Over time we have grown to love a good road trip. It was bound to happen as we grew older. We bought a Land Cruiser in Cape Town, drove across Africa, and learned a ton along the way! I’ve solo road tripped from Auckland to Queenstown and spent a fabulous September camping along the East Coast of Australia. In short, It’s safe to say I’ve spent some time in a car jamming out to epic travel songs. But it was time for something different.
The North Coast 500 was just that.
The North Coast 500 in the Scottish Highlands, has been dubbed “Scotland’s Route 66,” and named “one of the greatest road trips in the world.” When we first learned of its existence while in the Tanzanian bush we knew we had to drive it. The trip that followed was breathtaking and left us wanting more. It is a place that will always require “more time,” because it’s likely you’ll never have enough.
Our North Coast 500 Itinerary
We started in Inverness and ended in Applecross before going on to the Isle of Skye. Since we rented our car in Edinburgh and had some spare time on our hands, and were dying to see Skye we decided not to cross back over to Inverness from Applecross (making the whole route “complete”). The whole route below took us eight full days, but we could have easily spent three weeks.
It’s okay if you’re still questioning what the North Coast 500 actually it is – even some Scots that we talked to didn’t know! That’s because the North Coast 500 route is a fairly new one. Although the roads, sites, and the beauty have always existed in the Scottish Highlands it wasn’t until it was given a name that it exploded in popularity.
The NC500 was coined by the North Highland Initiative in an attempt to boost economic activity and tourism in the many pockets of the highlands that weren’t currently benefitting from much of the Scottish tourism. The route runs for more than 500 miles to and from Inverness, the capital of the highlands, and from there you can either travel up the east coast or head to the west and travel up.
Things to Know Before You Take on the North Coast 500
Don’t Over Plan
With only eight days and a gazillion things to see we knew we would never get to everything…but we tried. We packed in a lot in just over a week. By the end of it all, we wanted to cuddle up on a familiar couch and binge watch Netflix. We moved guesthouses every day which meant we packed every morning and unpacked every night. Then on top of that we had an itinerary of places to visit, restaurants to eat at, and check in times to manage with our guesthouse owners.
We were constantly late because all we wanted to do was stop enjoy the scenery, take photos, and soak in the atmosphere. Beating time is a losing fight on the North Coast 500 and if I could give you only one piece of advice for this route it would be to not over plan your trip.
So how long does it take to drive the North Coast 500?
While there is no right answer to that as it is really up to you! Before we left for the North Coast 500 we had a full eight-day agenda of all the things we just had to see on the North Coast 500. We thought eight days would be an ideal amount of time to see everything, but there are so many things that we missed getting to in the end. In an ideal world, I think that two weeks would be the perfect amount of time to experience most of the North Coast 500. If you have anything less than five days I would suggest waiting until you have more time to do the full 516-mile Scottish road trip as you may just be too rushed to enjoy it.
Factor in Stops for Photos
Just because the GPS says it will take you an hour to get from Lochniver to Ullapool doesn’t mean it actually will. The drive on the North Coast 500 is just so mesmerizing you would be crazy to not get out, take photos, and enjoy the scenery outside of your car. If you like taking photos and video like us then it would be advisable to consider your stops when planning your drive. We may or may not have stopped for about an hour to have an impromptu photo shoot with some of the famous highland coos…
“Well, you don’t come to Scotland for the weather,” we were told by many locals. Weather in Scotland and the Highlands is unpredictable, to say the least. It could be sunshine in November and hail in May. Unfortunately for us, we got all the rain and thunderstorms in September with very little sun or warmth. It was okay because we came prepared for all types of weather. Which is what we recommend you do while on the North Coast 500. Pack for rain, sun, and everything in between to ensure you’re always comfortable. Some must have items when traveling the North Coast 500 are a good rain jacket, waterproof hiking pants, hiking shoes, and a nice warm sweater for when it’s a wee bit chilly out. Psst – Read our full packing guide to Scotland here!
And remember to throw an adaptor in your bag! Scotland uses the standard British three prong pin. You’ll want to make sure you have an adaptor before you set out on this trip so you can always have your cameras and cell phones charged or you may be paying a premium for one at the airport. I have this universal adaptor and it has literally traveled with me around the world.
The North Coast 500 route is gaining in popularity, and at a rapid pace. It’s so popular that many times the supply just simply cannot meet the demand, and people are stuck with no accommodation. This isn’t one of the places that you can just show up and book accommodation the day before. I know I said not to over plan, and you shouldn’t, except for accommodation. I would recommend that right after you know where you are going, start to look at your accommodation options and book in advanced.
The North Coast 500 can get very busy between April and October so you may need to book your hotels and guesthouses at least a few months out or you get stuck paying a premium or (even worse) have nowhere to stay. Check out where we slept!
Don’t Rely on the Internet
Before we left Inverness we picked up a Sim card with the telecom provider “three.” We told the employees our plan to drive the North Coast 500 and they immediately told us not to expect the data to work much. We found that we could not get a great signal in most places north of Inverness. Most of the time we had no service at all, while occasionally we could make a phone call, and only when we were in larger towns would we could get 3G.
