Planning a road trip to the North Coast 500 in Scotland? Wondering where to stay or how to plan your route? This itinerary is the only one you need to find the best places to visit and figure out how far to drive each day.
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North Coast 500 Itinerary and route planner
Planning any road trip to a place you’ve not been before can be daunting, but planning a route and itinerary for the North Coast 500 (NC500) in Scotland often seems more overwhelming than most.
There’s so much to see and do and it’s difficult to know how long to allocate to each section. Some people drive the NC500 in 3 or 4 days, while others can take several weeks!
North Coast 500 7 day Itinerary
I’ve just returned from the NC500 and did the western route in about 7 days. This is what I’m sharing with you in this post.
I’ve already done the east section (which includes John o’Groats) in an earlier trip (you can see this Scotland road trip here)
However, there are plenty of other places to visit on or near the NC500, such as the Isle of Skye or Orkney. I highly recommend you visit both if you can- I’ll share more details about them below.
I did the route in a motorhome. If you’d like to do the trip in a motorhome or campervan too, you can see the entire route (plus places to stop) in our North Coast 500 motorhome guide.
North Coast 500 Itinerary- How to plan your road trip
As you can see in the map below, the North Coast 500 is a circular route. In some ways, this makes things easier, but in many ways it makes it harder to plan.
After all, people drive at different speeds, or like to have a few days exploring before moving on.
In the suggested NC500 7 day itinerary below, I’ve split the ‘days’ into parts. Each part can be driven in a day, but you can easily spend 2,3 or even more days in each area if you wish to explore.
Also, I’m assuming a start an end point from near Edinburgh. Obviously, if you have to drive from the south-coast of England (like me!) you’ll need to add a few days either side of your NC500 road trip to get yourself up there are back.
Which direction should you drive the NC500?
You can drive the North Coast 500 either clockwise or anti-clockwise. I did it clockwise and think that’s a great route, but you do whichever makes sense for you.
North Coast 500 Route Planner Map
Here’s a map of the NC500 route in its entirety.
If you’d like an interactive version of the places I visited on my last trip, you can find it here.
Day One- Kelpies to Eilean Donan
Driving Distance: 193 miles
Approx Driving Time: 4 hours
Highlights: Kelpies, Highlands, Eilean Donan Castle
I highly HIGHLY recommend you visit the Kelpies in Falkirk. These horse statues are so impressive. Ideally, you want to spend the night here because at night they’re lit up and look amazing.
From here, you’ve got a fairly big day of driving ahead of you. If it’s too long, feel free to break it up into two days.
There are a couple of route options to get from the Kelpies to Eilean Donan. I took the M9 to Stirling, then the A84 to Crianlarich, then the A82/ A85 to Glencoe and Fort William and the A87 to Eilean Donan.
Eilean Donan is an incredible castle set in a loch. You can visit inside it- if you’d like to do this you’ll probably need to add a day so you have time.
Where to stay
If you’re in a motorhome or campervan, it cost £7 for a night in the Kelpies car park. You pay the guard on the booth at the top car park (closest to the Kelpies) but the overnight parking is just down the road.
Near Eilean Donan, I wild camped in my motorhome about a 10 minute drive away, at a Stay the Night scheme at Loch Carron Viewpoint. This was free, but there are also campsites around the area you can use if you prefer.
Day Two- Bealach na Ba (The Applecross Road)
Driving Distance (approx): 92 miles
Driving Time (approx): 3h 30
Highlights: Bealach na Ba pass
Bealach na Ba (or the road to Applecross) is often regarded as one of the most scenic drives in Scotland. It’s also widely regarded as one of the most dangerous!
I decided to drive it, on my own, in a rain storm and thick fog. Because I am, apparently, insane.
I drove it in a 6.7m motorhome and had very little trouble. If you have a larger motorhome or campervan, you might struggle with some of the bends and I don’t recommend it at all for caravanners.
If you’re driving the NC500 in a car, you’ll be absolutely fine.
It took me about 90 minutes to get up to the top, where I then stayed for a few hours whilst waiting for the fog to clear. The route from the top down to Applecross is much easier.
From here, I drove around the coast from Applecross to Sheildaig, which took about 3 hours if you include all the stops for photos and for highland cows!
Where to stay
I carried on around to Gairloch, and I was exhausted when I got there. If I hadn’t already booked the campsite I’d probably have stopped near Sheildaig. There were a great looking campsites near there.
As it happened, I stayed at Gairloch Holiday Park and it was a lovely site, with great sea views. There’s also a lovely chip shop just down the way (they fry everything in beef dripping, which sounds awful but is delicious!)
Part Three- Scotland’s south West Coast
From Gairloch, you can choose how far you want to drive and how much time you want to spend on the west coast.
For reference, I drove from Gairloch to Ardmair Point just north of Ullapool in one day. This was about 90 minutes and 60 miles.
I enjoyed looking around Ullapool and stayed two nights on this site. Ullapool is the last big town before you head North, so be sure to stock up at the supermarket, fill up with fuel and refill your gas tanks if you have them.
If you want to keep going, you can push on to Clachtoll Beach campsite, which is another hour and an extra 40 miles, so easily doable in one day.
Where to stay
Both campsites I used in this section were wonderful. Ardmair Point has incredible views across the bay, but is very exposed if the winds are strong (which they were when I visited.)
Clachtoll Beach is possibly my favourite campsite along the NC500 for motorhomes and campers. It has unbelievable facilities, including a dog shower, laundry, a microwave & toaster (yep, I was excited!) and the most golden sandy beach I’ve ever seen.
