GUEST POST: Sam & Toccara “Exploring Scotland’s Incredible Landscapes”
In early April, we set off on what turned out to be one heck of an adventure! With our Aero campervan from Bunk Campers, we explored some of Scotland’s most incredible landscapes. This wasn’t our first time driving a large campervan, but it was our first time driving a large campervan on the left side of the road! It’s a good thing we spent the previous 3 weeks in Ireland with a rental car, as we would’ve been a little more nervous driving the 19.5 ft (6m) campervan without this prior experience.
Driving along the scenic North Coast 500, discovering Isle of Skye, and exploring Cairngorms National Park made for a memorable trip we won’t soon forget! So, want to know what we did during our 12 days on the road? We’ll outline what we did each day in the event that you’re looking for some inspiration for your next road trip through Scotland.
Day 1 – Picking Up Our Campervan
Following our flight from Ireland, we were picked up at the Edinburgh airport and transported to the Bunk Campers depot to collect our Aero campervan. Following a thorough explanation of how everything worked, we were on our way! Passing by the majestic mountains of Cairngorms National Park, we made our way toward Inverness to start the award-winning North Coast 500 drive, but not before stopping off at a grocery store to stock our fridge! The only item on our itinerary for the day was picking up our campervan and driving to the start of the North Coast 500. Because we didn’t set off with our campervan until about 5 pm, there wasn’t much daylight left. The sun had already dipped below the horizon when we pulled into Auchnahillin Holiday Park just before Inverness.
Day 2 – Getting Started on The North Coast 500
Unfortunately, the first official day of our road trip was greeted with dark clouds and heavy rain. Not exactly the forecast we were hoping for. The North Coast 500 route is set up in a circular manner around the northernmost Highlands, starting and ending in Inverness. Because of this, we passed right on through the town of Inverness as it was pouring rain, figuring there was a chance that the weather would be a little nicer on our return visit. So, what do you do when it’s raining? You look for something to do inside! Black Isle Brewery was our first stop along the North Coast 500 route and it was just what we needed to lift our dampened spirits! Black Isle Brewery is Scotland’s only organic brewery, producing barrel-aged oatmeal stout and pollinated heather honey beer, among other delicious brews. By the time we wrapped up our brief tour and tastings at the brewery, it was on to Chanonry Point in Rosemarkie to try and spot bottlenose dolphins just off the shore! And as bad luck would have it, it was low tide for most of the day, and the dolphins only come around during high tide. At least at this point in the day, the rain had subsided, even if just for a little while! Honestly, we didn’t plan much for our first full day along the route, as we wanted to have some time to look at maps and brochures we had picked up at the Visit Scotland Visitors Center to plan the rest of our journey. After exploring the charming 13th-century small town of Dornoch, including its impressive cathedral and expansive beach, we pulled into the Dornoch Campsite and called it a day!
Day 3 – Castles, Cairns, and Sea Stacks
We awoke early, eager for the day ahead, though the sun wasn’t quite ready to make an appearance. Hoping that the skies would clear up soon, we packed everything up and took off in search of adventure! Well, maybe we were a little too eager, as we arrived to Dunrobin Castle way ahead of their opening hours. Dunrobin is a castle resembling a French château and is one of Britain’s oldest continuously inhabited houses, dating back to the early 1300s. Rather than waste over an hour waiting for them to open, we admired the castle from the outside before continuing on. Just past the castle about 2 miles down the road, we passed Càrn Liath (an Iron Age broch) on our way to the Clynelish Distillery. Following an hour-long tour of the factory and warehouse, we sampled some of their award-winning whiskey. And just as soon as we left, the rain really started to come down! Shortly into our drive we had to pull the campervan into a parking area for about an hour to wait for the rain and fog to dissipate just a little. The great thing about having a campervan in this instance is that we just laid down in the back and read our books for a while and then played a game of cards at the dining table before driving off again. We visited the Grey Cairns of Camster for a brief history lesson and then continued on through Wick and on to John O’ Groats, Scotland’s most northeasterly point and home to the spectacular Duncansby Stacks.
Day 4 – Exploring Beaches, Cliffs, and Caves
On Day 3, we visited Scotland’s most northeasterly point (John O’ Groats), and the first thing we did on Day 4 was visit the most northerly point on mainland Britain- Dunnet Head, just a few miles further down the road. The views were amazing, but the wind was intense! We continued on, passing beautiful beaches, and came upon a hidden gem by simply following a sign to nearby Portskera Harbour. The views overlooking the seaside cliffs and Melvich Beach called for a stop for lunch! It’s so neat being able to have waterfront dining in many places along the North Coast 500. Yet another perk to traveling the route in a campervan! Though the rest of the afternoon still consisted of a few scattered showers, we saw some insanely gorgeous landscapes, including overlooks at Bettyhill, Borgie Glen, Torrisdale Bay, Coldbackie, and Skerray Harbor. We passed the ruins of Castle Varrich poised high on a hillside near the impressive inlet of Kyle of Tongue. After enjoying quintessential Scottish Highlands scenery (including a beautiful rainbow) around Loch Eriboll, we arrived at Smoo Cave. We briefly explored the magnificent cave, as it is only partially accessible without a tour. The sun was starting to set as we drove past some of the best beaches on the drive, including Balnakeil Beach and Durness Beach. Just past Durness, we reached Scourie where we parked on a cliffside along the waterfront at Scourie Caravan & Camping Park for the evening.
