Traversing 500 miles of Scotland’s stunning coastline, captivating mountains & majestic lochs – the nc500 is a truly iconic road trip. Camping on deserted beaches under star-studded skies, & freshening up in the North Sea makes for a wild adventure that one will never forget.
Upon returning from a full year of travel outside of the UK, we were looking forward to getting home & exploring more of the island we hail from with Scotland’s scenic North Coast 500 being at the very top of our UK travel wish list. Here we outline our adventure-packed itinerary including maps & tips to help you in planning your very own nc500 adventure.
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Post updated by The Wilder Route on 12th April 2021
The nc500 brings together a route of 516 miles / 830 km, to be exact. The roads are open & winding, the scenery spectacular with the number of awesome places to stop off being seemingly endless. Considered one of the world’s most beautiful road trips because, well, it is. If you’re visiting Scotland we’d highly recommend adding the North Coast 500 to your itinerary.
Kicking off our nc500 route in Inverness & heading up the East coast, North coast & completing our full loop via the West coast was a great choice. The route can also be done from West to East but for us, as the drive only got better as we went on we were delighted that we went for the East to West coast option.
View our full NC500 East to West coast route live in Google Maps.
An Adventure∼Packed North Coast 500 Itinerary
Our trip took us six days in total, we drove the route by car (our own), wild camped, did everything on a pretty tight budget & packed in as much adventure in as we could.
Are you ready to learn more about our epic experience?! Great, because here we’ve covered it, one day at a time…
Iverness to Dornoch – 45.7 miles – 1 hour 7 mins
View our full day one route (Inverness to Dornoch) live in Google Maps.
A short one for us on the nc500 itself as we had made our way over from the Aberdeenshire coast, making for a quick drive through Inverness & onto the gorgeous town of Dornoch. Dornoch is a lovely place to wander around with its warm stone buildings, shops stocking a range of Highland goodies as well as a few pubs & coffee shops. There’s also Dornoch beach; wide, open & very pretty boasting a great mountain backdrop.
Mentioned in this post, ten things to do in Dornoch on the way to Dornoch beach stands a small stone marked with the year 1722. This marks the last person to be executed legally for witchcraft in the British Isles, Janet Horne. The stone’s marking, however, is a little off as Janet’s murder occurred in 1727.
We stayed overnight in the nearby Camore woods, two miles out of town these ancient woodlands were the perfect place for an evening stroll & for quietly camping & parking up overnight.
Dornoch to Ceannabeinne Beach – 168 miles – 4 hours 19 mins (with stops at least double this).
View our full day two route (Dornoch to Ceannabeinne Beach including stops) live in Google Maps.
This was a mammoth day of driving for us, mainly because we wanted to leave more time for the West coast. Setting off from Dornoch early in the morning we made our way up to Scotland’s much less visited East coast & to the famous John O’Groats for lunchtime, before heading along the North coast to Ceannabeinne Beach where we wild camped for the night. We took it relatively steady & made a couple of stops along the way.
330 steps lead us down to an 18th-century harbour which was last known to be used in the 1960s. The use as a fishing harbour can be seen with the remains of the salt store, hand-powered winch & tar that was used for sealing fishing boats staining the ground. Donations are appreciated here (so bring some cash) for the upkeep of the steps & can be left in the little box, which you’ll see as you make your way down. There’s also a small coffee shop that has WIFI & toilet facilities.
Perched right on a cliff edge, this once mighty castle is now inaccessible due to its crumbling state but is still easily viewed by taking a pleasant stroll along Sinclair’s Bay. We parked up at Keiss Pier/Lang Head car park & walked three-quarters of a mile along the path leading over the top of the pebble beach to the castle. Taking the coastal path on either side of the castle is the only way you’ll get to see it as the land behind the castle is private & therefore provides no access to the castle.
Remains of one of the iron-age brochs that are scattered all over this coastline. The county of Caithness is the true home of the broch with over 200 of them known in total. Brochs are unique to Scotland & have left many both bewildered & amazed at how such a structure was even built back then. Dating back 2,000 years, Nybster delivers the feeling of iron-age existence. The newer built Mervyn’s Tower pictured below is a strange sight to behold but is handy for climbing to get a good look at the Borch from above. There’s no cost to visit this broch & its free car park is well signposted from the main road.
