North Coast 500:

Scotland's Ultimate Roadtrip

NC500 Road Trip Guide:

The Best Things to see in Scotland's Highlands

The North Coast 500 (NC500 for short) is absolutely one of the best things to see in Scotland. This NC500 road trip guide will take you on the most scenic roadway in all of the UK. Everything you need to know about the NC500 can be found here. Of course, you can find varying routes and itineraries all over the internet. But here, will tell you about our experiences and some of our favorite spots along the way so you can make the best NC500 itinerary for yourself.

We started and finished the North Coast 500 in Edinburgh, taking a total of 7 days. After finishing, we absolutely recommend more time if you have the means. From beginning to end we drove roughly 1,100 miles. We have driven this  mileage in one day during parts of our North American road trip, much less scenic drives than this one.

Yes I know the route is advertised as 500 miles (see the map below). But if you're starting the NC500 out of Edinburgh or Glasgow, you'll need to plan on driving a few hundred miles more.

NC500 Road Trip Itinerary

Instead of giving you a rigid itinerary, this NC500 road trip guide will give you some ideas of towns and sights to see along the way, as well as suggested amounts of time to spend in each place. If you're looking for where to stay along the NC500, we have a few suggestions below. For more details on lodging, read our other post here.

Suggested Itinerary
Our Itinerary

Isle of Skye

In our opinion, Isle of Skye is the highlight of the North Coast 500. Though not everybody considers this part of the standard NC500 road trip itinerary, we think it deserves to be here since because it's one of the best things to see in Scotland. The shoulder season (between mid April and early May) is the best time to visit the Isle of Skye because you'll beat the summer crowds.

Isle of Skye - 600 16x9
Isle of Skye 2 Day Guide - Niest Point Lighthouse
Best Hiking on the Isle of Skye

In our opinion, the Old Man of Storr is one of the best hikes on the Isle of Skye. There are two main loops that range from 4.5km – 10km (2.8mi – 6mi). Both hikes start out pretty easy but at points can be a bit of a daunting climb. The viewpoint from the top of this hike gives you a spectacular scene with the Sound of Raamsay in the background. Note - the picture first picture above is a drone shot.

We ended up staying near the remote village of Elgol, which is found along the beautiful waters of Lochs Slapin and Eishort. Another more challenging hike to do on the Isle of Skye is Mt. Bla Bheinn which is 8.5km (5.3mi) and nearly 900m (2,942 ft) tall. If you want to enjoy the views without the hike, we recommend driving along the single lane road that lies around the circumference of the loch.

We ended up staying near the remote village of Elgol, which is found along the beautiful waters of Lochs Slapin and Eishort. Another more challenging hike to do on the Isle of Skye is Mt. Bla Bheinn which is 8.5km (5.3mi) and nearly 900m (2,942 ft) tall. If you want to enjoy the views without the hike, we recommend driving along the single lane road that lies around the circumference of the loch.

Best things to see Isle of Skye - Loch Slapin

Applecross | Gairloch

Since we only planned 7 days for our NC500 road trip, we barely scratched the surface of this part of the highlands. If you begin near the Isle of Skye, Applecross and Gairloch are just out of the way as you make your way towards Ullapool.

We heard amazing things about this stretch as there are more beautiful lochs surrounded by mountains. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time for the whole detour since we spent the majority of our third day squeezing out the last bit of the beauty on Skye.

Applecross Gairloch Wooly Cows - 600 original

We heard amazing things about this stretch as there are more beautiful lochs surrounded by mountains. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time for the whole detour since we spent the majority of our third day squeezing out the last bit of the beauty on Skye.

Nonetheless, if you plan at least 10 days for your NC500 road trip itinerary, we definitely recommend a detour to this portion of the west coast. Who knows, you might even see some wooly Scottish highland cows!

Ullapool

The next stop on our NC500 road trip guide is the small town of Ullapool that sits near the Summer Isles of Scotland. The drive from Skye to Ullapool features countless lochs to pretty small towns such as Applecross or Gairloch. Along the way you’re bound to see plenty of rapeseed fields. Rapeseed? Yea we were caught off guard by the name too. It's actually is a bright yellow flower that is cultivated to produce a form of vegetable oil[1].

NC500 Road Trip Itinerary - Ullapool
NC500 Road Trip Guide - Ullapool

If you’re looking for campgrounds along the NC500, Ullapool has some beautiful camping spots along Loch Broom. When we visited in late April there were tons of spots available. To be honest, it brought back some nostalgia of when we did our North American road trip in an RV. We were a bit envious of the campers from our Airbnb.

