Ultimate 6 Day NC500 + Skye Itinerary
This Scottish road trip is one of the best road trips I've ever been on. The scenery, the culture, and the easy accessibility from my home in England mean I definitely will return over and over again. I highly, highly recommend you go as well, and here is my 6 Day Itinerary to get you started on planning!
Full disclosure, we did the trip in a camper van in early September, which meant that although the weather was a bit hit or miss (although far better than expected for the time of year!), we were very happy and cozy in our little van. You could definitely do the trip in tents, or even staying at hotels and airbnbs along the way, but I personally loved travelling by van. If you don't have one of your own, look up camper van rentals in the area! We definitely saw many whilst out there on the road!
A quick note about camper vans: While it is technically ok to wild camp in Scotland, it does tend to not be looked upon very favourably by the locals, due to people not obeying the right to roam policies and leave no trace. If you do decide to wild camp, please make sure you do your research on the rules, and use apps like Park4Night to make sure you're parking in places that won't anger anybody. We stayed at campsites for the duration of our trip, so I'll be recommending the places we stayed.
Kilchurn Castle: Before you join the NC500 official route, there are a few castles on the Western side of Scotland that you shouldn't miss. Kilchurn was one I'd dreamed of visiting for so long - and it definitely didn't disappoint! It was also the first place we saw a Highland coo, which was an amazing experience for the first day!
Glen Etive Skyfall Road: Famous for being a filming location for the James Bond Skyfall movie, Glen Etive is a beautiful spot. Think bubbling streams all around mossy peaks - it feels very quintessential Scotland.
Glencoe: Glencoe is stunningly beautiful, and a classic sight in the Scottish Highlands. The valley is about 12 miles long, so won't take you long to get through, but it's definitely worth a stop off to admire the scenery and stop for lunch.
Photography House: Nestled in Glencoe is the famous Lagangarbh Hut, also known as the "Wee White House", which is a popular spot for photographers. Originally built as a crofting cottage, the building is set amongst an impressive mountain backdrop, and is easy to find, just off the A82.
Hagrid's Hut: Scotland is full of beautiful filming locations, and a bunch specifically associated with the Harry Potter films. You can go to see the spot where Hagrid's Hut was filmed (although be warned that there's no actual hut there!) at 56°40'03.1"N 5°03'36.5"W
Tonight's Campsite options:
Glenfinnan Viaduct: Another famous filming location, the Glenfinnan Viaduct is a must see when in the Scottish Highlands. If you want to see the train crossing the viaduct, you'll need to go between Monday 3rd April to Friday 27th October 2023 for the morning crossing, and between 1st May to 29th September 2023 for the afternoon crossing (2024 timetables have not yet been released). The morning crossing reaches the viaduct around 10:45, and 3pm - although I would get there at least half an hour early in order to find a vantage point, and to allow for fluctuation in the schedule. The official West Coast Railways website is the best place to go for up to date information. I would also leave around 10 minutes to park and walk up to the viaduct, as parking can get quite full.
Loch Eilt: Another filming location very close by, Loch Eilt was the setting for Dumbledore's grave in the Harry Potter movies. It's also on the route for the Jacobite Steam Train, so you may catch the train going by, just as we did! It's also a stunning place to have a bit of lunch - we made sandwiches and enjoyed them by the lake.
Mallaig > Armadale Ferry: The easiest way to get over to Skye from the mainland is the ferry from Mallaig to Armadale. It takes only about half an hour, but you can see some of the most beautiful views from the boat. I would strongly recommend booking thest tickets ahead of time on the Caledonian MacBrayne website, and checking the time tables for the day you intend on travelling.
Neist Point: We drove right from the ferry to the Neist Point lighthouse on the Westernmost tip of the island. It's a geographically stunning spot, with dramatic cliffs and a winding path down to the lighthouse. It was super windy and rainy when we went, but it would be amazing to see it at sunrise or sunset.
