The Great North Trail: best for wilderness, climbs and descents

Looking for the best bits along the Great North Trail? Max Darkins picks out his favourites
An 800-mile off-road trail may sound like the adventure of a lifetime for some, but if you have a little less time on your hands you might have the challenging task of choosing which part you want to try. MTB guide Max Darkins, who wrote the Great North Trail route guide, takes us through his top picks for the highs and lows of the Great North Trail and where to find Britain's wilderness.

Best for...wilderness

If you suffer from monophobia (fear of being alone), you’d better be riding with someone, as you will go for many kilometres often without seeing anyone along these routes.

Northern Highlands (Part 7)

This is a true wilderness, which will prove the most amazing and rewarding experience: not only will you see the remote and stunning landscape that is the Scottish Highlands, but also immerse yourself in it. 

Cape Wrath (Part 8, Cape Wrath)

Two bikepackers cycling away from the lighthouse at Cape Wrath. Photo Robby Spanring

Cape Wrath is a Special Protection Area, Special Area of Conservation and a Site of Special Scientific interest – so all-in-all, a pretty special place. Take your time to soak in this untouched landscape with its vast open skies and undulating road. Make it to the lighthouse at the end, and you'll also be eligible to join the Cape Wrath Fellowship.

Loch Ossian Youth Hostel (Part 6)

Loch Ossian Youth Hostel. Photo by Kathi Kamleitner, Watch Me See

At the end of the beautiful and remote Loch Ossian sits a wonderful youth hostel all alone at the water’s edge. It is only accessible by rail (Corrour station is around a mile to the west), bicycle or foot, which makes this remote hostel and setting even more special.

Loch Choire (Part 8, John o' Groats)

This challenging route is a hard-fought battle into the wilds, but it provides one last adventure into the hills before the last section to John o’ Groats, with the reward of a superb descent.

Kielder Forest and Scottish Borders (Parts 3 and 4)

Two mountainbiker riding through Kielder Forest. Photo Joolze Dymond / Cycling UK

The Northumberland countryside provides great expanses of wild, remote hillsides and forests, which the Great North Trail heads straight into the depths of. It takes time to make progress through this vast, epic and breath-taking wilderness.

Glean Mor/Amat Forest (Part 6)

This magnificent pinewood forest is a remnant of the ancient Caledonian Forest which once covered most of Scotland, with Scots pine, birch, rowan, aspen and oak providing a habitat for rare species such as crossbill, capercaillie, crested tit and the red squirrel.

Best for...epic climbs

Corrieyairack Pass (Part 6)

The highest pass on the Great North Trail. There are horribly deep, loose stones on this 775m zig-zag climb and the wind will batter you as you grind your way up. Dig deep, as this stretch will definitely challenge even the best of climbers! As you reach the top of the Corrieyairack Pass, you have the joy of knowing that there is a descent of nearly 20km all the way to Fort Augustus.

Great Dun Fell (Part 3)

Cycling up Great Dun Fell

A big, long steep ascent of around 550m in 6km, to the height of 760m, over the hip of Great Dun Fell. This open and remote hilltop has an average temperature in May which is same as that of London in January!

Jacob’s Ladder (Part 1)

A steep, rough and unrelenting challenge, which only a very few riders can claim to have conquered.

Brilliant descents

Bloody Bush MTB trail, Kielder Forest (Part 4) 

Two mountain bikers descending down the Bloody Bush MTB trail. Photo Joolze Dymond / Cycling UK

The Lonesome Pine trail leads you to the top of the felled Currick hilltop, at 454 metres, for far-reaching, panoramic views of the surrounding area. There’s a good bit of Northshore-style boardwalk before fun, technical trails deliver you back down to the Great North Trail trail at Bloody Bush.

General Wade’s military road down from Corrieyairack Pass (Part 6)

Views stretch on ahead as far as the eye can see to another mountain range on the horizon, highlighting how much more there is still to ride through Scotland. As you reach the top of the Corrieyairack Pass, you have the joy of knowing that there is a descent of nearly 20km all the way to Fort Augustus.

Innerliethen Red trail (Part 4) 

Innerliethen Red trail. Photo Joolze Dymond / Cycling UK

A superb descent, with a variety of trails, from a fast blast, to switchback turns with berms through the woods further down.

Cavedale, Castleton (Part 1) 

Riding Mam Tor. Photo Paul Stevenson, CC-BY-2.0

Although the descent down to Castleton may offer beautiful and distracting views, the rocky trail is very challenging and should be ridden with great care.

Loch Choire (Part 8, John o' Groats)

Climbing the rutted grassy track up the Bealach Easach pass is tough going, but you’ll be rewarded with a fun and technical descent on a rocky singletrack trail down to the shores of Loch Choire.

Further reading