Ardveck Castle | Calda House

Some of the best things to see in Scotland are the castles and ruins dating back to the Middle Ages. Though some of the castles are in ruins, like Ardvreck castle, they are still amazing sites to visit.

Arial view of Ardveck
Arial view of Ardveck
NC500 Road Trip Itinerary - Ardveck Castle
Ardveck Castle
NC500 Road Trip Itinerary - Calda House
Calda House

Ardveck castle is roughly a 35-40 minute drive outside Ullapool. It’s a fairly well preserved castle constructed in the late 16th century[2]. Just a short walk away is the Calda House, which was meant to ‘replace’ Ardveck castle as a larger and more comfortable Georgian style in the 18th century[3].

Achmelvich Bay

Achmelvich Bay is one of the most beautiful beaches in Scotland. The waters are a stunning mixture of blue and teal; think Carribbean but on the north coast of Scotland. Though they’re not quite warm enough for swimming, we highly recommend stopping here for a visit. This beach is accessible by car via one lane roads and lies about an hour north of Ullapool, roughly 20-25 minutes from Ardveck castle.

Best things to see in Scotland - Achmelvich Bay
NC500 Road trip guide - Achmelvich Bay

Durness

The next place on our NC500 road trip guide is the small village of Durness. We made it here with about an hour to spare before sunset. After checking into our hostel, the receptionist recommended his favorite spot, Balnakeil Beach, which is only about a mile down the road from the Lazy Crofter Bunkhouse hostel.

In our opinion, Balnakeil Beach is the best things to see on the NC500 road trip guide . About 2.4km (1.5mi) away is Sango Bay beach, which is definitely a runner up along with Achmelvich Bay. However, we like Balnakeil because it’s a bit bigger than the other two and we had the place to ourselves.

NC500 Road Trip Itinerary - Balnakeil Beach
Balnakeil Beach 1 - 600 original

Roughly a 10 minute drive from Durness is Ceannabeinne Beach. Above this beach on the side of A838 is the Golden Eagle Zip line which is allegedly the most northerly zip line in the UK[4]. The zip line costs £12/person which is a bit steep so we opted out of doing the ride. Nonetheless, the views of Ceannabeinne Beach below are worth definitely worth the stop here.

John O'Groats

Our fifth night on our NC500 road trip guide was spent in John O’Groats. This sparsely populated town of only 300 people lies on the most northeastern tip of mainland United Kingdom. Perhaps the most iconic piece of this small village is the ‘Journey’s End’ signpost next to the rainbow colored John O'Groats house.

Originally this signpost operated as a paid tourist attraction with one customizable text on one of the arrows. Nowadays it's free and lists various destinations around the world like New York, Edinburgh, and Land’s End[5].

John OGroats 4 - 600 original
NC500 Road trip guide - John O'Groats
Best things to see in Scotland - John O'Groats
Duncansby Stacks
Duncansby Stacks

Another one of the best things to see in Scotland are the Duncansby Stacks which are just a short distance from John O’Groats. This scenic viewpoint is on the same peninsula as the Duncansby Head lighthouse.

A short 15-20 minute walk from the car park will give you an excellent viewpoint of these massive pinnacle shaped rocks. There is no entrance cost or fee to park here, which is one of the things we love about seeing the natural beauty of Scotland.

These beauties reminded us a bit of the Cliffs of Moher, but were definitely much less crowded with people. But as you walk along, you'll notice these dramatic cliffs are home to hundreds of seagulls.

These beauties reminded us a bit of the Cliffs of Moher, but were definitely much less crowded with people. But as you walk along, you'll notice these dramatic cliffs are home to hundreds of seagulls.

Wick

There are tons of things to see on the east coast of Scotland, especially around the town of Wick. Though it’s not far from John O’Groats, it makes an excellent point of interest to fit in your NC500 Road Trip itinerary guide . Just 10-15 minutes from Wick is Sinclair-Girnigoe Castle.

Like many ruins in Scotland, this one is also open to the public and free of charge. However, there is a small donation box on the gate outside the car park if you’re feeling generous. The Sinclar Castle lasted from the late 15th century until falling into ruins 200 years later. There's a cool plaque at the site that shows how the castle site looked from its inception, to the prime of its existence, until it began sinking into ruin.

