A white cottage on the beach with aqua water near Clashnessie Alternative North Coast 500 Route

WIT: Alternative North Coast 500 Route Overview

Scotland’s famous North Coast 500 route is slowly growing in popularity, year after year. But you won’t need to worry about any of the complaints you’ve read online. This spectacular stretch of Scotland is still empty enough to enjoy some of Britain’s best beaches and atmosphere all to yourself. But only if you do it right.

Plan your North Coast 500 (NC500) route properly, and it could be the difference between finding crowded sites ruined by selfies and hidden gems with nobody there. It could be a beautiful, remote beach to yourself for the night or joining packs of holiday makers in a caravan park. 500 miles is a lot, what’s the best way to go? Which sites are must-sees? What can’t you miss?

A couple walk on the white sands of Clachtoll Beach, Lochinver
Beautiful Clachtoll

At WITRAG Travel we did things slightly differently, and we absolutely nailed it. Modest as always. We’ve designed a North Coast 500 Alternative Route which works on any budget. You won’t need to pay crazy Bed and Breakfast (BnB) costs if you follow our lead. You might not even have to spend anything on accommodation at all.

We’re going to tell you everything you need to know about where you’re going, and why our North Coast 500 Alternative Route might just be the best option for you too. If you like adventure, excitement and getting off the beaten path, then you’re in the right place.

The Traditional North Coast 500 Route

The traditional North Coast 500 Route follows a clockwise circle, beginning in Inverness. You’ll head west to Torridon, then as far north as Durness. After that you’ll blast your way east to John O’Groats, before returning south to your start point in Inverness.

The official NC500 route map © northcoast500.com

We’ve met people that did this in 5 days. A long weekend. Everybody’s on a different trip, and we all have different levels of annual leave. We get that. But seeing all of this in 5 days? Bad news – you’re not going to see very much at all.

And that’s just sticking to the ‘official’ route. Some of the best things to see involve wee detours off the main route. Instead, we’ve created a plan for a 10-12 day trip which guarantees to blow you away. Take your time and make a proper holiday out of the trip. When are you next going to be back here? And what’s the point in whizzing past some of the most beautiful places in Britain just so you can ‘do’ the NC500’? Take your time, relax, and actually connect with the place you’re visiting.

Our Alternative North Coast 500 Route

Ignoring the East

Not happy with sticking to the trusted, traditional route, we started our research. We wanted to know what we had to see and what we couldn’t miss. We wanted to know what was in each area, and what we’d miss by stubbornly sticking to the circle. The results were damning.

First off, we dropped the east. You only have to read so many other reviews that mention the east was ‘a little less interesting’ and ‘less dramatic’. Rather than slating it, other bloggers would talk about a wild, encapsulating landscape until they got to a limp, slightly boring east. So, that was out.

WEE TIP: sorry, to anybody proud of the east of Scotland. We still really want to go and see it, and we’re sure it’s wonderful. Just…not on this trip. We’ll save that for another trip in itself. We suggest you do too.

The sands of Ard Neakie Lime Kiln on Loch Eriboll, Scotland
Picturesque Ard Neakie Lime Kiln with views of Loch Eriboll
Enjoying the West

Also, the west of Scotland is ridiculously full of things to see. It’s not even funny. All of the best beaches are in the north-west and the west. The best mountains, best roads, best scenery and prettiest wee villages are all here too. We decided we were going to focus all of our time here.

Why Go Anti-Clockwise?

Call us crazy, but we also didn’t like the idea of ‘finishing’ our trip as far away as we could be. The idea of spending 7-10 days exploring, all the while heading north is fine. But what happens if you get stuck near the end of the trip? What if you break down and you literally could not be further from Inverness, Edinburgh or Glasgow? Our group had work on the Monday, it didn’t bear thinking about.

So, we decided to head south instead. On our first night, we would drive as far north as we could and head anti-clockwise. This would mean that the whole time we were exploring, we were heading closer and closer back to civilisation.

We also had the added bonus of doing the trip in the opposite direction to literally everybody else. There were fewer queues of traffic behind us and we got a different perspective on the whole trip.

