I'm in the early stages of planning a trip to Scotland for NEXT summer. I'm thinking about a day trip up up the east coast from Inverness to John o'Groats and back (obviously staying in inverness for a few days). Seems like there are a good amount of castles along the ocean and some nice scenery. Is it worth going up there and any spectacular sights that I shouldn't miss?
Dunrobin Castle is one of my favorites. Beautiful inside and out. About an hour north from Inverness. We did not make it all the way to John O'Groats so I can't comment further. Also, my preference is staying in small towns and so instead of Inverness, we stayed at Fort Augustus at the southern tip of Loch Ness. We took a speed boat ride to see Urquhart Castle from the village. It was a lot of fun; we had 80-degree weather that year (July 2018). When I eventually go back to Scotland, I would like to do the North Coast 500.
Look at www.visitscotland.com which is a great gateway site for Scottish Info. I would suggest a layover in John O'Groats. This would allow you time to visit the Orkney Islands, a must see for Vikings, plan to stop and enjoy things more. You can take a coastal route which is part of the north coast 500 one way and an inland route the other way. No reason to spend too much time staying in one place; just keep on driving; you can book ahead if you know where you are going. You can waste time backtracking unless you can do a circular route. We will see if we can go back to some kind of normal by 2022.
If I were ever to make it to John O’Groats, I’d want to visit the Orkney Islands also, so that would argue for overnights somewhere.
There’s nothing much in windswept John o’Groats itself but it’s the base for getting to Orkney, but this can’t be done as a day trip from Inverness without short changing time on Orkney.
Inverness to John o’Groats is the best part of a 6 hour round trip driving without stopping - not my idea of a leisurely day out. There’s so much to see closer to Inverness that personally I wouldn’t go all the way to JoG.
If you stayed up on the north coast for a few nights, there are many things you could do - walk round Dunnet Head, the Castle of Mey and the very interesting Mary Ann’s Cottage as a contrast, but likewise, you can find many castles and good walking in much of Scotland.
If you have the time to spend, then YES - GO FOR IT! Use the Undiscovered Scotland website for ideas of what to see on the way. https://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/usmapindexes/farnorthern.html
There are some lovely small settlements up the coast that are very quiet and get few visitors. Helmsdale and Lybster spring to mind.
If you are into antiquities, then visit Grey Cairns of Camster. The Hill o' Many Stanes is different. When we visited there were two young French students who looked completely bemused and commented 'There is nothing to see'. Actually there is. There are over 200 stones scattered across the hillside in what appears to be a random arrangement - until you look more closely and realise they are arranged in lines. We found it an intriguing place.
There is also Castle of Mey which was the Queen Mother's beloved Scottish home.
Dunnet Head is also worth a visit and is in fact the most northerly place in mainland UK.
I also like Thurso and prefer it as a town to Wick.
If you drive both ways, it is worth doing a loop round the top. Take the A9 as far as Latherone and then stay on the A99 up the coast to Wick and John o Groats. Then take A836 along the north coast to Thurso. From here, return south on the A9 which takes you over what is known as the Flow Country and is one of the most isolated areas in Britain. It is a vast area of blanket bog with small lochans.
Alternatively of course, from Thurso you could continue along the north coast on what is called the North Coast 500.
Instead of staying in Inverness, may I suggest Nairn, about half an hour to the east -- just the other side of the Culloden Battlefield and Cawdor Castle. It's a walkable town with a nice marina on the Moray Firth. There are many B&Bs in Nairn; among them I can recommend Tali Ayer. https://www.tali-ayer.com/
We did exactly this trip in a single day (up and back) in 2017. Another vote for Dunrobin Castle, a wonderful spot to get out of the car and enjoy the gardens in particular. About a mile up the road from there is Carin Liath, which is a great, free and largely overlooked roadside Iron Age settlement with insight into what seaside life must have been like for locals back then. John O' Groats is really disappointing - you should go, but expect a really touristy little spot to take a picture and check off that box on your list of places to visit (15 minutes is plenty). Nearby Ducansby Head, on the other hand, is a magical coastal scene with towering cliffs and amazing sea stacks jutting out of the sea. Lastly, we visited the crumbling remains of Castle Sinclair Giringoe just nicely perched on the cliffs outside of Wick. It was funny - you drive through Wick, people are just going about their daily business, and just a bit down the road is this ruined castle perched on a ledge like a fairy tale, all alone that day with no tourists, tour buses, or commercialized promotions.
Plan for a full day, but if you get out of the car to enjoy some spots like these (and others that we missed I'm sure) you'll absolutely love it.
By the way, Inverness is a great little town - far more interesting to us than merely as a transportation hub in the highlands. Enjoy!
Dunrobin Castle is a must. Try to attend one of their falconry shows. We lucked into that and it was one of the highlights of our whole trip! I would definitely recommend staying in the Orkneys for a day or two. We picked up a car from the airport when we were done in Edinburgh. I was worried about driving in Scotland but it was a breeze!