How to drive The North Coast 500

The North Coast 500

Have you heard about the North Coast 500? Scotland’s incredible road trip takes in 500 miles around the north coast of Scotland taking in some of the most spectacular scenery in the world – there’s no wonder they call it Scotland’s Route 66. Here’s how to drive the North Coast 500.

Welcome to the North Coast 500

With over 500 miles of dramatic driving roads, beautiful coastal scenery, turquoise blue seas and white sand beaches, the North Coast 500 is one of Scotland’s best road trips.

Starting in the Highland capital, Inverness, the North Coast 500 will take you to the very top of the UK, spotting dolphins and visiting amazing castles along the way.  You will then drive right along the far north coast of Scotland – don’t miss the incredible Duncansby Head Stacks, exploring the huge Smoo Cave, and trying the famous hot chocolate at Cocoa Mountain. 

Heading south, you will then travel through the otherworldly landscapes of Lochinver and Assynt and drive along a coastline pepper-potted with incredible white sand beaches with turquoise blue seas to Wester Ross. Finally, you will drive through the huge Torridon mountains, past fiord-like lochs to the beautiful Applecross Peninsula where you end your trip driving the famous Bealach na Bà.

Scotland’s North Coast 500 will take you on an incredible road trip around Scotland you won’t ever forget…

how to plan your trip around the North Coast 500

The North Coast 500

Plan your North Coast 500 Itinerary

Whether you want to drive the route in 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 four stages.

If you are travelling anti-clockwise – try this North Coast 500 itinerary:

  • Stage 1 – Inverness & Easter Ross – Starting from the Highland capital, Inverness, drive up Scotland’s east coast
  • Stage 2 – Caithness – Explore Scotland’s wild north coast including Cape Wrath and Durness
  • Stage 3 – Sutherland & Assynt -Drive the beautiful coast from Durness to Gairloch and visit Scotland’s best beaches.
  • Stage 4 – Wester Ross – Explore the Torridon mountains and drive the incredible Bealach Na Ba.

Check out my guide to how to plan a road trip to Scotland 

When should I drive the North Coast 500?

Scotland gets the best weather in the traditional ‘shoulder seasons’ of Spring  – April/May and Autumn – September/October. Summer can be wet, but you are most likely to get the best temperatures.

…but what about Midgies?

Travelling in summer in Scotland means midgie – a tiny biting black fly – they are legendary for a reason. You can’t avoid them, but you can beat them – pick up the best insect repellent for the Scottish midge – ‘Smidge’. Sadly, Midgies are worst in the early evening – just as you want to sit out on the lochside with that sundowner drink.

How long will the North Coast 500 take?

How long you take driving the North Coast 500 is up to you. If you just want to experience one of the world’s best roads you could just about manage it in a day – but then you’ll miss everything the route has to offer. Why not take a bit longer to visit huge sea caves, sail to a tropical island to see puffins, or bag Scotland’s most northerly Munro … there is so much to see and do along the route it’s a shame to not do it justice.

If you just want to see the main sights I would suggest you will need a minimum of four days to do the main stages of the NC500, however I would suggest a week to 10 days to really make the most of your trip around the North Coast 500.

North Coast 500 – Clockwise or anti-clockwise?

I would suggest going anti-clockwise. Start at Inverness Castle and travel first up the East coast to John o’Groats, across to Durness, down to Gairloch and finally Applecross taking in some of Scotland’s most spectacular coastal scenery along the way.

Alternatively, you could start your trip with a drive through Glencoe and visiting 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. For hotels, B&Bs, and camper vans the route is so popular, many places are booked up a year in advance – so get planning! For tent camping, for some of the more remote places, such as staying at Applecross Campsite, I would recommend booking in advance. However, even doing the route in summer we found we could easily find camping spots – and change location dependent on the weather.

Can I do the NC500 in a campervan?

Yes – and lots do – although you will need to be prepared for the single track roads. The Bealach Na Ba is the only section not recommended for anything larger than a 16 – 18 ft camper and the Berriedale Brae is a very steep hairpin bend. If you have never driven a campervan before I suggest doing the route anti-clockwise as you will be coming down the Bealach Na Ba rather than up it.

Are there petrol stations on the North Coast 500?

There are plenty of petrol stations on the route. I suggest filling up regularly as the NC500 is quite remote in places.

What about the mobile phone signal?

It is an issue, I admit. Most of the route does not have a signal, let alone 4g, so be prepared. However, wifi is very common in hotels and b&bs so you will be able to keep up with the outside world along the way. Using google maps? Use the wifi to download sections of your map each day.

Any driving tips for the North Coast 500?

