An Alternative 5 to 10 Days North Coast 500 Itinerary


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Those looking to undertake Scotland’s ultimate road trip will need to make sure their North Coast 500 itinerary is airtight. This gorgeous deriving route around the north coast of Scotland is one of the most spectacular in the area. Spanning over 500 miles, planning 5 to 10 days on the North Coast 500 is truly an unforgettable experience.

Boasting stunning natural scenery, charming towns, ancient history and so much more, driving along the North Coast 500 has something to offer everyone. And if you want to step away from the well-trodden tourist path in Scotland, then this is an excellent option to get up in the wild highlands.

No matter how much time you have to dedicate to your North Coast 500 trip, this itinerary should help you plan the absolute best road trip in Scotland for your travel style and tastes.

How Many Days on the North Coast 500?

Before I jump into the details of this NC500 route, it is likely that you’re wondering how many days for the North Coast 500 you will need.

And while that really depends on how deeply you want to explore the route and how long you have to play around with, we really recommend planning to spend at least 5 days on the North Coast 500 route, especially if you plan to drive the whole thing.

Those who have a bit more time to play around with, consider planning a 7-day itinerary or even 10 days on the North Coast 500. With more time, you could even divert from the prescribed route and add some island destinations — like Skye or Orkney — or simply spend more time enjoying the incredible nature that this area has to offer.

The reason we recommend spending the time to go on the route slowly is so you can truly visit and enjoy the places you’re driving past. 500 miles is quite a distance and there has been some impact on the local communities which are located along the route since it has been in operation.

For instance, there is some evidence since the NC500 has opened that travellers are spending less time in various places, preferring to base themselves in the bigger towns and cities, limiting the economic benefits that rural communities really get from being on such a popularised route.

There is also local concern that drivers are trying to speed through the NC500 and aren’t prepared for the road quality and aren’t equipped for any difficulties that may arise. It’s worth knowing that, though destinations may not seem too far from one another, some of the smaller country roads are very narrow and only have passing places every few hundred metres or so.

Because of these single-track roads and drivers not being used to them, there has been an increase in road accidents since the opening and popularising of the route so please make sure to take the time to be safe and mindful of your impact.

So that’s why we recommend spending at least 5 days on the North Coast 500, however, you really cannot go wrong with spending even more time. Planning a 10-day North Coast 500 itinerary can be incredibly fulfilling and even will allow you to stray from the established route and explore even further.

So long as you are conscious about your impact on the community and respectful of your surroundings, spending a good portion of time dedicated to this gorgeous road trip is always a great idea!

Camping outside of Durness on the NC500
Camping outside of Durness on the NC500

Getting Around the North Coast 500

If you’re planning on driving the North Coast 500 independently, then you are going to need to have your own vehicle – unless you’re an accomplished cyclist who wants a bit of a challenge!

As a driving route in rural, remote Scotland, there aren’t really public transit routes that will allow you to traverse this whole area and see all there is to see.

So 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. Having your own car will give you the flexibility to take your time at each stop and go at your own pace.

If you need to hire a car for your trip to Scotland, then we suggest browsing Rentalcars.com to hunt for a great deal as they aggregate prices across many major providers!

If you don’t want to drive then you can take an organised tour such as this 3-day tour from Inverness or this 8-day tour from Edinburgh.

Ardvreck Castle
The ruined Ardvreck Castle

5-Day North Coast 500 Itinerary

Day 1 – Inverness

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 at least one night here to explore it and its surroundings before hitting the road.

In Inverness, you can explore the lovely Inverness Castle, wander down to the Ness Islands, take in some gorgeous views over the River Ness and, in general, take the time to explore this cool little city.

If you want to see some highlights within easy reach of Inverness, consider taking the time to do a day trip to the Culloden Battlefield and Cawdor Castle – both of these things can be done if spending only one full day in the city.

