As compared to the North Coast 500, or the South West Coastal 300, North East 250 is the slightly shorter, less travelled road trip that loops around Scotland’s northeastern reaches. It’s a self-drive tourist route, which you can join anywhere seeing as it’s circular! The three official starting points are Glenshee, Ballindalloch, and Aberdeen. We start in our version of the itinerary in Glenshee, seeing as it’s the most southerly point for those driving up from England. We will then head up through Speyside to the Moray Firth coast, coming back down the East Coast, through Aberdeen and finishing in the stunning Royal Deeside.
What makes this road trip so special is the varied array of attractions. You’ll see whisky distilleries, stunning coastal scenery, gorgeous historical villages, some great museums, plenty of castles, highlands and mountains, woodlands, and wildlife. The fact that this could all be done in 3 to 6 days makes it an epic trip for any travellers out there who need to squeeze in a jam-packed, awesome road trip to their summer.
North East 500 route map. Source: https://www.northeast250.com/see-the-route/
Wild Camping in Scotland
Along the way, we’ll point out the best North East 250 campsites to pitch up with a motorhome. However, there’s great news for all adventurers who want to get off the beaten track: Scotland’s Outdoor Access Code enables everyone to enjoy the more remote parts of this stunning landscape, and means they are free to camp in the wild.
However, there are rules to abide by and anyone intending to wild camp in Scotland should familiarise themselves with the code. It’s pretty simple. In short, campers should follow a ‘leave-no-trace policy.’ Some essential tips from the code for wild campers:
- Avoid overcrowding by moving on to another location if it's already a busy spot.
- Wherever possible, use a stove rather than an open fire. Never light an open fire during dry periods or in sensitive places like forests or peaty ground.
- Take away your rubbish and consider picking up other litter as well.
- If in doubt, ask the landowner. Their advice just might help you find a better camping spot.
Unfortunately, these access rights don’t extend to motorised vehicles. Whilst many use their cars and campers to get into the outdoors, doing so without regarding others’ interests can cause problems. Be sensible if you’re planning to wild camp with a motorhome and avoid causing any damage or creating an obstruction. A few tips for those planning to do the North East 250 without campsites:
- Don’t block any entrances to fields or buildings
- Don’t make it difficult for others to use a road or track
- Regard the safety of others
- Don’t damage the verges
- Use car parks and camp in a tent if you can.
Day 1: The Cairngorms
We start the North East 250 in Scotland’s majestic Cairngorms National Park. It’s truly massive, but the outdoor hub of Aviemore makes a good place to start, full of mountains, lochs, tumbling waterfalls and island castles, rock faces for climbers and endless routes for walkers, bikers, pony trekkers and buggy-pushers alike. You can bag some Munros, summit the Cairngorm Plateau, take a lakeside stroll on Loch an Eilein, or even get sand between your toes on Loch Morlich’s beach!
Balmoral Castle, the Cairngorms
The Cairngorms is also where most of Scotland’s wildcat’s call home, as well as the UK’s only free-grazing herd of reindeer, plus mountain hares, snow bunting, golden eagles, ptarmigan, and capercaillie. If wildlife watching is your thing, head to the Speyside Wildlife hide in the Caledonian Pine Forest near Aviemore. Speyside Wildlife also specialises in guided day trips and tours.
After a day’s exploring, check out the Glenlivet Single Malt distillery at the Glenlivet estate in Tomintoul (you can get your whiskies to go, if you’ve got to get behind the wheel) and before either pitching up somewhere unobtrusive within the park, or head to Braemar Caravan Park, right in the centre of the Cairngorms, to make use of the facilities there. Remember that the adventures don’t stop here when the sun goes down, and step outside to soak up the display of the Tomintoul and Glenlivet - Cairngorms Dark Sky Park. It’s the most northerly Dark Sky Park in the world, and the darkest in the UK!
Day 2: Speyside
As you leave the Cairngorms and head north through Speyside, you’ll find plenty of exciting stops to make for day 2. Visit the Aberlour Shortbread factory shop for an authentic taste of the sweet biscuits Scotland is so famous for, Balvenie Castle, the Knockando Wool Mill, and Ballindalloch Castle and gardens. There are a few must-visits on the famous Speyside Whiskey trail, too, such as Ballinalloch Single Malt Distillery.