A girl stands with her back to the camera with Ben Loyal in the background, Tongue, Scotland
We got a lovely sunset. Ben Loyal is unmissable on the left

Off the Beaten Path

Now, a lot of the things we recommend seeing and doing aren’t technically on the North Coast 500 Route. All the better for it. While jet-setters will be determined to ‘do’ the traditional route as fast as possible, they’ll be missing all the best bits. That leaves them to the clever travellers like us!

Just to show you how many highlights aren’t on the traditional North Coast 500 Route, we’ve split it up like this:

The North Coast 500 Traditional Route Highlights
  • Viewpoint Tongue
  • Ard Neakie Lime Kilns & Loch Eriboll
  • Ceannabeinne Beach
  • Sango Sands Beach
  • Scourie Beach
  • Kylesku Bridge and Viewpoints
  • Loch na Gainmhich
  • Clachtoll Beach
  • Loch Assynt & Ben More Assynt
  • Corrieshalloch Gorge
  • Gruinard Bay
  • Poolewe
  • Gairloch
  • Loch Maree
  • Torridon
  • Applecross
The North Coast 500 Alternative Route Highlights

The majority of the above, PLUS:

  • Achnanclach Bothy & Loch Loyal Wild Swimming
  • Ben Hope & Waterfall Swimming
  • Balnakeil Beach
  • Balnakeil Craft Village
  • Faraid Head
  • Kearvaig Bothy
  • Cape Wrath
  • Oldshoremore Beach
  • Polin Beach & Shegra Beach
  • Sandwood Bay
  • Handa Island & Shorehouse Restaurant
  • Scourie Headland Walk
  • Clashnessie Falls
  • Old Man of Stoer Walk
  • Achmelvich Bay
  • Alltan’abradhan Bay
  • Suileag Bothy & Suilven
  • Stac Pollaidh
  • Shenavall Bothy & the Fisherfield 6
  • Shenavall Bothy & An Teallach
  • Mellon Udrigle Beach
  • Mellon Charles & the Perfume Studio
  • Firemore Beach
  • Big Sand, Gairloch
  • The Badachro Inn
  • Red Point Beach
  • Beinn Eighe Ridge

Doesn’t that speak for itself? Focus on the west of Scotland, take some detours off the classic North Coast 500 Route and you’ll find a world of things to see.

The North Coast 500 Alternative Route Itinerary

So, how long do you need? Where will you actually go? This is the itinerary we followed, and if you stick to something similar, you’re going to have an amazing trip. We’ve also included a list of some possible extensions at the end, which you may want to think about if you have longer.

Day 1 (drive north)

After half-days at work on Day 1, we hit the road. That means this also works for people that fly in and arrive in Glasgow or Edinburgh in the afternoon. You can get straight up north in a night.

WEE TIP: Café Ralia makes for a decent pit stop on the A9. Be sure to avoid Blair Atholl, it’s the worst place in Scotland. We also found a local shop in Ardgay with an impressive whisky collection and public toilets nearby too.

We drove all the way north to Achnanclach Bothy and spent the night there enjoying the whisky, the fire, and wild swimming. Check out our full post in Part 1: Around Tongue.

  • Highlight: the Lairg landscape (on your drive north)
  • Sleep: Achnanclach Bothy
Two girls stand outside Achnanclach Bothy near Tongue, Scotland
Big smiles at Achnanclach Bothy
Day 2 (around Tongue – Durness)

Now you’re only a 45-minute drive from the Ben Hope car park! Enjoy your climb before a scenic drive takes you to Durness via Ceannabeinne Beach. Re-charge at Sango Sands Restaurant and Bar, photograph the Sango Sands Steps and take in beautiful Balnakeil Beach. You can even spot puffins on the Faraid Head walk. Check out our full post in Part 2: Tongue – Durness for more things to see, restaurants and accommodation.

  • Highlight: Ceannabeinne Beach
  • Sleep: Balnakeil Beach

A bird's eye view of Cieannabeinne Beach, white sands and turquoise waters

Day 3 (Durness and Kearvaig Bothy)

Enjoy waking up on Balnakeil with a morning swim. Check out Balnakeil Craft Village and, if caves are your thing (explain yourself), Smoo Caves too.

It’s not easy to narrow it down, but there’s every chance the next part was actually the highlight of our entire trip. You’ve come this far, just commit and go see Cape Wrath. Make sure to do it the best way possible, by spending an unforgettable night at Kearvaig Bothy on the way. Check out How to Get to Cape Wrath and A Guide to Kearvaig Bothy for more.

