After returning from a full year of travel outside of the UK we were looking forward to getting home & exploring more of our own country with Scotland’s scenic North Coast at the very top of our UK travel wish list! The nc500 turned out to be our favourite ever road trip, here is where we’ll reveal everything about our epic experience…
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NC500 & Our Route
The nc500 is an iconic UK road trip which takes in 500 miles of Scotland’s stunning & mostly untouched coastline. The roads are open & winding, the scenery spectacular & the amount of awesome places to stop off at are pretty much endless!
Kicking off our nc500 action in Inverness & heading up the east coast, north coast & back down via the west coast was most definitely the right choice. Our drive only got better & the views even more beautiful as we went on. Our trip took us 6 days in total, we took our own car, wild camped & did everything on a pretty tight budget.
Our Itinerary & Stops
Inverness to Dornoch – 45.7 miles – 1 hour 7 mins
A short one for us on the nc500 itself as we had actually made our way over from the Aberdeenshire coast, making for a quick drive through Inverness & onto the quaint little town of Dornoch. The town of Dornoch is a lovely place to take a wander around with its warm stone buildings, cute little shops stocking everything Highland & some lovely little pubs & coffee shops. There’s also Dornoch beach; wide, open & very pretty boasting a great mountain backdrop. The gem we found here though were Camore woods, 2 miles out of town these ancient woodlands were the perfect place for an evening stroll & great to park up at & camp overnight.
Dornoch to Ceannabeinne Beach – 168 miles – 4 hours 19 mins (with stops at least double this)
This was a mammoth day of driving for us, mainly because we wanted to leave more time to spend on the west coast.
Setting off from Dornoch early in the morning we made our way up Scotland’s much less visited east coast & to the famous John O’Groats for lunch time. We took it relatively steady & made a couple of stops along the way….
330 steps lead us down to an 18th century harbour which was last known to be used in the 1960s. The use as a fishing harbour can clearly been seen with the remains of the salt store, hand powered winch & tar that was used for sealing fishing boats staining the ground. Donations are appreciate here for the upkeep of the steps & can left in the little box, which can be clearly seen as you make your way down. There’s also a small coffee shop that has WIFI.
Perched right on a cliff edge, this once mighty castle is now inaccessible due to its crumbling state but is still easily viewed by taking a pleasant stroll along Sinclair’s Bay. We parked up at Keiss Pier/Lang Head & walked 3/4 mile along the path leading over the top of the pebble beach to the castle. Taking the coastal path on either side of the castle is its only access.
Remains of one of the iron-age brochs that are scattered all over this coastline. The county of Caithness is the true home off the broch with over 200 of them known in total. Brochs are unique to Scotland & have left many both bewildered & amazed at how such a structure was even built back then. Dating back 2,000 years, Nybster really delivers the feeling of iron-age existence. The newer built Mervyn’s Tower pictured below is a strange sight to behold but is handy for climbing to get a good look at the Borch from above. There’s no cost to visit this broch & its free car park is well sign posted from the main road.
Mainly famous for its sign detailing distances of places much further away, which is probably one of the most photographed in the world, we decided to do the tourist thing & stopped at John O’Groats for a quick lunch & pic. From here the Orkney Islands can be accessed by ferry or by taking a wildlife day trip, plenty of which are offered by operators around the port area. The Shetland Islands are also a longer ferry ride from here. We parked up in the large & free car park which is just next to the port area & has bathroom facilities.
Parking up in the small village of Tongue we took the footpath from the village, crossing over the river & through some pretty woodlands up to this impressive castle which dominates the surrounding landscape. Overlooking the Kyle & village of Tonque, this castle is shrouded with mystery, with its date & origins remaining unknown. Known to be the seat of the Mackays, one of the Highland’s many clans, Varrich is said to have caves underneath that once housed & hid the Mackays. The walk there & back took around 40 minutes in total, we’d recommend leaving enough time to spend at the castle itself to really soak up the history. Taken care of by Historic Enviornment Scotland this ruined castle is free to visit.
