A land very much untamed by modern society, Scotland’s north coast is not only a place of mythology and legend, it is also one of Scotland’s most popular tourist attractions.
Each year, people descend on this world-famous road trip in the thousands, all hungry to experience Scotland’s raw, natural beauty.
What is the North Coast 500 (or NC500)?
The North Coast 500 is an epic 516-mile (830 km) scenic route around the north coast of Scotland, which starts and ends at Inverness Castle.
The route is also known as the NC500 and links many features in the northern Highlands of Scotland, taking you through some of the most breath-taking scenery in the world.
We were lucky enough to experience “Scotland’s Route 66” over a two-week camping trip. And to share our tips for a perfect North Coast 500 road trip with you we created this action-packed guide to the NC500!
This is your Ultimate 8-day North Coast 500 Itinerary
Scotland’s North Coast 500 Route
The North Coast 500 route is typically completed in a clockwise direction, heading up the west coast and down the east.
Going against the grain, we decided to do the opposite, and I suggest you do too! By heading up the east coast, you will be able to experience all of the beauty it has to behold, before heading on to the even more breath-taking west coast of Scotland.
Everyone you will speak to about the NC500 will tell you the good parts are in the west, so save the best for last!
Day 1: Inverness to Dornoch
Our trip actually began a little further south of Inverness, in the small town of Aviemore. If you are into your outdoor activities, then this is a definite stop for you. From windsurfing to mountain-climbing, as well as all the winter activities you can imagine, the Cairngorms is an outdoor lover’s playground.
Heading an hour north from Aviemore, you will reach the beginning of your North Coast 500 adventure. Make a quick stop in Inverness to stock up on essentials and see the main sights around the city. The famous castle of Inverness is the main attraction in the city center.
Heading north from Inverness, your next stop is at the Falls of Shin. This small group of waterfalls has a visitor center with a café, providing the perfect spot for a toilet break. If you visit during the summer, you may just be lucky enough to witness the fascinating salmon migration. Watch in awe as these huge fish battle their way up the foreboding waterfalls. Amazing!
Spend the night in a cute B&B in Dornoch or choose to camp around Dornoch. Dornoch is a cute town and seaside resort, which lies on the north shore of the Dornoch Firth (a narrow inlet of the sea).
Day 2: Dornoch to John O’Groats
Start your day off right at the Cocoa Mountain café in Dornoch town center, offering (quite literally) the “World’s Best Hot Chocolate”. Absolutely drool worthy and definitely one for Instagram. It’s a jam-packed day, however, so don’t hang around here too long!
First stop is the beautiful Dunrobin Castle, about 20 minutes north of Dornoch. At £12 a head entrance fee, this refurbished castle was not up our street of budget backpacking, however, anyone with an interest in the castle’s heritage should pay a visit.
Onwards north to the small town of Brora, where you can park up and join the local cattle in wandering across the local golf course to the beautiful beach.
Next up are two of our favorite castles on the entire route, the Castle of Old Wick and Castle Sinclair. First off you will reach the smaller of the two, Castle of Old Wick, which sits right between two cliffs and offers incredible views of the ocean.
The larger Castle Sinclair Girnigoe sits further north and is one of our TOP SIGHTS on the NC500 route. If you are a Game of Thrones fan, you do NOT want to miss this one! Just imagine what life must have been like here. 500 years ago, when they had no clue what lay over that vast blue ocean.
Spend the evening in John O’Groats, a Highland village that combines dramatic, unspoiled scenery with wildlife, including a great array of birdlife on the local cliffs, and seals, dolphins, minke and killer whales in the surrounding waters.
Day 3: John O’Groats to Thurso
If you haven’t already, head into John O’Groats town center to get a photo with the iconic signpost, before heading to your next stop of the day.
Today’s North Coast 500 itinerary starts with the awe-inspiring Duncasby Stacks. Sitting at the most northerly point of the east coast, these beautiful columns of stone need to be seen to be believed.
Next, Dunnet Bay Beach sits just beyond John O’Groats and is a good spot for a beach stop-off. Stretching for hundreds of meters, the beautiful white sands make a perfect spot for a picture.
Continue on to Thurso to end your day there. Thurso is a town situated in the historical area of Caithness. It is the northernmost town on the British mainland.
Day 4: Thurso to Durness
Start your day off with some morning yoga by the Strathy Point lighthouse, before hitting the road to Skerray Bay. If you are feeling brave, then this beautiful, secluded harbor is the perfect place for a quick, North Sea dip!
The next part of this North Coast 500 itinerary is a drive to remember, as you wind your way between the greenest lochs and the bluest oceans you will ever see! As if transported to Hobbiton from the Lord of the Rings, the rolling hills and greenery are absolutely breath-taking.
Finish off the day by making a quick stop at the stunning Coldbackie sands to experience your very own private beach and explore the nearby caves and waterfall!
Day 5: Durness to Scourie
As you travel from Durness to Scourie, you have the opportunity to explore the incredible Handa Island.
Catch a quick boat ride over to the almost uninhabited island and explore the nature walk around its entire perimeter. Taking about 3 hours to complete, this walk will show you some of Scotland’s most rugged cliffs, as well as what beautiful birdlife it has to offer. Definitely worth a visit!
