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5-DAY NC500 ROAD TRIP ITINERARY

SCOTTISH HIGHLANDS & UK ROAD TRIP


The NC500 is a stunning scenic drive and a perfect road trip route through the Scottish Highlands. In 500 miles, or 516, to be precise, the road hugs the coastline, weaves through mountain ranges, crosses small towns and passes historical sites. The circular route begins in Inverness and can be completed in either direction. We embarked on our road trip in June 2023 and instantly knew this drive would top our list of highlights from Scotland.

5 Day Road Trip on the NC500 - Scotland

 

QUICK LINKS

 

DAY ONE

INVERNESS – WICK


This itinerary starts in Inverness and embarks on the NC500 in an anticlockwise direction.


We recommend arriving in Inverness the day before and exploring the city that afternoon. This will give you more time on the road on day one.

Take the A9 north out of Inverness, and in just over an hour, you will reach Dunrobin Castle. This popular tourist attraction is the largest great house in the Northern Highlands. Visitors can explore 18 rooms, the garden and the museum. They also have a tearoom, gift shop and falconry displays throughout the day.


Tickets to Dunrobin Castle cost £14 for adults. The castle and gardens welcome visitors from April to October. In the peak season, the site opens from 10 am to 5 pm, but best to double-check their website before visiting.
The River Bothy - Where to Eat NC500

After exploring the castle, continue north for half an hour to The River Bothy. This cute teahouse is the perfect stop for morning tea or lunch. They serve hot drinks, tasty meals, and a range of homemade goods that make the whole place smell delightful.


Another 30 minutes north will bring you to the Whaligoe Steps. Descend the 365 steps to the peaceful harbour below. Enjoy the calm beneath the towering cliffs before making the climb back up. At the top, you can also walk around to the opposite side, which gives a lovely view of the staircases you just conquered.


Access to the Whaligoe Steps is free. The parking area is free but small. From the parking lot, walk towards the house nearest the ocean, then follow their driveway to the trail.

From Whaligoe, it is only a 10-minute drive to the town of Wick. This former Viking settlement is a great place to grab lunch if you haven’t already or simply explore the town. Be sure to check out the Wick Bridge and the shortest street in the world, Ebenezer Place.


Not far from the town are the ruins of Castle Sinclair Girnigoe. This once-grand building is located on the cliffside, with great views out to sea. Despite some of the buildings being covered in scaffolding, the ruins are still amazing to see and even more fun to explore.


Access to the castle is free. It is a short walk across a field from the Noss Head car park. This car park did have pay-and-display meters, but they were out of service when we visited.

WHERE WE STAYED


These picturesque camping pods, 20 minutes from Wick, are located on a beautiful property with views of the surrounding farmland and the ocean in the distance. The owners have decked out these simple camping pods to include a comfortable bed, TV, basic kitchenette, table and heaters. The bathroom is in a separate block, only a few meters away. It includes the toilet, sink and shower, all very clean and private, with basic amenities provided.

Duncansby Stacks - Best Places to stop on the NC500, Scottish Highlands

DAY TWO

WICK – DURNESS


Begin the day with a short, 15-minute drive north to the Duncansby Stacks. These large sea stacks are a short walk from the Duncansby Lighthouse on the dramatic coastline of Duncansby Head. The views down the coastline are spectacular.


The lighthouse car park is free. The viewpoint for the stacks is just under a mile (1.6 km) across the grassy headland from this point.

Continue your morning down at the John O’Groats harbour. Here you’ll find cafes, shops, the visitor’s centre and tour operators for ferries out to the islands. Don’t forget to take the obligatory photo at the popular John O’Groats signpost before leaving.

Top NC500 destinations - John O'Groats

There is a large, paid parking lot at John O’Groats harbour. Tickets are valid all day and can be purchased at the meters for £3.

Drive along the A836 for 10 minutes, where you will take a left turn onto the country roads leading to Annie’s Bakery. This is a perfect spot for morning tea, either eat in or take away. They have a full menu and a selection of fresh-baked bread, pastries, sausage rolls, pies, desserts, hot drinks and their signature masterpiece, the highland cow tarts.


Annie’s Bakery is open from 10 am to 2 pm Wednesday through Friday and Sundays.
Top NC500 destinations - Annie's Bakery - Highland Cow Tart

After morning tea, head to yet another spectacular coastline at Dunnet Head. This is also a popular birdwatching and whale-watching spot. Down the road from Dunnet Head is the Dunnet Bay Distillery. They offer tours, or you can visit the shop and grab some of their signature spirits to try later.