Dunvegan Castle: The castle was closed when we were on the island, but it's quite close to Neist Point, and worth a stop if you have the time. It was originally built in the 13th century, and remodeled in the 19th to look like a Medieval castle, and is an incredibly striking building. Entry is £16 for the house and gardens as of November 2023.
Fairy Glen: One of the most topographically interesting spots in Scotland, the Fairy Glen on Isle of Skye is famous for its conical hills, "Castle Ewan" rock structure, and stone spirals.
Old Man of Storr Hike: On day three, we woke up early for a sunrise hike up the Storr to see the iconic natural rock structures. In addition to the rocks, the hill offers extraordinary views of the surrounding water, even in the mist, as we discovered. The hike is around 4km, and I would allow about an hour and a half to complete - more time if you want to spend some time at the top taking photos and admiring the view.
Portree Wildlife Boat Trip: We were lucky that the skies cleared a bit in time for our mid-morning wildlife boat trip. Though it's obviously not guaranteed that you'll see wildlife, we were lucky enough to see eagles, seals, and have a pod of dolphins swimming alongside our boat! I would highly recommend booking ahead, as there are a limited number of boats that go out per day from the Isle of Skye.
MacKenzie's Bakery, Portree: We stopped to get bread for sandwiches and sweet treats at many places along the trip, but MacKenzie's stands out as being one of the best! Their salt and pepper bread is a frequent topic of discussion in our household, even a year on from the trip. We also loaded up on doughnuts to eat in celebration at the next stop on the trip...
Applecross & Bealach Na Ba Viewpoint: Back on the NC500 route, the Applecross pass is one of the most beautiful and daunting roads on the journey. A single track road winding through the mountains, it's the steepest road in Scotland. It's said that it should not be attempted by large vehicles or novice drivers, but we were absolutely fine in our camper van. I would say to trust your instincts here - if you're confident you'll be safe driving the road, the views are so incredibly worth it. And I highly recommend a doughnut celebration at the viewpoint at the top.
Tonight's Campsite Options:
Knockan Crag: We started our morning on day four at Knockan Crag National Nature Reserve, a beautiful trail that combines sculpture art with nature and beautiful views of the nearby lochs. We took the upper red "strenuous trail", which I would personally classify as moderate. It took about an hour to complete the loop.
Hermit's Castle: Easily one of the most confusing stops along the route, the Hermit's Castle is a tiny structure, built in the 1950s, and is known as Scotland's smallest castle. It's nestled among the rocks and looks out to sea, and is actually a very picturesque spot. We managed to fit our entire group of 10 adults inside the castle, but there wasn't much room for anyone else!
Achmelvich Beach: Right next to the Hermit's Castle, Achmelvich Beach is a beautiful spot with white sand and clear blue water, definitely not something you'd expect to find in the northernmost bit of Scotland! We grabbed an ice cream from the local shop and enjoyed it here - even on a chilly September day, a beach day is a beach day!
Ardvreck Castle: Affectionately referred to on our trip as the "Aardvark Castle", this place is actually a beautiful castle ruin, dating back to 1490. When we pulled up to the castle, we were surprised to hear bagpipes playing! It was a genuinely super cool moment to take in this crumbling castle in a remote part of Scotland, hearing the bagpipes play in the background. Though I can't promise there will be bagpipes when you go, it's a beautiful place to stop.
Loch na Gainmich Waterfall: We realized we had just enough time before sunset to reach this waterfall before we needed to head to our campsite. I would recommend definitely wearing hiking shoes, as the trail to the waterfall is very rocky and slippery. It's a beautiful and secluded spot, and we were the only people there, which felt very special. I can imagine that this place would be great to stop off at on a hot summer day.
Smoo Caves: One spot we weren't able to go to on this route was the Smoo Caves - however, it's somewhere I'd definitely return to go see. If you're less inclined to do the hikes on this day, this would be a great alternative. This day is a fairly driving intensive day, so unless you're setting off early, or completing the trip in the summer with lots of daylight, this may or may not be a stop on your journey.