Stay at the Speyside by Craigellachie Camping and Caravanning Club Site...
Day 3: Moray Firth and the Sunshine Coast
On Day 3, our North East 250 route on the map curls around towards the Moray Firth. Named the Sunshine Coast, the Moray coastline has been ranked among the top 20 most beautiful coastal areas on the planet by the National Geographic!
There are several unmissable spots on the stretch of coastline. The first point of call is Portknockie village. This village overlooks the Firth, and it’s old fishing harbour is a great place to stop for fish and chips and spot some dolphins. Around the corner, bow-fiddle rock is a stunning rock formation jutting out into the sea.
Just beyond Portknockie is the Cullen Sea School, where you can enjoy an abundance of water sport activities, shore-based classes and even try your hand at boat-building. No prior experience is necessary to experience any of their courses, but bear in mind that the water-based program runs from May to October.
Along the coast is a town called Portsoy, where the Scottish Traditional Boat Festival is held in July. Portsoy is also home to the Salmon Bothy museum, a lovingly restored look into the fishing history of the local area.
On your way across to Fraserburgh, there are three other gorgeous fishing villages that can’t be missed, too. Pennan, Crovie and Gardenstown are attractive spots where you can discover churches, pretty cottages, ruined castles, and walk along the cliff-tops and isolated beaches.
If you’re after an adventurous air to your evening hangout on this leg, pitch up at Ace Hideaways, in Auchnagairn, Moray. Set in a secluded birch woodland, this site provides a unique camping experience just astride of an adventure activities centre. Have heavy-duty fire pits with BBQ skillets for campfires, a communal camp kitchen, and a basic kiosk with WiFi and power outlets at reception. Best of all, you can wake up in the morning and go white water rafting, cliff jumping, canyoning or learn new skills on awesome courses like bushcraft or outdoor first aid.
If you’re after more R&R on this particular road trip, head to West Beach Caravan park for the night. It’s a quiet, family-run site practically perched on the water of the Firth, and claims to be a midge-free zone. All of their touring pitches are elevated and hard-standing, with 16Amp electric hook ups.
Day 4: The East Coast
Heading south from the Moray Firth, the North East 250 route now takes you down the East Coast from Fraserburgh to Aberdeen. The views along this road are ever-changing: from low-lying arable land to ragged cliff formations and sandy beaches. In Fraserburgh, there’s the museum of Scottish lighthouses, where maritime history comes to life, there are breathtaking views from Kinnaird Head lighthouse, and a nice café with views overlooking the Moray Firth.
At Peterhead and Slains Castle, the coastline becomes more dramatic and craggy,reflecting the North Sea’s wild turbulence. This derelict castle was allegedly the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula, with the natural drama of the area certainly influencing the novel, part of which was written here. If the dark and macabre intrigues you, visit Peterhead Prison Museum. Once the most notorious prison in Britain, its cells and halls are open to view!
Around the corner, Cruden Bay is host to the collapsed cave of Bullers o’ Buchan. This extraordinary sight highlights a landscape at the mercy of the waves. You can stand on the precipice and be captivated by the view of the sea rushing in through the arch.
As you approach Aberdeen, stop at the Forvie National Nature Reserve. The fine, golden sand of Balmedie beach, just beyond its marram-covered sand dunes, is not only enticing but also home to 225 species of birds. Two streams cut through the dune, making this SSSI a perfect habitat for wetland birds, and a wonderful place to explore.
Stop at Newburgh for lunch at the View restaurant, which indeed, has some spectacular views (and awesome architecture) over Newburgh’s seal beach.
If you’re a craft beer fan, the Brewdog Brewery is just a little way inland at Ellon. Once a small operation located in Fraserburgh, it’s now one of the largest producers in Britain. Brewery tours can be booked and ales sampled. If you’re interested, you’ll probably also need to find somewhere to pitch up nearby for the night. We recommend Peterhead Marina Bay Holiday Park. It’s just a short stroll from the town centre, along the beachfront. They have 23 touring pitches, with and without electricity, and toilet and shower facilities.
