Driving Scotland's North Coast 500: Our 7-day Road Trip

So, you want to drive the North Coast 500 (NC500)? We completed Scotland’s version of Route 66 over 7 days in September 2018. We’d like to share our experience and insights to help you plan a Scotland road-trip of your dreams. We cover days needed, distances, driving time, costs and provide links to additional resources. We’ve also created an article series that covers each of our days with many of our favourite photos.

What is the North Coast 500?

The North Coast 500 (NC500) is a 516 mile (830 km) scenic route around the North Coast of Scotland. It starts and ends at Inverness Castle. Launched in March 2015 to promote tourism in the North Highlands - it's described as Scotland’s Route 66.

On 18 June 2016, James McCallum completed the route in 31 hours 23 minutes riding a bicycle. He cycled through the night and was in the saddle for 28 hours 57 minutes.

We completed our version of the NC500 in September 2018. It took us 35 hours over 7 days to drive 1,311 miles. This included the majority of the recommended 500 mile route.

  • We drove anti-clockwise without the return loop to Inverness. We also included the Wester Ross Coastal Route, the Isle of Skye and Oban, before returning to Glasgow.

  • Instead of a bicycle, we were driving a 5-door diesel Peugeot 3008. We had plenty of room for our belongings and also managed to squeeze in two hitchhikers for a day.

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Articles for each day of our NC500 road-trip:

Day 1: Glasgow to Inverness

Day 2: Inverness to Thurdistoft

Day 3: Thurdistoft to Durness

Day 4: Durness to Isle of Skye (link coming soon)

Day 5: Isle of Skye (link coming soon)

Day 6: Isle of Skye to Arisaig (link coming soon)

Day 7: Arisaig to Glasgow (link coming soon)

Our NC500 Route

Our NC500 Road Trip on Google Maps:

Our NC500 Photos

You can see some of our favourite Scotland Road Trip - NC500 photos on Flickr:

NC500 - Scotland Road Trip

Why plan your NC500 road-trip?

If you plan your trip it will feel more like a holiday and less like a rally drive.

When you pass somewhere interesting and ask, ‘Do we have time?’

You’ll be able to say, ‘Sure!’

Instead of, 'No. Maybe next time.’

Because we live in Scotland, we can explore the North Coast whenever we want. So we prepared for our trip rather than planning it. We researched places we wanted to see. We had an idea where we wanted to drive in the next 24 hours. But beyond that we winged it.

We didn’t book accommodation more than 12 hours before we arrived. Sometimes we couldn’t find somewhere to stay so we had to keep driving. We were sometimes hungry but never thirsty. We kept dry and stayed happy. We were together which was everything and anything else was a bonus. We created beautiful memories and can’t wait to do it again. Next time we are going to plan it.

How long does it take to drive the NC500?

The official estimate is 14 driving hrs. This means you will drive at an average 37 mph.

If you want to drive non-stop from 7 am to 9 pm with minimal stops to refuel it is technically possible to drive the NC500 in 1 day. However, I recommend no less than 3 days and preferably 5 days.

  • The official route starts and finishes in Inverness. The drive from Glasgow or Edinburgh, including some sightseeing on the way, may add 150 to 200 miles to your trip. So already you’re up to 650 to 700 miles. This is the reason I recommend no less than 3 days.

You will also need longer to explore the coastal roads and visit landmarks and locations that aren’t on the recommended NC500 route.

  • Not-to-miss detours between Inverness and John O’Groats are Badbea Historical Clearance Village and Duncansby Head and Stacks (the top-right corner of Scotland’s mainland).

  • In the North, Dunnet Head (the most northerly point on the mainland), Smoo Cave and Sango Bay.

  • On the West Coast, the Wester Ross Coastal Route and Isle of Skye.

  • We also travelled down to Oban and Inveraray before returning to Glasgow.

It took us 35 hours over 7 days. We drove 1,311 miles, averaging 22 mph.

How long will it take to drive YOUR VERSION of the NC500?

To help you work out your itinerary, first consider: DAYS, DISTANCE and DRIVING TIME. Your decisions about WHERE YOU STAY EACH NIGHT and WHAT PLACES YOU VISIT EACH DAY can wait for a little longer. That’s the fun bit anyway. Let’s get the hard part done first.

DISTANCE

Let’s start with distance. 500 miles. If the average posted speed limit is 40 mph, it will take about 12.5 hrs to drive 500 miles. When you are driving the NC500 it can take up to twice as long to drive the same distance.

