Driving the North Coast 500 for introverts : 8 quiet days around Scotland
Welcome to my guide to the North Coast 500 for introverts! The North Coast 500 is a route around the North Coast of Scotland. Billed as the ‘ultimate road trip’ the NC500 is a 516-mile circular route around the far north of Scotland, taking in some beautiful sights. We’d been talking about driving it for the past few years. My 40th birthday this year gave us the perfect excuse to finally head on up to Scotland and spend just over a week amongst dramatic mountains, perfect sandy beaches, and the obligatory clouds of midges!
We’re both quite quiet people, and although we visited a few touristy places, we tended towards quieter places with nature rather than ‘things to do’. If you want an action-packed itinerary, this post probably won’t be for you – but there are some excellent ones here and here! If you like to amble along at a slower pace, looking at little things and standing at the bottom of mountains in awe, rather than hiking to the top, then this might be more of your bag.
This is a long post, apologies – I thought it would be better to include everything in one rather than splitting it, so feel free to grab a cuppa and work your way through! 😉
Planning to avoid the crowds
We completed the NC500 in early June, which was a great time to do so. We got lucky with the weather (it somehow didn’t rain until the last day!) and the long hours of daylight give you extra time to amble along slowly and savour the journey. The roads on the route itself were not busy – there were enough people obviously ‘doing’ the route to give you a nice sense of camaraderie (and some good waving to each other at passing places!), but not so many as to delay the driving time or to snarl up the roads.
I read that in peak season journey times can pretty much double, and I can see why – a lot of the roads were single track with passing places, and a few large campers or a particularly busy group of cars would easily cause delays. If you’re visiting in the summer months, there should be enough daylight to make an early or later start an option, to avoid peak times on the small roads.
Depending on where you are travelling from, expect traffic around the cities and popular Lochs (e.g. Loch Lomond and Loch Ness areas) and tourist traps such as Glencoe, which is to be expected on a sunny weekend.
We completed the route in a little Ford Fiesta, which was the perfect size for the single track roads (but was a little small for the amount of stuff we took with us, although we definitely over-packed!).The driving itself wasn’t too much of a problem for us, as we’re in our own little car, but if you don’t like crowded roads it is something to keep in mind. The route is signposted, and is made of wider roads and tiny single track ones with passing places. There are a lot of passing places, so generally you just wait your turn, but there are some *very* steep areas and tight roads. It’s not hard driving (apart from Applecross which is insane) but you need to keep aware so it can be quite tiring.
-Visit off-peak if you can (peak summer holiday season in the UK is usually late June/July/Aug).
-Consider early or late starts if you are there in peak season, make the most of the daylight.
-Plan to stop outside of the traditional touristy places – there is amazing scenery everywhere so you won’t miss out!
-Take snacks/supplies with you to avoid having to stop at busy shopping areas to pick up food.
We planned 7 days on the actual North Coast 500 route, and two recovery nights camping at Loch Lomond. This was absolutely not enough time, I’d recommend a leisurely 10 days at least, and if/when we return we will definitely take longer, stay longer in each place and give ourselves a bit of breathing space. We camped each night, and the putting up/taking down of the tent each day became dreary. It would have been nice to have a day in-between where we didn’t have to pack everything away straight away.
There are plentiful campsites and campervan parking, and you can theoretically camp/park in most places, although it’s so important not to cause a nuisance to the people who live on and around the route, or to leave a mess. We booked campsites a few months in advance, and they were filling up fast.
A few months prior, we bought a small North Coast 500 Map that had many points of interest, borrowed a guidebook from a friend which gave us some great ideas, and watched lots of YouTube videos! I looked up our National Trust for Scotland guide (we’re members as it’s cheaper than the England one and gets you into the same places!), and also got really into discovering old burial sites, cairns and barrows that I wanted to visit (although due to time we missed out a lot). Definitely plan everything out before you go, and pre-book places if you can do to avoid waiting to get in. We planned each day out in Notion, and added our Google map (downloaded), campsite details, and packing list so it was all in one place. Of course, planning your trip adds to the excitement, but knowing what you’re doing each day reduces stress levels if you’re on a tight schedule.
We planned to visit some old brochs, lochs, beaches and generally enjoy the views as we were driving along as this is more up our street. There are loads of fantastic hikes and beaches all around the route, and nature in abundance! There are also loads of distilleries, castles and historical sites – there really is something for everyone. You can see our route in more detail in Part 2.
