Planning the structure of our North Coast 500 road trip was without a doubt serious business. We organised our trip for a full ten days as we are driving from London, stopping in Edinburgh for two nights, before starting the route in Inverness for another six days.
Dexter and I agreed to do the trip on January 2018 and decided to travel from the 25th May to 3rd June. From what we’ve researched, it’s essential to book accommodations months in advance as they tend to fill up quickly. Now that the NC500 is gaining popularity, the early stages of planning this trip should involve how many days you plan to do the drive and which areas you intend to stay.
To help you get started with your NC500 adventure, we’ve outlined our full itinerary including places of interest we managed to see. Surely we’ve missed a chunk of sights worth seeing and stopping for - but we feel that we’ve covered enough to attest that the North Coast 500 is truly the best, most scenic road trip out there!
During our trip, Scotland was having it’s warmest and driest week. It was particularly clear and sunny (23C to 26C) the first five days of our drive.
Day 1: Arriving in Inverness (Edinburgh to Inverness)
Time on the road: 12 noon - 6:30 pm
Weather: Chilly and foggy as we left Edinburgh, cool and sunny as we approached Stirling and Edinburgh
Road description: Dual carriageway trunk road via A9
Stops worth making: Three Bridges (Forth Rail, Forth Road, Queensferry Crossing), Stirling Castle, Inverness Castle
Where we stayed: Dunalan Bed and Breakfast
Regarded as the capital of the Highlands, Inverness is Scotland’s largest city where River Ness connects to Moray Firth. The town was a 6-minute walk from our B&B. Crossing either Ness Bridge or Greig St Bridge over River Ness gives you a beautiful glimpse of the city and the hard-to-miss Inverness Castle. There are several restaurants, cafes, shops, and whisky bars making this city the gateway to the Highlands and the perfect kickstarter to North Coast 500.
Day 2: Inverness to Lochcarron
Time on the road: 9:30 am - 5 pm
Weather: Incredibly warm and sunny (around 23-25C)
Road description: Mostly double-lane roads, converging to a single-track in some parts further west
Stops worth making: Glen Ord Distillery, Rogie Falls, Lochcarron Bistro
Where we stayed: Chuillin Bed and Breakfast
We started our trip driving a wee bit off-route to see the Loch Ness before going to Glen Ord Distillery for our first whisky tour and tasting. At this point we’re certain that sunshine was on our side - we had the top down of our Mini as we imagined!
Nestled on the outskirts of Muir of Ord, Glen Ord is Diageo’s fourth largest distillery in Scotland. It’s worth a stop here and if you don’t have the time to do a tour, their shop has an extensive collection of whisky as well. We managed to get a Distillers Edition of Oban, Cragganmore, and a 12-year old of Glen Ord’s Singleton.
As we leave Loch Luichart, we pass more glens and lochs along the way. The sceneries become varying shades of green while the mountains endlessly towering the skyline appear to convince us that our whole week would look and feel like this... and yet this only was our official first day on the road. Roads become narrow as we approach Lochcarron. We learn later on that there had been ongoing wildfires in Upper Diabaig and Torridon areas. A haze of dark smoke was visible in certain areas of our drive.
As we arrived early in our bed and breakfast, which was overlooking Loch Carron, we had the luxury to have a decent, fine seafood dinner at Lochcarron Bistro.
The sun doesn’t set until 10 so we did a quick drive to Bealach na Bà after dinner. No wonder this mountainous road is often called a highlight of the NC500 Route. Gaelic for 'Pass of the Cattle,' Bealach na Bà's narrow zigzag path and hairpin bends are truly challenging, not for a beginner driver. The winding roads feel like you're on a race track but you are not! Be advised to drive this road with the greatest caution. We loved that we did this particular drive because we’ll be doing it again the day after as we head to Ullapool.
