How to The Journey Travel

How to: Scotland’s North Coast 500

Loop of northern Scotland offers breathtaking scenery and great riding

Visiting Prague early last month put the travel bug in me and I’ve been chomping at the bit to take the Street Bob on another road trip. Problem is, I’m poor. So, any two-wheeled adventure will have to be kept within the don’t-have-to-pay-for-a-ferry confines of Her Majesty’s United Kingdom. But where on this tiny, crowded archipelago can a motorcyclist find the sort of open roads that speak to the soul?

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There a few spots, admittedly, but Scotland is top of my list – if not simply because the tourism board’s gone to the trouble to think up a lovely route for me to follow: the North Coast 500.

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The NC500 is a 516-mile loop of the tippy-top bit of Scotland, which officially starts and ends at Inverness Castle. The tourist board likes to refer to it as Scotland’s Route 66, but such a description only serves to show the tourist board’s ignorance of Route 66. The NC500 is not a single highway designed to move commerce between previously disparate communities; it is an arbitrary collection of previously existing roads (some dating back to Roman times) linked to encourage tourists.

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My buddy, Cam, and I rode the whole of the NC500 back in 2016, a year after the route was officially launched, and I’ve visited sections several times since – most recently in November of last year. Despite its being aimed at tourists, it’s a route I recommend and one I’m very seriously thinking of tackling again this summer

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Cam and I did our trip in early summer. I am wearing six layers.

As with just about everything in motorcycling, the phrase, “If you’ve got the money, honey, I’ve got the time” applies. In other words, how long you spend riding the NC500, where you stay, and what you do will all be affected by how deep you’re willing to dig into your pockets. The official NC500 website has a suggested eight-day motorcycle itinerary (Eight days to ride 500 miles???) that I estimate would set you back in excess of £1,800. So, the sky really is the limit.

Equally, you could head up and do the whole thing in one (very, very long) day, packing sandwiches and only spending money on fuel. Because there are so many variables to the NC500 this should not be seen as a comprehensive guide but simply encouragement for you to check it out.

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Getting There

There are a handful of companies in Inverness from which you can rent a bike if you’re inclined to travel up via train (Caledonian Sleeper, yo!). For example, NC500 Moto Experience (My mentioning the company is not an endorsement). If you’re traveling via plane, you’ll almost certainly find it more affordable to head to Edinburgh or Glasgow, which have far more options when it comes to motorcycle hire. For example, Saltire Motorcycles in Edinburgh (again, not an endorsement).

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You should only be doing that, though, if you are coming from another country. If you’re a UK resident, get your lazy ass on your own bike and invest the time riding to the start point. The United Kingdom has 15 national parks and you’re pretty much guaranteed to hit at least two of them no matter where you’re riding from.

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If time’s not on your side, you’ll be stuck enjoying the UK’s fine motorway system, which means choosing either the M6 or the A1M to make your way to the border. If you have a choice, I’d advise the A1M simply because it’s broadly the case that the eastern side of the United Kingdom is drier. Once you get to Scotland, though, it won’t matter – it’s always wet and cold. So pack your wet weather gear.

If you do have a day or two to spare, I suggest using one of the “Crossing the Country” routes listed in the back of Biker’s Britain, by Simon Weir. My apologies for not being able to provide an internet link to the route. Simon is the editor of Ride, however, so you may be able to find roughly similar routes on the magazine’s website.

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The Route

The NC500 route officially starts/ends at Inverness Castle, where you’ll conveniently find free motorcycle parking on the road. From there you can head off in either direction; it’s up to you which you choose first.

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During our time of traveling the NC500, Cam and I ran into a number of motorcyclists who were torn as to whether they had made the right decision in choosing to tackle the loop clockwise or counter-clockwise. My personal suggestion is to ride counter-clockwise, hitting Scotland’s bleaker, more industrial east coast first – thereby saving the dramatic beauty of the west coast for later in the trip.

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Scotland’s east coast lacks majesty.

The potential drawback to my suggestion is that the mountainous west presents more technically challenging riding (including the famous Bealach na Bà). That may not be what you want if you’re several days into an adventure – eg, having traveled up from the far south of the United Kingdom – and starting to feel tired.

As I say, the route is not a single highway but a collection of A roads, B roads and occasional lane, so you will need a map. It is not well-marked enough to just ride up and follow signs. Here’s a Google Maps outline of the route, here’s a paper map, and here’s a downloadable file for your GPS.

Where to Eat

If you’re traveling along the eastern coast and spot a cafe or pub that looks nice, and you are even the least bit peckish, you should definitely stop because you won’t find another place for quite some time. On the east coast, the easiest food is to be found in the larger towns but even then the pickins are slim; lower your standards.

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Things get better as you push west of Thurso, however, and by the time you’re making your way down the western coast it seems just about every decent-sized town has at least one place worth popping into. If you’re the sort of person who plans ahead (I have a bad habit of not doing this), there are a number of amazing places to eat local seafood and produce. Whisky, meanwhile, ain’t too hard to find. Here’s a map of distilleries; be careful about riding if inclined to tour one of them and sample the product.

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Where to Sleep

Scotland is a shockingly expensive place to visit when compared with, say, anywhere sunny. I mean, the odds are very high that if you spend more than four days in Scotland at least one of them will expose you to the most miserable weather conditions you’ve ever experienced (or, at least, the most miserable since the last time you visited Scotland). Yet hotel rooms in the summer are priced at a premium. You will find it difficult to come across standard Holiday Inn Express-type accommodation for anything less than £150 a night.

One solution is to travel the route with a buddy with whom you get along well, sharing hotel rooms and thereby splitting costs. Two people and all their gear can be a pretty tight squeeze in some hotel or B&B rooms, though, so you really should be sure that you’re comfortable with the person.

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If you are staying in hotels or B&Bs, my experiences in Scotland have taught me that places outside of towns are the best value for money. They will have more character and often be more affordable. The drawback, of course, can be that that your evening meal options are limited. Look for a hotel that has a pub or serves dinner, then be sure to book a dinner reservation along with your room.

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An alternative is camping. There are designated campsites to be found here and there, but unlike in England and Wales so-called “wild” camping is legal in Scotland. You’ll want to familiarize yourself with the Scottish Outdoor Access Code, but the general rule is that you’re allowed to camp anywhere that isn’t fenced off. There are exceptions, of course – especially in particularly popular areas.

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Other Tips

As mentioned above, Scotland’s weather can be pretty grim no matter what the season. The payoff is that you’ll be hit with views so incredible you’ll start swearing in disbelief. You’ll also meet some great people. But to make sure you enjoy it all it’s vital that you come prepared for the worst. Expect a lot of rain and expect cold. Pack several pairs of gloves.

Stop often. You are in Scotland to see it, so actually take the time to do so. Don’t frustrate yourself by getting into the “Trying To Get Somewhere” mindset; you’re there. Additionally, you’ll find that everyone else is stopping often, too. If you zip around trying to make progress you run the risk of being caught off guard, either by someone pulling out of a scenic stop or attempting to make one without warning.

MORE PHOTOS FROM THE NORTH COAST 500 (Click to enlarge)