North Coast 500 - Highland Campervans rough guide
Posted on by Jo Page
North Coast 500 - The Highland Campervans rough guide!
We are asked many questions about the North Coast 500 route, so we thought it would be a good idea to put together a blog post with as much helpful information possible to assist with your trip planning. There is so much to say about this route that it is hard to know where to begin, so we would start by saying before you read this, get a cuppa and put your feet up as we may be some time!
How long should we take to do this route?
This is a question similar to how long is a piece of string, as you could travel this route in anything from a long weekend to weeks on end. Most of our customers choose a week to 10 days as a comfortable amount of time, it also means there is no need to take in too many miles a day. If you are wanting a trip where you don’t drive every day it may be worth extending the time so that you have a bit extra to stay in a spot you are enjoying for a few days.
Clockwise or Anti-Clockwise?
We don't think there is a right or wrong answer to this question but when talking to customers about this we judge it on a few things, mostly what do you like to see and do?
If dramatic scenery is your thing then you will probably want to spend more time over on the West /North West coast. That doesn't mean to say that the East coast doesn't have good scenery, far from it! Its just that the West coast is more renown for its jaw dropping landscapes at every twist and turn. So if this is your bag, we would suggest going anti-clockwise, you can swiftly take in the East coast and spend a little more time over in the West where you will enjoy the scenery in abundance and maybe even squeeze in a sneaky detour to the Isle of Skye, time permitting.
On the other hand if history or whisky is your preference, then spending a little more time on the East coast may be more beneficial as you have some fabulous historic sites and distilleries to take in. So taking the West coast in first and giving yourself a little more time to discover all that the East coast has to offer, more on that in a bit. With this route being a loop you do get to see it all at some point so either way you will have a wonderful experience and be able to take in everything along the way.
For this blog post we will take you on a journey around the route anti-clock wise to give you some pointers for things not to miss, places to stay that our customers have enjoyed on their trips and any little recommendations we can think of.
Our base in Inverness is perfect, we are smack bang at the start/finish line of the North Coast 500. You begin your travels up the A9 and once you are over the bridge taking in the views of the Moray Firth you hit the Black Isle, a place you could spend a week exploring what it has to offer. Lovely wee villages to visit such as Cromarty with its little shops and cafes, fabulous beaches for walks including Chanonry point that is a popular place to spot bottle nosed dolphins when they come in to feed in the bustling waters of the changing tides.
If craft beer is your thing then a visit and tour of the Black Isle Brewery would not go a miss and you could stock up on a few bottle for your journey.
A little further up the East coast you will pass a couple of famous distilleries Dalmore in Alness and Glenmorangie in Tain, both offering great visitor centres and knowledgeable staff to tell you all there is to know about whisky.
You will soon reach the historic town of Dornoch with its impressive cathedral, History Links museum and lots of quaint shops and cafes. Dornoch is also blessed with miles of sandy beach for a stroll anytime of the night and day.
Here are a few sugestions for campsites around this area:-
Following the North East coast line there are many viewpoints to stop and take in the cliff top scenery over the water, there is a lot of history along this part of the route and many centres to visit and learn all there is to know. A visit to Dunrobin castle could literally take up a day with its beautiful gardens, interesting tour, popular falconry displays and unexpected museum, this is a highly recommended stop, the castle is not open all year so do check.
There are more historic visitor centre along this coastline including:-
Gradually you will wind your way along the coast to the very top where you will hit John O Groats and there is always time for a picture under the famous sign. Now it is important to mention that even though we have given you a huge list of things to see and do already the journey from Inverness straight to John O Groats is approximately 120 miles and if you were to drive straight there it would be about 3 hours. So although it seems a long way it can also be taken in fairly swiftly if you are running out of time!
There are some good camping sites in the John O groats area if you wish to stay there to take in the wildlife or to take a trip over to the Orkney Isles
Another must visit if you are a gin or vodka lover is the Dunnet Bay distillers https://www.dunnetbaydistillers.co.uk/dunnet-bay-distillers/ known for their Rock Rose gin and Holy Grass vodka. Something different to whisky and they do tours most of the year, so best to check beforehand if this is something you want to add to your itinerary.
As you start to work your way along the North coast you will encounter single track roads and the landscape becoming more remote and barren, but with that you also get some of the most beautiful sandy beaches and coves to visit, although a dip in the sea maybe more than a little cold! Gradually you will work your way along the coast and reach Durness. From John O groats to Durness it is 90 miles and with quite a lot of small and single track road, it will take you about 2 and a half hours roughly although that doesn’t account for many photo stops or time to stop and savour the view with a cup of tea and slice of cake!
Durness is a great area for many things, good walks on the lovely white sandy beaches, a visit to Smoo cave is an absolute must and if you have a sweet tooth then you definitely have to call into Cocoa Mountain for their amazing hot chocolate and maybe sample a handmade chocolate or two. The campsite at Durness, Sango Sands Oasis is very conveniently located with a pub serving good meals on site.(This may not be all year round so do check!) A local and well stocked shop nearby is handy to stock up on any little daily essentials required.