Tonight's Campsite Options:
John O'Groats: Although technically Dunnet Head is 2.5 miles North of John O'Groats, this spot has become famous for being thought of as the northernmost part of the mainland UK. It's worthwhile stopping here, if not only for the iconic picture with the landmark signpost.
Duncansby Stacks: Just a few miles away from John O'Groats (and exponentially better, in my opinion) are the beautiful Duncansby Stacks. Massive carved shards of rock poking out of the North Sea, the stacks make an incredibly dramatic picture of the Scottish coast. If you want, it's possible to park at the stacks and walk along the coastline, admiring the cliffs.
Old Keiss Castle: Just a few miles down the East side of the coastline is Old Keiss Castle. Another crumbling old ruin, this one is situated on a cliffside, and looks like it could fall into the sea at any minute. To visit it, park on the high street in Keiss village, and then take the footpath along the coast to the castle.
Old Pulteney Distillery Tour: Because this day is less driving-intensive, you should have the time this afternoon to take a tour of the Old Pulteney Whisky Distillery. Though I'm not the hugest fan of whisky, the tour was very interesting and comprehensive - you get to see behind the scenes of how Scottish whisky is made in a distillery dating back to 1826. They end the tour with a tasting that'll seriously put some hair on your chest.
Wick River Campsite to stumble to back from the distillery
Dunrobin Castle: One of the most beautiful castles on the route is Dunrobin Castle. The house of the Earls and Dukes of Sutherland, it looks like a real-life fairytale castle, and was used for many years as a filming location for the Antiques Roadshow. It costs £13.50 to visit the house and gardens, and is open daily from April to October.
Cocoa Mountain Dornoch: One thing we knew from the start we wanted to do on the trip was visit Cocoa Mountain. Reputed to have the best hot chocolate in Scotland, this place certainly didn't disappoint! They also sell chocolate truffles, which are dangerously yummy. We definitely came away from this place feeling very full and happy.
Fyrish Monument: Depending on how much time you have, this place is beautiful. We weren't able to stop, as we needed to be in Inverness at a set time, but this is a short 6.5km hike a few miles north of Inverness, and is reputed to have beautiful views across the area. It's one of the key places we'll definitely be coming back to on our next trip to Scotland.
Inverness: We had a lovely lunch in Inverness of local Cullen Skink soup (a sort of smoked seafood chowder), and spent a leisurely afternoon in the beautiful Leakey's Bookshop.
Urquhart Castle: On the shore of Loch Ness, Urquhart Castle is another beautiful ruin that was once a medieval fortress, with views over the iconic lake. It's also a filming location for Outlander, and a great place to try to spot Nessie!
Day Seven: On the seventh day, we drove the final few miles on the A87 back towards where we started the trip, and then headed south to Edinburgh. If this is your plan, too, make sure you check out my 15 Things to do in Edinburgh post!
Final Thoughts: Scotland is absolutely amazing, and it's absolutely possible to spend weeks along the NC500 in order to see everything, but we were happy to have a week of a good mix of cultural and outdoor activities. We absolutely plan to make this trip again in the future, and particularly are interested in visiting the Western side of Scotland again, and spending more time hiking and seeing the natural beauty of the Highlands and Skye with a bit more time.
It's highly debated whether or not it's better to drive the NC500 clockwise or counter-clockwise, but I am genuinely glad we started the week on the Western side. There were a lot more hikes and longer days of driving in the West, and I'm glad that we did that leg of the trip early on, when we were feeling a bit fresher! Ultimately though, it's completely up to you which way around you do it. It's going to be absolutely spectacular either way.
If you enjoyed this post, make sure you're keeping up with my travels on Instagram at @elise.abroad to see my latest travels! Thanks for reading, and I'll see you next time!