However, many of the hotels and lodges situated on the NC500 should have WiFi, just don’t expect it to be the greatest. It will most likely be enough to check your emails and do some basic browsing. We met one couple that told us they were still using dial-up because where they lived was so remote. With this much beauty in the Scottish Highlands, you shouldn’t need much internet. It’s the perfect place to come to relax and disconnect for a while.
You Can Get Active
Don’t think that because you are doing one of the best road trips in the world that you will have to sit cooped up in a car all day. Actually, it’s the opposite! Most of Scotland’s best activities are outdoors. Fancy a canoe paddle or fly fishing? Well, there are a countless number of lochs around! Mountain biking is also at its finest here as well as Seascape tours, hiking trails, castle exploring, waterfall chasing, and even caving.
All of the highlights of our trip involved some sort of outdoor activity. We loved mountain biking along the heather in Invershin, cave exploring in Smoo Caves, and then, of course, we can never forget our epic time interacting with some of the many Scottish stags in Reraig Forest.
You Can Walk (Almost) Anywhere
I should probably mention that you can walk just about anywhere in Scotland – Yes, anywhere! We were shocked when locals told us we could freely roam around any mountains, moorland, woods, and forests, grassland, fields, rivers and lochs, coastal areas with no worry of trespassing. Trespassing in Scotland is “not a thing.” Coming from the United States where “No Trespassing” signs could be met with prosecution or even worse – a gun nut, we think this is an amazing law.
The “freedom to roam” is the general public’s right to access certain public or privately owned land for recreation. This doesn’t include houses, gardens, or military bases. The right to roam law allows people to enjoy the land and inland water for their own well being. The only stipulation is that you must do so responsibly and safely. So, mind the sheep and close the gate!
More info on Scotland’s Outdoor Access Code can be found here.
You Can Drink!
You’ve certainly heard of Scotch Whisky. The world famous spirit is distilled all over Scotland and it shouldn’t be a surprise there a number distilleries along the route. We personally had time to visit two: Balblair and Glen Ord which both ran whisky tours around the distillery complete with a tasting at the end.
However, we were a bit shocked when we found out that many Scots don’t actually drink whisky. These days Gin is the hot commodity and within a few years Gin distilleries have popped up all around Scotland. We were lucky enough to visit one of the first gin distilleries in Scotland on the route, Dunnet Bay Distillery. The gin distillery is located in Dunnet not far from the popular stop of John O Groats. They make all organic Gin and feature local ingredients from the heather, one of those being rock rose, which provides the name for their signature Rock Rose Gin. It’s wonderful and we highly recommend it!
If hard spirits aren’t your thing then head to a brewery! Yes, Scotland has those too. The Black Isle Brewery is a great one to visit and sample some organic craft beers. The brewery is open to visits and if they have the time they’ll take you in the back and show you around. They also brew an NC500 IPA, that is seriously delicious and perfect for drinking on the North Coast 500.
Don’t Drink and Drive
On the topic of alcohol, I suppose I should mention that the alcohol limit for drivers in Scotland is 50 milligrams of alcohol in every 100 milliliters of blood – or in other words – almost nothing. Yes, just one cocktail, beer, or glass of wine can put you over the legal limit to operate a vehicle. If you are going in for a mid-day whisky tasting, but still have driving to do afterward just ask the staff to wrap up your whisky for you to enjoy later. They completely understand and would rather you be safe than sorry.
The North Coast 500 May just be the Prettiest Region We Have Traveled
And we’ve been to a lot of places. Sixty countries and counting to be exact. We’ve seen the tides roll in on the empty beaches of Mozambique, watched the sunrise over the worlds tallest sand dunes in Namibia, and saw where the hobbits reside in New Zealand. Yes, all those places are insanely beautiful, but the Scottish Highlands are surreal. Rolling hills, dramatic cliff faces, creeping heather, deep blue lochs, and alpine forests? It’s a lot to contend with!
The North Coast 500 route packs in some of the prettiest places in the world. I even started to get just a wee bit annoyed with Cameron because he wouldn’t stop saying “WOW” every time we drove around a bend. I guess what I’m trying to say is bring a camera and prepare for your jaw to hit the floor.
The NC500 is NOT 500 miles
Technically the North Coast 500 is 516 miles, but let’s be honest – 500 sounds way better. You don’t have to travel the entire route to take in the beauty though. We met plenty of visitors who came just to travel just for a few days traveling up from the city and either started their trip on the east or west coast.
Please Brush Up on Your Driving Skills
Driving in Scotland is no joke and it’s important to realize that before you rent a vehicle. For starters, the Scots drive on the left side of the road, with the steering wheel on the right. Now, we are used to this after extensive driving across Africa, but many foreigners are not.
