How long does it take to drive the NC500?
This will be completely dependent on the time you have to dedicate to the route.
It doesn’t take “that long” to actually drive 500 miles, BUT, you’ve got to consider that you’re going to want to stop at a lot of sights, and if you’re visiting in the high season, then actually you may find your driving behind traffic a lot of the time.
Some people do the NC500 in around 3 days, but I would imagine that doing it in that amount of time would require a lot of sightseeing from the vehicle, rather than heading out and wandering around.
Bradley and I spent 2 weeks doing the NC500, but we were taking it slow on purpose because we had time to kill, and we were working whilst travelling, so, therefore, dedicating one week to the NC500 road trip is a pretty good shout!
1 week will allow you to see all the best sights, take your time, and even spend more time in locations you prefer and less in those you don’t.
That’s why when I go into detail about the North Coast 500 itinerary further below, I will focus on a 7-day itinerary as it’s a perfect balance of time.
I will drop in a couple of other itinerary suggestions for those who are restricted on time!
Should I drive the North Coast 500 clockwise or counterclockwise?
When Bradley and I road tripped the North Coast 500 in Scotland, there was hardly anyone around, so we didn’t really consider whether going clockwise or counterclockwise made a difference, but after some research it does!
Bradley and I drove the North Coast 500 in a clockwise direction, so essentially going left from Inverness.
I would imagine that in the summer months when the route gets super busy, it may be better to choose different routes to avoid a buildup of traffic, but in terms of beauty, you’ll be seeing the exact same sights on both routes, especially if you intend on doing the full loop!
If you do NOT intend on doing the full NC500 loop and just doing the half, then I suggest going clockwise, and I think the scenery is slightly better.
If you have an argument for either of these directions, then please do comment and let me know!
When is the best time to drive the NC500 road trip?
The NC500 can be driven all year round, and I’m going to suggest an argument for each season:
- Summer: This is the PEAK season. June, July, and August will be the busiest the NC500 will get. This is due to the fact people have time to drive it for their holidays, and the fact the weather is a lot nicer. But, the downside is that you’ll need to plan your campsites months in advance, all the tourist hotspots will be busy, and they are going to the midges.
If you do not know what a midge is, then click here. We get them in Ireland too, and they’re the most annoying things ever, not to mention the fact that they just love your blood…
So if you are planning on doing the NC500 in summer, then make sure you pack your bug spray!
- Autumn: This will be a lot quieter, and is technically when Bradley and I went. I personally love autumn colours, so it was beautiful seeing all the sights with a backdrop of orange, reds, and yellows. When we visited, the roads were fairly empty, on some days we didn’t drive past anyone for hours. You will have most of the tourist sights to yourself, however, because you’re visiting outside of peak season, you may find some attractions have already closed (this was true for us and castles), and you may have a lack of open campsites (if you don’t plan on wild camping for your trip). Oh, and no midges when we went either.
- Spring: Seems like a good time to visit because the weather will be more pleasant, and perhaps the crowds will be less than in summer, and you won’t have a problem with midges.
- Winter: Scotland goes white in winter and in the highlands and the coast you might find the roads are icy and the conditions snowy. Whilst I imagine seeing Scotland in the snow is amazing, it might make a full-throttle road trip a little more difficult. Some mountain roads can be closed due to snow, which means you may miss out on some sights, but it depends on what you want from your trip! It’ll definitely be quieter!
Is the North Coast 500 Suitable for Motorhomes and Campervans?
Our campervan is a Peugeot Boxer LWB, and before we headed off on our trip, we often heard people say that the single pass roads on the NC500 might not be able to handle campervans or motorhomes.
Well, on our first night in Scotland we met a lovely couple who had just completed the NC500 in a pretty darn big motorhome (bigger than our campervan) and they said it was absolutely fine.
Yes, it’s single pass roads, but there is a passing place every other minute, so you always have somewhere to pass.
I imagine this all becomes more difficult in the summer months when it is busy, but Bradley and I didn’t have a single issue with “room” on the North Coast 500 route, and rarely had to use passing places since we were the only ones on the road!
But it’s important to bare in mind that locals do have a love/hate relationship with motorhomes, especially those that aren’t “aware” drivers and don’t have the sense to avoid a road that can’t handle a motorhome, so just practice awareness when you’re driving, be respectful and don’t speed to park anywhere awkward to other drivers.
So, yes, the North Coast 500 road trip is suitable for campervans and motorhomes.
Wild camping on the North Coast 500
Wild camping in Scotland was one of our favourite memories in all of our Scotland adventures.
