Tag Archives: North Coast 500

North Coast 500 Itinerary: Comprehensive, Honest + Free

North Coast 500 Itinerary Guide Scotland Achmelvich Beach

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. The 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 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 (516 to be exact) of ‘Scotland’s Route 66’.

The popular adventure, with four seasons 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.

Our NC500 Experience

Craig and I (Gemma) made a wise (last minute) decision 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 travel style and needs.

My Top Tip

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. We travel independently and all opinions are our own.


North Coast 500 Map

Before we get started, let’s get our bearings of 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 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 VisitScotland suggests up to two weeks.

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

Stac Pollaidh Ullapool | North Coast 500 Guide

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.

One thing that is certain, you can’t predict the Scottish weather.

It is possible to experience four seasons in one day, so plan and pack accordingly.

Be sure to pack a good quality waterproof like my new Rupal by Mountain Equipment US / UK.


You may also like our NC500 packing list


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

In Inverness you will find large superstores so you can purchase food and 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, 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, which is Scottish Gaelic for Pass of the Cattle, there is a sign that warns new drivers not to attempt it!

Bealach na Bar Sign North Coast 500 Scotland_

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.

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

Bealach Na Ba NC500 Route

Applecross

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.

Langostine, Applecross Inn Scotland

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 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.

Shieldaig | North Coast 500 Hotels Guide

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 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 are looking for a unique stay, Shieldaig Lodge Hotel is one of the few remaining traditional Highland shooting lodges open to the public.

Gairloch

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.

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 of Bob, the resident seal.

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

Myrtyle 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 and your camera, and kayak?

Mellon Udrigle 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, 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.

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 really 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 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.


Ardvrek Castle NC 500 Route 500

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

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)

North Coast 500 Itinerary Route North Coast 500 Itinerary Route Ullapool to 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 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!

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

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.

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

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).

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 really 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 which is 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 which we managed to get 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 bar 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 quite easy to miss the Duncanbsy Stacks and if you do you will be gutted!

We had whiteout then rain, a double rainbow then 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 come into sight.

The Castle of Mey is a fortress dating back to the 16th century located 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 just 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 really 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 are driving the anti-clockwise. It doesn’t really 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 which used to be 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, and 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 or 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 itself has a 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_

Its the gardens which 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 which is a collection of villages and hamlets.

Head over 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 area of the Highlands 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_

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, this is 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 of the 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 actually 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! Click 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 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).

Glenmorangie Distillery North Coast 500 in Scotland_

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). 


» Read next | How to plan a road trip in Scotland


North Coast 500 Itinerary Distilleries

Fin

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 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.

Note, 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.

Try one with 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 free NC500 map.

Wheelchair users, you may find this guide useful. 


» You may also like out 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 any tours.

Animals on the NC500

This route is rugged which means you will not only be sharing the road with locals but also wildlife.

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


Frequently Asked Questions

Is Driving in Scotland Difficult?

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). 


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 are a whisky lover, 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 to do 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! Do we aware of the wild camping rules which 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 do be cautious of how tricky the Bealach na Bá is to drive in a small car nevermind large motorhome.


» Check out our guide to camping and motorhomes on the NC500


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 fiends, the midges.

Dunrobin Castle Gemma Craig Kiss Fountain gardens North Coast 500 Scotland_

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 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 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?

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 go back the second week in August so Summer officially ends for families then.

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 really want to say that because I love Ullapool) and opt for camping stead 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 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.

Scotland operates on a ‘leave no trace’ policy. Please respect that. Take everything with you, including fruit skin which takes time to decompose.

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 in 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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9 North Coast 500 Campsites Not To Be Missed This Year

Scotland North Coast 500 Campsites

White sand beaches and blue turquoise water in – Scotland? That can’t be right! You bet your bottom it is. These are the kinds of sights that you can see along Scotland’s North Coast 500 road a.k.a. “the Scottish Route 66” and the following North Coast 500 campsites are not to be missed. This guide will include official campsites with options for campervans on the North Coast 500.

