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  • Writer's picturePretty Little Wanders

8 Day Itinerary NC500

Updated: Feb 6, 2022

What is the NC500

The North Coast 500, is a coastal journey of 516 miles in the Scottish Highlands, it’s a journey that showcases the unrivalled beauty of the Highlands, encompassing stunning beaches, magnificent castles, wonderous waterfalls and cliffsides, an abundance of wildlife and breath-taking scenes at literally every turn.

NC500, scenic coastal driving route, best drives
Scottish North Coast 500 Route

When to go

The weather will most likely be the key factor of when to visit Scotland, the summer months from June-August have the best weather, but the roads will be busier and availability of accommodation more limited. The months of May and September are better options, we went in September and although it did rain, the rain was intermittent and there were plenty of sunny spells. The roads for driving were also pleasant, I’m not sure I’d want to drive the narrow single track roads in the height of summer with high volumes of traffic.

Where to stay

One thing to bear in mind is that the availability of accommodation in the Highlands is very limited, and you will want to book hotels/B&B’s well in advance especially in the peak season. If you’re camping, you could get away with booking more last minute at a campsite of which there are a good selection and finally another option is wild camping. Scotland has laws that enable you to camp out in the wild amongst nature providing that you are being safe and respecting the environment. We opted to stay at a mix of hotels and B&B’s, ranging from £80-£140 per night.

How many days

Although 5 days minimum is suggested, we took 8 days and this gave us the opportunity to see and do a lot more and at a more relaxed pace. To be fair we could easily have added a few more days to take more in. It’s difficult to follow an exact itinerary as you will want to tailor yours to include the kinds of things you like to do, be that a focus on wildlife, hiking, etc. But this itinerary serves a basis to give you an idea of what you can expect on the NC500 trip. The actual route starts and finishes in Inverness (the Highlands capital), but our trip was part of a 3- week road trip and we started at Kendal in the Lake District and spent the first day and a half exploring a little more of Scotland outside the NC500.

The Highland Mile

Although the NC500 is just over 500 miles in distance, and you might be tempted to think you can drive that in a couple of days, all I will say is, do not underestimate the ‘highland mile’. First off, you will be driving largely on narrow single track roads with oncoming traffic and although the speed limit is 60mph here, you will rarely be doing more than 30-40mph. You will learn to make best friends with the ‘Passing Place’, an absolute godsend! Additionally, the average mile does not take into account the stunning scenery that will blow you away at every turn, where you’ll feel compelled to stop the car, take some pictures and explore some more. An hour’s journey can so easily become 2 hours or more!

DAY 1 - Kendal to Falkirk

Mileage: 158

Driving time: 2.5hrs

Gretna Green

A little village on the border of Scotland, infamous for being a romantic wedding destination. It became a haven for young lovers following the 1754 Marriage Act introduced in England and Wales where young people under 21 were forbidden to marry without parental permission. So, the young and in love began eloping to Scotland where it was much easier to marry. There is a small museum here, with a range of shopping outlets and eateries, and if you’re lucky you might even see a wedding taking place.

Love locks at Gretna Green

Kelpies

The 30 metre-high Kelpies are part of the Helix park, after seeing them in pictures online this place was a must for me. You can go inside and climb these equine structures but this section was closed off to us due to the Covid-19 situation at the time of writing. In Celtic legends a Kelpie is a shape-shifting water spirit that inhabits the lochs and pools of Scotland. And they really are quite a magical sight. (Tip: Stay at the Premier Lodge Grangemouth where you can walk to the Kelpies in 5 mins using a shortcut)

water shape shifters kelpies, equine structure
The Kelpies

DAY 2 Falkirk to Golspie

Mileage: 207

Driving time: 4hrs

The day started with an unplanned trip to Dewars Aberfeldy Distillery after seeing a sign for it on the road. The location was so authentic and the other half was in his element.

Dewars Aberfeldy Distillery

Cairngorms National Park (1.5hr drive from Falkirk)

The Cairngorms mountain range lies at the heart of this National Park, which is home to 5 of the highest mountains in the UK. There are also a number of towns and smaller villages dotted around the park, as well as museums and a variety of woodlands and nature reserves. There are 4 suggested driving itineraries covering different areas of the park. Click here to see these itineraries and find a useful map of the Cairngorms National Park that you can download from here.

