North Coast 500 spoiler alert. This Scot has a secret to share. I do not mean to alarm or upset but Scotland has been hiding something from you. Its north coast has always been there; the turquoise beaches, the fresh fish from line to lips and the friendly locals looking to share a sing song with you are not new but they definitely are unique and thanks to a strong (yet increasingly controversial) marketing strategy, the secret is out and Scotland’s North Coast 500 itinerary is on the map. The North Coast itinerary is now followed by drivers, cyclists, locals and visitors ticking over the 500 miles of ‘Scotland’s Route 66’ (the popular adventure, with four season in one day) heading west from Inverness to the top of Scotland’s mainland, John O’Groats, and back down the east coast (or in reverse). This thorough and free NC500 route planner will get you on the road in no time.
Craig and I (Gemma) made a wise (last minute) decision this July to stay in the homeland and explore what the North Coast 500 has to offer. I am not a last minute kind of girl, so cue frantic planning of potential route 500 options which you can now adapt to meet your own travelling style and needs. Don’t be me, be cool. If you have time – plan ahead, go off the path, be flexible but mindful that the North Coast 500 has blown up over the past year and accommodation books up fast in the summer months (check out our NC500 accommodation guide). Oh and word of warning; the further north you go, the stronger the accent gets and the later into the night you drink with the locals, the harder it is to interpret! Ps. We have no affiliation with NC500 at this time – this was an independent trip, all opinions are our own.
North Coast 500 Scotland – how many days?
One of the most frequent questions I’m asked is – how long does it take to drive 500 miles? The length of time you spend taking in the sights of this Scottish Highlands road trip really depends on how many days you want to spend in each location, the types of activities you would like to do while on Scotland’s North Coast 500 (hiking, boat tours, whisky?) and quite possibly the availability of accommodation. We met visitors who zoomed around the route in two days; while Visit Scotland suggests up to two weeks. Do tell us how long you decide to take and why in the comments below. If you like to hike, don’t miss the West Highland Way challenge on your next trip to Scotland – 96 miles from Milngavie to Fort William!
North Coast 500 itinerary
There is no strict North Coast 500 route – where you stop, stay and play is entirely up to you but here is a flavour of the villages and activities we think make up the best North Coast 500 places to visit. We had 2.5 days of glorious sunshine then the dark skies took over. Be sure to pack a good quality waterproof (like my Marmot Precip, lightweight and folds into its own pocket, I love it)!
Inverness to Shieldaig, Torridon (99 miles)
Inverness is the gateway to the Scottish Highlands! Visitors can check out the first of many castles on the North Coast 500 – Urquhart Castle. You may also want to hop aboard the 88ft version of the Titanic or have a tot of whisky and a dance at Hootenanny . If you want to get on the water before the road, Loch Ness boat tours are also available from Inverness. Culloden Battlefield is also close by (although veering to the east); stand on the ground of the last Jacobite rebellion in 1746.
Bealach ‘na Ba, Wester Ross (yes Game of Thrones fans!)
From Inverness, we started our journey to the infamous Bealach ‘na Ba (pronounced Bell-ach-na-baa) in Wester Ross. At the start of the Bealach ‘na Ba (Scottish Gaelic for Pass of the Cattle), there is a sign that warns new drivers not to attempt it! Like many of the NC500 roads, the Bealach ‘na Ba is an A road also known as a single track road (only one lane for going and coming). If you are the passenger and have the confidence to take your eyes off the hairpin bends, check out the scenery! Don’t be surprised to see cyclists pedalling away or campervans trying to get by. Our Scottish A roads have areas by the side of the road called ‘passing places’ – it’s customary to pull in and let someone by. Please do remember that this road is everyday use for locals, not just a challenge for holidaymakers.
Everyone raves about the beauty of Applecross and rightly so. Although remote, Applecross village is visited by many tourists and on a dry day they flock to the seated area outside of The Applecross Inn, which is a popular dinner stop (food served 12-9pm) for those who love game meat and fish. Check out our guide on Scottish food, haggis is not a furry animal that runs about the hills! At the Inn I tried langoustine for the first time, while Craig struggled to eat (picky eater). I hope you are ready for delicious fresh fish on this Scotland road trip. Applecross is home to one of the North Coast 500 campsites (you have to reserve your spot, see our NC500 camping article). Do not camp without purchasing Smidge or Avon So Soft as the midges are out in force from May until September in Applecross. Sands beach is approximately 4 miles from the Applecross.
