The North Coast 500, also known as the NC500, is Scotland’s most popular road trip. This circular road trip is 516 miles, starting and ending in Inverness. This route around the northern coast of Scotland offers beautiful white sandy beaches, along with a rugged coastline and dramatic mountains.
This road trip was branded by the Noth Coast 500 in 2015 and since then it has burst onto the scene in popularity, with many travellers wanting to get a glimpse of what this beautiful part of the world has to offer.
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North Coast 500 5 Day Itinerary
To get the most out of your NC500 road trip, we would advise spending more time enjoying each area instead of driving the whole route in a few days. This will allow you to see a lot more of what each area has to offer. However, if this is not possible for you, we have put together this 5 day itinerary to the North Coast 500, capuring some of the best things to do around the route.
- Day 1 – East Coast
- Day 2 – North Coast
- Day 3 – Visit an Island
- Day 4 – West Coast
- Day 5 – West Coast to Inverness
- Preparing for your trip to the NC500.
Day 1 – East Coast
One of two cafes on the NC500 route, the hot chocolates on offer here are sheer decadence. Rich and creamy hot chocolates with hand-crafted chocolate “chasers” to go on the side. They also sell a selection of cakes and touristy gifts in the coffee shop. Cocoa Mountain mainly offers a takeaway service, however, sometimes they will open up to sit in too. We would definitely recommend this as a must-try stop on this route.
We would recommend bringing your Cocoa Mountain hot chocolate down to Dornoch Beach for a stroll. Dornoch Beach is a beautiful stretch of sandy beach that goes on for miles! It sits within walking distance from the quaint town of Dornoch. The soft white sand is met with sand dunes and a lush long grassy embankment.
The beach has gentle shallow water which is perfect for paddling or swimming. When it is low tide, you will be walking quite a distance before you get any swimming done though!
The beach is popular with dog walkers throughout the year and it is possible to walk along the beach at both high and low tide.
There is a small beach car park level with the beach that is suitable for small vehicles. Dornoch Beach Wheelchairs is located here and is a brilliant way to make the beach accessible for everyone. If this interests you, make sure to book in advance.
There is a larger car park for motorhomes and overflow parking beside the children’s play area.
Home to Clan Dunrobin, the Dunrobin Castle on the NC500 dates back to the Middle Ages. The majority of the current structure has sat here since built between 1835 and 1850. Dunrobin Castle lies north of Dornoch, on the east coast and is one of the largest castles in the northern highlands.
It is £12 entry into the castle or you can enjoy the castle from the exterior gardens. Go for a walk around the grounds and admire the outside of the building, as well as the quiet beach at the bottom of the hill.
Hidden on the eastern edge of northern Scotland, before you reach the small town of Wick, is one of the most remarkable man-made constructions in the United Kingdom. The winding, limestone staircase of the Whaligoe Steps dates back hundreds of years to the days when this tiny harbour was one of the most important in the region. Numbering 330 in total, the steps lead down to the remains of Whaligoe harbour, which once hosted up to 14 boats of the local fishermen. Landing their daily catch here in the harbour, the fishermen and their families would then need to carry it up the winding staircase, all the way to the top.
The steps are steep and will require a level of fitness to get to the bottom and back up.
The car park for the Whaligoe Steps is small, you could also turn left off the A99 and park at Loch Watenan instead.
Castle Sinclair & Castle Girnigoe
The history and splendour of the castles around the NC500 are simply fascinating, none more so than the ancient remains of Castle Sinclair and Girnigoe. By far our favourite castle around the North Coast 500, these silent remains tell a beautiful tale of how life in the north of Scotland used to be.
Perched perilously close to the cliff edges, just north of the town of Wick, these beautiful castle remains look like they are straight out of a fantasy film. The castle itself has had quite an eventful history, including multiple seizures, grand expansions, and family murder. The earliest parts of the castle are believed to date back to the 15th century, with expansion projects being continuously added all through to the siege of 1680, which damaged the castle so badly it was never inhabited again.
The most famous sight in the northern coast of Scotland and end of the countrywide, 874-mile trail from Lands End to John O’ Groats is the famous landmark John O’Groats signpost marking the end of the road. This signpost is one of the most photographed signposts in the world and draws thousands of visitors every single year, all eager to capture a picture at the edge of the world.
The sign that you visit today is actually a replacement of the original, which was installed in 1964 on private land and required a fee to have a photo taken beside it. In 2013 the original site was bought as part of a hotel renovation project, and upon completion, a new sign was installed in the original location available to public access.
If you wish to view the original and have your picture taken with customisable text on the sign, you can do so at the John O’Groats Caravan Park 180m from the original site.
Where to Stay in John O’Groats?
