Driving Scotland's NC500: 7-day Itinerary

Phoebe Laine

Phoebe Laine

· 10 min read

Would you rather spend a holiday on the beach or in the mountains? If it's hard for you to pick, then this trip is for you!

Whether you love beaches, mountains, castles, cairns, quaint towns, hiking, driving, or relaxing you will be impressed by the North Coast 500.

I spent a week in May driving this 500-mile route around Northern Scotland and exploring the Highlands with my husband. It was one of the most spontaneously fun and rejuvenating trips I've done in a long time.

The landscape is incredibly varied and endlessly impressive. I'm a Celtic soul so the magic of the trees and water and rocks was speaking to my heart the whole week. I loved it. Here's what we did!

A map showing our route around the highlands

Day 1: Arrive in Inverness and visit Cairngorms National Park

Our flight from London to Inverness landed in the afternoon so we only had a half day on our first day. We picked up our rental car, loaded up on road trip snacks at the Tesco Extra nearby (it was so fun to go to a massive store after the tiny city shopping we had been doing -- felt like being back in the US!), and started seeing the sights.

We started by visiting the Culloden Battlefield which is the site of the final Jacobite uprising and has a very interesting history (you can read some here!). You have to pay to park and to enter the museum at the visitor centre (we decided to skip the museum and read up about the history online) but you can walk around the actual battlefield for free.

Next, we had our first taste of Neolithic standing stones at the Clava Cairns. This is a super low-key site that lets you get up close and personal with standing stones and burial sites that are over 4000 years old. I loved being able to walk in and around the stone rather than having to stay so far away (like at Stonehenge).

Phoebe hugging a standing stone

Then we popped down to the Cairngorms National Park and did a beautiful walk around Loch an Eilein (try and spot the castle in the middle of the lake if you go). I wish we had more time here because there is so much to see in the park!

Phoebe standing near a beautiful Lake

Day 2: Inverness to Scrabster

The stacks of Duncansby

We started the day early and spent an hour or so walking around Inverness High Street. It is charming and has a castle (which was closed), however, we were on this trip to escape city life (we live in London) so we quickly set off to dive into ~nature~.

We started by driving around the Black Isle (the peninsula right above Inverness) to dolphin watch at Chanonry Point. It is one of the best places in the area to spot dolphins and we saw probably 20 of them in the 40 minutes we were there! There is a dreamy white sandy beach on one side of the lighthouse and a fun bay on the other where literally every single stone is perfect for skipping. We had a blast.

The Fairy Glen Falls are just a 3 min drive away. This is a short (about 1.5 mile) walk through lush green woodland. The little path follows a small stream through wildflower-strewn meadows. It crosses wooden bridges and ends at two waterfalls. It was really magical. I felt like I could almost see the fairies dancing in the flowers out of the corner of my eye.

After this, we hit the road to officially start our 500-mile journey on the NC500 (so exciting!). We enjoyed weaving up and over green hills and careening down tiny, walled roads for a few hours before our next stop.

There are one million castles to see in Scotland, but one of the most impressive is Dunrobin Castle. We have seen our fair share of castles so we didn't pay to go in, but we parked and walked around the outside to appreciate the architecture and peek into the gorgeous manicured garden. If I had to live in a castle, one tucked into the woods overlooking the wild ocean wouldn't be half bad.

Continuing up north, we reached sea cliff territory. I don't know why, but I am kind of obsessed with sea cliffs. They never cease to awe me. I can just feel the power of these things that stand against the endless battering of the ocean. Anyway, the Whaligoe Steps are a unique experience where you trek down like a hundred stone steps to this bay with stunning blue water and millions of nesting sea birds. A good way to wake up the legs after sitting in the car for a while!

The last stop of the day was the Stacks of Duncansby. This was the highlight of the day. We parked at the Duncansby Head Lighthouse and walked along the coast to see the stacks. A rainstorm blew in just as we got out of the car so we were soaked but it was so thrilling that I didn't mind.

Day 3: Orkney Mainland

Okay, so Orkney isn't technically a part of the NC500 route, but we were so close we thought we might as well check it out ;). We did so much with our day that I wrote a whole separate blog post about it: Read about it here!