Inverness (39miles/47mins) from Cairngorms National Park

The official starting point of the NC500 is Inverness and it’s less than an hours’ drive from the Cairngorms. We opted not to stop here, but if you choose to stop here, then Inverness Castle and the Scottish Kiltmaker Visitor Centre are some of the attractions here.

Glen Ord Distillery

With my travel companion being an avid whisky drinker, stops at numerous distilleries were inevitable, and even as a non-whisky drinker I did find them incredibly interesting. If you are considering doing a tour (and although the tour in the distillery itself wasn’t running in the aftermath of Covid-19, the tastings were taking place, but with reduced numbers and these were booked up a few weeks in advance. So do plan ahead and book well in advance.) Worth tasting here is the Singleton of Glen Ord.

Glenmorangie Distillery, Tain

Aside from the great whisky produced here, the location of the whisky cellars are a real treat.

Dornoch town and beach

Dornoch has a championship golf course that overlooks miles of the most beautiful sandy beach. A perfect combination with the husband on the golf course whilst I explored the beach. Dornoch Cathedral was where Madonna chose to have her son baptised, whilst her wedding to Guy Ritchie took place in the nearby Skibo Castle.

The stunning beachside location of Dornoch Golf Course

DAY 3

Golspie

The morning started with a little wander around the town of Golspie and a walk on Golspie beach followed by a trip to Dunrobin Castle. Well worth the £12 entrance fee, the castle provides an insight into the opulent lifestyle of the first Duke of Sutherland. Equally if not more stunning than the interior of the castle are the lush gardens that back onto a beach, they also provide a venue for regular falconry displays. Interestingly the castle has it’s own train on the Inverness-Wick line, though this only operates in the summer. The castle has a café and benches to sit and have a spot of lunch overlooking the beautiful gardens.

The opulent Dunrobin Castle

There is the opportunity for a stop at the Clynelish Distillery for some more whisky tasting, and a trip to Brora Sands, yet another stunning soft sandy beach.

The soft golden sandy beach at Brora Sands

After a brief stop back at our accommodation for a rest and refreshment, a 40 minute drive (much on single track roads) took us to the Falls of Shin in the area of Lairg. This is one of the best places to come to see the salmon leap on their upstream migration and you can see them between the months of March and November. There is an easily accessible viewpoint from the car park as well as a visitor centre and café. There are also a number of walking trails that are mapped out near the visitor centre, a great opportunity to discover some of the local woodlands. A further 15 minute drive takes you to Bonar Bridge, for a short pleasant walk, although this area is more popular for its mountain biking trails.

DAY 4 Golspie to John O’Groats

Mileage: 78

Driving time: 2 hrs

A short drive brings you to Helmsdale a sizeable village that is charming and picturesque with it’s little harbour. Less than an hours drive on a long stretch of single track roads leads you to the Grey Cairns of Camster. They are worth a brief stop but bear in mind you won’t be able to enter inside the cairns due to Covid-19 restrictions. The cairns are two of Scotland’s oldest stone monuments, Neolithic tombs built more than 5000 years ago and set amidst a windswept moor.

A 20 minute drive brings you to Whaligoe Steps, a set of 365 uneven steps that lead down to the prettiest little harbour, surrounded on 3 sides by tall cliffs, the walk down is a remarkable experience. Once down at the harbour you’ll spot lots of big jellyfish and possibly other marine and bird life. The Whaligoe Steps are not signposted and there is a very small car park near the café (which was closed whilst we were there). You can stop at the town of Wick with it’s huge harbour for a bit of lunch before heading onto Castle Sinclair Girnigoe whose ruins are set amidst the most beautiful cliffsides. Although the castle as it stands is but a shell of its former glory it’s a haven for hundreds of sea birds. Do take your binoculars for some bird watching. Also do take a little meander down to the path that leads to a secluded little cove. Its not sign posted and not many people come here but it’s a real little hidden treasure.

Head over to the Duncansby Head and Duncansby Sea Stacks for a long cliffside walk and devour the stunning views. It also provides another opportunity for bird-watching, you’ll spot a prolific numbers of razorbills, kittiwakes and puffins at the right time of year. Binoculars are a must here to see nesting birds up real close. Then off to John O’Groats, with its’ colourful sea front hotel, little port and the hoards of tourists and weary cyclists all getting snap happy with the John O’Groats sign. Keep in mind that although this is Britain’s most widely accepted northernly point, technically this accolade belongs to Dunnet Head.