» Coming to Scotland? Click here for our Scotland travel guide – we’re locals!

Thurso Campsite Campervan Window North Coast 500 Scotland_

Why Camp Along the North Coast 500?

Besides the tropical-like scenery, you’ll be able to enjoy the grandeur of the Highlands with its emerald hills and lochs (lakes), while driving along this road. What more could nature/adventure enthusiasts ask for?

As hotels, hostels and B&Bs book out fast on the NC500, camping is the ideal form of accommodation for those who are booking in a hurry.

If you prefer to book self-contained apartments, here’s our guide.

Plus, North Coast 500 camping is economical, for the most budget-friendly option adheres to Scotland’s wild camping rules.

Unfortunately, there are have reports that some visitors have not been following the Scottish Outdoor Access Code when it comes to camping resulting in fragile areas of the Highlands being used as a base.

Please do not do this. 

Read below for an outline of what wild camping in Scotland means.

Of late, locals have not been so welcoming to wild campers so please be considerate to those who live in the Highlands.

Chanonry Point Lighthouse Craig Scottish Highland NC500

North Coast 500 Campsites

The North Coast of Scotland boasts a variety of different landscapes.

Camping allows you to get up close and personal with nature, disconnecting from technology if you so wish!

The Highlands is geared up for campers and camper vans with its campsites offering shared bathroom facilities, recycling, hookups, waste disposal and sometimes even WiFi.

Chanonry Point Scottish Highland NC500

Where To Camp?

There are a number of fantastic NC500 campsites starting at Inverness and dotted around the map up to Thurso and down the west coast.

There are also a number of private spots for those looking to go off the grid during their NC500 camping trip.

In this section, let’s explore the sites and their facilities.

1. Applecross Campsite

Applecross is a very popular camping spot in the Scottish Highlands and one of Scotland’s most popular camping spots.

Often the first main stop road-trippers make after taking on the hairpin Bealach na Bà road.

So what’s the appeal?

Applecross boasts of views over to the Isle of Skye and a hoaching eatery called the Applecross Inn.

Applecross campsite is a 10-minute walk from the Inn.

The site offers large tent areas, free hot showers and toilets, shaver points, dishwashing facilities and free WiFi around the reception area.

Applecross also caters for camper vans and motorhomes via ten serviced hard-standing pitches and 9 electric grass pitches.

Don’t fancy camping? There are glamping huts on site too.

Applecross used to be popular, now it is off the chart in demand so book using their online system.

Mellon Udrigle NC500 beaches

2. Achmelvich Bay The Shore Caravan Site

This award-winning beach sits next to the family-friendly Shore Caravan Site which offers no-set pitches but aims to not turn anyone away.

They have an overrun campsite close to the caravan site.

Facilities include toilet block with showers, launderette, on-site shop, on-site chip shop and WiFi.

Campfires are allowed (not on the grass).

Shore Caravan Site is open end of March to mid-October. Prices range from £7-£16.

Achmelvich Beach NC500 Motorhomes

3. Clachtoll Beach Campsite

The family-run Clachtoll Beach Campsite welcomes eco-friendly guests to their campsite close to the town of Lochinver.

Facilities include electric hook-ups, toilet and shower facilities, hair straighteners points, dishwashing, laundry, eco-friendly toilet waste disposal, a vending machine with hot drinks, media charging lockers and WiFi!

Prices range from £10-£21.

4. Loch Laxford

This sea loch is located in the northwest, between the villages of Durness and Scourie, roughly.

Scourie Campsite is close by.

5. Sango Sands

At the top of the NC500 route lies the town of Durness. Durness is home to Smoo Cave and Sango Sands campsite.

You really feel like you are at the end of the world staying at this campsite on the North West.

Sango Sands is open from April to the end of October and offers 58 electric hooks up points, hard standing and on the grass.

Facilities include toilets, shower block, kitchen, waste disposal, dishwashing, laundry facilities and a restaurant with a bar.

Furry friends are welcome at this pet-friendly campsite. Like many of the northwest Scotland’s campsites, there is a lack of shelter so it can get windy up there.


