Since its launch only 5 years ago, the North Coast 500 has been firmly on the to-do list of most campers and caravanners. The appeal of the route is obvious: no motorways, stunning scenery, a quieter pace of life and the chance to explore one of the UK’s most unspoiled corners. If you’re one of the many who have a hankering for the Highland scenery of the NW500, here’s everything you need to know.
What is the North Coast 500?
If you’ve heard others in the motorhome community raving about the North Coast 500 but you’re not very sure what it’s all about, don’t panic. The North Coast 500 is a circular drive around the very top of the British mainland. The 516 mile route starts and finishes in Inverness. Most visitors start by heading west, across to the west coast of Scotland and north through the beautiful scenery of Applecross, Torridon and Lochinver. Then back east along the north coast passing Durness and Thurso, before making a southerly turn at John O’Groats and back to Inverness. The coastal scenery ranks the route among some of the world’s best driving experiences. It is of course possible to drive the entire route in a weekend bur most travellers prefer to take things a little slower, diverting off the main route to find a hidden beach, or climb a mountain or two.
NC500 – Get Planning in Advance!
The huge popularity of the North Coast 500 has taken many local businesses by surprise, and although the boom in visitor numbers is fantastic for the local economy, the difficulty for travellers is that campsites quickly get booked up at peak times. There are a couple of options for tackling this. You could get super-organised and plan your trip with military precision by researching campsites, drawing up a timetable and booking slots months in advance. This is probably the best course of action between June and September, when the weather is at its best (by Scottish standards) and campsites are busiest. If you’re visiting at other times of the year the alternative approach is just to take things as they come, but be prepared to divert off the main route to find a camping slot or B&B for the night depending on how many other drivers have had the same idea as you.
Another thing to consider is buying paper maps and guidebooks. We all rely a lot on smartphones and Google, but in many parts of the Highlands, especially out of towns, the signal is very patchy. Forget 5G or 4G, you’ll get 3G if you’re very lucky and will often struggle to get any signal at all.
North Coast 500 – the Practicalities
The North Coast 500 goes through some of the most sparsely populated areas of Scotland. You’re simply not going to find large supermarkets and 24 hour petrol stations once you’ve left Inverness. Being in a motorhome puts you at an advantage when it comes to people trying to carry everything they need for a week-long trip on a motorbike as you’ve plenty of space to stock up in the supermarket before heading off. That’s not to say there aren’t great little local food shops and artisan producers along the route, and there’s nothing better than stopping in a tiny village to stock up on freshly-baked bread and some local cheese for lunch. But having the basics with you makes a lot of sense. The same applies to fuel. It can be many miles from one petrol station to the next so if you’re running low and spot a petrol pump in the distance pull in – you might not make it to the next one! There are many online maps showing exactly where all the fuel stations and charging points for electric cars are located.
North Coast 500 – the Highlights
The North Coast 500 is as much about the journey itself as it is about racing from one spot to the next, but there are some journey highlights which it is definitely worth making time for.
- Applecross – this will be one of the first stops if you’re following the clockwise route from Inverness. It’s the perfect place to stop for a long lunch at one of the local pubs, and enjoy the great views across to Skye. There’s also a very good campsite at Applecross with the same amazing views, but booking in advance for this one is essential.
- Bealach na Ba (Pass of the Cattle) – no driving route would be complete without a winding mountain pass, and the Bealach Na Ba pass zig-zags up a mountainside from sea level to 625 metres. Don’t be tempted to stop in the road on the way up to take snaps; there’s a viewpoint with carpark at the top of the pass where you can leave the motorhome and get out to explore the scenery. Drivers of larger motorhomes, defined as those bigger than the standard VW T5 conversion, shouldn’t attempt this mountain pass and should take the alternative diversion instead.
- Gairloch – this extended village is one of the largest settlements on the west coast, and is a great place to stop and stock up with essentials before moving on. Just out of the village is Big Sand beach and campsite, with lots of parking spaces for motorhomes, showers, washing machines and tumble dryers.
- Corrieshalloch Gorge – the gorge is well-signposted off the road between Gairloch and Ullapool. It’s a short, but steep, walk from the car park up to the Victorian suspension bridge above the gorge, where you can look down into the deep, narrow gorge with its crashing waterfalls. The best time to visit the gorge is just after a period of heavy rain, when the waterfalls are at their most spectacular.
- Achmelvich Beach – this is one of the most remote spots on the route, but the white sandy beach is definitely worth the detour. There’s a hostel, and a couple of small no-frills campsites. In sunny weather, the white sands and turquoise seas almost look Caribbean, even though the temperatures might be several degrees cooler.
- Dunrobin Castle – this fairy-tale castle looks like something from a Disney movie and is the largest stately home in the Highlands. The castle is open from the start of April to the end of October, with gardens, falconry display and tea rooms open during winter too. Another good stately home option is the Castle of Mey, birthplace of the Queen Mother.
Wild Camping and the North Coast 500
For many travellers, the whole appeal of the North Coast 500 is the chance to escape the rat race and get away from other people. Scotland has fairly liberal rules when it comes to wild camping when compared with the rest of the UK. Land reform in 2003 set the basic principle that you are allowed to camp on unenclosed land, unless there are signs specifically prohibiting it. That doesn’t apply to motorhomes though, or other sorts of motorised transport. Some car parks will not place any restrictions on you parking up overnight, but always check signs carefully. Often the best source of information about where the best places to park are the locals, who can point you to hidden spots you’d never have found otherwise. Wherever you decide to park up for the night, the key to successful wild camping is to take all litter and waste away with you, and leave no trace of you ever having been there.
Rules of the Road
The other steep learning curve for many motorists when doing the North Coast 500 is single-track roads with passing places. If you’re more accustomed to driving on motorways or in busy city centres, a road only wide enough for one vehicle can come as a bit of a shock. A quick Highway Code refresher might be in order. If you see something coming towards you, pull into a passing place on your left, or wait opposite a passing place on the right to allow the car to pass. You might have to reverse a short distance to the nearest passing place, and give way to cars coming uphill. Passing places are for passing, not parking, so don’t be tempted to stop and get out for a walk, however tempting the scenery.
Some of the very narrow routes on part of the North Coast 500 aren’t suitable for larger motorhomes, defined as those over 16 feet in length. Don’t be tempted to risk it by following the standard route; take the clearly signposted motorhome diversions instead. As much of the route will involve driving on single-track roads, it’s worth getting some reversing practice if you’re not comfortable in doing it regularly. Remember that in a motorhome you’re often slower than other road traffic; pull in and let queues pass if you see cars and bikes piling up behind you. If you’re hiring a different campervan or motorhome for your trip, get a bit of practice in manoeuvring and thing like emptying the waste before you leave the hire company.