Day 3: Lochcarron to Ullapool
Time on the road: 10 am - 8:15 pm
Weather: Extremely warm to the point of my arms getting sunburnt
Road description: Alternating double-track and single-track roads, a lot of passing places
Stops worth making: Road to Applecross sign, Bealach na Bà, Applecross, Shieldaig Bar & Coastal Kitchen, Gruinard Bay and Eas Dubh Falls, The Seaforth
Where we stayed: Bedroom in a private house
After our B&B host made us a lovely Scottish breakfast, we set off (again) to drive Bealach na Bà. There were a few cyclists doing the route who we met when we did a pitstop in Applecross. From this point on, phone reception had been very poor that signal was close to none. The road continued to be winding and exceptionally picturesque. With so many passing places, we've already waved and given the nod to numerous drivers and cyclists that the road has become a playground, and the drive a social activity. Read more about Road Safety via the NC500 official website.
We stopped at Shieldaig for a seafood platter and seafood pizza - too bad Dexter couldn't share a pint with me as he’s driving!
Opposite Gruinard Bay is a 40-minute walking trail to Eas Dubh Falls. We followed a turn-by-turn guide on Walk Highlands that helped us navigate the walk as there were no sign posts, unless we clearly missed it. Although the website says the walk is only an hour long, we spent two hours back and forth including a much-needed swim in the waterfall!
A small town of only 1,500 inhabitants, Ullapool is known for its beautiful harbour being used as both a fishing and ferry port. There was a big cruise ship that evening we arrived. More importantly, they have Tesco and Boots! (Pun intended.) We then had a lovely dinner of fish and chips and a few pints of Scottish beer at The Seaforth to cap the night off.
Day 4: Ullapool to Talmine
Time on the road: 10 am - 8:45 pm
Weather: Warm and sunny but started to get cooler as we drove further up north. Sudden drop of temperature approaching Kinlochbervie. Cloudy skies when we arrived in Talmine.
Road description: Our favourite drive during the trip, especially along the A894 after Kylesku Bridge. Most scenic part of the route in our opinion.
Stops worth making: Inchnadamph Bone Caves, Ardvreck Castle, Colda House, Loch Assynt, Lochinver Larder, Drumbeg viewpoint, Kylesku Bridge
Where we stayed: Woodlife Way Bed and Breakfast
After a much-needed coffee and some last-minute food shopping, we set off to Inchnadamph Bone Caves. It’s name meaning ‘meadow of the stags’, the Bone Caves once held remains of species like lynx, reindeer, brown bear, and the only ever recorded evidence of polar bear in Scotland. This guide helped us navigate through the limestone valley.
It was another bright sunny day for a hiking trail that became slightly challenging as we approached the cave entrance. The cliffs are rather steep and the hike is along a narrow rocky path so explore with care. It took us three hours doing the trail. Blame photography.
We then went to Ardvreck Castle and Calda House, buildings that date back from the 16th century located by the shores of Loch Assynt. The 360-degree view of valleys, the loch, and old ruins is quite a treat. One does not simply come here without taking the time to soak its beauty and marvel at what once was Clan MacLeod’s stronghold. After staying here for a wee bit, we drove back a little to Old Parish Church of Assynt where we previously saw a field with a herd of deer.
Lochinver is a great pitstop - petrol, cafes and restaurants, and also phone signal. We had a very late lunch at Lochinver Larder and they’re apparently famous for pies. Dexter had the venison cranberry pie and it was. So. Good. We were just glad that we bought an apple pie for takeaway - but we should’ve ordered more! You can get their pies online too.
The route after Lochinver took us along the B869, another road to watch out for in terms of a somewhat roller coaster ride of switchbacks where coastal views and steep hills fly past us like clockwork.
The road after Kylesku Bridge is Dexter’s favourite drive along the A894, if you check it on Google Maps it's all but one squiggly line. The temperature quickly dropped to 15 degrees Celsius as we drove further north. Along the A838 is a long stretch of a valley that's bizaarely wide and flat - for the first time in days we felt like we’re seeing sky unobstructed by mountains. It was quite surreal!
The drive along Loch Eriboll towards our bed and breakfast was also just as beautiful. We were told that the drive back had better views, perhaps you can add that on your list if you’re working anti-clockwise.
