There is something about a road trip that creates an endless state of heightened excitement. It comes with a heart-in-mouth, funfair-like thrill. And no matter the destination, a road trip unfolds at the same, ascending rhythm. Back roads are followed (whenever possible), motorway service stations are avoided (at all costs) and the countryside flits by with the same tempo as a rock song (cue Status Quo). If you’ve got wheels – be it a car, bike or camper – these are the only road trips in the UK you should consider this summer.
1. Scotland’s North Coast 500
This circular route is a greatest hits of Scottish icons, stretching across 805km of lonely single-track. Skirting the coast from Inverness and the Black Isle, past the seaboard crags of Caithness, Sutherland and Wester Ross, it offers up uncanny ruins, rugged fairways, toothy castles, shingle-sand beaches, tiny fishing hamlets and peaty whisky distilleries. Even the name is a doff of the cap to The Proclaimers.
Along the way, the road becomes a symphony, building note after note, bend by bend, from its rallying start through the east coast villages of Dornoch and Wick to Aultbea, Poolewe and Gairloch on the savage west coast. Here, it reaches a crescendo below the impregnable peaks of Loch Maree.
Finally, the road reaches the nuttily brilliant Bealach na Bà, which loops up and over the Applecross Peninsula like a piece of gigantic spaghetti. It could scarcely be more isolated or awe-inspiring.
Best for: escaping urban life and unexpected traffic jams, courtesy of wayward Highland cows and stags.
Duration: 4-7 days.
Need to know: accommodation options are few and far between, so book in advance. Outside of summer, you’ll have the route to yourself, when even a witches’ brew of winter clouds couldn’t dampen the drama or Highland spirit.
North Coast 500 © mountaintreks/Shutterstock
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2. A circuit through Yorkshire’s finest
In Yorkshire, the roads move from moor to dale through centuries of dark medieval history, once a backdrop to the War of the Roses, the bloody struggle between the royal houses of Lancaster and York.
Here the mix of A- and B-roads create a daisy-chain link between the most beautiful villages, waterfalls and rolling backdrops in northern England. When heading through fields of summer grasses over the Buttertubs Pass from Wensleydale to Swaledale, the road twists and turns like a thrashing snake.
Set off on the A59 from Harrogate towards the historic market town of Grassington before boomeranging back to Aysgarth Falls, a multi-tiered terrace that’s perfect for a hazy summer ramble.
Next, putter along the valley floor to the Wensleydale Creamery Visitor Centre at Hawes to stock up on Wallace and Gromit’s favourite cheese, before plunging over into Reeth and looping back to your start point via Jervaulx Abbey. A spooky Cistercian monastery in the moors, its grisly backstory is worthy of CBBC’s Horrible Histories.
At the end of a long day’s drive, there’s nothing more satisfying than the promise of a pint of Black Sheep from Masham Brewery. The welcome here is warm, the people friendly, the surrounding landscapes wild, and the ales strong.
Best for: ale drinkers and cheese lovers.
Duration: 3 days.
Need to know: the Yorkshire Dales are a magnet for tour buses and parking can cause major headaches.
The Yorkshire Dales © BerndBrueggemann/Shutterstock
3. Southwest England’s Atlantic Highway
A storied ribbon of asphalt and maritime history, this 275km road has the wild beauty that has become the hallmark of southwest England: it’s all about the big views.
Sandwiched between barley fields and a succession of bays and beach breaks, the A39 from Bridgewater to Bude is a magical concertina that creases and folds along the Devon and Cornish coast. Beyond the roadside hedgerows, the windswept dunes become the territory of shaggy-haired surfers, where foaming waves beat the shoreline.
Stop off at Exmoor National Park for hikes across the hilly moors, before driving south from Barnstaple through the salt-tanged seaside towns of Bude (for surfing), Padstow (for seafood) and Newquay (for weekend partying). Then it’s onwards to Land’s End – the place Cornish sailors once thought was the end of the world.
Best for: surfers and wannabe hippies.
Duration: 4-5 days.
Need to know: the name is a bit of a cheat. The route travels inland for much of Cornwall, eventually feeding onto the shoreline at Newquay. Seen through the grainy light of nostalgia, the only way to do this trip is in a VW camper van with a board tied to the roof.
