When you think about the ultimate road trips in the UK, and possibly in the world, the NC500 Scotland road trip is going to be up there with some of the very best.
With Scotland’s rugged terrain, mountains, lakes and lochs, beaches and an array of wildlife to see, the NC500 road trip certainly lives up to the hype and does not disappoint.
We’re full time vanlifer and we recently embarked on our very own NC500 roadtrip as part of our Scotland travels, and we were absolutely blown away. We knew it was going to be good, but we didn’t realise quite how good. We wanted to share with you in this blog post what we got up to on the NC500 and also the other parts of Scotland that we travelled.
We hope that this blog post will help inspire your own Scotland roadtrip!
Scotland Quick Facts
Our Route – Loch Lomond – Cairngorms National Park – Loch Ness – Urquhart Castle – Plodda Falls – Fairy Glen Falls – Black Rock Gorge – Whaligoe Steps – John O’Groats (Duncansby Head) – Puffin Cove – Ben Hope – Sango Bay – Smoo Cave – Kylesku Bridge – Wailing Widow Falls – Torridon – Isle of Skye – Portree – Kilt Rock and Mealt Falls – Old Man of Storr – Fairy Pools – Hector’s Highland Cows – Glenfinnan Viaduct – The Corpach Shipwreck
Duration – 4 weeks
Currency – Pounds £
Language – English
Fuel / LPG Cost – Roughly £2 a litre at the more remote service stations and around £1.80 a litre everywhere else
Toll Roads – None
Water / Electricity / Emptying – We found services to only really be available at campsites. There were a few campsites that allowed us to drop in just to use their services without staying overnight, at a small charge of £5 which we thought was great.
Laundry – Available at campsites, laundrettes and Revolution laundry machines in various camping locations
Supermarkets – All of the main UK supermarket chains – Morrisons, Tesco’s, Asda, Aldi, Lidl
Our Scotland Van Life NC500 Road Trip Destinations
For our very first stop in Scotland just over the Scottish borders we went to Loch Lomond which is part of the Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park. It was the very first place in Scotland to be awarded national park status back in 2002 and the park was officially opened by Princess Anne in July 2002.
It is a freshwater loch in the Southern Uplands of Scotland. It is on the boundary between Argyll and West Dunbartonshire, close to Dumbarton. The village of Luss lies at its eastern end and Tarbet at the western end. The geographical location, size, depth and volume of water mean that it holds some of the best-preserved examples of freshwater biodiversity in Europe.
It is also the biggest loch in Scotland, stretching a whole 27.5 square miles.
Unfortunately when we arrived in Scotland the weather was horrible, it was so so rainy (which we would eventually get used to on this trip!) so we actually didn’t manage to explore this area as much as we had hoped.
We managed to find a free camping spot to stay overnight right on the loch and they even had a small toilet block there and a water tap so we could fill up with water. The downside was that we were also being eaten alive by midges (another thing you have to get used to wild camping in Scotland!).
We explored the surrounding area of where we were parked up, and admired the loch from the comfort of the camper van where we would stay dry, but other than that, we moved on pretty quickly.
We hope to go back to Scotland again in the near future, and this is an area that we would love to get back to and explore more, as we were just not able to do it justice. It would have been lovely to visit in dry weather where we might have been able to get out kayak out on the water and enjoy it some more.
Cairngorms National Park
Head inland from Loch Lomond and you reach the Cairngorms National Park.
The Cairngorms is the biggest national park not only in Scotland but the whole of the United Kingdom, covering a large part of the eastern Highlands and west Aberdeenshire. It is a mountain range in the Scottish Highlands, and home to a wide variety of wildlife. The vast former park is also one of the last areas to remain largely untouched by human development. The landscape varies greatly from fertile valleys with farming communities, to peat bogs, upland heaths, forests and wild moorland.
The views as we were driving through the area were some of the very best views we have seen and there are so many laybys where you can pull over and enjoy the views and also some free camping spots. We highly recommend a visit to this wonderful part of Scotland.
Our 2 favourite things that we did whilst we were there were to visit the Balmoral Estate and to visit the Cairngorms Reindeer Centre. We’ll tell you more about them both below:
Balmoral Castle & The Balmoral Pyramids:
Balmoral Castle is a private residence owned by the Royal Family. It was purchased for Queen Victoria by Prince Albert in 1852 and is now owned by Queen Elizabeth II. The queen comes to Balmoral every summer to spend a 2 month holiday and it is widely thought to be her majesties favourite residence.
