Many people choose to walk the glorious Great Glen Way, a 79-mile trail through Scotland’s most famous Glen from Fort William to Inverness. This weekend, I cycled the Great Glen Way it instead!
A mountain bike is the perfect transport for the off-road route that heads along the country’s famous Caledonian Canal, through atmospheric forests and along the shores of many picturesque lochs, including fabulous Loch Ness.
Day 1: Cycling the Great Glen Way
Starting in the Scottish Highlands town of Fort William, and at the base of Ben Nevis (Britain’s highest mountain), I set off on two wheels to ride the entire route over two days. With the wind behind me, the first section along the Caledonian Canal was mainly flat and easy going. If, like me, you’re more used to road cycling it takes a while to settle into the more leisurely pace of a mountain bike. But the advantages of front-forked suspension and fat tyres are a more comfortable ride – and greater opportunities to take in the countryside as it goes by at a slower pace.
At this time of year, I was lucky to enjoy mostly dry weather, with the sun breaking through high clouds on frequent occasions. The landscape scenery was a mixture of fabulous autumnal reds, russets, oranges and deep purples, with the odd piece of spring green and yellows peaking through. The peaks of the surrounding mountains were still snow-capped. The canal was a rich, dark avenue of still water that pulled me along northwards.
If you’re walking the route you would be most likely to stop overnight after Neptune’s Staircase at Gairlochy. The staircase is, in fact, a series of eight locks on the canal and if you have the chance, stop for a while to see boats making their way through the watery staircase. By bike, Gairlochy offered the perfect place for a snack stop before I headed on via the shores of Loch Lochy to reach South Laggan. A hoped-for lunch on the floating canal pub (a big old barge) at Laggan Locks was dashed because I was too early in the season. Thankfully, I’d packed sandwiches and could enjoy these as the sun pushed the clouds aside and gave me its full early March benefits.
Heading on to the town of Fort Augustus, I cycled along the shores of breath-taking Loch Oich. The trail here is a little more challenging with lots of gnarly tree roots to negotiate and more ups and downs. This is not a hugely strenuous cycle, however, and most people with reasonable fitness would manage it. The route would suit families with children over the age of about 10. Look out for Glengarry Castle on the other side of the shore about half way up the loch. Fort Augustus is a welcoming town with a range of good quality hotels, B&Bs and restaurants. As a treat, I booked into the high-quality Lovat Hotel and enjoyed a first-class meal in their restaurant. A superb Scottish breakfast set me up for the second day of cycling.
Day 2: Cycling the Great Glen Way
From Fort Augustus, the Great Glen Way follows the western shore of Loch Ness passing the towns of Invermoriston and Drumnadrochit until you reach the historic city of Inverness. Many people come to Loch Ness to see if they can spot the infamous monster and there are options for loch cruises, as well as the chance to hire canoes and kayaks. I stuck to two wheels and headed along the more strenuous section of the Way.
There were some steep climbs on wide forest trails to ride and many people might choose to walk up these pushing their bikes. I engaged the easiest gear and kept the pedals turning until the brow of the hills – and then enjoyed the whizzing downhills. Mountain bikes have so many gears that you can usually find an easy enough one to cope with uphills. The advantage of all the uphills is that the route takes you up to a great vantage point for viewing this stunning glen.
Passing Urquhart Castle about halfway along Loch Ness I decided to pop in for a strong coffee and a cake. Cycling burns lots of calories and I needed a refuelling! Sadly, the Great Glen Way heads on to the busy A82 but only for a short while before you head back on to forest trails. There is more climbing to be done but from the top of Loch Ness the route descends and offers a fabulous, mostly downhill, ride to Inverness.
If you want an easier option on day 2 you could spread the miles over two days, turning the cycle ride into a three-day break. Another option is to head on the mainly quiet roads on the east side of Loch Ness. This is not the official route of the Great Glen Way but it is on tarmac and therefore offers easier cycling. Be warned, however, there is a long climb from Fort Augustus although after that the going is mostly downhill.