How To Drive The North Coast 500< Back to blog
It may come as a surprise that one of the top coastal driving routes in the world is in the Scottish Highlands. Known as ‘Scotland’s Route 66’, The North Coast 500 (or NC500) should be a bucket-lister for every driver looking to soak up 516 miles of beautiful country roads.
Starting in Inverness, the cultural capital of these parts, and peaking at the far northern village of John O’Groats before coming back down, you’ll encounter castles, beautiful deserted beaches and hairy cows.
So, if you’re thinking of packing up and doing this epic road trip, read our top tips on how to do it safely and still have a great time!
Top 10 tips for driving the NC500
Since it was launched in 2015 by the Tourism Project Board and North Highland Initiative, The North Coast 500 has attracted thousands of supercars, campervans, grand tourers and your standard hatchbacks.
While Aston Martin are the official sponsors of the NC500, you won’t need to be cruising in a DB11 to get the most out of your journey. The views of mountain ranges and the lochs, plus the many activities dotted along the way, are the same for everyone.
Regardless of your wheels, here’s some things to bear in mind before you set off.
1. Observe road etiquette
It goes without saying that you should take extra care when driving on country roads. The North Coast 500 is very much a combination of hairpin bends, rises and dips, plus around 200 miles of single track roads.
Don’t be surprised if you encounter slow-moving vehicles, caravans and motorists such as yourself while you’re on the move, especially if you choose to go in the warmer season (May-September).
Other hazards which you will no doubt encounter include cyclists, pedestrians and wildlife, who also appreciate the natural beauty on offer.
We advise that you keep your speed at something which allows you to stay in control of the vehicle and be able to take action if you do encounter the occasional animal crossing. Also, make use of the many passing places on the single track roads, which are there to allow vehicles and other road users let one another pass safely. Be sure to acknowledge someone if they pull in to let you by!
If you’re unsure, there’s an official NC500 website which runs through the road safety guidelines you should adhere to while you’re driving.
2. Use signposts and maps for guidance
You’ll soon find out after setting off from Inverness that GPS satnavs aren’t all that accurate at pinpointing your first accommodation’s location.
The good news is that you won’t need to rely on Google Maps or your car’s built-in system to get around the NC500 route. There are a plethora of brown signage posts which will have phrases such as ‘North and West Highlands Tourist Route’ on them that keep you on the designated course.
We would also recommend you get a physical map, print off the full addresses of all your accommodation and consider downloading the official interactive map to a phone or tablet. Be sure to let your passenger in the front navigate too, so you can focus on the road ahead!
3. Begin with a full tank
Surprisingly, there are plenty of opportunities to fuel your car along the way while you’re on The North Coast 500. Nevertheless, it’s still important to have a plan for your pit stops to avoid running out and being forced to halt your holiday.
Many of the petrol stations en route are 24/7 and tend to be attached to neat local shops that let you stock up on car sweets.
A rule which served us well was stopping at the next petrol station after the gauge drops below halfway.
4. Beware of wildlife
Goats, sheep and hairy highland cows can take it upon themselves to roam into the middle of the road. You may even encounter a farmer herding livestock across there from one field to another.
It goes without saying then that you should proceed with caution, scanning the road ahead for signs of nature and slowing down or stopping until the way is clear.
5. Don’t underestimate driving time
‘Highland miles’ aren’t like your average ones at home, so be sure to prepare for 80 miles potentially taking a full day.
There’s museums, picturesque beaches, activity centres and many places to stop off to grab lunch. Add this to the fact that the roads themselves need to be carefully navigated, and you’ll soon learn that the earlier you set off for your next destination, the better.
6. Book accommodation early
Less of a driving tip, but one which certainly makes the experiencing of being the driver on the NC500 a lot less stressful.
Booking all your accommodation weeks (months if possible) in advance of your start date is always advised for this kind of trip.
There are castle hotels, luxury guest houses, campsites and family-run B&Bs along the way, all of which get full quickly, even in the off-season (October-April). With at least five days the recommended timeline in which to do the NC500, it’s good practice to arrange a place to stay for each night to avoid being disappointed.
7. Consider car rental if you’re unsure
Inverness, the start of the NC500, is home to many car rental garages which have something for everyone. Whether you want a chic-styled Fiat 500 or rugged Land Rover Defender, there’s plenty of affordable options with flexible pick-up and drop-off times if you don’t have access to your own vehicle, or perhaps it isn’t suitable for the journey.
8. Plan your own itinerary and cater for it
The official website for The North Coast 500 has lots of pre-planned itineraries for those who need some direction, but we recommend doing some research of your own and fill the days with things you want to do.
If you like golf, whiskey tasting, sampling great food or going on relaxing walks, you’ll find something you like. For the adrenaline junkies of you, there’s canoeing, white water rafting, cliff jumping and canyoning too!
9. Consider the NC500 membership
From £15 per month you can become an official member of the North Coast 500, with perks and discounts that can make your trip more convenient and affordable.
For example, you can get discounts off car hire rentals, an e-book giving you a rough guide to the route, merchandise from the store and access to all the official online itineraries.
It’s not essential, but it might be just what you need to kick-start your journey!
10. Pack for all weather
Good weather can’t be guaranteed even in the warmer season, with varying temperatures and occasional downpours being part and parcel of the adventure. So, take it in your stride and prepare accordingly!
Be sure to pack some waterproofs and warm clothing for the trip, just in case.
Remember: one item you will benefit from is midge repellent. Locals will tell you all about the dreaded midge, which tend to appear in warm or damp weather.
North Coast 500 Facts
- The Tourism Project Board and North Highland Initiative launched the concept by working with the tourism sector in this area.
- In its first year, the North Coast 500 was named in the “Top Five Coastal Routes in the World”.
- It has brought 29,000 more visitors to the Highlands and added £9m to the economy.
- It’s possible to walk or cycle the route, though this will take a lot more planning and time than if you were to drive.
- Wild camping is legal, though you should familiarise yourself with the etiquette listed in The Scottish Outdoor Access Code for everything you need to know about doing it properly.
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