Whilst planning our NC500 Scotland 4 day itinerary, it was proving difficult to find a post that listed accommodation and the best things to see all in one place. There’s so much about the famous Scottish Highlands road trip to cover, and most websites involved a lot of scrolling and jumping from page to page. In this post, I’ve tried to break our NC 500 route down into days, whilst including the accommodation we used along the way.
NC500 Scotland Route Planner
So, the big question first, “Which way to go?” Although most people go West to East, we went East to West (starting in Inverness and working our way up). Despite the popularity of the West to East route, every local we spoke to agreed that the East to West drive was better. The thought behind this was that the East is a lot easier and a lot less dramatic. Those starting with the West tend to have tired and miss out a lot of the East, following a hard drive at the beginning. I stand by our decision.
How long does it take to do the NC500?
The simple answer to this is, “How long is a piece of string?” We did our journey in 4 days (not including getting to the start point in Invenress). I strongly recommend you don’t cut it any lower than this. The following itinerary was doable in 4 days, but involved 8am starts and 10pm finishes. You could, of course, cut out some of the sightseeing locations, however, the drive (especially on the West) is still quite intense.
It’s also worth noting that, in Summer, the NC500 is a popular route. The locals were keen to reiterate that, during peak times, the mostly single-track roads were nose to tail caravans and could take hours. Google maps will not factor in the time you have to continuously take to pull in and out of passing places to let other go by.
NC500 hotels and accommodation
Within this post, I’ve included some extra detail about our accommodation at the end of each day’s sightseeing spots. However, below is a quick list of the places we stayed (including price and accommodation type). I’d encourage everyone to support local business and book with any of these places direct. By doing so, the locals get a larger cut:
Night 1 – North Star Glamping (Lybster). Self -catering, £100 for the cabin.
Night 2 – Bettyhill Hotel (Bettyhill). Breakfast included, £100 for 2
Night 3 – Riverside Guest House (Ullapool). Breakfast included, £95 for 2
Night 4 – Pammy’s Family Annexe (Garve). Breakfast included, £95 for 2
What to pack for the North Coast 500
As with any Scotland road-trip, it’s important to remember two things:
- NEVER trust the weather report
- You’re not going for a fashion show, take walking boots and waterproofs!
We were forecast rain for every day of our trip, right up to the day we left. We only got 1 day of rain. AND, not only that, we got such beautiful weather that I only wore a jacket once! However, this is a rarity, and I recommend you pack the following as basics:
- A sturdy waterproof jacket
- Walking boots (I say boots rather than shoes as they’ll give your ankles more support)
- Thick walking socks (your feet will most likely get wet)
- A towel (to dry off in the car/on the beach)
- Waterproof trousers
- Swimwear (on the off chance that you fancy a loch/beach dip)
- Clothing you can layer (it’s common to see all 4 season in one day in Scotland. Be ready to add/remove layers)
- A water bottle (stay hydrated folks!)
Day 1 – Inverness to Lybster
By far the easiest length of road in the trip. The A9 takes you right up the coast, is relatively straight and offers a single-carriageway (meaning no pulling over to let people past).
Around a 50-minute drive North of Inverness, we arrived at the car park for Fyrish monument at 10am. The walk (known as Jubilee Path) is a 2 mile uphill hike and walking boots are advisable. In total, it took us a 2 hours to go up and down, allowing plenty of time for photos
The unusual stone monument was built by under the instruction of a native lord to the area in 1782. It’s told that it was built to keep the locals in labour whilst the Highland Clearances took place.
Unlike a lot of Scotland’s castles, Dunrobin Castle is still privately owned; home to the Earls and later, the Dukes of Sutherland. The original building dates back to the 1300s, but its beautiful gardens were added in 1835. We spent most of the time exploring the exterior and enjoying the views from the fountain and flowerbeds ( I took way too many photos here!). The entry to Dunrobin is a package deal, so if you want to see the gardens, you’re also paying for a good recce around its interiors. We made the most of it and spent a good couple of hours here checking everything out.
Cairn Laith Broch
These little Iron Age ruins on the edge of the coastline were a last minute stop, after a recommendation by one of the team at Dunrobin Castle. You’ll find it about 2 miles up the A9 from the cute little village of Golspie and the broch is thought to have been built between 500 BC – 800 AD. It’s worth a quick stop to soak in a extra bit of history (it’s one of the few excavated brochs on the Scottish mainland with surviving outbuildings).
