Dundonnell to Poolewe by Lee Craigie
Dundonnell to Poolewe by Lee Craigie
“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.