This is a NC500 road-trip itinerary with a twist. Three pals in their thirties, six days, two hostels, a pod and a bothan. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t cover the full route, but stick with me.
Written as part of a paid blog campaign with Scottish Hostels.
All adventures in Scotland have magical, therapeutic powers but a road-trip with pals should be available on prescription. Escaping the demands of daily life to spend time in great company, with whom you can be completely yourself, is an experience not to be underestimated.
Armed with a playlist of nostalgic tunes and backpacks stuffed with pick ‘n’ mix clothing to suit all four seasons, the three amigas were ready to hit the road. We slipped away from the city in search of sunrise, scenic drives and outdoor pursuits. The level of excitement and sense of freedom was palpable.
Eagerly anticipating both the journey and the destinations, we were bound for the most famous and breathtakingly bonnie road-trip route in the land, the North Coast 500. Our days were filled with incessant snacking, high-volume belly laughing, and deep conservation; all the while hopelessly engrossed in the surroundings.
We explored corners of the coast which possess a beauty beyond words, broadcast to us in high definition thanks to the abnormally bright, clear and sunny weather for early-March. When I wasn’t eating, capturing content or creasing myself, I was saying “wow” and “this is incredible” on repeat. We took the ‘scenic route’ for 6 whole days and I didn’t want to come back.
NC500 road-trip done differently
- We didn’t drive the full NC500 route. Instead, we only explored certain sections: arguably the most beautiful.
- We travelled ahead of the peak season in March and had most of the sights to ourselves. The weather was surprisingly amazing too!
- We stayed in independent Scottish Hostels and glamping accommodation, a brilliant alternative to following the campervan crowds.
- Our local hosts picked our activities – choosing fun and authentic experiences, some of which we might not have known about or considered doing without their recommendations.
- We didn’t change accommodation every day – we had 2 x 1 night stays and 2 x 2 night stays. I loved not having to unpack and re-pack again every single morning!
NC500 Road Trip Base 1: Inverness
Inverness, ‘Capital of the Highlands’, is the gateway to the NC500 and an ideal overnight stop to break up the journey to the far north. Stock up on any essentials for the trip, walk along the River Ness, and go out for food/drinks.
Edinburgh to Inverness: Suggested Stops
- Dunkeld – a lovely cathedral town in Perthshire. Stop for toilets, coffee and incredible sweet/savoury bakes from ARAN Bakery, and a forest walk to Black Linn Falls at The Hermitage nearby.
- Loch Morlich – a stunning loch near Aviemore in the Cairngorms National Park, fringed by golden sand and forest, with mountain views to top it off.
- Culloden Battlefield– Gain an important insight into Jacobite history, the last battle fought on British soil and the subsequent breakdown of the Highland clan system.
- Driving time – 4 hours 10 minutes.
- View the route here
Where to stay: Black Isle Hostel
Black Isle Hostel offers clean, comfortable, budget-friendly accommodation right in the city centre. Expect a friendly welcome, vibrant interior, lounge area, kitchen, huge shared bathrooms and basic but perfectly nice dorm rooms.
- Dorm beds from £26 per person (book a whole dorm room for your group)
- For more information or to book click here
Inverness: Local sights & activities
- Beer tasting & woodfired pizzas at Black Isle Bar– the hostel rooms are all conveniently in the same building or the one next door. Order a flight of beer to find your favourite and a selection of their amazing wood-fired pizzas, topped with fresh salad and herbs, homegrown in the garden at the brewery.
- Visit Black Isle Brewery– go straight to the source at the brewery itself, at 15 minute drive from Inverness. Stock up on beers for the rest of your adventure and explore the organic vegetable garden.
- Axe throwing at Wildwoodz – try your hand at this unique outdoor activity. Our brilliant instructor Toby taught us how to throw 4 different sizes/types of axes.
NC500 Road Trip Base 2: Achiltibuie
The remote village of Achiltibuie is tucked away on the wildly gorgeous, and often bypassed, Coigach Peninsula. A single track road gives way to moody lochs, vast moorland, under-the-radar beaches and The Summer Isles archipelago. Not on the official NC500 route, this location is quite possibly Scotland’s best detour.