The striking Duncansby Sea Stacks
The colourful sea front eco hotel at John O'Groats

DAY 5 John O’Groats to Durness

Mileage: 91

Driving time: 3hrs


The Castle of Mey is where the late Queen Mother had her Scottish home. It is possible to visit the castle and it’s lovely gardens, but do check beforehand, as it was closed due to Covid-19 when we there. But the entrance looked pretty stunning with its’ tree tunnel.

Entrance to the Castle of Mey

Dunnet Head is officially mainland Britain’s most northerly point and is an area covered in pretty heather and bogs with steep cliffs. There’s also a lighthouse here and not far is Dunnet Bay with beautiful golden sands and huge dunes, a popular place with surfers. You can make further stops at Thurso and Tongue. You won’t be able to resist pulling into the causeway that crosses the Kyle of Tongue, it’s picturesque with the backdrop of mountain views behind the golden sands. You also have the opportunity to stop off as Castle Varrich before arriving at Durness. Just before arriving at Durness are some of the most amazing views of Sango Sands (Durness beach), be sure not to miss this, we almost had this huge beach to ourselves for ages. If you’re going to be camping, the views from the campsite here are nothing short of breathtaking. I actually wished I was camping!

Stunning Sango Sands

DAY 6 Durness to Gairloch

Mileage: 124

Driving time: 3.5hrs


An early morning start at the unmissable Smoo Caves is a great idea as it can get busy. This is a stunning limestone cave by the sea with impressive rock formations and a waterfall. There is a car park nearby and a wooden walkway that leads you to the inner chamber, weather permitting rubber dinghy rides can take you further into the caves. With the Covid situation these trips were not running at the time of writing.

Smoo Cave

A 2 hour drive takes you to the sizeable town of Ullapool with it’s harbour. There are plenty of opportunities to stop at Scourie, Kylescu, Lochinver, Assynt, Knockan Crag Nature Reserve, but just bear in mind this all adds time onto the journey so pick wisely beforehand. We stopped in Ullapool for lunch, a wander in the harbour and a bit of souvenir shopping before heading off to Corrieshalloch Gorge and 160ft Falls of Measach. This is an easy stop from a layby on the main road, a short walk you come to a Victorian suspension bridge that spans the chasm offering some colossal views. The drive from here to Gairloch passes through Aultbea, Inverewe Gardens and Poolewe, worth a stop time and weather permitting.

DAY 7 Gairloch


We had given ourselves a couple of days in Gairloch as this is one of the popular places to get boat ride to see marine life such as basking sharks, dolphins, killer whales etc, unfortunately a wander around Gairloch harbour revealed all these establishments were closed, some due to Covid-19 and others weren’t operating due to strong wind conditions. So instead we had lunch at The Mountain Coffee Company, and upon the recommendation of one of the locals we headed to Loch Maree to try and spot some red deer and although we didn’t see deer there, the loch itself was incredibly tranquil and beautiful and we did spot deer on the drive back. Loch Maree is a popular spot for red deer and the best times to see them are at dawn and dusk. There was a brief stop and hike at Victoria Falls, I couldn’t believe just how many waterfalls we were passing a daily basis. The night was spent in Gairloch.

Pretty little Gairloch harbour

DAY 8 Gairloch to Isle of Skye via Applecross

Mileage: 57

Driving time: 2hrs to Applecross and 2.5hrs to Isle of Skye


Although the NC500 route itself heads from Applecross back inland to the starting point at Inverness, we had decided not to do this as there was no need to go back to the starting point and this section of the drive wasn’t as picturesque as the coastal sections. Applecross village has a small market place and eateries and as soon we parked up we were treated to these wild stags on the beach. The Walled Garden is a great option for lunch amidst a walled Victorian garden, we also spotted a group of 50 stags nearby too. You can stop off in the picturesque little village of Plockton.

The drive out of Applecross takes you through the Bealach Na Ba Pass (though campervans, other large vehicles and inexperienced/anxious drivers can bypass this route). The “pass of the cattle” is a classic drive and popular with cyclists too. This single track road has the steepest road ascent in the UK, with a number of switchbacks, 20% gradients and views to die for (though you won’t want to take your eyes off the road!) This is not a road journey for the inexperienced or faint-hearted. From here we took the road to the Isle of Skye.

The Beleach Na Ba Pass - a thrilling drive

For more Scottish adventures, check out my 12 Unmissable Scottish Experiences

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