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A (big) kids guide to the North Coast 500

A (big) kids guide to the North Coast 500

A holiday driving 500 miles of the north coast of Scotland might at first seem like a drag for toddlers to teens. Add in a patchy mobile data signal, a lack of wifi and tackling long and windy roads whilst stuck in the back of a car or campervan – you might be wondering if driving the North Coast 500 is a good idea for all the family.

The answer – of course it is! All around the NC500 there are lots of amazing adventures to be had, whatever age you are. So if you are planning your North Coast 500 trip especially for your kids – or are just a big kid yourself, then this is the guide for you. 

From Inverness to John O’Groats, Durness to Gairloch and everywhere in between, here are the best things to do with kids (or for big kids) on the North Coast 500. Let’s go on an NC500 adventure!

How to plan your North Coast 500 itinerary for kids

Whether you want to drive the route in 4 days or 3 weeks, take a tent or stay in family friendly accommodation, there is a NC500 itinerary perfect for children! A good way to plan out your family NC500 road trip is to think of the route in four stages.

If you are travelling anti-clockwise – try this Scotland Route 66 itinerary:

Stage 1 – Inverness & Easter Ross – start by exploring the Highland capital, Inverness.
Stage 2 – Caithness and Sutherland – explore Scotland’s wild east and north coasts.
Stage 3 – Lochinver and Assynt – drive south to Gairloch and visit the west coast’s best beaches.
Stage 4 – Wester Ross – explore the Torridon mountains and drive the incredible Bealach Na Ba.

I would suggest that you need a minimum of five days to do the route and a week would be perfect.

Planning your NC500 trip with kids?

Family friendly campsites on the North Coast 500

Thinking of camping on your way around the North Coast 500? Here are the best campsites for families on the NC500:

  • Ardtower Caravan Park, Inverness – with an Infant & toddler bathing and baby change, Children’s Play Park, BBQ Hut, free Wifi and a cafe serving pizzas.
  • Dornoch Caravan and Camping Park – with a shop, children’s play area, games room and a putting Green.
  • Clachtoll Beach Campsite – with access to Clachtoll Beach, a family room with baby changing facilities (including nappies, wipes etc.), free use of kayaks, canoes, paddle boards, wetsuits, buoyancy aids, children’s beach games and a nightly firepit.
  • Sands Caravan and Camping – located on Gairloch Beach, with a licensed grocery, cafe, covered indoor cooking and eating area, games/TV room, football pitch and play area.

Let’s go!

Oldshoremore Beach, Assynt

Things to do with kids in Inverness, the Black Isle and Easter Ross

The NC500 trip starts in the Highland capital of Inverness. It is worth exploring the city before you head off on your North Coast 500 drive, so here are the best things to do with kids in Inverness.

Work off some energy by exploring the the picturesque Ness Islands. These small islands in the River Ness are connected by pretty footbridges. See if you can find the Ness Island crocodile!

After exploring the islands, wee kids will love the Ness Islands Railway around the family friendly Whin Park (open from Easter through to October on weekends). This miniature railway is great fun.

Further afield, don’t miss a visit to Loch Ness. Take a boat cruise or a RIB ride, explore Urquhart Castle, and keep an eye out for the elusive Loch Ness Monster (teenagers will love the RIB trip)

If your kids are into history then visit Culloden Moor where the Battle of Culloden took place. The visitor centre provides a detailed and interactive history of the Jacobite uprisings, great for Outlander fans or history geeks.

> Read more things to do in Inverness.

Rib Boating on Loch Ness

Things to do with kids on the Black Isle and Sutherland 

Heading north from Inverness you will reach the Black Isle and Sutherland. Here are the best stops for kids:

As you leave Inverness, make a detour to the Black Isle to go dolphin watching – around 130 Bottlenose Dolphins live in the waters off Inverness and Morayshire. The best place to see the dolphins is at Chanonry Point with the best time to see them is on an incoming/rising tide which brings in the food for the dolphins.