Our final stop for the day was Shieldaig, Torridon. This small village is postcard perfect. We stayed at the top of the hill with views of Shieldaig Island on tap. There is a campsite located here which I would consider in future. We dined on a shared stone baked pizza from the local pub and a few drinks to end day one of our Scotland road trip.
Shieldaig to Ullapool (123 miles)
Although the village of Shieldaig is sublime, you’ll be thankful to leave because next up is the experience of driving through the mountains of Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve. No, you’ve not taken a wrong turn into New Zealand or Canada – this is Scotland!
Gairloch is a small village with a couple of sandy beaches (Big Sand and Red Point) and another couple of coffee shops. Gairloch is home to one of the most scenic golf courses in the country (world), good luck focusing on your swing with views of the Isle of Skye ahead. There are also boat tours in Gairloch for those looking to try to catch a glimpse of minke, humpback or killer whales.
NC500 Scotland Beaches
From Gairloch to Ullapool you are spoiled for beaches on the NC500. Mellon Udrigle Beach (Wester Ross) is the first of that white sand and turquoise waters that legends talk of and I can confirm, it is no myth, they do exist. Mellon Udrigle has a campsite which practically has you unzipping your tent on the beach, it’s that close. Bring a picnic and your camera (and kayak?)
Gruinard Bay (Ross and Cromarty) is slightly redder toned and larger. Both beaches have car parks close to the entrance point. Gruinard Bay requires a short walk downhill.
Ullapool – the big village in Ross-shire
Ullapool is the biggest village on the west coast of the North Coast 500, 1500 inhabitants call this place home and many of them have not so hidden talents. Ullapool is a mecca for music lovers, especially those on the ‘trad scene’ (like my good friend Kim, you can see/hear her sing here!) There is always some form of performance, planned or not, kicking off at The Ceilidh Place, The Arch Inn or the Argyll Hotel. Ullapool is also home to the Stac Pollaidh for visitors hoping to do a self-guided North Coast 500 hike. This easy hill walk takes approximately two hours and the views from the top are now amongst my favourite in Scotland. Car park spaces are available at the bottom of Stac Pollaidh, please keep to the designated hike trail for your safety.
Ullapool – Kylesku Bridge (109 miles)
Ardvreck Castle, Loch Assynt
Within a short drive from Ullapool, you will reach the ruins of Ardvreck Castle and Calda House on the banks of Loch Assynt. This 15th-century castle was once home to the Macleod Clan then taken over by Mackenzies who then lost the three-story Castle to the Crown. Calda House, which is closer to the road, was the modern home built by the Mackenzies.
Did you know that you can stay in castles on the NC500.
They are surprisingly not too ridiculously priced – check out this post for details.
Lochinver on the Route 500
The main reason people visit Lochinver is to purchase a pie from the Lochinver Larder. These pies come in sweet and savoury fillings, can be eaten in (£8.45 with salad/£14.35 as a main) or out (£5.35-5.55) or even posted home. Craig, the pie connoisseur feels that Lochinver pies are overpriced thus leaving a bad taste in his mouth. The NC500 trip is not cheap; expect a 1/3 mark up on food and on central belt prices. Check out what we spent via our NC500 budget below.
B869 – it’s incredible
Wow, this road (or loop for us) is special and well worth taking the time to drive along the coast. This area feels like Star Trek has beamed you up (Scotty) and you’ve landed on the lunar surface.
The surrounding hills swallow you whole but your escape is possible if you head for the water. Yes! More of those Highland beaches (Achmelvich Beach and Clachtoll Beach) are tucked away amongst the winding roads and engulfing hills. Experienced hikers may want to consider the striking Suilven Mountain in the Inverpolly National Nature Reserve which is close to Lochinver.
Personally, I felt that this part of our NC500 itinerary covered plenty for one day. However, we headed to Kylesku Hotel for a coffee, food comes recommended by others but the kitchen was closed so we could not sample it.
Kylesku Bridge is built over the Loch a’ Chàirn Bhàin, replacing the ferry service in the 1980s. This is only my opinion but I wouldn’t go out of my way to visit the Kylesku area, you can blame the outrageously overwhelming beauty of the B869 for this advice! On night three, we actually returned to Ullapool as we struggled to find accommodation available on the route to Durness. However, you may want to consider the options detailed in our North Coast accommodation guide.
(Ullapool or) Kylesku Bridge – Durness (42 miles)
Leaving Ullapool (again) head north to Cape Wrath, leave early (and be flexible) if you plan to take the ferry ride over the Kyle of Durness and then the bus to the most northern westerly lighthouse on the mainland. Ferry times vary depending on the time of year, and weather throughout the day. There was no afternoon ferry when we arrived. Check the Cape Wrath website for details. The trip lasts three hours and there are no toilet facilities so be prepared before you leave (closest facilities in Durness). Did you know that the MOD own a large part of Cape Wrath and use it for training? Craig’s Dad is an ex MOD diver and has spent a fair bit of time in the waters up here!
