How to drive The North Coast 500

How to drive The North Coast 500

Have you heard about the North Coast 500? It’s Scotland equivalent to the American Route 66. Drive over 500 miles around the north coast of Scotland taking in some of the most spectacular scenery (in my opinion) in the world. Can I get a ROAD TRIPPP? Here is how to drive the North Coast 500. 

This post was updated in March 2018. 

North Coast 500 Itinerary


Whether you spend 4 days or 3 weeks, take a tent or stay in luxury accommodation, there is a North Coast 500 itinerary for you! A good way to plan out your NC500 road trip is to think of the route in five stages. If you are travelling anti-clockwise:

  • Stage 1 – From the highland capital, Inverness, drive up Scotland’s east coast through the Black Isle to Scotland’s most northerly point at John O’Groats. On the way visit Royal Dornoch, one of Scotland’s sunniest places.
  • Stage 2 – Explore Scotland’s wild north coast including Cape Wrath and Durness, including a visit to Smoo Cave.
  • Stage 3 – Drive the beautiful Wester Ross coast from Lochinver to Gairloch and visit Scotland’s best beaches. 
  • Stage 4 – Explore the Torridon mountains and drive the incredible Bealach Na Ba to visit the Applecross Peninsula
  • Stage 5 – Either return to Inverness or visit the Isle of Skye.

read more: a NC500 extension

Tips for planning your North Coast 500 road trip


  • When should I drive the North Coast 500? Scotland’s best weather is actually in the traditional ‘shoulder seasons’ of  April / May and September / October. If you do plan to travel in summer, remember that the warmer weather means beastie heaven in Scotland – and the Scottish midgie is legendary. Don’t forget your ‘Smidge’.
  • Clockwise or anti-clockwise?  Either start at Inverness Castle travel anti-clockwise over 500 miles visiting beautiful Applecross, Gairloch and Durness to John o’Groats taking in some of Scotland’s most spectacular coastal scenery. Alternatively, start your trip with a drive through Glencoe and visit the famous Eilean Donan Castle before joining the route clockwise on the west coast at Strathcarron. Or do the trip both ways!
  • Do I need to pre-book accommodation on the NC500 before setting off? – It depends if you are camping or booking pubs and hotels. We found we could easily find camping spots – and change nights dependent on the weather. For some of the more remote places, such as staying at Applecross Campsite, I would recommend booking in advance. For hotels and B&B, the route is so popular, many places are booked up a year in advance – so get planning!
  • Do I need a map of the North Coast 500? Yes! The highlands of Scotland are renowned for not having a 3g or even in some places a mobile signal, so I’ve put together a map of the route (GPX file below) which you can download/open in Google Maps. Otherwise, get a copy of the North Coast 500 official map from northcoast500.com or download the North Coast 500 app. En route, Use the wifi in your accommodation to download sections of the route to Google Maps. 
  • Are there petrol stations on the North Coast 500? There are plenty of petrol stations on the route. They are all marked in green on my map below.
  • Any driving tips for the North Coast 500? – Know the speed limits, road signs and general driving advice – in Scotland, understand how to drive on a single track road! I recommend that your stops are no more than 1-1.5 hours apart unless much of the journey is on a motorway or you know the rules of the road. 2 hours on mountain roads and single will exhaust even the most patient of drivers.

Read more: how to plan a road trip in scotland

Where to stay on the North Coast 500


Looking for somewhere to stay on the North Coast 500? Here are my recommended North Coast 500 hotels and North Coast 500 campsites.

 North Coast 500 Accommodation & Hotels

  • Natural Retreats, luxury self catering accommodation at John O’Groats 
  • Kylesku Hotel, fish heaven at this hotel in Sutherland
  • Enjoy splendid isolation in the quirky Batbox, Lochinver
  • Scottish hospitality at its best at Torridon Hotel and Torridon Inn
  • Westlea B&B in Ullapool – check out the Munro room! 
  • Visit Scotland’s sunshine coast and stay at Plockton Inn
  • Book a year in advance for the Applecross Inn, Main Street
 North Coast 500 Campsites


read more: a visit to the fab Torridon Hotel

Things to do on the North Coast 500


Don’t just drive the route, there are lots of things to do on the North Coast 500 along the way:

Things to do Inverness

Things to do Dornoch


Things to do Wick

Things to do John O’Groats


Things to do Thurso

Things to do Tongue


Things to do Durness

Things to do Kylesku


Things to do Ullapool

Things to do Gairloch

read more: things to do in Wester Ross


Things to do Kinlochewe

Things to do Applecross

Read more: a visit to Applecross


North Coast 500 Route Map


Where can I get an official North Coast 500 map? For more info and to download the official map visit northcoast500.com or download the North Coast 500 appThe route map below has lots more ideas of things to see and do to help you plan your North Coast 500 itinerary.

