Geographically, culturally, and architecturally, Scotland’s North Coast 500 — a 516-mile closed loop of the upper highlands — appears nothing like the iconic backbone of America. Yet that is exactly what the Scottish Tourism Board chose to compare it to.
And although the similarities end at none at all, we are grateful for this shrewd piece of marketing — because it has opened up a huge chunk of our own backyard that has, until now, been relatively overlooked.
The timing also couldn’t be better. In an era where aeroplane travel is under ever closer scrutiny and the still economic uncertainty of negotiating with the EU, there is perhaps no better time to start exploring our own Scotland — which is the most beautiful in the world after all.
Day 1: The ‘Capital of the Highlands’
The North Coast 500 begins at Inverness, the unofficial capital of the Scottish Highlands. Getting there from London will take about 10 hours by car. The sort of journey that one would be expected to take driving Route 66, so actually, there is another similarity that the Scottish Tourism Board picked up on before we did. But Inverness is a gem of a place. It is as lively as any city but walkable, clean and hospitable. You will find plenty of places to stay and sufficient nightlife entertainment before starting out on the road.
Inverness is the start and endpoint of the North Coast 500, so if you do visit, be sure to book a night in a hotel for a good night’s rest after finishing up on the journey.
Day 2: The ‘Edge of the World’
After departing from Inverness, the first landing point is what’s known as the ‘Black Isle’, which is neither black nor an island. From then on, it is a two-hour drive westward, across the highlands to Bienn Bahn, also known as Scotland’s “white mountain”.
The white mountain is a great spot for mountain climbing, and if you plan in advance it is possible to organise an excursion there. Like much of the Highland terrain, it bears all the hallmarks of intense glacial activity many thousands of years ago, in the form of jutted rock croppings, and haphazard boulders that do not organically belong to the area.
Past Bienn Bahn and following the North Coast 500 northward leads to the ancient settlement of Applecross, nicknamed the ‘edge of the world’ because of the way it seems to hang over the Atlantic ocean. On the way up, the driver will be treated to views (weather permitting) of the Cuillin Mountains on the Isle of Skye. Applecross is a great place to get some food and rest, especially if you have spent the day mountain climbing. The village also has some curious archaeological digs to check out in the morning, too.
Day 3: Turquoise Waters and Bone Caves
A morning on the North Coast 500 starting from Applecross will take a driver straight north. If the weather is clear the landscape out to see — the Outer Hebrides — even has a rugged southern European look. That is, the water is a gorgeous turquoise hue. This drive is also a wildlife spotter’s paradise, including deer and the very distinguishable great Highland cattle.
On this stretch, stop at Ullapool for some fresh Atlantic seafood. The penultimate destination is the fascinating but eerie Bone Caves, a refuge for ancient wildebeests (and even humans) from the ferocious Scottish winter weather.
From the Bone Caves, it’s a little over an hour’s drive to Durness. Again, if you aren’t doing the journey in a motorhome, Durness has plenty of places for weary travellers to rest up.
Day 4: Coastal Cliffs and Neolithic Monuments
Waking up early in Durness is a great pleasure, and especially in the summertime, where it never quite goes fully dark. Durness is stuffed with nearby beaches, walking trails, and natural birdwatching points. If fishing is your thing, then some of the best fishing in the UK is to be had just two hours eastward, in the clear waters that fill the gulf between mainland Scotland and the Orkneys.
From then on it is a straight run back down to Inverness. But there is one final, crucial point of ancient history to absorb before going back. That is the Grey Cairns of Camster. These ancient burial chambers were built by the ancient Celtic peoples over 5,000 years ago. Definitely spend some time checking out this forgotten part of Scottish history.
Scotland’s North Coast 500 is a win for motorhome enthusiasts because it is a lot to see, yet at the same time can be explored within three-to-four days. This makes it easily liveable even in the smaller motorhomes or camper vans, as a spacious bed and hot shower awaits only a long weekend away.
But many people also choose to travel by car and spend the nights at hotels and B&Bs instead. One sustainable option would be to hire an electric car from Inverness. Despite its reputation as a remote and sparsely populated corner of the world, the North Coast 500 has over 30 separate charging stations for electric cars. So you will never be caught short of fuel to get about.
If you are looking inward this year, instead of outward, for a getaway from the trappings of ordinary life, Scotland’s more environmentally-friendly and beautiful ‘Route 66’ awaits.
This article was written by Neil Wright of We Buy Any Motorcaravan, a motorhome and recreational vehicle service based in Burton-On-Trent, Derbyshire UK.