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.