We loved our trip to Balmoral Castle and exploring the pristine, beautiful grounds. It cost us £15 each to enter, and dogs are allowed in the outside grounds. The only room inside the castle that is open to the public is the ballroom where there is a small exhibition showing some of the queen’s outfits, portraits and more. Dogs are not allowed in the ballroom.
There is a car park onsite at the castle. It cost £5 to park our motorhome there and you can stay the night which costs £10.
Within the grounds of Balmoral is something that you wouldn’t expect to see in Scotland, pyramids! There are 14 stone pyramids (cairns) in total and the cairns commemorate members of the British royal family and events in their lives. The largest and most famous pyramid being the one that Queen Victoria built in memory of her husband, Prince Albert.
We only saw 2 of the pyramids, one dedicated to Princess Beatrice which is located on the way up to the largest one dedicated to Prince Albert. We found them to be absolutely fascinating! There is a hike required to get to them which is quite steep, but they are worth the effort and the views from the top where the largest pyramid is located are stunning.
The pyramids are not actually very well known about either, we had the whole pyramid to ourselves when we were there.
Balmoral Castle and the Balmoral Cairns are well worth a visit in our opinion. Balmoral Castle is beautiful and it’s easy to see why the queen loves to spend time here so much, and the cairns make for a really unique experience whilst in Scotland.
Cairngorms Reindeer Centre:
Possibly our favourite thing that we did in Scotland! The Cairngorm reindeer herd is Britain’s only free ranging reindeer herd and they can be found in the Cairngorm mountains. The Cairngorm Reindeer Centre is located in Glenmore Village, just outside of Aviemore. Reindeers have lived here since 1952 when they were introduced by Mikel Utsi and his wife.
If you would like to know more about the Cairngorm reindeers then we have written a separate blog post all about them which you can find here – Reindeer In Scotland | See The Only Free Roaming Reindeer Up Close
The reindeer centre has a car park on site and they carry out daily hill trips so that members of the public can go and see the reindeers and even feed them. Knowledgeable guides take the group out into the hills where the reindeers can be found, and explain all you need to know about them.
The hill trip costs £20 per adult and £15 for children, with children under 3 being free.
We cannot recommend this experience enough, we absolutely loved it and won’t forget it in a hurry.
Loch Ness – Urquhart Castle
Urquhart Castle ruins sit on the shores of Loch Ness with the most beautiful views over the loch. 1000 years of history belong to this castle. We were able to climb the castle tower, see inside a prison cell and imagine what this castle would have been like when it was busy and thriving many years before.
If you would like to know more about Urquhart Castle then we have written a blog post which you can check out here – Urquhart Castle | Vist The Loch Ness Castle Ruins
Urquhart castle costs £12 per adult to enter, and dogs are not allowed. There is free parking on site for motorhomes and campervans, a café and a shop.
We really recommend a trip here. The location of the castle is great, the ruins have been preserved amazingly and the views over the famous Loch Ness are fantastic too.
Plodda falls is in the Scottish highlands, a popular tourist destination. The water cascades down through the steep valley which has been carved out by an ancient glacier.
There are three sets of falls that flow into a river. The lowest falls are the tallest and they flow with relative ease but there is not much water to power them to their full potential because they have not yet been fully charged by the winter rain and snow. The middle set of falls has more power from all the snow melt from higher up in the mountains. The top set of falls have had plenty of time to charge and have plenty of water running over them, so they create a deafening roar as well as a lot more mist than at any other fall on this stretch of river which creates its own unique atmosphere.
There is free parking and car parks onsite for campervans and motorhomes and then around a half an hour round hike to the falls and back to the car park.
Black Rock Gorge
Black Rock Gorge is a dramatic waterfall that runs deep down into a 40 metres deep cavern. It is made most famous for featuring in Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire. It is featured during the tri-wizard tournament when the horntail dragon chases Harry around the grounds of Hogwarts.
If you would like to know more about Black Rock Gorge, it’s history and how to find it, then we have written a separate blog post with lots more information that you can check out here – Black Rock Gorge – The Mystical Harry Potter Filming Location You Need To Visit
Whaligoe Steps are a set of steep and narrow steps built into a cliff face down to a naturally formed harbour, Whaligoe Haven, and they are a manmade wonder.