Day 5 – Wild Drive & Wildlife
Today, the drive got interesting…and when I say interesting, I mean slightly nerve-wracking. We encountered several narrow, one-way lanes, including blind summits and tight turns on the peninsula leading to Drumbeg. We survived and were honestly quite happy we didn’t bypass the road (which is an option) as there were plenty of gorgeous beaches to admire, including Clashnessie, Clachtoll, and Achmelvich. The ruins of Ardvreck Castle greeted us along the banks of Loch Assynt upon completing this harrowing portion of the drive. During our drive through Knockan Crag National Nature Reserve, we saw countless red deer grazing, which was quite a treat! We didn’t get at far as we had hoped this day, as the rain was relentless, so rather than continuing down to Gairloch like we had planned, we stopped in the small town of Ardmair just before Ullapool and set up camp at the Ardmair Campsite.
Day 6 – Natural Wonders
Our morning started with a peaceful stroll through Lael Forest Gardens just south of Ullapool. We then got our hearts racing by taking a short hike to the suspension bridge over Corrieshalloch Gorge, where water cascades 150ft (46m) over the Falls of Measach. Continuing on the route toward Dundonnell, we were rewarded with amazing vistas of waterfalls and rivers cutting through the picturesque landscape. After passing along Little Loch Broom, we came upon the absolutely stunning Gruinard Bay, which called for another scenic lunch! Next, though the gardens weren’t fully in bloom, we wandered through Inverewe Gardens near Poolewe.
The natural beauty continued as we made our way toward Talladale and passed the Loch Maree Islands and the magnificent Ben Eighe (mountain) in the Ben Eighe National Nature Reserve. And then came the most anticipated part of the drive – Bealach na Ba (Pass of the Cattle) by Applecross. Like with the drive to Drumbeg, there is an alternative route we could’ve taken to bypass this white-knuckle drive, but what would be the fun in that?! We conquered super tight hairpin turns and switchbacks along the steep hillside leading down through the valley… and we survived! Feeling extra adventurous, we decided we give wild camping a go for the first time! (We wrote an entire separate post about our adventures of wild camping in Scotland, if you’re interested!) After finding a level spot on an overlook near Loch Carron in Stromeferry, we settled in for the night. After dinner, we stepped outside to look at the stars and got so much more than we were expecting, as the Northern Lights made a brief appearance! It was an amazing way to close out our 5 days on the North Coast 500!
Day 7 – Cloudy Skies in Skye
This was our second trip to Scotland, and we regret that we didn’t have time to visit Isle of Skye on our last visit, so we made sure to pencil it in to our itinerary this time around. After stopping by the romantic Eilean Donan Castle, we crossed over Skye Bridge and onto Scotland’s most talked about island! While the skies were a little overcast, the views were breathtaking as we approached the Cuillin mountain range, which dominates the island’s landscape. Unfortunately, the weather turned bad and the remainder of the day was pretty much shot. We attempted a quick visit to Dun Beag, the best preserved, most accessible broch on Skye, but the strong winds and rain had other plans for us. Not wanting to battle mother nature, we called it a day and made our way to Kinloch Campsite in Dunvegan. The plan was to stay up and look for the Northern Lights that evening. We’re so grateful for the experience we had the night before, as the sky was completely clouded over and no lights could be seen.
Day 8 – Redemption at Neist Point
Like many travelers, we had done prior research regarding things we wanted to see and do on the island, and a visit to the Coral Beach of Claigan was on our list! We had seen several enticing pictures on Pinterest and just knew we had to see it for ourselves. Unfortunately, this proved to be our least favorite site, as it didn’t turn out quite as advertised. After following a 3-mile bumpy pot-hole-ridden road, with a serious lack of signage, we arrived at the parking area only to find out that the beach was still a mile away. The only way to access it was by a foot path, and while we don’t normally frown upon the opportunity to do a little walking, the clouds were again threatening and we weren’t 100% sure we would make it there and back without the skies opening up. Nonetheless, we forged ahead and made it most of the way there. We reached a fork in the trail and were unsure of which way to go…and of course we picked the wrong direction. Quickly realizing this path wasn’t leading to the beach, we turned back to pursue our other option. The trail started to become rather soggy as we finally saw the beach off in the distance. The view was less than spectacular. Because it was low tide for much of the day, the ‘beach’ was covered in rocks and algae, and the crystal blue clear water we saw advertised was a dull blueish-gray because the sun wasn’t shining. We decided to turn back and not complete the trail, which was a disappointment, but we had other things to see!