Our last stop on day two & wild camping spot for the night. We parked up at the small parking bay just on the road above this stunning beach & took the short walk down at dusk with all of our gear. Picturesque does not even cut it, our little tent pitched on a level of grass above a bay of white sand & clear blue ocean made for the most magical spot. Secluded enough from the road, we enjoy dinner whilst listening to the sound of the ocean & reflecting on the epic day we’d had.
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Can we tell you a secret?!! ? We’re a little anti-social ? Don’t get us wrong we love to socialise when the time is right but what we also REALLY love are wide open spaces & being surrounded by nature, just the 2 of us ? This is exactly why on our recent #NC500 trip we decided to steer away from hotels & campsites & wild camp for the most part of it ⛺️ Cooking over our campfire, looking out at epic views & having the sound of the ocean to sleep to is pretty much our idea of heaven ? What about you guys? Would you love this too? • • • • • #campvibes #wildcampingscotland #campinglife #liveoutdoorlife #staywildmychild #lifeofnature #beachside #beachfront #scotlandsbeauty #scotland_greatshots #scotlandtrip #explorescotland #explorescotlandyourway #exploremorecorners #ukbloggers #uktravelcouple #travelyourstyle #adventuretravelcouple #adventuresforever #backtobasics #exploreourearth #naturesbeautiful #travelmoments #travelhappy #travelyourway #leicam #leicraft #explorationinspiration #destinationaddict
Ceannabienne Beach to Oldshoremore Beach – 29.5 miles – 1 hour 4 mins (our stops however took up most of the day here)
Covering considerably less distance than the day before but taking in as many magnificent sights. Having a leisurely morning on Ceannabienne Beach, eating breakfast whilst the resident sheep took their early morning beach stroll & then going for a dip in the freezing ocean (one of the perils of wild camping!) we hit the road around mid-morning, in search of more awesome stops…
Just a few miles down the road we stopped at the sea & freshwater Smoo Cave, a lovely spot with its cave, pretty little bay & cliff top from which to enjoy the views. There are guided tours of the cave offered at various times throughout the day at the small cost of £5. Parking here is free & there are bathroom facilities.
Another pristine beach en-route, this was a pleasant short stop for a stroll & a wander around the cemetery who’s entrance is pretty much in the free car park for the beach. John Lennon’s Aunt is buried here along with famous Gaelic poet Rob Dunn, amongst many others of course. Its a nice place to take a walk around, if you have time you could opt for a slightly longer coastal walk from here.
Our favourite beach of the whole trip, we would recommend making every effort to reach Sandwood Bay, the 8.5 mile, 3 – 4 hour round walk is most definitely worth it! Following a mainly flat moorland track past pretty lochs we were absolutely blown away on our approach to Sandwood. Backed by the large Sandwood Loch its sand dunes roll down onto a magnificent stretch of unspoilt white sand with clear blue waves crashing & creating one of the most special & dramatic coastal experiences we have ever had. Parking can be found in the small, cute highland town of Blairmore from which the trail is very well marked. We’d go back to this place in a heart beat & would highly recommend making it part of your nc500 itinerary.
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Mind BLOWN ? A 7km stroll from the small village of Blairmore on Scotland's North East coast brought us to the stunning Sandwood Bay ? We arrived in the early evening & had the whole place to ourselves which gave us the feeling of being totally castaway ? The rolling sand dunes, white sand, clear blue water, mountain backdrop & nearby loch made for one of the most spectacular beach settings that we have ever set eyes on ? A must stop along the iconic #nc500 ??????? • • • • • #hiddengems #offthebeatenpath #beachvibes #beachlife #dametraveler #artofvisuals #flashesofdelight #thecreative #getoutside #exploremore #theglobewanderer #letsgosomewhere #earthfocus #liveoutdoors #travelstoke #scotspirit #ig_scot #visitscotland #loves_scotland #insta_scotland #roadtrip #ukbloggers #exploremorecorners #uktravel #travelbloggers #leicam #leicaq #explorationinspiration #destinationaddict
Our sleeping spot for the night, Oldshoremore Bay was a lovely place to watch the sun go down & attempt to pitch our tent which on this occasion we failed at but hey, its not always plain sailing! Overnight Parking is permitted at the small beach car park which also has bathroom facilities but camping here would pretty much be up on the ridge above the beach, unless you’re brave enough to camp on the sand & risk the tide. We opted this time to sleep in our car due to high winds up on the ridge & given that we had such a long & adventurous day.
