Few road trips on earth can match the majestic beauty of the North Coast 500 (NC500). Winding its way across Northern Scotland’s remote and stunning landscapes, the NC500 offers an unrivalled journey of discovery, bursting with charm, culture, and awe-inspiring views. With miles of mesmerising coastline, beautiful Highland vistas, and secluded villages, planning your North Coast 500 adventure can be as thrilling as the journey.
Whether you’re yearning for the call of the wild or seeking solace in the tranquil beauty of the Highlands, this guide will help you plan your NC500 adventure like a pro. We’ve covered you, from preparing your vehicle to what to pack, booking your accommodations, and choosing the best time to go.
This guide lets you feel ready to tackle everything the NC500 offers. Learn about the local customs and etiquette, get tips on sustainable and responsible travel, discover the diverse local wildlife, and even find advice on capturing your journey through photography and journaling.
This comprehensive guide, packed with practical tips and insider advice, ensures that your NC500 road trip will be an unforgettable experience. So buckle up, and let’s embark on the journey of a lifetime!
Step-by-step Guide to Planning the NC500 Road Trip
Embarking on the North Coast 500 is no small undertaking. The NC500, known as Scotland’s Route 66, spans 516 miles (830 km) of beautiful, rugged terrain, starting and ending at Inverness Castle. It’s an adventure that requires careful planning to enjoy fully.
The first step in planning your NC500 adventure is to decide how long you’ll be on the road. A typical trip takes about a week, but you could easily extend this to two weeks if you wish to take your time and thoroughly explore the route’s attractions.
Next, decide on your mode of travel. Whether by car, motorbike, or bicycle, the NC500 offers a unique experience for every type of adventurer. Each travel mode brings its own challenges and considerations, so choose wisely based on your preferences, fitness level, and comfort.
Finally, plot your route. While the NC500 is marked, you’ll want to decide which stops and detours you’ll take along the way. This could include historic castles, serene beaches, quaint villages, or majestic mountain peaks. The beauty of the NC500 is that it’s your adventure to shape!
When to Go
The North Coast 500 route is enchanting all year round, but your experience can greatly depend on when you choose to go. While known for its unpredictability, Scotland’s weather follows some general patterns that can inform your decision.
Spring (April to June) and autumn (September to November) are excellent times to embark on your NC500 adventure. These seasons offer milder weather, with fewer tourists than the peak summer months. You’ll find the landscapes bursting with colour, from the vibrant hues of springtime blooms to the rich, earthy tones of autumn leaves.
Summer (July and August) brings the warmest temperatures and longest daylight hours and the most tourists. If you don’t mind sharing the road and attractions with others, summer can provide the best conditions for your trip.
Winter (December to February), while offering a unique, stark beauty, poses more challenges due to shorter daylight hours and potentially adverse weather conditions. If you’re a seasoned adventurer and adequately prepared, a winter journey can be a magical experience.
Remember, no matter when you go, always check the weather forecasts and be prepared for sudden changes in conditions.
What to Pack
Regarding packing for your NC500 adventure, the Scottish saying “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes” holds true. Layers are key in this climate, as weather can change rapidly. Start with moisture-wicking base layers, add insulating middle layers, and finish with waterproof outer layers.
Consider packing a mix of casual and outdoor clothing and sturdy, comfortable shoes for walking or hiking. Don’t forget your swimsuit for a daring dip in the North Sea or a visit to the local lochs.
Beyond clothing, pack a first aid kit, sunblock, insect repellent (midges can be pesky in summer), a reusable water bottle, and any necessary personal items. If you plan camping, you’ll need to bring camping gear, including a tent, sleeping bag, and cooking equipment.
A good-quality map, compass, and guidebook of the area could prove invaluable for those planning to do lots of hiking. And, of course, don’t forget your camera or smartphone for capturing those unforgettable moments and stunning landscapes.
