Driving the incredible NC500 left us scratching our heads many a time and asking ”how did we not know beaches like these exist in the UK?” And none caused as much scalp damage as Balnakeil Beach. Tucked away in the northern reaches of Scotland, on the Faraid Head Peninsula, is an expansive bay of white sands, rippling dunes and turquoise waters. Its jaw-dropping beauty hits like a raw haggis to the face. Completely unexpected. Balnakeil Bay looks out across the Kyle of Durness as it merges with the open sea, and the pretty ruins of Balnakeil Church add a quaint historic element to the place. Simply put, this is one of the best beaches in Scotland, and certainly along the North Coast 500.
In this guide, we’ll tell you how to get to Balnakeil Beach in Durness, Scotland and things to do there. We’ll briefly mention other spectacular Durness beaches in the area before looking at accommodation options nearby, like Balnakeil House, which sits on the beachfront opposite the church ruins. Perfection.
To see footage of the wider NC500 road trip, feel free to watch our NC500 Hikes production.
For other epic beaches in Scotland and along the North Coast 500, read our post on Beaches Along the NC500 (guide coming soon). Otherwise, read our Complete Guide to Hikes Along the NC500 post, where we talk about 18 NC500 hikes.
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About Balnakeil Beach
The white sands and marram grass tufted sand dunes of Balnakeil Beach make it one of the most picturesque, rugged and charming beaches along the NC500. Indeed, Balnakeil Beach has a captivating feel of isolation and remoteness, in all the best ways. Balnakeil Bay is a seductive stretch of water that’s impossibly turquoise in colour. Well, for what I had previously thought possible for the UK anyway. But, if travelling the NC500 has taught us anything, it’s that the UK, and Scotland in particular, has some pretty exceptional beaches. Many even got Dan’s Aussie seal of approval!
At the entrance to Balnakeil Beach, you’ll find Balnkeil House and the beautiful remains of Balnakeil Church. I mean, what a setting. As you wander northwards along the beach, you’ll head towards Faraid Head, a small peninsula jutting out into the wild ocean, with exceptional views across the Kyle of Durness and on to neighbouring Cape Wrath to the west.
In the nearby hamlet of Balnakeil, you can enjoy the Balnakeil Craft Village and then explore the wider Durness area. We’ll cover all the above in more detail below.
Where Is Balnakeil Beach?
Balnakeil Beach and its wide bay lie in the northwest of Scotland in the parish of Durness, Sutherland. Accessing the beach at the southern end of the Faraid Head Peninsula is fairly straightforward, following a minor road, west, out of Durness and through Balnakeil. At the entrance to the beach, and next to Balnakeil Church, is a parking area. Although, parking here can become quite crowded and congested in the peak season. If the parking next to Balnakeil Church is full, follow the road around toward the golf course. There’s additional parking here. Parking is free.
If the car park next to Balnakeil Church and golf course is too full, then head back to Balnakeil hamlet and walk from there.
How to Get to Balnakeil Beach
The easiest way to get to Balnakeil Beach in Durness, Scotland, is with your own set of wheels. Of course, if you’re driving the NC500 then this is easy. Balnakeil Beach is just a 5 minute drive from Durness Village on the A838 section of the NC500 drive.
Of course, if you don’t have access to your own set of wheels, then we recommend hiring something. When hiring a car, we always get the ball rolling with a search on RentalCars.com. Booking a car with Rentalcars.com is easy and stress-free, plus they offer an unbeatable free cancellation policy too.
It’s straightforward to catch bus #805 from Durness Village to Balnakeil Village. From Balnakeil, you’ll need to walk down to the beach. This should take no more than 15 minutes.
If travelling the NC500 in an anti-clockwise direction, you can reach Balnakeil Beach from Thurso via bus. But, bear in mind this bus doesn’t operate every day of the week. If travelling in a clockwise direction, from Ullapool, you’ll find public transport to Balnakeil Bay is a little less reliable.
We recommend using Google Maps to help plan your journey if travelling via public transport. But ultimately, having your own transportation is the most ideal way to visit.
Balnakeil Beach Guide
As one of the premier beaches along the NC500, you’ll find plenty to keep you occupied at this wondrous little corner of Scotland. Let’s take a look.
As beach walks go, strolling along Balnakeil Bay is an absolute must, as is, weather permitting, a dip in Balnakeil Bay’s pristine waters. The turquoise hues of the water against the white sands of the beach seem out of place and yet utterly at home all at the same time. We even saw plenty of kayaks out in Balankeil Bay, exploring the waters of the Kyle of Durness and across to Cape Wrath. Additionally, there are plenty of people enjoying beach picnics and general exploration.