We love wild camping and since our campervan is fully self contained (shower and everything), we took advantage of the beautiful wild camping spots along the NC500!
You can check out our post on wild camping in Scotland for a full throttle list of the best places to wild camp on the NC500, but I thought I would highlight some of my favourite.
1. Set of the “shell” film: so this is pretty easy to find, because on google it’s defined as the set of a film called Shell which was filmed here. It’s no longer in use so it’s a large car park with a couple of picnic tables. The views here are great, and the 4g with o2 was fantastic, so this was a great place to stay. Plenty of room for a few campers, but it is exposed so if it’s a windy night, then you will be rocking!
2. Located on the beach side of a town called Strathy, this wild camping spot was literally a 5 minute walk from the beach with amazing views. It was sheltered from the wind and there were even 24 hour toilets too! A donation can be left to help with the upkeep of these toilets. This is a great spot on the North coast, and it’s closed to a town called BettyHill which has awesome coffee shops!
Chemical Waste disposal points on the NC500
- Gairloch Harbour: This is technically free, but I think you can leave a donation.
- Murkle Campsite in Thurso: Fee to use motorhome facilities including chemical waste disposal, grey water and refilling water.
- Ferry View Campsite: £5 for chemical waste, grey waste disposal and you can refill your water.
- Inner Park House & Inver Caravan Park, Dunbeath: £5 for chemical waste disposal, grey waste and water refilling.
- Highland Campervans, Inverness: £5 for chemical waste disposal, grey water and refilling water tanks.
The best things to do on the NC500
There are so many amazing things to do on the NC500! We did as much as we could with the weather we were given, and with what was open.
So I’m going to list all the best things to do on the NC500, as done by us on our North Coast 500 road trip!
1. Take the mountain pass road to Applecross
It’s amazing how amazing the landscapes dramatically change when you’re driving the NC500, and one great example of this is the mountain pass road to Applecross.
Before we head off on our NC500 road trip, a few people had already mentioned Applecross as a place not to be missed, so we did it.
When we arrived there was a sign saying the pass isn’t suitable for motorhomes, and I certainly would NOT attempt this drive if you have a caravan, but if you're in a campervan and know how to reverse well, then you’ll be absolutely fine.
I think the sign is to encourage people to take the alternative route, especially in the summer months when the NC500 is super busy!
There are lots of viewing points along the way, but seriously just keep looking out your window and you’ll be amazed at the twisty turny road you are taking. The road is epic, the views are EPIC, but it’s not for the faint of heart.
This reminded me of the mountain pass roads we did in Norway!
2. Check out Victoria Falls
There are lots of waterfalls along the NC500 route.
But the problem with waterfalls in Scotland is that probably, in comparison to waterfalls in the UK, they’re pretty good, but when you’ve been spoilt with waterfalls in Asia & South America, like Brad and I have, then they’re pretty….bland, BUT, that being said, of course, if you’re a fan of waterfalls, then go see them.
We only see waterfalls now if they’re epic, and won’t bother hiking to one unless it’s epic, because we have a high waterfall threshold haha
But Victoria Falls is an easy-breezy waterfall, it’s located next to Loch Maree, which is an absolutely beautiful loch in Scotland (there are many!). It’s run by the Forestry Commission, so it’s free to park up and it’s only 150 m to the waterfall.
There’s a little viewing platform too.
I liked this waterfall because it was surrounded by beautiful autumn colours, which I love!
And it’s one of the many free things to do on the NC500.
3. Admire the beautiful Loch Maree
So I just mentioned Loch Maree above, and this is one of the most beautiful lochs in Scotland (in my humble opinion).
I think the fact the sun was shining and the skies were clear when we visited had a lot to do with that.
This loch is the fourth largest freshwater loch in Scotland; it is the largest north of Loch Ness.
There are walking trails to be found here, and since the loch is so big, you’ll find little villages, restaurants, and hotels on your way.
4. Have a coffee at the Mountain Coffee Co
So during our NC500 road trip, I fell in love with Highland coffee.
I consider myself to be quite a coffee fanatic, and I’ve had the privilege of sampling some amazing coffee (Nicaragua is still the best in the world), but the “highland” coffee was delicious! But what’s unique about this little coffee shop is that they sell and stock Bob Marleys son's coffee.
It’s a quirky place with a quirky bookshop attached and I highly recommend you visit. I also believe they offer accommodation too.
5. Have a stroll at Gruinard Beach
Scotland is home to some pretty beautiful beaches, but of course, beaches are season dependent.
