There are many reasons why you might want to head out on the open road to explore some of the world’s greatest road trips, but there’s one unifying benefit that comes from the experience of doing so.

Regardless of the country or the region in which your planned route takes place, the fact is, you’ll get a much better understanding of a location by exploring the Tarmac and cobbles of its streets.

Nowhere is that more apparent than the North Coast 500, which starts in Inverness and coils around the edge of the north of Scotland, up to John O’Groats and Dunnet Head – the very top of mainland Great Britain – and back down again on the other side.

See the majesty of the Highlands and all this gorgeous region has to offer

And while the route means navigating the 516 miles around the tip of the country, it’s entirely flexible on time, interests and preferences. In any case, you’re going to witness the true beauty of the rugged Scottish Highlands. This is a road trip that can be built around your own desires: whether it’s castles and wildlife or whisky and history, the NC500 has it all. So it’s important to come up with a rough itinerary, knowing generally where you’re going – even if you’re open to distractions – will result in a much more enjoyable time for all involved.

Allow yourself plenty of time

Scotland’s famed cattle will dot the landscape, but do try (safely) to see one up close

This also means having to factor in the time it will take, because the driving can often be slower than you might expect: if you are travelling in anything bigger than a campervan, you’ll want to avoid single-track roads, for example.

Sheep on the road can be a common sight, and there’s no accounting for the necessary pit-stops for photo opportunities. The NC500 is good at slowing you down, so remember that when putting the plan together, it’ll be far less stressful in the long run. Five days is the recommended timescale, but if you want to make the most of the route’s penchant for unexpected discovery, we’d suggest at least seven. And before you start, visit www.northcoast500.com for useful tips for motorhomes and campervans.

Of course, because the trip starts in Inverness, it makes sense that you make the most of the city itself. It might not have the charm of Edinburgh or the cool of Glasgow, but it is a city with its own vibe, and a worthy introduction to Scotland for those not yet sure of what to expect. Whether you head west from there or directly north is down to preference, but for the sake of argument, here we look at a route that heads west.

If you are in something bigger than a camper, the infamous Bealach na Bà road is one to avoid, heading towards Applecross. This is single-track and features numerous hairpin bends, all set in gorgeous views of Scotland’s mountain scenery. It’s not a road that inexperienced drivers want tot test their mettle on, but it’s a great introduction to the uniqueness of the NC500. If your nerves can handle the road, stopping at the Applecross Inn for some of the best fish and chips in the country can be your reward.

For larger motorhomes it would be better to avoid Applecross altogether and take the A832 to the Beinn Eighe Nature Reserve, and some of the most spectacular views of Scotland’s mountains that you’ll get throughout the whole journey.

Make a few short stops

If you’re a fan of hiking, there are plenty of reasons to ditch the ‘van briefly and explore Scotland’s nature

Your ultimate destination at this point should be Ullapool, but consider short stops in other towns and villages like Gairloch, where ferries to the Isle of Skye can be found, or Poolewe, alongside Loch Ewe. On the way, you’ll begin to spot the biggest surprise you might expect to find – white sandy beaches and turquoise waters, the sort you see in the Caribbean, though decidedly cooler!

Cruinard Bay is a common stop for this very reason, but all the way to Ullapool and Beyond, you’ll find yourself tempted to pause for a stroll along the beach. And if you’re looking for a bit of culture, it’s worth planning your trip around Ullapool. which has built up quite a reputation as a centre for music and the arts.

From here the route takes you north, diverting west by Loch Assynt and Ardvreck Castle. If you are in a campervan, there are a number of points to consider as you head towards the top point of Durness, from picking up a pie at the Lochinver Larder to taking a detour to Handa Island in the hope of spotting some puffins.

The coastline at Clachtoll, Sutherland

There are also two popular beaches en route, Achmelvich and Clachtoll, that are considered some of the best in Britain. In a larger motorhome, you should avoid the B869 Drumbeg Road and take the A894 towards Durness. You’ll still see some extraordinary lunar-like scenery as you drive.