Most of the NC500 route is on single track roads – and you will be driving the route along with sports cars, campervans, motorbikes, cyclists, tractors, delivery drivers, sheep, coos and deer. Learn how to use passing places, acknowledge your fellow drivers and remember the route is not just for you to enjoy your holiday – people use the roads as part of their daily life, so let people past.

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 will exhaust even the most patient of drivers.

The North Coast 500 is not a waymarked route and the highlands of Scotland are renowned for not having a 3g or even in some places a mobile signal, you will need actually need a paper map of the North Coast 500 route.

  • Download my north coast 500 map to your smartphone. Click on the link via your phone and it will open in the google maps app so you can follow it.
  • Get a copy of the North Coast 500 official map from northcoast500.com or download the North Coast 500 app.
  • Use the wifi in your accommodation to download your daily sections of the route to Google Maps.

North Coast 500 Map


My North Coast 500 route map has lots of ideas of things to see and do to help you plan your North Coast 500 itinerary.

  • Yellow – places to visit
  • Light green  – places to stay & eat
  • Brown – mountains to climb
  • Orange – towns and villages
  • Blue – where to eat and drink
  • Dark green – petrol stations

Where to stay on the North Coast 500


There are lots of ways to do the NC500 – with a tent, staying in b&bs or self-catering. How you do it is up to you!

There are hundreds of places to stay in the Scottish Highlands* from fancy hotels, luxury lodges, AirBnBs and cool campsites. If you are looking for options for certain areas use my (affiliate) links :

Here are my recommended places to stay on the North Coast 500.

(affiliate links used below) 

North Coast 500 Self-Catering Accommodation

North Coast 500 Hotels and b&bs

North Coast 500 Campsites

Pitch up and put your feet up here…

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:

stage 1 – Inverness & Easter Ross 

  • Start in Inverness – Walk along the River Ness and the Caledonian Canal, discover the incredible Leakey’s Bookshop, take a boat trip out on Loch Ness to Urquhart Castle, visit the Nessie centre and then head back into town to the Black Isle Brewery Bar which serves up organic beers accompanied by delicious pizzas. The Castle pub also serves a huge range of beer overlooking the river.
  • Detour to Culloden Battlefield – Telling the tale of one of the most important hours in Scottish History, a visit to Culloden is sobering and stark – even if you are not long related to one of the clans. Take a walk out onto the field, but please respect it – the Fraser clan who died on this moor have nothing to do with the fantasy Outlander tale. The battlefield is managed by the National Trust for Scotland, free for members, £11 for adults.
  • Don’t miss dolphin watching – It is estimated that around 130 Bottlenose Dolphins live in the waters off Inverness and Morayshire. The best place to see the dolphins mucking around is Chanonry Point on the Black Isle north of Inverness. The best time to see Dolphins is on an incoming/rising tide which brings in the food for the dolphins.
  • Fortrose Bay Campsite is located on Chanory Point.
  • Explore the amazing Dunrobin Castle – a gorgeous stately home just outside Golspie, Dunrobin Castle has lovely gardens – with the designs copied from Versailles. Dunrobin is a popular spot for Instagrammers – the castle looks like it just fell out of a fairy tale!
  • Visit the strange Fyrish Monument – one of the NC500’s hidden gems, the view from the Fyrish Monument is well worth the 3 hour round trip walk.
  • Stop off at the Berriedale Brae viewpoint (A9 north of Helmsdale). The Berriedale Brae is an incredibly steep hairpin bend. This is one of the most challenging sections of the North Coast 500 route.

stage 2 – Caithness

Don’t let anyone tell you the northeast coast of Scotland is boring. Ok, it might not have white sands beaches and fjordlike sea lochs of the west coast but it is beautiful, wild, remote and full of lots of fantastic hidden gems.