When we visited in November, the weather wasn’t exactly sunbathing or swimming material, but I have to say Gruinard beach was still very beautiful to visit. It’s large, it’s got golden sand and it’s a truly beautiful place to just wander.
We were the only ones on the beach when we visited near sunset, but I imagine in the summer months this place would get pretty busy!
Parking is free and you can wild camp here too, but there was no phone signal for us, so we moved on!
6. Admire Ardessie Falls
Another waterfall to visit on the NC500, but this one you can see as you drive past.
There is a small parking place just a couple of hundred meters away from it, but again, in the summer this would fill up very quickly.
Since the road was empty when we visited, we quickly pulled beside the waterfall to admire this powerful fall and took some pictures!
It was raining when we visited, but the waterfall was SO strong which was really cool!
This waterfall is free to visit.
7. Visit the viewing platform at Corrieshalloch Gorge National Nature Reserve
I love a viewing platform and a bridge, and this spot offered me both! This spot is run by the National Trust for Scotland.
When we visited, there was a suggested donation at the parking machine of £2 per person, which I was happy to pay, but it was actually out of use, so we didn’t have to pay it!
The walk to the suspension bridge is only 10 minutes, then a further 5 to the viewing platform.
The suspension bridge was really cool and offers great views of the surrounding forest and a waterfall. Since we visited during the autumn colours I was surrounded by red, oranges and beautiful yellows- I loved it!
8. Visit Ullapool
I have to warn you, I was disappointed in Ullapool.
But I actually think that was a lot to do with the fact EVERYTHING was closed when we visited, so there was literally nothing to do, other than going to Tesco to buy food. So that was disappointing.
But it’s a very popular stop on the NC500, so I assume it’s popular for a reason...
On a good day, you can wander around the loch, shop for souvenirs, grab some lunch, and visit museums!
9. Eat & drink at The Store Cafe in BettyHill
Brad and I agree that this was the cutest little cafe we’ve been to! The Store Cafe is literally an old store that’s been renovated into a part store, part coffee shop, and part off-license.
When you enter you’ll be greeted by a large, warm fire, so find a cozy seat, order a coffee (or a whisky!) and enjoy the atmosphere.
This was such a cool spot, and definitely worth visiting for the quirky nature.
In the summer months, they have outdoor seating, and the alcoholic drinks are very reasonably priced, so I would imagine it gets pretty popular here!
10. Visit Smoo Cave
Smoo cave was my favourite place to visit on the whole NC500 driving route.
I love caves, and whilst this wasn’t quite as exciting as the caves I’ve seen in Vietnam, it was still very cool!
Smoo Cave is free to enter (which is a pleasant surprise) and it’s a nice stroll down to it.
If you want to walk down into the cave itself then you’ll need to be wary of tides and make sure you can actually get in.
But you can freely wander into this cave via a trail and explore the depths and darkness!
There’s even a walkway to an almighty waterfall, which you will get soaked at when you stand beside it!
It’s such a cool spot to visit in Scotland.
When we were visiting we saw that there is also the chance to take boat tours under the waterfall in the cave at certain times of the year.
It wasn’t running when we visited, but we definitely would have done that if the opportunity had presented itself!
If you want to know the origins of Smoo Cave, then you can check out our vlog where Bradley makes a pretty convincing story of Smoo….
Parking is free here.
11. Achemlvich Bay
So this is actually one of the things on the NC500 that Bradley and I didn’t do, but I had to mention it because the only reason we didn’t do it was because the weather was absolute crap.
A beautiful blue, crystal clear beach isn’t the same when the rain will not stop pouring.
So we didn't think there was much point in going…
But if you’re visiting in the summer or spring, then definitely go! Just google the pictures of the stop and you’ll why...it looks amazing!
12. Hike the Old Man of Stoer
If you aren’t planning on going to the Isle of Skye and hiking to the Old Man of Storr there, then you may as well check out this one!
This is a 60-meter-high sea stack of Torridonian sandstone in Sutherland and from there you can also hike to the nearby Stoer Head Lighthouse.
It takes around 3 hours to hike and you can find out all you need to know about the walk itself right here.
13. Check out Kylesku Bridge
You’ll naturally drive across this bridge as part of the North Coast 500 driving itinerary, but it’s worth pulling into the parking viewpoint on the other side and taking some pictures.
The backdrop of this bridge is beautiful mountains and actually we ended up seeing a few deer which was pretty cool!
14. Visit the most Northerly town in mainland UK: John O’Groats
John O’Groats is 11 miles from Dunnet head which is Just 11 miles from Dunnet Head, the most northerly point of mainland Britain, but John O Groats is the start or endpoint of people doing the trip to Land’s End in Cornwall (most south).
