The North Coast 500 was originally launched back in 2015 to increase the number of visitors to the Scottish Highlands and it has most definitely achieved that. The North Coast 500 is being added to so many people’s bucket lists and you can see why.
When Ed and I drove this North Coast 500 route, we ended up driving just over 1400 miles. This was due to other detours, driving on small roads, taking the slow road, and also visiting the Isle of Skye (now one of our favorite places!).
The North Coast 500 generally starts in Inverness, continues up the east coast to John O’Groats and Thurso. Then across to the west into Sutherland and Durness, and down passed Ullapool before crossing back across Scotland towards Inverness.
Although the North Coast 500 provides amazing views, hikes, walks, castles, rivers, mountains and so much more, Scotland’s surrounding scenery is in abundance and there is so much more to see when visiting the country. You won’t want to miss some of these stops just because a few of them aren’t technically on the North Coast 500.
So sure, the North Coast 500 officially starts in Inverness, by why not add on a few days for Edinburgh, Cairngorms National park, and maybe even the Isle of Skye? Here’s the perfect extended North Coast 500 itinerary for you to copy and add on stops to add on to your North Coast 500 trip.
Day 1-2: Edinburgh
Edinburgh is only an hour or so drive north of the Scottish border and the capital of Scotland but is never usually included in a North Coast 500 itinerary. We’ve visited Edinburgh multiple times and always find more things to do.
With protective measures in place, Edinburgh has no skyscrapers and is rather untouched by modern architecture.
The city is divided into two halves, the old town, and the new town. Although the new town was finished around 1850, it was designed all at one time.
What this means, is that it was built strategically with streets arranged parallel and perpendicular to one another and at every crossroad, a monument of a famous figure.
The new town is home to the majority of shops (Princes Street), the Hard Rock Café, and just at the end of Princes Street, the Edinburgh Gin Distillery.
The old town and new town are separated by the Princes Street Gardens. By heading through the park, you can see views of Edinburgh castle. Placed on a hill to give intimation to all below!
The Royal Mile is also in the old town and ends with the Palace of Holyroodhouse – the Royal family’s residence in Edinburgh.
Things to do in Edinburgh
Walk up to the top of Arthurs Seat to see panoramic views of Edinburgh below. It takes 2-3 hours to walk up and back down and there is a path the majority of the way up
Wanting to see more history of Edinburgh but in a fun way? The ‘Dungeons’ which are in a lot of major cities across Europe, bring history to life with journeys through scenes of history. Edinburgh’s version includes Mary Queen of Scots
Surgeons Hall Museum
A collection of thousands of specimens used by the Royal College of Surgeons. Not necessarily to everyone’s taste but it is extremely interesting to see real preserved human organs and often with medical conditions.
The Dome for Afternoon Tea
The Dome was built back in 1847 as a bank but now runs as a hotel and restaurant that serve amazing afternoon tea for only £16.50 per person. They provide a range of sandwiches, scones, cakes and obviously tea. Although, you can upgrade to champagne for a further £7
The Dome is on George Street in the New Town
Although further away from the city centre, the zoo can be reached by jumping on the x38 or 26 from Princes Street. Home to the only giant Panda’s in the UK! Although they are classed as a giant, they were much smaller than I expected
Walking down the Royal Mile
The Royal Mile now pretty much consists of tourist shops but outside the cathedral, they have a bagpipe player there every day. I bought myself a lovely tartan scarf and probably the most iconic street in Edinburgh.
You can walk up to the castle and view Edinburgh from above without going inside. If you wish to see the jam-packed history of Edinburgh and the castle from inside it costs £17.50 for an adult and £10.50 for a child
Edinburgh Gin Distillery Tour
Gin and flaoured gins have ecame so much more popular in recent years. Although Edinburgh Gin Distillery is fairly new in the terms of distillery history, they do a really good tour and the history of gin in the city.
Where to Eat in Edinburgh
Makers Gourmet Mash Bar
This was our favourite place in Edinburgh. A restaurant revolved about mash potato and a large variety of it.
They serve different meats e.g lamb, duck and haggis and different varieties of mash including cheesy mash, mash with black pudding, mustard mash and so much more.
Instead of booking lots of tables you can put your name of a waiting list and receive a little device which will buzz when your table is ready. We enjoyed a nice drink beforehand in the bar next door.