When we did the trip, we drove up to the posted speed limit as often as we could. But, we faced traffic, roadworks, cyclists, sheep, cows, tractors, hair-raising curves and blind summits. Constant amazing sights also demanded we slow down or stop to take photos. Our average speed turned out to be 22 mph.

DAYS

We had 7 days and thought we’d drive about 750 miles in that time. Without a plan, we ended up driving 1,311 miles over 7 days. If our budget wasn't as tight as it was, we would have liked to have taken 9 or 10 days to do the same trip.

DRIVING TIME

I kept a daily log and calculated that our actual total driving time was 35 hrs. We stopped and explored during our days on the road for an extra 25 hrs. This was free time - not driving time. So we took 60 hours to get around our version of the NC500.

Here is an approximate breakdown of the distance we travelled (according to Google). I have included our driving times from start to finish each day (our records). I have listed driving time and stops (free time).

Day 1: Glasgow to Inverness - Thursday 6 September 2018

180 miles (290 km)

4 hours - 1pm to 5pm (3 hrs driving + 1 hr stops)

Day 2: Inverness to Thurdistoft - Friday 7 September 2018

130 miles (210 km)

10.5 hours - 10 am to 8:30 pm (4.5 hrs driving + 6 hrs stops)

Day 3: Thurdistoft to Durness - Saturday 8 September 2018

90 miles (145 km)

8 hours - 10 am to 6 pm (4 hrs driving + 4 hrs stops)

Day 4: Durness to Isle of Skye - Sunday 9 September 2018

248 miles (400 km)

12 hours - 9 am to 9 pm (9 hrs driving + 3 hrs stops)

Day 5: Isle of Skye - Monday 10 September 2018

145 miles (225 km)

9 hours - 9 am to 6 pm (4 hrs driving + 5 hrs stops)

Day 6: Isle of Skye to Arisaig - Tuesday 11 September 2018

130 miles (210 km)

8.5 hours - 8:50 am to 5:30 pm (5.5 hrs driving + 3 hrs stops)

Day 7: Arisaig to Glasgow - Wednesday 12 September 2018

200 miles (340 km)

8 hours - 9 am to 5 pm (5 hrs driving + 3 hrs stops)

DRIVING TIME Vs FREE TIME

On average each day our DRIVING TIME was 5 hrs and our FREE TIME was 3 hrs 30 mins.

Next time we do the trip we’d like our days to be more like 3-5 hrs driving time and 4-5 hrs free time. This would mean that the same trip of 1,311 miles would take us 10 days instead of 7 days.

Driving a maximum of 100-130 miles a day gives you the time for day trips, more attractions and to stay longer at some places.

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What is an enjoyable drive?

Driving 100-130 miles a day on a driving holiday is comfortable for us.

  • As Australians, we’re used to driving long distances. Driving for 10-15 hrs is what we did at the start and end of most holidays. We’ve lived in Scotland for more than 2 years now and didn't have a car for the first 2 years. So, we're also making up for lost time behind the wheel.

  • You might not be a regular long-distance driver. You might not want to drive for 5-6 hrs a day. If this is the case, you might want to limit your daily driving time to 3-5 hrs or 65-100 miles a day.

What distance can you drive and still enjoy yourself?

How long do you want to be behind the wheel?

  • Consider time for stops, when you will not be driving. You will visit attractions, take photos, re-fuel and take breaks for meals and going to the loo. Some stops will be no more than 15 minutes. Others may be 1-3 hours - especially if you plan to hike up a mountain.

  • We hiked up the Old Man of Storr on the Isle of Skye. It took us 2.5 hrs from the time we left our car to the time we returned.

  • Remember when you get to that pinnacle, you want to enjoy the view; not flip and run back to the car. You are on holiday after all. It’s all about the memories. Memories that can bring happiness and calm to your life when you most need it.

How many miles do you want to drive?

I’ve put together a table (FURTHER BELOW) to help you work out how many days you’ll need to complete the NC500 route of your dreams.

  • It assumes a 10 hr day from 8 am to 6 pm and driving at an average speed/distance of 22 mph.

Before using the table, I recommend you use Google maps to plan your route.

  • Here’s a Google map of our trip to use as a starting point. If you want to drive the NC500 route you can change the locations.

