NC500 5 day itinerary – Road trip Scotland’s Highlands

Loch in Scottish Highlands on the NC500

If you just have 5 days to explore Scotland’s highlands and North Coast 500 route then you might be wondering if a) it can be done? and b ) how to plan it to make the most of your time there. In this NC500 5 day itinerary plan I hope to be able to give you some ideas of things to do and places to stay while on the road.  It really is an amazing journey that we loved when we travelled it.  Scotland has the most amazing scenery, beaches and culture and you really get deep into it when driving the North Coast 500!  

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When we travelled the route a few years ago now it wasn’t even called the North Coast 500 – it’s a relatively new thing and a tourism drive to encourage people to visit the very north of the country. It’s been really popular though and for good reason – it’s an epic trip!

Amazing scenery on the NC500 road

Is 5 days enough for the NC500?

5 days on the NC500 will be plenty to see it with not too many driving hours, but I’ll be honest, if you can squeeze in a few more nights then I’d highly recommend it. It will give you more time to take in the things to do along the NC500 and also give you a bit more time should the weather not be on your side.

Think about what kinds of things you like to do and how many you’d want to see. You can easily spend double the amount of time on the road but if time is tight you can do it this way too!

A few points about the NC500:

If you’ve never been to the Scottish Highlands before you’re maybe thinking that you’ll find all the traditional highlights of the Highlands on the road – you won’t.

You can add them in as detours, and I recommend you do if you can, but be aware they aren’t specifically on the road itself. I’ll mention a few below, obviously it’s not an exhaustive list!

The Isle of Skye is not actually part of the road – if you want to add that in to your trip then I recommend adding in another 2-3 days do be able to see the island better.

Glencoe is a little further south than the most southern point of the NC500 but again a really interesting place to visit if you can add it in. The scenery is absolutely stunning there!

Finally, the Harry Potter train is another place many want to see when visiting the Scottish Highlands. That’s a little further west than Fort William at Glenfinnan. Again, not too far if you want to add it on, but be aware it’s not quite on the road itself!

Beach on the north coast of Scotland

Where to start your NC500 trip?

The NC500 is firmly in the Scottish Highlands and, although you can start at any point on the circular route, I think the best place to start off is in Inverness. For many reasons this is a good start – easy to get to no matter how you’re travelling, easy to get supplies beforehand and a pretty city in it’s own right.  This is where this itinerary will start off and it will assume that you are in Inverness for the start.

Of course, not everyone will arrive in the Highlands. Perhaps you might arrive in Scotland at Edinburgh or Glasgow, or even want to make a trip from London.  The good news is that Inverness has it’s own airport and you’ll be able to get flights to there and also hire a car if you need it as well.  

Check Skyscanner for Inverness flights.

Find out car rental prices from Inverness airport here.  

If you’re coming from Edinburgh or Glasgow and wanting to drive from there then Inverness is around 3 – 4 hours away.  If you’re doing this then do try and have a day to recover from the driving and enjoy the city and surrounding area too before heading off on the route.

Read my post about some of the the attractions that are near Inverness here  

About our hotel recommendations – when we travelled the NC500 ourselves we travelled in our campervan and so didn’t need hotels and we’ve also spent time in the area staying with friends.  Although we know the area really well hotels didn’t feature. I’ve done some digging and asked around for recommendations and you can be sure that the options here are going to be great!  

Your 5 day NC500 itinerary:

Day 0 – Inverness

Inverness is a lovely small city and worth spending some time in so definitely take some time either before or after your road trip to just chill and take in the city.

Some highlights of Inverness include:

  • Inverness Castle
  • Museums
  • Caledonian Canal
  • Shops (I know this sounds so vague but before you head into the relative quietness of the Highlands you might want to check them out!)
  • Botanic Gardens
  • Culloden Moor (not technically in Inverness but only a few miles out and worth a trip – you can see our post about it here)
  • Clava Cairns (right next to Culloden so easy to combine)

Accommodation in Inverness:

Ness Walk Hotel is a great option if you’re looking to start your trip off in style. It’s central, has parking and a great restaurant too.

Another good one to try is Bluebell House

For the more budget conscious I’m going to recommend Travelodge – it’s one of my favourite hotels when you’re watching your pennies and while there is nothing spectacular about them, if you only need a place to rest your head they can work well. There are a couple on the outskirts of the city and one that’s more central. Check them out here.

Day 1 Inverness to John o’Groats  

Miles to drive: 120 (2 hrs 45 mins approx with no stops)

The first day of driving probably feels like quite a lot compared to the other days and there’s a good reason for this.  This road and section of the NC500 is a relatively busy section with many trucks, traffic and also bikes (people riding all the way from Lands End in Cornwall!) but it’s also an easier drive.  It’s not a single track road like some sections.  

There are things to see but many people skip over this section of the trip in an effort to find the more desolate areas.

Potential stops and sites: 

  • Dunrobin Castle near Golspie
  • Brora Heritage Centre
  • Wick – a nice town with a heritage museum
  • John o’Groats
  • Duncansby Head
  • Pulteney Distillery

A little off the route but worth a look is the Black Isle (not an island!) and specifically the dolphins at Chanonry Point – we always stop off there because it’s such a great little spot and the dolphins are such regular visitors there. It’s quite close to Inverness though so you could feasibly add it on to the end of your trip if you wanted to

John o’Groats

Where to Stay:

while John o’Groats can be a little underwhelming for some people, it’s mostly because of it’s overly touristy nature. People file in and out, take a picture and leave. If you stay in the area you’ll have the luxury to explore when it’s not full of people and I think that’s a great option. It also has a few nice hotels that have a gorgeous view of the coast.

