If you’re from the UK, you have certainly heard of the North Coast 500 by now. Known alternatively as the Scottish Route 66, this heavenly drive has quickly become the face of Scottish road trips. But for those of you unfamiliar with the famed NC500 route, or simply looking for a more exact description, we are here to help! We’re going to run you through the entire North Coast 500 road trip, from start to finish. This will naturally include your NC500 motorhome hire as well as things to do on the way. So before you pack your bags and organise your campervan hire in Scotland and let's find out your NC 500 route and itinerary.
Before your Trip
It is important to plan ahead! Firstly, which season are you embarking on? If it is the brutal Scottish winter - props to you!- then you’ll need to check you have winter tyres and snow chains. If you’re arranging NC500 motorhome hire in Scotland for the trip, they can probably supply these but always check first. You’ll also need a lot of blankets, a heater, and an emergency kit in case of being snowed in. If you’re doing the opposite, and cruising down the roads with the summer sunshine beating down, you’ll have different things to consider. Will you need a fan? It is unlikely as Scotland isn’t quite the Bahamas, but with Global Warming it is always worth searching prior and planning ahead. And generally, considering what to bring is vital. Will you be hiking and need boots? Or do you wish to cycle, does your motorhome have a bike rack? I always find it necessary to consider rainy days, as Scotland is sadly prone to them. I never head out on a campervan trip without at least one pack of cards and a good book!
Also, remember this route has smaller roads, so opt for a smaller campervan and ensure you're always prepared for a breakdown, as you can end up in rural areas.
It is important to also decide whether you’ll be wild camping or visiting the lovely North Coast 500 campsites. Both are great options, but in a campervan, we recommend going to campsites! With North Coast 500 campsites it can be beneficial to book in advance. However, this can feel restricting, so if you’d prefer to take things as they are and determine your trip as you go, just be aware that you might sometimes arrive at a full campsite. Certain apps can also be useful, in case you ever go off track and get lost, or need certain things!
Day 1 - 2
Our story begins in Inverness. I recommend coming at least two nights before you truly set off for the NC 500, as there are plenty of things to do and places to see in Inverness! If this city isn’t quite your style, you can skip to the next section. But for all those still with me, let's discuss what you’re doing in Inverness.
On your first day, start by strolling through the city a bit, to get a feel for it. Then head to the Inverness Museum and Art Gallery to learn more about the fascinating Highland life and heritage of Inverness. You can grab some lunch in the museum cafe, or head to the next street which is filled with options. After this, visit Inverness Castle, with its gorgeous view of the River Ness. You can either take a tour or simply head to the view, and after this walk a few metres to the Flora Macdonald statue. Is it getting dark and you’re ready for a drink? Luckily Johnny Foxes is right around the corner and will provide live music and a traditional Scottish drink! After a good night of sleep - depending on how long you enjoyed Johnny Foxes- you can choose to spend your day at Loch Ness, taking a boat tour or walking around it. Or if the weather or hangover doesn’t quite allow it, you can visit Inverness Cathedral for beautiful architecture and go shopping in Eastgate Shopping Centre!
Staying at: You and your motorhome will be resting its shiny wheels at Torvean Caravan Park. It depicts itself as the ‘gateway to Inverness and the Highlands’ and is perfectly located to enjoy the city whilst being able to escape for more tranquil evenings.
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Inverness - Dornoch
The drive should take about an hour, but will assure beautiful views of the waters! Once you reach Dornoch, you can spend the rest of your day visiting Dornoch Castle. It is the heart of the historic town of Dornoch, and can be followed by a visit to Dornoch Cathedral, which is directly across the road! This cathedral is so popular that Madonna had her son Rocco christened here - picture moment! Afterwards, you certainly deserve a drink in the famed whisky bar. It will take you centuries back with its thick old stone walls and giant fireplace, and there you can taste the award-winning whisky.
Staying at: Dornoch Firth Caravan Park, where you’ll receive a warm welcome! This family-owned park is walking distance from a supermarket, and will ensure quiet evenings after your busy days spent exploring!
