A few months ago, my friend and I set off on a week-long adventure around Scotland, with a focus on the famous North Coast 500 route. We were doing it all on a budget, which meant taking my car and camping in a tent as we went. Luckily, camping in Scotland is made even easier than usual by the fact you can wild camp for free.
That said, sometimes you want a few more amenities than nature will give you, so most nights we found ourselves checking in to a proper campsite. I think we worked it all out pretty well, so today I’m sharing our itinerary and where we stayed each night.
Technically, we joined the North Coast 500 about an hour and a half into the route – after a couple of days on Skye, we got back to the mainland and drove north to meet up with our first stop on the “official” route, Lochcarron.
Day 1 – Lochcarron
Lochcarron is a gorgeous little village surrounded, unsurprisingly, by a loch. Handily, there is also a basic campsite offering showers, toilets, plug sockets… and lots and lots of spiders. Don’t let the spiders put you off though – the campsite itself was absolutely fine! We also made friends with a pig in the field next to our tent, and the guy who runs the campsite was incredibly welcoming (as is the Scottish way!) and we had a lovely chat about Orkney.
It was actually the perfect start to our North Coast 500 road trip, with a meander along the scenic waterfront to pick up some supplies from the local shop, and as we had hit the route right at the end of its busy season, we had the campsite practically to ourselves!
I’d recommend booking in advance if you’re turning up between June and August, but by the end of September it was easy just to turn up.
Day 2 – Applecross and Torridon
I knew from the start that Applecross was going to be a highlight of the North Coast 500 trip.
The now infamous pass of Bealach Na Ba causes panic amongst American tourists, but for someone who’s used to single track roads, it was a lot of fun to drive!
When we set off from Lochcarron, the sun was shining and the sky was bright blue. Unfortunately, as is the way in Scotland, this didn’t last until we got to the Applecross pass. But even with the grey skies, it was still stunning and of course it didn’t take away from the fun drive!
Everybody takes photos of the above view, but once you clear the top, the pass carries on down the other side for miles and miles. We were really lucky as we only met a handful of cars on the entire road, but I can imagine in summer it could get pretty hairy.
Eventually, we got to Applecross, and the car park by the inn was packed; the first sign of a lot of people, and in fact one of the busiest places we experienced on the entire route. I’d been recommended to eat at the Applecross Inn by three separate people at work, so we’d timed it perfectly for lunch, and luckily we managed to grab a parking space – and one of the last tables!
That’s when the rain hit, for the first time on our trip. And it hit hard – we decided to stick around for dessert at the pub while we waited for it to subside, but it was still drizzling when we decided it was time to leave.
Onwards then, to Torridon, another highly anticipated stop on our journey.
The route from Applecross to Torridon is another really fun single track road that snakes around the coast, making it incredibly scenic with views over to Skye. The weather didn’t exactly help, but it did add an air of mystery to the view. Plus, every corner we turned seemed to lead to another epic view like this.
Of course, the traffic along here was absolutely terrible.
Even when you beep your horn at them, they don’t give a crap!
We made it to Torridon just before it started getting dark, and although there’s a really good hostel in the village, we were opting for a free “campsite” a few minutes away. In reality, it was just a field, and a pretty wet one at that. But we managed to find a clean and dry spot, and the field ended up filling up quite a bit after it got dark. There’s also a public toilet block a few minutes walk away, which was well maintained and perfect for brushing our teeth etc.
We managed to make it down to the shore front just in time for an absolutely gorgeous sunset over the water.
Torridon is a beautiful little village and I would happily spend a bit more time there, especially as there are a lot of great hikes in the area! I think most of the hikes require a little more expertise slash fitness than I have, but there must be some “easy to moderate” ones around!
Torridon also treated us to our best night of star gazing on the whole trip! I figured out that if I have a tripod, I might actually be able to get some really good photos.
Day 3 – Ullapool, Assynt & Achmelvich Beach
From Torridon, we took the beautiful Kinlochewe pass towards Loch Maree, and onwards through Gairloch to Ullapool.
On a brighter day, I think Loch Maree could have provided much better views than it did, but we stopped to see a lot of views on the way, including the charming Victoria Falls. While I’m sure you could spend longer in these areas, we were just enjoying the drive with the chance to pull over every now and then and savour the views.
By lunch time, we were already in Ullapool, which I wasn’t sure whether it would be the case or not.
