Over recent years, Scotland’s North Coast 500 (NC500) has been increasing in popularity for visitors looking for a unique and beautiful coastal road trip. And if you’re thinking of hitting the road in Scotland and want to see some of the most sparsely populated areas of the country along with some of the most beautiful scenery the Highlands have to offer, then planning a 5 to 10-day North Coast 500 itinerary is a great choice for you.
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 NC500 alternative and you certainly won’t be disappointed.
North Coast 500: How Many Days?
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.
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 500-1000 metres or so. Because of these kinds of roads and drivers not being used to them, there has been an increase in road accidents since the opening and populariseing 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!
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 recommend browsing Rentalcars.com to hunt for a great deal as they aggregate prices across many major providers!
Also, to keep costs down even further, we recommend you buy an excess insurance policy from iCarHireInsurance who offer full excess coverage at a fraction that car rental companies charge.
North Coast 500 Itinerary: 5 Days
This 5-day North Coast 500 itinerary takes you along the route and past all of the most famous stops and sites. Make sure to plan in advance for petrol stops, as the further north you get the fewer fuel stations become.
Days 1-2: Inverness to Ullapool
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 it’s surroundings 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. 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 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!
Plan to spend the night in Ullapool, enjoying the laid-back town and taking in the beautiful coastal scenery.
Days 3-4: North Coast to Tain
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.
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.
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 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 if Inverness.
North Coast 500 Itinerary: 10 Days
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 will also give you time to properly enjoy a North Coast 500 alternative itinerary that detours from the conventional route — namely, to the incredible Orkney Islands.
If you have 10 days to spend, follow the first few days of the North Coast 500 5-day itinerary above until you read day four and the drive along the North Coast from Durness. 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!
Orkney is an incredible place to visit filled with history, Neolithic sites and incredible 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 on your eighth day and driving down to Tain.
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. 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!
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 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:
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
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
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!
Not what you’re looking for? Click here to browse the more Inverness hotels!
Where to Stay in Ullapool
Ullapool is a lovely port city on northern Scotland’s west coast and it makes for a great stop for the night on any NC500 itinerary. Here are our top accommodation choices for Ullapool:
Ladysmith Guesthouse — Centrally located, this cosy guesthouse is a perfect place to rest your head in Ullapool. The have a number 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!
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:
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
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
Not what you’re looking for? Click here to browse other options in Durness!
Where to Stay in Tain
Tain is a destination that is fairly off of the beaten tourist trail, but it really shouldn’t be! It makes for the perfect destination on any NC500 road trip and just because it isn’t the most popular estination amongst visitors, doesn’t mean there aren’t some great places to stay! Check out these top options:
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!
Where to Stay in Orkney
If you’re following the 10-day itinerary and heading to 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.
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
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
Not what you’re looking for? Click here to browse the more Orkney hotels!
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 you been? Let us know in the comments!