  • Highlight: Kearvaig Bothy
  • Sleep: Kearvaig Bothy
Day 4 (Cape Wrath and Spectacular Beaches)

Now we’re talking. Walk back from the bothy to the road and spend the morning at Cape Wrath. You’ll be back at East Keodale Pier for noon.

You’ve been busy so far climbing up hills and battling the elements at Cape Wrath. Take this afternoon to enjoy the beaches in Scotland’s beautiful north-west corner. After lengthy discussions, we decided Oldshoremore Beach was our favourite one on the whole trip. And to top it all off? A trip to the fabled Sandwood Bay. Find out How to Get to Sandwood Bay (link coming soon) and everything you need to know about the area in Part 3: Durness – Scourie.

  • Highlight: Oldshoremore Beach
  • Sleep: Sandwood Bay
Day 5 (Sandwood to Scourie)

You’ve got a bit of a walk back to Blairmore Car Park from Sandwood Bay, but time is on your side. When you get back to the car, you might as well check out Polin Beach and Shegra Bay too. It’s a straightforward drive to Scourie where you can do the Scourie Headland Walk, set up your tent, and grab some tasty food for the night. Again, you’ll find everything you need to know about the area in Part 3: Durness – Scourie.

  • Highlight: fresh seafood
  • Sleep: Scourie Headland
The open door of a tent on Sandwood Bay
Checking outside the tent for ghosts
Day 6 (Handa Island & Achmelvich)

You’re up early today – hopefully you didn’t enjoy too many local gins last night. Spend your morning on wonderful Handa Island. After all that bird-watching, enjoy the scenic drive to Achmelvich Bay. There are plenty of viewpoints on one of the best drives in the whole of Scotland. Find out where they are with our North Coast Alternative Route Part 4: Around Lochinver.

  • Highlight: the Unapool – Achmelvich drive
  • Sleep: Alltan’abradhan Beach
Suilven, Canisp and Cul Mor rise from nowhere near Lochinver
Breathtaking scenery in Assynt
Day 7 (Stac Pollaidh & Gruinard Bay)

After another morning swim, grab breakfast in Lochinver. Then it’s time to take the scenic drive south and climb Stac Pollaidh (Polly). It’s easy-going walk and full of character. You’ll find everything you need next in lively Ullapool, so re-fuel and re-charge. After eyeballing Corrieshalloch Gorge, you guessed it, time for another scenic driver to Gruinard Bay. Find out everything about the area in Part 5: around Ullapool.

  • Highlight: Stac Pollaidh
  • Sleep: Gruinard Bay
A group of hikers celebrate at the top of a craggy hill in Scotland
The dangerous, true summit of Stac Pollaidh
Day 8 (Beach Day around Gairloch)

How does a beach day sound? There are so many in the area that you might as well. Take your pick from Mellon Udrigle, Firemore, Big Sand and Gairloch (Gaineamh Mhòr) Beach. Catch your breath at brilliant Badachro Inn and wild camp on Red Point tonight. Everything you need to know is in our handy post on Part 6: Ullapool to Gairloch.

  • Highlight: Gairloch Beach
  • Sleep: Red Point Beach
Green forest, blue water, white sand and mountains in the distance in Scotland
Gruinard Bay provides a stunning viewpoint
Day 9 (head back)

Unfortunately, this is when we had to head back to Glasgow. If you have more time, then you should be checking out the areas around Torridon and Applecross. There are more beaches worth your time, and Bealach na Ba is a classic stop.

Possible Itinerary Extensions

Time was still against us – even with the best part of 10 days. We would have loved to spend more time on the road. If we did, these are the top things we should have tried to squeeze in.

  • Weeping Widow Waterfall (Loch na Gainmich) – 1-2 hours
  • Suileag Bothy and Suilven Hike – 1N/1D
  • Shenavall Bothy & the Fisherfield 6 – 1N/1D
  • Shenavall Bothy & An Teallach – 1N/1D
  • Beinn Eighe Ridge – 1D
  • The Sand to Applecross Bay Walk

The North Coast 500 Alternative Route Budget Breakdown

Getting Around:
  • Car (free)
  • 1.5 tanks of diesel £110
  • Shared between 5 people

Total: £44

Accommodation:

We wild-camped every night. We were wild-swimming every day and camped in some spectacular spots but yeah, there’s no doubt we smelled a bit. Thankfully we were all in it together.