  • And, here’s a copy of the official 516 mile North Coast 500 route on Google maps. It shows the approximate location of some fuel stations along the route.

  • Once you have created an initial route in Google maps, Google will calculate how many miles it is. You can also change it to kms if that is easier to understand, but remember the road signs on the route will only have miles.

  • Our Google map says 1072 miles. This differs to the 1311 miles we actually travelled. This is because Google limits how many places you can add to a map. You have to click to add points (white dots) that you can move to customise your map further. Zoom in to move (drag and drop) the route line and points.

  • Remember, Google maps is only an estimate. You will most likely drive more miles than Google calculates anyway.

Now that you have an estimate of how many miles you will drive, you can work out how many days you’ll need.

USING THE TABLE

Find the number of miles you will be driving in the table.

  • This is a smaller version of the table to demonstrate how to use it. A larger version of the table is up ahead.

Example: Let’s say your desired route is 900 miles. Look at the bottom half of table and find where 900 miles is.

Example: Let’s say your desired route is 900 miles. Look at the bottom half of table and find where 900 miles is.


CHOOSE YOUR PACE

EASY road-trip: Drive between 3 - 5 hrs a day with 5 - 7 hrs of free time.

  • Look down the green EASY column and find where 900 miles falls.

  • You will see that 900 miles is in the range of 650 - 1000 miles to the right of 10 DAYS.

  • This means you should allow yourself 10 DAYS to drive 900 miles.

MODERATE road-trip: Drive between 5 - 6 hrs a day with 4 - 5 hrs of free time.

  • Look down the yellow MODERATE column and find where 900 miles falls.

  • You will see that 900 miles is in the range of 700 - 910 miles to the right of 7 DAYS.

  • This means you should allow yourself 7 DAYS to drive 900 miles.

CHALLENGING road-trip: Drive between 6 - 8 hrs a day with 2 - 4 hrs of free time.

  • This is what our trip ended up being because we prepared instead of planning.

  • Drive 900 miles in 5 - 7 DAYS. Let’s say 6 DAYS. We drove 1,311 miles in 7 days.

CRAZY: Drive 900 miles in 5 DAYS with 0 - 2 hrs free time a day.

  • You might want to extend your days and stay longer in the driver’s seat so you have more free time.

Table: What distance can you drive and still enjoy yourself?

Table: What distance can you drive and still enjoy yourself?

RECOMMENDATIONS:

Based on the above table, I would recommend you aim for EASY to MODERATE for most of your trip.

For a 500 mile trip:

  • Take 7 days for EASY - 5 days for MODERATE - 4 days for CHALLENGING - 3 days for CRAZY

For a 900 mile trip:

  • Take 10 days for EASY - 7 days for MODERATE - 5 days for CHALLENGING - 4 days for CRAZY

For a 1,200 mile trip:

  • Take 14 days for EASY - 10 days for MODERATE - 7 days for CHALLENGING - 5 to 6 days for CRAZY

A note on using Google Maps to Estimate Distance

To estimate how long it will take you to drive between two locations, I would like to offer two suggestions:

  • You can use an average mph calculation - for example 22 mph - based on Google maps estimated distance. If Google says it is 22 miles between place A and place B, it should take an hour to drive. This is what I recommend when planning how many days and how far you will drive each day.

  • Or, you can take the Google map time and multiply by 1.5. This is my personal theory for driving in the North of Scotland based on our actual driving times. So, if Google maps says 2 hrs, it will take closer to 3 hrs (2 x 1.5 = 3 hrs).

How many days do you have? 5, 7, 10 or more?

  • If you only have 5 days you won't be able to do a day trip to the Orkney Islands. You also won't have time to take a nature and wildlife cruise of the Isle of Staffa or visit the Isle of Skye.

  • If you live in the UK you can come back again to see places you loved or missed. You have the luxury of prioritising where you go and how long you spend at each place.

  • But, if this is your one and only chance to enjoy this part of the world, be realistic about how long you will need. 5 days is a rush. 7 days is best. 10 days is ideal. 14+ days is glorious.

  • Your budget will help you decide how many days you will take to do the trip.

How much will the trip cost?

This depends on your personal circumstances and preferences. It also depends on the decisions you make - before you leave and while you’re on the road.

Fuel

  • Fuel costs are a small expense compared to accommodation.

  • The cost of petrol/diesel is about £1.25 L to £1.40 L.