Mainly famous for what is probably one of the most photographed signposts in the world, we decided to do the tourist thing & stopped at John O’Groats for a quick lunch & pic. From here the Orkney Islands can be accessed by ferry or by taking a wildlife day trip, plenty of which are offered by operators around the port area. The Shetland Islands are also a longer ferry ride from here. We parked up in the large & free car park which is just next to the port area & has bathroom facilities as well as some places to grab a bite to eat.
Did you know that John O’Groats is not actually as thought by many, the northernmost point of Great Britain, it is the nearby Dunnet Head (which we didn’t stop at but hey, you might like to?!
Parking up in the small village of Tongue we took the footpath from the village, crossing over the river & through pretty woodlands up to this impressive castle that dominates the surrounding landscape. Overlooking the Kyle & village of Tongue, this castle is shrouded with mystery, with its date & origins remaining unknown. Known to be the seat of the Mackays, one of the Highland’s many clans, Varrich is said to have caves underneath that once housed & hid the Mackays. The walk there & back took around 40 minutes in total, we’d recommend leaving enough time to spend at the castle itself to soak up the history. Taken care of by Historic Enviornment Scotland this ruined castle is free to visit.
Our last stop on day two & our wild camping spot for the night. We parked up at the small parking bay just on the road above this stunning beach & took the short walk down at dusk with all of our gear. Picturesque does not even cut it, our little tent pitched on a level of grass above a bay of white sand & clear blue ocean made for the most magical camping experience. Secluded enough from the road, we enjoy dinner whilst listening to the sound of the ocean & once it was dark, spent the rest of the evening fazing up at the stars.
Ceannabeinne Beach to Oldshoremore Beach – 29.5 miles – 1 hour 4 mins (our stops however meant this took us most of the day).
View our full day three route (Ceannabeinne Beach to Oldshoremore Beach including stops) live in Google Maps.
Covering considerably less distance than the day before but taking in as many magnificent sights. Having a leisurely morning on Ceannabeinne Beach, eating breakfast whilst the resident sheep took their early morning beach stroll & then going for a dip in the freezing ocean (one of the perils of wild camping!) we hit the road around mid-morning, in search of more awesome stops.
Just a few miles down the road from Ceannabeinne we stopped at a halocline, a place where fresh & sea water meet, which is exactly what happens a Smoo Cave. This place is a lovely spot with its cave, pretty bay & cliff top from which to enjoy the views. There are guided tours of the cave offered at various times throughout the day at the small cost of £5. Parking here is free & there are bathroom facilities.
Another pristine beach en-route, this was a pleasant stop for a stroll & a wander around the cemetery whose entrance is pretty much in the free car park for the beach. John Lennon’s Aunt is buried here along with famous Gaelic poet Rob Dunn, amongst many others of course. It’s a fab place to stretch your legs & if you have time you could even opt for a slightly longer coastal walk from here.
Our favourite beach of the whole trip, we would recommend making every effort to reach Sandwood Bay, the 8.5 mile, 3 – 4 hour round walk is most definitely worth it! Following a mainly flat moorland track past pretty lochs, we were blown away on our approach to Sandwood. Backed by the large Sandwood Loch its dunes roll down onto a magnificent stretch of unspoiled white sand with clear blue waves crashing & creating one of the most special & dramatic coastal experiences we have witnessed. Parking can be found in the small, highland town of Blairmore from which the trail is very well marked. We’d go back to this place in a heartbeat & would highly recommend making it part of your nc500 itinerary.
Our sleeping spot for the night, Oldshoremore Beach was a lovely place to watch the sun go down – we had planned to pitch our tent here but due to high winds, we figured it would be safer to sleep in our car. Overnight parking is permitted at the small beach car park which also has bathroom facilities but camping here would pretty much be up on the ridge above the beach (which would have been fine if it wasn’t so windy) unless you’re brave enough to camp on the sand & risk the tide (we wouldn’t recommend doing this).
Oldshoremore Beach to Achmelvich Beach – 50.9 miles – 1 hour 22 mins.
This was a bit more of a chilled day for us in favour of resting ready to take on a big hike the next day. We loved, however, going at a slower pace & taking our time after a jam-packed couple of days on the road.
Situated on Loch Assynt the remarkable setting of this castle makes for some fabulous photo-taking ops & a real feel of Scotland’s rich history. Built by the McLeod clan in the 16th century this ruined castle was our favourite along the nc500. There’s plenty of parking next to Ardvreck Castle where you can take the path that leads over to the grassy outcrop on which it sits.