Inverness to Achiltibuie: Suggested Stops
- The Storehouse, Dingwall – an absolute gem of a lunch stop on the Cromarty Firth. Stock up on local produce and high quality goodies for self-catering from the Foodhall farm shop.
- Little Garve– fresh air and a stretch of the legs along Black Water river with its waterfalls and historic bridges. We didn’t have a lot of time to spare, so just sat by Black Water Falls briefly.
- Ullapool – this pretty port is well worth a wee wander. Fill up on fuel while you’re here and be sure to visit Ullapool Seafood Shack if travelling during the peak season.
- Driving time: 2.5 hours
- View the route including suggested activities here
Where to stay: Glamping Pods, Acheninver Hostel
This very special site is only just visible from the tiny car park by the roadside. Follow a gravel path down towards the sea, where a white hostel building (formerly a Mountain Bothy), a lovely host (Ruth) and four gorgeous glamping pods await.
My new favourite pods in Scotland, they each come with proper comfy beds, underfloor heating, hot power shower, fridge, microwave, and a fire pit. Directly facing The Summer Isles, sunrise and ‘golden hour’ over the sea are a heavenly sight to behold.
- The hostel and communal kitchen are currently closed but Ruth is planning to reopen them sometime in the future. For now, you can only book the glamping pods.
- The pods each sleep 3 or 4 people and prices start from £80pn. Book here.
Achiltibuie: Local sights & activities
- Sea kayaking with Kayak Summer Isles – paddle the waters around The Summer Isles on a half day, full day or overnight camping adventure. Led by outdoor extraordinaire Will, we circled Isle Ristol before landing on the island’s white sand beach.
- Wild swimming – from the hostel, follow the burn down to the rocky beach for a bracing dip in view of the Summer Isles. Achnahaird Beach is another stunning spot.
- Explore Coigach – drive right round the peninsula for mind-blowingly beautiful landscapes, dreamy beaches and mountain vistas. Part of the North West Highland UNESCO Geopark, the area’s renowned geological features include fossils, evidence of a meteor impact and some of the oldest rocks in the UK. I’m climbing iconic Stac Pollaidh next time!
NC500 Road Trip Base 3: Durness
Durness, the most northerly village in the UK, is characterised by dramatic coastline and flawless beaches, airbrushed only by Mother Nature herself. This far-flung wee pocket of Scotland was a highlight of our trip, as was the journey to get there. I’ve been dreaming of Durness ever since.
Where to stay: The Bothan at Mackays
Our trio was split up for this part of the trip. Aimee, who added on to the trip last minute, stayed in private two-person dorm at Lazy Crofter Bunkhouse, a rustic Highland hostel with cosy rooms, hot showers, a drying room, lounge area, and self-catering kitchen.
Jenna and I stayed in The Bothan at Mackay’s across the street which is owned by the same people. A quirky, black shipping container, hidden behind the well-stocked Spar shop (same owners again), comes with a stylish, super-comfy, studio-style interior with huge windows and incredible coastal views. I saw the best sunrise of my life from the comfort of the bed!
- The Bunkhouse – a small bunk room for two costs £50 per night
- The Bothan – costs £169 per night (sleeps two, minimum stay two nights)
Achiltibuie to Durness: Suggested Stops
- Ardvreck Castle – the tall, narrow ruins of a 16th century tower house which sits evocatively on the shores of Loch Assynt. The castle is said to be haunted by the ghost of a woman who allegedly threw herself from a top window after her father made a pact with the devil, offering her hand in marriage to him!
- Lochinver Larder– an obligatory stop to try one of their delicious deep-filled pies. Order it hot with mashed potato and gravy or grab some to takeaway for dinner at your accommodation. The pork, chorizo and manchego is my favourite!
- Achmelvich Bay –a pristine paradise of white sand and turquoise sea in a sheltered bay which would have been perfect for swimming had we been more prepared on the day. One of the most stunning beaches I’ve ever seen.
