As a travel enthusiast, nothing can be as exhilarating as planning a road trip. The anticipation, the thrill of exploration, and the sense of freedom create a unique blend of excitement. This thrill takes a whole new dimension when planning a trip along the North Coast 500, or the locals lovingly call it, the NC500.
As Scotland’s answer to Route 66, the NC500 is a spectacular 516-mile scenic route around the north coast of Scotland, starting and ending at Inverness Castle. It offers an adventure of a lifetime through its dramatic landscapes, breathtaking beaches, awe-inspiring historical sites, and charming Scottish hospitality. Planning your journey through this epic route can be as fun as the journey itself.
But where to start? How do you ensure you’re maximising what the NC500 offers? How do you balance a well-planned itinerary and the spontaneous adventure that makes a road trip appealing?
Fear not, dear reader! We’re here to help you navigate the intricacies of planning the perfect North Coast 500 road trip itinerary. Buckle up because we’re about to embark on a journey through the winding roads of planning, making sure you’re fully equipped to tackle the physical route later.
Step-by-step Guide to Planning the North Coast 500 Road Trip
To ensure an unforgettable NC500 experience, the first step is to get a broad overview of what to expect. Do ample research on the route and get to know the major attractions, the accommodations available, and the pit stops along the way. The official North Coast 500 website, travel blogs, and online forums can be a good starting point.
Next, set a duration for your trip. Although you can technically cover the entire NC500 in a day, spending at least 5-7 days is highly recommended to soak in the experience truly. Depending on the time you have, outline a day-to-day plan, balancing driving time, sightseeing, and rest.
Next, delve into more detailed planning, which includes finalising your route, booking accommodations, and deciding on must-visit attractions. It is crucial at this stage to consider your interests (like history, nature, adventure sports), which can greatly influence your itinerary.
Lastly, prepare a packing list, ready your vehicle, and make necessary arrangements like travel insurance. Do consider having a flexible plan, because the best part of any road trip is the unexpected detours and discoveries!
When to Go
Scotland’s climate can be unpredictable, but it offers unique charms every season. However, if you want to enjoy the North Coast 500 in its full glory, the best time to go is between May and September, when the days are longer and the weather is relatively dry.
Summer months (June-August) are the peak tourist season, and you can expect busy roads and booked accommodations. While the lively atmosphere and vibrant nature can be enticing, you should book everything beforehand.
The shoulder months of May and September are considered ideal by many experienced NC500 road-trippers. The weather is still pleasant, fewer tourist crowds, and the chance of getting last-minute accommodation is higher.
But if you want to experience a quieter and more atmospheric NC500, consider going in the winter. However, certain sections of the route may be closed due to snow, and daylight hours will be much shorter.
The golden rule for packing for a North Coast 500 road trip is to prepare for all types of weather. Scotland is notorious for its rapidly changing climate; you might start your day with sunshine, experience a quick shower in the afternoon, and end the day with a chilly evening.
Pack waterproof clothing, like a good quality raincoat and waterproof boots. Layered clothing is key – pack lightweight thermals, fleece, and a windproof layer.
Other essentials include a good-quality map and/or a GPS device, a first aid kit, toiletries, camping gear if you plan to camp, and kitchen essentials. A power bank, a good camera, binoculars for wildlife watching, and a star-gazing app for those clear night skies can add that extra fun to your trip.
Packaging light is important as you must load and unload at each stop. So, prioritise, and pack only the essentials!
Your vehicle will be your most reliable companion on the NC500. Hence, ensuring that it’s well-prepared for the journey is crucial. Start with a thorough check-up of your vehicle – ensure the tyres, brakes, lights, oil, and coolant levels are in optimal condition. If your vehicle is due for a service, complete it before the trip.
Since the North Coast 500 has several single-track roads, ensure your vehicle’s dimensions are suitable. Larger vehicles may find certain parts of the route difficult to navigate.
Also, getting acquainted with the “Passing Place” rule on single-track roads is a good idea. Always give way to vehicles coming uphill and use passing places on your left. If the passing place is on the right, wait opposite it so the oncoming vehicle can pull in.
Lastly, consider getting a spare tyre, a basic tool kit, and joining a roadside recovery service. Better safe than sorry!
Booking Accommodations and Restaurants
The North Coast 500 route has many accommodations – luxury castles, cosy bed and breakfasts, self-catering cottages, hostels, and campsites. Decide on your accommodation type based on your budget and preference.
