Camping on the North Coast 500: planning your trip
There is so much to see and do on the North Coast 500, you will need to set aside at least five days to complete it. Even then you will barely be scratching the surface. If you can spare the time, we’d recommend seven days or more.
Planning your road trip in advance is essential, as you’ll need to book camping accommodation every night.
Decide how long you want to spend driving each day and use Google maps to work out how long it will take to get from one place to another.
Make sure you include stopping times for meal/loo breaks and for exploring anywhere that might grab your attention along the route.
The official NC500 website has a selection of suggested itineraries for you to follow or amend to suit your plans.
Everyone’s dream trip will be different, but to give you some ideas and inspiration, here is our North Coast 500 road trip.
We started near Inverness and travelled anti-clockwise, spending five days on the road and four nights camping along the route.
DAY 1: DRUMNADROCHIT TO APPLECROSS
Although it’s technically not part of the North Coast 500, our journey begins at Drumnadrochit on the banks of Loch Ness. Drumnadrochit – home of the Loch Ness Monster – is about 15 miles south west of Inverness, the capital of the Highlands and the official starting and finishing point for the North Coast 500.
After a night at the handy, but fairly basic, Borlum Campsite on the outskirts of the village, we set off west towards Lochcarron.
In glorious sunshine, we stop for a bite to eat on the banks of Loch Carron itself, watching the local sailing school pootle around on the beautiful bay.
We then pass through Kishorn, admiring the lovely, sun-soaked Wester Ross scenery and passing the award-winning Kishorn Seafood Bar.
A few miles on and we reach the start of the Applecross road, known as the Bealach na Bà (Pass of the Cattle). Nothing really prepares you for what is to come, but the warning signs are there, literally.
A huge sign at the start of the road tells you that it is not advised for learner drivers, very large vehicles or caravans. For anyone who falls into those categories, there is an alternative low-level route via Shieldaig.
Driving up the Bealach na Bà is terrifying and exhilarating. The single-track road boasts the greatest ascent of any highway in the UK, winding back and forth in the manner of an Alpine pass, to a height of 2,053ft.
The knowledge that all that’s preventing you from plummeting hundreds of feet down the hillside are a small barrier and your driving skills, makes it an unforgettable experience.
We eventually reach the top and pull into a parking place where we take in the spectacular views back down the pass. A short distance further on, there is a larger stopping place, where we gasp at the stunning vista across to Skye and the Outer Hebrides.
The drive back down towards Applecross is a little more gentle, although we don’t envy the cyclists we pass going in the opposite direction!
We set up camp at Applecross Campsite, and wander down to the village, then take a walk along the coast towards the neighbouring hamlet of Milltown.
Back in the village, and we have dinner and a couple of beers in the hugely popular Applecross Inn, followed by delicious treacle ice cream from the Airstream caravan parked outside.
DAY 2: APPLECROSS TO ACHMELVICH
There’s a lot of driving ahead of us today so we set off early, heading round the coast of the Applecross peninsula. A couple of miles down the road we pull in to Sand Bay for a brisk walk across the sprawling beach.
This is an important archaeological site, with recent digs placing an ancient settlement here at 7,500BC (9,500 years ago), making the peninsula one of the earliest known settlements in Scotland.
From Sand, the single-track road hugs the coast until we reach Shieldaig.
A few miles further along the road, we have a brief stop to take in the lovely views over Loch Torridon, with Beinn Alligin looming in the background, before heading inland.
We pass through the Beinn Eigh nature reserve, with the road running alongside the spectacular multi-peaked mass of multi-peaked mass of Beinn Eighe itself. Here you’ll find some of the oldest rock in the world, as well as a rich variety of wildlife.
After 10 miles, we emerge at Kinlochewe, then drive alongside Loch Maree towards Gairloch.
A few miles further north we arrive in the village of Poolewe and Loch Ewe, a significant naval port during World War II. The A832 takes us north alongside Loch Ewe, then onto the coast and inland along the side of Little Loch Broom.
We stop for another break at Corrieshalloch Gorge, and soak in yet another amazing view, this time down a long valley towards Loch Broom.
We carry on through the picturesque fishing village of Ullapool (famed for its moderate temperatures all year round and its New Zealand cabbage trees, often mistaken for palms) before veering away from the coast towards Knockan Crag National Nature Reserve and the Moine Thrust, an important geological feature that serves as an important record of thousands of millions of years of the history of Scotland.
We head on, towards Assynt, one of the more sparsely populated corners of the UK mainland, but also one of the most beautiful.
Rugged mountains rise dramatically from the moorlands and bogs, while every bend in the road provides the possibility of encountering a shard of sparkling blue water. You’re much more likely to encounter sheep or deer here than humans.