- Clachtoll – another jaw-dropping beach in a more exposed, windswept location with rugged seaside scenery.
- Kylesku Hotel– go here for fresh seafood in a bright, attractive setting overlooking the tranquil Loch Glendhu. Afterwards, drive across the iconic curved Kylesku Bridge.
- Driving time: 3 hours 10 minutes
- View the driving route here
Durness: Local sights & activities
- Smoo Cave – the largest of any sea cave entrance in the UK, the great expanse of Smoo Cave is a NC500 natural wonder, complete with a waterfall chamber inside. Follow the coastal path above the cave for more incredible coastal scenes.
- Sango Bay Viewpoint – follow the popularly photographedwinding wooden walkway up to a rocky outcrop to look out upon a double-whammy of bonnie beaches and endless sea beyond.
- Beach-hopping – countless white sand beaches can be found along the coast; Durness Beach, Sango Bay and Rispond Beach are the most popular. If you’re prepared to go looking, there are lots of inviting wee bays concealed from the roadside view. We went for a chilly sunset splash at the waves at beautiful Balnakeil Bay.
The Highland Clearances
The Sutherland region suffered greatly during The Clearances, with as many as 10,000 people forcefully evicted from their homes and crofting communities between 1807 and 1821 to make way for sheep farming.
Many of the Highlanders emigrated, while others were relocated to the coast in Helmsdale where they had no choice but to adopt a new way of life; swapping their inland glens and crofting traditions for the fishing industry and the unfamiliar.
Road Trip Base 4: Helmsdale
Helmsdale is a charming coastal village with historic buildings, pretty streetlights, a river, harbour and sea views. Located on the North East section of the NC500, Helmsdale is a popular pitstop to break up the long journey north or for those travelling to Caithness for the ferry to Orkney.
Where to stay: Helmsdale Hostel
Helmsdale Hostel was once the school gymnasium, before being used as a very basic hostel. It has since been lovingly renovated by the current owner, Irene, who bought the hostel in 2006, maintaining the original character with wooden panelling and high windows, while adding lots of cosy comforts, modern fixtures, and welcoming touches throughout.
Expect high ceilings, bouncy-soft carpets, bright and colourful dorms (ours was en-suite), a well-equipped kitchen, and a wood-burner in the lounge. This homely abode completely exceeded all expectations and we loved meeting Irene, Marie and Molly the collie.
- Prices start from £27.50 per person per night
- For more information or to book, click here
Durness to Helmsdale: Suggested Stops
- Bettyhill – soak in the final views of the north coast and Farr Beach before heading inland through lonely moorland and locations steeped in history, spanning from the Neolithic period to The Picts, and far more recently, The Highland Clearances.
- Stops on the ‘Museum without Walls’ app. – developed by Timespan Museum to bring the rich history of the area to life, this smartphone app. provides audio and text descriptions at numbered points of interest along the route through the Strath of Kildonan, which we would’ve otherwise driven right past.
- Thyme & Plaice, Helmsdale – we had lunch at this friendly wee local cafe where massive portions are to be expected.
- Driving time: 2 hours 20 minutes
- View the driving route here
Helsmdale: Local sights & activities
- Timespan Museum – muchmore than just a museum, Timespan is a community hub, art space, and cafe. The displays feature the fishing industry, local witch trials, the Pictish ‘Borrobol Stone’, and a replica croft house interior, blacksmith’s and shop.
- Badbea Clearance Village – just 5 miles north of the town is one of the settlements where residents of the Sutherland Estate were relocated to. A harsh and exposed location, the villagers often had to tether their animals and children to stop them from blowing away! From the crumbling ruins to infinite blue sea, this is a very poignant and atmospheric place.
- The Emigrants Statue – in a corner of Couper Park in the town, the statue pays tribute to the Highlanders who left for good, boarding ships for a long and heartbreaking journey into the great unknown.
- Dunrobin Castle, Golspie – 16 miles from Helmsdale is the truly enchanting 19th century Dunrobin Castle. Explore the grand interior from April – October or head straight to the glorious gardens for the best photos of the castle.