The North Coast 500, Scotland’s answer to Route 66, is one of the most well-known ways to tour the highlands by car, incorporating over five hundred miles of beaches, mountains, lochs and ocean into one trip of a lifetime.
This trip begins in the city of Inverness and takes you north to some of the most northerly points of mainland Britain and back down again. This seven-day itinerary is designed to be your ultimate guide to the NC500, helping you to see all of the essential parts of this coastal route and tailor the experience to you.
Things to know before you go on North Coast 500
It’s important to plan your NC500 trip in advance for the benefit of Scotland’s landscapes and residents. The land around the north coast is very well preserved and it is important that it remains this way. In order to do this, ensure that you dispose of litter and waste in the appropriate way and follow the Scottish Outdoor Access Code to ensure that the landscape is undamaged when you leave it.
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Here are some tips and things to think about while planning your trip:
Camping as Accommodation
Camping is an excellent form of accommodation to consider while doing the NC500. The route is a popular one, so hotels, hostels and B&Bs tend to book out very quickly and far in advance. This makes camping an ideal way to do the route if you haven’t planned as far in advance.
This is also a very economical way to travel, as campsites tend to be very affordable in Scotland, with wild camping as an option too.
The road leading up to the infamous Bealach na Ba road reads “not advised for learner drivers”, and while this is a particularly tricky road, the advice can be applied to a large portion of the roads on the NC500.
Many of the roads are narrow, winding and single-track roads with sharp bends and a lot of wildlife nearby, so it is best to have an experienced driver behind the wheel for the duration of the trip.
Book in Advance
As soon as you know the dates you are doing the route, book your accommodation. Every single year the North Coast 500 gets more and more popular, and even more people are considering it in 2020 due to foreign travel restrictions being tighter.
It is important to remember that everyone follows a very similar route with a lot of the same stops and destinations, therefore the accommodation on the route is booked out entirely well before the summer months begin; July’s slots normally book out around January time.
The good news is that there are over 600 accommodation options on the route, so if you’re organised then the choice will be all yours!
Like any popular tourist attraction, it has times where it is busier than others, so if you really do want your pick of accommodation and a quieter experience at popular tourist attractions then it is certainly wise to consider doing the route at an off-peak time.
Historically, the route has been busiest in June, July and August as these are the months where the weather is best and where British schools are on summer break. If you are looking for a balance between weather and quieter seasons, then May and September are great options to go for.
Day 1 – Inverness – Dornoch
58 min drive
Before you leave Inverness and begin on this road trip, you may wish to see a few of the sights before you hit the road. The trip will also be taking you back to Inverness at the end so you can also choose whether you would like to see the city now or then.
Whatever you decide to do, it is certainly worth your time to see the sights in and around the city, such as the castle and museum, or, only a short drive away, Loch Ness, Cawdor Castle and Culloden battlefield! It is certainly worth spending an entire day ticking off what you would like to see here.
Once you have left Inverness, you are only a short hours drive from the town of Dornoch, a small seaside resort located in the county of Sutherland near where the Dornoch Firth opens into the Moray Firth. It is no surprise that this town is so well known for its beach, with long stretching golden sands and clear shallow waters making it perfect for a long stroll or a family day out on a summer day.
If it’s walks and exploration that you’re looking for, on the other hand, then why not try out the Falls of Shin walk? Follow the road that takes you through Achany Glen all the way to a beautiful forest clearing, from which you can take all sorts of trails through woods and hills perfectly suited to walkers of all different abilities. This is also a great walk to take with children, as there are plenty of easy-going routes and an abundance of natural playgrounds for them to enjoy!
Following the outdoor theme here, Dornoch also offers an excellent opportunity for spotting different kinds of local wildlife, both on the land and in the sea, such as ospreys, red deer, sea birds, seals, dolphins and ducks, which can all be located around the coastal areas. The landscape in and around Dornoch has been preserved well and therefore provides a great home for a whole host of species that aren’t common in many parts of Scotland.
Day 2 – Dornoch – Wick
1 hr 26 min drive
Hopefully, Dornoch was the perfect taste of what the North Coast 500 has in store for you and that you are ready for your second journey along the North Coast. Today’s drive is not a long one, coming in at only around an hour and a half, but there are still plenty of stops that you can make along the way.
Main attractions on the road:
This loch is one of Scotland’s National Nature Reserves and exhibits a huge amount of animal and plant life to be observed, including otters, seals, wildfowl, sea birds, orchids and butterflies.
Due to the fact that the loch is a tidal basin, the landscape surrounding it is comprised of sand dunes, mudflats and pinewoods which prove to be a wonderful combination, particularly for those who enjoy bird watching and examining local plants. There are plenty of excellent local walks to be done around the loch to experience these things.
