North Coast 500 Itinerary: Comprehensive, Honest & Free

North Coast 500 Itinerary Guide Scotland Achmelvich Beach

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Explore the 516 miles of Scottish Highlands for turquoise beaches, fresh fish from line to lips, and friendly locals looking to share a sing-song with you. Our extensive North Coast 500 itinerary reveals everything you need to know from routes, attractions, accommodation and tips.

Scotland’s Route 66 is a ring road, meaning you can start at Inverness and head west up to the top of Scotland’s mainland at John O’Groats, then down the east coast or vice versa; there are no rules to this free NC500 route planner!

Our NC500 Experience

Craig and I (Gemma) have road-tripped the North Coast 500 twice, once by car (last minute, don’t advise) and then by camper. Please feel free to adapt our Route 500 options to meet your travel style and needs, and check out our NC500 accommodation guide to book in advance, especially if visiting from May to September.

My Top Tip

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!

North Coast 500 Map

Before we start, let’s get our bearings on this Scotland driving route.

Inverness is the starting point at the red target, which you can see on the NC500 below.

North Coast 500 Itinerary Route

North Coast 500 Scotland – How Many Days?

One of the most frequent questions I’m asked is – how long it takes to drive 500 miles?

The length of time you spend taking in the sights of this Scottish Highlands road trip 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 VisitScotland suggest up to two weeks.

Tell us how long and why you decide to take in the comments below.

Man holiday Scotland flag at Stac Pollaidh Ullapool North Coast 500

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.

There’s also no right or wrong direction to drive it.

John o Groats signpost bright North Coast 500 Scotland_

Inverness to Shieldaig, Torridon (99 miles)

North Coast 500 Itinerary Inverness to Torridon

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 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, although veering to the east; stand on the ground of the last Jacobite rebellion in 1746.

In Inverness, you will find large superstores to purchase food, gas/petrol before you hit the road.

The route starts going over the Kessock Bridge on the A9.

Where to Stay in Inverness

Inverness city skyline, bridge, sea, NC500 route

Bealach ‘na Ba, Wester Ross. Yes, Game of Thrones Fans!

From Inverness, start your journey to the infamous Bealach ‘na Ba (pronounced Bell-ach-na-baa) in Wester Ross.

Before you take on the Bealach ‘na Ba, Scottish Gaelic for Pass of the Cattle, a sign warns new drivers not to attempt it!

Bealach na Bar Sign North Coast 500 Scotland_

Like many 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.

Car window Bealach na Ba Road Scotland Road trip

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 remember that this road is for everyday use for locals, not just a challenge for holidaymakers.

Bealach Na Ba NC500 Route


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, 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.

Langostine, Applecross Inn Scotland

Applecross is home to one of the North Coast 500 campsites; you must reserve your spot, see our NC500 camping article).

Do not camp without purchasing Avon Skin So Soft US / UK, as the midges are out in force from May until September in Applecross.

Sands beach is approximately 4 miles from the Applecross.

Applecross Inn Scotland, people sitting at lunch

Stunning Shieldaig

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 the 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 at sunset in Torridon | North Coast 500

Shieldaig to Ullapool (123 miles)

North Coast 500 Itinerary Route Torridon to Ullapool

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!

If you want a unique stay, Shieldaig Lodge Hotel is one of the few remaining traditional Highland shooting lodges open to the public.

Warm glow over Shieldaig North Coast 500


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 catch a glimpse of minke, humpback or killer whales.

One of the boat tours available is offered in a glass-bottom boat, so you can see what lurks beneath the shores!

Keep an eye out for Bob, the resident seal.

The Gairloch Hotel offers free parking and breakfast and is less than a 10-minute walk to the beach.

Myrtle Hotel is another popular choice in Gairloch.

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.

Bring a picnic, your camera, and a kayak?

Man skimming stones at Mellon Udrigle beach NC500

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.

Gruinard Bay, Scotland, sand, sea North Coast 500 NC 500

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 like my good friend Kim, especially those on the ‘trad scene’.

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, a place for visitors hoping to do a self-guided North Coast 500 hike.

Stac Pollaidh Ullapool | NC500 Route

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.

If you have ample time and fancy a sidestep to the Outer Hebrides, there are daily ferries to the Isle of Lewis (Stornoway) from Ullapool.

