Bikepacking the West Highland Way

I shared the train journey to Glasgow with two coast-to-coast road riders who alighted at Carlisle. Their interest – and that of the train steward – in the ECR and it’s ‘ridiculous’ tyres set a tone that would resonate for the whole trip.

Unable to find anything that palatable on the Trans Pennine Express service save for a questionable cup of coffee, I carb loaded at Glasgow station on croissants while consulting Viewranger for a suitable escape route.

I’d walked out of this fine city before using the satisfactory Kelvin and Allander walkways. These seemed fair game for the bike too although I was soon distracted by blue signs drawing me to alternative bikeways.

ECR on the slight detour from the West Highland Way after Mudgock Wood
ECR on the slight detour from the West Highland Way after Mudgock Wood

The alternative proved just as agreeable – to a point. I picked up a route north out of the city centre leading to the quiet towpath of the Forth and Clyde Canal, NCN route 754. This appeared to lead to the Kelvin Walkway and then to Milngavie. However, lost in the easy passage my route provided and happy to be pedalling at last, I was soon blindly following a northerly track through Dawsholm Park that deposited me unceremoniously on the rather ominous dual carriageways of the A793.

This led to the A81 and my destination. I picked up supplies in Milngavie and joined the cue to picture my steed next to the West Highland Way monument. Folk stared blankly at me from the nearby Costa.

I pushed off, across a car park and on to an agreeable trail and climb northwards – the Way offering a fine route for the cyclist in its early stages. I was soon through Mugdock Wood and pedalling through a far more rural scene following an excellent old byway.

I passed Wayfarers and dog walkers carefully who bade me cheery greetings. It would not always be that way, sadly.

The Way soon reached the B821 where I turned left on a dogleg following an adjacent forestry tack. This proved a good move although I had one locked gate to haul the ECR over.

A fast and enjoyable descent led past Dunreath Castle and a pleasant (flat) trail to Gartness. Excitable school children chased after me along much of this stretch.

Here I left the Way wishing to avoid the tortuous eastern bank of Lomond. I picked up the John Muir Way, which initially comprised a narrow footbridge leading to a disused railway bed. This soon joined NCN Route 7 and I followed quiet lanes through fields to Balloch before hitting the Lomond Bike Trail providing easy, safe passage north to Tarbet. I’d accepted a stretch on the main road as a necessary evil. In the event, the ride was fine although I feel it is a more viable prospect for the cyclist heading north rather than south.

On the John Muir Way after Gartness
On the John Muir Way after Gartness

Rain had pelted my progress all afternoon and, seeking some comfort, I decided to pitch at Beinglas Farm Campsite with its cosy bar, camping shelter, washing machines (etc etc…!)

With sleep disturbed all night by excitable waves of rain hammering the tent fly, I awoke to a rainbow framing the wooded lower slopes of Garabal Hill.

Hoping I could break camp before the next downpour, my optimism was dampened by a brisk hailstorm. This was rapidly followed by a spell of warm sunshine, which made the fields and sheep steam. I pushed off along the easy track behind the campsite, but this soon shrivelled to a rough path that hugged the contours and sewed together footbridges and, sadly, styles.

Camping at a soggy Beinglas Farm
Camping at a soggy Beinglas Farm

Heaving the heavy ECR over these obstacles became a chore and I cursed my patchy memory. I had a vague recollection that this section of the Way was more bike friendly than it turned out to be having walked it some years before. The changeable weather rendered the track quagmire in places, particularly at the styles where boots and hooves had given the mud new depth and determination.

A nasty flight of steps near the A82 added to my woes, as did more persistent rain. From here, the trail improved for pedalling a little, plotting a lovely course through the woods above Strath Fillan. Dropping back to the main road, I followed the Way over another pesky gate to the Strath’s campsite where the weather took a dour turn once more. Heavy rain became hail, which filled the voids of my helmet and chilled me.

Pedalling the West Highland Way in Glen Falloch
Pedalling the West Highland Way in Glen Falloch

I remained on the A82 to Tyndrum, the lure of the Real Food Cafe proving too strong and breaking my resolve. I sheltered the ECR out of the worst of the weather and removed my helmet. Turrets of bland Slush Puppy (or Squishy for you Simpsons fans) were left on my head: soggy, misshapen sandcastles of congealed hail. One slithered down my neck inducing a sickening shiver that could only be calmed by coffee and bacon rolls.

