Due to the rural environment the contact to locals is usually more direct and friendly than people in big cities may be used to. You might be surprised how often you will be offered help or what a kindly asked question might get you.
This itinerary takes you to several remote locations, some of them without cell phone reception or petrol stations. It is therefore recommended to rather fill up at a petrol station when your tank is less than half-full. This solitude may be compromised during high-season (May until August) when it gets difficult to find accommodation for the night without pre-booking it.
Common literature recommends to start in Inverness. This seems valid as it features an airport, the best road connection back to civilization further south as well as most likely the best infrastructure in terms of supermarkets etc.
The following route description is clockwise, but the route can be followed counter clockwise as well.
- 1 Inverness
- 1 Rogie falls. The small waterfall is a short walk away from the carpark. The carpark has toilets. free.
- 2 Muir of Ord
- 3 Lochcarron
Westcoast (Strathcarron to Durness)
- 4 Achnasheen
- 5 Gairloch
- 2 The falls of Mesach. Impressive bridge and viewing point over a deep glen and overlooking the waterfall.
- 6 Ullapool
- 3 Ardvreck castle.
- 7 Lochinver
- 8 Scourie
- 4 North West Highlands Geopark.
- 9 Durness
- 1 Bealach na Bà (Pass of the Cattle). Be careful when driving there. According to several reports (as well as road signs) this particular road is unsuitable for large caravans.
- 10 Applecross
- 1 Applecross Inn. Typical Scottish inn with menus on blackboards. Can get very busy during the season, you might be asked to wait at the bar until a table is available.
- 1 Hartfield House Hostel.
- 2 Applecross Camp Site.
- 5 Stoer Lighthouse. One of the typical Stevenson's lighthouses in Scotland. Even though it can't be entered, it provides nice views and a beautiful scenery.
- 6 Old Man of Stoer. A hike of about two hours from the lighthouse's car park. There are no markings and that the path leading above the cliffs might be slippery.
Northcoast (Durness to John o'Groats)
- 2 Cocoa Mountain. Little cafe that claims to sell the best hot chocolate in the area.
- 2 Cape Wrath (the ferry is signposted, free parking is available). Times on the website might not always be 100% accurate as the ferry times are time-dependent. Check the sign at the port or call the ferryman for updates.
Whenever the local firing range is in use, there might be disruptions or delays.. Ferry and bus are independent companies, the time tables are synced.
The 11-mile bus ride takes about 90 minutes each way. Ferry: £7.5 adult, £10 bike; bus: ?.
- 3 Sango Sands Oasis (Durness Campsite). Clean and well-equipped facilities.
- 7 Smoo Cave (near Durness). Impressive combination of seawater and freshwater caves.
- 11 Bettyhill
- 12 Thurso
- 8 Dunnet Head Lighthouse. Lighthouse with views to the Orkneys. Free.
- 9 Castle of Mey.
- 13 John o'Groats
- 10 Duncansby head lighthouse. Close to John o'Groats and usually recommended by guidebooks. On a clear day one can see as far as the Orkneys.
Eastcoast (John o'Groats to Inverness)
- 11 Castle Sinclair Girnigoe. Castle ruins on a cliff. Free, donations welcome..
- 14 Wick
- 15 Lybster
- 16 Helmsdale
- 12 Dunrobin Castle.
- 17 Dornoch
- 4 Dornoch Camping & Caravan Site. Large campsite with standard facilities (a few years old but clean).
- 18 Invergordon
- 19 Dingwall
There are several popular hiking routes along the North Coast 500 route, giving ample opportunities to climb some of Scotland's largest mountains - called Munros. Along with traditional hiking and Munro-bagging paths, there are also many hidden and seldom-used hiking routes that use old Highland drovers' roads, that cross the length and breadth of the north.
For listings, check the route sections above. This paragraph is meant to give you a general overview about the situation.
Camping and wild camping
When you are in the lucky situation of driving a camper or bringing a tent, accommodation usually isn't a problem. Normally a free pitch can be found on one of the campsites, however pre-booking is recommended during high season and in case you need electric hook-up.
Most camp sites are not staffed after around 6PM, but usually allow you to enter and pick your pitch yourself. In that case check the infos at reception about the information of free pitches and show up the next morning to pay your bill.
In Scotland wild camping is tolerated. It shouldn't be necessary to mention, that you leave any place clean and tidy. Furthermore you should be very careful when lighting fires (and check in advance if that is permitted), and take care to not block passing places, access roads or similar.
Hotels and B&B
There are very few hotels but a lot of B&Bs to be found all over the NC500. Between April and September, pre-book those at least a few days ahead to avoid disappointments and afternoons of fruitless search. Be aware that the accommodations offering online booking tend to be sold out faster than the ones you have to send an E-Mail to or the ones you have to call. If your search proves to be unsuccessful it is usually a good idea to enter a local business (cafe, pub, groceries) and ask for advice. Locals are usually friendly (if addressed in a polite manner) and might be able to point out something.
Beware of poor road conditions, watch for changes in the weather, and keep in mind that there is poor mobile phone reception for much of this drive. The road is single track in large areas. This means one needs to use passing places the way they are intended to:
- Use passing places to stop and allow approaching vehicles to pass. You are obliged to only stop in the passing place to your left. If the nearest passing place is to your right, you stop there to the left-most side of the road and allow the approach vehicle to go into the passing place itself. Never change to the right side of the road to use the passing place.
- Use passing places to allow overtaking for faster vehicle.
- Do not use passing places for parking (not even for photo stops).
Livestock is very common to share the streets with vehicles. Be especially aware behind corners and reduce speed before passing over cattle grids.
Some of the roads, in particular the stretches refered to as Applecross loop and Drumbeg loop are unsuitable for caravans. This is clearly signposted as the photo shows. Do not make everyone's life miserable by disregarding the warnings! According to locals it happens several times a year that caravans get completely stuck and have to be rescued. This means that little roads are completely blocked for hours. As a general rule of thumb, do not use the narrowest of roads in anything larger than a small VolksWagen campervan.
Even when you use smaller vehicles, consider the following:
- Make sure that you are familiar with your vehicle (especially if it is a rental)
- Don't go for the narrow roads in the beginning when you are not used to drive on the left side of the road.
- You might have to reverse for several hundred metres into the closest passing place.