We visited Harris and Lewis recently; it is a special place.

Stac Pollaidh hill, Ullapool Scotland

Where to Stay

For more NC500 accommodation options, check out our guide here.

Ullapool, houses, sea, sky, mountain_

Ullapool – Kylesku Bridge (66 miles)

North Coast 500 Itinerary Route Ullapool to Kylesku Bridge

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 lost the three-story Castle to the Crown.

Calda House, closer to the road, was the modern home built by the Mackenzies.

Ardvrek Castle NC 500 Route 500

Lochinver on the Route 500

People visit Lochinver mainly to purchase a pie from the Lochinver Larder.

These pies come in sweet and savoury fillings and can be eaten in or out or posted at home.

The NC500 trip is not cheap; expect a 1/3 markup on food and central belt prices.

Check out what we spent via our NC500 budget below.

B869 – It’s Incredible

Wow, this road is unique and well worth taking the time to drive.

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 you can escape 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 close to Lochinver.

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

Kylesku Bridge is built over the Loch a’ Chàirn Bhàin, replacing the ferry service in the 1980s.

This is just my opinion, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to visit the Kylesku area; you can blame this advice on the outrageously overwhelming beauty of the B869

On night three, we returned to Ullapool, struggling to find accommodation 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)

North Coast 500 Itinerary Route on map Kylesku Bridge to Durness

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 bathroom facilities so be prepared before you leave—the closest facilities in Durness.

Did you know that the MOD owns a large part of Cape Wrath and uses it for training?

Craig’s Dad is an ex-MOD diver and has spent a fair bit of time in the waters up here!

Balnakeil Beach

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 from the others; it has sand dunes layered up at the back of it with cows grazing on any spare grass! 

Balnakeil Beach North Coast 500


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. 

Durness has one of the most beautiful campsites I’ve seen but if windy there is limited coverage.

The site has a restaurant/pub on the side of it, was closed until 18:30 when we visited.

Hot Chocolate, cup, plate, table, Chocolate Mountain North Coast 500 Durness_

Sidestep Trip: 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).

Tarbet is reached after Unapool (near Kylesku) and Scourie but before Cape Wrath and Durness.

Durness – John o’Groats (90 miles)

North Coast 500 Itinerary Route Durness - John o Groats

Borgie Glen

For a unique thing to do on the North Coast 500, visit Borgie Glen to meet The Unknown.

The sculpture by artist Kenny Hunter can be found on the Lonesome Pine Trail, a short 3/4 mile trail.

Thurso (Caithness)

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 our NC500 packing list.

Thurso North Coast 500 Scotland_

We stayed at the Thurso Camping and Caravan Park where we got a spot last minute.

The site facilities are basic, but the shower water is hot.

You can see Orkney from the campsite!

This private 2-bed apartment is ideal for couples or families. It has a sitting room and washing machine, which is great for this stage of the NC500 route.

Thurso Campsite Campervan North Coast 500 Scotland_

Dunnet Head (Caithness)/John o’ Groats

At Dunnet Head, you’ve reached the ‘end of the road’ – the most northern tip of mainland Scotland! 

There isn’t much to see here except a sign telling you you’ve reached this Scotland highlight.

The drive up and down is nice, but if you’re short on time, you could skip it.

Dunnet Head North Coast 500 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.

If the visibility is poor, is easy to miss the Duncanbsy Stacks and if you do you will be gutted!

We had a whiteout, rain, a double rainbow, and sunshine within 15 minutes up there!

Duncansby Lighthouse Rainbow North Coast 500 Scotland_

To get to the Stacks, face the lighthouse and walk over the field with sheep to your right.

You’ll walk for around 5 minutes until the tear-shaped stacks appear.

The Castle of Mey is a fortress dating back to the 16th century between Duncansby Head and your next stop, John o’Groats.

Duncansby Stack on North Coast 500 Scotland_

John o’ Groats – Wick (16.4 miles)

Alight at John O’Groats for a sidestep to Orkney or take a picture of that famous white sign and hit the road again.

There isn’t too much to see at John o’ Groats itself but you can grab lunch, an ice cream and a picture at the iconic sign then hop back in the car or take a ferry to Orkney.

You can do a day trip to Orkney if you are limited in time but you’d want at least two days on the island.