-Plan your route in advance.
-Give yourself enough time to relax into your trip.
-Enjoy picking out must-do’s, it adds to the excitement and reduces stress – but feel free to detour!
-Pre-book camping and campervan spots online – avoid stress and know you have a space when you arrive.
-Research campsites before booking – some can be quite loud or particularly busy. Read Google reviews, look at pictures, and look for alternatives if you’re not feeling the vibe.
-Consider avoiding the main tourist attractions – just because you are on the NC500 doesn’t mean you have to visit the same places everyone else does! There are lovely quiet places away from the crowds.
Obviously, a lot of packing will depend on how you are planning to travel – we camped each night so took a lot more than if we had planned to B&B, for example. Everyone’s camping set-up is different, but we made sure we took some camping chairs, air mattress, pillows, sleeping bags, plus a gas stove, Trangia, and assorted fuel and utensils. I love my cosy 4-season sleeping bag as I get freezing no matter what the season is, or how many layers I have between me and the ground. Mr GF hates small sleeping bags so has a Pod Bag- a larger sized one to move around in!
This is Scotland, and there will probably be midges – we found Smidge worked really well. If your campsite allows fires, the smoke keeps them away too. It’s always worth taking a midge net (make sure it has really fine mesh as they can get through some of the traditional mosquito nets) to go over your head/face – pretty much everyone we saw was wearing them from dusk onwards so don’t worry about looking daft like I did initially, just embrace it as everyone will look silly along with you! It’s worth it not to be absolutely covered in bites the next day. If you do get bitten, I find Anthisan is excellent, and Mr GF got some roll-on witch hazel/aloe (from Home Bargains I think) and reports that it really helped. The Scottish Midge Forecast can help you to prepare by at least steeling yourself for the inevitable.
We had one tick bite and extracted the little bugger with a tick card and smothered loads of Germolene (antiseptic cream) on after – definitely worth taking. Keep an eye on tick bites and if you have any irritation, feel under the weather or get a ‘target’ rash, go to the doctor as soon as possible, as they can carry Lyme Disease.
As an introvert, I don’t like loud/busy campsites, so made sure I took some earplugs ( I have some ‘loop inspired’ ones from eBay that work just fine!) and lots of things to distract myself, like sketchbook and pens, books, Dobble (the best camping game), headphones and downloaded Spotify playlists etc. I also made sure I packed my ultimate ‘camping shower’ kit to get in and out any potential busy showers as quick as possible! See below for my kit recommendations 😉
There are numerous petrol points and shops along the route. We didn’t feel we needed to pack petrol, however if you’re in a car with a low mpg it might be worth having a can. Some of the pumps are community-owned which is excellent! Download your google maps or take an up-to-date paper map. We didn’t have any problems with mobile reception but worth it just in case.
-Plan your meals and take enough food so you’re ready to cook when you get camped.
-You will need midge repellent, plus something to put on after you inevitably get bitten. Midge nets look daft but are a lifesaver. Take a tick card just in case.
-If, like me, you aren’t a fan of noisy campsites, take some earplugs or earphones, as well as something distracting to do.
-You can get in and out of busy shower areas quickly with a bit of prep. See my ultimate camping shower kit at the bottom of the post…
We are two adults with no kids, so this definitely affects how we travel and what we look for in campsites and stopping places. If you’re travelling with kids there are some fab guides available, Families Can Travel has an excellent one here.
So, onto the itinerary. We spent 7 days driving the route and an extra night at Loch Lomond afterwards, before driving the long drive home. I’ve given details of where we camped each night, along with an ‘introvert rating’ which is just generally how peaceful I felt when there! This is absolutely no reflection of the quality of the campsites – all of them were really nice, clean and had good facilities.
Day 1: Home to Loch Ness
Day 2: Loch Ness to John O’Groats
Day 3: John O’Groats to Durness
Day 4: Durness to Althandu
Day 5: Althandu to Carn Dearg
Day 6: Carn Dearg to Sligachan, Skye
Day 7: Sligachan to Loch Lomond
Day 8: Loch Lomond
Day 1: Home to Loch Ness (via Glencoe)
Campsite: Inver Coille Campsite
Introvert Rating: 5/5
Quiet things to do: Spot Nessie (obviously), Invermoriston falls, Urquhart Castle.
