A Highland Rover Bikepacking Adventure

Friday, 9 June 2017

Cyclist, adventurer and photographer Markus Stitz recently put our Highland Rover four-day Travel Pass to the test. Read on for his verdict...

I boarded the train in Edinburgh at 11.15am on Friday. After a quick change in Glasgow me and my trusted singlespeed bike, which has taken me to 26 countries across the world, were on the journey up North on the West Highland Line. A journey I had made many times since I moved to Scotland in 2009 with many great memories dotted along the line.

When the train arrived at Crianlarich Station I was greeted by very warm temperatures and glorious sunshine. Aching to get some cycling in my legs after three and half scenic hours on the train, I joined the road and then the West Highland Way just after Ewich. One of Scotland’s greatest long-distance routes, the West Highland Way is also a great trip for mountain bikes from here onwards. Unless you love carrying the bike for hours along the Loch Lomond shores, the train is a much better option to get to Crianlarich from Glasgow.

After a short ride I arrived at Strathfillan Wigwams, my place to stay for the night. I found a lovely cabin with kitchen and comfortable sofas just for myself. I used this as an incentive to just get the keys and use the afternoon for more exploring, heading further north towards Bridge of Orchy. This section of the West Highland Way not only offers spectacular views, it also has plenty of places to eat and drink along the way.

On my cycle back to Strathfillan I used my stop at the Real Foods Café in Tyndrum not only to sample the delicious food, but also to meet most of the riders of the Highland Trail 550. The Highland Trail is an iconic bikepacking event held annually in May, which was due to start the next day. With the 9am start in Tyndrum as good incentive to get up early the next morning, I grabbed a beer at the Green Welly Stop and rolled into the sunset.

Day two started with a nice ride from Strathfillan back up the West Highland Way to Tyndrum, sending the Highland Trail riders off on their journey after a tasty vegetarian breakfast at the Real Foods Café. I had a fabulous time on the route when I rode it myself in 2014 and again in 2015. In fact, before the start in 2014 I had never used bikepacking luggage at all. Riding the Highland Trail not only ignited my passion for bikepacking and travelling light, it also gave me the incentive needed to plan my round the world trip with one gear. Coming back to Tyndrum to see such an international field of enthusiastic riders was the perfect start to day two of my own adventure.

While the others headed out of Tyndrum on bikes, I was happy to wait at Tyndrum Upper Station for another scenic train ride to Corrour Station. While Rannoch Moor looks absolutely stunning from the windows of a train, riding over it on a bike can be a mind-boggling and daunting experience. It’s best enjoyed with a warm coffee and a chat with fellow passengers. That was exactly what I did on my hour-long journey.

If you are an avid Trainspotting fan then Corrour Station is a great place to stop. One of the most famous scenes of the movie was filmed here. I could spot the small wooden platform from the station while I rolled my bike through the deep gravel to the other side, admiring the view towards Carn Dearg.

The area around here is one of my favourite places in the Highlands. As soon as the train left, I felt this instant feeling of being in the wilderness. For that very reason I have been up here many times in all four seasons. Loch Ossian Hostel offers great hospitality and shelter for the night, but this time I had other things in mind. All the fresh air up here made all the difference. My own experience was vastly different from the Trainspotting scene.

From the station a well maintained track first offers spectacular views over Loch Ossian and travels further North to eventually reach the A86 at Loch Laggan. Being an adventurous person I like changing my plans on the day and exploring different routes. The nice thing about using the Highland Rover for my five day bikepacking expedition was that I had more freedom to explore than usual. Taking the train for some parts of the journey allowed me to focus on the parts I rode on my bike.

Everything I needed packed was packed into a saddle bag, a rolled bag underneath the handlebars and an additional pocket strapped to it, as well as two stem bags and a top tube bag. I felt free as a bird here. As the predicted rain had stayed off so far, I took a left to follow a path the Fersit instead of staying on the well-maintained route to the road. At times I had to push. One gear only allows me to ride trails of a certain steepness. The upside of that: I had plenty of time to enjoy the spectacular views that got better the higher I climbed. After a short section on the road from Roybridge to Spean Bridge I finished the day riding through Leanachan Forest into Fort William to celebrate the day with a veggie burger, a cold beer and chips.

Things got even more remote on day three. Sunday meant I didn’t have the option to catch the small ferry from Fort William to Camusnagaul, which would have saved me from the busy A82 on my way to the Corran Ferry. For passengers and bikes the ferry is free. And although very short the journey is spectacular. On the other side of Loch Linnhe I rode on minor roads and gravel tracks to Salachan. And just as I was about to re-join the A861 to Strontian, my planned stop for lunch, I spotted a green signpost: Strontian 12 miles. While 12 off-road miles can sometimes be much longer than 12 miles on the road, this couldn’t stop me from changing my plans again, travelling on a beautiful trail down into Glen Gour.