Total: free

Attractions:
  • Cape Wrath ferry (return) £15
  • Cape Wrath van £26
  • Handa Island return ferry £30

Total: £71

Local Costs:
  • x2 bottles of Smidge £15
  • lunch/camping food: £40
  • pub food: £81
  • alcohol: £163
  • cafes: £28
  • snacks: £45
  • firewood: £20

Total: £392

Total for 9D/8N: £507

The above budget is for x2 people. Food and alcohol costs are likely to vary. We drank our fair share.

This budget breakdown isn’t quite an exact record of what we spent, but should give you a rough idea of what you’re likely to spend.

The Scottish Weather

The famous Scottish weather! If you’re here for a week, you’re going to see it all. This holds especially true up north in the Highlands. Alfred Wainwright once said “there’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing.” We don’t agree either, but he had a point: be prepared for anything.

Sadly, at some point you’re going to see rain. It’s Scotland. Stereotypes all come from somewhere, no? Just hope you see some sunshine to make it worthwhile. Pack some waterproofs, an umbrella and even wellington boots if you need to. Yes, we know you’re probably visiting in summertime. The advice doesn’t change.

A girl sits in the rain with a rainjacket in Scotland
There will be rain, so be prepared. Not happy, just prepared

We found the Met Office website and app to be the most accurate. Like true losers, we tried a few different ones and relied on this one the most. That being said, the forecast changes every day. Do not trust a Scottish weather forecast more than 2-3 days in advance. Ok? It changes all the time.

That being the case, you’re best to have a fluid plan on your road trip. Don’t pre-book activities you can’t change. We checked the weather every day and made our plans from that. For instance, on the day we were supposed to go to Oldshoremore Beach, the weather was terrible. The following day, it was going to be lovely. Rather than being stubborn and sticking to the plan, we adapted and went to Cape Wrath/Kearvaig Bothy in the rain. Then we went to Oldshoremore the day after we originally planned and the weather was indeed perfect.

To have the best trip, we strongly recommend that you have a loose plan, and change it to suit the weather when you need to.

How to Use Passing Places

In the Highlands, you’re going to come across an awful lot of Passing Places. Since many of the routes are still narrow, single-lane country roads, you’ve no option but to use them. Use them like a sensible, sane and considerate driver. The main rule is to not to drive like a total fucking dick. Unfortunately, a lot of people do.

Since there are some sharp bends and you’ll have no idea what’s coming in your direction, drive a little slower than you normally would. If you and another driver meet on the road, try to reverse to the most recent Passing Place behind you and allow them to pass.

A road with Scottish highland mountains in the distance
The road trip of dreams

Drive with some respect. Please, please, please. Local people are patient and are used to visitors in rental cars. But if you whiz around every corner, cause danger and ride up behind people, you’re going to be exactly what they’re complaining about.

It’s also a good idea to keep an eye on any activity behind you. If there’s a queue of cars waiting behind you, pull in and let them overtake you. This is especially true if you’re in a campervan or caravan. Driving in the Highlands is simple if you stay aware of what’s going on around you. Act your age, drive slowly and carefully, and there won’t be any problems.

How to Wild Camp in Scotland

Wild Camping in Scotland is unique in that, by and large, it’s legal. With the landowner’s permission, and a few other conditions, you can pitch up just about anywhere you like. Sadly, this ‘right to roam’ has been abused in some parts of Scotland, resulting in bans coming in to place.

It’s a simple concept, but one which is easy to get wrong. Most of important of all, leave no trace. Pitch up late and leave early – wild camping is not supposed to be a free spot that you party on for a week. Nor is it supposed to be a spot which is easily accessible by car (whoops, guilty). Ideally you’ll have walked for miles, and you’ll be walking for miles afterwards. Unfortunately, that practice probably only applies to a small percentage of wild campers.

Campers sit around a campfire on Sandwood Bay during sunset
There were a lot of happy wild-camping spots on our trip

Take all of your litter with you. Is that bold enough? Don’t ruin the fun for everybody else. For more information on wild camping in Scotland, check out Visit Scotland’s quick guide.