Preparing Your Vehicle
Whether driving your own car or renting one, ensuring it’s in top shape before hitting the road is crucial for a successful NC500 adventure. Start by doing a thorough check of your vehicle. This includes checking the oil and coolant levels, tyre pressure and tread, brakes, and lights.
If you’re uncomfortable doing these checks, consider having your vehicle serviced by a professional before your trip. Remember, the NC500 takes you through some remote areas where breakdown services may not be readily available.
For those renting a vehicle, ensure you’re comfortable with its size and handling, especially if you’re not used to driving on the left side of the road or single-track roads. Ensure you’re familiar with the rental company’s breakdown policies, and ensure you have their emergency contact information.
Lastly, equip your vehicle with a spare tyre, jack, and basic tools. Having a paper map or downloaded offline maps on your phone can also be a lifesaver if you lose signal on the remote parts of the route.
Booking Accommodations and Restaurants
The North Coast 500 route boasts a range of accommodation options, from luxury hotels and quaint B&Bs to self-catering cottages and campsites. But remember, you’re not the only
one planning an NC500 adventure, so it’s crucial to book your accommodations well in advance.
Research and identify where you want to stop each night based on your daily itinerary. Once you’ve decided on your stops, consider accommodations that suit your budget and preferences. Whether you prefer the comfort of a hotel, the charm of a B&B, the freedom of a self-catering cottage, or the adventure of a campsite, you’ll find something to suit your needs.
The same goes for dining along the route. The NC500 takes you through areas renowned for local produce, seafood, and whisky. Again, popular restaurants may require booking ahead, especially during peak travel periods. So, take some time to research and book in advance to secure a table at that must-try restaurant.
Understanding Road Conditions and Other Factors
Before setting off on your North Coast 500 adventure, it’s important to understand the conditions you’ll encounter. Scotland’s weather is unpredictable, so be prepared for sudden changes and always check the forecast.
The NC500 route includes a mix of dual carriageways, single-track roads, and mountain passes. These roads can be narrow, winding, and steep in places. If you’re unfamiliar with driving on single-track roads, remember to use the passing places to allow vehicles to overtake or pass, and always drive at a speed that allows you to stop within the distance you can see to be clear.
Finally, watch for roaming animals, such as sheep or deer, especially on remote sections of the route. These can sometimes venture onto the roads, so always drive with caution.
Overview of the Route
The North Coast 500 route, starting and ending at Inverness Castle, offers an amazing array of sights, attractions, and experiences. Whether it’s historic castles, beautiful beaches, rugged mountains, charming villages, or abundant wildlife, there’s something for everyone on this epic journey.
As you head north from Inverness, you’ll journey through the dramatic landscapes of the northern Highlands, pass by the sweeping sandy beaches of the west coast, and traverse the winding mountain roads of the northwest. Turning eastwards, you’ll explore the rugged cliffs and sea stacks of the north coast before heading south through the fertile farmlands of the east coast, back to Inverness.
Notable highlights include the fairy-tale Dunrobin Castle, the breathtaking views from the Bealach na Ba mountain pass, the prehistoric ruins at the Achavanich Standing Stones, and the stunning sea cliffs at Duncansby Head. But remember, these are just a few of the many wonderful sights and experiences waiting for you on the NC500.
Budgeting for the Trip
Planning your budget for the North Coast 500 adventure is a crucial step in the planning process. The overall cost of your trip will depend on several factors, including the mode of travel, type of accommodation, dining preferences, and personal spending habits.
Start by calculating your travel costs. This includes fuel, vehicle hire if applicable, and any necessary maintenance or servicing costs. Next, estimate your accommodation costs based on your preferences and the length of your trip.
Factor in food and drink costs, including dining out, groceries if self-catering, and any special treats, such as a whisky distillery tour or a seafood feast. Remember to set aside some budget for attraction entry fees, souvenirs, and unplanned expenses.
Remember, planning your budget carefully can help ensure a smooth and stress-free adventure, leaving you free to enjoy everything the NC500 has to offer fully.