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Loch Fleet Nature Reserve
Wake up, wake up, you’re about to drive 15 minutes to Loch Fleet Nature Reserve! You’ll be sleeping at Dornoch Firth for another night, but we think it’ll be good to fully immerse yourself in this stunning area for a day. Once you’ve parked, it is time to lace up your boots and start exploring. Walk through the many trails on offer, or pull out your bikes to get to see even more. Keep an eye out for wildlife- you’ll spot everything from otters to seals to rare butterflies. Enjoy a picnic on the tranquil Littleferry beach, where you may spot harbour seals basking on the exposed sand banks. Once you’re tired out, grab a bite to eat and head back to Dornoch Firth for a campfire and a good glass of wine.
Staying at: Dornoch Firth Caravan Park
Dornoch - Helmsdale
Pack up in the morning and head to Helmsdale. You’ll be surprised at how many things to do there are in this sleepy little fishing village! Head straight to the river to experience this town best. Rent some fishing equipment and see if you can catch some salmon for dinner! Unsuccessful? Maybe you’ll do better at gold panning, earning enough to buy a meal. You can pan for free, and all the equipment you require can be hired from Strath Ullie Crafts & Visitor Information. Dinner is served at the Bannockburn Inn, where you can celebrate your success or toast to your misery over a good pint and local dinner.
Staying at: Helmsdale Harbour. This is not a campsite like the previous North Coast 500 accommodation suggestions, but a good spot for campervan overnight parking. You’ll have a sea view, with fresh water options nearby and be within walking distance from a restaurant and supermarket!
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Helmsdale - John o’Groats
With a new morning comes a new destination! The drive to John o’Groats should take about an hour and 15 minutes, we recommend following the coast and really taking your time. Stop for some photographs, turn down the window and turn up the radio! On the way, stop at Castle Sinclair Girnigoe. This once-impregnable medieval/ renaissance stronghold is now the only castle in Scotland to be listed by the World Monuments Fund. Aside from the dramatic ruins, it is worth stopping for given the amazing view from the clifftop, and you may spot some seals in the waters below! Once you reach John o’Groats you may wish to have a more relaxed day. I recommend getting acquainted with your accommodation for the next two evenings and then heading to Duncansby Head. This is the most northeasterly part of the British mainland and is located in Caithness. Here you can take a relaxing stroll on the beach and climb the picturesque Duncansby Head Lighthouse. If you stay until the sun sets, you may have a chance at spotting the Northern Lights in autumn and winter - this is the only spot you can, and they should appear above Orkney.
Staying at: John o’Groats Caravan and Camping Site. If you’re travelling the North Coast 500, you want to make the most of the coast, which the sea view at this campsite will allow for. Some travellers have even been lucky enough to spot seals while having their breakfast! It is within walking distance from restaurants and a supermarket, as well as the close driving distance from a petrol station and various tourist sights.
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If your schedule allows it, I definitely recommend a day trip to Orkney! There are various ferries that can bring you out, and it will certainly be worth your time. Visit Skara Brae, a stone-built Neolithic settlement and Europe’s most complete Neolithic village. It contains the ruins of 8 houses dating from roughly 3000 BC and a visitor centre to teach you more. Also head to the Ring of Brodgar, a neolithic stone circle. If you’re looking for adventure, go climbing and abseiling off of Old Man of Hoy, a 449-foot sea stack. If you’d rather be in the water than above it, you can go diving at Scapa Flow and try to spot a wartime shipwreck. After lunch at a local cafe, head to the Orkney Museum to learn more about this fascinating island, and take a stroll around St Magnus Cathedral. Take the last ferry back to John o’ Groats and enjoy a simple supper by the campfire.
Staying at: John o’Groats Caravan and Camping Site.
John o’Groats - Thurso
Between mid May and the end of September, you can visit the Castle of Mey. This is one of Caithness’ most treasured gems and was bought by the late Queen Mother in the 1950s. It is easy to see why this was one of her favourite places, and it will quickly become yours too! Tour the castle and the gardens, and then head back onto the road. It is a mere 30-minute drive to Thurso, and once there you can spend your limited time wisely. Visit Old St. Peter’s Kirk, marvelling at both the remains of the church and graveyard. Then you have two options. If the weather is looking good, you can take a Caithness Wildlife Tour, getting some fresh air whilst spotting creatures. If it is a gloomy Scottish day, then you may wish to head to Caithness Horizons Museum and Art Gallery - grabbing a cake in the cafe of course!
