A four day solo bikepacking adventure
In July 2016, I had five days for a bike adventure, including the travel. I was keen to go to Scotland. And if Scotland, then why not all the way across, coast-to-coast? There were some benefits from a travel perspective because I could ride from the West to East Coast train lines, and make use of the Caledonian Sleeper. When it came to deciding on a route, I discovered that there are a multitude of options, but not as much information on the web as one might expect. Hopefully this report will help someone, but bear in mind I haven’t ridden the alternatives.
Fort William to Montrose
I settled on the ‘classic’ route described in Phil McKane’s Scotland Mountain Biking: The Wild Trails. I’d take the sleeper to Scotland, get an early start and have four days to ride 290 km to Montrose, before taking the daytime train home on Sunday morning. For the first time, I’d be using an ultra-light bikepacking setup, with most of my kit in a bar bag and saddle pack and the rest in a small backpack. I planned to camp wild for at least some of the nights, which would add flexibility to the schedule.
Is it truly a coast-to-coast? Well it goes from sea to sea, but there is a lot of Scotland to the west of Fort William. With lots of time this could doubtless be explored, but would make travelling to the start much more complex. This route is a practical compromise which takes in some excellent riding. It essentially comprises three major off-road sections linked by some road riding. For navigation, I made a GPS file of the route (see below) and stuck it in both my Garmin and my phone’s OS map. As a backup, I took the guidebook which has reasonably detailed maps of most of the wild areas and a good overview.
It has been a while since I took a trip on my own and it is certainly a different experience. Before I had even left London, I met a couple from Montrose in the bar on the train. Having explained over some whiskies that I was also travelling to Montrose, but via a less direct route, I was invited to stay with them when I had ridden across Scotland.
There were several other memorable people I met who I would not have talked to had I been travelling with others, and there were also many moments of absolute solitude high in the hills.
The Caledonian Canal and Corrieyairack Pass
While I’ve combined these under a single heading, they could hardly be more different. The Caledonian Canal is a waterway linking Fort William to Inverness and thus the West and East Scottish coasts. It presents a pleasant, but entirely non-technical 50 km (there are a couple of single track alternatives to break things up). It is popular with walkers and family cyclists and is by far the busiest section of the route. Take the chance to have a good meal in Fort Augustus before embarking on the wilderness of the Corrieyairack Pass.
In contrast, the Corrieyairack Pass is a classic Scottish mountain bike ride in its own right. The route is an old military road built by General Wade in 1731. It ascends through remote landscapes to the 770 m pass before descending steeply to, and then gently along, the River Spey. The road surface is rocky in places but the difficulty comes less from the road and more from the remoteness, the weather and the need to find somewhere to break the route into a manageable day’s ride. I chose simply to camp on the pass.
Whilst I am pleased to have ridden the Corrieyairack, is worth noting that an alternative route from Fort William would cross Rannoch Moor and should also make for an excellent ride.
Glen Feshie and the River Dee
Some pleasant road riding along the Spey brings you to the trail centre at Laggan Wolftrax for some man made single track, cake and a shower. At Loch Insh the route turns right for what was probably my favourite section, a climb up Glen Feshie and over to the River Dee. Initially the glen’s landscape is pastoral with scattered houses, but it becomes increasingly wild with the single track following the riverbank. At some point you will have to cross from the west to east banks. The guidebook suggests doing this at Carnachuin, but when I was there in 2016, this bridge had been washed away and there were signs indicating that I should cross earlier, which I did.
In places the track has been washed away too, necessitating a short carry up the bank but this did not detract from the overall experience. I camped by the river and had the whole of the top of the glen to myself for the evening.
Continuing the climb, the trail eventually gives way to a boggy section across remote moorland at the top of the glen. Some of this was hard going, but the setting is wonderful if you have the weather. Finally the route reaches a track which descends to the River Dee. A combination of minor roads and well surfaced tracks through the royal forest at Balmoral take you to Balleter where I spent my final night in the campsite.
This was a tough day. The climb to 2/3 of the way up Mount Keen from Tanar is a solid ride in its own right, but there comes a point where you see how steep the final ascent to the summit is. The weather was also closing in, and I was concerned that by the time I reached the top, it would be cloaked in cloud, which would be not only disappointing from a view perspective, but potentially also dangerous. As it turned out, the worst of the weather passed to the south and I could enjoy the incredible view half the way back across Scotland.
I had naively thought that once over the 939 m summit, it would be largely downhill to the sea. Not so! There was a fast descent from the mountain followed by plenty more riding, from well made Landrover tracks to difficult-to-find single track and finally a solid road ride. The day totalled 88 km with 1455 m climbing; it felt harder.