A Room in Leith
By being right on the seafront they have the best seafood around! We shared oysters and scallops and more glorious seafood.
There was some confusion about reservations, but they fit us in any way by moving some people around which was really nice of them. Check out the best places to eat in Scotland here.
Where to Stay in Edinburgh
When Ed and I have visited Edinburgh, we have stayed in an Airbnb a few minutes’ walk out of the city. Edinburgh is fortunate enough to have many Victoria townhouses which were converted into flats, often with original features
There are hundreds of hotels and Airbnbs to choose from when visiting Edinburgh depending on your style and budget
If you stay a little further away from the city centre of Edinburgh, public transport is really good.
Day 3: Edinburgh to Inverness, 116 Miles
Cairngorms National Park is Britain’s largest national park and by driving through it, it has some amazing roads and scenery.
The drive from Edinburgh to Inverness is 156 miles taking the A9, or 171 miles taking the A95. We drove the A95 due to more impressive scenery – the slower road, and a stop at Balmoral Castle.
Balmoral Castle is the royal family’s other Scottish residence. You can visit Balmoral Castle from April from August but it can change whether the royal family is staying.
The flag will be raised if members of the royal family are there, which they were when we visited, so we weren’t able to go inside.
Linn of Dee
The Linn of Dee is a river which runs through the village of Braemar and 20-minutes’ drive away from the village.
From the car park (AB35 5YJ), you can take multiple walks including seeing the waterfall and gorge which is under the bridge you drive over to reach the car park.
How can you not drive through here and take a picture with the sign? The villages’ main tourist attraction!
By driving through these amazing roads, you will find viewpoints and laybys to stop and admire the mountains and views of the surroundings. Just make sure you are entirely off the road and parked safely.
Inverness itself is not a large city, we stopped here purely for supplies like food and petrol. We were more interested in officially starting the North Coast 500, even if we did immediately take another detour…
Day 4: Black Isle, Tain and Glenmorangie Distillery
Driving from Inverness to the Black Isle via the Cromarty bridge is only a 38 mile drive
The Black Isle
The Black Isle is a small Peninsula only 12 miles from Inverness and the first detour on the main North Coast 500 route. It is so beautiful we are unsure why anyone would miss this out!
Full of amazing beaches and views across the peninsula. You can take a detour off the A9 onto the A832 and drive circular around the Black Isle.
We stopped on a few beaches for nice walks to simply admire the views. We were fortunate enough to have good weather which makes it even more enjoyable.
Black Isle to Tain (22 miles)
Tain is only 22 miles up the road from the Black Isle but a great stop for a distillery tour don’t you think?
The ‘Men of Tain’ started making the Glenmorangie whiskey back in 1843 and have done ever since.
For only £8 you can take a great tour of their distillery which also includes a ‘wee dram’ of their original whiskey at the end. You can also request another one if you wish!
One thing to bare in mind, is the Scottish drink driving laws are pretty strict. But you can take your ‘wee dram’ away with you to enjoy later
Day 5: Dornoch, John O’Groats, Dunnet Head and Thurso
Tain to Dornoch (10 miles)
Dornoch is another small detour off the A9. Worth it for a visit to their cute village and their long and wide beach.
We spent the afternoon with ice cream and patrolling the beach. We parked free in Dornoch before walking to their beach which is extensively both long and wide. Beautiful for a stroll with ice cream.
Dornoch to John O’Groats (80 miles)
The drive to John O’Groats is up the east coast of Scotland, and by reaching John O’Groats, it is the most north-westerly point in the UK.
Many people (for charity) run, bike, or even walk from John O’Groats to Lands End. The most north-westerly point to the most south-easterly point of the UK.
We saw a man running towards John O’Groats and then saw him 5 days later 150 miles south! Takes so much courage to do!
John O’Groats is a small village with some tourist shops and small cafes. We had a small walk on the beach, saw the John O’Groats sign, and bought a hot chocolate. It’s easily one of the best places to stay on the North Coast 500.
John O’Groats to Dunnet Head (16 miles)
John O’Groats, although being the most north-westerly point, isn’t the most northern point of the UK, this is in fact Dunnet Head.
