A UK road trip is an excellent opportunity to see more of the country and explore new areas – like Scotland. There you have magical castles, white sandy beaches, and many mountains. Spend a week driving through Scotland on the North Coast 500 and get a feel for the Scottish way of life.
In this article, we dive into the most essential things to know before heading to the North Coast 500 road trip.
What is the North Coast 500 route?
Renowned as Scotland’s premier road trip, the North Coast 500 is an enthralling 516-mile circuit along Scotland’s coast. Launched in 2014 by the North Highland Initiative, this picturesque path traverses six distinct areas: Black Isle, Caithness, Easter Ross, Inverness-Shire, Sutherland, and Wester Ross.
Each area along the route presents its allure, ranging from charming fishing villages and unspoiled beaches to historical sites and undiscovered treasures. Originating and concluding in Inverness, the NC500 meanders along the west coast towards Applecross, heads north to Torridon and Ullapool, and reaches Scotland’s extreme northern locales, including Caithness and John o’Groats, before looping back south via Dingwall to Inverness.
More than just a roadway, the NC500 connects a network of pre-existing trails encircling the northern Highlands. This route, curated to showcase the region’s spectacular natural scenery and support local enterprises, has quickly become a tourist destination.
Perfect for a thrilling adventure, a tranquil getaway, or a journey through stunning vistas, the NC500 offers a range of lodging and travel modes, such as camping and biking, ensuring a comprehensive experience of the North Highlands’ magnificent landscapes.
When is the Best Time of Year to Travel the North Coast 500?
The optimal time for the North Coast 500 road trip is typically between May and October. This period offers the best balance of open attractions and restaurants, a variety of lodging options, and a higher likelihood of warmer weather. Summer from May to September is particularly popular due to its drier, warmer climate, ideal for exploring Scotland’s diverse landscapes. However, it’s worth noting that this is also the busiest time, especially during school holidays.
For a quieter experience, consider traveling in April, early May, late September, or October, avoiding holidays and special events. While winter offers unique photographic opportunities and solitude, be prepared for challenging weather and limited access to some roads and businesses. Scotland’s weather can be unpredictable year-round, but May and September often provide a good balance of pleasant weather.
Spring and summer in the North Highlands are vibrant with long days and various events, including Highland Games and wildlife spotting opportunities. In contrast, although some attractions may be closed, autumn and winter reveal a different beauty with stunning foliage, opportunities to witness the Northern Lights, and unique activities like kayaking and white water rafting.
Ultimately, the best time to embark on the NC500 is when it suits you, keeping in mind to plan for the weather and to be flexible with your itinerary. The North Coast 500 offers a memorable journey any time of the year, whether lush summer landscapes or enchanting winter scenery.
How many days does it take to drive the North Coast 500?
When planning your North Coast 500 road trip adventure, the time it takes depends on your travel style and how deeply you want to immerse yourself in the experience. You could technically rush through the 516-mile route in less than 24 hours, but that would mean missing out on everything that makes this journey memorable.
I’d recommend setting aside at least five days for a trip that captures the essence of the North Coast 500. This gives you enough time to see the main sites and enjoy some of the area’s unique attractions. However, consider spending at least a week to savor the experience and have the whole Highland adventure. This will allow you to pass through and engage with the stunning landscapes, historical sites, and local culture.
If you love to explore slowly, taking in every detail and maybe venturing off the beaten path to places like Loch Ness or the Isle of Skye, allocating two weeks for your journey would be ideal. You can dive into hiking, nature, and the route’s rich history with more time.
Most importantly, remember, the NC500 will be enjoyed at your own pace. If time is limited, consider tackling just a section of the route and saving the rest for another trip. This way, you can genuinely appreciate each part of this magnificent journey without feeling rushed. Many people want to return to explore more or revisit their favorite spots – after all, even those who live here find new wonders to discover all the time!
What to see and do On The North Coast 500 Route
On the North Coast 500 route, you’ll encounter a plethora of attractions that cater to a variety of interests, making your journey a memorable one. Beaches and pools are abundant, offering great spots for family fun, although the water can be pretty cold.
There’s no shortage of options if you’re looking for guided activities. You can enjoy wildlife boat trips, ziplining, geology walks, fishing, canoeing or kayaking, pony trekking, and deer spotting, to name a few. Do note that many activities require booking and have age limits.
Camping along the NC500 can be a fun family activity, with several family-friendly campsites available. For hiking enthusiasts, trails, including stroller-friendly paths, are suitable for all ages. Don’t miss visiting Dunrobin Castle, known for its beautiful gardens and falconry displays.
Archaeological sites like Càrn Liath are easily accessible and free to visit. Loch Fleet offers excellent bird-watching opportunities along its walking trails, and Castle of Mey, once home to the Queen Mother, features a farm animal petting area. For a unique experience, visit Smoo Cave and consider joining a guided tour.
For a sweet treat, stop by Cocoa Mountain in Dornoch, and to learn about local geology, visit Rock Stop and Knockan Crag. Interewe Gardens offers tropical plants and wildlife spotting, making it an excellent place for nature lovers.
Each region along the route, from Inverness-Shire to Wester Ross, offers unique sights and adventures, ensuring that whether you seek relaxation or excitement, the NC500 has something for everyone.
How to start planning?
Planning your North Coast 500 road trip adventure requires a bit of foresight, especially considering its growing popularity. First, decide when you want to visit, how long you can stay, and what you’d like to see. Booking your car and accommodation in advance is crucial, especially during the busy summer months from May to September when many hotels are fully booked, and prices can soar for last-minute reservations.
It’s recommended to book popular hotels and B&Bs 3 to 6 months in advance, especially during summer and holidays, to avoid disappointment and higher costs.
Lodging options along the route vary widely, from budget-friendly hostels and campsites to luxury hotels, with average hotel costs for two people sharing a double room ranging from £70-£100 per night. For budget travelers, hostels and simple B&Bs can offer rates as low as £17-£25 per person.
Having at least a loose itinerary to manage your time effectively and accommodate places with limited opening times is a good idea. While few attractions require reservations, booking your lodging and activities like guided hikes, kayaking, boat tours, and fishing trips in advance is highly recommended.
If you’re not planning, consider a camping or campervan trip for more flexibility. This way, you only need to worry about transportation and camping gear, allowing you to decide whether to camp or seek traditional lodging. But make sure to take out motorhome insurance and have a recent MOT if you’re taking a motorhome. It’s better to be safe than sorry!
Before setting off, explore the North Coast 500 website and use their interactive map via a free app to find places to visit along the route. Downloading the area’s map on your phone beforehand will help you use Google Maps as a satnav without consuming network data, ensuring a smooth and well-informed journey along the North Coast 500.