If you want to experience rugged mountains and beautiful coastlines, taste freshly caught seafood and sample locally brewed beer or even a whiskey or two then the North Coast 500 is the road trip for you. Nothing encompasses more of what Scotland beholds and how beautiful it can be than this 500 mile trip through the Scottish Highlands and is now the one thing I recommend to foreigners and Scots alike when they say they want to see more of Scotland.
There is however a severe lack of information on the NC500 aside from the actual website itself which actually requires you to pay a membership fee to be able to access the itineraries and info section. So I’ve made this handy guide to fix all that and get you on your way to planning the greatest road trip ever.
Also If you want more of a visual guide to the NC500 go on over to our YouTube channel we filmed the full trip.
When to Go
Scotland’s weather is unpredictable at the best of times but I wouldn’t recommend doing the trip during the winter months of November-February when you will freeze and probably not enjoy it as much. We did it in August and were lucky we had lovely weather with only two spells of rain. Scottish summer is still wet so bring a variety of clothing especially a waterproof jacket and lots of layers!
How Long do You Need?
Give yourself at least 5 days to really enjoy it and take it all in, the last thing you want is to rush it all and not appreciate the beauty of the Highlands. However you could also really stretch this out and stop at more places and spend more time there so I would say 10 days max.
How to Do It
The NC500 is a road trip so obviously you’re going to need some sort of vehicle to do it in. We took the car and camped at campsites most nights however you can wild camp too. We love camping so this was a good way to do it for us, however I’d like to go back and do it in a camper van. We seen tonnes of camper vans on the road and you can book them easily online now with collection and drop-offs nearby the starting point of Inverness. One thing I will say is that some of the campers were really big and the roads are so narrow it can be very difficult to manoeuvre the vans on some parts of the roads, something I don’t think I’d be comfortable with. Read this post on Things you should know before taking on the NC500 here.
Best Things to See & Do
You can get official NC500 maps along the way from petrol stations and visitors centres and on the map there will be things marked that you can stop at for instance castles and distilleries. Here were our favourite things we did.
- Tour the Black Isle brewery – amazing small batch beer which you get to taste and a full tour of their small idyllic distillery nestled in the beautiful Black Isle countryside see there website here.
- Corrieshalloch Gorge – Get your heart racing as you stand and witness this impressive, vertigo-inducing 200ft deep Gorge.
- Gairloch – My favourite little town we stopped at, don’t forget to pay a visit to Hillbillies bookshop and grab a coffee.
- Durness Beach – One of Scotlands most beautiful beaches ever, it completely blew us away.
- Dunrobin Castle – Looks like Hogwarts. Enough said.
- Sinclair and Girnigoe Castle – Real life 18th century Castle ruins that are really well preserved and situated right on a cliff face that drops down to the sea, magical.
- Smoo Cave – For the adventurous you can take a tour and see the underground waterfall and even try your hand at caving, see website for details on tours.
- John O’Groats – A North Coast road trip isn’t complete without stopping off at the UK’s most Northernly town, we seen a phenomenal sunset here too.
However some of the things on the map are NOT worth stopping at including some of the so called ‘castle ruins’ that looked more like a pile of rubble.
- Hill o’many stanes
- Old Wick Castle
This is the route that we did when we did the NC500. You can choose to stop wherever you see fit and I would always recommend just stopping in little places that you stumble upon. I will mention that we found the way up on the North West Coast to be the most picturesque and had the most things to stop at.
Day 1 – Inverness to Torridon (2 hours)
Leave Inverness in the morning to drive across country to the start of the North Coast but not without a quick detour to the Black Isle Brewery to taste some fine beer. Traverse the notorious winding and steep Bealach na Bà Road which leads you to the small village of Applecross where you can stop for lunch. However if the weather is bad (fog, heavy rain etc) and you don’t feel comfortable then you can avoid that way and miss out Applecross, this will cut a significant amount of time out the journey. We camped in Torridon near the beautiful Loch Torridon surrounded by the Torridon Hills.
Day 2 – Torridon to Gairloch (1 hour)
Not much driving today but a chance to relax and enjoy the beauty of the trip. Stop at Kinlochewe to refill fuel and have a coffee and a scone at the cute Whistle Stop Cafe. A short drive up from here you’ll find Victoria Falls a nice waterfall with a viewpoint. Set up camp in Gairloch for the night where you can spot dolphins and whales dependent on the tie of year. Pay a visit to Hillbillies Bookshop for a gander and a coffee.
Day 3 – Gairloch to Scourie (2.5 hours)
On the way from Gairloch to Ullapool, stop at Corrieshalloch Gorge, an impressively steep drop that will leave you breathless. Then stop at Ullapool for lunch and eat at The Seafood Shack. From Ullapool stop at Ardvreck Castle ruins, snap a few photos and drive all the way up to Scourie and the campsite is right on the beach with beautiful views of Scourie Bay.
Day 4 – Scourie to John O’groats (3 hours)
As you come up the coast to the top you come into civilisation again, fuel stops aren’t few and far between and there are more shops. Not far from Scourie is the beautiful Durness beach that you just HAVE to stop at. A couple minutes out of Durness you will find Smoo Cave, where you can take a tour and do some caving. We stopped at Thurso for a late lunch but didn’t stay long as we didn’t like it. Drive all the way up to Scotlands most Northernly town John O’groats and stay the night.
Day 5 – John O’groats to Inverness (3 hours)
You could choose to spend a bit longer in John O’groats but theres not a whole lot to do so we got up early to head back to Inverness. On the way we stopped at Sinclair and Girnigoe Castle which is worth a visit and also Dunrobin Castle which is actually beautiful and you can go inside etc. You could also visit Loch Ness and try to spot Nessie on the way back also.
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