Ullapool is WAY smaller than I was expecting! I always thought it was at least the size of Kirkwall in Orkney; or at the very least the size of Stromness. It’s smaller than both. Where Stromness has over 2,000 residents (and Kirkwall almost 9,000), Ullapool has a mere 1,500. Colour me shocked!
It has a really nice small town feel though, and the surroundings are gorgeous. We found ourselves down by the water twice during our short time there (the second time with added ice cream).
We had been debating where to go for lunch as there are a few fish & chip shops around, but as soon as we noticed a street stall advertising that they had won BBC awards, we knew we had to try it.
IT. WAS. DELICIOUS! I’m not even a huge fish fan but it was soooo good! (Obviously I had to wash it down with Irn Bru, I’m Scottish after all.)
There’s limited seating, so we ended up joining a Canadian couple, which led to a lot of chatting about my time living there, and their time in Scotland. An enjoyable experience all around.
We also took the opportunity to do some souvenir shopping while there were plenty of options, and I was pleased to note that much like most of the rural areas of Scotland, the souvenirs were good quality local arts & crafts.
We had decided to camp at Achmelvich Beach for the night, which meant another reasonable drive, but the day had cleared up and I was looking forward to a brighter drive. I didn’t realise that the views were about to get better and better.
Assynt has rocketed itself to become one of my favourite areas of Scotland! We turned off the main road to be immediately greeted by mountains in all directions. This was one of my favourite drives of the whole trip, and even though we missed some of the highlights of the main road (like Loch Assynt itself, with the wrecked Ardvreck Castle hanging onto its edge), I’m really glad we made the detour.
It ended up being a surprisingly long drive to Achmelvich, considering the distance we were covering was nothing compared to what we had already done that day. The single track roads became narrower and narrower, and the drive became slower and slower.
By the time we got to Achmelvich, we only had a short time to enjoy the beach – luckily, the sun had stayed out and people were actually sunbathing on the beach. In Scotland. In September. Who needs the Caribbean?
This was followed by the best sunset of the trip, although typically I was stuck on cooking duty and couldn’t wander out to the coast to see the best of it!
We stayed on a proper campsite at Achmelvich, and it really is one of the best places you can camp on the North Coast 500!
Day 4 – Waterfalls, Assynt & Durness
We had been planning a hike up Stac Pollaidh (known locally as “Stac Polly”) but we had barely recovered from our Glencoe hike (Jesus, we’re unfit) and the many walks since, so we decided to skip it in favour of some shorter walks to some waterfalls.
As much as I’d love to do the Stac Pollaidh hike, I’m really glad we didn’t miss the waterfalls.
First up was Clashnessie Falls, a lovely waterfall you can see from the road. Clashnessie itself is worth a stop because there’s a beautiful beach, sheep alongside the road, a scenic phone box; it’s just a charming, very rural Scottish village.
The waterfall itself is beautiful, and one of the best I’ve seen in Scotland.
I had no idea that I was about to see another one which would blow it out of the water (excuse the pun).
When we arrived at a car park near the Wailing Widow falls, the weather had turned hideous. We hid in the car for about 20 minutes, eating snacks and trying to decide what to do! (Story of my life…)
Eventually, we braved the cold, and we took the non-existent path towards the edge of the loch in the rough direction of the waterfall – or as best as we could in a boggy marshland of heather. When we reached the waterfall, it was nice, but it wasn’t spectacular and I wasn’t convinced that it had been worth the walk.
“Look!” my friend suddenly shouted. “There’s a path down there!” So there was.
And so we found ourselves back at the car, driving down the road to a completely inconspicuous parking space / lay by on the corner. There was NOTHING to give away that anything was there – the waterfall completely hidden in a cove around the corner, and no obvious path to lead you to it. It was, however, a delightful little walk alongside a stream; far more pleasant than the boggy land we had traversed up above!
And when the waterfall came into view – WOW!
One of my favourite sights on the North Coast 500 road trip, and we had it all to ourselves!
And to think we had almost completely missed it.
From there, it was only an hour’s drive up to Durness, and we were on the fence whether to pay for another campsite or find somewhere ourselves. We turned up to enquire, and being that the weather was suddenly the worst it had been on the trip, we decided it was safer to be in a designated area.
