It has been dubbed the Route 66 of Scotland. Frankly, the North Coast 500 doesn’t need to hide behind any other great touring route. It has character and personality all of its own and is right up there with the very best road trips in the world. We’d certainly add it to our list of ‘top camper locations in the world’.
I’ve not long returned from a trip on this 500-mile (516 to be exact) circular route around the most northern region of the Scottish Highlands. Created in 2015, the North Coast 500 has fast become one of the most popular driving routes in Europe, and has already been ranked highly by top media like Rough Guides, National Geographic Traveler and Condé Nast Traveler. For campervans, we rate it highly too.
To say the North Coast 500 has been created suggests it’s brand new. Strictly speaking, the roads used have been there all along. It’s simply that a savvy marketing team has established a circular route on existing roads and given it a name.
But, the touring route was developed to boost a struggling economy in some of Scotland’s most remote regions and, in that respect, the creation of the route has worked. Campsites and cafes, art galleries and artisan craft workshops are springing up all over the place and village stores, vital to remote communities, now have extra trade coming through the door, keeping them alive for the residents that truly need the facilities.
There are no ‘North Coast 500’ signposts to follow, but you can download a map at www.northcoast500.com or pick one up in the Tourist Information Centre in Inverness, the city at the start and finish of the touring route.
The route can be travelled in a clockwise or anti-clockwise direction and while the dedicated website and most travel guides write about it clockwise, I recommend travelling in an anti-clockwise direction. Why? The west coast of the Scottish Highlands is massively more interesting, dramatic and appealing than the northeast coast. Travelling anticlockwise means the route gets better and better, saving the best until last rather than starting with the best and the scenery becoming something of an anticlimax – not that it’s ever dull!
Whichever way around you travel, you’ll see Inverness, the capital of the Highlands region, the famous John O’Groats (where many a charity road trip between this remote village and Land’s End on the southwest tip of mainland Britain has begun or ended) and the most northerly point ton the British mainland (Dunnet Head).
It’s all about the scenery. Views? You won’t know which way to look first. Oh, and the wildlife. There’s an opportunity to watch out for the largest bottlenose dolphins in the world, which live in the Moray Firth, take wildlife watching boat trips, see Orca Whales basking off the west coast, watch salmon leap the waterfalls as they return home upstream along Scotland’s famous salmon rivers and maybe catch a glimpse of a sea eagle or osprey.
You’ll find emerald seas and empty beaches that look tropical, some of the remotest moorland in Britain, remarkable rocky landscapes like the Assynt region. There are mountains to climb – either on foot, by bike or simply behind the wheel.
You can go wild swimming in freshwater lochs or take hikes in National Nature Reserves like Knockan Crag, a geological masterpiece created when two continents crashed together a good few (try 3,000) million years ago, and Benn Eighe, which protects the last remaining ancient Caledonian pinewoods in western Scotland. Or you could catch a ferry from Scrabster or Gills (near John O’Groats) and add on a few extra days in the Orkney Islands. And, at the end of an active day outdoors, pitch up and soak up the view while the kettle’s brewing.
Wild camping is accepted in Scotland, providing you don’t leave any trace of your stay, taking all litter with you. And you’ll find plenty of places along the North Coast 500 to camp out.
If you prefer a little more luxury, security, an electric hook-up, showers, laundry and rubbish disposal, there are some excellent campsites along the route. There’s a bit less freedom involved – be prepared that popular campsites in the UK get booked up in advance and many don’t accept arrivals without prior booking after 6pm at night.
I recommend the following campsites with fabulous locations:
Rosemarkie Camping & Caravanning Club Site (www.myccc.co.uk/rosemarkie): On the shores of the Moray Firth overlooking a mile-long sandy beach and next to Chanonry Point, regarded as one of the best places to see bottlenose dolphins.
Dunnet Bay Caravan & Motorhome Club Site (www.caravanandmotorhomeclub.co.uk): Direct access to the sweeping Dunnet Bay, close to Dunnet Head, the most northerly point in mainland Britain.
Sango Sands Campsite (www.sangosands.com): An outstanding location on the northwest corner of the North Coast 500 with all pitches overlooking the Pentland Firth and two superb beaches, with direct access from the campsite.
Shore Caravan Site (www.shorecaravansite.yolasite.com): On a headland with a superb beach and places to go walking. No advance bookings taken.
I saw lots of campervans from Germany, the Netherlands and France on the road. And there are lots of campervan hire companies out there too, renting out everything from a classic, vintage VW camper to six-berth motorhomes for families.
Copyright ©Caroline Mills, July 2017