Remember to book well in advance, especially for the summer months. Even campsites can get booked up quickly during this period. If you plan on wild camping (legal in Scotland), always follow the Scottish Outdoor Access Code.
When it comes to food, there’s a wealth of options available along the NC500. From Michelin-starred restaurants to quaint roadside cafes, there’s something to suit all palates and budgets. Don’t forget to sample the local Scottish cuisine – Haggis, Neeps and Tatties, Cullen Skink, and Scottish Salmon are a must-try.
For a seamless experience, list potential places to eat along your route and book your tables in advance, especially for dinner.
Understanding Road Conditions and Other Factors
One of the crucial parts of planning your North Coast 500 road trip is understanding the road conditions and other influential factors. Given that the NC500 is predominantly a rural route don’t expect uniform road conditions throughout. You will find well-maintained A-roads in some parts; single-track roads with passing places are common, particularly on the west coast. Familiarise yourself with how to navigate these roads beforehand.
Weather can greatly influence driving conditions in Scotland. Rain can make roads slippery, and fog can reduce visibility. Always check the weather forecast before you start your day, and adjust your plans accordingly.
Don’t rush. The charm of the NC500 lies in its slow-paced journey, soaking in the enchanting landscapes and making unexpected stops. Rushing through the route can also be dangerous, especially on single-track roads. So, keep your speed in check and enjoy the ride!
Remember to carry some cash, as not all places accept cards, especially in remote areas. Also, remember that mobile signals can be weak in certain areas so offline maps can be handy.
Route Overview: Stops and Highlights
The North Coast 500 is filled with an endless list of enchanting destinations. Let’s touch upon some must-visit stops.
Start from Inverness, often called the ‘Gateway to the Highlands’. Before you begin your journey, visit the historic Inverness Castle and the beautiful St. Andrew’s Cathedral.
Your first major stop could be the picturesque town of Applecross, accessed by the thrilling Bealach na Ba road. Head North towards Shieldaig and Torridon, where you’ll be greeted by mesmerising mountain landscapes.
As you drive along the coast towards Gairloch, make a detour to the breathtaking Inverewe Gardens. From there, proceed to Ullapool, a charming fishing village. The stretch from Ullapool to Durness is filled with some of Scotland’s most stunning beaches like Achmelvich and Clachtoll.
Durness is the most north-westerly village in mainland Britain, and Smoo Cave is a must-visit. Head east along the North coast from Durness to reach the unique town of John O’ Groats.
The route from John O’Groats back to Inverness via the East coast offers a different kind of charm with its historic castles, whisky distilleries, and the famous Dunrobin Castle.
This is a broad overview. Remember, the beauty of the NC500 is in its flexibility. Feel free to tailor your journey to suit your interests and pace.
Budgeting for a North Coast 500 trip largely depends on your preferences and travel style. Here are a few tips to keep your costs in check.
Accommodation and food are likely to be your major expenses. Opting for campsites, hostels or B&Bs instead of luxury hotels and cooking your own meals occasionally can save a lot.
If you’re hiring a car or a camper van, book well in advance and compare prices to get the best deal. Also, consider fuel efficiency while choosing your vehicle.
While most natural attractions on the NC500 are free, entrance fees for castles, gardens, and distilleries can add up. Decide on your must-visit paid attractions in advance and set aside a budget for them.
Remember to budget for parking fees, especially in popular tourist spots. Many small towns and attractions operate on ‘honesty box’ parking, so keep some change handy.
Lastly, factor in unexpected expenses like vehicle repairs. Having a buffer can save you from unwanted stress.
Local Customs and Etiquette
The Scots are known for their friendliness, and respecting local customs and etiquette will only enhance your North Coast 500 experience.
Always greet people with a smile and a “hello” or “How are you?”. It’s customary to say “cheers” when toasting and “Sláinte Mhath” (pronounced Slanj-a-va) when drinking whisky.
While driving, remember to always give way to vehicles coming uphill on single-track roads. Don’t honk unnecessarily, and always acknowledge with a wave when someone lets you pass.
Respect the environment. Do not litter, stick to marked trails, and if you’re wild camping, leave your campsite as you found it.
Finally, respect privacy. Many homes and farms are located directly off the road. Keep noise levels to a minimum, and do not trespass on private properties.
Sustainable and Responsible Travel
Sustainability should be at the heart of every travel plan, and your North Coast 500 road trip is no exception. Here are some tips to ensure you leave a minimal environmental impact.