A small & very pleasant town, Lochinver is a nice place to stop to re-fuel, firstly your car then, of course, yourself in one of the little shops or eateries. Lochinver is also the gateway to many a hike in the surrounding mountains, or as they are known in Scotland, Munros. There is a centre in Lochinver which offers free information for walkers.
As camping is prohibited on this beach (its quite clearly sign posted) we opted to stay at the Shore Caravan Site campsite which is ideally situated just above the bay. At just £12 for the 2 of us, the campsite is basic but offers reasonably sized pitches & to our delight after quite a few days wild camping, really hot showers. We took an afternoon walk along the beach, one that on a sunny day would certainly rival other coastal beauty spots around the world.
Achmelvich Beach to Little Gruinard Beach – 83.6 miles – 2 hours 11 minutes (with most of the day spent hiking).
View our full day five route (Achmelvich Beach to Little Gruinard Beach including stops) live in Google Maps.
This was the day we chose to take on a big hike & after much research & contemplation of which peak, we decided upon Suliven in Scotland’s Inverpolly National Nature Reserve. We also made a few stops after this before crashing down for the night at Little Gruinard Bay.
A difficult hike.
Due to its inaccessibility & difficulty to climb the views from Suliven are said to be some of the most spectacular in the UK. Starting in the very early morning we took the road from Lochinver, towards Glencanisp Lodge where we parked at the walkers’ car park about 1km from the lodge itself (there is a donation box here for parking fees, so bring some change). We took the road past the lodge, through the moorlands & crossed multiple lochs before making the very steep climb up to Suliven.
Unfortunately for us, the weather was not on our side that day, the wind picked up massively & the clouds were coming in so fast that at 600m from the summit we decided to turn around & not walk along the ridge for the risk of being blown straight off. We’re adventurous yes, but silly, no, there are just times when safety has to come first & when walking in the Highlands with the weather being so unpredictable safety & common sense are paramount.
Although we left feeling a little disappointed that day, especially after making a 7 hour round trip we could not deny that the climb to almost the top of Suliven was one hell of a challenge & one that we shall one day return to & conquer. If you wish to take on this hike, we’d recommend keeping a close eye on the weather & checking out walkhighlands for details of the full route.
After hearing much hype about this place this is where we had planned on stopping for the night & whilst it was great to stock up on supplies, grab some fish n’chips & get back to ‘civilisation’ for a wee while we were quick to get back on the road in search of a quieter spot. Ullapool has multiple facilities & is the largest town along this section of the route, its pretty enough but just not really what we were looking for.
Little Gruinard Bay
To end a rather strange day after Suliven getting the better of us & Ullapool not being quite what we expected Little Gruinard Bay came as a wonderful surprise. With just a few parking spaces on the road there are some steps that lead right down to this sweet little bay. As we bbq’d on the beach we watched a couple of seals playing in the ocean & the sky turn a gorgeous shade of pink – turns out ‘bad days’ don’t last very long on the nc500.
Little Gruinard Bay to Inverness (via Kalnakill & Applecross) – 156 miles – 4 hours 25 mins (over double this with stops).
View our full day six route (Little Gruinard Bay to Inverness via Kalnakill & Applecross including stops) live in Google Maps.
In terms of driving this was most the most epic day of the whole trip, taking a detour along the far northeast coastline & over to Applecross which was recommended to us by a friend was worthwhile. We covered a lot of mileage on our final day but were rewarded with the most memorable end to our nc500 trip.
Another town en-route that is good for refeulling & picking up what you need but the main reason for us mentioning Gairloch is a cool place we stumbled across called the Mountain Coffee Company. With a menu & decor inspired by the owner’s travels, this is such a nice place to stop by. They also have (probably) the best book shop we have ever come across, good coffee + an awesome selection of books = our type of place!
Making our way from Little Gruinard Bay in the morning we were blown away by the beautiful views which got even more quintessentially Scottish as we reached Loch Sheildag. There are numerous points to safely stop off at along the road but our favourite had to be next to this cute little cottage with the loch & mountains as a backdrop & the sun just about shining through.
Road Side ‘Shops’
Back on the road again close by to Applecross we were delighted to find a Highland version of a local store, basically a small set of shelves with some fresh eggs & a couple of boxes filled with hand-knitted hats, scarves & gloves. We just couldn’t resist picking up a little orange hat, the money for which we popped in the little honesty jar – cute or what! Be sure to look out for stops like these pick if you’d like to pick yourself up some hand-knitted highland goods.