Local Customs and Etiquette
Travelling the North Coast 500, you’ll visit areas rich in tradition and local customs. Scotland is known for its warm hospitality, and respecting local customs and etiquette goes a long way in ensuring a pleasant trip.
When driving, remember to be considerate of other road users. This includes using passing places on single-track roads, not blocking entrances, and driving responsibly. Remember, these roads are not just tourist routes but also local lifelines.
If hiking or exploring the countryside, follow the Scottish Outdoor Access Code. This includes respecting private property, leaving no trace, and controlling dogs.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to engage with the locals. Whether it’s a friendly chat in a pub or a wave to a passing motorist, interactions with the locals are often the highlight of any Scottish adventure!
Sustainable and Responsible Travel
Travelling sustainably and responsibly along the North Coast 500 is not just about ensuring a pleasant journey for you but also for those who follow in your footsteps and for the local communities.
Start by respecting the local environment. This includes following the leave-no-trace principles, disposing of your waste properly, and not disturbing wildlife or livestock. If wild camping, do so responsibly by setting up late, leaving early, and not camping in the same place for more than one night.
Consider supporting local businesses along your journey. Whether it’s buying local produce, dining in local restaurants, or purchasing souvenirs from local craftspeople, every pound spent locally helps support the local economy.
Lastly, consider your carbon footprint. While road trips inherently involve driving, you can offset this by travelling slowly and enjoying each stop, rather than rushing from one place to another.
The North Coast 500 takes you through some of Scotland’s most diverse and stunning wildlife habitats. From red deer and Highland cows to dolphins and seals, you’ll have ample opportunities for wildlife spotting.
When exploring these areas, remember to respect the wildlife. Keep a safe distance, never feed wild animals, and avoid disturbing them, especially during breeding seasons.
Popular wildlife spots include the Moray Firth, known for its dolphin population, Handa Island for seabird colonies, and the many lochs and rivers where you might spot otters or beavers.
Observing wildlife responsibly ensures these creatures will be around for future generations to enjoy.
Emergency Services and Safety Precautions
When planning your North Coast 500 adventure, it’s essential to consider safety precautions and be aware of emergency services.
In an emergency, dial 999 for police, fire, or ambulance services. For less urgent situations, such as minor injuries or illnesses, local health centres or pharmacies can provide help.
Ensure you have a first aid kit in your vehicle and familiarise yourself with basic first aid procedures. If hiking or exploring remote areas, let someone know your plans and estimated return time.
Lastly, always respect the power of nature. Whether changing weather, challenging terrain, or unfamiliar roads, being prepared and taking sensible precautions can prevent unnecessary risks and ensure a safe and enjoyable journey.
Capturing the Trip
Your North Coast 500 adventure promises to be a lifetime trip, so capturing your experiences is necessary. Whether you prefer photography, videography, journaling, or sketching, there’s no shortage of stunning moments to capture.
For photography enthusiasts, the NC500 is a dream come true, offering dramatic landscapes, captivating wildlife, and
iconic landmarks. Always remember to respect the environment and wildlife when taking photographs.
If writing is your preferred medium, keeping a travel journal can be a wonderful way to document your thoughts, experiences, and encounters. It’s a lovely keepsake to look back on in years to come.
Regardless of how you capture your adventure, remember to take time to be in the moment, soak up the surroundings, and fully experience the magic of the NC500.
No North Coast 500 adventure would be complete without sampling the local cuisine. Scottish food is hearty, rich, and flavoursome, strongly focused on local produce.
Seafood is a must-try, with the west and north coasts offering fresh catches of the day. The seafood dishes are second to none, from salmon and lobster to scallops and mussels.
And, of course, you can’t visit Scotland without trying haggis, the traditional Scottish dish. While it might sound daunting, many visitors find it deliciously savoury and rich in flavour.
For those with a sweet tooth, don’t miss out on Scottish desserts like cranachan, a delightful mix of raspberries, cream, honey, and toasted oats often enjoyed with a wee dram of whisky.