Lunch/Dinner at the Sutherland Inn
I can’t rave about this place enough! We’d pulled over to have a drink here on a whim due to it’s outdoor seating and inviting front. After perusing the menu and concluding there was nothing on it for vegans, the lovely man at the bar questioned, “What’s wrong with our menu?”, as I handed it back. After explaining my problem, he told me they’d make me whatever I wanted, offering to send their team out to get the ingredients they’d need. I’m not sure I’ve ever been anywhere that’s been so keen to make sure I was catered to! We enjoyed beers and enormous freshly-made burgers in the sun on their outdoor tables, whilst watching over the bustling little main street of Brora. Check them out here.
After dropping our stuff off at our accommodation in Lybster (below), we took the car for a final spin a few more miles up the coast to check out the Whaligoe Steps for sunset. You’ll get two sights for the price of one here: an enormous cave harbour accessed by descending a 365 step walkway, and the 250ft Whaligoe falls. At the top of the cliff, the path forks: right leads you to the steps, whilst left will take you across a (slightly treacherous) walkway along the cliff to catch a glimpse of the falls. Both routes require sturdy footwear as they are slippery, steep and have no barriers to prevent falls.
Read more about how to find the Whaligoe Steps and Falls in my dedicated post.
North Star Glamping Scotland
Our first night-time stop on our NC500 4-day itinerary was North Star Glamping in Lybster. The luxury pods are owned by a lovely lady named Maggie, who has truly thought of everything (from fluffy towels and wineglasses to coffee machines and playing cards). The pod was perfect for up to 4 people and felt super cosy on account of the underfloor heating.
You can book the pods on booking engines, but you’ll get a discount if you book direct (plus I’m a huge advocate for making sure all profits go to the Scottish business owner). There are only 2 pods on the site, so be sure to book in advance!
Day 2 – Lybster to Bettyhill
As with day 1, a lot of this road is relatively easy to navigate (with a lot of it still being part of the A9). We spent most of it around the Duncansy Stacks and John o’ Groats area, so I’d recommend that where you focus a lot of your time. We picked up a junk-food lunch by the John o’ Groats car park, and stopped for a refuel (and Tesco meal deal) in Thurso.
The drive from Lybster to Duncansby Stacks took around 45 minutes, and is a fantastic stop on the side of John O Groats. Getting to the viewpoint is relatively easy, cutting a mile or so across a grassy path from the car park. I’d really recommend a walk along the coastline past the stacks, as the pathway offers up some incredible views (and some surprising angles). We made more time for this than John o’ Groats itself, after being warned there isn’t much there besides the signpost and pretty coloured accommodation.
Bay of Sannick – White beaches in Scotland
The beach at the Bay of Sannick was another impromptu visit – you can see the bay from the Duncansby Stacks car park. You can leave the car at the stacks, or drive down to the make-shift pull-in spot for an easier journey. The beach is small, however, it was (by far) the best beach we visited on the NC500 (even with numerous recommendations and others on our list). Despite the glorious weather we had, this beach was empty when we arrived, giving us a crystal water paddle to ourselves. It’s worth noting that the wade in to the water here is deceivingly rocky, and I really wish we’d had some swim shoes to make the most out of it.
John O’ Groats
I don’t think I’m speaking out of term here when I say that there’s not really a lot to do in john O’ Groats itself. The tiny village is famous for being one end of the longest distance between two inhabited points on mainland Britain. We pitched up to get our token photo with the popular signpost and grab a bit of lunch. Vegans will be delighted to learn that the little fish and chip van serves up huge chip butties (with or without mushy peas), fried in sunflower oil.
Whilst you’re there, grab a snap of the colourful Nordic-style blocks of The Inn at John o’ Groats. They look like big happy Lego houses!
Dunnet Head – The most Northerly point of mainland Britain
Our last stop before heading across the North coast to our accommodation was Dunnet Head. The peninsula is the most Northerly point of mainland Britain and the little coastal drive up to it is stuffed with pretty little lochs and mini viewpoints. At the main point, you’ll find a lighthouse, 360 panoramic views across to the Orkney Islands and an impressive glimpse of the Northern cliff edge. Don’t miss it, it would be a shame to come all this way and not be able to truly claim that you hit the top!