Best things to see in Scotland: Sinclair Castle
Sinclair-Girnigoe Castle
Best things to see in Scotland: Whaligoe Steps
Whaligoe Steps

Not far from the Sinclair-Girnigoe castle are the Whaligoe Steps. Our Airbnb host said this beautiful cliffside walk is one of the best things to see in Scotland. Built by Captain David Brodie in the 18th century, this staircase consists of 365 manmade steps carved into the side of a cliff down to a naturally forming harbor. Once used by fishermen and women to bring their haul of fish from the sea to the top of the cliffs, it’s still possible to walk these steps today. They undergo constant maintenance to preserve the historical significance of the site[6].

Dunrobin Castle Gardens
Dunrobin Castle Gardens
Dunrobin Castle
Dunrobin Castle

Another one of the best things to see in Scotland along the NC500 road trip is Dunrobin Castle. This one took us by surprise because saw online that it's rather pricey for a ticket (£12.00/adult), but we decided to stop here anyway. It turns out that a ticket is only required to go inside the castle, but the surrounding gardens are free.

Inverness

The last day of the NC500 road trip guide will most likely be spent in Inverness, one of the most southernmost towns along the route. As we drove through, the Culloden Viaduct caught our eye from the road. We wanted to get a closer look for ourselves and nobody was around so we got to marvel this magnificent bridge with an arial view.

Best things to see in Scotland - Cawdor Castle
Cawdor Castle
Culloden Viaduct - Best things to see in Scotland
Culloden Viaduct

Arguably the most popular attraction around Inverness is the world renowned Loch Ness. Known for it's folklore around the Loch Ness monster, this enormous body of water is the largest by volume in the British Isles[7]. The lake is approximately 36km (22.5mi) long and 2.7km (1.7mi) at its widest point to 227m (745ft) at its deepest point. An absolute unit. If you’re interested in learning more about the history of Loch Ness and the legend of ‘Nessie’ the Loch Ness monster, we recommend checking out the Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition which is £8.45/adult.

NC500 Road Trip Itinerary - Loch Ness
Loch Ness
Cawdor Castle
Cawdor Castle

Though Loch Ness is considered one of the best things to see in Scotland, we really enjoyed seeing Cawdor Castle. In our opinion, this place is a little bit overlooked especially compared to the attractions around Loch Ness.

Not only are the castle gardens beautiful, there are several hiking trails that take you through the surrounding woodlands. Enjoying a coffee then going for a hike through the woods here was definitely the highlight of our last day on the NC500. Though tickets start at £7.50, we still thought it should make our list of the best things to see in Scotland.

How to plan your NC500 Road Trip Itinerary

As I mentioned before, some people plan this trip months in advance while others (like us) only plan it a couple weeks in advance. To be honest, we were able to get away with little planning since we went in the shoulder season (late April). If you're planning on going during the summer and want to get a good deal on accommodation, we recommend booking your lodging at least 2-3 months ahead of time.

When is the best time of year to do the NC500?

Of course the answer to this is...it depends! From our experience, we think late April or early May is the best time of year to do the NC500. It's worth noting that a lot of roadways in Scotland are single lane roads with passing points. This means that if you're coming head on with another car one of you will have to give way.

As you can imagine, these roads can get pretty backed up if there's a lot of two-way traffic. We heard from a few locals that the roadways are a nightmare during the summer, especially with all the RVs. We don't recommend going during the summer months for that reason, plus lodging tends to be more expensive in the high season.

Rental Car Cost Breakdown

  • Total Cost: £443.14 ($560.30 USD)
    • Car Rental: £280.07 ($352.10 USD)
      • Full Insurance included (£0 liability)
    • Fuel Cost: £163.07 ($208.20 USD)
  • Daily Cost: £63.31 ($80.04 USD)
  • Miles Driven: ~1,100

EuropCar Rentals | Sixt Car Rentals

In order to do the North Coast 500, you'll need to rent a car. While it's possible to take trains between some of the cities, there are just too many spots along the way that are only accessible by car.

We picked up and dropped off the car at EuropCar in Edinburgh, which added a few hundred miles to our journey and why the total mileage came out to roughly 1,100 miles. Counting only what we drove along the NC500, the total comes out to roughly 800 miles. The fuel cost here includes the entire round trip distance from Edinburgh.

Where to stay on the NC500

If you're looking for where to stay along the NC500, we recommend checking Hostel World, Booking.com, and Airbnb within each city you plan on visiting. It can be a bit overwhelming to at it, especially if you're looking budget lodging.

That is why we decided to write an entire post dedicated to lodging options near each of the towns mentioned in this blog. Click here to read about budget lodging options along the NC500 in the Isle of Skye, Gairloch, Ullapool, Durness, John O'Groats, and Inverness.

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By |2019-08-02T18:57:06-05:00April 30th, 2019|Europe, Scotland|0 Comments

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