With a winding road up off the A836 onto the B855, you reach Dunnet Head lighthouse. On a clear day has the most spectacular views out to sea.
The clouds pass so quickly here and the mist and fog can clear or appear in only a few minutes, so try and get your photos when you can.
Dunnet Head to Thurso (13 miles)
You can then start the drive across the very top of Scotland! Thurso is the last place in the North before Durness where you can gather a good amount of supplies such as food and petrol!
Day 6: Lighthouse, Durness and Smoo Caves
Thurso to the Light House at Strathy Point (24 miles)
The lighthouse at Strathy point is a detour off the A836 north after passing through the village of Strathy. You can drive up the road for around 20 minutes, often passing through highland cows before reaching a farm.
By parking just at the farm, you can take a further 15-20-minute walk towards the lighthouse.
From the end, there is so much bird wildlife here and nice to just sit, watch and maybe eat some lunch!
The lighthouse itself belongs to someone and I believe they still live there. You therefore can’t enter the lighthouse itself, but the surrounding views are excellent.
The farm next to the start of the walk also had highland cows! Not as popular in Scotland as you may think so this was a perfect time to see them.
Strathy Point to Durness (52 miles)
By this point, you have driven across most of the north coast of Scotland and around half of the North Coast 500 route. Also passed highland cows, admired views out to sea, and stopped on the side of the road (safely) multiple times to admire the view.
Just before you reach Durness on the A838, you will pass a small place called Smoo, which in my opinion is an excellent name.
Smoo Caves date back to the Viking times where there is evidence of shipbuilding in the caves along with habituation.
There are tours of the Smoo Caves when there has been good weather and you can explore the depths of the cave. If not, you can still venture into the cave and explore the most outer part of the cave, which is still great!
Day 7: Stac Polliadh, Kylesku Bridge and the B869
I’ve already mentioned a few detours, but this section of the North Coast 500 there are so many more! Driving from Durness to Ullapool is 94 miles with a few detours and stops we took on the way.
Leaving Durness to take the A838 heading south for 35 miles until you reach Kylesku bridge.
Kylesku Bridge (Durness to Kylesku, 35 miles)
When driving on the A894 you will pass over the Kylesku Bridge which is a perfect spot to admire the surrounding mountains and take some photos
The B869 (Kylesku to the B869, 9 miles)
Just after the bridge, there is a turning for the B869 which takes the coastal route out into the peninsula and around Loch Assynt.
Although it is a fair detour of 25 miles, if you’re a confident driver it is well worth the detour for the amazing views.
It is a single tracked road but there are lots of passing places. There can be some lorries that drive this route also, so be prepared to reverse to the nearest passing place.
Before Lochinver, the road becomes the A837 and by driving back east you can re-join the North Coast 500 route towards Ullapool.
Walking up Stac Polliadh (19 further miles)
With an elevation of 600m, it is an excellent hike in Scotland to take for the absolutely breath-taking views at the top. It overlooks Loch Lurgain, which means 2 things; amazing views and lots and lots of midges, so be prepared.
We use smidge midge spray and seems to be the only thing that has ever worked. The midges may still land on you but don’t see to bite half as much.
Midges are usually pretty bad in the summer months near again stagnant water, which includes Lochs
When walking up Stac Pollaidh, we were lucky enough to see two stags grazing not far from the path! This was amazing as they literally just stood there and allowed me to take so many photos. They seemed quite used to humans as they didn’t run off as soon as we saw them.
The walk up Stac Pollaidh takes around 2-3 hours up and down and is only 2.75 miles. However, it is a steep incline majority of the way up.
To get to Stac Pollaidh, it is north of Ullapool. Travelling south, take a right onto a smaller road at Drumrunie (really a few small houses) and there is a car park on the left-hand side of the road. The postcode for the car park is IV26 2XY.
You can also get an infrequent bus from ullapool – the 811
Before taking any hikes in Scotland, we always look at Walk Highlands. I don’t think there is a hike they don’t have on their website with concise but good informative instructions. There are so many walks and hikes in the North Coast 500 route and you should definitely try to do one or two!
Day 8: Corrieshalloch Viewpoint, Applecross Pass and Fairy Pools
Ullapool to Kinlockewe (75 miles)
You can drive the coastal road from Ullapool by driving south on the A835 and then taking a right turn onto the A832.