Day 5 and 6: Aberdeen and the Royal Deeside
The next few stops on the North East 250 route map are around Aberdeen. If you haven’t had enough adventure yet, head west to one of Granite Adventure’s venues, where you can embark on all sorts of activities and courses. Their website shows the upcoming listings, or get in touch to organise a personalised date that suits your trip!
Other, more urban attractions in Aberdeen include historical walking tours and self-guided audio tours, and the maritime museum. Even in the city, there’s nature to be seen, too. Head to Donmouth Local Nature Reserve, a beach site in the historic Old Aberdeen part of the City where the River Don meets the sea. It’s a great place to see seals and a range of interesting birds. The paths run across King Street to the Brig 'o Balgownie, the original bridge to the City from the North, then down the other side of the river to the sea.
Dunnottar Castle, South of Aberdeen
Rest up at the Deeside Holiday Park, which is a tranquil retreat in the Southern valley of the River Dee. Recognised as Scotland's 'Best Holiday Park' at the 2019 SOLA Awards, the park offers pitches for tourers, motorhomes, and campervans. Recent investment in the park facilities include modern, heated toilet and showering amenities, TV room, duck pond and outdoor BBQ area.
We’ve arguably saved the best for last: as you finish up your journey, you’ll head through the Royal Deeside on your way back to the Cairngorms. In Aberdeenshire, west of Aberdeen, the Royal Deeside is the area around the River Dee in the 40 miles between the two beautiful villages of Banchory and Braemar.
You’ll find other lovely villages like Banchory and Aboyne, as well as lots of opportunities to get into the countryside: there’s golf, cycling, walking, mountain biking trails, and even gliding from the airfield a few miles west of Aboyne. There’s also a mountain biking facility at Aboyne Bike Park, located in the Bellwood.
Late summer Heather in the Cairngorms
The further west you travel into the Cairngorms, the more exciting the landscape becomes and the prettier the villages look. The most westerly point of the Royal Deeside and potentially the last stop on your North East 250 tour of Scotland is Braemar. It’s a lovely village with Medieval ruins of Kindrochit Castle in the centre, a bridge over the Clunie Water, and the Fife Arms hotel. Braemar Castle just outside the village is also open to the public, and the surrounding area is mountainous, unpopulated countryside which is great for walkers.
If you are planning your trip around September, be sure to catch the Annual Braemar Gathering. It’s one of the best-known Highland Games, with a longstanding history. There are traditional sports such as tossing the cabre, and highland dancers and pipe bands.
From Braemar, the main roads head west to Glenshee, and you’ll find you’ve come full circle!
When to do the North East 250
If you’re into walking and other outdoor pursuits, go from May to October for reasonable weather. You’ll be able to catch the majority of festivals, gatherings and celebrations during this time, and it’s also a well-known fact that when the heather turns purple in late summer or the leaves gold in autumn, the Scottish landscape along the north east 250 route map really becomes magical. Nonetheless, Winter can be stunning too when snow covers the hills and pine trees. But, you’ll need some fine weather which isn’t always easy. If you’re not travelling this summer but plan to do so in the colder months, check Traffic Scotland regularly for updates about driving conditions.
Before you go
It’s worth knowing that you can get a north east 250 Passport, as this is an awesome token of your adventures around the eastern Scottish reaches. Collect stamps to record your completed journey and all the fantastic places you visit as part of the official £15 Visitor Membership, which also includes a map, a car window sticker and access to all online itineraries.
- Scotland has strict drink driving limits, and these differ from the rest of the UK. It’s very important to strictly observe them. Find the specific limits here, or better, just leave the drinking until you're done with your driving for the day. Make sure to give your body ample time to process the alcohol before setting off again in the morning, too.
- Along the road, you might meet un-signposted blind summits and sharp bends, livestock, wildlife, reversing carks, cyclists, walkers and other slow-moving tourist vehicles. Pay attention, be patient and considerate, and drive with consideration.
- If you’re doing big hikes, familiarise yourself with this advice from Scottish Mountain Rescue before you set off.
Finally, if the North East 250 isn’t enough Scotland for you, check out our itinerary for the North Coast 500!