Lee Craigie's favourite cycling routes in the Scottish Highlands
“Growing up I had no idea how lucky I was to live in Scotland. I was born and raised in Glasgow, one of the wettest and windiest areas of the UK where my resolve to venture outdoors was often met with... "Ocht no! Courie in. You dinae want to be going oot there. Have a pint and a deep fried pie instead” or in my mother’s case: “Oh Lee! Can I not just give you a lift.”
But west coast stoicism actually runs quite deep and the wild weather instils a grim determination and dark humour in us Scots. I didn’t know it until I moved to Inverness and began exploring the Highlands by bike that this carefully curated character of mine would mean I’d actually find a grim enjoyment in the satisfying tussle of hiking bikes over mountains or leaning at 45 degrees into the wind on coastal roads. I’ve made it sound worse than it is. This is because I’m scared everyone will realise how wonderful the Highlands are I’ll never manage to get my bike on a Scotrail service in or out of Inverness again.
But in an uncharacteristically benevolent gesture, here is a summary of my favourite, most rewarding of tussles by bike around the Highlands of Scotland.
Dundonnell to Poolewe
Distance: 26.4 miles
Type of bike: Mountain bike with suspension ideal
What to bring: Sleeping gear if you are planning to stop at Sheneval Bothy
This route is the reason I live here. If you love mountain biking, remote wild places and don’t mind a bit of pushing and carrying then ride this route and you’ll quickly understand why. Beginning at Dundonell just south of Ullapool, a steep, loose double track delivers you quickly into the next glen south but not before bringing you nose to nose with the formidable An Teallach.
Dropping down in to Strath na Sealga the route heads west and the trail narrows to a walking track that follows the strath as far as Sheneval Bothy. This well-appointed bothy nestled at the foot of An Teallach serves as launching pad for all sorts of outdoor enthusiasts keen to tackle one of eight possible Munros (mountains over 3000ft) on its doorstep. But if you’re Poolewe bound, you must cross the wide valley floor filled with rivers flowing to Loch na Sealga and begin the ride / hike up onto the Fisherfield plateau that sits 300m above the Carnmore causeway.
Once gained, the plateau is largely rideable and when you reach the southern edge, I’m not exaggerating when I say the view from here will take your breath away. I’ve ridden this countless times now and there’s nowhere else I continue to reach by bike that restricts my breathing by its sheer scale and beauty. You are on the edge of the world in a grand amphitheatre of rock and below you Fionn Loch and the Fisherfield Forest stretch out forever beyond the causeway to the sea. The majestic Fisherfield Five mountains fill the sky and, if you’re lucky to be there just as the sun is setting (this is usually the case if the route is attempted in one day) then you happen to be in one of the best vantage points on the planet to watch it sink.
In the Highland Trail 550, I reached this point at dusk after three days of solid riding. I was sleep deprived, hungry and physically exhausted but I’d reached a comfortable equilibrium with the wilderness I was passing though and as a result, actually held a conversation with four young deer on that plateau. Admittedly I was hallucinating a little by then but I haven’t made up the memory that one of them waggled his ears and actually walked towards me sniffing the air. That encounter, although unremarkable at the time, has become once of the most surreal and magical wilderness immersion experiences of my life so far.
If you can tear yourself away from the plateau, a set of steep loose switchbacks gives way to a nicely contouring easy track down to the valley floor and a fast and fun (though not devoid of pedalling) 12 km long well built single track delivers you to Poolewe where, if you’re lucky, they’re still serving food in the hotel. Don’t mention any conversations with deer in there.
Distance: 12.7 miles
Type of bike: Mountain bike with suspension ideal
Every winter around 4pm I wonder to myself why I live in the Highlands of Scotland. When it’s dark and cold being outside is something I have to dig deep to force myself to do but fast forward six months and there is nowhere I’d rather be. It stays light until midnight and when the sun eventually sinks over the western highlands, the evening air can remain warm long into the wee hours.