Once on this road, on the right-hand side you can park up to see a large gorge and the Corrieshalloch viewpoint.
There is a small parking area on the right-hand side which is fairly small. I don’t feel the car park is ready for the amount of tourism it now receives and improvements were being made when we were there.
Once you leave your vehicle, there are 2 gates, one goes left and one goes right.
The path to the right goes to the bridge which we enjoyed more. You can cross the bridge to another viewpoint but can be closed for maintenance.
You can then go to the left as both paths join up and walk to the other point to see the waterfall.
Kinlockewe to Tornapress (53 miles)
Driving this route includes Bealach Na Ba road, also known as Applecross pass. This famous road has such infamous views with huge twists and turns and is often included in one of the best roads to drive in the world!
However, it isn’t too easy to drive. Ed is a really confident driver since he is an absolute petrol head. But the views were so worth it. If you’re driving the North Coast 500 in a motorhome, the road probably isn’t suitable due to the reduced width of the road
At the top, there is a view point to the amazing views below from where you have driven.
You can then drive another 38 miles to the Isle of Skye, the biggest detour on our extended North Coast 500 route
Tornapress to Fairy Pools, Isle of Skye (65 miles)
We drove straight onto the Isle of Skye and across to Fairy Pools! The Fairy Pools are a stream of waterfalls from the water coming down in between the Black Cullins of Skye
You can swim in each of the pools including next to a waterfall and one pool with an arch in it! The rocks and waters are multicoloured of blues and greens and the views of the surrounding mountains is just beautiful
Day 9-13: The Isle of Skye
The Isle of Skye is such a small geographical area but some of the best views in the whole of Scotland.
The Isle of Skye doesn’t normally feature on the North Coast 500 at all, but many do add this detour onto the end of their road trip because it’s too good to miss!
Ed and I spent 4 days here and did everything we wanted too. Some only spend only 1-2 days in Skye so it can be completely up to you, but I would suggest a few more days if you want to experience Skye to the fullest.
Things to do in the Isle of Skye
The Fairy Pools are a great place to swim! Blue and green water with waterfalls and a chance to swim under an arch. But can be muddy so be careful of your footing!
In the Trotternish Peninsula, Fairy glen is one of the newest tourist attractions on the block since it doesn’t even have a brown sign or an actual car park.
This is a magical place where the fairies live with weirdly formed rocks, moss and trees
This was our favourite places and one of our favourite walks even if it was quite hard at time… and muddy!
There is a viewpoint for the views below only a 2-minute walk from the car park, but you can take a 3-4 hour walk around the whole thing.
The views just get better and better of the Trotternish Ridge and the smaller Lochs below. On a clear day, you can see all the way to Harris
The Old Man of Storr
It is thought there was once a giant who lived on the Trotternish Ridge. Once he passed and was buried, his thumb still remains out of the ground!
You can walk all the way up to the top of the Storr with rewarding views of Raasay, the Lochs, and the thumb of course.
Due to trying to improve the path, the mud at the top is quite traitorous at times so walking boots is a definite must
At Staffin beach, you can hunt for Dinosaur footprints!! There are a few small beaches in Staffin Bay but we actually camped here overnight and the sunset was amazing!
One of the more iconic views of the Isle of Skye. In the far west of Skye, you can walk right over to the lighthouse. There are also different viewpoints from the car park.
One of the last remaining castles actually occupied by the same family – Clan Macleod. Dunvegan Castle is in the northwest area of Skye.
You can take a tour of the castle itself as well as the gardens
Aird of Sleat Beach
Although full of Jellyfish, the walk to this beach is a nice gravel path until the last part and takes 1-2 hours to complete. Some of the whitest sand on a beach in Scotland
Fish and Chips in Portree
Portree has some very colourful buildings which you can see and view up at the top and near the Scorrybreac restaurant.
But by walking down into the Harbour we had some great fish and chips at Lowerdeck Seafood. Which we enjoyed on a bench nearby.
Where to Stay on the Isle of Skye
Portree is the capital in Skye and where most people stay. Everything is generally accessible from here and usually within a 45-minute drive.
The whole of Portree is pretty much bnbs and hotels. We, however, camped around Scotland and Skye in our campervan and the rest of the North Coast 500, which is our preferred method of accommodation.