If you are looking to learn more about the history of the highlands, then Golspie is a great place to stop off and take some time to learn about the highland clearances through their statue of the First Duke of Sutherland erected in 1837.
The Duke is known for having a controversial role in the clearances and thus is a good place to gain some more knowledge of the effects that the clearances had on the people of the Highlands.
You simply cannot miss this castle while driving the road up north; it is a towering castle that resembles something out of a fairytale, with its towering turrets and spires and bright white appearance.
It is the largest of the Highlands castles, sporting an impressive one hundred and eighty-nine rooms, and was inhabited from the 1300s to the 1800s by various royals. After this, it was used as a naval hospital during the First World War, and a boys’ boarding school during the 1960s and 70s.
The castle is open from April to October every year, meaning that you can even go in and have a look at its splendour inside. It is truly difficult not to feel like a royal while roaming these stunning halls.
Furthering your education on the highland clearances (for all you History buffs out there), Helmsdale is one of the more modern highland villages, as it was formed as a place to resettle members of the communities who had been removed from surrounding areas as a result of the clearances.
The town has now developed its very own character and has many attractions besides its rich and interesting history. One of the main attractions in this picturesque harbour village is salmon and herring fishing, which is how it originally prospered in the 19th century.
Now that you’ve broken up your drive suitably, it’s time to get back on the road for that final stretch until you arrive at your final destination of the day, the historical town of Wick.
This is where you will be staying for the night, meaning that alongside the sights that you can see when you arrive in Wick, you can also check out the restaurants and pubs situated in the centre of the town, to experience the atmosphere alongside the locals.
If Scotland’s world-famous Scotch is something that you are dying to try on your tour, then why not make the most of Wick’s very own Old Pulteney Distillery, which is open to the public for a variety of tours and tastings, so you can experience the popular drink the way it was supposed to be tasted!
Day 3 – Wick – Durness via John O’ Groats
Caithness and Sutherland
2hrs 28 min drive
This now concludes the western coast of the NC500, bringing you on to exploring the most northern parts of mainland Scotland. Today sees you entering the North West Highlands Geopark, which holds a specific interest in terms of its geological features and also brings many a tourist due to its unrivalled beauty.
The next drive is the longest of the entire trip, coming in at nearly two and a half hours, but the good news is that you can break it up with one of the most popular stops on the North Coast 500, and the furthest northern settlement on mainland Britain, the world-famous John O’ Groats.
This drive will pose plenty of opportunities to see stunning scenery, more wildlife and some of Scotland’s best-hidden gem beaches.
This drive will also see the driver encountering the first single-track roads of the trip, so it may be best to research some driving guides beforehand so that you feel more confident with how to drive on these types of roads.
John O’ Groats
This destination made its name in the world when it was incorporated into the ‘End to End’ route which connects the two farthest points of Great Britain (the other being Land’s End in Cornwall). Although it is not the most northerly point, it is the furthest northern settlement on Mainland Britain.
The settlement is a prime location for views out over the North Sea and onto Orkney. If you are visiting the village in the summer months then it is a great opportunity to take a sightseeing ferry and see what sea life you can spot!
The coastline in this part of the world is truly breathtaking and unlike anything that can be seen along the west and east coasts of Scotland, and the colourful houses sat neatly by the harbour really do look like something out of a movie! Those of you from more southern parts of the world may also be able to experience the Northern Lights from this part of the world, so keep your eye out for the times where you are most likely to see them!
As you continue on to Durness, there are plenty more stops you can make along the way – such as Dunnet, Thurso, Bettyhill and Tongue – all with their fair share of attractions and sights to see.
Your destination for the night, however, will be the village of Durness, which is known for its pristine turquoise waters resembling those in the south of mainland Europe.
The main attractions here are certainly the coastal ones, including Smoo Cave, a massive cavern easily reached down its well-maintained steps; Cape Wrath, a rocky coastal viewpoint where one can see sky and sea for miles ahead; or Balnakeil Beach, known specifically for its clear blue waters and peaceful stretches of golden sands.
Day 4 – Durness – Lochinver
1hr 24 mins drive
The drive from Durness to Lochinver is only around an hour and a half, but there is plenty to be seen along the way:
Scourie is a small crofting village with a picturesque harbour with a unique looking rocky bay stretching far into the north-west.
Upon exploring the south side of the bay one can expect to see views stretching far north up the bay for the best views of the rocky landscape. Ben Stack can also be seen from the right side of the bay, which is a popular site with tourists.
This is a great stop if you want to learn more about the North West Highland Geopark, as it has its very own exhibition room in the old Unapool schoolhouse.
There is plenty of visitor information here and a cafe where you can stop for a quick bite as well, and a small gift shop to give you the opportunity to support the Geopark! This can also give you some great ideas of other locations in the Geopark that you might want to visit on your travels.