The larger town in this northeast section, Applecross was a quick stop for us but it is a lovely place with a few amenities should you need them. We adored the scenery coming in & out of here with the winding mountain roads ensuring an awesome drive.
NC500 Itinerary Rounded Up
Going full circle & ending up back in Inverness our nc500 itinerary covered 514 miles, countless bends in the road & a road trip playlist or two. We discovered some of the most beautiful beaches we have ever seen & got a true taste of Scotland’s raw & rugged beauty.
But this post is not over yet…
We’ve detailed more of what you need to know below including some nc500 questions (answered by us) from our online community.
Wild Camping NC500
Wild camping is legal in Scotland with Outdoor Access detailing the Scottish camping code which in a nutshell means that you should leave no trace, take away all litter & if lighting fires (or bbqs) follow the fire lighting guidance & remove all trace of these too. There are restrictions however when it comes to areas you can camp in, none of these lie along the nc500 but it should be noted that wild camping near houses, paid campsites, hotels, b&b’s etc. is not deemed as acceptable. All spots that we have detailed were perfectly good to wild camp at the time we were there & had no signs at any of them prohibiting wild camping.
Shower / Bathroom Facilities
Along the route are plenty of public bathroom facilities as well as coffee shops/restaurants to stop off at along the way. We have detailed most along our route but would add that thinking about where the nearest bathroom is (especially when wild camping) a must. There are also numerous leisure centres where you can stop & pay to take a shower – we opted for totally wild on this trip & took natural soap with us so that we could wash in the cold (yet extremely exhilarating) ocean. For the experience alone we would recommend braving it & doing this at least once.
Accommodation & Getting There
If you don’t fancy wild camping like we did there are tons of other accommodation options along the nc500 from cute little b&b’s to mid-range hotels & fancy castles. Search direct on booking.com to discover what’s on offer.
Inverness is the nc500’s starting point, no matter which way round you choose to complete the route. We drove to Inverness after spending 24-hours in Edinburgh.
If you are flying to Scotland from outside of the UK you can fly direct to Inverness but could also opt to fly to Edinburgh or Glasgow or maybe even Manchester, Liverpool or London in England, all of which you’ll be able to hire a car & drive from.
Scotland’s North Coast Beaches
One of the highlights of this route & there is certainly enough to choose from. All coming in their own unique shade of white sand & crystal clear ocean the beaches along Scotland’s nc500 were our biggest surprise. I mean we knew they’d be good but not this good. Our advice for the beaches, take the time to soak them up, wild camp on them if you’re up for it & make note of the ones we visited as there are some real beauties in there.
Hiking Routes Along The NC500
There are plenty of opportunities to summit a Munroe en-route, we would recommend checking out walkhighlands who have detailed descriptions of tons of routes throughout the Highlands. As we found when climbing Mt.Suliven it is important to remain alert of your surroundings as the weather can be quite unpredictable in these parts, we use mountain-forecast.com to check all mountain weather when hiking.
A special mention for these fellas as they just are so darn cute. We loved stopping off at the side of the road & hanging out with these chilled-out guys, it was definitely one of the highlights of our trip.
Please note that the cows along the nc500 are quite used to humans but none the less they are known to be unpredictable animals, taking precautions such as not getting close up for a selfie or staying away should they have calves with them is highly recommended – also feeding them is of course a no.
We put it to our online community to ask us any questions about our trip & here’s what they came back with….
(if you too have a question for us please pop it in the comments at the end of this post).
Fiona – Cheshire, UK
Q: What was you favourite beach?
A: Without a doubt Sandwood Bay, the 8.5 mile round walk was well worth it & was by far the most secluded beach we visited.
Gemma & Campbell from Highlands2Hammocks
Q: What are your best cooking tips & favourite meals on the road?
A: Using a camping stove we always go for 1 pot meals – basically anything that fits into a single pot. Favs for us are chilli con carne & stir fry but whilst wild camping we also love to bbq, a disposable bbq is easy to carry & can be used to cook your entire dinner on.
Gemma & Campbell have also done this trip themselves but before they did they asked us how long we did it for & what our favourite stops were which are all detailed in our itinerary above.
Cathy from Roar Loud Travel
Q: What was the biggest challenge of the route?