The further North (and West) you get on the NC500, the tougher it is to find last-minute accommodation (or in some cases, accommodation at all). We booked into the Bettyhill Hotel, for night 2 – the most expensive of our 4 nights accommodation. The hotel sits proudly on a hill overlooking a larger beach and comes with views at breakfast. Of all our stays, it’s probably the one I was least delighted by, despite the team being friendly and the hotel being clean. My vegan experience was a little ropey; I had a wonderful huge curry for dinner, but was served dairy ice-cream (despite the menu stating the cheesecake desert option was vegan). It’s frustrating to have to re-iterate and keep asking if things (that are labelled for dietary requirement) actually are – especially when you’re sat with non-vegans. Similarly, breakfast was dry toast, mushrooms and tomato.
The hotel is a good location stop point, but pricey for what you get (when compared to our other stops).
Day 3 – Bettyhill to Ullapool
To pack all of day 3’s itinerary in, you’re going to need an early start! Its at this point that the North Coast 500 road starts to become intense, with lots of hills, windy roads and single track systems. The stops we made on this day were also the ones that required sturdy boots and waterproof clothing.
Smoo Cave was one of my top things to see on our NC500 trip. The enormous sea-cave is thought to have got its name from the Norse word ‘smjugg’ or ‘smuga’, meaning a hole or hiding-place. The cavern has two chambers: one formed by the sea and one formed by a fast-flowing 66 ft waterfall. The first part of the cave can be accessed on foot, whilst the back chamber requires a little boat journey that only runs in the summer. If you’re lucky enough to catch the boat (it wasn’t running the day we arrived) you might be luck enough to catch a photo with the beam of light that shoots into the cave from the hole above.
Whizzing down the West coast towards Ullapool, you’ll drive over the Kylesku Bridge. You don’t need long there, but there’s a viewpoint on either side (we caught this photo from the North to South side) and it’s worth pulling over to admire the design.
Wailing Widow Falls
I can’t stress how much you need to add this point to your NC500 itinerary. I came across it by chance whilst digging through locations on Instagram, and need to give full credit to Merlins_Mind for the details on how to get there. Check my Wailing Widow Falls blog post on how to find it, where to park and how to make the most of the stop. Wailing Widow Falls has two viewpoints: the aerial view across Loch na Gainmhich (above) and the falls view (below).
Getting to the aerial view involves a rickety crossing over the stones of the river before the drop (or a much longer, boggy walk around the full loch). You’ll then need to scramble up the marshy hillside. Fashion trainers will NOT do the job!
The direct falls view is accessed by a slippery footpath that starts further down the hill (there are car parks to both these points). The path here is unstable and rocky and getting into the mouth of the falls involves skipping over the large stones in the river below.
Often hailed as one of Scotland’s ‘tropical beaches’, Achmelvich beach was the last stop of our 3rd day. Getting to it after Wailing Widow falls involves doubling back to the turn off for it, or missing our some of the nc500 route and cutting down the main road and then turning out to the West.
Unlike the Bay of Sannick, Achmelvich beach has a full camp site right on its doorstep, making it a lot busier than our little paradise beach on day 2. Its waters are crystal clear and the sands are just as white, but the gloomy weather took the shine off. Its worth noting that jellyfish are a regular occurrence on Achmelvich, so be sure to watch where you tread/swim.
An unofficial stop – Speeding past Loch Assynt to Ullapool, we pulled over to have a quick look over the ruins at Ardvreck Castle. The ruins date back to the 16th century, and the castle is popular with photographers and wild campers.
Riverside Guest House Ullapool
Finding accommodation down the West coast gets tricky (and expensive). There’s only one hotel in Applecross, so Ullapool is the last main stop to offer you a selection.
The Riverside Guest House is run by an adorably cheerful gent named Charlie, who welcomed us with lots of chat and information as soon as we set foot in the door. I felt like I was stepping into my own house. All of the rooms were kitted out with new carpets and cosy bed sheets, and Charlie was keen to make sure he’d checked all the ingredients of my vegan breakfast. We loved the atmosphere of this hotel, and I’d definitely be back if I decided to try take on one of the monro in the area.