These steps are a popular stop on the NC500 and with good reason, the views from the harbour and the surrounding cliffs once you get down the steps are just so beautiful.
The stairs have been cut into rock, with a stone wall on one side for safety. There are about 365 steps in total, descending about 200 feet (60 meters), but it’s worth it for those who make their way to the end of this scenic path.
There is a very small car park for the steps but please be careful where you park as some of the places are for the residents. We would suggest getting here early so you might have a better chance of getting a parking spot, and this is definitely not a spot to spend the night.
If you would like to know more about the Whaligoe Steps then we have written a separate blog post with more information which you can check out here – Whaligoe Steps – A NC500 Complete Guide
John O’Groats – Duncansby Head / Stacks
John O’Groats is the most northerly point in Scotland and is often considered the starting point for any journey to the Far North of Scotland. The name John O Groats is derived from the nearby ruined abbey, which was once a site where pilgrims traditionally crossed a holy river on foot, crossing to get to Saint Columba’s shrine in what is now known as Iona.
The name John O’Groats comes from two Gaelic phrases- “Ionad Chuan” (the Monastery of St. Columba) and “Tobair Croite” (the crossing place).
In recent times, it has been used as a symbol for Scottish tourism with John himself being depicted wearing a kilt and playing bagpipes on top of his horse. It has become popular amongst tourists who want to be able to say they have reached one end of Britain or another with their visit.
Of course you have to get a picture with the famous John O’Groats signpost too!
Once we had our photo with the signpost we headed on a lovely coastal walk round to Duncansby Head and the Duncansby stacks which we would definitely recommend doing.
If you would like to know more about the Duncansby Stacks then we have written a blog post which you can check out here – Duncansby Stacks And Lighthouse
Puffin Cove is a stand out attraction on the NC500 and one that we think is pretty under-rated as it is not too well known or busy, when we were there we had the whole place to ourselves.
Puffin Cove is located on the North Coast of Scotland near Thurso and is a must-see spot for wildlife enthusiasts as it is absolutely full of puffins.
If you would like to know more about Puffin Cove then we have written a blog post which you can check out here – Puffin Cove – Best Place To See Puffins On The NC500
Puffin Cove was one of our favourite places that we visited on the NC500 and we managed to get some really cool photos of the puffins!
There are 282 Munros in Scotland and Ben Hope is the most northerly Munro. It is considered to be one of the ‘easier’ Munros to climb – but that does not mean it’s easy by any means! We found it to be more difficult than Ben Nevis. The weather was awful when we climbed it too which didn’t help, it was very rainy which meant the ground was very wet and slippery, making the descent very difficult.
This was the first munro we had ever climbed though, so we felt a big sense of achievement once we had finished!
We managed to wild camp for the night at the bottom of the start point, its also on park4night and it is the perfect place to free camp and to climb Ben Hope. It’s only a layby on a very quiet road so no one is going to be driving past but there is only space for a few vans. In the summer months we imagine this would be a really popular spot. We were the only ones there when we stayed and it was so good to be able to get straight into the van and rest after that huge walk!
Sango Bay is one of the most northerly beaches in Scotland and one of the most beautiful beaches we have seen anywhere in the United Kingdom. With golden sand, blue water, rocks and sand dunes, this varied beach has a bit of everything.
This part of the NC500 is also one of the most amazing in our opinion. The landscapes and stunning scenery are some of the most beautiful we have seen anywhere in the UK and across Europe.
Smoo Cave is a natural sea cave located in Durness in the Scottish Highlands and is another popular tourist spot on the NC500.
If you would like to know more about Smoo Cave, then we have written a blog post with more information which you can check out here – Smoo Cave Durness – An Incredible Cave On The NC500
The Kylesku Bridge is a reinforced concrete suspension bridge carrying the A894 road across Loch a’ Chàirn Bhàin in Sutherland, Scotland. It is one of the most photographed bridges in the north of Scotland and with good reason, it is very impressive and it is surrounded by the most incredible scenery.
You may think that an old bridge doesn’t sound very exciting but we would recommend visiting it on your NC500 route as the views in the area are incredible!
There is a car park right next to the bridge where you can park your campervan or motorhome and also a couple of spots for wild camping either side. We stopped for lunch and to take some photos, you need to visit on a sunny day so that you get the best views.