John o Groats Boats Houses North Coast 500 Scotland_

Note: Feel free to stop at John o’ Groats before Duncansby Head if you drive the anti-clockwise. It doesn’t matter which attraction you do first.

Driving down the coast from John o’ Groats to Wick, look out for Old Keiss Castle overlooking Sinclair’s Bay and Ackergill Tower, a 5-star hotel.

If you prefer to stay in the area, check out these options.

John o Groats signpost Gem North Coast 500 Scotland_

Wick – Golspie (52 miles)

There are handful for cafes, restaurants and takeaway shops in Wick if you are ready to eat.

Wick is separated into Wick proper, Pulteneytown, and a river called Wick River runs through it.

If using public transport, Wick has a train station.

Wick Bridge Flower North Coast 500 Scotland_

Back on the A9 road again, if coming from west to east, keep an eye out for the striking white building on the cliff around Dunbeath. That’s Dunbeath Castle, a luxury wedding venue.

Stop for food, tea, and cake at the adorable River Bothy in Berriedale.

This cafe as indoors and outside seating, incredible cakes and a gift shop.

River Bothy Cafe Berriedale North Coast 500 Scotland_
River Bothy Cafe in Berriedale North Coast 500 Scotland_
Pancakes River Bothy Cafe in Berriedale North Coast 500 Scotland_

Helmsdale (Sutherland) town has parking, a couple of pubs with beer gardens and a harbour.

This was a resettlement town built in 1814.

Helmsdale North Coast 500 Scotland_

On the road to Golspie, the water by Victoria Road has patches of turquoise, a reminder you are in the Scottish Highlands! Brora is the next village

Just before entering Golspie, you must stop at Dunrobin Castle!

This fairytale stately home on the east coast of the Highlands has 189 rooms, some of which the public can view.

Dunrobin Castle pond gardens North Coast 500 Scotland_
Dunrobin Castle Dining Room North Coast 500 Scotland_
Dunrobin Castle Painting North Coast 500 Scotland_

It’s the gardens that win it for me.

Huge rhubarb plants, ponds with fountains, well-manicured grass, and tree tunnels.

A photographer’s dream!

The gardens and castle overlook the Dornoch Firth.

This area isn’t just about beauty, though.

This is where locals were forced to move from their fertile land during the Highland Clearances.

Some left voluntarily, others had no choice when their homes were burnt down with their possessions still in it.

Dunrobin Castle Craig Gemma Fountain gardens North Coast 500 Scotland_
Dunrobin Castle Gardens North Coast 500 Scotland_
Dunrobin Castle Gemma Holding Hat North Coast 500 Scotland_

Golspie – Inverness (52 miles)

The last leg of the east coast of the NC500 takes you down to The Black Isle, a collection of villages and hamlets.

Head over to the Dornoch Firth Bridge, popping into The Glenmorangie Distillery for a tour.

If you like golf, enjoy a game at Tain Golf Course.

Drive over Cromarty Bridge to the town of Cromarty for a coffee or a meal at Sutor Creek and check out the Scottish geologist and writer Hugh Miller Cromarty Trail for heritage homes and buildings.

Cromarty is a great base for the Black Isle; check out this garden studio for availability.

Cromarty Bridge Fields North Coast 500 in Scotland_
Hugh Miller Trail Cromarty on North Coast 500 in Scotland_
House Cromarty on North Coast 500 in Scotland_

I like this Highlands area as it feels like real life with the North Sea oil rigs resting in the Cromarty Firth.

Cromarty Oil Rigs North Coast 500 in Scotland_

The next stop is Rosemarkie (Fortrose) for the family-friendly Groam House Museum to find out about Pictish life.

Fairy Glen is close to Rosemarkie which is 3K hike with waterfalls.

Groam House Museum Flowers Fortrose on North Coast 500 in Scotland_
Groam House Museum Mosiacs on North Coast 500 in Scotland_

Finally, put on a layer and pull up at Chanonry Point to see the local dolphins who like the shallow Moray Firth waters for fishing!

There’s a pebble beach which looks over to Fort George, where we spotted the dolphins doing some relaxed diving in the distance.

There is also a golden sand beach for sandcastles.

Parking is available at Chanonry Point.