Newquay © Lukasz Pajor/Shutterstock
4. Northern Ireland’s coastal route
Map a journey around the knuckle-shaped fist of the Irish coast and you’ll not regret it. There’s a hypnotic quality to this 195km route from Belfast to Londonderry, one that can see you detour off the road and lose days.
First hit the gas for the Gobbins Cliff Path, an ambitious walkway chiselled out of basalt rock with hammers and rudimentary tools. North of Belfast, it carves a path through caves, over bridges and gantries, and down steep drops. Following a £7.5 million investment, the path reopened in 2015 – the first time in more than 65 years.
As the journey continues, stories, both ancient and modern, will pull you over. Detour to Antrim to see the Dark Hedges, a natural phenomena used in Game of Thrones, while making sure to stop at Ballintoy harbour (also another GoT location).
Stare in awe at the 40,000 jigsaw pieces of the Giant’s Causeway, then pop into the Old Bushmills Distillery for a refresher of Irish whiskey.
Freedom on a road trip like this is only limited by how far your imagination takes you. After Londonderry, the road keeps going to Enniskillen, Sligo and Galway, maybe even all the way to Dublin. Simply open the throttle, roll down the window and keep on driving.
Best for: story-lovers and stargazers.
Duration: 3-5 days.
Need to know: Rathlin, Northern Ireland’s only inhabited offshore island, sits around halfway along the route and is home to an RSPB reserve. Its resident guillemots, razorbills and puffins are a must-see for birdwatchers.
Giants Causeway © Jon Chica/Shutterstock
5. The road to the isles of Scotland
This 74km scenic drive route from Fort William to Mallaig has an antique weirdness, like stepping back in time. Every mountain and loch tells a story and the ghosts of the Jacobite and Victorian eras are never far away.
At Fort William flows the Caledonian Canal, first built for trade and commerce; past Loch Eil stands the Glenfinnan Monument, where Bonnie Prince Charlie kicked off his bid for the crown in 1745; then comes the glorious West Highland Line, one of the great railway journeys of the world.
Start in the shadows of the UK’s most alluring peak, Ben Nevis, before tracing your route like a squiggly marker pen across a fold-out map from its namesake whisky distillery onto the A830. Venture westwards and you’ll pass a series of stand-out movie locations – the Glenfinnan Viaduct, famous for its starring role in the Harry Potter films; then Camusdarach Beach at Arisaig, where Bill Forsyth’s classic Local Hero was filmed.
Near the journey’s end, Loch Morar, the deepest freshwater lake in the UK, will fill your windows with stunning views. Like Loch Ness, it too has a storybook monster of its own; Nessie’s cryptid cousin, Morag.
Best for: historians and Harry Potter fans.
Duration: 2-3 days.
Need to know: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and JK Rowling have all stayed at super-luxe Inverlochy Castle.
Camusdarach beach, Arisaig © alan92 todd/Shutterstock
6. Chase Welsh dragons over the Black Mountain Pass
The shortest road trip of the bunch, this epic mountain road more than makes up for it with spectacular Brecon Beacons scenery, unrivalled views of the Tywi Valley and the kind of hairpin bends and switchbacks that’d bring a Swiss Alpine engineer out in hives.
It rolls between Llandovery in the north, crossing the dragon’s humps of Pont Aber and Herbert’s Pass past jaw-dropping viewpoints, before sinking low and cascading down to the village of Gwaun-Cae-Gurwen. Along the way, you’ll be met by rustic farmhouses, ruddy-faced farmers, wayward sheep and perhaps the odd motoring journalist. Thanks to ex-BBC host Jeremy Clarkson, it’s also known as the Top Gear road and is enduringly popular with test drivers.
Best for: Top Gear fans.
How long: one day, though it’s far better to extend your trip and stay in the Brecon Beacons area for at least 48 hours. The A470 running through the park’s east is also highly recommended.
Need to know: make sure to tackle the route north to south.
Brecon Beacons National Park © antb/Shutterstock
Explore more of Britain with The Rough Guide to Great Britain. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance before you go. Top image: Road in the Peak District © Daniel_Kay/Shutterstock.