We missioned up to Loch Ness in one day, which was a long trek, taking around 8 hours. Not being one for directions, I was absolutely stunned when we reached Glencoe – it is absolutely beautiful. I was thinking “where IS this place! It’s amazing!” and then realised where we were. It’s not often scenery actually truly takes my breath away but I felt it here. One of those rare places that makes you forget words and just gaze at the mountains in awe. It was busy – it was a Saturday – but just incredible!
After a loonng drive, it was lovely to arrive at this peaceful campsite which is tents only (plus a few comfy-looking glamping pods). The shower block was great, with separate toilets and two shower rooms with shower cubicle, sink and loo, sanitary products provided, everything you need. The glamping pods get their own facilities too. The only downside was lugging up our camping equipment from the car park (not far, admittedly) after the long drive, but there were wheelbarrows provided which were very much appreciated!
A really quiet campsite when we visited in early June. There was a small firepit area and picnic bench, it was ‘pick your own’ pitch and we decided to pitch up at the side next to the woodland. There was also another smaller field also available for tents. After the long drive, we had terrible stove coffee (in a pan as we couldn’t find our cups!), traditional pasta/beans combination, took advantage of the showers and fell asleep.
Day 2: Loch Ness to John O’ Groats
Campsite: John O’Groats Campsite
Introvert Rating: 3/5 (although our pitch, next to the sea fence was a 4/5 I reckon).
Quiet things to do: Chanonry Point, Hill o’ many Stanes, Cairn Liath Broch, Old Wick Castle, wander along the coastal path, get a coffee in the John O’Groats café and watch everyone taking photos next to the sign, dolphin spotting, boat trips (can be a bit crowded).
We set off from Loch Ness and stopped quickly in Drumnadrochit to grab a Nessie patch, then readied ourselves for the drive up the East coast to John O’Groats. Officially the NC500 starts in Inverness, so we drove through to feel as though we’d properly begun the trip!
One thing on our list was seeing the dolphins at Chanonry Point – I’d had a tip to go during the rising tide, as apparently they follow the fish in – but despite arriving in good time, there were no dolphins to be seen. Consoling ourselves with a great coffee from Bak Hoos, we headed off to Dunrobin Castle. Unfortunately, it was rather expensive for us (£14 each entry) so we wandered around the forest and played Ewoks on the little bridge in the carpark instead. Free castle!
We then drove about five minutes further and stopped to have a look at Cairn Liath Broch. This is over the road from where you park your car but is signposted. It was really nice and quiet – we could have stayed a good while longer watching the sea and the cows below (see photo at the top of the post!).
John O’Groats itself had a great vibe, we watched some people ride to the sign after cycling from Lands End and everyone came out to clap! It was quiet and really nice just to wander around, have a pint from the brewery, and sit looking out to sea with some binoculars. I can imagine it gets busy during tourist season though and it’s a small place so this is something to keep in mind.
I woke up on my 40th birthday in our tent, overlooking the sea, and spotted three dolphins – an excellent birthday present. We also saw our first hooded crows here. The campsite was busy, but our tent pitch was fab, right in the top corner next to the fence on the cliff – luckily it wasn’t windy! Showers were a bit hit and miss – mine was scalding hot no matter what temperature I set it too – so scalding I had to hop in and out every few seconds. Although I love stuff like that when camping, it’s like overcoming a challenge! I liked the vibe of John O’Groats and would love to go back.
Next time we will definitely spend more time on the East coast on the way up- there are a lot of ruins, burial chambers, stone circles and lovely things to explore.
Day 3: John O’Groats to Durness
Campsite: Sango Sands Oasis
Introvert Rating: 2/5 pretty busy, big campsite
Quiet things to do: Things Va, Dounreay Viewing Platform, Dun Dornaigil Broch, Melvich Beach, Strathnavar Museum, Ben Hope, Kyle of Tongue, Smoo Cave, Durness beach.
After a lovely birthday breakfast and some time spent spotting dolphins with my new birthday binoculars, we packed up camp, which was already becoming rather wearisome. I’d definitely recommend packing light if you are camping for just a single night in each place. With our trademark disorganisation, we ended up just shoving everything in the car which meant an air of chaos started to creep in around this point! But with everything shoved in, we wished good luck to the campervan behind us who were running and cycling JOGLE starting that day, and trundled off along the North-est of the North coast.