Once inside, the sun appeared – mocking me – but only for a short while.

I waited, had more coffee, had more tea. Eventually, the tempestuous weather settled on a period of relative calm and I pushed off again. This next section had great promise: an old military route to Bridge of Orchy and a drovers’s road across the brutal, barren, beautiful expanse of Rannoch Moor.

Heading to Bridge of Orchy on a fabulous old military road
Heading to Bridge of Orchy on a fabulous old military road

The first six miles or so were sublime. Despite the prickly punctuation of more hail and what you might describe as snow, at least the latter didn’t flay the upper layers of dermis from my face.

Past the Bridge of Orchy Hotel and the ‘wild’ camping spots by the sinuous river, I turned off the Way and stuck to the single-track lane to the Inveroran Hotel. I wistfully remembered spending an initially rainy night camping in this lonely glen on my West Highland Way only for the clouds to clear as the moon rose and the stars cast their brilliant yet dying light. Only a deer herd pouring off the hillside could disturb my focus on this nocturnal array.

Onwards to the Drovers’ route across the Black Mount. I felt the tingles of genuine excitement – an increasingly rare sensation these days as I approach muted middle age. I’d wanted to ride this drove road for a good many years and the route served as the motivational spark for my journey north.

It didn’t disappoint: a cobbled pathway providing safe passage above metres of dark, acidic, oh-so sluggish decomposition – a deep mire where layered remnants of the past unravel the land’s history for those who wish to dig deeper.

On the single track lane to the Inveroran Hotel
The start of the drove road to Glencoe
Pedalling across Rannoch Moor… the weather just about to take a turn for the worse

Admiring the early engineering under my wheels, the ECR made light work of the track, the rider less so. I passed many Wayfarers, approaching them slowly and announcing my presence gently. This tactic worked well until the rain and hail returned and the walkers retreated to the static crackle of hooded rain jackets. My shouts weren’t heard, but the screech of my wet disk brakes caused heart-troubling consternation for at least one walker. He cursed my very existence.

I tumbled down the track to Kings House and the weather took on an even more sinister edge. The next 40 minutes or so were, fortunately, a sensory blur. I followed the Way for a while but not over the Devil’s Staircase in such poor conditions. I pressed on along the A82 – seemingly monopolised by moronic motorists that afternoon – and fought a fearsome wind downhill to the Clachaig. With no room at the inn, I pushed onto Red Squirrel campsite where at least a shower was on offer.

Going to work on a Bannock
Going to work on a Bannock

Another fitful night of drumming rain ended with a three-cup-of-coffee morning. I left in a heavy shower and I turned my wheels toward Glencoe village and Kinlochleven by road rather than retracing my steps for a trudge up the Staircase. A new cycleway along the Glencoe lane provided shelter from the downpour and sanctuary from speeding cars leaving this lovely glen.

Approaching the town the rain subsided and I focused on the Way again. Rather than pushing up the punishing steep path from the Leven, I climbed the stalkers’ road to the sadly derelict Mamore Lodge. The track eventually met the Way and provided challenging passage through the lairig. Rocky and steep in places, I concentrated on line and stopped frequently to admire towering snow-capped peaks above that I’d been fortunate enough to clamber over on foot.

The old military road to Fort William - fabulous riding through some stunning scenery
The old military road to Fort William – fabulous riding through some stunning scenery
Riding these routes tests your fitness and bike
Riding these routes tests your fitness and bike

I swooshed through burn crossings swollen by the rain, feeling comfortable and confident at the controls of my heavy off-road rig. All too soon it ended and I left the walkers in peace and followed the paved single-track lane to Fort William, pausing to admire the mass of Loch Linnhe and the hills beyond from the viewpoint above the town.

Taking in the view above Fort William
Taking in the view above Fort William

9 thoughts on “Bikepacking the West Highland Way

  1. Enjoyed reading this, great descriptive account and accompanying pics. Looking forward to the next instalment!

  2. Lovely pictures – but you’re not selling this route to me! That said we enjoyed a week in the rain in Norway in May and apart from one half day the rain didn’t dampen our spirits.

    1. Thanks for the kind words and comment… Yep, you’re right. Not a little blighter in sight, although it was still early in the season. I have friends working on the west coast who said the midges had just come out to play when I got back home 🙂 Still, the midges, ticks and horseflies had enough of me last July.

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