John O’Groats Caravan and Camping Site
As we approach the most northern area of mainland UK, we reach the beautiful campsite of the John O’Groats Caravan and Camping Site. This famous town sits as a bucket list destination to many travellers, some of whom have it in their sights as the finishing line for the 874-mile journey from Lands End in the south of Cornwall.
The campsite sits adjacent to the “last house in Scotland”, directly on the banks of the Pentland Firth. From here, you can relax with stunning views of the northern horizon, decorated with the Isle of Stroma and the distant outlines of the Orkney Islands. Also, with a clear sky and the right conditions, this is also the best place in the UK to view the beautiful phenomenon of the Northern Lights.
Powered pitches on this campsite cost roughly £24 and can be booked on their website.
The best hotels and holiday homes that you can stay in are all within close vicinity of the stunning sunset spot of the Duncansby Lighthouse. For affordable and comfortable accommodation, you can choose from the Seaview Hotel, Puffin Cottage, the Anchorage B&B and Hamnavoe.
Day 2 – The North Coast
Duncansby Stacks and Duncansby Lighthouse
After spending a night in John O’Groats, head up over the hill to see the local marvel, the Duncansby Stacks.
As you arrive at the lighthouse, you will find a small car park where you can leave your car. From here, walk over the hill to your right and the incredible towers of rock will come into view. These colossal monuments to time are a fantastic photo opportunity.
These towering sea stacks are believed to have stood in this position for the last 6000 years, slowly eroding away due to the raw power of the North Sea. The water in this part of Scotland has proven itself treacherous over the years, which has resulted in the construction of the nearby Duncansby Lighthouse.
Built in 1924, this lighthouse remained home to a keeper for over 70 years, until in 1997, it was fully automated and no longer required a resident. Soon after this automation, the keeper’s housing quarters showed signs of dampness and asbestos and were subsequently removed. The lighthouse tower remains here to this day, still functional and protecting boats from the crags and cliffs of this destructive span of water.
Strathy Point Lighthouse
Built in 1958, this lighthouse sits isolated at the very northern end of the Strathy Peninsula. Hidden by the rolling and rocky hills of this desolate stretch of land, the lighthouse has now been converted to accommodate travellers for both long-term and short-term stays.
One of the most picturesque beaches on the northern coast, this beach is guarded by towering cliffs to the east and the River Strathy to the west. It is pretty inaccessible, with a steep, long climb down to the beach itself. However, the Strathy Beach car park offers a breathtaking vantage point above the wide bay and distant cliffs. This isolated beach is well worth the journey if you wish to make the climb down.
There are toilets located in the car park.
Coldbackie Sands is one of our favourite hidden beaches on the NC500 due to how quiet it is. This beach is accessible by climbing down a steep hill down the cliff through a carved path. There is a small pull in area at the side of the road where you can park to access this beach. Follow the path down to the beach and enjoy the white sandy beach overlooking the Kyle of Tongue all to yourself. There are no facilities at this beach.
Sango Sands is an incredible stretch of sand sitting in between the cliffs. The sand is so clean and the water is so clear. There is a campsite, Sango Sands Oasis, that sits overlooking Sango Sands Beach and from here you can access the Sango Sands Viewpoint. This viewpoint is a raised wooden platform overlooking the bays on either side.
There is parking around the area and public toilets beside the Spar.
Where to Stay in Durness?
The award-winning Sango Sands Oasis sits high above the spectacular, golden Sango Sands beach, one of the most popular north-west Scotland campsites. With an onsite bar and restaurant, stocked full of all the best Scotch Whisky, this cosy campsite is ideal for your stay in the north-west of Scotland.
Nearby sights and attractions include the ancient and fascinating Smoo Cave, Faraid Head, Cape Wrath and Loch Eriboll. From the vantage point of the campsite, it is also not uncommon to see the odd whale, seal and even bottlenose dolphin cruising past the bay.
Prices on Sango Sands are £9.50 per adult and additional costs for children and electricity.
The remote Handa Island is one of the best day trips that you can take on the NC500 route. The island is around 300 hectares in size and has the highest point of over 120-metres. The island Scotland Wildlife Trust nature reserve, is home to over 100,000 wild seabirds and a greatly significant area in terms of birdlife and marine vegetation.
It is possible to visit the island by catching a ferry from the local port across to the island, where you will be met by an RSPCA volunteer who will give you a quick induction to the island. These volunteers take turns to live on the island and study the local wildlife, so they are able to provide great insight into what you can expect to see on the island. They will also warn you of where you are and are not allowed to go on the island, depending on the breeding season.
The island itself is quite small, with a walking loop around the entire island taking only a few hours. The walk around the island is absolutely breathtaking, made even better by the stunning views of mainland Scotland across the light blue water. Keep an eye out for dolphins and whales off the shore and as you make your way across to the island by boat.