The campsite was great, overlooking a beautiful beach and plenty of amenities on site. We spent most of the evening charging our things and playing catch up. One thing about camping on the North Coast 500 is the internet is really patchy! But to be fair, if you’re going on a camping trip in a beautiful area and you’re worried about internet, I think ya need to sort out your priorities. 😉 Still, it was nice to update people and post a few pics!
The wind into the night got really bad, and we felt like the tent was going to take off!!! Thankfully it didn’t, and in the morning we emerged unscathed. Success!
Day 5 – Durness, John O’ Groats & Brora
The most famous thing in Durness is a cave.
A massive, MASSIVE cave.
We wandered down there after breakfast to see if we could get on one of their boat trips, and we were in luck – one was going to leave in the next few minutes! It only costs £5 and it’s well worth it for a totally unique experience of going to the back of the cave and walking through some tunnels.
Our guide was really informative and passionate about the geology of this fascinating cave, and we learned about the people who may have used to live there thousands of years ago, before it was underwater.
We really enjoyed the trip!
It’s worth pointing out that we headed over to Cocoa Mountain for breakfast – a cafe famous for its really rich hot chocolates! And they really were rich! I’m not sure if I’d go back for another one, but it was fun to check out, and I made the mistake of going for a chocolate croissant. Worst sugar rush ever. It’s nestled in a little “village” of local craft shops, so it’s worth heading over there for some souvenirs, and if you don’t fancy an uber-rich hot chocolate, they also sell lots of their own chocolates which make great gifts!
After the cave tour, it was time to make our way over to the east coast of Scotland, after over a week on the west.
I thought the views were going to diminish as we headed towards Caithness, but…
The beaches got even better, too. In fact, I thought the best beaches would be on the west coast hands down, but the north coast really gives them a run for their money.
Now I’ve got to admit I’m not a fan of Thurso, and even though it’s the biggest place we’d been since Fort William, we skipped straight through it towards John O’ Groats.
I did take us on one detour though – John O’ Groats is famous for being the most northerly point of Britain… except it’s not.
We stopped at Dunnet Head, the actual most northerly point of the mainland. I was very excited to point out to Sam that you can see Orkney!
We even managed to spot – pretty much anyway – my childhood home!
The weather was trying to put a dampener on the day, so we got back on the road and got to John O’ Groats with time to head up to Duncansby Head for the incredible sea stacks.
There’s not much in John O’Groats itself, so I was debating whether to camp there or get further down the coast. The only problem with the east coast is a lot of it is agricultural land, and I had no idea where we could wild camp.
We ended up camping just outside Brora, on a proper campsite again, which put us in a great position for seeing Dunrobin Castle the following morning.
It also meant that we could go and check out the really pretty pub in Golspie that I’ve passed a million times for dinner… except they didn’t serve food. So we headed back to Brora as we’d seen a nice-looking pub. It had just stopped serving food (at 8pm!). We’d been recommended the Indian restaurant in Brora by people in both pubs and the lady who owned the campsite, and we were surprised. But given no other choices, we decided to see what the fuss was all about at Sid’s Spice.
I’m not gonna lie… it was EXCELLENT! It’s been voted the second best Indian in Scotland, and I can see why!
Day 6 – Golspie & Inverness
Our final day of the road trip – and we were ending on a bang!
The absolute highlight of the east coast is this incredible fairytale castle. I think Dunrobin might just be my favourite castle in Scotland (although it’s got tough competition!).
We luckily got to explore the interior while it was raining, and by the time the falconry show was due to start, the sun had (mostly!) come out. If you’re there between May and September, the falconry show is the highlight of a trip to Dunrobin. It’s hilarious, the falconer is incredibly informative, and the birds are wonderful!
Ordinarily, we would have spent the rest of the day in Inverness, walking along the river and exploring the wonderful Harry Potter-esque bookshop (Leakey’s Bookshop). We might have even taken a wander around Culloden battlefield or taken a quick jaunt to Loch Ness.
We had more pressing matters though – I was trying on wedding dresses! Okay, so this probably won’t be on your itinerary, so I’ll leave it there and just say I SAID YES TO THE DRESS!!
Inverness is a really nice city to end the trip, and I’m sure I’ll actually write about it properly some time.
That, though, marked the end of our epic 8ish day road trip around Scotland, and I have been left with my mind blown by the North Coast 500. I’m kind of sad that it’s taken a huge marketing campaign for me to discover it, but better late than never!