The village itself is tiny but it has a lot of charm. There are a bunch of coloured houses which remind me of Balamory, and there are a few souvenir shops (a really cool Christmas shop!), coffee shops, and you can even spot whales, seals, and sharks here when the season is right.
A great place to visit and a must-stop on any North Coast 500 itinerary.
15. Wander around Duncansby Head Lighthouse & the Geo of Sclaites
During our adventures around Scotland Bradley and I have visited A LOT of lighthouses (we even got to stay in a lighthouse cottage on the Isle of Skye), but this one was very pretty. I
t’s free to park and walk around, and from here you can take a short walk to the Geo of Scalites which is actually a really cool spot to visit. We visited just before sunset and it looked really pretty.
What I will say is that it's extremely windy in this area!
16. Castle Sinclair remains, Wick
As you’re driving down the coastal roads of Wick, you’ll just be impressed by the views, but if you fancy a nice viewpoint, then take a detour into the Castle Sinclair remains.
It adds an extra 20-30 minutes onto your NC500 route, (it’s a one way in, one way out road) but on a clear day you’ll be greeted with amazing views, and there’s an information point there telling you about the history of the castle remains.
17. Visit Dunrobin Castle & Gardens
This is honestly one of the prettiest castles I’ve seen! It’s so well put together, but of course, when we visited, it wasn’t open to the public so we didn’t get to look inside, which is a pity.
But you can find out on their website, the history of the castle and opening hours ect.
18. Explore Inverness
Last but not least, no North Coast 500 road trip would be complete without exploring the capital of the Highlands, Inverness!
I loved Inverness and thought it was the perfect size of a city. It’s small but oozes lots of charm.
We only had a few hours to explore, but there is lots to do in this city including visiting Inverness Castle, Inverness Cathedral, getting your own kilt made at the kilt shop, and much more!
Ultimate 7 day North Coast 500 itinerary
So now that you’ve discovered the best things to do on the Nc500, it’s time to put that into perspective in the form of a 7 day North Coast 500 itinerary!
The NC500 starts and ends in Inverness (Inverness Castle if we are being specific!), so let’s start at the city of Inverness for all our Nc500 itinerary suggestions.
Day 1: Inverness to Applecross
- Drive time: 2 hours 10 mins
- Miles: 80
This is a great first day on your North Coast 500 itinerary!
The drive to Applecross is absolutely beautiful, and you’ll get to travel the mountain pass road to get there. In the summer months, there is a detour in place so that the mountain pass isn’t clogged up with campervans.
But if it’s quiet, then take the mountain pass road as the scenery is EPIC!
This was one of my favorite drives in all of the NC500, the views were awesome, but if you’re afraid of heights, maybe don’t look down!
Where to stay in Applecross
There are campsites and wild camping spots available in Applecross.
Not wild camping? Check out this cute cottage near Applecross!
Day 2: Applecross to Gairloch
- Drive time: 2 hours and 15 minutes
- Miles: 62 miles
So this route will only be significant to those who actually take the Applecross coastal road.
I do suggest you take this route as the views are beautiful and you’ll come across lots of beautiful Highland cows along the way!
You may find they hold up traffic for a little bit, but that presents a great opportunity to take pictures of them. There are great waterfalls on this route and many viewpoints!
Don’t forget to get a delicious coffee at the Mountain Coffee Co!
Where to stay in Gairloch
Not wild camping? Stay in the Cornerstone Lodges
Day 3: Gairloch to KyleSku
- Drive time: 2 hours and 8 minutes (if you take the shortcut) 4 hours without
- Miles: 87.9 miles
This is another beautiful route that will take you through to Ullapool.
Ullapool is a popular stopping point on the NC500, but unfortunately, when Bradley and I visited in November, everything was closed.
We had planned on visiting a coffee shop but absolutely nothing was open.
However, they do have a large Tesco shopping center here so it’s a good place to stock up on food if you need to!
I suggest you take the longer route which goes via the Achmelvich Bay direction. That whole loop is beautiful and the scenery here is great! We actually drove most of it in the rain but still thought it was fantastic.
Not wild camping? Check out the Hideaway
Day 4: KyleSku to BettyHill
- Drive time: 2 hours and 22 minutes
- Miles: 76 miles
This day you’ll be heading towards the North Coast! So expect the weather to change. Something that is interesting at this point, is that we had fantastic 4g signals all around the north coast with o2, so if you’re like us and work on the road, then you’ll be pleased with the signal on offer!