» Stop right there! Don’t miss our jam-packed NC500 itinerary 


6. Ceannabeinne Beach

To reach Ceannabeinne Beach, take the A838 road east of Durness.

It is located in a small bay that faces north towards Eilean Hoan island.

Golden Eagle Zipline at Ceannabeinne Beach is one for adventure lovers.

The nearest campsite is Sango Sands Oasis.

7. Thurso Caravan and Campsite

Thurso Caravan and Campsite is a large campsite with individual plots, shared bathroom facilities and public picnic tables.

Showers are hot and the site is across from a supermarket.

The site has views of Orkney and nice pathway walk along the coast.

Prices start at £9.50 for tent pitches.

Thurso Campsite Campervan North Coast 500 Scotland_

8. Sandy Bay near John o’ Groats

As you reach the John o’ Groats tourist info centre, stop by to grab a map of the area, and on it, you’ll see a clearly marked Sandy Bay.

It is a 10-minute drive away from the centre, and when you get there, you will see off-road, grass parking.

John o’ Groats Caravan and Campsite is the closest park with facilities.

9. Ardtower Caravan Park

A very busy and friendly campsite in Inverness, Ardtower books up fast so reserve early.

This site has shared shower and toilet facilities, a shop and a shared cleaning area.

Really nice vibe plus views over the Kessock Bridge.

Ardtower Campsite Inverness Scotland_


North Coast 500 Wild Camping

The beauty of camping in Scotland is that you can camp anywhere, to an extent. The Scottish Outdoor Access Code states you must:

  • Respect the interest of locals – this is especially true when camping on land
  • Care for the environment – leave the land as you find it, no digging or fires at cultural sites
  • Take responsibility for your own actions – be safe, stay away from buildings, farms and roads
  • Here is advice on how to deal with emergencies while camping.

The grey area with NC500 wild camping is that the main way to get around the route is by car and wild camping in other areas of Scotland is often utilised by those on foot. See our West Highland Way guide for more details on Scotland’s West Coast hike.

As you are not supposed to wild camp near roads you will need to leave your car as you hike to your camping spot.

That being said, these rules are in place to protect you, locals and the environment and not infringe on your rights to explore the Highlands so be smart but have fun.

The Equipment

Before you set out on your NC500 adventure, you will need to have your equipment in order.

So what is it exactly that you’ll need? Everyone’s packing lists may vary, but here is how a list of the essentials might look like:

  • A quality tent that will keep you safe from wind and rain
  • Layers
  • Waterproof jacket and overtrousers
  • Comfortable footwear such as hiking shoes like these Salamon trek shoes US / UK
  • Personal hygiene products and sunscreen
  • Portable cooler
  • Extra phone battery packs like Anker US / UK (you will need it for maps)
  • Bag to collect rubbish – leave nothing behind
  • A strong stomach, you shouldn’t do the toilet in a public place
  • Don’t forget to bring a lot of money for petrol/gas and food/water!

The Best Time for Camping

In case you didn’t know, the weather in this region is unpredictable, and some would say that you can experience multiple seasons in one day.

However, when it comes to camping, there are some months that are obviously preferable to others.

Late spring to late summer is the best time to go here. May is often a great time to visit Scotland, just before the dreaded midgies take force.

The daylight lasts for about 16 hours a day during the summer, which gives you a lot of sunlight to enjoy the scenery.

Mellon Udrigle NC500 beach camping

North Coast 500 Motorhomes

Camping not your cup of tea?

Hiring a campervan or motorhome for the NC500 is very common and is a relatively easy way to get around.

Obviously, you do have the winding roads of the Bealach na Bà to content with (close to Applecross on the West Coast) and Scotland’s ‘A roads’ (single roads) make driving on the other side a slight challenge but fellow drivers are courteous if you are too.

There are plenty of ‘passing places’ for you to pull over in to let other drivers past.