Day 5: Talmine to Mey
Time on the road: 10:30 am - 6 pm
Weather: Sunny during the day, more seahaar as we approached Mey, and from 6pm onwards our surroundings were in complete fog
Road description: Mostly double-track roads, more coastal views, lesser mountains and lochs
Stops worth making: Loch Eriboll, Castle Varrich, Bettyhill, Farr Beach, Strathnaver Museum, Strathy Point
Where we stayed: The Crofters’ Snug
It was so hard to leave our bed & breakfast in Talmine as it was just gorgeous. If you’re looking for a place to stay around this area, we highly recommend Woodlife Way. Its rustic interior, personal touches, wooden crafts, and the perfect bed truly makes up for an amazing night’s stay. To this day, Dexter and I still talk about how much we adored Steve and Lea’s place. For breakfast, you’ll be served with homemade treats too!
A small village on the north coast of Scotland, Bettyhill is known for its salmon fishing and Strathnaver Museum. We visited the museum with a wee entrance fee of £3 - a small price to learn so much about the Highland Clearances. Its upstairs section is a room dedicated to ancient Clan Mackay.
We also spent a little time in Farr Beach admiring both the sun and the seahaar. A sea-what?!
"It's not just a fog, it's a seahaar!" We were told this statement twice during our trip, so in this blog we feel entitled to mention it! Haar is a cold sea fog occurring most often in Scotland when warm air passes over the cold North Sea. Interestingly, it really does stay on the sea and doesn't get in the way of driving.
We followed this guide en route Strathy Point. We assumed staying in this area for just an hour since it’s "just a lighthouse" but we ended up being here for over 2 hours! We’ll let these photos do the talking... and no, it's definitely not just a lighthouse.
We arrived in Thurso just around 5pm where we stopped by a Tesco to buy dinner (steak and salad!) and also a fishmongers called A Mackay and Son where we bought salmon. It was a treat where we stayed that night and also the first time we went 'glamping.' If you’re into something similar, check out our Crofters’ Snug in Mey.
Day 6: Mey to Inverness
Time on the road: 9:45am to 7:30pm
Weather: Very foggy
Road description: Quality trunk roads, coastal views, less (if not, none at all) passing places
Stops worth making: Castle of Mey, Duncansby Stacks, John O’ Groats signpost, Sinclair and Girnigoe Castle, Old Pulteney Distillery, Dunrobin Castle
Where we stayed: Bedroom in a private house
After a breakfast of bagels and salmon, we had the time of our lives feeding our B&B hosts’ Shetland ponies just behind our camp. It’s moments like this during this trip that makes it so unique, the things you don’t plan, and the amount of surprises that keep pouring in as we go further on the road.
We briefly passed by Castle of Mey before heading to Duncansby Stacks. Unfortunately weather wasn’t on our side - it was an extremely foggy morning with barely any visibility. Interestingly Duncansby Head is also one of Britain’s best seabird colonies where sandstone cliffs have been eroded into irregular blocks and clefts, making it ideal for the birds to nest. We saw several fulmars and razorbills. Imagine if it were a sunny day, it would’ve been perfect!
Heading this far north will not be complete without striking a pose by the famous John O’Groats signpost!
Our next stop was Castle Sinclair Girnigoe where Clan Sinclair once held seat on the latter part of the 14th century. Despite being reduced to ruin and erosion, one can imagine how the castle must’ve once stood gloriously in its prime. Walking around the castle made us discover beautiful gems - a small sandy beach surrounded by cairns; and several stacks with the water so clear you can see the rest of the stones it stands upon.
Back in Inverness we felt a swelling pride of finishing the North Coast 500 with no casualties whatsoever! We celebrated with a lovely steak dinner in Contrast Brasserie.
What we think of the North Coast 500
A few months ago we would dream about this holiday. Now that it’s been weeks past since we were on the road, we only have high praises for it. Very high praises. The experience was beyond anywhere we’ve traveled to, there’s no doubt why it’s being dubbed as the world’s best road trip. It never disappointed. (Well, apart from all that fog on that one day.)
We hope this extensive itinerary and guide will help you plan your trip. As a gift, you can get £25 OFF your first AirBnb booking. Let us know if you plan to check out the accommodations we’ve been to. We’ll be coming up with a few more articles to help you with planning VERY SOON.
PLAN YOUR NORTH COAST 500 TRIP WITH THE HELP OF OUR POSTS BELOW!