Try the SeaView Hotel which is in John o’Groats itself

Day 2   John o’Groats – Smoo Cave    

Miles to drive – 90 (2 hours and 40 mins approx with no stops)

Day two finds us travelling along the absolute North Coast of Scotland from the east coast to almost the west. Once you get past Thurso the isolated areas are much more common, you’ll find beaches to walk along, small villages and amazing views.

We loved the Kyle of Tongue area and spent the night there in our camper van when we travelled the route – a simply stunning vista!

Potential stops and sites:

  • Mey Castle
  • Dunnet Head (RSPB Nature reserve – see puffins and seabirds)
  • Thurso – a good place to stock up on food and fuel if needed
  • Strathnaver Museum (learn about the Clans and the Highland Clearances) closed until 2023 due to refurbishment
  • Castle Varrich (ruins)
  • Ceannabeinne Beach
  • Smoo Cave
Smoo Cave

Where to stay

Smoo cave is our final destination for today and it’s an attraction in its own right. The waterfall in the cave is powerful and an must see. You can visit for free or also do tours if you want to learn more about it. If you’re staying in the area then you’ll be able to explore early in the morning or in the evening which will be much quieter.

Try the Smoo Cave Hotel to be on the doorstep of the cave

Day 3   Smoo Cave – Ullapool    

Miles to drive – 70 (2 hours approx with no stops)

From Smoo Cave we drive to the biggest town in the North West of Scotland which is Ullapool. You’ll round the corner of the north coast and begin to uncover the West coast with its islands.

On our visit we loved Knockan Crag which was a beautiful nature reserve with plenty of walks in the area. It had a great visitor centre where you can learn about the geology of the land.

Potential stops and sites:

  • Balnakeil Church
  • Cape Wrath – there are mini bus trips to the Cape but you should allow plenty of time if you want to do this. At least 3.5 hours.
  • Ardvreck Castle (ruin)
  • Knockan Crag National Nature Reserve & Visitor Centre
  • Ullapool – boat trips, museums, tourist shops.
Loch in Scottish Highlands on the NC500
Knockan Crag

Where to stay

Ullapool is a large town and where you’ll find a little bit more life on the NC500. It’s also where you can get ferries to other islands such as the Outer Hebrides where iconic sites like Callanish are.

Try the Royal Hotel Ullapool to be in easy reach of all of the town

Day 4   Ullapool – Torridon    

Miles to drive – 90 miles (2 hours 30 mins approx with no stops)

Many of todays miles pass through small villages and on single track roads so I encourage you to take your time and enjoy the journey. We’re really just enjoying the amazing scenery on this leg and some of the places to visit below just highlight that too.

We’re not particularly big hikers and walkers and these stops were good even for our energy level!

Potential stops and sites:

  • Beinn Eighe Visitor Centre – lots of walks around
  • Corrieshalloch Gorge National Nature Reserve (a gorgeous waterfall)
  • Gairloch museum
  • Shieldaig
Shieldaig village

Where to stay

The Torridon is a great choice giving some great views – it’s just a little way before Shieldaig itself.

Day 5   Torridon – Inverness    

Miles to drive – 80 (2 hours approx with no stops)

This is where you’ll turn to drive back across the country to Inverness. It’s also where you might choose to take a scenic diversion to the Isle of Skye since you’re so close.

Before you turn back think about taking a trip to Applecross – it’s accessed by a very steep road and not really for the faint hearted. We didn’t do the trip ourselves as our van was old and we weren’t sure of her abilities! Next time!

This area is full of waterfalls and there are a number of places you can stop off to see them. As you get closer to civilisations you’ll find a few more sights to take in – why not celebrate the end of your trip at the whisky distillery in Muir of Ord!

Potential stops and sites:

  • Applecross (just off the route – quite a spectacular drive over the pass to the village!)
  • Falls of Morrin
  • Black Water Falls
  • Rogie Falls (we stopped at this one and it was a nice easy walk and just off the road)
  • RSPB Tollie Red Kite reserve
  • Highland museum of Childhood
  • Glen Ord Distillery
  • Beauly Priory
Rogie Falls

NC500 Driving tips    

Driving in the highlands of Scotland has its challenges and it’s become a little more so with the increase of tourists in the area doing this drive.

There are many single track roads when you get this far North. They will have passing places clearly marked as you drive along – if someone is coming towards you you can pull in and allow them to pass or they might do the same for you. While it might sound obvious, please don’t park in the passing places!

Weather can be changeable. Take your time driving when the weather is wet.

Be considerate to locals when stopping in villages and towns – park in designated areas and don’t park where you shouldn’t or where it blocks roads.

A common sight on the NC500 road – sheep!

Weather thoughts and when to go

Summer is the ideal time to do the NC500 route because you have long daylight hours and the best chance of good weather.

In saying that though you’ll also find an increase in tourists and others doing the drive.

Summer also brings midges. Small biting insects which are prevalent in the highlands and can make life quite unpleasant. Make sure to bring some repellent if you’re going in the summer months!

You can still get really great weather days in the shoulder seasons of late spring and early autumn so I’d probably recommend those times more. No time of year is guaranteed to be good weather!

Outside of these times you risk being in the areas when snow, bad weather and short daylight hours are more common which will make the drive more tricky. It will be much quieter though!

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