Scotland’s full of beaches

Once at Durness, you’ll begin heading east, but don’t be afraid to spend a bit longer in the town. For another sandy stroll, there’s Balnakeil – yes, Scotland really is full of beaches – while the town itself is popular for two main attractions.

The first is Smoo Cave, which features a number of interesting natural phenomena. The second is Cocoa Mountain, a chocolatier and the perfect place for a sugary pick-me-up.

The famous signpost at John O’Groats

Having done about half of the trip, it’s onwards towards John O’Groats, although you might stop off in Thurso if you’re a fan of surfing and brave enough for the cold waters of north Scotland.

The lighthouse at Dunnet Head is your goal – the northernmost point in the country – but you could also opt for another diversion to the Orkney Islands, whether that’s to visit Kirkwall or the seals that make the islands their home.

Having covered the majority of the NC500’s coastline, at this point it’s time to head south, back towards Inverness. For many, this is the most exciting part of the trip, because it’s the area of the route that features the most distilleries.

If whisky – or even gin – is one of your reasons to visit Scotland, this is the part of the journey you’ll want to focus most of your time on. Don’t forget you’ll need a designated driver!

This doesn’t mean there isn’t more of Scotland to see, of course. Castle Sinclair Girnigoe, near Wick, is one of the more intriguing castles in the country, owing to its position atop a cliffside, but there are a host of picturesque places worth stopping at on your journey: Dunrobin Castle, Dornoch and the 200-year-old structure at Carn Liath are just some of the places you might want to add to your NC500 list.

Special mention should go to the spectacular Black Isle, the peninsula that juts out to the east of the official North Coast 500 route. This is where you’ll find a fine craft beer brewery, a splendid ruined cathedral and probably the best place to spot dolphins in the country, at Cromarty.

A Wee Dram (or two)

They say pick your poison, but on the NC500, it’s more about designating a driver!

The NC500 is popular for the fact that it can cram in a host of things that typify Scotland and while, to many, that means castles, Highland cattle and haggis, it also means visiting the many whisky distilleries along the way.

Big names like Dalmore and Glenmorangie won’t even need a diversion from the main route, so it’s easy for passengers not driving to stop in for a tasting. Most will be found on the east or north coast of the route – such as GlenWyvis and Old Pulteney – while a couple do involve diverting to reach, such as Glen Ord and Balblair.

Whisky, gin and vodka

You don’t have to stick to the whisky, either, as gin and vodka are finding a place in Scotland’s history of distilling spirits, with Dunnet Bay the number one destination for such things.

Then there’s Black Isle Brewery, unsurprisingly located on the Black isle peninsula and creating special craft beers. There are free tours available, too, although they’re only short.

In any case, Scotland is renowned for its love of the fine art of alcohol creation – and consumption – so it’s only right that you make one of these a stop on your NC500 checklist.

TOUR ESSENTIALS

The route of the North Coast 500
  • How many days Five to seven
  • When Between May and June for the best of the weather
  • Distance 516 miles

WHERE TO STAY

1 Barns Highland

  • Kinchyle Farm, IV12 5NY
  • Tel 07494 532 380
  • Web www.barnshighland.com
  • Open 30 March – 31 October
  • Charges Pitch+2+hook-up £22-£28

2 Bught Park Camping and Caravan Site

  • Bught Lane, Inverness, IV3 5SR
  • Tel 01463 236 920
  • Web www.invernesscaravanpark.com
  • Open Easter to mid-September
  • Charges Pitch+2+hook-up £20

3 Torvean Caravan Park

  • Glenurquhart Road, Inverness, IV3 8JL
  • Tel 01463 220 582
  • Web www.torvean.com
  • Open March-October
  • Charges Pitch+2+hook-up £24-£33

4 Bunchrew Caravan Park

  • Bunchrew, Inverness, IV3 8TD
  • Tel 01463 237 802
  • Web www.bunchrew-caravanpark.co.uk
  • Open March-November
  • Charges Pitch+2+hook-up £22.35-£29.85