Chanonry Point Lighthouse Scottish Highland NC500
Chanonry Point Lighthouse Craig Scottish Highland NC500
Chanonry Point Beaches Scottish Highland NC500

NC 500 Itinerary – Castles

If one of the main reasons you’ve chosen the NC500 route is for its castles and ruins, you are in for a treat. From Inverness clockwise, here is a list of some castles you may want to explore or look out for.

  • Inverness Castle visitor attraction
  • Ardvrek Castle ruins     
  • Old Keiss Castle ruins
  • Castle of Mey visitor attraction
  • Dornoch Castle Hotel, which you can stay in
  • Mansfield Castle
  • Dunrobin Castle

You can stay in the castle on the east coast!

There are four options to choose from, and they are affordable, starting at £120 in low season. Read our guide to hotel castles here.

Hey, Outlander fans! See here to read about the hit TV filming locations

North Coast 500 Itinerary Route John o Groats to Inverness

Distilleries on the North Coast 500

The water of life, whisky, plays such a large part in Scottish culture and tourism.

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).

Glenmorangie Distillery North Coast 500 in Scotland_

If you are limited on time and whisky sampling is your goal, I suggest heading east first!

There is zero tolerance for drunk driving in Scotland.

This means the ‘day after’ is just as 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). 

Read next | How to plan a road trip in Scotland

North Coast 500 Itinerary Distilleries


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.

Camper Fortrose on North Coast 500 in Scotland_

North Coast 500 Tips

GPS, Mapping, and Not Killing Each Other

We trialled using Google Maps to guide us through the NC500, and it worked well with a bit of planning.

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 challenging at times so I would recommend a phone holder attached to your dashboard.

Try one with a magnetic part you place in between your phone and the cover, which keeps the phone neatly attached to the holder.

You can also download this free NC500 map.

Wheelchair users, you may find this helpful guide. 

You may also like our guide | How to plan a road trip in Scotland

How Much Does the NC500 Cost?

Dig deep, Scotland lovers; this can be an expensive ride! Here’s an example of pricing along the route.

  • Accommodation: Ranging from £68+ per night
  • Campervan pitch on campsites: £28-35
  • Food: Plated fish and chips £8-10
  • Ice cream cone: £2
  • Dunrobin Castle: £12

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 has options for every budget.

This was an independent trip. This means we were not hosted by Visit Scotland, regional tourist boards, hotels, or tours.

Animals on the NC500

This route is rugged, so you will be sharing the road with locals and wildlife.

Expect to see sheep, deer, cows, Heilan coos if you look hard, and puffins if you do the Handa Island day trip.

Cow Tongue Two Scots Abroad_

Frequently Asked Questions

Is Driving in Scotland Difficult?

We drive on the left in the UK, which I’m sure you know. 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, no road signs indicate that you are on the North Coast 500 route, which baffles me since it is so heavily marketed.

However, the typical brown tourist information signs indicate where tourist 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 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). 

If this itinerary seems daunting, let someone else do the driving! There are now three NC500 tours.

What About Hiring a Car?

Car hire is available in the main 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. I used to work for Avis Rent Car in Edinburgh and Glasgow (while I studying at university), I always recommend taking out the additional insurance.

Car rental companies bump up the charge of damage. Here’s more advice on international car hire

Arriving in Edinburgh? you may like our guide to 101 things to do there.

Scotland flag, skyline, shadow Craig, Stac Pollaidh, Craig, Ullapool Scotland_

Which Way Should I Do the North Coast 500

This is a personal preference.

If you love whisky, start at the east and hit the many distilleries with a designated driver.

Then you will have the thrill of the west coast as you hit the second half.

If you love turquoise seas with white sands, start at the West Coast and take on the Bealach na Ba into Applecross!

Which way will you go? Tell me in the comments below!

Is the North Coast 500 Signposted?

There are signs but these don’t mention the NC500 so you will need to know what location you are looking for.

The signs are the general brown tourist information signs (because the NC500 was set up by a collection of private companies and not Visit Scotland).

John o Groats signpost North Coast 500 Scotland_

Where Does the North Coast 500 Start?

The official start is at Inverness but there are many areas you might want to explore before you go such as Glenfinnan (Harry Potter train viaduct), Kyle of Lochalsh (Eilean Donan Castle) and the Cairngorms.