The biggest centre of population is the town of Lochinver, Scotland’s second largest fishing port, which is dominated by the steep sided peak of Suilven and boasts several decent restaurants.
From here it is only a few more miles, along a narrow, winding single-track road, to our destination, Shore Campsite at Achmelvich.
It is more than worth the six hour drive. The site sits right on the coast, alongside one of the most gorgeous beaches you’ll ever see.
On a warm, sunny day like today, you really could be in the Caribbean and we could have happily spent two or three days here.
DAY 3: ACHMELVICH TO DURNESS
In the morning we head back along the single-track road towards Lochinver, where we have a late breakfast at the Lochinver Larder restaurant, famous for its range of pies.
We have a quick look round the village before heading north again in the direction of Durness.
A few miles along the B869, we veer off the main route and take a detour towards Stoer Head Lighthouse. Standing guard over the Minch, this is one of around 200 lighthouse dotted around Scotland’s coastline, operated and maintained by the Northern Lighthouse Board.
As well as the lighthouse, we also stumble across the Loo At The Light – said to be the most remote public toilet in the UK!
We head back onto the main route towards Drumbeg, where we pick up some sausages and black pudding for tomorrow’s breakfast from the award-winning village store.
Half an hour later we reach the distinctively curved Kylesku Bridge, cross over Loch a' Chairn Bhain (Loch Of The White Cairn) and carry on towards Durness.
For many people, the stretch of highway that leads inland towards the north-west corner is the best part of the North Coast 500; a bleak, wild and windswept single-track road that encapsulates loneliness and isolation of the Highlands.
At last we reach Durness and the Sango Sands campsite, possibly one of the most spectacularly located campsites in the country. It is perched at the top of cliffs, overlooking the beach, with magnificent views out to sea.
Tents, campervans, caravans and motorhomes vie for the best clifftop positions – the earlier you arrive the better your chances of landing a prime pitch with the best view.
Before settling down for the night, we take a run out to the Cocoa Mountain chocolate shop at Balnakeil Craft Village.
The hot chocolate on offer claims to the be “The Best” and while we can’t confirm that, it certainly hits the spot.
DAY 4: DURNESS TO DUNBEATH
One of the many joys of the North Coast 500 is stumbling across something totally unexpected. More than 300 miles into our road trip, the last thing we expected to find was a memorial to John Lennon in the remote village of Durness.
It features three slabs of granite inscribed with the lyrics of the Beatles’ song, ‘In My Life’, set in a beautifully landscaped garden.
We pay a quick visit to the quirkily-named Smoo Cave on the outskirts of the village. This natural sea cave is accessible for free 365 days a year, with a walkway leading from the impressive entrance into the waterfall chamber
The route out of Durness takes us along the mostly single-track road that goes around Loch Eriboll. This is a true wilderness that is largely unspoilt by modern life.
Once we have rounded the loch at its southernmost point, we head north-west along the opposite coast, the road climbing to give us a view over Ard Neckie, a mound of land that is only linked to the shore by a thin strip of sand and shingle.
From here we pass through Tongue and join the A836, which winds along the top of Scotland, through Dounreay (home of the nuclear power station) and Thurso, towards the most northerly point on the mainland, Dunnet Head, a peninsula about 12 miles to the east of John o’ Groats.
Unlike the tacky gift shops and overpriced tearooms of John o’ Groats, Dunnet Head has nothing more to offer than an unmanned lighthouse, an RSPB hut and some of the most fantastic views you’ll ever see.
We head south along the east coast towards next camping stop at Dunbeath. Inver Caravan park is a tiny, but very well-appointed, site just off the A9 and close to the sea.
It’s surrounded by beautiful countryside and has views to the sea, and although a tad windswept, makes for a great stopover. There’s a pub serving food a few minutes’ walk away but we decide to dine at Helmsdale, a bit further down the coast.
DAY 5: DUNBEATH TO INVERNESS
It’s our last day but there’s lots still to see, so we set off early. Around 10 miles from Dunbeath we pull over to visit the abandoned village of Badbea, where the villagers were evicted from their homes to make way for sheep farms, as part of the Highland Clearances.
After a glorious drive down the east coast, we pull in to Dunrobin Castle, the family seat of the Earl of Sutherland. The imposing building, which dates back over seven centuries, stands on a hill and towers over the formal gardens below like a fairytale castle.
Back on the road and we continue south towards Inverness. At Tain, we briefly leave the main route and head out towards the little seaside village of Portmahomack.
As well as having the most charming name of anywhere we visited, it also has a couple of good bistros. We have lunch at one of them and enjoy a bracing walk along the beach, before getting back behind the wheel and rejoining the main road.
Inverness Castle, where the North Coast 500 officially ends, is only 40 miles away and within an hour we reach our destination. It has been an unforgettable adventure.
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