Day 6: Scourie to Ullapool
Two quick stops on today’s North Coast 500 route are the incredible Kylesku Bridge, a beautiful piece of modern engineering sitting amongst Scotland’s incredible countryside, and the famous Ardvreck Castle which sits guarded by the surrounding loch.
Head on further to the Knockan Crag Nature Reserve, where you can witness some fascinating examples of the raw power of nature. Rock formations show younger rocks sitting on top of older ones, which have left scientists over the last century absolutely perplexed. It was later discovered that this came about from young rock layers being forced up and on top of older layers as the continental plates rubbed against each other.
Ullapool, although still a small town, is the largest settlement for many miles around and an important port and tourist destination. So you might enjoy the slightly more lively feel to this town than many others you have passed on the North Coast 500 route.
A tip from Sanne, Spend Life Traveling’s editor: “I once spent a summer working in Lochinver, a small town north of Ullapool. On a day trip to Ullapool I found out the hard way that gas stations close early… We ended up stranded in between Ullapool and Lochinver at night! So lesson learned: don’t wait until the last minute to fill up your car!”
Day 7: Ullapool to Poolewe
Browse the cute shops along Ullapool’s high street and take one last look at the beautiful scenery surrounding this vibrant town.
The first stop of the day is at the Falls of Mesach, sitting just beyond Ullapool. With a newly built rope bridge and viewing platform, this waterfall is unlike any other on the north coast. One thing we will say is to make sure you get there early, as this is a popular stop for tourist buses!
The next stop on today’s NC500 itinerary is the small town of Poolewe itself (pronounced Pool-You). Explore the Inverewe Garden Centre and see the beautiful flower gardens it has to offer.
To round the day off, you can then enjoy some classic Scottish folk music at the local ceilidh in the town center. Bring your dancing shoes as this will be a night to remember! Check out their website to find out when the next ceilidh (a social event with Scottish folk music and singing, traditional dancing, and storytelling) will be.
Day 8: Poolewe to Applecross
The first stop of the day is at the Beinn Eighe visitor center, where you can learn all about the surrounding area and how the beautiful countryside has come to be. With a custom-built bird hideaway and even a zoomable birdwatching camera, this is also the perfect spot for a relaxing picnic as you admire the wildlife.
Stop in at the loch-side town of Shieldaig in Wester Ross and grab a coffee in the quaint coffee shop Nanny’s. This beautiful little town has incredible views down Loch Shieldaig and is the perfect spot for an afternoon stroll to breath in the fresh, sea air.
The final stop of our North Coast 500 trip was the small town of Applecross, nestled away on the other side of the Bealach na Ba pass. This is another of our TOP SIGHTS on this trip, so don’t miss out!
As you approach Applecross from the south, you will find yourself winding your way up the most beautiful road in the UK. The Bealach na Ba pass is straight out of Top Gear, with its hairpin bends and knee wobbling drops. Fear not however, as the view from the top of the hill is worth everything heart-pounding moment of the drive, with spectacular views of the Isle of Skye!
Wind down your epic road trip in the quaint harbor town of Applecross and enjoy the best fish and chips Scotland has to offer in the Applecross Inn. What an end to a road trip of a lifetime!
Best Places for Shopping Along the North Coast 500
Shopping around the north coast of Scotland can prove to be an expensive affair if not done properly.
With large shops few and far between on the northern and western coasts, if you do not plan your meals properly you will find yourself in the expensive local shops instead.
This is a list of the large, chain stores you can find along the North Coast 500 route. And we recommend stocking up here.
- Morrisons – Inverness
- Tesco – Wick
- Tesco – Thurso
- Tesco – Ullapool
Accommodation Along the NC500
As budget travelers, we aimed to experience this famous road trip as cheaply as possible, picking wild camping as accommodation for the vast majority of our trip.
In Scotland, it is perfectly legal to camp around the majority of the countryside, so long as you follow certain guidelines. If camping is something you are into then you can check out our Wild Camping Spots around the NC500.
Alternatively, there are numerous Bed & Breakfasts in the different towns you will pass on the North Coast 500 route. Because most B&Bs are small and with the NC500 becoming more and more popular we do recommend booking in advance, which you could simply do through Hostelscombined.com.
When is the Best Time to Visit the North Coast 500?
With the weather in Scotland being a fickle thing, choosing the perfect moment to travel along the North Coast 500 is tricky. At the end of the day, you will never be able to predict when the good weather will come. The best you can do is pick a date and hope for the best!
The best time of year to visit the north of Scotland is between May and July, during the “dry season” (a term used very loosely), and before any “midges” wake up to haunt every Scottish local’s nightmares.
Given that the NC500 is growing in popularity year on year, it is also advisable to visit during the period before school holidays begin, as the roads will soon become mayhem. This is any time before the end of June, or after August.
Whenever you choose to visit Scotland and whatever accommodation you decide upon, one thing that is for certain is that you will fall in love with this country. Give Scotland a go, dine in cozy restaurants with delicious food, meet the friendliest locals and discover some of the most beautiful countryside in the world!
The 8-Day North Coast 500 Itinerary on a Map
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