What is the North Coast 500 and why is it special?
The North Coast 500 is a spectacular 516-mile circular driving route around the most northerly tip of Scotland.
With an official start and end point in Inverness, it takes in some of the country’s most incredible coastal scenery – every bend, every hill presenting a new spine-tingling vista.
Although it has always existed as a route, it was only in 2014 that the North Coast 500 officially came into being.
Since then it has gained international recognition as one of the most exceptional road trips in the world.
What makes the North Coast 500 special?
The North Coast 500 has been described as Scotland’s answer to Route 66 – the historic highway that cuts through the heart of America from east to west.
The two roads don’t have much in common physically. The long, straight and flat tarmac of the iconic US route is a far cry from the steep, winding, narrow, roads that snake round the Highland coast.
And while, Route 66 is lined by flickering neon signs advertising lonely truck stops, rusting gas stations and kitschy American diners, the Scottish version is more about the country’s natural beauty – particularly the golden beaches, magnificent mountains and heather-covered moors – and its rich, often brutal, history.
But what the two routes do have in common is that they both take you to the very heart of what these countries are all about.
Just as Route 66 captures the essence of middle America, a trip round the North Coast 500 will open your eyes to many of the things that have shaped Scotland’s history and geography.
From the Highland Clearances to secret wartime operations, from the decline of traditional industries like fishing and crofting industries to the development of nuclear and wind power.
It’s all there, and it comes against the backdrop of some of the most incredible scenery you’ll find anywhere in the world.
What’s the best way to complete the North Coast 500?
Because it’s a circular route, your trip can start and finish anywhere along the 516 miles and you can travel either clockwise or anti-clockwise.
Most people start and finish their trip in Inverness and start off by heading to the west coast and going clockwise through Inverness-shire, Wester Ross, Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross.
So, perhaps it would be worth considering going the opposite direction, and heading up the east coast from Inverness first.
How long will it take?
To cover all the ground, you will need to set aside at least five days to complete the North Coast 500. But if you can spare the time, we’d recommend seven days or more.
Also, remember you will have to factor in the length of time it will take to get to this part of Scotland before you even get started on the route.
The traditional starting point, Inverness, is a three-and-a-half hour drive from Glasgow or Edinburgh, almost seven hours from Manchester and at least 10 hours from London!
The official NC500 website has a selection of suggested itineraries for you to follow or amend to suit your plans and we have also drawn up a five-day tour for you to consider.
Remember, the official North Coast 500 map is only a guide – don’t feel that you have to stick to the main route rigidly. Venturing off the main road can be incredibly rewarding, even if it adds a little more driving time.
As a camper, the great thing about it is that there are loads of campsites along the route, allowing you to travel a section by day, either by car, motorbike or even bicycle then spend the night in your tent.
Alternatively, you could set up basecamp for a few days and explore different areas in more detail. This would obviously take a bit longer but will give you a better insight into this part of the world.
Find out more about campsites on the North Coast 500
When should I visit?
In theory, the North Coast 500 is an all-year-round destination, but the summer is by far the most popular time for visitors, with better weather, longer days and more facilities open. You’ll also see more in the way of wildlife, both on land and at sea.
As a result, the roads and campsites can be extremely busy during the peak times – some people find they are unbearably busy.
It’s worth considering a visit in spring or autumn – the weather won’t be too bad, the roads will be quieter and accommodation easier to find. You’ll also pay less for your overnight stays.
No matter when you decide to go, we’d always recommend booking campsites in advance, and in the summer it’s absolutely essential.
Perhaps the biggest advantage of visiting outside the main summer months is that it gives you more chance of avoiding the dreaded midge! These pests are at their worst in northern Scotland during July and August, so taking your trip earlier or later will help avoid them.
Want more great information about the North Coast 500? Our guide to Britain's favourite road trip is full of great information and camping advice.
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