At this time of year, my Inverness mountain bike buddies keep a close eye on the weather from behind their various desks during the day and when 5pm hits, we scarper to Torridon. We can be at the start of the classic Achnashellach Loop an hour after our computers have been switched off and an evening spent riding this route makes us feel like we’ve cheated normal life when we arrive at our desks the following morning.
Starting at Achnashellach station (a request stop on the Kyle of Lochalsh line) a steady double track climb delivers you to the top of the Coulin Pass. A fast descent north off the other side towards Loch Clair in Glen Torridon is the last bit of easy riding on this route which then swings west and meanders on steadily ascending technical singletrack that is just about entirely rideable all the way back up into the wild, jaw-dropping Coire Lair. Arriving at this classic, remote bowl at 400m in the late evening light feels very special. It’s not a place that humans should be able to access so easily let alone on a school night and on bikes. Make no mistake, reach this point and you are in some serious mountain terrain - a point worth noting as you then whoop and holler your way down the high bermed granite slabs, rocky drops and tight switch backs on well built technical singletrack all the way back down to Glen Carron and the parked vehicles below.
By midnight, we are all back home and wondering if the whole thing was an elaborate daydream.
Kirkhill to Kintail
Distance: 64.9 miles
Type of bike: Mountain bike with tyres pumped hard for the road section or gravel bike and resignation to carry the techy bits.
What to bring: Sleeping gear if planning to stay at bothy or youth hostel.
Including this route is cheating because it’s actually just my favourite road ride combined with my favourite mountain bike ride. It also happens to begin from my front door. This route is actually largely that of the infamous off-road duathlon - The Highland Cross, but my description of it is backwards and on a mountain bike.
From Kirkhill which sits 8 miles due west of Inverness at the end of the Beauly Firth, an easy 30km spin along the valley floor towards Cannich limbers up the riding muscles before the road kicks steeply up and by the time it levels out again, you find yourself in one of Scotland’s most beautiful glens; Glen Affric.
You won’t notice the next 20km because you’ll be so mesmerised by the antique Scots Pine, shimmering loch and occasional waterfall until eventually you reach the end of the metaled road and the route continues on fast double track for a further 12km until it deteriorates just past one of Scotland’s most remote youth hostels.
While the rolling double track remains rideable, it gets harder and harder to pedal and then turns to walkers path. As you continue due west into the head of the Glen Fionn you keep waiting for the inevitable unridable terrain to begin. It never does. It’s almost possible to ride from my front door all the way to Kintail without putting a foot on the ground (other than to negotiate a river crossing perhaps). After climbing to the highest point on the route at 400m the trail disappears steeply into a dramatic bowl carved out by a huge waterfall. On the right bike, the route remains rideable (but difficult) for the next kilometre as you negotiate tight rocky turns and drops that deliver you onto landrover track in Glen Lichd.
Having survived the tricky descent it’s now simply a question of spinning out to the A87 and continuing round the coast for 25 km past iconic Eilein Donan Castle to catch the Kyle train back to Inverness.
I love this route because of the sense of journey you inevitably feel when you traverse from one side of the country to the other. From the salty shores of the Beauly Firth on the east coast to the Sound of Sleat and views over Skye on the west, it feels very satisfying to complete this route and all the more so because so much of the route is an actual pleasure to ride.
(There are options to ride on both sides of Glen Cannich and Glen Affric the whole way along this route depending on your preferences for mile munching versus wiggling. There is also the comfortable Camban bothy a little over half way turning this massive day ride into a very pleasant weekend adventure).
Bealach na Ba loop
Distance: 91.8 miles
Type of bike: Road bike
I’m not the only fan of this route. In fact, local events company Hands On Events have made it into a very popular sportive in the summer months with a 144km and 72km option to suits different tastes. In fact the first time I rode it was under these conditions. We all gathered in the community hall in Kinlochewe early one June morning and signed our participation agreements before dibbing our own individual timing chips and rolling south east back up the road towards Achnasheen in the direction of Inverness.
