It was in the lobby of a hotel in the small fishing village of Bettyhill on the Northwest coast of Scotland where I first heard the term North Coast 500. We had driven to the closest town from our wild camping spot, in search of a cup of coffee and a warm breakfast after having, unfortunately, run out of fuel for our camp stove. It wasn’t until later that I realised that the route we were driving, commonly referred to as “Scotland’s Route 66,” was actually part of a fairly new endeavour created by the North Highland Initiative to increase tourism to this underrepresented yet incredibly gorgeous region of Scotland. The North Coast 500 itinerary maps out a 516 mile (830 km) driving circuit beginning and ending in Inverness, and it might well be one of the greatest road trips in the world.
Though we didn’t know it at the time, our road trip through the Northern Highlands followed the North Coast 500 route, with some variations. If you are keen to explore this totally underrated area of Scotland, follow this itinerary and you certainly won’t be disappointed.
How to Get Around the NC500
While there are organised tour companies that will take you through the North Coast 500, this route is best done independently. As it doesn’t follow the traditional loop, having your own car will give you the flexibility to take your time on each stop and go at your own pace.
While public transport certainly exists in Scotland, the more rural you venture into this country, the more erratic the bus network becomes. If you’re not keen to be at the mercy of infrequent buses, then having your own car is a must when travelling on the NC500.
If you’re not sure where to rent a car from, we like to use Rentalcars.com to hunt for the best deal! Also, to keep costs down even further, we recommend you buy a policy from ICarHireInsurance who offer full excess coverage at a fraction that car rental companies charge.
The Perfect North Coast 500 Itinerary
Our North Coast 500 itinerary, like the one suggested by the North Highland Initiative, began and ended (kind of) in the Highland capital of Inverness.
North Coast 500 Itinerary: Days 1 – 2
Begin your NC500 itinerary in the lovely city of Inverness. Though small, there are a number of great things to do in Inverness and it’s worth spending the night here to explore it before hitting the road. It is most common to drive the NC500 in a clockwise manner, essentially going from west to east. That being said, after exploring Inverness, it’s time to buckle your seatbelts and enjoy an incredibly scenic drive.
The first stop from Inverness should be at the charming seaside town of Ullapool, about a 90-minute drive from the city. While there isn’t much to really do in Ullapool, I would highly recommend going on a boat trip with Sheerwater Cruises, where you can spot some dolphins, seal colonies, and eagles while enjoying the beautiful coastal scenery.
Their three-hour trip also includes a brief stop on Tanera Mor, the largest of the Summer Isles. We were lucky and saw a massive pod of dolphins that were swimming right next to the boat — this was definitely one of the highlights of our trip! I would also recommend having lunch in Ullapool before continuing on, there are a number of chippies lining the harbour and we enjoyed some of the best fish and chips we’d ever had!
After lunch, it’s time to hit the road again and start heading north. This is where the drive starts getting off of the main highway, the scenery gets more rugged, and the roads get more narrow. Pro tip: make sure that you fill up your tank in Ullapool because petrol stations get few and far between from this point forward.
Your final destination for this leg of the North Coast 500 itinerary should be the lovely town of Durness, but make sure to make some stops before you arrive. Spend some time exploring the ruined 16th-century Ardvreck Castle on the banks of Loch Assynt or stroll along the beach in the charming fishing village of Scourie. Once you arrive in Durness, I would highly recommend hiking down and around the Smoo Cave, which is a truly spectacular sea cave surrounded by a gorgeous white sand beach and some breathtaking scenery. If it’s chilly, stop in for a hot chocolate at Cocoa Mountain Cafe, which is meant to have some of the best in the world.
North Coast 500 Itinerary: Days 3 – 6
The next leg sees you diverting from the traditional North Coast 500 itinerary and making your way to the inimitable Orkney Islands. From Durness, I would recommend making a stop in the quaint village of Bettyhill. If you’re feeling a bit peckish or, like us, are in desperate need of a cup of coffee, pop into the Cafe at Bettyhill. This is a lovely little family run cafe with very friendly owners and seriously the best homemade scones I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating. They also provided ample amounts of homemade jam and cream!
It’s time now to head to the ferry terminal in Scrabster and head to Orkney. The ferry ride, which is about 90 minutes, is incredibly scenic and comfortable. Keep an eye out for the Old Man of Hoy, Britain’s largest sea stack, on the second-largest island of the Orkney archipelago. I would recommend spending at least three days in Orkney, though you could easily spend more. Michael and I quickly fell in love with the bucolic setting, laid-back lifestyle, and the vast amount of ancient archaeological sites.
