The North Coast 500 (NC500) is essentially the answer to Route 66 in Scotland- and what a glorious answer it is!
This NC500 itinerary will take you through the heart of the highlands and around the awe-inspiring north-west coast. You will visit the wildest, most varied areas of Scotland and bear witness to her astounding beauty; from magical castles and white sandy beaches, to craggy mountains and historical ruins. It is quickly becoming popular with motorists, cyclists, and outdoor enthusiasts.
The NC500 begins in the cultural capital of the Scottish highlands, Inverness, and loops around the north-west area of Scotland. You will pass through six of Scotland’s stunning regions: Black Isle, Caithness, Easter Ross, Inverness-shire, Sutherland, and Wester Ross, finishing back where you began in Inverness.
There is no set route for the NC500 and the official website offers itineraries for foodies, luxury drives, whisky lovers and cyclists, but what if you’re strapped for cash and want to tackle it on a budget?
We have done the research for you and our NC500 guide will ensure you complete your journey without tugging too tightly at your purse strings! Our budget North Coast 500 itinerary is based on two people driving the NC500 and wild camping for the majority of the drive, but can be altered to suit anyone. Our itinerary also lists North Coast 500 campsites along the way, in case you need access to power and a shower along the way, and plenty of free things to see and cheap activities.
The almighty Dunrobin Castle, Sutherland
Tips for doing the North Coast 500 on a Budget
- Check fuel prices online before you go. Fuel may vary in price in different parts of the highlands, especially the more remote areas. Fuel will cost anywhere between £130-£350 for the entire trip, depending on your vehicle.
- Lidl and Aldi are the cheapest supermarkets in Scotland, with Asda and Tesco being slightly more expensive with a bigger selection of food. Inverness has all four of these supermarkets.
- Fancy a wash? Many campsites or hostels along the route will allow you to take a shower for a small fee. If you’re brave enough you could make use of lochs, rivers and the ocean- but be warned, water in Scotland is freezing!
- The great thing about Scotland is that wild camping is legal, and encouraged! If you really want to drive the NC500 on a budget, make the most of the abundant wild camping opportunities. We’ve outlined some popular areas throughout this guide, but feel free to explore for spots yourself.
- Aside the North Coast 500 campsites and wild camping, staying in Scottish bothies are the cheapest form of accommodation. Bothies are small huts that hikers, farmers, fishermen and other outdoors left unlocked for people to use for shelter. They are free to use. For more information on bothies in the area, visit the Mountain Bothy Association website.
- Pitching a tent at a campsite is another cost effective form of accommodation. Most campsites for two people with a car to pitch a tent cost £10-£15.
- Always carry cash on you when in the Highlands- many places don’t accept credit or debit cards.
North Coast 500 Wild Camping Tips
There are many fantastic spots to pitch your tent for free in Scotland. As part of Scotland’s access legislation (the Scotland Land Reform Act 2003), it is perfectly legal to wild camp along the North Coast 500 route. However, there are a few things you should consider:
- Avoid wild camping where you are visible from someones house.
- If in doubt about where you can pitch your tent, ask a local. Scots are some of the friendliest folk in the world!
- Bring plenty of bug spray, especially in July and August when the Highland midges are active. Midges are small winged bugs that can bite! They prefer cool, damp areas, and are particularly active in the cooler hours of the day (morning and night) so avoid camping next to rivers or lochs. We also recommend carrying a midge head net for extreme midge conditions.
- Educate yourself about ticks and Lyme disease. Wear bug spray that repels ticks at all times and carry a tick remover.
- If you light a camp fire, ensure you extinguish it properly. Do not light fires if there is a fire ban in place. For more information on building a safe camp fire, check out the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service website. Do not cut down trees- bring your own firewood.
- Don’t leave any rubbish behind. Collect any rubbish you see and put it in the bin.
- Be sure to familiarise yourself with the Scottish Outdoor Access Code.
The North Coast 500 boasts some fantastic wild camping sites
Before you start your adventure
If you’re looking to start your adventure on the NC500 feeling fresh, why not book into Highland Backpackers? With rooms starting at £14, our hostel is one of the most affordable in the city centre and less than five minutes walk from the bus and train stations.
Day 1: Inverness to Dornoch Beach
After exploring Inverness Castle and the battlefield of Culloden, you’ll begin our North Coast 500 itinerary heading north around Scotland’s coastline in an anti-clockwise direction. Look out for signs indicating Pictish sites off the A9 on the Black Isle. Nearby, the Glen Ord Whisky distillery is one of the oldest and largest producing distilleries in Scotland. Watch out for dolphins on the Moray Firth- this area is home to one of three of Scotland’s dolphin colonies! Go salmon spotting at Rogie Falls, where salmon are known to leap upriver in summer.
The Tarbat Ness lighthouse is worth a detour before you reach Dornoch. We suggest ending your first day on the NC500 by experiencing Scotland the way the highlanders once did- wild camping underneath the stars (or clouds- this is Scotland, after all!).
Wild Camping: Dornoch beach.
Campsites: Dornoch Firth Caravan Park.