Speaking of whisky, visit a few of the distilleries along the route if you’re a fan. They offer fascinating tours and tastings that are sure to delight your senses.
Conclusion and Checklist
Planning your North Coast 500 adventure may seem daunting, but with careful planning and a sense of adventure, it promises to be an unforgettable journey. So, buckle up, start your engine, and get ready to discover the wonders of Scotland’s North Coast 500.
To help you prepare for your journey, here’s a handy checklist:
- Planning Your Route: Research and plan your itinerary.
- When to Go: Choose the best time for your adventure.
- Packing: Pack the essentials and gear suitable for Scottish weather.
- Vehicle Preparation: Make sure your vehicle is ready for the trip.
- Booking Accommodation and Dining: Secure your stays and dining experiences.
- Understanding Road Conditions: Be prepared for the diverse and often challenging road conditions.
- Budgeting: Plan your trip’s finances.
- Respecting Local Customs: Be mindful of local etiquette and traditions.
- Sustainable Travel: Travel in a way that respects the environment and supports local communities.
- Wildlife Awareness: Respect the local wildlife and explore responsibly.
- Safety Precautions: Be aware of safety measures and emergency services.
- Capturing the Adventure: Plan how to capture and document your adventure.
- Sampling Local Cuisine: Be ready to sample the diverse and delicious local dishes.
Safe travels, and enjoy your North Coast 500 adventure!
1. When is the best time to go on the North Coast 500?
The best time to go on the North Coast 500 depends on what you want from your trip. May to September offer the best weather and longer daylight hours, but it’s also the busiest time. Consider spring (April-May) or autumn (September-October) for quieter travel.
2. What should I pack for the North Coast 500?
When packing for the North Coast 500, consider the unpredictable Scottish weather. Pack layers to adapt to changing temperatures, waterproof clothing for rainy days, sturdy shoes for hiking, and warm clothes for cooler evenings. Don’t forget your camera, binoculars for wildlife spotting, and any other personal essentials.
3. How can I prepare my vehicle for the North Coast 500?
Before setting off on the North Coast 500, ensure your vehicle is in good condition. Check your tyres, oil, brakes, and lights, and ensure you have a spare tyre and the necessary tools. Also, have an updated map or GPS system for navigation.
4. How do I book accommodations and restaurants along the North Coast 500?
It’s best to book accommodations and restaurants well in advance, especially during peak travel periods. Research options online, consider your itinerary, budget, and preferences, and then book directly or through booking platforms.
5. What are the road conditions like on the North Coast 500?
The North Coast 500 features a variety of road types, including dual carriageways, single-track roads, and mountain passes. Some sections, with steep, narrow, and winding roads, can be challenging. Always check the forecast and drive according to the conditions.
6. How can I travel sustainably on the North Coast 500?
Sustainable travel on the North Coast 500 involves respecting the environment, supporting local businesses, and considering your carbon footprint. This includes following the leave-no-trace principles, using passing places on single-track roads, and travelling slowly to enjoy each stop.
7. What wildlife can I expect to see on the North Coast 500?
The North Coast 500 is home to a diverse range of wildlife, including red deer, Highland cows, dolphins, seals, and various bird species. Remember to respect the wildlife, keep a safe distance, and avoid feeding them.
8. What safety precautions should I take on the North Coast 500?
Safety on the North Coast 500 involves preparing for changing weather and road conditions, having a first aid kit and emergency numbers, and taking sensible precautions when hiking or exploring remote areas.
9. What local cuisine should I try on the North Coast 500?
Scottish cuisine is a must-try on the North Coast 500. Don’t miss out on local seafood, traditional dishes like haggis, Scottish desserts like cranachan, and a dram of local whisky.
10. How can I capture my North Coast 500 adventure?
Whether you prefer photography, journaling, or videography, there are endless opportunities to capture your North Coast 500 adventure. Just remember also to take time to soak up the experiences firsthand.