If you see lots of campervans together it is not a sign that it is a good overnight stop. It’s a signal to move on and find somewhere else…

Dunnet Head Campervans North Coast 500 Scotland_

There are many benefits of taking a North Coast 500 motorhomes trip such as flexibility with your itinerary (accommodation like hotels book up really quickly) and a bit of luxury!

North Coast 500 caravan sites tend to run alongside the camping sites mentioned in this article. The facilities available at each one have been mentioned above.

To save money you can always create your own stops, nip into the supermarkets (there are a few on the road at Inverness and Ullapool, eating out can get expensive) and pack a filter bottle, Scotland’s drinking water is very nice.


» You may also like | How to plan the ultimate Scotland road trip


Duncansby Lighthouse Rainbow Campervan North Coast 500 Scotland_

Conclusion

This NC500 camping guide has detailed where to stay on the NC500 if camping or campervanning.

In case camping is not your thing, I’d still recommend you to check out this road and all it has to offer, as you can find plenty of decent accommodation here too.

If all this sounds interesting to you, read on and find out more about the North Coast road, as I’ve only covered the very basic information in this article.


Our North Coast 500 Guides

We have written in detail about the NC500. Please see all of our posts below:


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Scotland North Coast 500 Campsites

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The North Coast 500 Packing List: 23 Essential Items + 1 Not

North Coast 500 Packing List

So you’ve picked your route and it’s time to pack but what does one take on Scotland’s answer to Route 66, the North Coast 500? Granted you will be aware that the Scottish Highlands can face four seasons in one day and the summer months are blighted with those wee terrors, the midges, but never fear, this Scot is here and I have your back covered (literally) with our North Coast 500 packing list. If you are just starting your 500 miles road trip with this article, don’t miss our NC500 free guide full of itineraries and tips to get you on the road.

North Coast 500 Packing List

My top tip for what to pack for the NC500 is to have a suitcase/rucksack with the majority of your clothes and toiletries stored in, a smaller bag to which you can add your nightwear and ‘the next day’ clothes to, along with a day bag for the car, full of snacks and other road trip essentials.

The reason I suggest this three bag strategy is because when you only stay in accommodation on the North Coast 500 for one night, you don’t want to have to lug your full week’s bag in and out of the car each time.

On one occasion our room was pretty small and our suitcase would have caused injuries, as we stumbled in at 1am, full of the ‘water of life’ (when in Rome and all that)!

We both travel with a larger suitcase/backpack and a day bag for trips and hikes.


» Looking at where to stay on the NC500? Here’s our guide

Clothes

You may be sitting in the car for long periods of time while soaking up the Scottish Highland‘s 500 miles, so be comfortable.

If, like us, there is a constant battle for the aircon to be on (Craig) and off (me, Gemma) a throw or large poncho/cape US / UK is a recommended purchase for your road trip.

They are also great for hiding bags under if leaving the car unattended or throwing over your shoulders on the NC500 stops when the sun nips behind the clouds and leaves a chill in the crisp air. They also make for epic pictures too.

Achmelvich Beach Scotland NC500

Outerwear

You won’t be surprised that at some point during your trip you are going to be faced with the Scottish summer: rain. 

I never travel without my Marmot Precip rain jacket US / UK comes with me everywhere. because it is thin, light and folds away neatly into its own pocket.

Pack a sturdy umbrella for evenings too but never underestimate how hard our gales blow.

We always carry a waterproof bag cover like this one by Osprey US / UK for our day bags.

We’ve visited too many countries where downpours can happen at any moment (yes, Thailand I am looking at you) and since we carry our camera and battery packs in our day bag, we need to ensure that they will still switch on after a rain attack.

I wore this fashionable yellow raincoat but didn’t do any hikes in it.

For hikes, you definitely need a bonafide waterproof jacket.

John o Groats signpost Gemma North Coast 500 Scotland_

Footwear

On the whole, you will be jumping in and out of your car so footwear does not matter too much.

There are paths to most beaches (some made of wooden slats), castles, and caves (Smoo).

You might get caught out at Duncansby Head walking to the Stacks though as you navigate through a field with sheep poop. 