Continue heading west for 1 hour, then turn at Strathy towards Strathy Point Lighthouse. This destination is on private property, but signs note visitors are permitted to pass through. Due to this setting, the headland is usually much quieter than similar locations on the NC500. There is also a cute miniature lighthouse at the trail's end.


The parking area is at the end of the public road, just in front of the gate to the property. It is free but very small. The walk to the lighthouse takes 10-15 minutes on a mostly flat road. As this passes through farmland, there will be livestock, mostly sheep, but you may also encounter the very muscular bull.

The next section of the drive is very windy and narrow at times, but it is also incredibly scenic. There are many valleys, mountains, lakes and lookouts to keep you occupied on the 1.5-hour journey to Durness. Just before the town is Smoo Cave. You can walk into the mouth of the cave and the first cavern for free. To go any further, you will need to join a boat tour.


Free parking is available just off the main road. There are also public toilets. The guided tours cost £10, payable in cash, and run until 5 pm in peak season, weather permitting.

Finish the day in Durness, where you can explore the Balnekeil Craft Village before checking in to your accommodation.


WHERE WE STAYED


We found very few available options in the area when we visited. Due to this, we went a bit above our price range, but we really enjoyed our stay. This is a 2-bedroom guesthouse with a kitchen, living space, bathroom, main bedroom and bunkbed room. There is also a sauna for an extra cost. There was no phone service here, but the host provided a huge DVD selection with options to suit every taste.



DAY THREE

DURNESS – ULLAPOOL


Drive south out of Durness on the A838. This will eventually turn into the A984 as it snakes along the west coast of the Scottish Highlands. In just under 1.5 hours, you will reach the turnoff to the B869.


If you leave Durness early, most shops won't be open. The first cafe we found open was just before the B869 in Unapool. It's called Rock Stop Café and Exhibition Centre. They serve drip coffee, tea and a few breakfast items. You can also browse the exhibition while you wait.
Scenic Drive in the Scottish Highlands - NC500

The B869, also known as the Drumbeg Loop, is a scenic road that weaves along the coastline and through Scottish woodlands. Much of the drive is a narrow, single-track road, so expect to go slow and pull over a lot. At least it gives you time to enjoy the ever-changing scenery.


When the B869 reaches the A837, ignore the NC500 sign and turn right instead. This brings you to the town of Lochinver; a great place to stretch your legs, but most importantly, to visit Lochinver Larder. This restaurant is known for their delicious, award-winning pies, but they also have a range of meals, hot and cold beverages and a courtyard on the river.


After lunch, rejoin the NC500, travelling inland on the A837. 15 minutes down the road, you will arrive at Loch Assynt. Here you can explore the ruins of Ardvreck Castle and Calda House.


Parking and access to the ruins is free.

Continuing south, take the turn off at Ledmore Junction to the A835, then take another right-hand turn a Drumrunie towards Loch Lurgainn. In 30 minutes, you will reach the start of the trail to Stac Pollaidh. This hike takes you to a rocky summit, providing 360-degree views of the incredibly scenic landscape.


The hike takes 2-2.5 hours. The trail is well-marked and maintained, although we did experience one boggy section at the end. The main trail has a steady incline, but the path to the rocky summit does involve rock scrambling. The parking lot is free, and the nearest public toilets are 15 minutes away in Achiltibuie.

Once you’ve completed the hike, drive the final 25 minutes into the town of Ullapool.


WHERE WE STAYED


This is a room with an external private bathroom located upstairs in a family home. It is one of two Airbnbs inside the house. Everything is spotless and cosy, with all the basic amenities you need for a short stay and a few breakfast items. The host meets you on arrival and is incredibly welcoming and kind.



DAY FOUR

AN TEALLACH


We dedicated the fourth day to hiking. If you do not enjoy hiking or you'd prefer to spend your time differently on this road trip, skip ahead to day five.
An Teallach - Best hikes on the NC500 road trip

Scotland boasts some of the most incredible mountain ranges on mainland UK, so while on the NC500, we recommend tackling An Teallach. Along this hike, you will traverse ridges, bag two Munros, and enjoy picturesque views in all directions.


There are multiple trails to choose from, varying in length and difficulty. You may also find yourself jumping between different routes along the way to reach gorgeous viewpoints, take shortcuts, or avoid the grade 3 scramble for a slightly easier trek to the top.