5 Beauly Holiday Park

  • Beauly, IV4 7AY
  • Tel 01463 782374
  • Web www.beaulyholidaypark.com
  • Open All year
  • Charges Pitch+2+hook-up £20-£30

6 Fortrose Bay Campsite

  • Wester Greengates, Fortrose, IV10 8RX
  • Tel 01381 621 927
  • Web www.fortrosebaycampsite.co.uk
  • Open May-October
  • Charges Pitch+2+hook-up £20-£25

7 Dingwall Camping and Caravan Club Site

Dingwall Camping & Caravanning Club Site
  • Jubilee Park Road, Dingwall, IV15 9QZ
  • Tel 01349 862 236
  • Web campingandcaravanningclub.co.uk

8 Black Rock Caravan Park

  • Balconie Street, Evanton, IV16 9UN
  • Tel 01349 830 917
  • Web www.blackrockscotland.com
  • Open 3 April – 27 September
  • Charges Pitch+2+hook-up £27-£42 (note there is a minimum four-night stay during the high season)

9 Dornoch Firth Caravan Park

  • Meikle Ferry South, Tain, IV19 1JX
  • Tel 01862 892 292
  • Web dornichfirth.co.uk
  • Open All year
  • Charges Pitch+2+hook-up £25

10 Dornoch Caravan & Camping Park

  • The Links, Dornoch, IV25 3LX
  • Tel 01862 810 423
  • Web dornochcaravans.co.uk
  • Open 25 March – 26 October
  • Charges Pitch+2+hook-up £20-£25

11 Grannie’s Heilan’ Hame Holiday Park

Grannie’s Heilan’ Hame Holiday Park
  • Dornoch, Sutherland, IV25 3QD
  • Tel 0330 123 4850
  • Web parkdeanresorts.co.uk
  • Open 25 March – 26 October
  • Charges Pitch+2+hook-up £14-£25

12 Brora Caravan Club Site

Brora Caravan Club Site
  • Dalchalm, Brora, KW9 6LP
  • Tel 01408 621 479
  • Web caravanclub.co.uk
  • Open 20 March – 2 November
  • Charges Pitch+2+hook-up £23.60

13 Wick Caravan & Camping Site

  • Riverside Drive, Wick, Caithness, KW1 5SP
  • Tel 01955 605 420
  • Web www.wickcaravansite.co.uk
  • Open 1 May – 26 September
  • Charges Pitch+2+hook-up

14 John O’Groats Caravan & Camping Site

  • County Road, John O’Groats, KW1 4YR
  • Tel 01955 611 329
  • Web www.johnogroatscampsite.co.uk
  • Open 1 April – 30 September
  • Charges Pitch+2+hook-up £24

15 Ferry View Nightstop

  • Ferry View, Gauze Cottage, Gills Bay, Canisbay, Caithness, KW1 4YB
  • Tel 07799 147 146
  • Web www.ferryview.scot
  • Open All year
  • Charges Pitch+2+hook-up £20

16 Windhaven Cafe, Camping and B&B

  • Windhaven, Brough, Thurso, Caithness, KW14 8YE
  • Tel 01847 851 927
  • Web windhaven.co.uk
  • Charges Pitch+2+hook-up £27

17 The Halladale Inn & North Coast Touring Park

  • Halladale Inn, Melvich, KW14 7YJ
  • Tel 01641 531 282
  • Web www.thehalladaleinn.co.uk/northcoasttouringpark
  • Open All year
  • Charges Pitch+2+hook-up £25.50

18 Scourie Campsite

  • Scourie, Sutherland, IV27 4TE
  • Tel 01971 502060
  • Web www.scouriecampsitesutherland.com
  • Open All year
  • Charges Pitch+2+hook-up £22

19 Clachtoll Beach Campsite

  • 134 Clachtoll, Lochinver, Sutherland, IV27 4JD
  • Tel 01571 855 377
  • Web www.clachtollbeachcampsite.com
  • Open 27 March – 31 October
  • Charges Pitch+2+hook-up £26