Inverness Castle from the Riverbank
Inverness Castle from the Riverbank

Where to Stay in Inverness

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 their availability

Private Rental – A great alternative option to traditional hostels, hotels, and guesthouses is a private rental such as this charming riverside cottage. Click here to browse other great private rentals in Inverness!

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 their availability

Not what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Inverness hotels!

Day 2 – Ullapool

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. Head west along the A890 to Applecross (about 2 hours from Inverness) and enjoy the incredible scenery of this gorgeous peninsula.

Located in the Wester Ross region, there are plenty of coastal walks and cute towns that you can visit and pop into. This makes a decent place to stop for the night, however, you can keep going up the coast (making sure to stop and enjoy the views!) to Ullapool.

If you don’t want to spend the majority of your time driving from Inverness you can drive directly to 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 Shearwater 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!

Plan to spend the night in Ullapool, enjoying the laid-back town and taking in the beautiful coastal scenery.

Ullapool Harbour
Ullapool Harbour

Where to Stay in Ullapool

Ladysmith Guesthouse — Centrally located, this cosy guesthouse is a perfect place to rest your head in Ullapool. They have a number of comfortable rooms available and include a hearty breakfast in the nightly rate. Click here to see their availability

Clachan Farmhouse B&B — Situated a bit outside of Ullapool’s centre, this is a great choice for looking to be out in the nature surrounding the town. They have a range of plush rooms on offer and also include breakfast in the nightly rate. Click here to see their availability

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse other options in the Ullapool!

Day 3 – Ullapool to Durness

The next day, 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 this 5-day 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.

The beautiful turquoise sea in Scourie on the NC500
The beautiful turquoise sea in Scourie on the NC500

Where to Stay near Durness

Bettyhill Hotel — Located in the fishing village of Bettyhill, this charming hotel is the perfect place to stop for the night on Scotland’s north coast. They have a myriad of clean and cosy rooms on offer and a great restaurant to grab a bit to eat. Click here to see their availability

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 their availability

Not what you’re looking for? Click here to browse other options in Durness!

Day 4 – Durness to Tain

From Durness on day four, 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!

Continue on along the north coast until you reach the northernmost town on Mainland Britain – John O’Groats.

There isn’t a lot to do in John O’Groats proper, however, it is absolutely necessary to get out and explore the little town and take a photo with the iconic signpost which shows the distance to Land’s End (the southernmost part of Britain in Cornwall) and to the Orkney and Shetland Islands.

Mosy your way down the west coast of the route to the lovely city of Tain, the perfect place to stop for the night.

The Glenmorangie Distillery in Tain
The Glenmorangie Distillery in Tain

Where to Stay in Tain

Shandwick House — A lovely guesthouse in the heart of Tain, this is a perfect place to rest your head in the city. They have a number of clean and comfortable rooms available and a great full Scottish breakfast available each morning. Click here to see their availability

Carnegie Lodge Hotel — A fantastic hotel if you’re looking for something a bit more upmarket in Tain, this place has a number of lovely rooms available, room service on offer, and a full breakfast included in the morning. Click here to see their availability

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse other options in the Tain!

Day 5 – Tain to Inverness

On your fifth and final day, take the time to explore Tain and maybe visit some of the Highland whisky distilleries located close by.

Tain itself is home to the Glenmorangie Distillery, which is definitely worth a tour if you want to learn more about Scotch whisky. The city also has some interesting and innovative museums, like Tain Through Time, which can help you learn about the history of the city and region from Neolithic times through the present day.

If you’re interested in visiting more whisky distilleries or would like to check out some lesser-known whiskies, then consider heading to the Balblair Distillery which is also located within easy reach of Tain.

Alternatively, you could head south towards Inverness and explore some of the interesting sites close to the city, such as Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle, the Culloden Battlefield, Clava Cairns or Cawdor Castle. End your 5-day NC500 itinerary where you began, in the lovely city of Inverness.