Yellow – places to visit
Purple – places to stay
Brown – mountains to climb 
Orange – towns and villages
Blue – where to eat and drink
Green – petrol stations

TIP – to download this map to your Google Maps go to this page on your mobile phone, and tap the square icon in the top right-hand corner of the top bar below. The map will then open in your Google Maps app. 

Pin for later

36 Comments

  1. Siobhan
    20/03/2015 / 1:17 pm

    I LOVE SKYE. If I was going I’d head to Staffin Bay to see Mr Mac’s grandparents, climb up to the table at the Quairaing and probably go for food at the bay I cannot remember the name of, where there is a cracking pub at the harbour and picnic tables you can eat at outside looking out to sea.

    But generally I am massively jealous of your trip. It sounds excellent.

  2. 21/03/2015 / 12:23 pm

    We’re hopefully going to Skye next month and I can’t wait. I’ve never been and there’s so much I want to see there. We were actually also watching a programme about Applecross and that road last week as well and I think that Stephen is dying to go on it.x

  3. 22/03/2015 / 12:27 pm

    Ha, I’ve just looked at the map of the North Coast 500 and if you change to west coast for Skye, Harris and Lewis, then it’s basically the same route my parents used to take us on every summer holiday in a motorcaravan when I was a teenager – I think we did it every year from about 1988 to 2000.

    In Skye, there’s a great little fish and chip shop on the harbourside, a tiny little place, almost just a doorway but an incredibly tasty meal.

    The Cocoa Mountain in Balnakeil, Durness is worth a visit, there’s a café but there’s also samples of free chocolate!

    In Thurso, Caithness Horizons is a visitor centre all about the area but it also has a section dedicated to Dounreay Nuclear Power Station – which is strangely fascinating!

    On Skye, do the Giant Angus MacAskill Musuem in Dunvegan and also opposite the museum is cake shop (Jan’s Cakes I think it was) with excellent slabs of homecooked bakes.

    Smoo Cave up on the north coast is worth a visit and somewhere along the road between Tongue and Bettyhill we pulled up next to a newsagent/general store advertising ice creams and ended up with one of the best ice creams we’ve ever had – obviously my description of where it is isn’t exactly great but if you see one along that road, it might be worth pulling in 🙂

    If I think of anything else, I’ll let you know 🙂 xx

  4. 23/03/2015 / 11:55 am

    The Whistle Stop Cafe in Kinlochewe serves excellent food, well worth a visit. Gairloch Heritage Museum has a great collection. A walk up Flowerdale and at Big Sand beach. For a trip on the water – http://www.seawildlife.co.uk/. Bridge Cottage Cafe and Gallery in Poolewe is another great pit stop…Inverewe Garden, a drive up past Inverasdale to Cove …..

  5. 23/03/2015 / 12:07 pm

    if you make it up to the most spectacular corner, our finest chocolates and the best hot chocolate in the whole wide world awaits! http://www.cocoamountain.co.uk

  6. Jeanette McCarthy
    23/03/2015 / 1:07 pm

    Hi there, if you’re into food come to lochinver, where we have six superb eateries, including the Roux brothers restaurant at inverlodge hotel and the Michelin starred albannach, not to mention the famous pie shop! Assynt also has the most stunning scenery, you’ll love it!

  7. Emma
    23/03/2015 / 3:49 pm

    Hey Kate, I’m on authority that if you take your swimming costume, you can take a dip in the fairy pools! But as long it’s warm enough!

  8. Marcel
    23/03/2015 / 4:05 pm

    Last summer we drove that part of Scotland, and I have to admitt we were so lucky with the weather.
    We also spended more nights in Carbost, the Talisker distillery and the Old Inn (good food and order a Talisker Coffee!) are both great.
    Just follow the road towards Glenbrittle, there is a sign on the road for the Fairy Pools (we didnt walk this)
    We walked towards Talisker Bay, another smal road starting just behind the distillery till you have to park your car at a farm.