If you’re going to do everything on the list I would suggest 3-4 days depending on if you do the whole Quiraing walk (which takes most of your day) or how long you stay up at the Storr.
If you want the most out of the Isle of Skye I would definitely suggest 4 days to be able to see everything properly and also account for the weather.
Weather in the Isle of Skye
It is well known that the weather in Scotland is usually pretty rubbish and all over the place. But the Isle of Skye is even more all over the place
The weather forecast can be a slight guide but honestly, it’s usually wrong. We use the Met Office for all of our forecast needs and its usually spot on but in Skye its awful.
Due to the weather coming from across the Atlantic, the weather could be entirely different at the Storr, Neist Point, or Fairy Pools and anywhere in between.
If you’re walking the Quiraing or the Storr, it is best to try and do it in the best weather you have to be able to see the most.
I would never leave my vehicle without a waterproof coat just in case, because in Skye, you can never tell.
Day 14: Eilean Donan Castle, Glenfinnan Viaduct and Loch Shiel
Leaving Skye to Eilean Donan Castle (55 miles from Portree)
Leaving the Isle of Skye over the Skye bridge nearly immediately takes you to Eilean Donan Castle.
You may know it when you see it as it has featured in many films! Such as Highlander (1986), The World is Not Enough (1999), and Made of Honour (2008).
Inside is the history of the castle and its involvement in the Jacobite risings
Once you’ve driven past the castle, there is a small parking area where you can then walk back to get good views of the castle from the bridge.
Glenfinnan Viaduct and Loch Shiel (from Eilean Donan Castle, 78 miles)
Glenfinnan Viaduct is the place where Harry and Ron flew the flying car in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and where Ron fell out of the car.
The Jacobite train crosses over Glenfinnan Viaduct every day at around 1045am and 3pm.
There are viewpoints you can access by walking out of the car park, turning right and taking the next right.
As a major HP fan, it was amazing to see the train and so much more magical than I expected. Across the road from the Viaduct car park is Loch Shiel. Beautiful in its own right but used as the Black Lake in harry potter too.
The viaduct is only a 20-minute drive west from Fort William on the A830. The viaduct has its own car park but can get very busy. If you’re wanting to see the train, it can get exceptionally busy. We arrived around an hour early and there was already a good amount of people there.
This itinerary covers over 1000 miles of the Scottish Highlands and doubles the original North Coast 500 route! We found there was so much more to see and we just can’t help our selves but drive the smaller roads to try and see as much as possible
Driving the North Coast 500
Ed and I began our route of the North Coast 500 from Edinburgh, quite a way further down from Inverness which is the official starting point. We drove in our converted Ford Transit van which we finished converting in 2019.
There are many options including public transport, car hire (with hotel stays), or campervan hire with wild camping or campsites! If you’re curious what it’s like driving in Scotland see here.
Using Public Transport
One of the more restrictive modes of travel if using buses and trains. They will take you to the main places but won’t give you the experience of a road trip (if that is what you’re after).
Taking public transport – especially trains, is generally a quicker route to travel. But do you really take it all in? In your own vehicle, it is so much easier to stop and admire the views when you want.
Train tickets from Edinburgh to Inverness cost around £20 and take 3.5 hours. But you can’t stop and explore the Caringorms National Park this way.
It would also become harder more north into the highlands for travel.
Car Hire in Scotland
By renting a car in Scotland, you have the ability to drive the speed you want, take the slow road and admire all of the views!
You can hire cars from all over the place! We use Rentalcars.com if not driving our campervan. This is because when turning up to a new country there is always the generic brands that can generally be more expensive. But using a comparison site compares the smaller cheaper companies too.
When using a car, you could take a tent and camp where ever you like by wild camping! Or book hotels along the way
My favorite car rentals to look at are:
If you’re lucky enough to have your own campervan or motorhome then you are really lucky!
Ed and I converted our own Ford Transit campervan back in 2019 and used it for our North Coast 500 trip.
Although motorhomes give you a similar freedom to a campervan, driving on the smaller roads is much harder.
The smaller roads tend to be single-tracked with passing places and often with large potholes. It seemed when passing motor homes (or cars with caravans also) they did not find it very easily at all.