The sand dunes at Balnakeil Beach were a surprise hero for us too. The rippled mounds stretch as far as the eye can see. Covered in Scottish marram grass, they create a perfect green cushioned backdrop to the powdery white sand of Balnakeil Beach.
Faraid Head Peninsula
Heading further north along Balnakeil Beach leads deeper into Faraid Head. This small peninsula houses a Ministry of Defence Control Tower, as well as some dramatic cliffs and typical wild Scottish landscapes. You can walk along Balnakeil Beach itself, or take a coastal trail through the dunes to reach the tip of Faraid Head. On Fairaid Head Peninsula is a cairn, from which you can enjoy some stellar views back over Balnakeil Bay, down the Kyle of Durness and towards the church ruins.
At the entrance to Balnakeil Beach, and where the car park is, you’ll find the ruins of Balnakeil Church. Its crumbling remains conjure romantic images of a bygone eras village church in a truly remote and breathtaking location on the Faraid Head Peninsula.
Occupying a fantastic vantage point overlooking Balnakeil Bay and the Kyle of Durness, this old church was built in 1619 upon the ruins of something even older. Perhaps another church? Sadly, in around 1814, the church ceased operating and fell into disrepair. But, Balnakeil Church is open for exploration, around the churchyard and within the building walls. Check out the stone windows for framed picture-perfect views over Balnakeil Beach.
On the opposite side of the road to the church, you’ll see the imposing creamy white facade of Balnakeil House. The grand house at Balnakeil was built between 1720 and 1744 on the remains of a summer palace for the Bishops of Caithness. What a location! In 2012, Balnakeil House was completely restored to its former glory and can even be rented out.
Balnakeil Craft Village
Heading back to the hamlet of Balnakeil is the Balnakeil Craft Village. The village is home to artists and local businesses including Cocoa Mountain chocolatiers and The Wee Gallery art house. The Balnakeil Craft Village was originally built and intended to be used as a Ministery of Defence warning station. But, this never came to pass. By the 1960s, its new life as an arts and crafts hub had begun. It’s worth a stop-in to support local businesses in the area and of course, break up the NC500 drive.
When Is the Best Time To Visit Balnakeil Beach?
The warmest months to visit Balnakeil Beach are June to August. During these months, you’ll have a better chance of enjoying a swim in Balnakeil Bay or just lazing out on the beach enjoying the warm sun.
Of course, summer also coincides with peak tourism, so expect Balnakeil Beach to be much busier. Dan and I had to fight for a parking spot next to Balnakeil Church, having arrived mid-afternoon during August.
Winter is obviously much colder and with fewer daylight hours. But, it’s not unusual for there to be a sprinkling of snow at Balnakeil Bay. Certainly, the white-covered dunes merging with the turquoise bay leaves Balnakeil Beach looking quite enchanting.
It’s always good to know what weather to expect when visiting Scotland and touring the NC500. You can check the MET weather forecast for Balnakeil Bay and other Durness beaches here.
Other NC500 Beaches Close To Balnakeil Bay
- Sango Sands: sea stacks and golden sands at this awesome Durness beach.
- Clachtoll Beach: one of our favourite beaches on the NC500.
- Achmelvich Beach: a very popular NC500 beach that is perfect for sunset and watersport lovers.
- Melvich Beach (guide coming soon): another golden sand beach close to Thurso.
- Ceannabeinne Beach: where you’ll find the Golden Eagle Zipline, the most northerly zipline in the UK!
- Oldshoremore Beach: a beautiful beach of grassy sand dunes and toasted golden sand.
Where To Stay At Balnakeil Bay
Given the splendid location of Balnakeil Beach on the Faraid Head Peninsula, it’s a popular overnight stop along the NC500. Below, we’ll take a look at the best budget, mid-range and luxury accommodation options in the Balnakeil Bay area, before looking at Balnakeil Beach camping options.
- Budget – Durness Youth Hostel: east of Durness and close to Balnakeil Beach is the Durness Youth Hostel. You can opt for a shared dorm room or a family room, and enjoy a continental breakfast and sea views from the garden.
- Mid-range – Wallaby’s: the beautiful Wallaby’s apartment in Durness has three bedrooms, two bathrooms and includes free private parking. A real home away from home vibe here and is perfect for exploring Balnakeil Bay and its church ruins.
