When I think back to the two times I have ridden the Highland Trail, I am still not sure what made me tackle it twice, first on a singlespeed, then with semi-fat tyres and gears. After the first time I had sworn never to do it again, but that didn’t last long. For 2015 I was back on the list of starters.
The Highland Trail features almost everything that is great about mountain biking in Scotland’s Highlands. From the Devil’s Staircase on the West Highland Way to the Corrieyarick Pass, the majestic views from Bealach Horn to the mind-blowing remoteness of Fisherfield, picturesque Eilean Donan Castle and the beauty of Glen Affric, it is difficult to find any other route that is packed with such superb landscapes to ride your bike in Scotland.
In fact, I would argue, there’s no alternative to the Highland Trail if you would like to experience Scotland’s wilderness on two wheels. Year on year the trail it is attracting more and more overseas riders, for a very good reason. But beware, as wonderful and scenic as this all sounds, it’s for experienced riders only, and is not a trail to start bikepacking.
The Highland Trail is a self-supported mountain bike route across the Scottish Highlands. It has evolved over the years, the new route from 2016 onwards will be 532 miles long and climbs up to an altitude of about 800m at the most, with plenty of climbing in between. Initially put together by Alan Goldsmith as a simple training ride for his attempts of the Tour Divide and Colorado Trail Race, it has become a classic in the last years itself, as challenging as its American counterparts.
While the majority of the route is on excellent trails, although with some very technical bits, it is possibly most remembered for its hike-a-bike sections, and there are a fair few of them. Pushing your bike for long distances without suitable footwear commonly causes the famous ‘cankles’ (calf and ankles) - disproportionately swollen ankles.
The Highland Trail starts and finishes in Tyndrum, where Crianlarich Youth Hostel is a good base to stay before and after finishing the route. From Tyndrum the route follows the West Highland Way for short section before branching off at Auch. The 65 miles that follow take you on scenic double track up past Loch Lyon, down Glen Lyon, Scotland’s longest glen, on tarmac to Bridge of Balgie and then off-road north past Loch Rannoch, Loch Ericht and Loch Pattack.
At Laggan Wolftrax the challenging climb towards the Corrieyarick Pass begins along General Wade’s Old Military Road, with Melgarve Bothy providing shelter on the exposed road. After the Corrieyarick Pass, which offers great views on a good day, Fort Augustus has a choice of places to eat, sleep and stock up on food.
In Fort Augustus you join the Great Glen Way for a short bit until Invermoriston. Next is the climb up to Loch ma Stac with an intriguing ruin on its end, but be prepared for some tricky technical riding along the shores. After another Landrover track a long stretch on singletrack roads takes you to Struy and back on a landrover track to Monar Dam. On a good day this section will offer breathtaking views, on a windy and rainy day it will test your willpower.
Contin has a small shop and a campsite, make sure to stock up on food, this is your last chance until Drumbeg on the West Coast. You can get a feel of the famous Strathpuffer course before heading into the remoteness of the Eastern Highlands. Loch Vaich offers good spots to camp, and make sure you stop at Croick Church, with messages etched in the window by families cleared from the surrounding land in 1845 as part of the infamous Highland clearances. When you head for Oykel Bridge on your way out, make sure to take the right track to head westbound towards Glen Cassley.
A long singletrack road and an even steeper climb take you further north, the views from the top and the downhill to Loch Shin are worth the effort. Shortly after you will enter the famous Northern Loop which was added in 2014. Be prepared for long steep climbs up Glen Golly and wading through the famous Scottish bog at the top. The views towards An Dubh Loch are worth the effort. You will be working hard on your cankles pushing up Bealach Horn, but the 360 degree vista on a clear day is breathtaking.
From here it’s mostly downhill to Achfary, almost halfway through the trail. The climb out of the tiny hamlet is another leg burner. Kylesku has some excellent sea food to fuel up, but straight afterwards the coastal road to Lochinver will test your climbing skills again. Past the shop at Drumbeg there’s the excellent Achmelvich Beach Youth Hostel, where the white sandy beach invites you for a dip in the sea. Lochinver has shops and restaurants to fuel up, before heading into another challenging hike and bike section to Ledmore Junction.
From here it’s downhill again to Oykel Bridge, before you climb up Glen Einig. Brace yourself for another hike and bike section, but the downhill into Ullapool is another highlight of the route. Ullapool Youth Hostel is a good spot to meet fellow riders from the group start and enjoy the sunset on Loch Broom. For any mechanicals there’s a small bike shop here, the only one until Fort William, and a shop to stock up on food. From here a stretch on the road takes you along the shores of Loch Broom, with another steep and remote section before Dundonnell. Here you enter the remotest part of the Highland Trail, Fisherfield.
After a few hours of climbing and a great downhill Shenavall Bothy offers shelter before a potentially dangerous river crossing at Abhainn Loch an Nid. There is a chance to get stuck here if the river is too high after rain falls, make sure to bring enough food. The riding and views past the crossing are superb, as you follow the Postman’s Path, an historic track that goes down the east side of Loch Maree via Letterewe to Kinlochewe, which offers food and coffee as reward.
Torridon Youth Hostel makes a good detour if you need a warm place to stay for the night, then the route goes past Loch Coulin and the Easan Dorcha, before the descent to Achnashellach. A good stopover for food is Strathcarron Hotel before Glen Ling will test your hiking skills once again. Once past Sallachy you can enjoy the views over Loch Long and Loch Duich, with the famous Eilean Donan Castle offering a great photo opportunity. At the end of Loch Duich, Ratagan Youth Hostel is a small detour but a good place to stay for the night.
If you carry on, a good Landrover track takes you to the start of a steep and long climb up Glen Licht. At the top the track improves and takes you through Glen Affric to the youth hostel, a great option to sleep and relax for a few hours.
From here, the last 100 miles follow Loch Affric to Tomich on a well graded gravel track and the same on to Fort Augustus. After an easy section along the Great Glen Way, you will join the West Highland Way in Fort William, following that all the way to the finish in Tyndrum. The famous Devil’s Staircase provides one of the best downhills you can find in Scotland.
If you are hooked, you can apply to ride the route as part of the annual group start on Saturday 28 May 2016. Spaces for this are limited to 45 riders and Spot Trackers are mandatory. Otherwise you can ride the route anytime as individual time trial (ITT) and post a time. To be added to the ride records you will need to finish the 560 miles in less than eight days. For more information, ride reports and to download the GPX file visit www.highlandtrail.net.
Biography for Markus Stitz
After a career in event management and marketing, Markus Stitz is bikepacking around the world. After 8000km crossing the UK, France, Spain, Iceland and the US he is convinced that this is the best way to see the world, but also that bikepacking can be enjoyed in Scotland more than anywhere in the world.
Find out more at markusstitz.com.