As you drive up the northwest you will see this massive stretch of white sand poking out in the distance. On approach you will discover that Balnakeil Beach is different to the others; it has sand dunes layered up at the back of it with cows grazing on any spare grass!
Durness is known for two things – Smoo cave and Chocolate Mountain. Smoo Cave is free to enter and open every day of the year. It costs £5 to take the small boat ride deeper into the cave where the tour guides tell you about their successful discoveries and scary encounters (May-September). Wear closed toe footwear.
To get to Smoo Cave, drive past the tourist information centre and park at the YMCA hostel or the cave car park (can get busy). Walk down the pathway to the beach and cave entry.
Chocolate Mountain is tucked away in Durness’s Balnakeil Craft Village and sells ‘the world’s best chocolate’ and truffles at tourist prices. The village is also home to the John Lennon Memorial Garden, the Beatles singer used to holiday in Durness with his family as a kid and visited again with his own. Beatles fan? Our trip to Liverpool article is coming soon!
Durness has one of the most beautiful campsites I’ve seen but if windy there is limited coverage. The site has a restaurant/pub at the side of it (was closed until 18:30 when we visited).
Addition: Handa Island
Tarbet of the northwest (not to be confused with Tarbert on the west coast near Oban) is the gateway to Handa Island where you can do a spot of Puffin watching (we ran out of time, let us know how it goes). Tarbert is reached after Unapool (near Kylesku) and Scourie but before Cape Wrath and Durness.
Durness – John o’ Groats (90 miles)
The northernmost town of the Scottish mainland, Thurso, is known for its surf! Yes, surfing in Scotland. Thurso East is located at the mouth of the Thurso River and has hosted surf competitions. Move over Gold Coast * waves *, the east coast is in town. Naturally we don’t get the sun like Australia so dress accordingly (suits not shorts). For more on what to pack – read out NC500 packing list.
Dunnet Head (Caithness)/John o’ Groats
At Dunnet Head, you’ve reached the ‘end of the road’ – the most northern tip of mainland Scotland! Visitors can take the scenic coastal path from John o’ Groats to Duncansby Head (reminds me of the Isle of Skye) and the Stacks of Duncansby. Alight at John O’Groats for a sidestep to Orkney or just take a picture of that famous white sign and hit the road again. Next stop…
John o’ Groats – Inverness (119 miles)
NC 500 itinerary – Castles!
Distilleries on the North Coast 500
The water of life, whisky, plays such a large part of Scottish culture and tourism. For those who like a dram and/or a wee story during their holiday should check out one of the many whisky distilleries dotted around the east coast of the NC500 such as Dunnet Bay Distillery (Dunnet near John o’ Groats), the Balblair Distillery or Glenmorangie (close to Tain), Dalmore Distillery, GlenWyvis, and Glen Ord Distillery (near Dingwall). If you are limited on time and whisky sampling is your goal, I would suggest heading east first! There is a zero tolerance for drink driving in Scotland. This means that the ‘day after’ is just a big of an issue as the night before. Please ensure you have a designated driver or dip into the distilleries with a pre-arranged bus/driver tour. If whisky wets your whistle you want to head west to the Isle of Islay and pay homage to her eleven distilleries (best make it a long weekend trip).
The Black Isle
Although not officially inclusive of your 500 miles, if you have the time I recommend swinging by the village, Cromarty, so quaint and full of friendly people. I’m drinking out of my ‘I love Cromarty’ mug as I type.
Hey Outlander fans! You can tour the locations of the hit series, read more here
500 (ish) miles later your NC500 tour is over, get out of the car and consider bagging one of our many Munros to stretch out the legs.
GPS, mapping and not killing each other
We trialled using Google Maps to guide us through the NC500 and with a bit of planning it worked well. For the most part, your 3/4G will not work (write out/screenshot accommodation addresses and telephone numbers), when in WiFi and the areas you would like to visit using the directions function of Maps, hit the three dots and select ‘add the route to home screen’. Before you leave your accommodation, start the directions; you can’t do this out of WiFi/4G. The blue dot will become your best friend. We could not add Cape Wrath or Balnakeil Beach to our North Coast 500 map. It is against the law to use your mobile/cell phone while driving in the UK and the roads you are navigating are going to be tough at times so I would recommend a phone holder attached to your dashboard like this one. It has a magnetic part you place in between your phone and cover which keeps the phone neatly attached to the holder. You can also download this freeNC500 map. Wheelchair users, you may find this guide useful.