If you intend to hike, and I strongly recommend you do set aside two hours in Ullapool to do the short up and down the Stac Pollaidh, pack your hiking boots or shoes.

Craig recently purchased a pair of Scarpa boots and I’ve been hiking in Salomon for years now.

Both come recommended.

For hikes, I always tape up my feet using Leukotape US / UK to avoid blisters, works a treat.

→ Here’s our review of lightweight walking boots.

Leukotape Tape

In the past, my preference has always been Salomon Ellipse (US / UK) trek trainers/shoes because they are lighter for packing.

Plus, they do not touch your ankles which suited an issue created with my Achilles during the West Highland Way hike in Scotland.

Now I hike in Salomon Quest boots US / UK.

They are neat, comfortable and good-looking. I think nothing of rocking up to the pub in them at the end of the day. 

Craig prefers a boot. He has worn leather Scarpas for the past three years. 

You need to wear shoes (not sandals) for Smoo Cave.

If you are staying in hostels or camping, it’s advisable to take flip flops, sliders or Crocs with you for the shower rooms. I swear by Havaianas US / UK for durability.

Salomon Lightweight Shoes Ladies

Headgear

If you are camping you definitely want to carry a head torch with you.

Don’t rely on your mobile phone for light since you cannot trust the battery not to run out.

Non-campers, a hat comes in handy for hiding windswept hair, keeping your ears cosy up hills or even get a fancy one for those Instagram shots!

Electronic Essentials

It’s incredible how much we rely on technology.

Even on a digital detoxing three weeks in Cuba we still used our mobile phones every day for reading, listening to music and taking notes.

It’s always wise to carry a charged mobile phone battery pack in your bag so you’re not left without any tunes!

We recommend Anker’s chargers US / UK. They are slim, reliable and economical.

Anker Portable Charger Phone

Be aware that you will be driving without a signal for some of the journey.

We describe how to use the free Google maps app to your advantage here.

Take note of your accommodation addresses and also telephone numbers.

Carry some coins with you in case you need to use our iconic red telephone boxes!

Telephone Box and bikes at Glasgow Rivercylde Museum_

We have a new addition to our family – the JBL clip US / UK

This wee babe is waterproof and clips onto your bags so you never have to go without tunes again.

Make sure you download your Scottish playlist to your phone from Spotify before you set off as you won’t have 4G in the hills (or the villages at times).

Applecross North Coast 500 Packing List

Here’s a list of our favourite Scottish bands (or alternatively search for @Craigarmit on Spotify and download his Scotland album)

  • Camera Obscura
  • Belle and Sebastian
  • Paolo Nutini
  • The View
  • Orange Juice
  • Siobhan Wilson
  • Franz Ferdinand
  • Talking Heads
  • The Twilight Sad
  • Primal Scream
  • Placebo
  • Big Country
  • The Jesus and Mary Chain
  • Calvin Harris
  • CHVRCHES
  • Deacon Blue
  • Annie Lennox
  • and of course – The Proclaimers (500 miles…)

— The North Coast 500 is one the UK’s most scenic road trips so you don’t want to forget your camera and an extra battery.

If you are staying in hostels and carrying expensive electronics, you may want to consider investing in a PacSafe net US / UK.

We backpacked around 16 countries using this device and luckily had our belongings untapped.

PacSafe Net Travel Safety

To use you put your beloved things in your day bag, wrap the safe net around the bag, pull it closed, attached it to a non-moving structure like a bed frame or radiator and padlock shut. You’ll also need a padlock.

Pop a throw (that useful item again) over your bag and away you go to enjoy the sunset and/or craft beer.

If you are taking part in any of the water sports around the North Coast, pack a waterproof bag for your phone and camera.

Don’t be like Craig at Somoto Canyon in Nicaragua, stuck between a rock and a hard place, literally, with his phone in his hand and very deep water in the way.

Dunrobin Castle North Coast 500 Scotland_

Medical and Toiletries

Kid you not, I was a little red in the face after hiking up Ullapool’s Stac Pollaidh.