Another item on our list was Neist Point. Also a bit out of the way, this turned out to be more than worth the effort to get there! These views caused our jaws to drop. ‘Magnificent’ barely begins to describe it. We’ve seen some stunning coastlines in our travels and this would have to rank in the top 3! We endured the steep stairs and walkway to get closer to the cliffs and simply wandered around in amazement. By this time in the day, the clouds had dissipated and the sun was shining! We enjoyed this view so much, we stayed through the beautiful sunset and enjoyed a second experience with wild camping! We could not believe that there were no ‘No Overnight Camping’ signs posted here and we couldn’t believe why there was only other one campervan enjoying such a spectacular vista on Isle of Skye!
We sure packed in a lot! Though we thought we were going to get completely rained out, the rain came and went, only thwarting a few of our plans. Our day began with a winding drive through the Quiraing, a part of the Trotternish Ridge, which contains over 20 miles of rock formations and pinnacles as a result of massive landslides centuries ago. We absolutely loved the views here! The Old Mann of Storr, which we attempted to visit later in the day, is also part of this ridge. The sun was shining brilliantly during our visit to the Quiraing, but quickly turned south when we attempted to follow the trail to get close to ‘The Old Man’. Just before the rain set in, we also had a chance to stop by Kilt Rock where Mealt Waterfall freefalls almost 200 ft (60 m) into the Sound of Raasay below. A few minutes further down the road we came upon Lealt Falls, including a wonderful coastal overlook and the remains of a diatomite production process. Seeing as this would be our last night on the island, we wanted to try one more night of wild camping in the hopes that we would once again see the Northern Lights. Having read that Kylerhea was known for its dark skies, we made our way to this southern region of the island. Let this be a lesson to you: don’t expect to see the Northern Lights, even if it’s the right time of year. So many conditions have to align perfectly, which makes it all the more sweeter when you do experience this phenomenon. Our final night on Isle of Skye was a bust for viewing the Northern Lights. Though the forecast said clear skies, it was completely clouded over. The wind was so strong where we had parked in Kylerhea, we had to move our campervan in the middle of the night. We ended up going back to Stromeferry (45 minutes away), hoping the conditions there were a little better. And while the wind was only slightly calmer, there were still too many clouds to see much of anything. Again, this made us all the more grateful for the experience we had during our first night of wild camping.
Leaving Isle of Skye in our rearview, we returned from our island detour and finished the final portion of the North Coast 500 back toward Inverness. There wasn’t much left to the route, other than a worthwhile stop off at Rogie Falls. Once back in Inverness, we enjoyed a picnic lunch along the River Ness. Next, it was off to visit one of Scotland’s two national parks – Cairngorms National Park. Our plan was to stay in the Rothiemurchus campsite, but we found the prices to be quite a bit higher than everywhere else in Scotland. Plus, by this point, we were hooked on the idea of wild camping! We explored the mountain town of Aviemore, sampled some delicious brews at Cairngorms Brewery Company, and settled in for the night along the shores of Loch Morlich.
This was to be our only full day in the park, so we intended to make the most of it! We started with a scenic walk around Loch Morlich through the Glemnore Forest Park, before heading up Cairn Gorm Mountain. The Cairn Gorm Mountain Funicular (Scotland’s only funicular) took us up to 3,599 feet above sea level. The views were splendid, but the air was crisp. With the wind chill, it felt like 9F (-13C)! We quickly enjoyed the snowy views outside, then made our way into the restaurant for some AMAZING (yet pricey) hot chocolate! Following our descent back down the mountain, we hopped back into our campervan and drove through several charming small towns while taking in the scenic park views. We visited Granton-on-Spey, Tomintoul, and our personal favorite – Braemar. Our drive through the park took us on a clockwise tour of much of the outer perimeter. The rest of our day was filled with castles (Corgarff and Breamar), ruins, mountains, rivers, bridges and birds! Cairngorms National Park is spread out over 1,700 sq miles (4,500 sq km), so we barely scratched the surface of everything there is to see and do! We pulled into a scenic parking spot overlooking the River Dee on the east side of the park just as the sun was just about to set behind the mountains for yet another night of wild camping!
A visit to Linn O’ Dee was a refreshing way to start the day! Linn O’ Dee is where a part of the River Dee has funneled its way through a rocky gorge beneath a Gothic-arched bridge. It’s quite a mesmerizing sight! We continued on, closing out our visit to the national park and slowly making our way back toward Edinburgh. During our departure from Edinburgh on Day 1, we noticed a town off the main road that we just had to explore further. We couldn’t see much other than spires and rooftops, but it looked absolutely charming… and medieval! Because we were on a tight schedule the first day, we made note of its whereabouts and vowed to visit on our return trip. Problem was, we had no idea what the town was called! By narrowing down the places we were near on our initial drive, we found the town, and as it turns out, it was two towns in one! Dunkeld and Birnam is one of the best preserved historic towns in all of Scotland. We simply couldn’t stop taking pictures! It was the perfect way to round out our 12 day adventure with Bunk Campers! And yup, you guessed it… we wild camped for our final night. We parked along the shores of the Forth of Firth in Edinburgh so we were close to the depot office for our early morning drop-off.