    If you have good weather the road Belach Na Ba is a really great ride.
    But the road from Applecross to Shieldaig and Torridon is absolutely amazing, especially the second part!
    Then the area gets another view towards Kinlochewe. Don’t forget to go the A832 a couple of miles towards Achnasheen, to reach the amazing viewpoint over Loch Maree from there.
    Gairloch has a couple of whalewatch operators and good food at the Myrtle Bank hoetel with a stunning view towards Skye an furtheron Harris
    Then the road to the north to Poolewe with great views over Loch Ewe and furtheron Little Loch Broom.
    After leaving the last loch, you come to bushland and then just before reaching the A835 theres a great viewpoint towards Loch Broom. From there you can drive to Inverness, a less more interesting road after the days before 😉

  9. 23/03/2015 / 9:12 pm

    Do come and see us at Attadale Gardens, en route from Skye to Applecross…. For a change of scene, if you have time… Lots of sculpture, rhododendrons, blue poppies and lots of different gardens to see.

  10. Guy kerry
    24/03/2015 / 1:57 pm

    I too would follow the A832 from Gairloch via Dundonnell. You have Inverewe gardens at Pollewe, Loch Ewe has the Arctic convoys museum, Seals are easily viewed on the rocks a couple of miles from Laide with great views across Gruinard bay to Assynt and the big mountains up north. Gruinard island which has had Sea Eagles (you may see them anywhere in Wester ross). Great views from high above Little loch Broom out to the summer Isles and across to Scorraig and inland to Dundonnell. Through Dundonnell and up to the Fain: goats and deer aplenty but may be high up the hills by summer, pine martens, red squirrels, otters lots of wildlife. Once over the Fain there is Corrieshalloch Gorge – a 200 feet deep box gorge managed by SNH with suspension bridge, viewing platform and enormously deep waterfall. You are then only 12 miles from Ullapool – well worth a visit. And Lael Crafts Gallery at Lael, Opposite Lael Forest garden is worth a visit and we’ll always put the kettle on. Just introduce yourselves. Then just 50 good road miles to Inverness over the high moors, big mountains, dams, Rogie falls past Garve.

    Actaully there’s more than enough that you’ll miss in Wester Ross not to need to go to Skye.

  11. 10/04/2015 / 3:50 pm

    Hello and thank you for posting this.

    I too had plans to head up north this summer, which then crystallised around the NC500 when I first saw it. This post will certainly help and I’m looking forward to the follow up posts as you go around.

    I’m thinking of heading up the A9 to Inverness, continuing on that road all the way to the top (part of the 500), then heading west to continue the loop. On the way back there’s a stretch of the West Highland Way that I’m hoping to fit in (near Inverarnan).

    Let’s hope there’s enough wind to keep the midges away in August!

    David.

  12. 05/05/2015 / 1:39 pm

    As someone living in Inverness I can give a few local recommendations: If you want to do a boat trip then take one of the Jacobite Cruises down to Loch Ness. Walk down the river around the Ness Islands. Enjoy soup/salad, coffee and cake at Velocity cafe, and go to Leakeys (biggest secondhand bookshop in Scotland).
    A little detour on the way to Inverness but well worth the trip is driving round the Black Isle (Cromarty-Fortrose) Cromarty is an artsy village with great pizzas at Sutor Creek and you can also spot dophins from Chanonry Point (tide permitting!). There’s also a brilliant restaurant called the Anderson in Fortrose, and both Cromarty and Black Isle breweries.

    It’s great to read this post (and all the comments!) as we are going to Skye in summer, followed by 10 days doing the Calmac Hopscotch from Barra – Ullapool. Midges ahoy!!

    • smidge
      05/05/2015 / 2:25 pm

      Thanks Susan! Do you have any suggestions of where to stay around Inverness? (or in the city) looking for somewhere nice & quirky, not big & touristy.

  13. Camilla L W
    08/05/2015 / 2:45 pm

    Hi – I really enjoy your blog. I’ve just moved to Edinburgh for a short while (working) and has been very inspired from your posts on what to do. Next weekend we are doing a small roadtrip to Glencoe – can you recommend any particular good walking tracks and good places for breakfast/lunch and dinner in the area of Fort William?
    Thanks in advance // Camilla

  14. 30/05/2015 / 9:49 pm

    We did the NC500 last month, taking a leisurely 10 days to complete. Recommend Clachtoll Beach near Lochinver, Faraid Head walk from Durness, Cocoa Mountain for hot chocolate at Balnakiel Craft Village after the Faraid Head walk and the Old Pulteney distillery tour in Wick. Wish we had spent more time on the Westcoast too but we were so eager to reach the North coast! I’m quite envious, would love to go round again – maybe I will! Enjoy.

