SINCE its launch in 2015, the North Coast 500 (NC500) has quickly established itself as one of the world’s most iconic road trips.

From white sand beaches to towering mountains, red squirrels to sea eagles, and delicate wildflowers to ancient pines, the NC500 tour takes in a little of just about everything Scotland has on offer.

With so much to choose from, it can be more than a little difficult planning where exactly to stop – especially if time is limited.

READ MORE: Five food spots you must try on the NC500 – and one you probably shouldn't

Having completed the entire circuit, here is some first-hand advice on where to stop on a tour around the NC500.

Unless my geography is all off, the stops should be in order for someone driving the circuit anti-clockwise with Inverness as the starting point.

Whaligoe Steps

The National:

This historic harbour was first prospected by Thomas Telford in 1786 – according to the NC500 website – who decided it was a terrible place to build one.

Telford may have been right, but it’s a perfect place to stop on the driving route around northern Scotland.

The dramatic descent down the 365 Whaligoe Steps to the harbour is much less strenuous on the way back than you might fear, and there are still the remnants of the pulleys and gears that would have been used to haul herring up the cliffside in the 1800s.

For those looking to go even further back in history, the neolithic chambered Cairn o’Get is a short walk inland.

The only real problem with this spot is the parking …

Duncansby Stacks

The National:

John o’ Groats is one of the most famous places in the whole of the UK. Famed for being the end (or start) of the Britain-crossing Lands End to John o’ Groats trail, it is often wrongly thought to be the most northerly point on the mainland.

But while just about everyone considering a NC500 trip will also consider stopping in John o’ Groats for the obligatory selfie at the famous signpost, it is the nearby Duncansby Stacks which hold the true wonder of the area.

The leisurely walk to the sea stacks – pyramids which tower some 200 feet from the ocean – also provides stunning views out over the Pentland Firth to the Orkney Islands.

On the right day, there’s also plenty of marine mammals to be spotted in the waters and on the beaches below the cliffs.

The Kyle of Tongue, and Ben and Loch Loyal

The National:

Few views of Scottish mountains beat the view of Ben Loyal from the A838 causeway over the Kyle of Tongue. My phone camera could really do it little justice. But two car parks along the road offer the opportunity to stop and soak in the sight, and anyone passing on the NC500 really should.

Slightly off the main road to the south is a loch by the same name as the mountain, set in a valley that shows some the best of what Scotland’s “flow country” has to offer (above).

The “most intact and extensive blanket bog system in the world” – according to the flow country website, the area is currently bidding to be recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

There is also a pathway between Loch Loyal and its partner Loch Craggie to the Achnanclach Bothy, surely one of the most accessible bothies in Scotland (if you exclude all the driving it took to get there).

Ceannabeinne Beach

The National:

Northern Scotland’s white sand beaches are famed and people driving the NC500 route will no doubt have high hopes of seeing more than a couple.

One of the finest on offer is at Ceannabeinne, where flat sands and beach caves skirt clear blue waters (on the right day at least).

The zipline crossing the beach kind of ruins any idea of remote wilderness though, but the Durness does have a wealth of other beaches to choose from.

Realistically, Sandwood Bay is the best. But it’s also a nine-mile walk (out and back) from the nearest road, which is itself about ten miles from the NC500 route.

Ardvreck Castle and the Bone Caves

The National:

Ardvreck Castle, which dates back to the late 15th century, is not really renowned for its impact on Scottish history – although one or two interesting stories of betrayal are attached to it. But it is well worth a stop in the area for a number of reasons.

Other than the scenic view of the castle itself, which sits on Loch Assynt, there are the nearby ruins of Calda House and a waterfall to enjoy – as well as the eerily named “bone caves”.

About five minutes south of the castle, the trail to the caves starts just off the road before heading up to limestone cliffs.

Bear, lynx, wolf, reindeer, and even human remains have been found during excavations of the four main cave openings, with suggestions that they were used as a burial ground by people around 4500 years ago.

Loch Maree and the Scots pines

The National:

One of Scotland’s finest lochs, Loch Maree also inspired one of the country's finest folk songs.

Penned by Kenny Mackenzie and sung by everyone from Stornoway rockers Peat and Diesel to the Ceilidh King Fergie MacDonald himself, the lyrics immortalised the area in music.

“Take me where I faintly see the distant Isle of Lewis,

 "In all this world, there is only one place I would choose,

“To represent the beauty of my lovely homeland fair,

“The Loch Maree islands from the heights of Ardlair.”

There are many places to stop and enjoy the view out over this timeless loch, but one of the best is the Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve.

The area is famed for its ancient Caledonian pine forest, and well-maintained and signposted mountain and woodland trails offer an opportunity to explore it for yourself.

Shieldaig and its eagles

The National:

The picturesque village waterfront, locally smoked salmon, and stunning walk around the headland are a few reasons to visit Shieldaig, which sits just north of the more famous Applecross peninsula.

But there are two other reasons to stop in Shieldaig living on the island in its bay, which is host to a White-Tailed Sea Eagle nest.

Known as “flying barn doors”, there are only about 150 breeding pairs of the UK’s largest birds of prey in the whole of Scotland.

It is rare to have the opportunity to even glimpse one of these magnificent animals, and Shieldaig is surely one of the best places in the world to do so.

We spent a few hours in the village and were lucky enough to see one of them from the shoreline – as well as a pod of dolphins – and there are mounted binoculars on hand to help get a closer look.

The distinctive white tail and sheer size are enough to distinguish these eagles from other birds to even the newest of comers.

Knockan Crag

The National:

It’s all well and good driving around the Highlands, but Knockan Crag National Nature Reserve is a must-stop for people who want to understand exactly what they’re looking at.

The reserve has a curated walk with signs explaining how a collision of continents millions of years ago shaped Scotland as we know it – and how a discovery involving the “Moine Thrust” rocked the scientific world in the 19th century.

It’s all about how older rocks were found above younger rocks, and the arguments that sprung from that. To get the full story, you’ll just have to visit.

And to make the stop sweeter, you can also enjoy views of one of Scotland’s most iconic and distinctive mountains – Suilven – from the park.

When we were there, we also were lucky enough (due to someone else's misfortune) to see the mountain rescue team in action. Don't worry, they were fine!

Corrieshalloch Gorge

The National: A bridge over Corrieshalloch Gorge, viewed from above. Photo: Peter Devlin

Just south of Ullapool, the Corrieshalloch Gorge is described as one of “the most spectacular gorges of its type in Britain”. Even without the qualifier – it was formed as a result of glacial meltwater – it is hard to disagree.

But what makes this gorge even more worthy of a stop on a NC500 trip is the suspension bridge that crosses it and the viewing platform that juts out over it.

For those with a passing fear of heights (like myself) the bridge is an experience that is hard to forget, but for those with more of a phobia, the walks on firmer ground are also well worth the stop.

Since we visited, the gorge has also seen a new visitor centre open.

Bealach na Ba

The National: The famed Bealach na Ba viewpoint on the Applecross peninsula in Wester Ross is part of the North Coast 500. Picture: PA Photo/iStock

One of the most famous sights on the NC500, the winding single-track Bealach na Ba is known for being one of the most gruelling hill climbs in the UK. It begins at sea-level and climbs through a series of hairpin bends to a maximum height of 626m.

For people driving the route though, that won’t matter. Well, unless you get stuck behind a cyclist.

The views from the top out over Skye and Raasay, and in towards Strathcarron, won’t be forgotten in a hurry.