Silly me for not using my reliable factor 50 La Roche-Posay US / UK.

Pack some sunscreen you just never know.

Don’t forget your sunshades too.

Chanonry Point Lighthouse and Craig Scottish Highland NC500

Store a first aid kit, it takes up little room in the car but could be a lifesaver, there will be times when you don’t see anyone else for miles.

Let’s get to the main issue in Scotland; midges.

Midges are winged insects that nip the skin (all over) and leave angry red, itchy marks.

They like the summertime but hate the wind.

There’s no way to 100% prevent midges from attacking, and they come with friends (swarms of them) but you can use products such as Avon Skin So Soft US / UK to repel them.

Even if you are not camping it is advised to spray some around dusk time.

They attempted to eat us alive just hopping from restaurant to bar.

After spending a week on the West Coast in Scotland during summer, I am updating this guide to say you have to pack a midge net for your NC500 road trip if you plan to visit the West Coast from mid-May to late September.

You have two choices. 

Either a simple head and face covering like this one or a hat with a net fixed to it like this.

Let me know how you get on in the comments below.

Shieldaig What to Pack NC500

In Scotland, we have a zero tolerance for drink driving.

This also impacts on the next morning so be sure that the designated driver is not on the whisky too late into the wee hours the night before or even better, stay a couple of nights in one location and give them time off.

If you are heading to the NC500 distilleries on the east coast you might want to purchase a cheeky wee hip flask before you go.

They make for great gifts too. Prone to a heavy head? Try these hydration tablets US / UK, works a treat (recommended by a medic we met travelling).


» Our North Coast itinerary is free and jam-packed full of tips and images


Craft Beer NC500 Packing List

Road Trip Gear

Along with your throw, hat, shades and first aid pack you’ll also want to buy snacks.

There are small shops in many of the villages.

Inverness, Ullapool, Thurso, Wick, Tain and Dingwall have large supermarkets. Lidl is your cheapest option which can found on the east coast (there is only a Tesco on the west coast in Ullapool).

Food is 1/3 more expensive in restaurants and cafes than in the central belt of Scotland.

Businesses have to pay more and logistics make food transportation more difficult naturally.

Take a bottle and ask your accommodation to fill it up for you, saves you money and the environment!

If you are thinking of proposing, I know a few nice spots, send us a message! Oh, I adore a good love story.

Dunrobin Castle Gemma Craig Kiss Fountain gardens North Coast 500 Scotland_

North Coast 500 Packing Guide Checklist

  • A waterproof coat like this Marmot Precip US / UK
  • Or sturdier Mountain Equipment Rupal US / UK
  • Rab Alpine down coat USA / UK 
  • Merino Icebreaker tops USA / UK
  • Comfortable walking shoes and hiking boots – I swear by Salomon Ellipse trek shoes US / UK
  • Hiking socks like Bridgedale US / UK
  • Camera and battery
  • Battery pack for your phone – I vouch for Anker’s range US / UK
  • Osprey bag cover US / UK
  • Eco water bottle like  Tree Tribe US / UK, also keeps hot liquids warm
  • Bamboo cutlery set US / UK, plates, pots and gas if camping/campervanning 
  • Skross universal travel adaptor with USB slots US / UK
  • Pacsafe safety net US / UK
  • Large poncho/cape US / UK is a recommended purchase for your road trip.
  • Havaianas US / UK
  • Leukotape tape US / UK
  • JBL clip music speaker US / UK
  • Torch
  • First aid kit, anti-bac wipes and hand sanitiser 
  • Avon Skin So Soft US / UK
  • Hydration tablets US / UK
  • Hip flask
  • Cups
  • Shades, hat, mask

Free NC500 Guides 

We’ve created a lot of content to help you make the best of the NC500:


What to Pack for the NC500

Come rain, shine, hanger and hangovers you are now equipped for the best 500-mile drive of your life! Naturally, this road trip-packing guide can be adapted for other driving holidays too.

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Scotland North Coast 500 Packing List | What to pack for NC500

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