Today we ended up taking a diversion to an interesting-sounding broch, Broch Dun Dornaigil. This diversion ended up being 10 miles each way along a tiny singletrack road with grass in the middle, which was an excellent adventure! The road ran along a valley floor and past the bottom of Ben Hope, with a small carpark for those hiking up the mountain. There is some absolutely stunning scenery, some surprising encounters meeting a few cars coming the opposite direction on blind bends, and as we reached our destination, the scenery opened out into some sort of mystical land.
We found the broch (hoorah!) next to the sparkling Strathmore River, with cuckoos calling and bees buzzing all around, and it felt as though we were transported back in time somehow. Wonderful. Two more people turned up whilst we were there so although feeling very isolated, it was obviously not as out-of-the-way as we imagined, but still definitely a great quiet site and fantastic to spend a few hours with a picnic or walking the routes around Ben Hope.
Day 4: Durness to Althandu
I loved this day. Driving through spectacular scenery, we stopped so many times to take photos and just be blown away by how rugged and beautiful the landscape is here. We also saw a Golden Eagle, which was the highlight of the trip for me – it was HUGE! If you love hiking, this is the area for you. There are numerous places to pull over, park and head into the mountains. I would love to spend a lot longer here – the stillness, wildness and beauty is something else.
This was the day we tackled the ‘Mad Wee Road’ and yes it is mad! Steep, twisty and great fun, although very tiring to drive as you need a lot of concentration! We stopped halfway around at Drumbeg, as it seemed quite a few other people were doing too. There’s a viewing point and car parking area with a great view back up the coastline. Lots of waving to other cars as we passed by on this road, it seems everyone is slightly manic and running on adrenaline and sharing the camaraderie of “why are we doing this?!” It was fantastic, beautiful and I fully recommend tackling it.
We camped at Port a Bhaigh campsite which is divided up into a campervan area, tents/motorbikes and a top area near the carpark where it seemed a lot of smaller tents were located, which had a louder atmosphere than where we were. We picked a spot on a ‘shelved’ area with an amazing view out to the sea. The main site building was quite busy, mainly as it was the only place where there was wifi! There’s a small shop and some tables to sit out, too. Showers were nice and big, and there are good facilities. The beach is amazing, with huge round pebbles, and the water is stunningly clear, perfect for a swim or paddleboard. I loved the location, found the site bordering on a bit busy for me, even though it was nice and quiet at night, but it was a lovely place and I’d love to go back off-season.
Day 5: Althandu to Carn Dearg
Campsite: Sands Caravan and Camping
Introvert Rating: 3/5 (although sand dunes 4/5, huge campsite, lots of people but very spaced out)
Quiet things to do: Kayaking, local walks, visit Ullapool, Corrieshalloch Gorge.
The next day, we wound our way along the road to visit Ullapool. After the wild days in the Highlands, it was a bit of a culture shock to arrive in a bustling tourist town. A cruise ship has just docked, and there were boatloads of tourist being ferried to and from the huge liner – this was quite fun to watch but meant the town was very busy. We wandered around for a while and managed to grab a quick coffee before the crowds arrived, but for me it was a little too much – the shops are very tourist oriented and not really up my street. Having said this, the town itself is very pretty and the surrounding mountains are gorgeous. Eventually we wandered down to the harbour and watched some of the ships, then found a railing to lean on further down the road to look out at the cruise liner. We also spotted a seal popping up around the harbour.
On the way back to the car, two fighter jets roared down between the mountains which was amazing and very unexpected! If you know me you’ll know I am a bit of a plane spotting geek, so I loved seeing them whoosh past. On the whole though, Ullapool wasn’t the vibe for me – there were lots of people and crowded areas in a small town, and although there were some lovely shops I think the general busyness meant I didn’t really want to stay and wander around.
Much more up our street was Corrieshalloch Gorge. A quiet trail through woodland takes you on a bridge right over the gorge, and following the footpath you’ll come out at a viewing platform stretching out over the abyss – it was a long way down! We amused ourselves for quite a while creeping out to the end of the platform and trying to let go of the railing with both hands (very brave haha). The walk was nice and easy – although it sloped all the way down, which meant it was uphill all the way back but nothing too taxing. There are very clean loos and a coffee hatch/tables as well.