It’s not cheap, but it was worth every penny and I’d stay there again in a heartbeat. I stayed there two nights and could easily have spent a third just lazying and enjoying the scenery.
Things not to miss
Definitely visit Clashnessie Falls (it’s muddy, but worth it!) and Clashnessie Beach. There’s also a great chip van near the campsite on certain days- well worth testing out.
Part Four- Scotland’s north west coast
Driving Distance (approx): 60 miles
Driving Time (approx): 1h 50
Highlights: Kylesku Bridge, Wailing Widow Falls
From Clachtoll, I continued up the A894, past Scourie and all the way to Durness. I took the slower route via Drumbeg. It was driveable in a motorhome but some passing spots were very tight.
Bear in mind if you do this route, you’ll miss the Wailing Widow Falls unless you double back slightly. As it happened, the weather was AWFUL that day so I decided not to bother, but apparently the falls are well worth visiting if it’s not blowing a gale!
The road from Scourie to Durness is pretty enough but not jaw-dropping (or perhaps I just became immune!) so it’s not worth spending too long on this section.
Having said that, if you have time and don’t mind driving down small lanes, there are LOADS of pristine white sand beaches to enjoy which most people don’t visit.
Sandwood Bay is the one you’ll see on postcards all over the place- it looks incredible but if you only have 7 days to do the North Coast 500, you’ll probably have to miss it on this occasion.
Where to Stay
Sango Sands Oasis is another incredible campsite, set right on the clifftop. Sadly, my experience there was marred by very unfriendly staff, but I’d probably still stay there again, as the beaches and views were incredible.
Things to see and do
They make a big deal about the ‘best hot chocolate’ at the Balnakeil craft village, which is about a 20 minute walk from the campsite. To be honest, I found it too sickly, and I wasn’t a big fan of the craft village either.
BUT- while you’re there you must ride the Golden Eagle zipline at Sango Sands. It’s £15 for a go and it’s so much fun. I also loved visiting Smoo Cave. Sadly, the boat tour wasn’t running due to the heavy rains, but it was incredible to visit inside the cave anyway.
Part Five- North or middle?
The next part of the North Coast 500 is a choice. If you only have a 7 day itinerary, you’ll need to choose what you do next.
Personally, if you’ve never visited John o’Groats before, I feel you should go there. Yes, it’s touristy, but yes, you need that photo by the post.
The road along the top of Scotland is pretty but nothing incredible. It’s about 90 miles and will take you around 3 hours.
If you just want to drive it, stop for a quick photo at John o’Groats and then carry on to Shin (see below), it will take you about 5 hours (190 miles). You’ll also pass Brora Beach (which is spectacular) and Dunrobin Castle, which is definitely worth a visit if you have time.
If you’d like to do these stopoffs, I’d definitely recommend at least two days for this section so you can see it all properly.
Where to stay on the north coast
If you’re in a motorhome, stop at Dunnet Bay campsite- it’s wonderful and the beach there is also incredible. Don’t miss the Duncansby Stacks- they make great photos.
Also, if you have time, I highly recommend a day trip to Orkney– it’s a fascinating place.
The Alternative route south
If you’ve already been to John o’Groats, you’ve seen one of the major highlights on the NC500 route.
If you’re limited on time, you can ignore the North East corner and cut down the middle, which is a much more dramatic route with incredible scenery.
I drove from Durness to Tongue, and then down past Loch Loyal, heading for the Falls of Shin.
The Falls of Shin near Lairg are famous for the salmon ‘jumping’ as they swim upriver to spawn. I’d been there only a few minutes when I saw one, and I saw several over the next half an hour or so.
Where to stay
The car park at the Falls of Shin was fantastic, level and FREE if you didn’t need amenities. Alternatively, there are places around Lairg to stay.
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Part Six- Loch Ness or The Cairngorms
The North Coast 500 technically goes Inverness to Inverness, but my opinion is you should add on a couple of extra stops (and days, if you can!)
First of these is the Cairngorms. These mountains are home to Aviemore (the UK’s major ski centre) and also home to Balmoral.
I stayed overnight at Balmoral, but it was shortly after the Queen’s death so the castle wasn’t open. However, the walk up to King Albert’s Pyramid (yep, an actual pyramid!) was open and that was a fantastic experience (although it was VERY steep!)
In previous trips, we’ve visited Aviemore, taken cable cars up the mountain and enjoyed many of the other incredible things to do around the Cairngorms. You could easily spend a few days to a week here if you can.
However, if you’ve never seen Loch Ness and if you can only do one or the other, the drive down Loch Ness is well worth it, if only because it’s so famous and everyone should look for Nessie at least once in their life.
I’ve never been into Inverness City, but I hear it’s beautiful and worth a day if you can spare it.
If you drove past Loch Ness, you’ll end up in Fort William again, which technically closes the loop and you can now proudly display your North Coast 500 road trip sticker on your vehicle.
Part Seven- Loch Lomond
If you still have time, I highly recommend visiting Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park.
The whole area is stunning, but Loch Lomond has to be one of my favourites. Every corner of it has incredible views.
Where to Stay
I parked up at Firkin Point, where motorhome parking is allowed. In high season (March- end September) you need a permit (bought online), but I was there first week in October and was able to stay for free.
There was a fantastic little beach and also a great pedestrian-only walkway which went for about 3 miles and have Mac and I a flat and safe space to run.
I hope you found this 7 day North Coast 500 itinerary helpful. It’s a lot to cover in 7 days, so ideally if you have 10-14 you’ll find it much more relaxing and will be able to see and do more.
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