If you would like to learn more about Kylesku Bridge then check out our blog post that we have written about it here – Kylesku Bridge – Everything You Need To Know
Wailing Widow Falls
The Wailing Widow Waterfall is perhaps Scotland’s most magnificent waterfall. This waterfall is also unquestionably one of Scotland’s best-kept secrets, and it should surely be on every NC500 bucket list. We visited early in the morning and had the whole place to ourselves.
It’s worth mentioning, however, that the waterfall is not visible from the road, and there are no prominent signposts, amenities, or designated parking areas. As a result, if you’re looking for the falls, you’ll want to pay close attention. Be prepared as it is a short walk if the weather isn’t very good it can be challenging, there is no path and you have to walk by the side of the stream that can be higher if it has been raining.
We wouldn’t recommend doing this if you were not for the ability to walk on uneven rubble and wouldn’t recommend it for pushchairs or wheelchairs.
We have written a blog post with more information about the Wailing Widow Falls which you can check out here – Wailing Widow Falls | How To Find The NC500 Best Waterfall
The town of Ullapool on the west coast of Scotland is a popular tourist destination due to its scenic beauty, fresh fish, and beautiful beaches. The town has everything from traditional Highland pubs to tourist shops and restaurants. There are also boat excursions available for those who want to explore the sea. The population of Ullapool is about 1900 people, but it swells in the summer due to tourism. The population are employed primarily in the fishing industry and tourism.
We stayed at a lovely seafront campsite for the night in Ullapool and hiked up Ullapool hill which gives stunning views over Ullapool and beyond. We also went to the pub and enjoyed fish and chips. We definitely recommend Ullapool if you’re looking for a harbour town to stop at on the NC500.
The Torridon Hills are a range of hills and mountains in the Torridon area of north-west Scotland, extending some 40 km from east to west. They form the northernmost part of the Grampian Mountains and are bounded by Loch Maree and Loch Torridon to the south, Glen Carron to the east, Glen Torridon (and its corries) to the north-east, Gleann Beag to the north-west and Gleann Mòr (and its corries) to the west. The mountains rise steeply from lowland ground: Ben Klibreck is 3 km inland but is 1,640 m high; Beinn Dearg reaches 1,427 m but is only 2 km south of Kinlochewe.
The scenery around the Torridon area was absolutely amazing. Torridon is a great place for hiking and there are tonnes of hiking routes to choose from.
Isle of Skye
The Isle of Skye is a Scottish island in the Inner Hebrides. It is separated from the mainland by the Skye Bridge. The largest and capital town on the island is Portree which is a thriving harbour town. The island has many castles, such as Dunvegan Castle and Elgol Castle. We’ll discuss in more detail below what we did on the Isle of Skye:
Portree – The largest and capital town on the island is Portree which is a thriving harbour town. The town is in the south of the island, close to Broadford and Kilbride. It is one of two towns on Skye with a population greater than 5000 people, with a population exceeding 7000. The town’s name means “tree-covered hill” and derives from its location near Ben Hiant below which there are some trees. We didn’t stop for very long in Portree but enjoyed spending just a couple hours of short time wondering around the town and checking out the shops, cafes and restaurants before moving on.
Kilt Rock and Mealt Falls – Kilt Rock is a sea cliff which is given it’s name due to it’s pleats which resemble the pleats of a kilt. Mealt Falls is a beautiful waterfall that falls over the side of Kilt Rock. This is a popular spot on the Isle of Skye that does get very busy, and there’s not much space where you can actually get a good view of the waterfall, so we would recommend coming here early in the day where it should be less busy and you should get a good view.
The Old Man of Storr – The Old Man of Storr may seem nothing more than a rocky hill but it is probably the most popular spot on the Isle of Skye and countless people make the journey to see it every year. It is said to have the face of an old man and that is where it gets it’s name.
It takes around 1 hour and a half – 2 hours to walk to and back to the onsite car park so it’s important to be prepared for that whether you visit in the summer or winter.
When we visited we could hardly see it as the weather was bad and the fog completely covered it so all we saw was the outline of it unfortunately. We definitely want to try and go back when it’s not so cloudy so that we can see it better.
The fairy pools – The fairy pools are a collection of crystal clear green and turquoise pools, streams and waterfalls set at the foot of the Black Cuillin mountains of the Isle of Skye. The fairy pools are a popular spot for wild swimming if you’re brave enough to take on the cold water!
The fairy pools were our favourite thing that we did on the Isle of Skye, we thought they were so beautiful and really enjoyed the walk.