Once you’ve stopped at some of the quieter villages on your way to Lochinver, you can complete your journey and arrive in one of the most important fishing ports in the Assynt area; that’s right, you’ve arrived at Lochinver!
There is so much to do in this stunning village, including pottery, hiking, cycling, fishing and walking – and don’t forget to stop off at the famous Lochinver Larder for one of their infamous pies.
The town is split into three parts – the harbour, the village and Baddidarrach, along the shore of Loch Inver. The village is where one can find a quaint high street with the main shops and services, including places to eat and drink. You can also visit the wonderful Assynt Visitor Centre, the free museum, and the Tourist information centre for more information on the local area.
Day 5 – Lochinver – Gairloch
2hrs 9mins drive
Making your way south down the west coast of Scotland, you are now making your way to the village of Gairloch, which will be your next destination. Another popular stop on the NC500 is Ullapool, and for a full day guide on what to do here, check out our Highland Itinerary Guide.
During this drive, your main attraction will certainly be the beaches – you are truly spoiled for choice! The favourite of tourists and locals alike, however, is without doubt Mellon Udrigle Beach in Wester Ross, known for its white sand and turquoise waters that are just perfect for swimming in during the summer months.
Gairloch itself, the destination of this drive, is like a concentrated version of the Scottish highlands due to the fact that it can offer you a little bit of everything that the highlands. It is a small village that spreads along the coastline, which has both beaches and rocky expanses. It also offers islands, lochs and mountain views – it truly is like miniature highlands!
Rather than being a once concentrated settlement, Gairloch actually has a few separate points within it that are worth visiting. If it is Gairloch’s harbour that you are looking for then Charlestown is where you’re headed, but you can also head toward the golf club to the stunning beach, known for its sunset views.
Driving north by Loch Gairloch then brings you to Strath which leads into Smithtown which is the commercial centre of Gairloch where you can find shops, inns and a hotel complete with a campsite which looks over the coast. The views from all over Gairloch are what it is most known for, with its stunning shore and views over the Loch where it meets the sea.
Day 6 – Gairloch – Beauly
1hr 23mins drive
We are now coming to the end of the trip and travelling to the thriving village of Beauly, nearly back to where we started the trip in Inverness.
Although you are only a twenty-minute drive away from Inverness now, Beauly is still a great place to stay for the night as it offers a whole range of things to do and a change of scene from the busy city. We have had a share of difficult hikes on this trip and now reside in a location better suited to gentle walks around the River Beauly and the village.
If you happen to be in the village on a Thursday evening, why not head over to the main square to hear Beauly’s own Pipe Band which plays there each week during the summer, providing an excellent atmosphere.
If you don’t happen to catch the band, however, then not to worry – the square is still the centre of activity in Beauly and there is still plenty to see and do around the area. There are many shops around the square as well as restaurants and pubs making it the perfect way to round off your NC500 trip – with a good meal and a drink!
Day 7 – Beauly – Inverness
26 mins drive
The route back to Inverness follows the southern shore of the Beauly Firth making it a very pleasant drive.
How long does it take to drive the route?
The standard advice from those who have travelled the route is that you take at least five days to travel the NC500 route, with between seven and ten days being the optimum period of time. If you have less than five days then it is wise to focus on only part of the route or on perhaps two regions within the route.
If you take more time to do the route, then you will simply be able to see more and spend more time in each place. It is really up to you how long to choose to complete it in. There is no shortage of places to see in the Highlands, and therefore it could be done over a much longer period of time, even incorporating some of the islands into the trip too.
Is the route suitable for a caravan/motorhome?
For the majority of the route, travelling in a motorhome or with a caravan will be fine. However, the Bealach Na Ba stretch would not be suitable for a large motorhome or caravan, as it has a lot of steep hills and sharp bends, so if you are travelling with such a vehicle then it is recommended that you take the slip road up at the A896 instead for a safer journey.
It is also recommended that you avoid the B869 from Lochinver to Kylesku in such a vehicle as
this can also be difficult for large vehicles; instead, travel the A837 main road to be safe.
How many miles is it?
The route takes its name ‘NC500’ from the number of miles (roughly) that the drive is – it is 516 miles to be exact.
This translates into 830.4km
Where does the route officially start and finish?
Officially the NC500 starts and ends exactly at Inverness castle, but more generally the route should take you in a loop around the Highlands and take you back to Inverness at the end.
Does it matter which way round I go?
This route takes you north on the east coast, and south on the west coast, but it is completely up to you which way round you choose to go. Whether you go east or west, the route remains the same.
Hi, I'm Kat, an Australian that moved to London in 2013 to start a new adventure. What a roller-coaster that was! I love helping others move to the UK and people explore the world! I’d be honoured if you’d say, “Thanks!” with a £3 coffee on Ko-fi.