  15. 08/01/2016 / 12:45 am

    Hi I wanted to do this trip so much . Is this trip recommended at this time of the year ?

    • lovefrom
      19/01/2016 / 2:26 pm

      In Dec/Jan – it really depends on the weather. Some of the roads (Applecross for example) would be impassable in the snow. I suggest spring time or early summer is best. Thanks for popping by!

  16. 19/01/2016 / 2:18 pm

    Bookmarked! And yes, when is the best time of year to do this? Assuming there is a best time. I’m thinking probably not in winter unless one has snow tyres!

    • lovefrom
      19/01/2016 / 2:25 pm

      Hi Jude! We did our trip in July, which was pretty good weather wise, but beware the midgies, we actually ended up cutting our trip short because of them 🙁

      I suggest May or June, when the weather is getting better but before breeding season.

      • 19/01/2016 / 2:28 pm

        May June sounds perfect! My favourite time of the year. I do love a good road trip!

      • Charles Tait
        18/08/2016 / 12:01 pm

        June best for wwild flowers and birds. Midwinter fantastic but you will need a 4×4 if there is snow, though it rarely lies for long in the west. Some roads are unsuitable for large vehicles. Best advice is to take your time, stop often but also obey the Highway Code and allow following vehicles to overtake.

  17. Bob Parker
    22/01/2016 / 4:52 pm

    Hi. I want to do the NC500 this year on my motocycle would I have to pre book accommodation before setting off?
    Thanks

    • lovefrom
      23/01/2016 / 11:11 am

      Hi Bob!

      It really depends if you are camping or booking pubs and hotels. We found we could easily find camping spots (and change nights dependent on the weather)

      For some of the more remote places, such as staying at Applecross, I would recommend booking in advance. The Applecross Inn for example is great, but there isn’t much accommodation there, so if you are planning on staying for food and drink, i’d make an effort to book.

      Temptation is here! http://www.lovefromscotland.co.uk/applecross-scotland/

  18. 27/01/2016 / 2:28 pm

    Ohh I would love to do that some day, what a great idea indeed 😀
    I hope to visit Scotland soon!
    By the way, your blog looks amazing, I love the look 😀

    Thank you for linking up with #MondayEscapes.

  19. Paul Moore
    29/05/2016 / 10:14 am

    Is there anywhere or anybody I can buy an information pack from – or is one available from the Scotish tourist board?

  20. katie
    17/06/2016 / 2:53 pm

    hi
    we are planning to go on the road next week but we are planning to sleep in a car (no a camper van lol ) any advice ??

    • lovefrom
      17/06/2016 / 2:58 pm

      Hi Katie, well, it is not illegal as far as I am aware. This is unless there are local bylaws restricting overnight sleeping, and it gets very complicated if the driver has had any alcohol, you may attract the attention of the police. My suggestion is to get a tent, as wild camping for most of the route is fine and there are some amazing campsites enroute (and some great pubs for a pint!)

  21. dom
    30/07/2016 / 9:58 am

    hi I’m very interested in doing the route but wondering how long it takes , I have to drive from Falkirk to inverness first ,should I just keep carrying on or stay a nite, time to west coast. got to stay over at skye as never done it , then how far do I get before having to stop for a nite, some one fill in the blanks .back to inverness ,

  22. Sarah
    14/10/2016 / 7:34 pm

    Hi, we are doing this north coast 500 on monday coming with our kids. smallest is 2 so some places we might have to miss out. Any tips for us? we have already booked hotel in Turso, Ullapool and inverness. doing this over 3 day. day 3 going to avimore for the day then back home to Glasgow.

  23. 26/10/2016 / 11:35 pm

    Bought a touring m/bike end of last year planning the 500 for the early summer, but pulled a huge sickie just after Xmas – turned out to be inflammatory rheumatoid arthritis which pretty much did for me right through till August. So, the Triumph Sprint, which has been standing outside rusting ever since, has just been fettled at Flitwick Motorcycles, will be hacked around on during the winter, and then washed and waxed late Spring ready for the 500 in early summer 2017. I plan to pack my walking boots and a tent and look for the less rocky pitches to ease my aching joints. Have done many a car trip round the Cairngorms and up to Inverness back in the 70’s and 80’s, but never beyond that I remember. Sooooo looking forward to it, midgies an’ all.

  24. 01/02/2017 / 8:57 am

    We’re doing the NC500 at the end of June and all your posts have helped so much for my planning, thank you!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.