What is Camping Around the NC500 Like?

The NC500 can be done on a budget thanks to hostels and campsites dotted around the route.

There are many well-equipped campsites dotted around the NC500 route, some need to be booked in advance, others are a free-for-all. Many welcome motorhomes, as well as tents and, have electrical spots for rent.

Please consider that the NC500 camping grounds have been holiday destinations for families long before the route was created.

You can wild camp on the NC500, too!

Are we aware of the wild camping rules we discuss extensively in our guide to camping on the North Coast 500?

Oh, I can’t forget to mention the wee problem of midges! Keep reading to find out more.

Thurso Campsite Campervan Window North Coast 500 Scotland_

Is the North Coast 500 suitable for motorhomes?

Yes, it is, but they are an annoyance to locals.

Work on driving your motorhome (rented or owned) before heading north, and be cautious of how tricky the Bealach na Bá is to drive in a small car, never mind a large motorhome.

Tractor Road North Coast 500 Scotland_

When is 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 friends, the midges.

What are Midges?

Nicaragua has mosquitoes; 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 Midges?

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 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 ruin your holiday photos, it keeps 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?

There are two options, avoid the above conditions and times of year (tricky if you are camping or even moving out side a car) or purchase a repellent such as Avon So Soft US / UK.

That’s Midges Sorted, How Do I Avoid The Crowds?

The Scottish schools return the second week in August so summer officially ends for families.

The holidays begin at the end of June so, to avoid the route as its busiest I would suggest crossing out July.

Avoid the busier towns like Ullapool (I don’t want to say that because I love Ullapool) and opt for camping instead of booked accommodation.

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 number of family cars, sports cars, and campervans.

A park ranger we met in Ullapool showed disgust at how holidaymakers treated the NC500 environment, especially those 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 use the roads that locals use daily, treat nature respectfully, and use the flipping loos on your coffee stops.

Scotland operates on a ‘leave no trace’ policy. Please respect that.

Take everything with you, including fruit skin, which decomposes, takes time.

Littering is a criminal offence, so you will be fined if caught. Just don’t be a moron.

Motorhomes and campervans should dispose of waste at one of the designated campsites on the NC500. Read more here.

Duncansby Lighthouse Rainbow Craig Campervan North Coast 500 Scotland_

Our NC500 Guides

We have written extensively about the NC500 to help you during your planning:

Go Slow Cromarty North Coast 500 in Scotland_

Final Words

Whether you are in browsing or planning mode, I hope you’ve enjoyed our free North Coast 500 itinerary.

The beauty of the NC500, and Scotland overall, is that there’s so much to see, whether you have two days or two weeks, you’ll be left wanting more so… haste ye back!

Achmelvich Beach Scotland NC500

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Disclaimer: We have no affiliation with NC500 at this time. We travel independently, and all opinions are our own.

145 thoughts on “North Coast 500 Itinerary: Comprehensive, Honest & Free

  1. Gemma Gelder says:

    Hi Gemma

    Great info, I am looking at hiring at VW T6 Transporter to go round for 6 days in June, do you think this vehicle will be ok on all the roads? also can you wild camp in a transporter? just worried about the roads as the insurance excess is another £500 on top of hire but you do get it back as long as no damage to the vehicle.

    Many thanks


    • Gemma | Two Scots Abroad says:

      Hi Gemma, great name 😉

      I have no experience of a T6 but it doesn’t look that bigger than our VW Crafter which we did the east coast with.

      Insurance wise, it’s not only your driving you need to worry about, it’s other people. I used to work for Avis Rent a Car when I was younger and would always recommend going with the lowest excess so there are no frights if there is an accident or damage.

      Wild camping in your van is frowned upon as it doesn’t meet the outdoors guidelines. Here’s our guide to camping and RVing which explains in detail.

      NC500 is super busy and over the past two years, irresponsible visitors have ruined it for the more subtle wild campers creating the term ‘dirty camping’. It’s a real bone of contention for some locals and businesses who moved to the Highlands for space and quiet.

      We booked into campsites as to promote responsible tourism. It’s a beautiful part of the country but if you are looking for a budget trip consider that the price of food is about 1/3 more expensive than the cheaper areas in the central belt.

