The North Coast 500 is a 500 mile route around the north coast of Scotland, starting and concluding at Inverness Castle. One of the most popular routes in the world, it is a jaw-dropping drive with some of the most scenic views. Not forgetting the quaint villages, diverse wildlife and friendly locals that you’ll come across. So if you’re looking to tick the North Coast 500 off your bucket list, then take a look at our ultimate guide.
Old school rules
Ask anyone that has completed the route and they’ll tell you that maps beat GPS. In the Highlands, signal is intermittent so using 4G, Wifi or Satellite isn’t something that should be relied on. Often sat-navs will get you to the destination by using the quickest route. The North Coast 500 isn’t about getting there quickly. It’s about exploring winding roads and narrow lanes in order to unveil the true beauty.
The roads are like no other
As you reach Bealach na Ba, you’ll see a sign that reads ‘not advised for learner drivers’. However many say that this applies to the majority of the NC500. Thin, single track roads, blind corners, hairpin bends and steep edges make up the route so if you’re not confident in driving, don’t. Road awareness and driver etiquette is crucial.
It’s important to make your own itinerary
Sure, you can find loads to do online but the best option is to create a plan based on what you love to do. Many guides recommend 5 days for the NC500 but even if you took 10 days, you still wouldn’t have completed everything. Instead, focus on creating an itinerary that you’ll enjoy. From outdoor activities, ruins, beaches and distilleries, you’ll be amazed at what this route has to offer. Top tip: Ask locals for insider knowledge on the best places to go.
Fuel, loo breaks and emergencies. We’re not lying when we say that the North Coast 500 is remote. As you head far North and into the West, petrol stations can be miles from each other. Equally important, is to plan where public toilets are. As you drive through local villages and towns, pop into a characteristic cafe, treat yourself to a light refreshment and head to the toilet.
Whatever vehicle you are using – your own or hired – it is crucial to plan for emergencies. Ensure you have a working spare tyre and that your breakdown cover is suitable for the NC500 area.
Keep your eyes peeled
Apart from other drivers and the odd cyclist, the other thing to watch out for is wild residents. From Highland Cattle, Deer, Mountain Goats and Sheep, you’re likely to see all sorts of animals on the road. Note to self: they don’t know the Highway Code and with no fences to keep them back, they’ll often rest on the road. Stay alert but don’t forget your camera for incredible picture opportunities. Even better – many have reported seeing the Northern Lights between October and March.
Book accommodation in advance
As with the best things in life, the NC500 is growing in popularity every year. Therefore, it’s now essential to book your accommodation in advance. It can also be miles between each property and without a phone signal, it can be difficult to check where the next one lies. You may find that some B&Bs require a minimum of 2 nights stay so do your research to find the perfect place for your group of friends or family to stay in Scotland.
Equally important is to check opening hours. On holiday, the clock doesn’t matter and with long summer evenings, it’s very easy to lose track of the time. In remote areas, you may find that shops and cafes close at 5pm or aren’t open at all on Sundays. Check in advance for a smooth and hassle free trip.
Check the road
The NC500 is renowned for its long spirally roads and hefty descents, which can be incredible if you’re looking for that perfect shot. However, if you’re using a large vehicle such as a motor home, it’s best to pre-check the suitability of the route. Some notorious parts include the Bealach na Ba and the the B869 from Lochinver to Kylesku. Hairpin bends and steep hills make these unsuitable for large vehicles.
The Highland mile
The roads are long and slow. Plus, you’re likely to get stuck behind a caravan or two. Many a person has made the mistake of planning to drive 80 miles in a day, only to get caught up in the adventure to find that you’ve only completed 50 miles by 7pm. Be realistic in your planning, it’s better to get somewhere with hours to spare then drive all through the night.
You’ll say everything wrong
Don’t be surprised if you’re met with a confused face when you ask for directions. It’s likely that you’re pronouncing the many destinations wrong. Most of the names are Gaelic and you’ll even see road signs in both English and Gaelic.
You’ll probably drive more than 500 miles
Depending on how long you go for, you can drive anything from 520 miles to nearly 900 miles. The combination of detours, missed turnings and turning back to take a picture can all add up.
The North Coast 500 allows people from all over the world to explore some of the most incredible landscapes that Scotland has to offer. It’s not about getting from A to B. Take your time, go at a relaxed place and take in all those amazing views. Make a stop, get out of the car, talk to the locals and pick a place to stay for a couple of days. Even better, venture off to areas where your car cannot reach and savour every moment.