A: Hiking Mt.Suliven, especially as we were defeated but living out of a car with just the 2 of us brought with it challenges too. We found it important to take breaks often as well as stopping for meal breaks to avoid any hanger outbreaks!
Frank from Nothing But New England
Q: Was it a hard route to follow?
A: Not particularly, the roads are very well sign posted & we always use the app maps.me to navigate which also works offline – great in area with little or no phone reception. When planning our route we do however use Google Maps as the distances are more accurate.
Where To Get Fuel
To give you an idea of where to fill up with fuel en-route here’s a map detailing all of the places that you can do so. We also spotted some electric car charge points along the nc500 that we can only guess will become more popular from now.
Dornoch, Wick, Tongue, Durness, Lochinver, Ullapool, Gairloch & Applecross are some of the towns along the nc500 to stock up on supplies, have dinner in a restaurant, a few drinks in a local pub, or shop for Highland souvenirs. It’s always great to support local businesses in these towns as the majority of the income here comes from the tourists that pass through & you will of course this way get a more authentic Scottish experience.
& taking note of passing places.
What we loved most about driving the nc500 is that we could take our time. It’s important to bear in mind are that roads are very narrow & sometimes not suitable for two cars to pass let alone the bigger lorries that drive supplies along this route – to help with this there are areas to pull over in called “Passing Places” but remember there is no right of way if you can pull over it’s polite & makes your journey more enjoyable to do so.
Driving slowly can mean some people are seemingly trying to rush past you, you never know who they might be, a local doctor on call or a voluntary fireman so with that in mind we just pulled over to let people pass when they wanted to & carried on ambling along enjoying the views. Keeping a close eye on the road ahead helps you to see oncoming vehicles in plenty of time to pull over in the next passing place (or to pass the other vehicle waiting in one).
North Coast 500 Facebook Group
On recommendation from our friends Darren & Rebecca over at izogadventure we joined the awesome nc500 Facebook Group which connected us with people who had done, are doing or who live along the North Coast 500 route. We got lots of recommendations from the group & were able to keep an eye on other people’s adventures as well as sharing our own.
Scotland’s Dreaded Midges
Very unpopular along this route, the midges (basically a small mosquito) are rife from the start of June & can be around until the end of October. There were thankfully none when we were there in May but we have heard that can be a bit of a nightmare when they are. We’ve used Avon Skin So Soft as mosquito repellent & have heard that is particularly successful in warding off Scottish midges. Other tips would be to purchase a midge rather than a mosquito net whilst camping (the mesh is a lot finer).
Ticks (Another Pesky Little Bug)
To be avoided at all costs, ticks tend to sit atop plants such as heather during the summer months. Our biggest piece of advice here is to wear long trousers when out walking & avoid walking through any bushes, plants & shrubs. Dogs should be taken particular care of as they can run through shrubs & become tick-covered.
Total Road Trip Cost
We completed our nc500 trip on a serious budget, wild camping most of the way which meant our only costs were…
• Fuel = £180.
• Food = £80.
• One night at a campsite = £12.
• Some stops for food & coffee as well as various donations for car parks & sights on the way round = £20.
Our total spends = £292 for the two of us – you could, of course, splurge out a little more than we did.
The Scottish Weather & Being Prepared For It
If you live in the UK you’ll know all about our weather, if you don’t you’ll most probably have heard of it.
The Highlands, however, is perhaps one of the most unpredictable areas & is so changeable that you could be in shorts & t-shirt one minute & scarf, jumper, hat & gloves the next – no matter what time of year! Bring plenty of layers, including warm & waterproofs & have them at hand just in case.
If you happen to be looking for some new comfy & warm layers check out our very own organic clothing range Nature Threads.
For weather forecasting we always find the Norwegian forecast the most accurate, you can search forecasts anywhere in the world through their website or app. For hiking, as mentioned above we always use mountain-forecast.com to check mountain weather. Our number one tip with the weather is to embrace it & accept it for what it is or you could of course join in with the rest of us Brits & have a good old whinge about it!
Your NC500 Trip
We hope you’ve enjoyed reading about our nc500 experience & you have found enough info & inspo to help you plan your own trip.
Remember to bookmark this post & reference back to it, using the links to Google maps live you’ll be able to use it to follow our exact route.
If we have missed anything at all or you have any questions, don’t be shy, let us know in the comments below.
Kelly & Adam x
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