Staying at: Castletown Heritage Car Park. Since you’re only in Thurso for a night and will be kept busy exploring the area, you can park at an overnight campervan parking instead of checking into a campsite. At this harbour, you’ll have sea views and be able to walk to the waters. And it’s free!
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Thurso - Tongue
Once you get past the unfortunately amusing name, I think you’ll quite enjoy Tongue! The drive should take you just over an hour, and on the way you can stop at Strathy Point Lighthouse, which is set beautifully on a hill. Pack lunch and head to Castle Varrich. Enjoy the hike up, which isn’t too difficult and will provide stunning views from the top. You can also look at the remains of Castle Varrich, which once belonged to the MacKay clan. Once you’ve had lunch overlooking the coastal view, you can head to Kyle of Tongue. No matter the weather, this coastal strip is worth it. You may even spot some seals and otters, as well as the occasional eagles and ospreys. There are more mountains to walk up if you please, or you can enjoy a bite to eat at a local cafe.
Staying at: Kyle of Tongue Hostel & Holiday Park
Stay in the heart of Tongue and have your pick between grass and hardstanding pitches at Kyle of Tongue Hostel & Holiday Park. They offer a range of facilities, including those with disabled access.
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Tongue - Durness
A 54-minute drive brings you to the stunning Durness. Get straight into sightseeing after a more relaxed day, and explore the natural wonder Smoo Cave, which is Britain’s largest limestone sea cave. If you’re not tired of beaches yet - and how could you be?- walk across the incredible Sandwood Bay Beach. Warm up with a delicious hot chocolate from Cocoa Mountain in Balnakeil Craft Village, followed by a spot of shopping!
Staying at: Sango Sands Oasis. Don’t worry, tonight you can pitch at a real campsite! This grassy campsite will be perfect for enjoying a glass of wine and chatting with fellow NC 500 travellers. You can also grab dinner at their cosy restaurant.
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Durness - Kylesku
Wake up bright and early, you’ve got a full day in Kylesku ahead! Perhaps pick up some nice fresh bread rolls to enjoy during the 55-minute drive. Park at Ardvreck Castle, and enjoy the remains of this once-great defensive fort. Ardvreck Castle was built in the fifteenth century by the MacLeods of Assynt, and is renowned as where the Marquis of Montrose was imprisoned in 1650. Drive to North Coast Sea Tours, and enjoy an amazing boat tour of the surrounding waters. If you’re here between late May and the end of July, you’ll be able to enjoy the puffin breeding season. Even without it, the seabird sanctuary of Handa Island and its 200-foot cliffs are amazing! You can stop at Kylesku Hotel for a delicious seafood platter for lunch. If you feel like some more fresh air, head to Knockan Crag. This insane rock formation will have you shocked, and you can choose from three trails to explore it. From the top, you’ll get a breathtaking view over the rugged mountains and shimmering lochs of this dramatic region. Alternatively, you can head to the hamlet of Kylesku for a stroll around the cobblestoned streets and a nice meal.
Staying at: Clachtoll Beach Campsite. A little drive out of Kylesku, this campsite is worth it for even one night. It is sustainably focused and features spacious grassy pitches.
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Kylesku - Ullapool
Today's drive will only take 50 minutes, and will probably be the most inland route you’ve taken! You can alternatively try to follow the coast, but that will certainly add another hour or two to your journey and run the risk of sheep-covered roads! Today you’ll be enjoying Lael Forest Garden, a collection of the most exotic and extraordinary woodland Scotland has to offer. Their collection includes rare and common trees and shrubs from every country in the world, as well as some delightful champion trees. Follow the Gorge Trail, which should take you an hour maximum. Next, you can visit the Corrieshalloch Gorge, and marvel at the River Dorma as it plummets through a series of waterfalls. It is a great location for bird watching, so keep an eye out for some soaring golden eagles or ravens. For lunch, you definitely should try The Seafood Shack, a local food truck that will delight your gastronomic senses! You can walk off your lunch at Little Loch Broom and Gruinard Bay, strolling and filling up the holiday photo album.