The River Ness in Inverness
Day 2: Dornoch Beach to John O’Groats
Day 2 takes you through Caithness to one of the most northern points of Scotland: John O’Groats. Before leaving Dornoch, make sure you explore the 12th century Cathedral. You have an opportunity to see two castles today- first the impressive Dunrobin castle, located just past Golspie, and Castle Sinclair Girnigoe, just past Wick. Helmsdale is picturesque village and worth exploring. North of Helmsdale, the terrain becomes wilder. There are also two whisky distilliries along the way: Clynelish and Old Pulteney. The Duncansby Head sea stacks are thrilling to see, and this area near the lighthouse is great for wild camping.
Wild camping: Near the Duncasby Lighthouse.
Campsites: John O’ Groats Caravan and Camping Site.
Day 3: John O’Groats to Durness
Day 3 takes you through some of the NC500’s most dramatic coastal landscape. Stop off at the Castle of Mey, which was once the Queen Mother’s holiday home. Explore Dunnet Head, the true northern point of Scotland, before visiting the Dunnet Bay gin and vodka distillery. If you’re a surfer, stop off in Thurso to catch some of the biggest breaks in Europe. Keep an eye on the sky and you may even be lucky enough to spot the northern lights each evening while travelling along the north coast!
Wild camping: Strathy Point Lighthouse if you wish to end the day early; Ceannabeine Beach is reached just before Durness.
Campsites: Sango Sands Oasis.
Sandwood Bay has been dubbed Scotland’s most beautiful beach
Day 4: Durness to Kinlochbervie
The north-west coast, known for its sugarloaf peaks and otherworldly beaches, is not a section to rush by on the NC500. Before leaving Durness, make sure you visit Smoo Cave, a huge sea and freshwater cave.
Camping at the beaches on the north-west coast of Scotland has been a right of passage for many hikers completing the Cape Wrath Trail. Oldshoremore beach and Sandwood Bay are some of the most picturesque beaches in Scotland. You’ll take a slight detour from the NC500 to Kinlochbervie to reach these beaches. There is a small camping area near Oldshoremore beach where wild camping is permitted at a small cost to the local crofter. Alternatively you can park in the car park and hike 4 miles to Sandwood Bay, which is only accessible by foot, for some solitude. Sandwood Bay is home to Am Buachaille, a sea stack. Alternatively you can continue to Scourie where there is a campsite and caravan park.
Wild camping: Oldshoremore beach; Sandwood Bay; Loch Laxford.
Campsites: Oldshoremore campsite (an unofficial, pay as you arrive campground); Scourie Caravan Park If you’re wanting to drive further.
Day 5: Kinlochbervie to Ullapool
The area of Assynt is one of the least populated areas in Europe and boasts some of the world’s oldest rock formations. Past Drumbeg and a short detour from the NC500 stands the sea stack, Old Man of Stoer. Continuing south, you will circumnavigate the inside of Loch Assynt to Inchnadamph, passing Ardveck castle on the way. Knockan Crag is eleven miles south of Loch Assynt on the A835 and is one of the world’s most important geological sites. There are also many good hiking areas along this section- you may even want to break it up over two days to squeeze as many walks in as possible.
Ullapool is a lovely seaside town that has all facilities, including a Tesco supermarket. It is recommended you resupply here. There is a fantastic campsite in Ullapool called the Broomfield Holiday Park. If you’re lucky and can secure a spot, you can camp mere metres away from Loch Broom! Watching the sunset where the loch meets the ocean is an unforgettable experience.
Campsites: Broomfield Holiday Park.
Sunset from the campsite in Ullapool
Day 6: Ullapool to Torridon
Gairloch is one of the top places along the North Coast 500 for a marine wildlife safari where you may see Minke whales, dolphins, and seals. Beinn Eighe Nature Reserve is Britain’s oldest nature reserve and has ample hiking opportunities. The woodland trail weaves for 3.5 miles through Caledonian pine forest, while the mountain trail offers a more challenging adventure for outdoor enthusiasts. Torridon is a great spot to base yourself if you want to bag (hike) some munros (Scottish mountains); keep an eye out for the stunning peaks of Liathach, Beinn Eighe and Slioch, some of the more challenging munros in the area.
Torridon has a free campground, with free toilets and showers available. Camper vans and vehicles are not allowed on this site, however. There is a shop and a restaurant nearby, however they are pricey so it’s recommended you stock up on supplies in Ullapool.
Wild camping: Loch Glascarnoch; Poolewe.
Campsites: Torridon campground.
Day 7: Torridon to Inverness
The return to Inverness can feel a little anti-climatic, so it’s recommended you spend more of your time exploring the ample hiking opportunities in Torridon and the nearby seaside village of Sheildaig. Continuing around the coast, you will reach Applecross where you can go for a paddle in a kayak or build sandcastles on the beach before bidding the coast farewell. The brave will choose to drive through the Bealach na Ba pass, a harrowing yet beautiful journey with steep switchbacks that twist and turn (this route is not suitable for camper vans). The ruins of Beauly Priory, which was once home to a Valliscaulian monastic community, are worth stopping for before reaching Inverness.
After a week on the road, check back into Highlander Backpackers. Enjoy a warm shower, the comfort of sleeping indoors and a stroll around the cultural capital of Scotland in the evening before heading home. You may even want to tag a few extra days on to your journey and explore Inverness.
There are plenty more things to see and do on the North Coast 500, however this article will give you a good idea on what you can do on a budget.
We hope you enjoyed our North Coast 500 itinerary on a budget! Do you have any money-saving tips for completing the drive?