Many of these trails are unmarked, so we recommend downloading the hike you plan to do on the AllTrails app. You can utilise the offline GPS to track your movement and navigate. We love using AllTrails, especially while travelling and hiking in less familiar areas.

WHERE WE STAYED


We have included two options for this night. The first is to return to the Airbnb in Ullapool. Personally, we wish we had done this as we preferred that Airbnb and the town had more amenities. However, it would add to the drive time on day five.


The second option is to continue to Badachro, one hour away. If you take this option, stop in Gairloch on the way to grab dinner. The Chinese takeaway from Hai Yang was delicious.


This is a small shepherd’s hut behind a family home. The hut was simple but cute, and the bed was cosy. However, in some ways, we felt like we were camping, and that’s just not what we had prepared for this night. The bathroom is external to the hut, inside the family home, which was a little awkward to access. There were also cracks in the door and windows, which meant the midges got in all night, and despite sleeping in layers of bug repellent, we both woke up covered in bites.



DAY FIVE

BADACHRO – LOCHCARRON


If you are starting the day in Badachro, make your first stop by Victoria Falls. You won’t need long, but it’s worth a quick stop. A short walk brings you to the lookout, and a slightly longer trail takes you to the top of the waterfall, where you can walk out onto the rocks.


If you are starting the day in Ullapool, we recommend skipping Victoria Falls. It adds a big detour to your day for a stop you will only spend a few minutes at.

Next, follow the A896 until you reach the village of Shieldaig. This quaint town is located on Loch Shieldaig and has a beautiful waterfront to stroll along. There are a few cafes and bars and a sweet little honesty box with fresh homemade goods. Across the water, you can see Shieldaig Island, covered in Scots pine. This island is owned by the National Trust and is a conservation area for White-Tailed Eagles.


Just after Shieldaig, take a right turn and follow the coastline towards Applecross. Stop at a few of the lookouts and beaches to enjoy the scenery, and before you reach the town, stop first at the Applecross Walled Garden. Enjoy a delicious lunch and refreshing drink, explore the colourful gardens and say hello to the Highland Cows.


The Applecross Walled Garden is very popular. We were fortunate to get the last table for lunch before guests were turned away. We recommend making a reservation if you don’t want to miss out. You can enjoy the gardens without stopping for lunch. Parking and access is free.

After lunch, head into the main town of Applecross. There are plenty of options for food here as well, with cafes, restaurants and bars offering dining right on the waterfront. Then head out of town on the Applecross Pass. This pass winds up into the mountains to the very popular scenic road known as Bealach na Bà. Several hairpin turns on a single-track road bring you down into the valley and out to Loch Kishorn.


There is a small pullover area just before you begin the descent down Bealach na Bà. This is a perfect lookout point to see and capture the famous road before making the journey down.

Once you’ve completed the scenic drive, drive the last 30 minutes of the road trip to the town of Lochcarron.


WHERE WE STAYED


This is a room and ensuite in a B&B. The host, who also lives on the property, is kind, warm and welcoming. The room is comfortable, clean and spacious. The shared spaces in the lounge and dining have views of the water across their beautiful garden. It is a short walk and an even shorter drive to the main streets of town, which has a few shops and restaurants. The host also cooks a delicious Scottish breakfast for you in the morning.



OPTIONAL DAY SIX

LOCHCARRON – INVERNESS


Our adventures on the NC500 ended in Lochcarron. We made this decision for two reasons. The first reason was that all the sites on our list were located along the route we’ve detailed above. The second reason was to continue south to the nearby Isle of Skye as we embarked on a bigger UK road trip.

To complete the entire loop of the NC500, you can either drive the final section from Lochcarron to Inverness at the end of day five or add an extra day to the itinerary. This drive takes 1.5 hours.


If you have time to head south, check out our Top Things To Do on the Isle of Skye.


WHERE WE RENTED OUR CAR


We completed these five days on the NC500 as part of a much bigger UK road trip. We started and ended the trip in Edinburgh, which is also where we hired the car. We chose Hertz firstly because they had a competitive rate at the time and secondly, they are a reputable company we've had great experiences with. We hired a manual 2wd. The car was in great condition, except for a few small scratches that were all reported by Hertz.



OUR GOOGLE MAPS


When planning our travel destinations, we pin our bucket list of sites to see and recommended places to eat and drink on Google Maps. We are then never lost for ideas when travelling, and can easily share these lists for our friends and family to use as well.


Click here to see our Google Maps for the 5-Day NC500 Itinerary.




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