Oldshormore Bay to Achmelvich Beach – 50.9 miles – 1 hour 22 mins
This was a bit more of a chilled day for us in favour of resting ready to take on a big hike the next day. We loved, however just ambling along at a snails pace & taking our time after a few days on the road.
Situated on Loch Assynt the remarkable setting of this castle made for some fabulous photo taking ops & a proper feeling of Scotland & its history. Built by the McLeod clan in the 16th century this ruined castle was probably our favourite along the nc500. There’s plenty of parking just next to it from which you can take the path that leads over to the castle which sits on its own little rocky outcrop.
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Castles, lochs & mountains along Scotland's #nc500 We're loving every second of this road trip & to make it even better we are having so much fun getting creative with our new camera – capturing the history & scenery with dramatic tones right here ⛰??????? ? This route is one of the most scenic & naturally beautiful we have ever taken ?? Tell us about a #roadtrip that has been truly memorable for you…. ? : @olympusuk OM-D E-M5 Mark II Lens : 12-50 mm f 3.5-6.3 Length : 30mm Shutter : 1/320 s Aperture : f 5.6 ISO : 200 • • • • • #scotlandshots #scotshots #northcoast500 #castlevibes #castles_oftheworld #castlesofscotland #historicscotland #glitz_n_grime #forgotten #ig_abandoned #beautyindecay #main_vision #landscape_captures #awesome_earthpix #awesomeearth #gottalove_a_ #scotspirit #ig_scot #visitscotland #loves_scotland #insta_scotland #exploremoreborders #exploretocreate #exploreshareinspire #olympusuk #olympuscamera #explorationinspiration #destinationaddict
A small but very pleasant little town Lochinver is a nice place to stop off at to re-fuel, firstly your car then of course yourself in one of the little shops or eateries. Lochinver is also the gateway to many a hike in the surrounding mountains, or as they are known in Scotland, Munros. There is a centre in Lochinver which offers free information for walkers.
As camping is prohibited on this beach (its quite clearly sign posted) we opted to stay at the Shore Caravan Site campsite which is ideally situated just above the bay. At just £12 for the 2 of us, the campsite is basic but offers reasonably sized pitches & to our delight after quite a few days wild camping, really hot showers. We took an afternoon walk along the beach, one that on a sunny day would certainly rival any that we have seen in more exotic countries.
Achmelvich Beach to Little Gruinard Beach – 83.6 miles – 2 hours 11 minutes (with most of the day spent hiking)
This was the day we chose to take on a big hike & after much research & contemplation of which peak, we decided upon Suliven in Scotland’s Inverpolly National Nature Reserve. We also made a few stops after this before crashing down for the night at Little Gruinard Bay.
Due to its inaccessibility & difficulty to climb the views from Suliven are said to be some of the most spectacular in the UK. Starting off in the very early morning we took the road from Lochinver, towards Glencanisp Lodge where we parked at the walkers car park about 1km from the lodge itself (there is a donation box here for parking fees). We took the road past the lodge, through the moorlands & crossed multiple lochs before making the very steep climb up to Suliven. Unfortunately for us the weather was not on our side that day, the wind picked up massively & the clouds were coming in so fast that at 600m from the summit we made the decision to turn around & not walk along the ridge for risk of being blown straight off. We’re adventurous yes, but silly, no, there are just times when safety has to come first & when walking in the Highlands with the weather being so unpredictable safety & common sense really are paramount. Although we left feeling a little disappointed that day, especially after making a 7 hour round trip we could not deny that the climb to almost the top of Suliven was one hell of a challenge & one that we shall one day return to & conquer. For anyone wishing to do this we’d recommend keeping a real close eye on the weather & checking out walkhighlands for full route details.