Moving on from Durness and down the North West coast you will notice the scenery changing quite drastically, every twist and turn in the road gives you a different stunning view and there are many photo opportunities, so have your camera at the ready! This part of the route probably requires the most consideration when driving, as it is nearly all single track with many climbs and descents as you travel through the mountains. We can wax lyrical about how beautiful this part of the route is and we promise that when you witness it yourself you will agree! So taking the stretch from Durness to Ullapool which is roughly 67 miles, 2 hours to drive straight but you won’t want to do that, there is far too much to explore even in this little area. If you have time make sure to take in the Drumbeg loop, again this area has some steep ascent and descents so do take it easy.
There are also some great campsites too that have received rave reviews from our customers over the last few years.
Scourie- we have been told the local hotel serves great food!
Clachtoll - great beach!
Achiltibuie - Open all year and pub very close by serving fresh food
Ardmair - Lovely bay location just a little out of Ullapool for a more peaceful stay
Don’t travel this part of the route without a trip to the small fishing port of Lochinver. As well as many independent shops there is a must visit to the Lochinver larder if you are a fan of pies! Random but true, they stock a huge range of fruit and savoury pies to eat in and take away and they are delicious! Your onward journey will take you to Ullapool and if you have room after the pies from Lochinver then it’s a great place for fish and chips! Ullapool is another busy fishing port of the West coast, a small town with plenty of shops and restaurants with great views down the loch, you can while away many hours watching the boats and ferries sale in and out to the Western Isles.
Your journey from Ullapool takes many more picturesque turns through the very scenic area of Wester Ross down to Applecross. This stretch is 85 miles and would take just over 2 hours if travelling without stopping, you will stop for sure as this area is full of stunning beaches and viewpoints with amazing panoramic views. As you leave Ullapool heading south on the A835 you will take a turning onto the A832, this is again a road to travel with care and consideration. Just as you turn off follow the sign to the Corrieshalloch Gorge, if you have a good head for heights then this is a great stop. It is a mile long box canyon viewed from a bridge or viewing platform over the 46m falls. It really is fabulous to see if you can handle the height!
The road to Applecross from this point is extremely scenic and there are some great campsite spots here for spending some time in the area.
Now most people travelling this route are aware of the famous cattle pass road called the “Bealach na ba” a very narrow single track road of steep ascent/decent with sharp hair pin bends that winds its way up to or out of Applecross depending on which way you are travelling. We get asked many times if you should attempt this road in a motorhome. There are a lot of differing opinions on this. All of our motorhomes up to panel van size we allow to travel this route and have made this journey without issue but we advise that you take it on with caution and with the respect it deserves. If you are a confident driver with a good head for heights and good reversing skills (It is not always the road itself but what you may meet going up or down it that can cause issues) then you should be ok. There are a number of great You Tube videos that show the road and people driving it, this is a great resource if you are unsure whether to take on the road or not.
From Applecross back to Inverness the last stretch it is roughly 79 miles and just over 2 hours journey time, this is going via Lochcarron, Achnasheen and back over past the Black Isle before heading back into Inverness.
A pleasant road to finish off the route and depending on where you would want to spend your last night we can help with a few suggestions along the way so that you are little closer to the base for your morning return.
Here are a few suggestions for campsites within 45 minutes of our base on the route
Contin - a countryside site tucked away by a beautiful river
Fortrose - for your last chance to catch a site of the bottle nosed dolphins at chanonry point
Ardtower - a beautifully maintained site just 15 minutes from our base and right next to the Culloden battle field for your last drop of Scottish history!
This really only is a basic round up of the route and probably hasn’t done it justice as there really is SO much more but the beauty also lies in coming on an adventure and discovering more for yourselves!
A few final questions that we do get asked frequently that may be on your list of things to find out……
Will we be ok with fuel?
Absolutely yes! There are many fuel stations on this route and most of our vehicles, depending on driving conditions will get 400 miles out of a tank of fuel.
Do we have to stay on a campsite?
No. You can freedom camp in the highlands but you must make sure to follow some basic rules and common courtesies. We have full information in the motorhomes and we can discuss this with you or also look at the guidance notes here CAMPA.ORG
Will we be able to buy groceries?
There are many independent stores along the route that stock all the essentials and more! Not to mention many wonderful restaurants and cafes for you to try a wide range of tasty Scottish cuisine. You will not go hungry!
I hope this has been a helpful insight to the North Coast 500 route even if its just a start to the planning process. You can visit the official site here and there is a huge amount of information and resource online. Don’t forget we also provide Road atlas, North Coast 500 Rough Guide and NC500 Map (if we can get them!) in our hire vehicles. Should you have any questions that I haven’t covered here that you want to ask, please do not hesitate to get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will be more than happy to help in any way we can.
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Inverness was a great starting point for us and to have Highland Campervans on the doorstep at the start of North Coast 500 route. I hope some day we will return!