The small, ribbed boat from Tarbet across to the island, normally running between April to September. The furry runs six days a week, with no service on Sundays, and is of course at the discretion of the captain based on weather conditions. If you wish to know more about the ferry, you can find contact details on the website.
The largest habitation on Scotland’s northwestern coast, the harbour town of Ullapool is home to around 1,500 people, and acts as the central hub for exports to the remote islands of the Outer Hebrides. Protected by the surrounding ridges of the mountains that tower over Loch Broom, Ullapool offers possibly one of the most picturesque town views in the highlands. Enjoy your time in this buzzing and welcoming highland town by visiting one of the many bars and restaurants that line the seafront street, offering stunning views down the loch towards the southern end of Loch Broom.
Where to Stay in Ullapool
Broomfield Holiday Park
The only campsite in the town of Ullapool, Broomfield Campsite is perfectly located for those wanting to spend the night in the buzzing town centre. With loads of bars, restaurants and shops to explore and try along the seafront of Ullapool, we highly recommend this campsite for during your visit to the port town.
As the sun sets over the nearby mountains, the local pubs come to life with live music, great atmosphere and fantastic company of locals and tourists alike.
Prices at the Broomfield Holiday Park range from £17-21 for 2 adults in a tent, caravan and motorhome.
Day 4 – West Coast
Ullapool Hill is located within walking distance from the town centre. This is a short yet steep walk that reveals incredible views over Ullapool and Loch Broome. We would recommend walking up for sunrise to catch the golden glow and to make time for the rest of the days activities.
You can park either on the seafront which is paid parking or in the large car park beside Tesco. Leave around 2-2.5 hours for this walk as it is around a 7.5km round trip.
Gairloch Kayaking & Canoeing
If you are wanting to see some wildlife on the west coast of Scotland, then you won’t want to miss a trip out with Gairloch Canoe and Kayak Centre. Leaving from Sheildaig Lodge, you will head out on a kayak, tandem or single depending on your preference. An experienced guide will talk about points of interest whilst on the lookout for curious wildlife.
On our kayak tour, we were lucky to see a colony of seals, sunbathing and swimming around, following our kayaks. You may also see a variety of bird species flying around and nesting on the rocks. This was one of our favourite things to do on the west coast of Scotland.
Victoria Falls is a beautiful waterfall nestled in the forest across from Loch Maree. Named after a visit by Queen Victoria in 1877, Scotland’s answer to South Africa’s towering giant sits not far from the beautiful Loch Maree. Easily accessible by wheelchair, a flat, dirt path leads out to the viewing platform, which offers a great view of the cascading water into the lower gorge.
There is a walking route that follows the waterfall upstream for more beautiful views across the Loch.
Victoria Falls is part of the Forestry Commission and it is free to park here.
Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve
West of the highland town of Kinlochewe, the towering trinity of Torridon peaks guard the lower banks of Loch Maree. The most prominent peak of this ridge is Beinn Eighe, which stands 1010m tall, and is a hugely popular munro, which features a well-walked path up its steep slopes to its rocky and rough ridgeline. A good walk for experienced hikers however it is unlikely you will have time for that peak on this itinerary.
You can either park in the car park and admire the views over the loch from the nature reserve or go on one of the beautiful forestry walks in the area.
Where to Stay in Torridon?
Kinlochewe Caravan Club Site
Hidden away on the towering slopes of Beinn Eighe, the peaceful setting of the Kinlochewe Caravan Clube Site makes it a very popular choice of accommodation in the Bein Eighe National Nature Reserve. With beautiful lochs, rugged mountains and an abundance of local wildlife, this campsite are far removed from the hustle of the main NC500 route.
Residents of the campsite have access to the onsite BBQ area, the shower, toilet and dishwashing facilities and the amenities of the local town, which is just a short walk away. Here you will find a shop, cafe, hotel and petrol station.
Prices on the Kinlochewe Caravan Site range from £9-11 for one adult in a tent, and £14-16 for one adult in a caravan/motorhome.
Day 5 – West Coast – Inverness
Sheildaig is a lovely seafront village overlooking Loch Torridon. We would recommend coming here for a morning coffee or some breakfast however we would advise calling ahead to make sure they are open and you are not left disappointed.
There are two ways to reach the small village of Applecross, one leading around the peninsula to the north and one snaking its way directly over the mountains. If you are driving a large vehicle or are not comfortable driving on narrow, winding roads with steep drops, then we suggest you take the scenic route to the north.