  • We have a fuel-efficient diesel car so it only cost us about £150 to drive 1311 miles over 7 days. If you are driving a less fuel-efficient car or a motorhome, expect to pay more.

  • Approximate fuel costs: 5-10 day trip - £150 to £250.

Accommodation

  • This will be your main expense. There is a shortage of accommodation on this route and in Scotland generally. You need to book months in advance to secure affordable properties.

If you’re leaving it to the last minute:

  • Hope you will find a cheap and cheerful property.

  • You will get sick and tired of seeing NO VACANCY signs.

  • Search Airbnb, TripAdvisor and other sites when you still have internet signal.

  • Know that not all properties advertise on the internet and if they do, they may not keep their vacancies up to date.

  • Prepare to do a lot of walking in and out of hotels and hostels.

  • Keep driving until you find somewhere to stay.

  • Consider camping for the night. You can usually find a campsite for about £20 a night or go wild camping for free.

  • Sleeping in your car is dangerous in cold weather. Remember, it’s Scotland! Overnight temperatures can plummet to below freezing anytime of the year. If you have camping equipment you might want to take it with you as a back-up plan.

We used Airbnb for most of our accommodation.

  • We paid between £50 and £80 a night.

  • We searched for properties that included breakfast or had cooking facilities.

  • We also filtered for super hosts and automatic confirmation of our booking request.

  • We didn’t know when we would arrive so we selected properties with automatic check-in. This is usually a lock-box with a key and the host gives you the code with your booking confirmation.

  • I’ve heard bad stories where people arrive after check-in. Property managers that are off-site or refuse to alter their terms don't let them in. No refund and homeless for the night unless they find alternative accommodation.

  • Budget between £20 and £200 a night for two people.

  • This depends on your preferences and what’s available. You can stay in castles, hotels, bed and breakfasts or sleep under the stars in a tent.

  • Approximate accommodation costs (2 adults):

    • 5 day trip - £100 to £1,000 or more.

    • 7 day trip - £140 to £1,400 or more.

    • 10 day trip - £200 to £2,000 or more.

Best time to travel the NC500

  • We were fortunate that we did the trip in early September. A quieter time with some good last minute prices. I noticed one of the properties we stayed in on the West Coast in September is more than double the price for July.

  • If you’re on a tight budget, aim for April to May and September to October. There is less competition for accommodation so prices are more affordable. It's also easier to get parking.

  • The most expensive time to travel this route is June to August. If you’re looking to travel during this time, book accommodation about 6-12 months in advance. You might still have to consider camping. Especially, if the only properties available are £300+ per night or everything is 'sold out'.

  • Regardless of your budget, avoid travelling this route between November and March. The cold weather makes for dangerous driving conditions. Some roads are impassable.

Food and drink

  • I recommend you take drinks and food in the car that don’t need refrigeration. We couldn’t always find somewhere handy or affordable to eat. Shops and supermarkets were sometimes closed, especially before 10 am and after 5 pm.

  • If you are buying food and drink on the road, expect to pay between £40 to £125 a day. This should cover breakfast, lunch and dinner for two people.

  • Approximate food and drink costs (2 adults - breakfast, lunch and dinner):

    • 5 day trip - £200 to £625 or more.

    • 7 day trip - £280 to £875 or more.

    • 10 day trip - £400 to £1,250 or more.

Tours and attractions

  • A lot of attractions are free which is great if you’re on a tight budget like we were.

  • We paid for entry at Dunvegan Castle and Eilean Donan Castle. We’ll visit more attractions and do more tours next trip. Distillery tours, boat trips, castles and unique experiences.

  • If you do need to pay entrance fees, budget about £12 to £15 per adult, per attraction. Tours, like boat trips, are about £20 to £35 per adult. So, if two adults visit one paid attraction or take one tour each day, budget between £24 and £70 per day.

  • Approximate tour and attraction costs (2 adults - one paid attraction or one tour per day):

    • 5 day trip - £120 to £350 or more.

    • 7 day trip - £168 to £490 or more.

    • 10 day trip - £240 to £700 or more.

Other costs

May include:

  • Car/motorhome hire - Deposit/bond, fees for extra drivers, GPS, and excesses.

    • If you are hiring a car, consider your daily rate and pick up and drop off fees at the location you're hiring from. If you’re not returning it to the same location it's usually more expensive.