Staying at: Ardmair Point Holiday Centre. This campsite will allow you to see the beautiful Loch Lochby as well - what even is a trip to Scotland without visiting a dozen lochs? It is only 6km from the centre and has a grocery store onsite.
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Ullapool - Gairloch
Sadly our trip is slowly coming closer to an end, and this hour-and-a-half drive to Gairloch is simply a reminder of that. Start your day by exploring Inverewe Garden, a mosaic of landscape habitats home to Scotland’s most iconic wildlife, including red deer, pine martens, otters, eagles and red squirrels! Then you can either head to the museum or gallery to learn more, or you can visit Red Point beaches to dip your toes and enjoy the fresh Scottish air. Spend your afternoon wandering around Aultbea, a small village five miles north of Poolewe on the northeastern shore of Loch Ewe. Walk alongside the small harbour, visit local craft shops and enjoy the local cuisine for dinner!
Staying at: Gairloch Holiday Park. End your long day with gorgeous views over the loch. This campsite is known for its clean facilities and close location to the chippy!
Gairloch - Kinlochewe
Start your day early with a half-hour drive to Kinlochewe, where you’ll be heading straight for Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve. Lace-up your best hiking boots and head for the trails, climbing Britain’s first National Nature Reserve. It consists of a cluster of mountain peaks, ancient pinewoods, secretive crossbills and gliding golden eagles. Trails range from 1.5km to 6.5km, and you can find out more at the visitor centre onsite. Follow this with a traditional Scottish breakfast, courtesy of Whistle Stop Cafe! Be sure to try the creamy Scottish porridge or a tasty bacon roll. To let this digest, drive the long road to Lower Diabaig, enjoying the stunning views along the way. For your afternoon, why not take it easy? Catch another loch with Loch Maree or try some Scottish delicacies in the village.
Staying at: Kinlochewe Caravan Club Site. This small and intimate campsite is located at the foot of the rugged slopes of Ben Eighe. This ensures gorgeous views, a tranquil atmosphere and nature surrounding you. Also, it’s only 300m from the centre, talk about the best of both worlds!
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Kinlochewe - Applecross
Start your day by another climb. I know, I know, another one? But this is one you simply cannot miss whilst doing the Scottish Route 66. Stop at the Torridon Hills, which are among the most dramatic and spectacular peaks of the entire British Isles, and contain some of the oldest rocks in the world! Hike back down and whip up a quick breakfast, before driving to Applecross. I recommend taking the coastal route, which will take you an hour and a half but will give you a stunning last view of the Scottish waters. Visit the Applecross heritage centre to learn about one of the oldest villages in Scotland! Follow this with a spectacular lunch at Applecross Walled Garden, the vegetarian Wellington is truly a force to be reckoned with! Then you can stretch after lunch by doing the walk between Sand and Applecross Bay, moving from fine sandy beaches to pebbled bays. It is a 4.5-mile walk and should take 2 hours.
Staying at: Applecross Campsite - what a classically simple name! This simple and spacious site will allow you to take out the awning, and enjoy the final of many North Coast 500 campsites. Perhaps even pick up some supplies for s’mores and set up a campfire!
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Applecross - Inverness
Begin the drive back to Inverness, but to delay the end of your holiday you can make one special stop along the way! Explore the Attadale Gardens, where you can stretch your sore limbs with a stroll around their stunning gardens. The viewpoint will allow you to see more of this stunning region, and spot some traditional cattle! Their tearoom is delightful, and if you’re feeling like a cheeky treat to mourn the end of NC 500, go for the cheesecake with strawberries! Once you reach Inverness, the fantasy of the Scottish Route 66 is over, and it is time to return to your ordinary life — until your next campervan hire in Scotland!
The 16-day-long North Coast 500 route, begins and ends in Inverness. Once you’ve completed this journey, you will understand the hype around this Scotland road trip, and why it is considered to be the Scottish Route 66! It is a journey of ups and downs, a lot of wet weather, and endless adventures! You can lengthen the route by stopping at the Isle of Skye, or in more of the villages along the way. Alternatively, you can shorten it by skipping a few of the stops or spending less time in Inverness. Now to find motorhome hire in Scotland, and how to have the best road trip through Scotland!