Six hours later I arrived in Strontian for dinner, after a stunning but very slow hike a bike through the glen. The track disappeared a few miles in, which made this section certainly a proper adventure, wading through rivers, bog and carrying the bike over big rocks. The view onto Loch Sunnart and a healthy veggie burger, number three on this trip, gave me fresh energy to tackle a big hill before reaching Polloch on the shore of Loch Shiel. From here it was a cruise along a well-maintained gravel road to Glenfinnan, enjoying a spectacular sunset and the company of some travellers. As they pitched their tents they offered me some wine to shorten the wait. After an hour on the train I arrived for my last adventure of the day in Morar, cycling a few miles under a moonlit sky to Fair Winds B&B, falling into a comfy bed around midnight.

Monday was my day off from the train. The Highland Rover provides four days of travel out of eight consecutive days, so I had to schedule in one day without the help of a train. And I only needed to get to Arisaig for the evening, a few miles down the road. Morar has not only one of the most stunning beaches, the Silver Sands, but the ride along Loch Morar from Bracorina to Tarbet is also one of the most scenic journeys on a mountain bike you can find in Scotland. So far I never got around to cycle the whole route, but the little bit I cycled here in 2013 made me ache to come back for more.

Today finally was the day. Sometimes it is really difficult to estimate how long the cycling takes off-road, even for an experienced cyclist like me. One thing I didn’t fancy was standing around for hours on the other end of the track to wait for the ferry which only runs once a day. Tarbet was remote, and the chance of finding suitable shelter from midges was small. So I made a quick decision and cycled to Mallaig. The plan was to take the ferry from there to Knoydart first, spend a few hours there with sheltering in Britain’s remotest pub, and then take the afternoon ferry back to Mallaig, which would drop me off in Tarbet on the way.

The rain stayed off so far when I arrived on Knoydart. My first trip here was incredibly wet, and the forecast for the day didn’t look much better. But the cycle to Loch-an Dubh Lochain from Inverie was spectacular. Lush green mountains, a white sandy beach and this unique feeling being in Scotland’s remotest part made me feel very special. While enjoying a coffee and cake on my way back to the ferry, the pub didn’t open till three, it finally started to rain.

Getting the bike onto a small boat and onto the shore in Tarbet wasn’t easy, but the ferry crew made it a smooth experience. The rain had settled, but the rocky singletrack along the shores of Loch Morar offered spectacular views. The riding was even better. While I struggled at times due to my lack of gears, I had a big smile on my face when I approached the road end in Bracorina.

The rain finally cleared, and after being greeted by David at Cnoc-na-Faire Bed and Breakfast I enjoyed the food and a pint at Arisaig Hotel in the company of two fellow bikepackers that were just about to begin their journey here. I was indeed a ‘Happy Chappy’, as my pint suggested.

The Bed and Breakfast in Arisaig was my favourite. David was not only a friendly host, but also showed a lot of attention to detail. The music at breakfast set me in the right mood for my last day. Being German I still love learning more about Scotland on each of my trips. Here I learned more about Tartan, as each room was dressed in it’s own tartan. After a nice breakfast I was on the train to Glenfinnan from Arisaig, Britain’s most westerly train station.

The indoors exhibition at Glenfinnan and a warm coffee shortened the wait for the rain to clear. With the weather not improving, I took the opportunity to visit Gleann Dubh-lighe, a bothy about 2 miles off the main road to Fort William. A tough cycle up the hill brought me to the adorable bothy, recently redone and very cosy.

Back on the road I cycled past the beautiful shores of Loch Eil and Loch Linnhe, before another quick journey with the ferry back to Corran. Here I had to make a decision. Either cycling back to board the train home from Fort William, or carrying on though Glen Coe to Bridge of Orchy. With the clouds breaking up I enjoyed a fantastic cycle on the Caledonia Way to Ballachulish, and on through Glencoe village to Kings House Hotel. With enough time left to cycle the Old Military Road to Inveroan I arrived at Bridge of Orchy Hotel, with enough time to celebrate five great days in the saddle with fresh gnocchi and a pint.

To have your very own Highland Rover bikepacking experience, you can find more information on Markus’s route and the GPS files to follow it here.

After cycling the world on a singlespeed bike Markus Stitz is based in Edinburgh. He is a freelance marketing professional. Motivational speaker and founder of Bikepacking Scotland. He has designed a variety of different bikepacking routes that can be found here.

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