20 Shore Caravan Site

  • 106 Achmelvich, Lochinver, IV27 4LB
  • Tel 01571 844 393
  • Web shorecaravansite.yolasite.com
  • Open 1 April – 18 October
  • Charges Pitch+2+hook-up £18.50 – £21.50

21 Port a Bhaigh Campsite

  • 211 Altandhu, Achiltibuie, Ross-shire, IV26 2YR
  • Tel 01854 622 339
  • Web www.portabhaigh.co.uk
  • Open All year
  • Charges Pitch+2+hook-up £25

22 Ardmair Point Holiday Park

  • Ardmair, Ullapool, IV26 2TN
  • Tel 01854 612 054
  • Web www.ardmair.com/caravan.html
  • Open 1 April – 17 October
  • Charges Pitch+2+hook-up £26

23 Badrallach Camping Site

  • Croft 9, Badrallach, Dundonnell, Garve, Ross-shire, IV23 2QP
  • Tel 07435 123 190
  • Web badrallach.com/stay/camping/html
  • Open All year
  • Charges Pitch+2+hook-up £15.50

24 Gruinard Bay Caravan Park

  • Laide, IV22 2ND
  • Tel 01445 731556
  • Web www.gruinardbay.co.uk
  • Open 1 April – 31 October
  • Charges Pitch+2+hook-up £23

25 Gairloch Holiday Park

Gairloch Holiday Park
  • 1 Mihol Rd, Strath Gairloch, IV21 2BX
  • Web www.gairlochcampsite.co.uk
  • Open 1 April – 31 October
  • Charges Pitch+2+hook-up £20

26 Sands Caravan & Camping

  • Gairloch, IV21 2DL
  • Tel 01445 712 152
  • Web www.sandscaravanandcamping.co.uk
  • Open 31 March – 31 October
  • Charges Pitch+2+hook-up £20-£28

27 Applecross Campsite

  • Applecross, Strathcarron, Ross-shire, IV54 8ND
  • Tel 01520 744 268
  • Web visitapplecross.com/accommodation/camping
  • Open 1 March – 31 October
  • Charges Pitch+2+hook-up £25.50-£29.50

PLACES TO VISIT

Urquhart Castle on the banks of Loch Ness

Inverness: Urquhart Castle, Loch Ness boat tours)

Gairloch: Minke, killer and humpback whales boat tours)

Ullapool: Good for music lovers and Stac Pollaidh hike (two hours). Daily ferries to Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis. From Ullapool visit the ruins of Ardvreck Castle and Calda House, on the banks of Loch Assynt.

Balnakeil Beach: This beach has sand dunes at the back, with cattle grazing on any spare grass!

Tarbet: Catch the ferry from here to Handa Island and the puffins

Castle of Mey: Mey is near John O’Groats, while the Clan of Sutherland’s Dunrobin Castle is further down in Golspie; both have an entry fee.

FUEL STOPS

1 Costcutter Bridgend Stores and Filling Station

  • Ord Place, Lairg, IV27 4AZ
  • Tel 01549 402 103

2 Sutherland Arms Filling Station

  • Victoria Road, Brora, KW9 6QN
  • Tel 01408 621 721

3 Bettyhill General Merchants

190b Bettyhill, Bettyhill KW14 7SP

Tel 01641 521 201

4 R Mackay & Sons

The Village Store, post office & petrol station, Durine, Durness, IV27 4PN

Tel 01971 511 209

5 Bervie Stores Filling Station

The Garage, Kinlochbervie, IV27 4RP

Tel 01971 521 221

6 Scourie Filling Station

Scourie, Lairg

Tel 01971 502 422

Has pay@pump terminals for fuel 24/7 via Mastercard, Visa, Maestro, Allstar-pin. Cash accepted during business hours.

7 Achiltibuie Stores

  • Achiltibuie, By Ullapool, Ross-shire, IV26 2YG
  • Tel 01854 622 496

8 Gairloch Filling Station & Gift Shop

  • Gairloch, IV21 2BL

9 Applecross Filling Station

  • Shore Street, Applecross, IV54 8LN
  • Run by a team of volunteers, open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

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