  • Climb down to Waligoe Harbour – descend the 330 Waligoe Steps to a tiny harbour surrounded by 250 m cliffs. Watch out for the weather -descending the steps into sea haar is very spooky indeed.
  • Find the Hill O Many Stanes –  wander amongst 200 wee stones placed in rows up to 4000 years ago. Wonder why.
  • Visit the Castle of Old Wick – one of Scotland’s oldest castles. The cliffs on which the Castle of Old Wick perches are just as dramatic.
  • Visit the Caithness Brochs – there are over 200 brochs (Iron Age structures) across Caithness. No one knows what they were really used for, just that there are lots of them. Find out more from the Caithness Broch Project.
  • Find Bucholly Castle – one of Caithness’s more spectacular castles, access is across a walk way with sheer 100m drops on each side – don’t try and visit in bad weather! Love castles? Castle Sinclair Girnigoe near Wick is also a spectacular ruin.
  • Walk out to the Duncansby Head Lighthouse and stacks – john O’Groats might be thought of as the most northerly part of the UK, but it is not. It is actually Duncansby Head – and it’s also a whole lot more attractive. Take a walk out to Duncansby’s huge sea stacks.
  • Visit the Castle of Mey – previously the home of the Queen Mother in Scotland, you can now tour this royal palace.
  • Walk on the stunning Melvich Beach – one of the north coast’s best beaches, it is just a short walk from the road to Melvich Beach.
  • Looking for dolphins? Walk out to the Strathy Point Lighthouse – it is a great spot to see dolphins and whales in the summer month.
  • Climb Ben Loyal – known as the Queen of Scottish Mountains, Ben Loyal might just be a Corbett but it has four dramatic peaks to climb. For a great view over Kyle and Ben Loyal climb up to Castle Varrich.
  • More things to do in Caithness – Discover the huge Smoo Cave, have hot chocolate at Balnakeil Craft Village and walk to the incredible Sandwood Bay Beach.

stage 3 – Sutherland & Assynt

One of my favourite parts of Scotland, and the most dramatic part of the North Coast 500…

  • Photograph Ardvreck Castle – Sitting on the banks of Loch Assynt sits the ruins of Ardvreck Castle, once the 15th-century stronghold of Clan MacLeod, longtime owners of the Isle of Skye and the Isle of Lewis and Harris.
  • Visit The Knockan Crag – a site of special scientific interest famous for the Highland’s Controversy – a long-running argument between geologists about the age of the rocks here. There is a visitor centre for those interested to find out just why the debate over Knockan Crag was so bitter and a walking trail for those just wishing to take in the incredible views. Explore Knockan Crag National Nature Reserve.
  • Climb Stac Pollaidh – Despite rising to just under 2000ft, Stac Pollaidh (pronounced Stac Polly) is one of Scotland’s best hill walks. With a well-made path to the summit, easy and fun scrambling over its pinnacles and ridges and incredible views over the Assynt mountains of Cul More and Suilven, climbing Stac Pollaidh is not to be missed.
  • Walk across the spectacular Corrieshalloch Gorge – through which the River Droma falls through a series of waterfalls, including the huge 45 m Falls of Measach. Don’t be scared!
  • Visit the spectacular Inverewe Garden and Estate at Poolewe, one of Scotland’s most beautiful gardens. Inverewe House has recently been opened to the public for the first time in its history and gives visitors a snapshot of 1930s life in a Scottish estate. Visit Inverewe.
  • Explore some of the world’s best beaches – head to Red Point, for beautiful red sands and Big Sands for views across to Raasay and Skye. In Assynt, Achmelvich might be one of Scotland’s most famous beaches, but my favourite beach is Clachtoll.

More things to do around Lochinver & Assynt

Torridon Munros

stage 4 – Wester Ross and Applecross

  • Photograph Ardvreck Castle – Sitting on the banks of Loch Assynt sits the ruins of Ardvreck Castle, once the 15th-century stronghold of Clan MacLeod, longtime owners of the Isle of Skye and the Isle of Lewis and Harris.
  • Visit the Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserveexplore the woodlands, home to 350-year-old Scots Pines remnant of the ancient Caledonian forest. Beinn Eighe is a Unesco Biosphere, covering 500,000ha meters of protected landscape.
  • Take a walk to Sands Beach – voted by Countryfile readers as the Beach of the Year in 2015/16. It is one of my favourite places in Scotland and a gorgeous 10km walk from the village on the Peninsula.
  • Explore Attadale Gardens – where, in the late 19th century a plant collector started a garden on the Attadale estate, importing rhododendrons from all over the world. Visit Attadale Gardens.
  • Don’t miss out on visiting the village of Plockton, where the mild, warm and wet climate allows palm trees to prosper on the waterfront!
  • Drive the famous and terrifying Bealach Na Bà pass across the remote Applecross Peninsula. The road is utterly incredible, and definitely not for the faint of heart, for an idea just look at this film of the route.

More things to do around Wester Ross

 

Read more: how to plan a road trip in Scotland

Love, from Scotland x

The North Coast 500 - Scotland’s incredible road trip takes in 500 miles around the north coast of Scotland taking in some of the most spectacular scenery in the world.

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36 comments

  1. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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!

  6. 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!

  7. 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 😉

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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!!

    1. 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.

  12. 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

  13. 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.

    1. 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!

  14. 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!

    1. 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.

      1. 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.

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

    1. 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/

  16. 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.

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

  18. 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 ??

    1. 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!)

  19. 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 ,

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

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