We ended the day at Sands Campsite which is HUGE, but has a fantastic minimum distance requirement between tents/vans which I thought was a great idea! The site is fab for kids – there’s a nice café, a well stocked shop, tv room, games room and even a BMX pump track. The facilities were absolutely sparking clean and spacious. The site was busy, but we managed to find a secluded spot right in a sand dune, so it felt like there was only us there! If you want to get a dune spot, get there earlier as they fill up quickly. There were some areas that were noisier or busier than others, however the site really is massive so you can pick a quieter spot with no problems. The beach is just on the other side of the dunes and again, is HUGE, so lots of open space. Word of warning though – apparently midges love sand dunes…
Day 6: Carn Dearg to Sligachan, Isle of Skye
Campsite: Sligachan Campsite
Introvert rating: 1/5 (busy and close-quarters camping)
Quiet things to do: Say hi to Callum the Stag (on Torridan Road), Applecross, tackling Bealach na Bà road, Lunch at The Bealach cafe to recover, Sligachan bridge, Glamaig horseshoe hike, Sligachan waterfalls, Isle of Skye.
Today was a long drive and in hindsight we should have split it up or spent longer on Skye. We detoured away from the official NC500 route to hop over to the Isle of Skye. Before this, though, we stopped to say a hello to Torridan road’s resident stag, Callum, who regularly hangs around the car park. We then steeled our nerves to tackle the infamous Bealach na Bà road, a steep, twisting road that seemed to reduce in the amount of actual road the further up the mountain we got. Our poor little Ford Fiesta, crammed with camping gear and two not-the-lightest of humans did most of the climb in 1st and 2nd gear, resulting in having to rest at the top to let the boiling radiator steam calm down a little. Luckily, the views were amazing.
If the way up was slightly nerve-wracking, the way down was just the same – a winding twisty road that looks amazing fun from the top, but definitely tests the brakes! Additionally, there were lots of people in big fast sports cars roaring up it at breakneck speeds, whom you really don’t want to meet on a blind bend or steep incline in a Ford Fiesta. With the radiator bubbling, the brakes stinking, and giggling with adrenaline, we made it down, took the obligatory photo with the warning sign at the bottom, and collapsed into the nearest café to recover. Excellent experience and 10/10 would do again, but maybe not in a Fiesta. You will definitely not get up the road in a large camper or with a caravan, so cars, bikes and vans only, I think.
From here it was still a long drive to Skye, and we probably could have stopped at many more places but felt like we had to push on. Eventually we arrived at Sligachan campsite, a windy flat site at the base of Glamaig mountain, and absolutely beautiful, of course. By this time I was a little grumpy about putting the tent up and down every day, and the site was busy, with people pitching up right next door – which is fine, but I’d prefer to be somewhere at the edge by myself! However, it was good for people watching – a particular favourite was a lady trying to swat every single midge with one of those electric tennis bat things, and quickly giving up. The site has an adventurous vibe – the nearest thing I can think is Vik campsite in Iceland, busy, international, friendly, everyone excited about getting into/coming back from the mountains.
Day 7: Sligachan to Loch Lomond
Day 8: Loch Lomond
Campsite: Loch Lomond Sallochy Campsite
Introvert rating: 2/5 (potentially higher depending on day/location)
Quiet things to do: Castle Aaaargh (Castle Stalker), Glencoe, James Bond Skyfall Road, kayaking, paddleboarding, West Highland Way, walks, wild swimming
Another long drive from Skye right down to Loch Lomond today. We decided to cut the bottom off the NC500 loop and instead head for some lakeside R+R. We headed down through Fort William, a shock to the system after the relative quietness of the past week – it was very busy. We drove back up through Glencoe, stopping this time to take some photos!
We also popped to see Castle Stalker (Monty Python’s Castle Aaargh) – we ended up parking in the Castle Stalker View café carpark, but there are some better directions to the location from Third Eye Traveller here. From there, the last leg to Loch Lomond was bittersweet – there were a lot more cars on the road and it really felt like the holiday was coming to an end. Stopping at a supermarket to stock up on food, we really were back in civilisation, and I just wanted to turn round and head back up to the North Coast again!