If you would like to know more about the fairy pools then we have written a blog post where you can find out more here – Fairy Pools – Isle Of Skye
Hector’s Highland Cows – When you think about Scotland there’s one iconic Scottish mascot that I’m sure will pop into your mind – the Highland Cow! It’s on everyone’s bucket list to see and get photos of these gorgeous, friendly cows, and we found the perfect spot to do this.
Hector’s Highland Cows is found in Sconser on the Isle of Skye and if you’re looking for the best place to see Highland Cows on the Isle of Skye, then this is the spot.
If you’d like to visit yourself and would like to know more about Hector’s Highland Cows, then check out our blog post here – Best Place To See Highland Cows On The Isle Of Skye
If you are a Harry Potter fan then you will recognise the Glenfinnan Viaduct instantly. There are many Harry Potter filming locations in Scotland but in our opinion, this is the best. The viaduct was featured in the Harry Potter films with the Hogwarts Express (The Jacobite Train) travelling over it carrying students on the way to Hogwarts.
If you’d like to find out more about the Glenfinnan Viaduct and the Jacobite Train then you can check out our blog post here – The Glenfinnan Viaduct – Best Harry Potter Spot In Scotland
The Corpach Shipwreck
The Corpach Shipwreck was originally a fishing boat built in the mid-1970s, named the MV Dayspring. After retiring the vessel in 2001, the Dayspring was left at Kinlochleven Pier until a strong thunderstorm blew her off her docking in 2011. The storm carried her across the Loch and ran the vessel aground where she lies today.
The Corpach Shipwreck may not be the most well known spot on the NC500 but we definitely recommend a trip here. It’s fascinating and unusual to see and also has some incredible views of Ben Nevis in the background on a clear day.
If you’d like to know more about the Corpach Shipwreck and it’s history, you can check out our blog post here – Corpach Shipwreck – The Wonder And Beauty Old Boat Of Caol
The mighty Ben Nevis is the highest mountain in Scotland and the whole of the United Kingdom, and is situated in the Fort William area of Scotland. It was once a massive active volcano which exploded and collapsed inwards on itself millions of years ago. It stands at 1345m and it’s a difficult climb but no trip to Scotland is complete without being able to say that you conquered this mighty peak.
This is a popular peak to climb and can get very very busy in the high season so we would recommend starting the climb as early as you can to beat some of the crowds.
The weather changed dramatically towards the top of the peak and the rain and fog rolled in so we couldn’t see anything at all, no views for us!
We climbed up via the Mountain Track which is considered the “easiest” track for beginners – do not be fooled, it is not easy! We managed to get up and down in 5 hours which we were really proud of for our first attempt and considering the weather conditions too. It was very rainy on the descent which made the stones very slippery and so it took longer than it would have in dry conditions because we had to be more careful not to slip over and take things a little slower.
We were really proud to be able to say that we had climbed the highest peak in the United Kingdom.
So there you have it, the ultimate Scotland van life adventure. As you can see, we did so much and covered so much of Scotland, but there is also an absolutely huge amount of Scotland that we didn’t do, and that we’d love to go back and do in the future.
Scotland is one of the very best countries that we’ve been to in the UK and Europe whilst we’ve been doing van life, and we couldn’t recommend it enough. We feel it is also the best place in the UK for van life by far – if this post hasn’t convinced you to visit Scotland, we don’t know what will! Put the weather and the midges to one side and the rest of Scotland will absolutely blow you away.
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I love everything about travel, from seeing new places, learning about new cultures and trying new foods! I believe that travel is one of the best forms of education you can get, I have learnt so much about myself and about the world from travelling all over. Travel is something I feel so passionately about, and I love the fact that we are now lucky enough to have this opportunity to do what we love as much as we can, it’s a dream come true.
Before we started travelling, I worked in local government in administration. I had been in this job for several years and had reached a complete brick wall where I was so fed up, but didn’t know what else to do. The only thing I knew that I wanted to do was to travel, and had wanted to do that for many years.
There were hundreds and hundreds of places on my wishlist that I wanted to go to, and I knew that going on a weeks holiday maybe twice a year if we were lucky wasn’t going to cut it.
After being in lockdown due to the Covid pandemic, and working from home staring at the same 4 walls every day, 2021 seemed like the perfect time for us to take the risk to finally do what we had dreamed of for so long.
It was a hard decision to completely change our lives, but so far it has been the best decision we have ever made!