After hearing much hype about this place this is where we had planned on stopping for the night & whilst it was great to stock up on supplies, grab some fish n’chips & get back to civilisation for a wee while we were quick to get back on the road in search of a quieter spot. Ullapool has multiple facilities & is the largest town along this section of the route, its pretty enough but just not really what we were looking for.
Little Gruinard Bay
To end a rather strange day after Suliven getting the better of us & Ullapool not being quite what we expected Little Gruinard Bay came as a pleasant surprise. With just a few parking spaces on the road there are some steps that lead down to this sweet little bay. As we bbq’d on the beach we watched a couple of seals playing in the ocean & the sky turn a gorgeous shade of pink. Turns out ‘bad days’ don’t last long on the nc500.
Little Gruinard Bay to Inverness (via Kalnakill & Applecross) – 156 miles – 4 hours 25 mins (over double this with stops)
In terms of road driving this was most the most epic of the whole trip, taking the detour along the far north east coastline & over to Applecross which was recommend to us by a friend. We covered a lot of mileage on our final day but made the most memorable end to our nc500 trip.
Another town en-route that has everything you’d need but the main reason for us mentioning Gairloch is a cool place we stumbled across called the Mountain Coffee Company. With a menu & decor inspired by the owner’s travels all over the world this is such a nice place to stop by. They also have (most probably) the best book shop we have ever come across stocking enough inspiration to last a lifetime, definitely our type of place!
Making our way from Little Gruinard Bay in the morning we were spoilt with the beautiful views which got even more quintessentially Scottish as we reached Loch Sheildag. There are numerous points to safely stop off at along the road but our favourite had to be next to this cute little cottage with the loch & mountains as a backdrop & the sun just shining through.
Road Side “Shops”
Back on the road again close by to Applecross we were delighted to find a Highlander’s version of a local store, basically a small set of shelves with some fresh eggs & a couple of boxes filled with hand knitted hats, scarves & gloves. We just couldn’t resist picking up a little orange hat, the money for which we popped in the little honesty jar – cute or what! If you’re doing this trip be sure to look out for stops like these & pick yourself up a hand knitted number at a bargain price.
The larger town in this north east section, Applecross was a quick stop for us but it is a lovely place with a few amenities should you need them. We adored the scenery coming in & out of here, the winding mountain roads made for such an awesome section of the drive.
Finishing Up Our Route
Going full circle & ending up back in Inverness our nc500 trip ended up being just over the 500 at 514 miles. We knew before we started that the trip would be amazing but for us it turned out to be far more than what we had expected. We’ve detailed more below including a load of tips from us & some hot questions from our online community, which we’ve also answered (remember if you have your own questions you can ask us in the comments just below this post).
Something that receives mixed reviews but the simple fact is that wild camping is actually legal in Scotland. Outdoor Access details the Scottish camping code in full & says that you should leave no trace, take away all litter & if lighting fires (or bbqs) follow the fire lighting guidance & remove all trace of these too, all pretty much common sense really. There are restrictions however when it comes to areas you can camp in, none of these lie along the nc500 but it should be noted that wild camping near houses, paid campsites, hotels, b&b’s etc. is not deemed as acceptable. All spots that we have detailed were perfectly good to wild camp at the time we were there & had no signs at any of them prohibiting wild camping.
