We picked up the van from Kilmarnock and decided to drive up to just below Inverness as the A9 road from Glasgow can be very busy and slow, so we didn’t want to be rushing it to get going. There are some good stops on the way to Inverness if you’ve never driven that road before. Out of Glasgow, you drive past Stirling Castle and the Wallace Monument, then further up past Perth you have Pitlochry, which has some great pubs and tourist shops, as well as a great fish and chip shop on the corner. A little further up the road is House of Bruar. Aviemore is a great stop as there are some amazing views from the top of the Cairngorms car park and the lay-bys along that road, but also it’s a good place to pick up an official NC500 map from the tourist information there. We stopped at a campsite called Auchnahillin Holiday Park which is about 20 minutes from Inverness. It was a really nice campsite with great facilities and meant we could start the NC500 nice and early the next morning with as little time on the A9 as possible!
We didn’t actually stop in Inverness but if you have never been before, you should, as it is a very historic city. You can visit Inverness castle and cathedral and pick up some last minute tips from the tourist information which is in the centre of the town.
From Inverness you head towards Muir of Ord and this is where you choose which way round you are going. We headed north to our first stop which was Dunrobin Castle just after Golspie. If you are into Scottish history and clan’s then you should definitely stop here. It costs £11 to get into the castle and grounds which includes a tour of the castle rooms and access to the grounds and history museum. There is also a falconry display twice a day in the grounds letting you get up close with some birds of prey.
From there we heading back onto the A9 north. The road follows the coast from now on and the cliffs start to build. The east coast of Scotland is much flatter than I expected, the roads span into the distance with very little hills. Our next stop was Whaligoe Steps, a stairway built into the side of the cliffs by fishermen to make it easier to carry their catch to shore. It’s easy to miss the turn off for this, it kind of looks like a single track road to some houses, but that’s it. You can park in the small car park and walk along the road and over the hill to the cliffs. It’s about a 20 min walk, so leave a good hour to do this stop.
Next we headed towards Wick and the Sinclair & Girnigoe ruins which are to the north east of Wick. Follow the road towards Noss Head when you get into the centre of Wick.
The road north of Wick is the start of the rural roads and also the end of any kind of decent mobile signal for 4 days! We headed north to Duncansby Head Lighthouse which is the most north easterly point on the mainland. From the car park you can walk over the hill and down the other side to see the Duncansby Stacks. On a clear day they look spectacular.
Just 10 mins along the road is John o’ Groats. Jump out and get a picture next to the sign. You can also take boat trips for whale watching if you want.
Before we headed towards our camp site for the night we carried along towards Dunnet Head to see the most northerly point of mainland Britain. You can get a great 360 degree view from the top of the viewpoint there and on a clear day you can see the Orkney Islands. Ours was more of a “I can’t see from crying from the wind” kind of weather but it was still a great view.
We stopped at Dunnet Bay campsite for the night. While a little expensive the toilets and showers were nice. If you have your own toilet then there are plenty of places to stop along the way. We went for a walk along the beach which was stunning. Amazing white sand and sand dunes with a great view along the coast.
After a good night’s sleep listening to the wave’s crash against the beach we headed towards Thurso. If you’re into surfing then you should definitely stop at Thurso Bay and watch the surfers for a while. We headed west and stopped at Totegan and walked along to Strath Point. It’s a good 20 min walk along the farm road to a lighthouse but it has a great view of the coast and cliffs.
Back on the road it turns to single track and the hills start to appear. We stopped at the top of a hill for lunch and take in the views from the top of Scotland. Gone are the straight roads of Caithness and now they twist and turn through the hills making it great fun to drive. In the van you are so high up you get to see so much more around you.
You get a great view of the Kyle of Tongue bay as you come down the hill. There are several parking spots on the road across the bay for you to stop and look at the view.
Further along the road, just after Heilam you get the view of the top of Loch Eribol. The road carries on along the bay with some amazing looking beaches.
A little further round the loch there is a big car park where you can park up and take a walk down to the beach. It's a spectacular beach to go and have a walk along.
Smoo Cave is our last stop for the day. They really are huge! If it’s been raining inside there is a waterfall and you can pay £4 to get taken further in on a boat.