Second, instead of stop lights and signs to idle at most of the roads in Scotland run smoothly because of roundabouts. Yes, roundabouts. Those are the circle streets you may get a wee bit nervous about driving on if you’re not used to them. Well, there are tons of them in Scotland which is something we came to realize about five minutes after we picked up our rental car at the airport. Make sure you know the rules of the road and how to navigate these before you drive here.
Third and most important – the roads on the North Coast 5oo are often small single track roads fit for just one vehicle at a time. There are passing points every 400 meters or so to let oncoming traffic get through. The car closest to a passing point should be the one to yield. That does not mean crossing the path of another vehicle into the passing point. If the passing place is on your side of the road you move over, if it is on their side you wait for them to approach you. Always make sure there is enough room on the road to pass, otherwise this can happen:
These aren’t motorways or highways and there are plenty of sheep and cattle on the side of the road so drive sensibly. To drive the North Coast 500 you must be sensible, patient, and aware of your surroundings. Don’t drive too fast, don’t take photos while driving (yes we saw that many times), and don’t litter – the locals don’t appreciate these behaviors.
There is No “Right Time” To Go
Like most places, the summertime is going to be the ideal time to travel the North Coast 500 in terms of weather. Scotland isn’t known for having weather like the Mediterranean so to increase your chances of sunshine a trip to the Highlands is best done between May and August. However, everyone wants to go during this time of year so you will likely find more people, higher prices, and low accommodation availability.
That being said the North Coast 500 is going to have incredible scenery any time of the year, the weather may just change a bit. You really never know what the Scottish Gods will hand you on your trip. We decided to take our trip in the middle of September in hopes to chase the perfect fall, but instead, we experienced rain and grey skies our entire trip. Good thing we packed rain coats and like editing “moody” photos.
The Trip Can Get Expensive
The UK is not known for being a cheap place, and the Scottish Highlands are no exception. A combination of transport, activities, food, and accommodation can easily set you back at least £150 a day per person. Obviously, the more lavish you go the more expensive – and there are many lavish places to eat and stay on the North Coast 500. Heck, you can even rent a Lamborghini to do the drive if you want to go all out!
Of course, there are more affordable ways to tackle the North Coast 500. Traveling with a group of friends is sure to bring down your vehicle hire fees and if you are a couple then splitting a hotel room will help your budget. There are many hostels along the way and each main town will have at least one supermarket for you to pick up groceries at instead of eating out. If you’re really up for a cheap adventure it’s possible to cycle the North Coast 500, wild camp, and cook all your food.
The silver lining for foreigners is that since Brexit the British pound has taken a hit so your home currency is sure to go further than previous years.
Car, Camper, Bike, or Walk
You have several different options for travel style on the route. Most people will hire a car or take their campervans, but you can also find some of the active bunch walking or cycling the route. We personally chose to rent a car and drive ourselves around to make the most out of our time.
We found that Europcar had the cheapest rates, and got ourselves a nice sedan for $30/day.We picked the car right up from Edinburgh Airport when we landed in Scotland. We were a bit nervous for gas prices in the UK but found them semi-reasonable at about £1.20 a liter (we spent about £200 for the entire trip to and from Edinburgh). We never found ourselves too far from a gas station as they are situated in every main town along the North Coast 500.
If you want to try your hand at walking the route you can get support at World Walkers to find others who have done it too. If you are a confident cycler and want some route planning to check out the North Coast 500 website. We love that anyone can do this route regardless of budget. No matter what the beautiful views in the Scottish Highlands are for everyone to enjoy.
I have to note that although Europcar was the cheapest car rental we found and that check in and out was easy they did TRY to charge our credit card more than they should have after we dropped the car off by adding a day. I would still recommend them, just take note of the charges afterward.
Plan Your Own Trip on the North Coast 500!
We rely on a few trusted websites that help save us money and time when booking hotels, flights, and car rentals. Check out some of our preferred partners below:
- North Coast 500 Accommodation: The route is packed with cute Airbnb’s and guesthouses, here is exactly where we stayed on the NC500. Make sure that you book in advance as demand is high and supply is low. Here is a coupon for your first stay on Airbnb!
- Travel Insurance: You never know what can happen abroad, and that’s why we always travel with travel insurance with World Nomads. Their plans are flexible and affordable.
- Internet: If you want to stay connected while on the North Coast 500 I would recommend picking up a Sim card and purchasing data in Inverness, Glasgow, or Edinburgh before your trip. We personally purchased 12 GB of data for £20 with Three. Their coverage extended into patches of the highlands and allowed us to at the very least check our emails, Instagram, and Facebook each day. Other comparable telecom companies in the UK include O2 and Vodafone.
- Water: We found the tap water in Scotland fine to drink, if you want extra assurance then we love traveling with our Lifestraw Go Waterbottle.
- Adapter: Remember that Scotland uses the three-prong British plug. Make sure you have one for visiting!
- Recommended Guidebook:Lonely Planet’s Scottish Highlands.
- Driving Abroad for the First Time, From Europe to Developing Nations
- The Best Travel Backpacks For Europe & Abroad
- The Essential Europe Packing List: Don’t Forget To Pack This Stuff!