Shower / Bathroom Facilities
Along the route are plenty of public bathroom facilities as well as coffee shops / restaurants to stop off at along the way. We have detailed most along our route but would add that thinking about where the nearest bathroom is (especially when when wild camping) a must. There are also numerous leisure centres where you can stop & pay to take a shower – we opted for totally wild on this trip & took natural soap with us so that we could wash in the freezing but extremely exhilarating ocean. For the experience alone we would recommend braving it & doing this at least once!
Accommodation & Getting There
If you don’t fancy wild camping like we did there are tons of other accommodation options along the nc500 from cute little b&b’s to mid-range hotels & fancy castles. Great flight deals can also be found if you’re coming from outside of the UK by flying into any of Scotland’s majot airports, if Inverness is not coming back with the best deal be sure to also check Edinburgh & Glasgow or maybe even Manchester, Liverpool or London in England. All of which you’ll be able to hire a car & drive from. Click the pics to check the latest deals with our booking partners (you get £25 / $33 US off your first booking is you use our Air bnb link)…
One of the highlights of this route & there are certainly enough to choose from. All coming in their own shade of white sand & crystal clear ocean the beaches along Scotland’s nc500 were our biggest surprise. I mean we knew they’d be good but not that good! Our advice here, take the time to soak them up, wild camp on them if you’re up for it & make note of the ones we visited as there are some real beauties in there.
There are plenty of opportunities to summit a munroe on route, we would recommend checking out walkhighlands who have detailed descriptions of tons of routes throughout the Highlands. As we found when climbing Mt.Suliven it is important to remain alert of your surroundings as the weather can be quite unpredictable in these parts, we use mountain-forecast.com to check all mountain weather when hiking.
A special mention for these fellas are they just are so darn cute. We loved stopping off at the side of the road & hanging out with these chilled out guys, definitely one of the highlights of our trip!
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This Highland Coo was just one of the many highlights of our recent road trip along Scotland's North Coast ??????? Such an epic & truly memorable experience that we just can't wait to share loads more about! In fact we'll be starting our blog post on it this week & we'd really like your help…. If you have any questions you'd like us to answer about our #nc500 route & how we did it we'd love you to let us know in the comments or by emailing us via the link on our profile. We'd like to feature all questions, along with our answers in our post along with your name & a link to your website/blog if you have one ? So come on guys, what would you like to know? • • • • • #highlandlife #highlandcow #roadtrippers #roadtripping #cowsofinstagram #hairycoo #heilancoo #scotlandsbeauty #scotlandlovers #visualsofscotland #unlockscotland #unlimitedscotland #exploremoreborders #explore_britain #gloriousbritain #travel_drops_ #wonderful_destinations #ig_europe #uktravelbloggers #travelblog #travelstoke #traveleverywhere #seetheworldthroughoureyes #travelwithus #travel_captures #traveldeeper #leicam #exolorationinspiration #destinationaddict
We put it to our online community to ask us any questions about our trip & here’s what they came back with….
(if you too have a question for us please let us know in the comments just below this post)
Fiona – Cheshire, UK
Q: What was you favourite beach?
A: Without a doubt Sandwood Bay, the 8.5 mile round walk was well worth it & was by far the most secluded beach we visited.
Gemma & Campbell from Highlands2Hammocks
Q: What are your best cooking tips & favourite meals on the road?
A: Using a camping stove we always go for 1 pot meals – basically anything that fits into one single pot. Favs for us are chilli con carne & stir fry but whilst wild camping we also love to bbq, a disposable bbq is easy to carry & can be used to cook your entire dinner on.
Gemma & Campbell will be doing this trip themselves very soon & also asked us how long we did it for & what our favourite stops were which are all detailed in our itinerary above.
Cathy from Roar Loud Travel
Q: What was the biggest challenge of the route?
A: Hiking Mt.Suliven, especially as we were defeated but living out of a car with just the 2 of us brought with it challenges too. We found it important to take breaks often as well as stopping for meal breaks to avoid any hanger outbreaks!
Frank from Nothing But New England
Q: Was it a hard route to follow?