Magical Loch Ness
Magical Loch Ness

10-Day North Coast 500 Itinerary

If you have more time and are keen to spend 10 days on the North Coast 500 route, then you’re really in luck, as there is just so much to see and do in this area. This itinerary detours from the typical route and includes some islands off Scotland’s north coast that are very much worth visiting.

Day 1 – Inverness

Much like the 5-day itinerary, this route begins (and ends) in Inverness. Spend your first day exploring beautiful Inverness and enjoying the highlights of the surrounding area if you’re keen. Spend the night in Inverness.

Inverness skyline
Inverness skyline

Days 2 to 4 – Ullapool to Durness

Follow the route outlines above from Inverness to Ullapool. After a night in Ullapool, continue on up north to the beautiful town of Durness, where you will spend the night before continuing on.

Days 5 to 7 – Orkney

This is where the route diverts from the traditional NC500 outline. Instead of going through to John O’Groats and down to Tain, stop in the port town of Scrabster and hop on the ferry to Stromness, a main town in the Orkney Islands!

It would be a shame to be this far north in Scotland and not pay a visit to these incredible islands.

Orkney is a fantastic place to visit filled with history, Neolithic sites and very friendly people. There are countless things to do in Orkney, so plan to spend your fifth, sixth and seventh days exploring the archipelago, before grabbing the ferry back.

Where to Stay in Orkney

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 getaway. They have a range of rooms available and also include a full Scottish breakfast in their rates. Click here to see their availability

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 their availability

Not what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Orkney hotels!

Just one stone in the Ring of Brodgar, Orkney
Just one stone in the Ring of Brodgar, Orkney

Days 8 to 9 – Orkney to Tain

On the eighth day of this route, grab the ferry back to the mainland and enjoy some of the beautiful sites to see as you make your way to the town of Tain, where you will spend the night.

On the ninth day of this 10-day NC500 itinerary, follow what is outlined on day five of the 5-day itinerary – exploring the city of Tain and maybe taking in a whisky distillery visit or two.

Day 10 – Inverness

On your tenth and final day, explore the lovely area surrounding Inverness with a trip to Loch Ness, Culloden or one of the many other fantastic spots within the vicinity of the Highland capital!

Have More Time?

If you have even more time (around 2 weeks) to spend in this part of the north coast of Scotland, then consider heading to the Isle of Skye for a few days from Inverness. Drive from Inverness to Skye before continuing on with the itinerary as outlined above – driving from Skye to Ullapool and beyond.

Regardless of whether you have 5 days, 10 days or more, there is no doubt that planning to drive the North Coast 500 is one of the best ways to spend a trip around Scotland.

Empty road on the Isle of Skye
An empty road on the Isle of Skye

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. 

Are you planning a North Coast 500 road trip? Have any questions? Let us know in the comments!

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Maggie is a co-founder and writer for The World Was Here First. Originally from the US, she has lived in five different countries and has travelled to dozens more, both solo and with her partner, Michael. She particularly loves exploring Spain and spending time in the Caucasus and the Baltics. Read more about Maggie

Comments

  1. I absolutely adore Scotland and had an amazing time exploring the Isle of Skye last spring. I’d love to see more though. I’m not much of a camper though. What are the chances I could find a cozy Inn with a peat moss fire?

    Reply
    • So great to hear that you want to explore more of Scotland! As for accommodation options, there are cosy BnB’s in almost every town in Scotland, so I’m sure you could find somewhere great to stay! It’s worth keeping in mind that place tend to book up quite early in peak seasons, so I would recommend planning as far in advance as possible 🙂

      Reply
  2. What a fabulous read.. Sounds magical. I’d love to know if late August or 1st week of September is a good time to plan this trip. And what if I decide to make it 12 or 14 days? Take it really slow and soak in all the great sights.. You only live once right.!! 😊 Would love to hear some recommendations as to how to plan a trip for the NC500 for a longer duration. I mean which villages are best for a 3 or 4 night stay along the route?

    Reply

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