North Coast 500 Itinerary: Day 7
After you detour in Orkney, it’s time to hit the road once more on the mainland and take in the last leg of this North Coast 500 itinerary, which sees you driving from Scrabster to the lovely city of Tain. While there aren’t many places to stop on the east coast of Scotland, Tain itself is a wonderful place to explore. It is also home to the Glenmorangie Distillery, which is definitely worth a tour if you want to learn more about Scotch whisky. Spend the night in or around Tain and enjoy your last night of the NC500 route.
On the last day, it’s time to head back to Inverness. As you already spent one day exploring the city, why not use this opportunity to take one of many day trips from Inverness? A trip to the Culloden Battlefield or Loch Ness is a perfect way to round out this North Coast 500 itinerary.
North Coast 500 Accommodation
If you’re on a budget and enjoy spending time in the great outdoors, I would highly recommend that you consider camping throughout your NC500 circuit. There are a number campsites along the route, but if you are feeling a bit more adventurous or want to penny pinch even further North Coast 500 wild camping opportunities are plentiful. It is completely legal to wild camp most anywhere in Scotland, even on private property, so long as you’re not a nuisance and don’t stay for extended periods of time. We wild camped for the entirety of our NC500 trip (excluding Orkney) and cannot recommend it enough. There is something that is so magical about finding the perfect spot and waking up completely alone in the peaceful wilderness. So if you’re really looking for a great escape North Coast 500 wild camping is a fantastic option.
There are also a number of B&B’s around in almost every town along the NC500 and options are certainly not limited to the suggestions I made above. It is worth noting that the days of just searching for a vacancy sign the day-of are over and if you’re travelling in peak season, and it’s best to book in advance if you want to have a bed to sleep in.
Here are our recommendations for where to stay on each stop in this alternative North Coast 500 itinerary!
Where to Stay in Inverness
Because Inverness is a popular base for both those who are embarking on a North Coast 500 route, it isn’t lacking in accommodation options for any size of budget. Here are some of our top picks:
Best Budget Option: Black Isle Hostel
This is one of the best-rated and located hostels in Inverness. They have a number of dorms and private rooms, a welcoming and friendly staff, and a bar serving over 20 different kinds of local craft beers. This would be a great place to stay, especially if you’re travelling solo and want to meet like-minded travellers. Click here to see the latest prices for Black Isle Hostel!
Best Mid-Range Option: Torridon Guest House
This charming bed and breakfast is one of the best places to stay in Inverness if your budget allows for a little bit more than a hostel. It is located within a short walking distance of the city centre, has great ratings, comfortable rooms, breakfast included, and free parking. Click here to see the latest prices for Torridon Guest House!
A great alternative accommodation option is Airbnb. You can get a private room on Airbnb for about £35/night and you get the added benefit of staying with a local. If you’re new to Airbnb, you can click here to get up to $40 off of your first stay!
Not what you’re looking for? Then click here to browse the best available deals on hotels in Inverness!
Where to Stay in Durness
Durness is a small town so there isn’t a lot of choice when it comes to places to stay. Here is our top pick for Durness:
Best Option: Durness Smoo Youth Hostel
Because of Durness’ diminutive size, this is the only place to stay in the town. It is located close to the Smoo Cave and also some fantastic hiking routes. It has a couple of dorm rooms and comes very highly rated. It also has an affordable North Coast 500 campsite. Click here to see the latest prices for Durness Smoo Youth Hostel!
Not what you’re looking for? Then click here to browse the best deals for hotels near Durness!
Where to Stay in Orkney
We recommend basing yourself in the biggest town in the islands, Kirkwall. This way, you will be close to all of the sites in the town and some of the best places to eat in Orkney. Camping, including wild camping, is an option here, but keep in mind that the islands can get VERY windy which might make pitching a tent difficult and uncomfortable. There are also ample accommodation options but be aware that Orkney is a small island so we do recommend booking accommodation in advance as the good places go quickly.
Best Budget Option: Kirkwall Youth Hostel
Kirkwall Youth Hostel is a great budget option on the islands. They offer both dorm beds and private rooms and come with high ratings, is very clean, and has a great and helpful staff. Click here to see the latest prices for Kirkwall Youth Hostel!
Best Mid-Range Option: Heatherlea
Heatherlea is a lovely bed and breakfast to stay at if you’re looking for a bit more comfort on your alternative NC500 itinerary. It is also great for couples looking for a romantic getawat. They have a range of rooms available and also include a full Scottish breakfast in their rates. Click here to see the latest prices for Heatherlea!
Not what you’re looking for? Then click here to browse the best deals for hotels in Orkney!
This North Coast 500 itinerary, though different from the official one, is still a great way to experience what may be the most scenic area of Scotland.
Before setting off on your North Coast 500 road trip, make sure you have a valid travel insurance policy. We personally used World Nomads for our North Coast 500 itinerary however it’s important to read the policy details to ensure it’s right for you. Click here to get a quote from World Nomads!
Are you planning a North Coast 500 road trip? Have you been? Let us know in the comments!