Dig deep Scotland lovers; this can be an expensive ride!
- Accommodation: £68 average p/n on the NC500 + our last night was £84 in Killin (we were heading for the Harry Potter train in Fort William!)
- Food: £48 (for 2) p/d (to put this into perspective, we used to live off this when travelling around the Americas and Europe)
- Trips: £5 Smoo Cave
- Petrol: £143, approximately 3 tanks (from Fife to NC500 to Fife –> check out our guide to The Kingdom)
Naturally you could do this cheaper by opting for the youth hostels and campsites on the NC500 or you could go all out and stay in castles. Our accommodation guide will has options for every budget.
This was an independent trip. This means we were not hosted by Visit Scotland, regional tourist boards, hotels or any tours. If you are a business and would like to advertise with Two Scots Abroad please contact us.
Driving in Scotland
We drive on the left in the UK, which I’m sure you are aware of. It is more common for drivers in the UK to use manual (shift stick) cars however it is not uncommon to hire an automatic car. Unbelievably, there are no road signs indicating that you are on the North Coast 500 route, which baffles me since it is so heavily marketed. However there are the typical brown tourist information signs which indicate where tourists hotspots are. Remember to check your oil, water and air tyre levels before you leave each day. Petrol stations are available on the NC500, petrol is obviously more expensive than other areas of the country and it is wise to fill up whenever you see a station (some are manned, others are self-use machines like in Durness).
Hiring a Car
Car hire is available in the airports or cities. Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Inverness city and airports all have car rental pickups, Dundee city also has options. You will need your driving license and a credit card to hire a car in the UK. Here’s more advice on international car hire.
Going to Edinburgh? Check out our whopping guide to 70 things to do in the capital!
Camping around the NC500
The NC500 can be done on a budget thanks to hostels and campsites dotted around the route. Campsites on the NC500 post will be live soon. Please check out our information on the Highlands midges below before committing to the campsite. Read out guide here.
The best time to visit NC500?
Yes, it’s true; Scotland’s weather is temperamental. The spring to summer months of April to July enjoys more sunshine but the weather can change quickly to rain and the wind. The winter months of November to February are best to be avoided. The weather can have a great impact on Scotland’s infrastructure, A roads become more dangerous and ferries are prone to closure. Naturally, Scotland sees more daylight in the summer months where you can expect up to 17 hours, this drops to as low as 6 hours in winter so consider this when planning your Scotland NC500 trip. Then there are our local fiends, the midges.
What are midges?
Nicaragua has Mosquitos; the North Coast 500 has midges! Midges are small flying insects that nip the skin and leave a mark. These bites are often itchy, some people swell up in reaction to the bites (bizarrely I react like Quasimodo to mosquitos abroad but not midges in Scotland), others do not even notice them.
How do I avoid them?
You can’t, they are attracted to the C02 in your breath, so unless you stop breathing (I don’t suggest this option) you are most likely to meet one and then their pals along the way. After they recognise the CO2 they look for other things like odour, heat, movement, until they find your juicy skin. You can, however, avoid areas of high midge count like still and humid conditions at dusk (like you would with mosquitos). They don’t like the wind so although it may be ruining your holiday photos, it is keeping the mass midge party at bay. They hate hot summers, we don’t but they don’t happen often unfortunately although we cannot complain since we have that lush green landscape.
How can I repel midges?
The dark side of the North Coast 500
I was elated to see my home country gain so much attention through the North Coast 500 advertisement however not everyone is. Many locals feel that the infrastructure around the Highlands is not set up for this many family cars, sports cars and campervans. A park ranger we met in Ullapool showed disgust to the way that holidaymakers were treating the NC500 environment especially to those who are using the side of the road as a toilet (for a number two). They said that there is a greater need for facilities. So please be cautious that you are using the roads that locals use every day, treat nature with respect and use the flipping loos on your coffee stops.
Whether you are in browsing or in planning mode, I hope you’ve enjoyed our free North Coast 500 itinerary. During this trip we made it as far north as Durness then headed to Killin to meet family, moving on to Fort William for the Jacobite train ride to Mallaig (aka ‘the Harry Potter train’, a brutality honest review coming up soon). However, as east coasters ourselves (and Craig’s job a gas engineer taking him all over Scotland), we’re confident we’ve thrown in best bits of the east coast discovered on previous trips and believe that’s the beauty of the NC500 – there’s so much to see, whether you have two days or two weeks, you’ll be left wanting more so… haste ye back!
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