We stayed at the Sango Sand Oasis camp site just 5 mins from Smoo Cave. You can pick your pitch spot with some breathtaking views of the bay! This is a really big camp site with plenty of room and good toilets. There is a great bar across from the entrance or just sit back and look out over the water from inside your van. A further 5 mins drive down the road is the Cocoa Mountain cafe which does some mouth watering chocolates and hot chocolate.
You really feel the remoteness of Scotland on this part of the journey. On one hand you’re hoping you don’t get a flat tire on the other hand its awesome being away from everything. This was probably my favorite day. The route is just incredible. We drove south from Durness along the twisty single track road. Some of the road is very twisty, so be prepared to do some difficult reversing when you meet someone, but there was plenty of passing places.
We drove past lots of tiny lochs and houses literally in the middle of nowhere all the while getting glimpses of the coast in the distance.
Kylesku Bridge is a good stop as there is a big car park and you can cross the road and climb up the hill for a good view. The next part of the route takes you closer to the coast up some steep hills and even steeper descents. I highly recommend you stop in at Lochinver and visit the Lochinver Larder for a pie. They are home made and amazing! We got some savoury and sweet ones.
We next stopped at Ardvreck Castle ruins which is only a 5 minute walk from the road side and has a nice walk along the loch shore. A little further down the road is Knockan Crag, which has 3 different length walks to do. The shortest one only takes 15 minutes and is great to stretch the legs. It also gives you some really interesting history about the mountains and rocks around the area as well as the geologists who first discovered the rock layers.
Ullapool was our next big stop where we filled up on fuel and ice cream. It’s a very touristy town with lots of little shops and pubs. I would also recommend going to the toilet here as the toilets at Braemore are closed and there is not many places to stop at.
Our last stop of the day was Ardessie waterfall. Just after Ardessie there is a parking area outside a water treatment building. Park there and walk the 3 minutes back along to the waterfall. When you get to the waterfall walk another 30 meter or so to a sign telling you to keep your dog on a leash. If you climb up the hill here you will see a rough path leading over to the top of the waterfall. We didn’t know what to expect from this stop but the waterfall is amazing. It just keeps going up the hill! You can follow the path right up the hill side, for about 20 minutes until you reach a bigger waterfall with a basin of water. We got some brilliant pictures here of the waterfall and the view over the bay.
From the waterfall you drive up the hill and down the other side, both sides have amazing views. We stayed at the Gruinard Bay campsite which is a really nice campsite with a great view of the bay. We parked on the waterfront and ate our Lochinver pies and looked out over the bay.
At the start of day 4 we headed along through Gairloch and towards Kinlochewe. The road heads back inland along Loch Maree. We stopped off at the Ben Eighe visitor center which was great to stretch the legs and learn about the great Scottish pine trees and how the land is used now. From Kinlochewe the view from both sides of the car is the same as you go through the valley between the mountains. The mountains are really stunning to look at and plenty of places to stop if you would like to go for a walk.
The road from Shieldaig round to Applecross is back to tight single track. This road looks out over the sea which looks like the Mediterranean if the sun is shining. If you see a place to stop and take in the view, do as there are not many places to stop on this road. There is a big view point about half way round but the best of the views are from Shieldaig to Fearnmore.
Applecross is a great place to stop and have lunch. There are multiple places to pull up and look at the bay as well as a great pub. While we sat eating lunch there were deer just walking along in front of us.
The next bit of the road is great fun. It’s thin and steep and all around you is jagged rock and hill side. When you get to the top there is a huge car park for you to stop and enjoy the view. Driving down the other more twisty side is great fun.
We then headed back towards Inverness and the end of the NC500. We took a bit of a detour down to the Eilean Donan Castle which I would recommend. You can read all about the history of the castle and it’s also a great photo stop.
Leave plenty of times for stops so you can enjoy them and some things are difficult to find, so you don’t want to be rushing. Make yourself a rough plan of things you are going to stop at and your final destination for the day. My main piece of advice is, if you are doing this with a passenger, go clock wise. I west coast is by far the best bit, scenery and amazing roads wise, but you want the coast line on your left so your passenger can get a clear view of the amazing views. If you are just driving it on your own, then I would go anti clockwise. Leave the best for last.