Day 4: Scrabster to Ullapool

Back to the NC500! This stretch of drive was my favourite of the whole trip. This is the least inhabited stretch (of the NC500 and probably all of Scotland) so it feels like a true adventure into the wilds. For this stretch just stop anywhere and everywhere you want to fully take in the views. I could have stopped every .5 mile to just stare at the majesty of the surroundings. I'll list a few of the coolest places we stopped, but again, every mile of this stretch is beautiful.

The beginning of the drive allowed us to fully appreciate Flow Country. This is a vast expanse of blanket bog in Northern Scotland. The blanket bog is really important for carbon capture and is also very beautiful to look at. It covers the hills in a rich purple colour.

The Tongue Causeway is just that, a causeway along the route, but it has the most amazing views of both the ocean and the glacial blue Kyle of Tongue (kyle= bay). We pulled off here, sat dumbstruck by the view, skipped some stones, and then decided that we should go hike up to the castle we could see on the hilltop across the bay. Turns out it is the Castle Varrich. It was a fun and easy hike.

The drive continues to cross valleys of blanket bog, curve around inlets, and vault around craggy grey boulders. Right before the charming (and tiny) town of Smoo, we stumbled upon this incredible beach (Ceannabeinne Beach) with people zip-lining above it. Of course, we pulled right over and joined in on the fun. This was another one of those moments that was so full of joy and fun that I was bursting with happiness. Ugh. I LOVE TRAVELLING because of moments like this. It's mindfulness and gratitude and fully living in the moment. It's breathing deep and letting go and just being here right now. It's how we should live every day.

A wide shot of Balnakeil beach

Our last official stop of the day was Balnakeil Beach. We walked across it for about two miles to get up to Faraid Head. It was windy, drizzling, and chilly but so fun. And the VIEWS. The VIEWWWWSSS. It was moments like this that I was grateful we came in May. I've heard that Scotland can get overrun but we had many places nearly all to ourselves and it was magical.

Views from Faraid Head
A shell from the beach

From here we basically drove straight on to Ullapool, but we could've stopped so many more times. This stretch of the drive (from Smoo to Ullapool) took us straight into those mountains we had been seeing on the horizon. It was raining so there were hundreds of waterfalls pouring off their peaks. I don't have many pictures (because I was driving) but it lives so vividly in my mind.

Peat Bog

Day 5 & 6: Isle of Skye

We woke up early and drove from Ullapool to the Isle of Skye! Again, the drive is so scenic, but we were rushing through to maximise our time at Skye. Again, not technically part of the NC500, but you can't miss this place. It is one of the most stunning places I've ever been. Typing this out right now, I can feel my heart fill up remembering the magic! I can't do it justice. You just have to go, okay?

Okay. Read my post about it ;)

Day 7: Back to Inverness and home

We left Skye and drove back to Inverness to catch our late afternoon flight home.

We drove right past Eilean Donan Castle and I wish we had stopped. It is in the coolest location right in the middle of the water.

We also stopped at Loch Ness. The NC500 drives almost the entire length of the lake right on its shore, so you have plenty of time to try and catch a glimpse of Nessie. I wish we had time for the Jacobite boat tour, which was highly recommended. We went to Dores Beach to enjoy the windy wild lake.

Phoebe on a rocky beach of Loch Ness

And that was it! It was such a fun week. This was my first actual road trip and I have a feeling it will be hard to top ;)

On to the next adventure!

General Tips:

  • Drive counter-clockwise from Inverness (the views will get steadily more impressive that way)
  • You will be driving on one-lane (or very narrow two-lane) roads for 500+ miles. Make sure you know how to use Passing Places! And don't be stressed, I don't generally like driving, but I actually really enjoyed driving on these tiny roads
  • Download Google Maps!!! There is very limited or no service for most of the northern stretches (and Skye has terrible service). I downloaded the entire map for all of the Highlands and it worked great for navigating and exploring stops while out of service
  • Follow your heart! Leave time in your plan to pull off and hike that hill or stare at that body of water. This is key.

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Phoebe Laine

About Phoebe Laine

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