A: Not particularly, the roads are very well sign posted & we always use the app maps.me to navigate which also works offline – great in area with little or no phone reception. When planning our route we do however use Google Maps as the distances are more accurate.
A Few More Tips
To give you an idea of the fuel available en-route here’s a map detailing all of the places you can fill up. For 500 miles this should certainly keep anyone covered.
We also spotted some electric car charge points on this route that we can only guess will become more popular from now.
Dornoch, Wick, Tongue, Durness, Lochinver, Ullapool, Gairloch & Applecross are some of the towns along the nc500 to stock up on supplies, have dinner in a restaurant, a few drinks in a local pub or shop for Highland souvenirs. It’s always great to support local businesses in these towns as the majority of the income here comes from the tourists that pass through & you will of course this way get a more authentic Scottish experience.
What we loved most about driving the nc500 is that we could really take our time, as there is really no need to rush. Things to bear in mind are that roads are very narrow here & sometimes not suitable for 2 cars to pass & that’s not even mentioning the bigger lorries that have to drive this route. There are areas to pull over in called “Passing Places” remember there is no right of way, if you can pull over its polite & makes your journey more enjoyable to just do so. Driving slowly can sometimes mean there are people who are seemingly trying to rush past you, you never know who they might be, a local doctor on call or a voluntary fireman so again we just pulled over to let people pass when they wanted to. Keeping a close eye on the road ahead is also advised as this gives plenty of warning of oncoming vehicles.
On recommendation from our friends Darren & Rebecca over at izogadventure we joined the awesome nc500 group which connected us with lots of people who had done, are doing & live along the route. We got lots of recommendations this way & were able to keep an eye on other people’s finds en-route. Were still in the group now as we love hearing about people’s experiences, join us for tons more nc500 inspiration by clicking here.
Very unpopular along this route, the midges (basically a small mosquito) are rife from the start of June & can be around until the end of October There were thankfully none when we were there in May but we have heard that can be a bit of a nightmare when they are around. We’ve used Avon Skin So Soft as mosquito repellent & have heard that is particularly successful in warding off Scottish midges. Other tips would be to purchase a midge rather than a mosquito net whilst camping (the mesh is a lot finer) & possibly think about a head net in case they get really bad.
Another pesky little bug to avoid at all costs, ticks tend to sit atop plants such as heather during the summer months. Our biggest piece of advice here is to wear long trousers when out walking & avoid walking through any bushes, plants & shrubs. Dogs should be taken particular care of as they can run through shrubs & become tick covered.
We did our nc500 trip on a serious budget, wild camping most of the way round which meant our only costs were fuel £180, food £80, 1 night at a campsite £12, some stops for food & coffee and various donations for car parks & sights on the way round – Our total spends were £292 for the 2 of us – you could of course splurge out a little more than we did.
The Weather & Being Prepared For It
If you live in the UK you’ll know all about our weather, if you don’t you’ll most probably have heard of it. The Highlands are so changeable that you could be in shorts & t-shirt one minute & scarf, jumper, hat & gloves the next! Bring plenty of layers, including warm & waterproofs & have them at hand just in case. For weather forecasting we always find the Norwegian forecast the most accurate, you can search forecasts anywhere ion the world through their website or app. For hiking, as mentioned above we always use mountain-forecast.com to check all mountain weather. Our number one tip with the weather is to embrace it & accept it for what it is or you could of course join in with the rest of us Brits & have a good old whinge about it 😉
Phew! That’s everything on our awesomely epic nc500 road trip. We absolutely loved every second of it, I have loved writing all about it & really hope you’ve enjoyed reading.
If we’ve missed anything at all or you have any questions, don’t be shy, let us know in the comments just below please!
If your looking for some more on the NC500 visit the official North Coast 500 website or Visit Scotland which both have tons of more information and help if your are thinking of embarking on this epic journey in Scotland!
Happy adventuring 🙂
Kelly & Adam x