      A quieter road trip we did in the summer was the South West Scotland area and that was lovely and pretty much crowd free.

      Hope that helps!


  2. Bulent Yalcin says:

    How can i print all this information without any adverts please? Is there a link you can forward at all?

    Thanks in advance


  3. Ted Robertson. says:

    Hi Gemma & Craig, We are hoping to do it in May ’21, but being the wrong side of 70 don’t do camping. Would prefer pubs with rooms and good food on tap or B&B’s. Are they plentiful and what is the cost approx. Hope to take at least 7/8 days going anti clockwise. Have really enjoyed reading your site and will read again in great detail soon. Many thanks.

    • Gemma I Two Scots Abroad says:

      You’ll have a wonderful time, regardless of age!

      Pubs with rooms are a good shout and doable in Inverness and Ullapool.

      For Inverness check out Pentahotel or Blackfriars.

      Ullapool – Arch Inn.

      Definitely book ahead as May is busy as the weather tends to be braw!

      Hope that helps.


  4. Darren Hayes says:

    Hi guys , what a great read that was , very informative and helpful , thinking of doing it next year sometime , could you advise on the best map to buy , wonder if you get to see the northern lights up there , thanks again , take care , Darren 👍

    • Gemma I Two Scots Abroad says:

      Hey Darren! Northern Lights is just your luck, it’s not like going to Iceland where people plan trips around it. I don’t know anyone personally that has seen them.

      This NC500 map as 4.5/5 stars in its review.

      Definitely do it, such a lovely part of Scotland!

      Here’s a link to all of our guides.

  5. Lisa says:

    Hi Gemma,
    Great website, so helpful! We are just in the process of booking for May 2021 to do NC500 in a small motorhome. We are going to fly up to Edinburgh and collect the van there, then will have 8 days before the flight back. Would you recommend not trying to squeeze any of the islands in and just focus on the mainland, or do you think with that long we could do one, and if so which would you recommend?
    We are going to wild camp along the way! Can’t wait!

    • Gemma I Two Scots Abroad says:

      I think eight days on in the Highlands is a perfect pace if you want to get out and spend time at the beaches and do some hikes. May is *usually* pretty decent weather wise. You’ll be a day getting organised and driving up from Edinburgh then a day going back down again if you want to add the Cairngorms and Aberdeenshire in? That’s a nice sidestep.

      I’m biased for Fife as that’s my home region so you could swing by St Andrews, East Neuk, Aberdour, Dunfermline and Culross for a bit of history and fewer crowds.

      Island wise, if I was going to Orkney I would want at lease three days. We did Lewis and Harris in two and it was very rushed so I wouldn’t recommend that either. However, you could definitely do a quick drive around Lewis and get back on the ferry to Ullapool, expensive with a van though.

      Recommend popping into some of the campsites for a couple of nights, great experience!

      Come back and let me know how you get on?

      • Joanne Teasey says:

        Good read Gemma. Been wanting to do the NC500 for some time and planning for September 2021, problem is there are so many places to stop off and I am wondering which towns and villages will be the best ones for an overnight stay. Looking to spend a full week traveling. Any advice??

      • Gemma I Two Scots Abroad says:

        You’ll have a lovely time whatever you decide! It really depends on what your priorities are. I’ll share my opinion and also where my readers are booking which will indicate what others do too.

        Personally, I’d skip Inverness and stay in the Black Isle but that would involve a lot of driving.

        From the Black Isle I’d stay overnight around John o’ Groats, check out this house.

        Then Durness, this is a popular lodge.

        Ullapool is a lot of fun. Arch Inn is often booked through my guide.

        I loved Shieldaig and this apartment is super popular with my readers. This house close to Shieldaig is also booked often.

        Hope that helps! From experience, NC500ers spend more time on the west coast.

      • Joanne Teasey says:

        The information you provided is already useful so thank you. We have booked Inverness for two nights just to give us a rest from driving from a 7 hours journey. Booked Dornoch for 1 night but not sure if this is worth it. We are wanting to look for some golfing for the husband, distillery’s, wildlife, and recommended landmarks, love walking but probably no further than 4 miles 🤣

      • Gemma I Two Scots Abroad says:

        Glad you found it useful! Definitely check out Stac Pollaidh for a short hike with epic views. Have fun!

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