If your kids are Harry Potter fans then visit Black Rock Gorge north of Dingwall, this ‘box gorge’ appeared in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

Your next stop on your way north is Golspie where you can all stretch your legs by strolling up the Golspie Big Burn where a series of beautiful waterfalls fall through a canyon. If you are feeling energetic there are brilliant mountain bike trails on Ben Bhraggie itself – or you could climb to the top for a view

In Golspie head to Capaldis Ice Cream shop on the main street if you all need a sugary pick me up, then don’t miss Dunrobin Castle a gorgeous stately home with lovely gardens with the designs copied from Versailles. Dunrobin Castle looks like it just fell out of a fairy tale! There are also daily Birds of Prey demonstrations which the kids will love.

> Read more: the complete guide to Sutherland

Dunrobin Castle

Things to do with the kids in Caithness

Leaving Sutherland behind it is time to visit the wilds of Caithness.

Climb down the Whaligoe Steps to Whaligoe Haven Harbour. One for the more energetic – but kids will love the climb down 250 metres of sea cliffs to reach the tiny Whaligoe Haven which once supported 14 herring boats. Watch out for the weather – descending the 365 steps into sea haar can feel very spooky indeed.

Every kid I know loves castles and there are 30 castles in Caithness – from private homes to dramatic ruins. My favourites are the Castle of Old Wick is perched on dramatic cliffs, Bucholie Castle is accessed across a walkway with sheer 100m drops on each side and Old Keiss Castle – one of the most dramatically located castles in Scotland, popular with Instagrammers.

Kids want to get active? Then go surfing on Thurso Beach – with big Atlantic swells, the beach is one of the best places to go surfing in Scotland. There are lots of operators on the north coast who will give the kids surf lessons if they fancy braving the chilly waters! Try North Coast Watersports at Dunnet Beach.

Don’t miss John O’Groats – famous for being the most northerly village in the UK, John O’Groats has cafes and restaurants, a harbour for the ferries to Orkney and of course – the famous sign which was installed in 1964 to mark this ‘Journey’s End’. Make sure you take a photo of the sign! 

At Bettyhill find the Crumbs Cupboard for a sweet treat. Looking for a farm experience? Visit Geise Farm near Thurso or the Castle of Mey Animal Centre.

Heading west along Scotland’s wild north coast, at Ceannabeinne is the famous Golden Eagle Zip Line (weather dependent so opening times vary) – do your kids dare?

Next up is Smoo Cave -you can explore this huge cave near Durness by foot or by boat. Smoo Cave is floodlit inside and was formed by both the river inside and the sea outside! The guided tour by boat costs £10.

At Durness there are two beaches, Sango Sands and Balnakeil Beach, alongside shops and a cafe. You can also visit the Balnakeil Craft Village most known for the hot chocolate at Cocoa Mountain – you won’t regret it.

As you head south, don’t miss taking a take a RIB to Handa Island, one of Scotland’s most beautiful islands and a nationally important wildlife reserve. Handa Island is home to Puffins, rare Bonxies, stunning views of the Assynt mountains. A visit to the island is by boat (£15 cash only).

At Kylesku take a sea loch boat trip to spot seals and eagles, alongside other coastal wildlife.

> Read more: the complete guide to things to do in Caithness

Things to do with the kids in Lochinver and Assynt

After Handa, drive the Drumbeg Loop to Achmelvich and Clachtoll Beaches two beautiful beaches which are popular with families due to their white sands and clear waters. On a good day, they are great beaches for swimming and paddleboarding. At Achmelvich, follow the coastal path to find the tiny Hermit’s castle.

Heading south into Assynt, stop at 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.

Knockan Crag

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.

If your kids like a hillwalk, the Stac Pollaidh is one of Scotland’s best short 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.

> Read more: things to do in Lochinver and Assynt

Things to do with the kids in Wester Ross

At Corrieshalloch Gorge the River Droma falls through a series of waterfalls, including the huge 45 m Falls of Measach. Don’t be scared!

At Gairloch take a boat trip with Hebridean Whale Cruise to spot otters, seabirds and even dolphins and sharks. Don’t miss Big Sands and Red Point Beach with views across to Raasay and Skye.

Another beach not to miss is Sands Beach on the Applecross Peninsula – one of my favourite places in Scotland. You can walk to the beach from the village.

Your last stop on your NC500? Driving to the Bealach na Ba Viewpoint on the famous pass across the Applecross Peninsula. The road is utterly incredible, and definitely not for the faint of heart.

> read more: things to do in Wester Ross

Have a fabulous time with all the family!

Love from Scotland x