You can book the Riverside Guest House direct here. As with the first night’s accommodation, booking direct will get you a cheaper rate.
Day 4 – Ullapool to Inverness
This part of the road is definitely the most tiring of the 4 days! It’s predominantly single track, very hilly and often described as treacherous. Nervous/new drivers should reconsider the road from Applecross over Bealach na Bà in favour of the safer route. However, despite all these warnings, this is by far the most spectacular part of the road in terms of viewpoints, mountain ranges and general Scottish Highland feels.
We picked up a wee lunch bags in Ullapool so that we didn’t need to worry about finding somewhere to accommodate my diet.
Just after the bay, the road turns up onto a hill with a stopping area and viewpoint. In my opinion, the views from above are even better than the ones from the beach itself.
Tollie Burn, River Ewe
It took us a good bit of digging to identify this secret little stop – you don’t spot the burn (stream) from the road. We pulled over to check out the view of the hill (Slioch Hill) from a little pass on the left-hand side of the road. Getting to the burn is easy, there’s a little worn out path that leads straight down from the parking spot.
Bealach na Bà – Pass of the Cattle
So, before you dismiss this photo as one of the WORST of all time, I urge you, go Google this location! Rising to 626m above seal-level, this curvy mountain road is hailed as one of the toughest in Scotland. It’s tight twists and turns demand full concentration and rivers who don’t feel really confident about reversing are urged to take a different path. So why bother? Well, for the trouble of it’s dangerous narrow bends and 20% gradients, you’re rewarded with some of the most magnificent mountain views in Scotland. From the top viewpoint, you take in the zigzagging road as it works its way down the hillside and (on a clear day) this make for some incredible photo opportunities. Like I said, please go Google it!
Ever seen salmon jump up stream? No? Neither had we! After reaching our accommodation for the night (see below), we learned that this waterfall was a only 10 minute drive along the road. We also learned that, in the Summer, salmon return here to make the difficult swim back up the falls to spawn. The roaring waterfall is huge, and after waiting patiently on the bridge across the river, we were treated to sights of the fish making death defying jumps up the rocks.
Pammy’s Family Annexe
Pammy’s lovely wee BnB sits neatly to the side of the road overlooking Loch Luichart. Pammy was there to greet us on arrival, and told us just to shout on her if we wanted to make use of the fire pits in either the front or back garden. She was warm, friendly and keen to make sure we had everything we needed on our last night. Had the weather been on our side, this would have been a wonderful last stop to sit and sip a glass of wine and reflect on our trip.
Bonus stop – Dewar’s Aberfeldy Distillery
On our way back down the road to South Scotland, we were invited to go visit the Dewar’s Aberfeldy Distillery near Pitlochry. Set right in the heart of the countryside, this beautiful big distillery has been producing Scottish whisky since 1898. Our tour included a detailed explanation of how the team create their unique Aberfeldy Single Malt, the history of the distillery, sampling of an exclusively aged whisky, tours of the grounds and whisky cocktail tastings. It was the perfect way to end our road trip and break up a long drive home.
The Dewar’s Aberfeldy Distillery is now re-open for tours. You can book yours here.
And finally … Vegan food on the North Coast 500
I’m going to be honest, I thought finding vegan food and accommodation on the NC 500 was going to be an absolute nightmare. There are actually a good few vegetarian/vegan hotels on the North Coast 500, however, only one of them had re-opened after Covid when we took our trip (and it had been fully booked).
As mentioned above, most places we stopped were keen to accommodate for main meals. However, breakfasts left little to the imagination (vegetarian sausages on offer all had egg in them and there was no milk alternative). I recommended vegan travelers itching for a milky coffee fix take a cartoon of their own milk to the Scottish Highlands. I also took some snacks and Pot Noodles for self-catering emergencies.
Lunches were relatively easy, but uninspiring. We came across multiple Tescos and Co-Ops on our Scottish road trip, meaning we were able to pick up budget-friendly sandwich meal deals. The UK’s vegan offering for these deals has grown significantly in the last year, and flavours include pumpkin falafel, Plant Chef Hoisin duck and chick’n with herby sage stuffing and cream slaw. My top vegan tip: Prepare like nobody will feed you!
Still have questions about your NC500 Scotland trip? Drop them in the comments below.