From Achnasheen, it’s then usually a bash into a head wind all the way to the foot of the infamous Bealch Na Ba on the west coast but if undertaking this under sportive conditions it’s possible to hide in the bunch of other riders and save your breath in readiness for the hills ahead. The Bealach has rightly earned its reputation. Starting at sea level and rising to 626m in 9km, the road resembles one more often found in the French or Swiss Alps. It’s a tough climb certainly but in my opinion it’s not nearly as hard as the remainder of the route.
Once you’ve reached the top and (if it’s a clear day) marvelled at the exquisite views out to Skye and Lewis, don’t then spend the descent down to Applecross congratulating yourself too much. What follows is a torturous but stunning rolling coastal singetrack road all the way round to Sheildaig. The good news is if you’re not trying to get a fast time over the route, The Applcross Inn or Walled Garden at the start of it will fuel you and Nanny’s Café at the end will replenish you and from there it’s a simple a 27km flattish road through the foot of spectacular Glen Torridon to return you to Kinlochewe.
This truly is Scotland at its most dramatic from the road. It’s got a high climb straight out of the sea, a singletrack coastal road out on a peninsula and two classic deep mountainous glens to ride through and it includes some great food stops. Don’t forget about them.
The Dores Road
Distance: 50.4 miles
Type of bike: Road bike
When I raced full time, I got pretty sick of riding the same local loops three times a week but I can honestly say I have never tired of this one. The quietish B-road that heads south out of Inverness and hugs the side of Loch Ness is a must for roadies visiting the Highland capital.
On icy or windy days I could always trust that the Dores road would be sheltered and comforting and I could ride it safe in the knowledge that there are lots of different bale out options and alternatives should I lose feeling in my fingers or toes at any point. This has been known from time to time.
It’s an easy 10kms from Inverness to the Dores Inn and the start of Loch Ness. From there it’s possible to ride the quiet B862 a further 40 kms all the way to Fort Augustus (although to do so you must leave the loch shore and climb a lung bursting hill up to Whitebridge first). This is a standard club run that I was always keen to attend. If alone, turning around and coming back the same way staying low by the lochside would offer the most shelter but in a group, gaining the high moor at Whitebridge and remaining high all the way back to Inverness past lochs and woodland offered a striking contrast to the loch side road 200 metres below.
Beware. It’s possible that a stop at the Dores Inn could mean the end of your day. It’s a lovely wee pub that can be hard to leave if it’s blowing a hoolie outside. Or even if it’s not.
Kirkhill to Cromarty
Distance: 58 miles
Type of bike: Road bike
Cromarty doesn’t get loads of visitors. It’s a tiny charming old fishing town right at the tip of the Black Isle with an interesting past due to its associations with Scottish writer Hugh Millar and now home to an alternative arty community. But the little limewashed village sits at then end of a dead end road and can only be negotiated by foot ferry from Nigg (seasonal) or a return trip back towards Inverness to gain trunk roads travelling north and south.
I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been caught out riding to Cromarty from Kirkhill and back. When times are tough and I just can’t find the motivation to get out on my bike, I think scones. I love a scone and the ones at Souter Café in Cromarty are the best I know so I mount my stead to complete the four hour round trip with a scone in the middle as my reward.
I tend to head out on the A832, switching to the smaller cycle marked roads at Munlochy and merging onto the main road once it’s quietened down beyond Rosemarkie leaving my return route to the B9163, the road on the northern most part of the Black Isle.
Every time I ride east to Cromarty I think to myself how glad I am to be making this trip, how easy the ride feels now I’ve got going and I have been known to get a little carried away with how strong and fit I feel. I have a coffee and a scone in Cromarty and then I turn around to ride home again. And the wind stops me dead. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. There is an evil prevailing wind that always blows you to Cromarty, lulling you into a false sense of fitness and security before slapping you in the face when you try to return. I’ve said some rude words into that wind in the past as I’ve battled my way home through Jemimaville and Culbokie. Weirdly, I never remember how grim the ride home can be and I blindly sail off again and again focused on my scone mission. Must be worth it.