- Luxury – Balnakeil House: stay in the historic Balnakeil House on the very beachfront. This is the ultimate holiday home experience for up to 17 people. Balnakeil House has been lovingly restored and renovated to give guests an authentic yet luxurious break.
Balnakeil Beach Camping
The closest campsite to Balnakeil Beach is Sango Sands Oasis Campsite at Sango Bay. Full campsite facilities are open from April to October. There’s limited use during the winter months. The campsite enjoys a stunning beachfront location and is a fantastic base from which to explore Balnakeil Beach, the church and the surrounding Sutherland area of the Scottish Highlands. But, given its popular location, Sango Sands Oasis does fill up quickly. So, if you’re after an electric pitch, you’ll need to book in advance. For those not needing electricity, no booking is required, as the campsite works on a first come first served basis. Caravans, campers and tents are all welcome.
As far as we’re aware, it’s possible to wild camp on Balnakeil Beach. However, a rise in litter and toilet waste has put beauty spots like Balnakeil Bay under pressure to ban wild camping. I mean, no one wants to find a human poo whilst wandering the Balnakeil Church ruins, do they? (Yes, that happened [no, not to us]). So, be sure to adhere to the wild camping code of conduct to keep this fabulous camping spot open. You can read more information on wild camping in Scotland here.
Balnakeil Beach Bothy
For a super special stay at Balnakeil Beach, you might consider a stay at the Balnakeil Bothy. But, this isn’t your usual bothy. Oh no. The little stone cottage overlooking Balnakeil Bay and Kyle of Durness is fully equipped for a simple and relaxed stay in relative solitude.
Travel Insurance For the NC500
Whether you’re from the UK or further afield, travel insurance is a necessary evil, especially if taking on a road trip like the NC500.
SafetyWing is an excellent budget-friendly travel insurance provider. Personally, Dan and I have used SafetyWing’s Nomad Insurance many times to insure our trips. The Nomad Insurance is fantastic value for money with a smaller additional cost to add a partner. Unlike most other insurance companies, there’s an option to pay on a monthly basis, similar to having a prepaid phone plan. Better yet, there’s no lock-in contract. In addition, you can cancel at any time, which will take effect the month after.
For shorter trips, it’s also possible to use Nomad Insurance for trips lasting just days or just 2–3 weeks. Indeed, SafetyWing is cheaper than almost all other travel insurance policies and covers just as much and sometimes more.
SafetyWing is a modern travel insurance company that is certainly leading the way in terms of how travel insurance should work in the future.
Travel Essentials For Balnakeil Beach
These are our travel essentials for visiting Balnakeil Bay on the Faraid Head Peninsula in Scotland. For a more extensive travel and hiking gear list, check out our 66 Travel Accessories That You Must Travel With. Alternatively, for a general summary of everything you’d need for a trip to Scotland and the North Coast 500, visit our Ultimate Packing Checklist.
- The North Face Venture Jacket: a fantastic windproof/waterproof jacket, because you know, this is still Scotland after all.
- Osprey Skarab 30L Day Backpack: a great backpack for day trips, which has plenty of space to store your gear.
- The North Face TKA Glacier Fleece Jacket: an excellent warmth:weight ratio fleece jacket that’ll help keep you warm when the sun drops and you want to enjoy a sunset.
- Columbia Convertible Trousers: a value for money pair of water-resistant convertible trousers.
You should also pack water, snacks and sunscreen. Oh, and don’t forget towels and swimmers if you’re feeling brave enough to take a dip in the Kyle of Durness.
- NC500 supplies: nearby Durness is a small village, but you can stock up on food at the general store in town as well as refuel your vehicle at the petrol station.
- For the golfers: Durness boasts one of the most beautifully located golf courses in the UK, not to mention the most northerly. So, if you’re a keen golfer, you might want to add an additional day to your NC500 itinerary to swing the irons with the beautiful Kyle of Durness as a stunning backdrop.
- Explore Cape Wrath: take the ferry across the Kyle of Durness and explore the northwesternmost corner of the UK mainland, Cape Wrath.
- Other NC500 beaches worth exploring: check out Brora Beach, Camusdarach Beach and Nairn Beach.
- Stress-free NC500: to have the hassle taken out of some of your NC500 trip planning, GetYourGuide offers some pretty spectacular tours around Durness, including surf lessons at Balnakeil Beach.
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