
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