A Guide to Scotland’s Bothies

Scotland’s bothies provide hikers with safe, dry and accessible free accommodation for a night. But, you’ve guessed it, there’s a best-practice code with bothies too. Again, it’s simple. Treat bothies, the people inside them, and the surroundings with respect. The Mountain Bothy Association (MBA) do a fantastic job of maintaining these mountain shelters. Find out more about how to use bothies and what to pack with Tiso’s excellent Beginner’s Bothy Guide.

We made great use of Geoff Allan’s ‘The Bothy Bible’. It’s not popular with some old-school, diehard bothy-users but we found it to be a very useful book.

How to Walk Scotland’s Munros (safely)

Scotland’s Munros are our favourite hills in the world. Daniel’s been DIY-tackling them for nearly 10 years and made all the mistakes a walker could make, being very fortunate to escape one particularly difficult situation at all.

They’re breathtaking, stunning, rewarding and addictive. But those very hills claim lives every single year and can be extremely dangerous in the wrong conditions. If you don’t have the right equipment, experience or knowledge, a simple walk can quickly become dangerous. Love from Scotland have written a must-read post on How to Start Hill Walking in Scotland.

The North Coast 500’s Best Beaches:

There are an awful lot of beaches in Scotland. Afterall, we have over 6,000 miles of coastline. Thankfully, there are also an awful, awful lot of outstanding beaches in Scotland.

Water laps white sand with highland hills in the background, Oldshoremore Beach, Scotland

You could easily visit 25+ of them on any North Coast 500 Route. We’ve chosen our favourite ones and put them in a separate post: the North Coast 500’s Best Beaches (link coming soon). This is entirely open to debate – leave a Comment below if you disagree. Have we missed a wee cracker? Let us know!

The Main Towns You’ll Pass Through

Here’s a handy summary table of all the towns you’re likely to pass through.

Tongue
  • Shops? Limited
  • Bars, Cafes, Restaurants? A few options
  • Petrol Station? No
  • Official Accommodation? A good selection
  • Phone Signal? Limited
  • ATM? No
Durness
  • Shops? Good options
  • Bars, Cafes, Restaurants? A few options
  • Petrol Station? Yes
  • Official Accommodation? A good selection
  • Phone Signal? Superb
  • ATM? No
Scourie
  • Shops? Limited
  • Bars, Cafes, Restaurants? A good selection
  • Petrol Station? Yes
  • Official Accommodation? Limited
  • Phone Signal? Limited
  • ATM? No
Lochinver
  • Shops? A good selection
  • Bars, Cafes, Restaurants? A good selection
  • Petrol Station? Yes
  • Official Accommodation? A good selection
  • Phone Signal? Decent
  • ATM? Yes
Ullapool

You’ll find everything you need in Ullapool

Poolewe
  • Shops? A few options
  • Bars, Cafes, Restaurants? A few options
  • Petrol Station? No
  • Official Accommodation? A few options
  • Phone Signal? Limited
  • ATM? No
Gairloch
  • Shops? A good selection
  • Bars, Cafes, Restaurants? A good selection
  • Petrol Station? Yes
  • Official Accommodation? A good selection
  • Phone Signal? Decent
  • ATM? Yes
Torridon
  • Shops? Limited
  • Bars, Cafes, Restaurants? Limited
  • Petrol Station? No
  • Official Accommodation? A few options
  • Phone Signal? Limited
  • ATM? No
Kinlochewe
  • Shops? Limited
  • Bars, Cafes, Restaurants? A few options
  • Petrol Station? Yes
  • Official Accommodation? A few options
  • Phone Signal? Limited
  • ATM? No

There you go! You should have all of the information you need above, and with our specific posts, to have an amazing trip through the Highlands. Get in touch on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter to let us know how your trip goes!

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1 COMMENT
  • Kim
    Reply

    We just finished up a month long camping trip around the north coast, loosely following the NC500, wish we’d come across this great post earlier! Would have saved us a lot of planning and staring at Google satellite view 🙄. On the plus side, seems we made it to many of the places you guys mention – definitely agree that most of the best bits are off the main road! Glad to have found your blog 👌

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