There are lots of beauty on this route, including the awesome Smoo Cave, which really was a quality gem on the Nc500 itinerary!
End your day at BettyHill for a coffee and a snack, then find a wild camping spot, or a campsite closeby.
Not wild camping? Check out this cosy cottage getaway!
Day 5: BettyHill to Wick
- Drive time: 1 hour and 36 minutes
- Miles: 66 miles
This is going to be a fun day! It’s a short day of driving, only coming in at 1 hour and 36 minutes, but that will give you plenty of time to stop at Thurso and grab a coffee, visit John O Groats and wander around the colourful houses, check out the shops, then head to the Duncansby Head Lighthouse & the Geo of Sclaites, both of which are beautiful as the sun starts to set.
At John O Groats you’ll have the opportunity to spot whales, sharks, and more (if the season is right).
Not wild camping?: Check out The Meadows cottage
Day 6: Wick to Golspie
- Drive time: 1 hour and 11 minutes
- Miles: 52 miles
Again this is another pretty short day, but it’s a beautiful coastal drive and there are actually quite a lot of castle ruins, and lighthouses that you can see on the way, so you’ll probably find you want to stop quite often and get some great walks in!
Not wild camping? Check out Anvil House
Day 7: Golspie to Inverness
- Drive time: 1 hour and 8 minutes
- Miles: 52 miles
The drive from Golspie to Inverness is great and there are some great castles to see on this drive including, Dunrobin Castle & Gardens, We were actually able to see some seals at Loch -- which was cool, and this was November time, so if you fancy doing some animal spotting, then now's your chance!
When you get back to Inverness, take a few hours to explore the city if you haven’t already. Inverness isn’t overly big, but it’s super charming.
We only had a few hours to explore, but we checked out the castle, wandered around the town, visit the largest second-hand book shop in Scotland (which was awesome!), visited the Victorian Market, and went for dinner.
There are lots of places to pick up souvenirs when driving the NC500, but if you’ve forgotten, then just hit the shops in Inverness!
Not wild camping? Check out the awesome hotels in Inverness city!
And that is our 7 day North Coast 500 itinerary!
This is the exact route Bradley and I followed, we just did it in two weeks because we were working too, but it’s entirely possible to do it in a week, and whilst you can visit it all quicker in a week, I think 7 days is the perfect amount of time to drive at a leisurely pace, visit all the sights, do great walks, and have time to visit coffee shops and restaurants for lunch!
If you decide to go the other direction, then the route is exactly the same, just back to front!
Other North Coast 500 itinerary suggestions
Just in case you don’t have 7 days to dedicate to your North Coast 500 itinerary, I’ll mention two other itineraries, below.
5 day Nc500 itinerary
Again we are starting in Inverness, and I suggest something like this:
- Day 1: Inverness to Gairloch (this is 4 hours if you go via Applecross, and 1 hour and 18 if you skip it)
- Day 2: Gairloch to Kysku (around 3 and a half hours (less if you take a shortcut)
- Day 3: Kylesku to Thurso (should take around 2 hours and 50 minutes)
- Day 4: Thurso to Golspie (1 hour and 15 minutes)
- Day 5: Golspie to Inverness (1 hour and 18 minutes)
3 day Nc500 itinerary
A 3 day North Coast 500 itinerary will mostly see you sightseeing from your car seat window, but if that’s okay with you, then you’ll be fine. This will be more bearable in the summer months when you’ll have far more daylight to work with.
I don’t think this is a good idea if you’re visiting outside of that season. Consider the sunsets at around 3.20 pm in November.
- Day 1: Inverness to Ullapool via Gairloch (and or Apple Cross) If you decide to do Apple cross then that’ll probably be a busy enough day for you. IF you don’t you could probably go further than Ullapool if you wish, I would suggest Kylesku.
- Day 2: KyleSku to John O Groats: should take around 3 and a half hours
- Day 3: John O Groats to Inverness: Around 2 hours and 40 minutes
I know at first glance that these drive times do not sound like a lot, but remember they aren’t including any delays and don’t include any stopping at sights, any walks, any toilet breaks, lunch, dinner breaks ect, so be wary of that when planning your North Coast 500 itinerary.
So there you have it, I hope this North Coast 500 itinerary has been useful to you! I’ve tried to include all the places we went, all the things we did and all the fun we had! I highly recommend this Scottish road trip.
Scotland has so many great road trips and some of my other favorites include the:
If you have any questions about this North Coast 500 itinerary, or the NC500 in general, then please do drop me a comment below.