We’d booked one of the private woodland pitches at Loch Lomond’s Sallochy Campsite for a relaxing two nights after the week spent driving, but we were both expecting it to be a lot quieter and more private than it was. The West Highlands Way runs right past the woodland camp area, which is great to see everyone wandering along (some in fine voice which was excellent!) but soon after we arrived, people started to pitch tents in the private single woodland pitch areas. The main campsite is a further few minutes walk along the path, and has specific pre-booked spots for those travelling the West Highland Way, but there are no signs to direct walkers along the path which leads to some misunderstanding with the pitch bookings. Each woodland pitch has the booker’s name stapled at the entrance but this is hard to see if you’re not looking for it.
This all got sorted after a while, and we settled down to our nights under the trees. There is a no-alcohol rule on site which was flagrantly disobeyed by a few people, along with loud music from camps drifting through the trees during the day although everything generally quietened down at night. Rangers are only on site for a limited time during the day.
The site has a limit on bookings but is definitely not as quiet as I was expecting. There were also quite a few ‘party boats’ and jet skis on the Loch itself, but luckily the Loch is massive and they disappeared out of range quite quickly! This was probably due to it being a nice sunny weekend, and I think the site itself would be a lot quieter during the week. However, overall our woodland camp was generally chilled out, and we were lucky with our tent neighbours on the next pitch who were very quiet – some pitches lead into each other (like ours), some are single ones, but you can’t specify, so cross your fingers!
The first day we did absolutely nothing, I spent the whole day reading a whole pile of magazines and doing some sketches. The Loch was right outside the tent – you really are Lochside, and can swim/paddleboard/kayak to your heart’s content. Being under the trees was lovely. The compost loos were a right trek from our pitch but clean to use. There are no showers, and only two sinks – one for personal hygiene and one for washing up (people were using both for both though). With the amount of campers, an additional sink would have been useful. I’d recommend just jumping in the Loch to clean yourself though!
We hired a firepit and a bag of logs and just enjoyed chilling next to it, plus the smoke kept the midges away. The next night, it rained for the first time all trip, just in time to attempt to stuff our soggy tent back into the bag and wheel everything back to the car in numerous trips. It was time to head home!
I would love to do the NC500 again – I felt there was so much we didn’t see as we only had a certain amount of time to get round the route. It’s the perfect holiday if you are on the introverted side like me – lots of craggy, wild scenery, not many people about, and you can make your sightseeing stops as quiet or busy as you like. I’d like to ‘complete the loop’ next time just to say I’ve done it, but I loved the vibe of Skye and would like to spend some more time there too! Next time I’d recommend at least 10 days, if not a full two weeks even, and spending more time in each location to feel like we’ve really ‘arrived’ and have some down time to recharge.
Definitely research the campsites and read TripAdvisor and Google reviews to see if it will be your vibe before you get there. Consider wild camping if you can ensure you’ll leave no trace. Detour off the route and make the most of the amazing scenery and wildlife – places like Glencoe are stunning but very busy, and there are countless other areas to explore and marvel at.
All in all, we had an amazing time – can’t wait to go back!
Sal’s Ultimate Camping Shower Kit
-Bag for Life/IKEA bag
-Two towels: one for your body, one sacrificial one for the floor (RIP)
-Hair towel (I have this one from Decathlon and it’s ace)
-Bag for toiletries – make sure it has a loop to hang it up
-All your soap/shampoo/toothpaste/toothbrush etc
-A small wax wrap or a food bag
Go into shower, put your hooks over the door and use to hang up your towels, toiletries bag & bag for life. Feel smug. Keep your sliders on for your whole shower or you will 100% get trenchfoot. Quickly spray the whole area down with antibac. Dry clothes go in your bag for life.
Have your shower, put hair in towel if needed, wrap one towel around yourself to dry. The sacrificial towel is there to sit on/stand on if needed (benches are always covered in water and/or other unidentifiable things). Extract dry clothes from bag for life, replace with all wet towels etc.
Mop up if required (some sites have a squeegee/mop) and head to sinks to do your teeth etc. Don’t forget your hooks! At the sink, the wax wrap/food bag is to balance your toothbrush/contacts/soap/makeup/whatever on next to the sink.
Done? Vacate asap and feel like a pro!