The Bealach na Ba is one of the world’s most spectacular drives. It sits as the third highest road in Scotland and has the steepest ascent of any road in the UK, reaching an altitude of 626 metres. Named “the pass of the cattle“, the Bealach na Ba was once the only route from Applecross to the rest of the country and was used by farmers to transport livestock to the markets in central Scotland.
Today it is famous for its narrow, twisting turns, similar to those in the Italian Alps, as well as its stunning view of the sea from its highest point. On a clear day, it is possible to see all the way to the Isle of Skye and the beautifully haunting outline of the Cullin mountain range.
Your road trip ends back in the capital of the highlands, Inverness. If you have time, there are a lot of things to do in Inverness, including boat trips, shopping and the famous Leaky’s Bookshop.
Before You Leave on the North Coast 500
Before you head off on your trip around the NC500, there are certain things you will need to get organised to ensure a smooth trip. These include how to get around the route, including being aware of single track roads, etc., what to pack for Scotland, where to stay along the route and what travel insurance to book.
How Do I Get Around the NC500?
Given the remote location of the NC500 and the majority of the sights along the route, the best way to get around this road trip is by driving. There are of course other methods that are still popular, such as cycling and hiking, however, if you have a short amount of time on the route, neither of these are very suitable.
As for public transport, the use around the NC500 is understandably difficult due to how remote each location is, however, with the increasing problem of congestion along the route, this is a good option to research if you have time. If it is something that interests you, you can read a public formed itinerary of how to get around the NC500 by public transport over here.
If you are looking to rent a cosy, reliable, and luxurious campervan for your trip along the NC500, we highly recommend hiring through Spaceship Rentals.
What Should I Pack for the NC500?
When it comes to packing for a trip along the NC500 there is one item of clothing that you are going to need all year round: a waterproof. It rains in Scotland on average 250 days a year, meaning that during your 7-day NC500 road trip you will probably experience at least a drizzle of rain. Due to this, the number one item on any Scotland packing list is a good waterproof jacket.
As for the rest of the year, the temperature in Scotland and the central heartlands is reasonably mild for most of the year. During the winter months, you will most likely experience snow, however, temperatures usually sit around freezing, so it is not too cold. For your reference, the average temperatures in Scotland are listed below during each season.
Spring (March, April, May) – 5-10 degrees C
Summer (June, July, August) – 15 degrees C
Autumn (September, October, November) – 5-10 degrees C
Winter (December, January, February) – 0-5 degrees C
As you can see, the weather never really gets above the teens, with anything over 25 degrees C considered a heatwave. The best way to pack for your trip to the highlands is with layers that can be added and removed as you need them. You will definitely need a hat and gloves during the colder months and will most likely need sunscreen to protect you on the long days in the open.
Given the beautiful sights and scenery that you are no doubt going to see around Scotland, we highly recommend packing a good camera for your trip. If you want to read more about the cameras we use and why we love them, check out the link below.
Where Should I Stay on the NC500?
The remoteness in the highlands of Scotland will leave you with little choice of accommodation in each location along the NC500, however, there are still enough options to choose from to ensure a comfortable trip. These are mostly in the shape of B&Bs, Airbnbs, converted cottages and other quirky accommodations.
Depending on how adventurous you are, there may be more accommodation choices than just the above, often with an even better view. Caravan and camping sites are abundant along the NC500, drawing camping enthusiasts from all over the world. For some of the most spectacular bedside scenery along the North Coast 500, we recommend packing a tent and getting in touch with nature for the week.
As we travelled along the North Coast 500, camped in our trusty Vango tent on a mixture of campsites and wild sites. Wild camping is a fantastic way to enjoy the beauty of the highlands, however, it must be done respectfully. Read our full guide to Wild Camping if you wish to give it a go so you know everything you need to for a comfortable and sustainable trip.
What is the Best Travel Insurance?
No matter what type of adventure you are heading on, whether it is a mountain adventure or a relaxing beach destination, one thing we all need to be aware of is that accidents can happen. The last thing you want is for an unexpected medical emergency to ruin your trip of a lifetime. Luckily, that is what travel insurance is for.
Whenever we travel abroad, we get covered with World Nomad’s Travel Insurance, a reliable, friendly and extremely affordable method of covering yourself on any adventure. With years of experience working for backpackers around the globe, the service they provide is perfect for whatever type of trip you have planned.
So there you have it, a 5 day itinerary to the North Coast 500, including castles, cliff views, and beaches. If you have visited the NC500 recently, let us know what you thought of the sights listed above, or if you have any suggestions let us know in the comments below.
As always, sharing is caring so make sure to share this photo guide with your family and friends and inspire them to head off on their own North Coast 500 adventure. If you are planning the trip for yourself, make sure you have a look at the rest of our Scotland content for more inspiration to our beautiful home country.
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