    • Consider collecting a hire car from Glasgow or Edinburgh instead of Inverness. It may not be cheaper to catch a train or a bus to Inverness and then hire a car.

    • Sometimes hiring a car for 7 days gives you a better daily cost than 5 days.

  • Insurance - Motor vehicle, travel, health.

    • Our comprehensive home insurance includes travel insurance.

    • Some insurers offer motor vehicle excess insurance that is cheaper with better conditions.

  • Clothing and equipment - Stay dry, warm and safe.

    • At least buy a rainproof jacket and spare socks.

    • Take midge repellent. Midges are nasty, tiny Scottish biting insects.

    • Take a tent and camping gear to reduce accommodation costs or if you think you may not always find a place to stay.

  • Read more about what you need on your trip (link coming soon).

  • Spending money - Gifts, souvenirs, parking, hotel Wi-Fi, etc.

  • Approximate other costs: It depends on your circumstances and style of travel but consider £200 to £750 or more for your trip.

COST SUMMARY

Approximate costs for 2 adults on a moderate budget - 5 day trip:

  • Fuel > £150 or more.

  • Accommodation £70 to £100 a night > £350 to £500 or more.

  • Food and drink > £200 to £350 or more.

  • Tours and attractions > £120 or more.

  • Other costs > £250 to £750 or more.

  • TOTAL: £1,000 to £1,870 or more.

Considerations for creating your version of the NC500

Now for the fun bit.

  • Where will you stay each night?

  • What places will you visit each day?

  • What attractions and tours are you interested in?

The route

  • The official NC500 route starts and ends at Inverness Castle.

  • Some people catch a bus or train to Inverness and hire a car from there.

  • If you are driving from Glasgow or Edinburgh, do some sightseeing on the way to Inverness. This will add 150 to 200 miles to your trip so already you’re up to 650 to 700 miles.

  • If you want to include the Orkney Islands and/or Isle of Skye you’ll also need more time. Consider another 1 to 4 days.

  • We chose to drive anti-clockwise to avoid tour companies that drive clockwise. Less traffic and crowds from large groups.

  • We chose to drive from Glasgow to Inverness, up to John O’Groats, over the top and down the West Coast. We visited Isle of Skye and Oban before returning to Glasgow through Glencoe.

  • There are no rules on what route to take.

  • Look for the brown NC500 signs.

    • They will help you find local attractions.

    • They will also keep you off roads less travelled, in poor condition or leading away from the coast.

    • They are all you have when your mobile 3G/4G doesn’t work - which is most of the time. Take screenshots and photos of maps, attraction and accommodation details. Your Internet bookmarks won’t be available.

More tips and tricks for a great NC500 road trip:

  • What I wish I knew before driving the NC500 (link coming soon).

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Are you driving a car or a motorhome?

  • A motorhome can help you save on accommodation costs, especially if you're in a larger group. It also gives you the flexibility and freedom to camp overnight when there are no vacancies.

  • Be mindful - there are several pros and cons that aren’t detailed on motorhome hire sites. Hiring a motorhome in Scotland is very different to say Australia or the United States.

  • Only cars can travel on the most beautiful coastal routes. This is because coastal roads are narrow; no more than 2 metres wide sometimes.

  • Look for warning signs that tell you when it is too dangerous for a motorhome. This is for your safety and for cyclists and other motorists.

  • The best example is Bealach na Ba Road - the third highest road in Scotland rising up to 626 metres (2,054 ft) above sea level. Motorhomes cannot travel from Applecross to Tornapress on this West Coast road. Some car drivers elect to go an alternative route due to its hair-raising nature.

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Inspiration: For Your Version of the NC500

Links to articles for each day of our 7-day trip:

Day 1: Glasgow to Inverness

Day 2: Inverness to Thurdistoft

Day 3: Thurdistoft to Durness

Day 4: Durness to Isle of Skye (link coming soon)

Day 5: Isle of Skye (link coming soon)

Day 6: Isle of Skye to Arisaig (link coming soon)

Day 7: Arisaig to Glasgow (link coming soon)

Extra resources

There are many websites that can help you plan your NC500 trip.

  • Some offer free advice and others will charge you a premium.

  • Everyone has different opinions and experiences.

  • If you read something that doesn’t seem right, keep surfing the web until you find something that does.

In no order of priority, check out these resources:

What I wish I knew before driving the NC500 (link coming soon)

(More links coming soon)