Avoid single-use plastics. Carry reusable water bottles, coffee cups, and shopping bags. Remember to pack out all your litter, especially when wild camping or picnicking.
Stay on marked trails while hiking to avoid disturbing local flora and fauna. Do not feed or disturb wildlife.
Support local businesses. Whether it’s your accommodation, meals, or souvenirs,
choose local. It not only contributes to the local economy but also reduces carbon footprint.
Lastly, consider carbon offsetting your journey. Several organisations offer carbon offset options that invest in environmental projects.
The North Coast 500 offers ample opportunities for wildlife enthusiasts. From spotting dolphins in the Moray Firth to bird watching in Handa Island, the route is a wildlife haven.
Remember to keep a safe distance while observing wildlife. Do not feed or attempt to touch wild animals. Use binoculars or a telephoto lens for a close-up view.
Respect breeding seasons and nesting sites, especially for birds. Disturbing these can have serious consequences on their populations.
Finally, consider hiring a local guide for wildlife excursions. They deeply understand local wildlife and can greatly enhance your viewing experience.
Emergency Services and Safety
Your safety should be your topmost priority on the North Coast 500. In case of any emergency, dial 999 for police, fire, and ambulance services.
Keep a basic first aid kit in your vehicle. For minor health issues, local pharmacies (called ‘Chemists’ in Scotland) can help.
Ensure you have adequate travel insurance that covers medical emergencies, vehicle breakdowns, and cancellations.
It’s also a good idea to note down the location of the nearest hospitals along your route.
For hiking and other outdoor activities, always check weather conditions and let someone know your plans.
Capturing the Trip
Photographing your North Coast 500 journey can help you cherish these memories forever. The route is dotted with photo-worthy landscapes, so ensure your camera is always handy.
Carry spare batteries or a portable charger to ensure your camera is always ready. A tripod can be useful for long-exposure shots and group photos.
Remember to respect privacy while photographing. Always ask for permission before photographing people and avoid shooting private properties unless from a public vantage point.
Lastly, be patient. The perfect shot often requires waiting for the right light or moment.
Scottish cuisine is a delightful part of the North Coast 500 experience. Traditional dishes like Haggis, Black Pudding, and Cullen Skink are a must-try.
Don’t miss out on freshly caught seafood, particularly scallops, lobsters, and mussels.
Indulge in locally-produced cheeses, and don’t forget to pair your meals with Scottish ales and whiskies.
Visit local farmers’ markets for fresh produce and home-baked goods.
Remember, enjoying local cuisine is not just about savouring delicious flavours; it’s also a way to understand Scotland’s culture and traditions.
Conclusion: Your NC500 Checklist
Here’s a quick checklist to ensure you’re all set for your North Coast 500 adventure:
- Research and plan your route.
- Book your accommodations and meals.
- Prepare your vehicle.
- Pack appropriate clothing and essentials.
- Understand local customs and etiquette.
- Plan for sustainable and responsible travel.
- Be prepared for wildlife interaction.
- Keep emergency numbers handy.
- Ready your camera.
- Prepare your palate for local cuisine!
How long does it take to drive the North Coast 500?
While it’s technically possible to complete the North Coast 500 in 24 hours, it’s recommended to take at least 5-7 days. This allows you to fully enjoy the scenic landscapes, visit attractions, and relax.
Is the North Coast 500 suitable for motorhomes?
Yes, the North Coast 500 can be driven in a motorhome. However, some roads, particularly on the west coast, are narrow and may be difficult to navigate in larger vehicles. Always check your route in advance.
Can I cycle the North Coast 500?
Absolutely! Cycling the North Coast 500 is a fantastic way to experience the route. Remember, it’s a challenging route with many uphill climbs, so prepare accordingly.
Do I need to book accommodations in advance?
It’s highly recommended, especially when travelling during the peak summer months. Even campsites can get booked up quickly during this period.
Can I wild camp along the North Coast 500?
Yes, wild camping is legal in Scotland, and there are many beautiful spots along the North Coast 500. Always follow the Scottish Outdoor Access Code, which includes guidelines like camping at least 100 metres from a road or building, leaving no trace, and staying for a maximum of three nights.
Planning your North Coast 500 adventure might seem a bit daunting, but with this detailed guide, you’re all set to embark on your journey. So, pack your bags, fuel up, and hit the road. An unforgettable adventure awaits you!