By having a campervan or caravan, you can pull up wherever you wish and camp generally without unpacking anything. You are also more protected by the weather in a nice warm van.
There are so many companies offering campervans and motorhomes for the North Coast 500 but be careful they don’t have a mileage limit.
Camping in Scotland
Wild camping in Scotland is legal and easy to take advantage of and you should too! Camping, whether in a tent, campervan or motorhome, is an excellent way to travel.
Being with nature but also in more luxury is amazing. However, in a motorhome or camper you have to content with water supply and ability to empty chemical toilets which you can only do at campsites
We use the app Park4Night all of the time. People can post free overnight parking spots on an app. We would have a good look on the app, decide on a spot (there are hundreds!), drive up, and stay for the night.
Some of the spots weve stayed in Scotland have been amazing. Views of mountains, Loch’s, amazing roads.
Only thing to mention is obviously the risk of midges if youre going to stay near loch’s, don’t forget your Smidge!
Wildlife in Scotland
Wildlife in Scotland is so vast. Obviously, there is the highland cow which is an iconic picture of the highlands. It depends on farmers to where the cattle, are but Ed and I have been lucky enough to see them a few times.
When reading a few blog posts, many people haven’t seen them at all when they’ve visited Scotland. So if you see them, stop and take some photos!
When we walked up Stac Pollaidh we were so lucky to see the two stags grazing on the grass only a few hundred metres from the path!
Deer and Stags are fairly popular across Scotland and there is still a hug hunting community
Red squirrels have been dying out across the UK but further down near the Scottish border you may have a chance to see one. We were just driving when we saw a little fella run across the road
They aren’t as popular in areas where the grey squirrel is really popular.
Puffins can be found from late March and early April until August and nest on coastal clifftops. The biggest colony is on the island of St Kilda, but they could be spotted on the eastern cliffs from North Berwick to Berwick-on-Tweed and also from Galloway to Wick.
When driving along in Scotland it is not uncommon to see birds of prey across the sky either!
Not sure how much you would class it as wildlife, but I’ve mentioned midges already but these deserve it again.
Before we travelled to Scotland, I didn’t realise how bad the midges actually would be. I saw people with bug hats sometimes and just thought it was quite over the top but I was naïve
Please take some Smidge with you as it seems to be the only thing that actually works. We tired other bug sprays but they’re not half as good.
Be cautious of this if in a tent, camper, or motorhome. Of course, in a camper and motorhome, you can shut the doors and windows and the windows do usually have bug nets on.
But you can’t do that in a tent. Heat does generally keep them away when you are cooking but they are drawn to light.
Packing for the North Coast 500
Whenever you are doing the North Coast 500 the weather is never fantastic, summer or winter. We use the Met Office to try and judge the forecast but even in places in Skye, this isn’t possible.
We never leave our vehicle without our waterproof coats and we wear our walking boots every day. Below is some of our favourite items and items we would never travel without
We never travel anywhere without our walking boots. We replace them every few years because we wear them so much and if travelling anywhere we wear them every day.
When walking in Scotland, due to the rain it is often very muddy and walks can be rather muddy and hilly so good footwear is a must
Our very first pair cost only £20 and didn’t last too long. By spending a little more, we got much more comfortable boots with insoles and arches for our feet
Boot socks don’t only keep your feet warm but prevent blisters or uncomfortable feet after a long day of hiking and exploring
But make sure you have a good number of them. The North Coast 500 itinerary takes 14 days and if any of them get wet you will need to change your socks!
With weather in Scotland usually raining its best to be prepared. A good waterproof and even wind proof coat would definitely come in handy
If you have ever been walking in jeans and its rained, you’ll know they take forever and a day to dry. Hiking trousers dry so much quicker and easier to wear on multiple days
Rucksack with Waterproof Cover
If you carry any camera equipment, jumpers or anything else in your bag, you dont want all your stuff to get soaking wet!
Our bag also comes with back support and a gap to allow air through. This is much more comfortable to wear when hiking to make sure your back doesn’t get as sweaty
Driving the North Coast 500 is an amazing experience and some of the views you wouldn’t believe. Ed and I can’t help ourselves but drive on smaller roads as they’re more enjoyable but this truly does rack up the miles!