NC500 viewpoint on the north coast

Scotland: Tips for planning the North Coast 500 roadtrip

What is the NC500?

The NC500 is a 500 mile circular route around the north coast of Scotland, coming inland only between Inverness and Lochcarron on the west coast, either at the beginning or end depending on whether you do the NC500 clockwise or anti-clockwise. It can be driven, cycled – perhaps even walked, if you were feeling brave! A variety of accommodation types – not least, wild camping, which is permitted in most parts of Scotland – makes it easy to find different places to stay throughout the trip. This makes one of the best road trips in the UK. You can also check out my full NC500 itinerary outlining places to stop along the route and accommodation here. 

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How long does the NC500 take to complete?

We spent 7 nights on the NC500, as well as some additional days in Scotland before and after the official route which I have incluced in my detailed itinerary. At a minimum the NC500 could be completed in 5 days but I would recommend longer to ensure there is time to fit everything in. The more time you have, the better – some of the best days were spent roaming around discovering ‘hidden gems’ a little off route.

When is the best time to do the NC500?

It can be tricky to work out the best time of year to do the NC500. The weather in Scotland can be unpredictable outside of summer (and even in summer!), and there’s also the midge season between the end of May and September. We decided to complete the NC500 in May, which worked out really well. We left on the last week of May and somehow managed to catch Scotland during a heatwave! We were told that the week prior to our trip their had been constant rain and very few views along the route – it seems we got lucky. We managed to avoid the worst of the midges, too (but pack bug spray – you’ll need it!). During peak summer months June, July and August the route can be a lot busier. If we were to do the NC500 again we would definitely still go during May as we didn’t find it to be crowded or too busy. 

anti-clockwise or clockwise?

I read many blogs when deciding which way around to complete the NC500. We ended up travelling the NC500 anti-clockwise, starting on the east coast from Inverness. I am so happy that we chose to start in this direction. Whilst I am sure that either direction is an amazing adventure I felt that starting on the east coast allowed the scenery, views and landscapes to get better and better throughout the whole trip. I had never been to Scotland before and I found the east coast so amazing – but I wasn’t ready for the landscapes that started to appear along the eponymous north coast! I did read that the east coast could appear underwhelming if completing the route clockwise, and I do agree it is possible this could be the case – as the west coast, the final third of the trip for us, was stunning.  

Accommodation on the NC500

There are many options to consider when planning where to stay. There are numerous hotels, B&Bs, campsites and places for wild camping. We chose a combination of B&Bs and wild camping. We would have loved to camp the whole way, which would of course be much more cost effective – but we were worried about the risk of bad weather, so we decided to book a bit of both. There were many campervans along the way which would be a great way of travelling the NC500 and offer more flexibility.

Check out my full Itinerary which details the accommodation we stayed at and places to stop on the NC500.

Wild camping NC500

Viewpoints along the NC500

Before setting off I realised that I hadn’t planned spots to stop for breaks, to see views and for photography. Turns out there is no need to worry or plan this at all. There are so many viewpoints along the way, especially on the west coast. These can often be identified on Google maps and OS maps as car parks or viewpoints on the way and there are often car parks at the viewpoints. If you accidently drive past one you can always turn back!

 

Knocken Crag Walk overlooking landscapes.
Deer on the NC500 west coast

My top tips for completing the NC500

  • Don’t be afraid to go off route! Some of the best adventures are when there are elements left unplanned. There is so much to see on this amazing route but there are innumerable roads and towns off the beaten path which some of the locals told us were even more picturesque than the traditional route itself.
  • Be aware that many of the roads along the way are single track roads with passing bays, which are useful for oncoming traffic, but also as a way to let others behind you past if you’re driving slowly while soaking up the views (we certainly were!). We saw a few cars parked in these bays, which was frustrating – they’re not parking spots and there are many other car parks along the way.
  • Don’t get bogged down by a checklist of things to see – some of our fondest memories were laying on beaches we came across, and doing walks we hadn’t heard of.
  • Carry change for car parks along the way
  • Set off early each day to enjoy the quieter roads and give yourself plenty of time 
  • We pre-booked our accommodation before setting off. We noticed that in some areas that we stayed there was very limited accommodation, even weeks before our trip, so I would advise booking accommodation as far in advance as possible to prevent losing out. Even campsites were often full!
  • Develop your own itinerary based on what you want to see. There are so many spots all the way along the route and it would be difficult to see them all so plan your stay based on what you want to see. Our itinerary and details of things to see and do can be found here which is a good starting point for developing your own plans.
  • The midges didn’t bother us a great deal, but there’s no denying they exist..! We carried  ‘Avon skin so soft spray‘ and found this really worked to keep the midges away when a few started to appear during our last few days in Scotland.

NC500 packing List

We had a very full car as we were planning for stay in B&Bs, glamping and wild camping. We packed our large hiking rucksacks full of the camping gear so that we were ready to park up, grab our bags and find a wild camping spot. We would then gather any clothes that we need and leave the rest in the car.

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