Mountain biking The West Highland Way
Let's not beat about the bush, the West Highland way is a big ol' challenge. Its 95-odd miles are usually treated as a walk over several days, but they work marvellously well as a magnificent bike ride (you can take a bike on all the trails, after all). As long, that is, as you don't mind a fabulous variety of riding - from mouth-agape gorgeous scenery on wide tracked surfaces, all the way through to hike-a-bike walking your way up the side of vertiginous slopes, and the technical descents that inevitably follow.
This is not a route that you can easily do with a touring bike and panniers, mind you. You’ll be needing a proper mountain bike, and you’ll be needing to pack as light as you can whilst still making sure you’ve got everything you need to be safe. As far as bikes go, you might find a full-suspension bike more comfortable abnd easier on some technical sections, but be aware that you’ll be carrying it in quite a few places too - so a hefty enduro bike is probably not a good idea.
There are a few other things to note, too. This Collection splits the route up into four sections of broadly escalating difficulty, although they all present their challenges. It also runs the more common south to north, although it’s perfectly possible to run it the other way around, of course. There will be plenty of walkers en route; give way to them and be friendly - most of them will regard you with varying degrees of bemusement or disbelief, especially if you’re riding some of the bits they’re struggling to walk.
Wild camping in Scotland is permitted, with certain caveats - although it’s restricted on part of the Loch Lomond trail. There are other accommodation options en route, of course - this is a pretty popular trail, after all, but they tend to get somewhat more scarce the further north you go. It’s important, therefore, to be prepared if you get stuck out in the open - if you’re not out-and out bivvying, then you should carry warm clothes, a reflective foil blanket, spare water and lots of emergency calories, at a minimum.
Although we’ve split the route into four, it’s entirely possible that you’ll make better time than this - some people have even done the Way, both ways, in one go (but they're insane). So if the going is good, and you feel like you can press on, then do so! But plan ahead, and make sure you give yourself adequate options when it comes to stopping, accommodation, food and water.
This being Scotland, the weather can become somewhat changeable, to say the least. Although forecasting has improved over the years, it still can’t totally accommodate the famous Scottish climate, especially in the mountains - so even if the outlook is glorious sun and blue skies, prepare for rain. Just in case.
One last thing - midges. The Scottish midge has a fearsome reputation, especially between May and September, and whenever the going is damp. So, most of the time you’ll be wanting to ride, then. It’s the female midges that look for blood meals so they can lay their eggs that are the problem, but there are precautions you can take: cover up, find (or generate, by riding) breezes; mosquito nets if you’re wild camping or hammocking, and there are a variety of sprays or lotions that can help repel them. The stuff that most Scots folk use is Smidge, which works excellently.
But with all this preparation comes a ride of superlatives; the West Highland Way is a fantastic achievement, whichever way you choose to ride it, and it’s one that will generate memories that will last a lifetime. It’s perhaps not wise to do it as your very first multi-day trip, but it may well end up being one of your best.
The official West Highland Way site, although it primarily caters to walkers, can be found here: westhighlandway.org - it’s got all kinds of good stuff; tips as to what to take, terrain info and accommodation options.
The first leg of the West Highland Way is everything the rest of the route is, in microcosm. Urban, flat, immensely steep, exposed, beautiful, open and enclosed in parts. It's also wonderful.
The route starts gently, with a spin out from the centre of Milngavie (pronounce it 'mul-Guy' if you don't want to be laughed at), all urban shops and shoppers. But it soon countrifies, opens out and then ramps up, with an ascent of the aptly named Conic Hill. It's rideable (but a technical challenge) if you're hilariously fit, but most mere mortals (ahem) will be content to amble up on foot.
The descent that follows is also rideable, but it's a technical feast in places - and the penalty for failure is a tumble off something high onto something pointy, so take care! Also, be considerate of the walkers you'll inevitably meet both going up and coming down the hill.
From here, the route sticks to the shores of Loch Lomond on some scenic, but fun, trails, and this first leg ends half way up the Loch at Rowardennan. Here you can find a hotel, a hostel and camping facilities should you wish, as well as a ferry that crosses the Loch.
Milgavie is blessed with a train station, and it's only 10 miles (16km) outside Glasgow, so getting to the start of the trail isn't much of a problem. There are places along the way to refuel and refresh, and campsites too, should you wish to cut the stage short.
It's important to note that from Drymen, about 14 miles (22.5km) in, and up the shore of Loch Lomond, there are bylaws restricting camping and fires to campsites and designated permit areas - happily, though, there are plenty of campsites around!
The second leg of West Highland Way runs from Rowardennan and finishes up in Tyndrum.
From Rowardennan, the lower trail can get frustrating for bikers. Sure, there's a lot that can be ridden, but for a while at least, there will likely be some pushing and a fair bit of muttering before the trail settles down and becomes more rideable than not. It's worth it, though, as when it is rideable it's a fantastic experience; by turns fast and flowy, steppy and thrutchy.
If all this sounds too much like hard work, though, then the higher path just to the east is much more straightforward - or from Rowardennan it's possible to get a (seasonal) ferry to Tarbet on the other side of the Loch. You can ride up the A82 to rejoin the Way at the easterly edge of the Beinglas campsite (head right just before the Glenfalloch Lodge), or you can get another ferry back to the Way at Ardlui to ride a little more of the (somewhat easier going) singletrack.
The going gets much more straightforward once the Loch is at your back, though. There are plenty of bailout or rest options as the Way more or less follows the road before this leg finishes up at Tyndrum - which is home to a surprising variety of stores, and some very good fish and chips.
Accommodation is available in multiple places on the route, from campsites to B&Bs to hotels, and Tarbet and Tyndrum are even connected by train if you really want to take the lazy way out - although check for times and running. Wild camping is also permitted along much of this section north of the Loch.
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The third section of the West Highland way is relatively straightforward compared to the some of the previous sections.
Although the trail runs close to the railway at the start, it soon becomes more remote and expansive. Plenty of wide doubletrack, singletrack which for the most part lacks the technicality of some of the trails along the east side of Loch Lomond, plenty of space to overtake or avoid walkers, and some truly incredible views.
Of note in particular is Rannoch Moor, which can provide some of the most awe-inspiring scenery of the whole Way, if the weather's good.
Because it's so exposed, though, it can become a real battle if the weather's poor. It can get *very* windy, and the rain can more than earn the adjective 'stinging'.
But it's well worth battling through regardless, not least because the weather is so changeable in this part of Scotland that you can be assailed by hail one moment and stripping off to your undies in the heat the next.
And if you still fancy a challenge after all of this, then the Glencoe mountain resort a mile or two before Kingshouse is also home to some fine XC and DH trails, accessed by lift.
Accommodation options are somewhat more limited on this leg, but they're still available. The Bridge of Orchy offers an astounding wild-camping spot, but camping on Rannoch Moor isn't a great idea - it's pretty humid and as previously mentioned the weather can get pretty nasty! There are campsites, hotels and B&Bs dotted all over, though.
The final leg of the West Highland Way starts off with a doozy - the Devil's Staircase as a challenging (to say the least) climb, and a descent that will entirely possibly put steam in your shorts.
The fun doesn't let up there, though. After another stiff (but eminently doable) climb from Kinochleven, the trail skirts the Mamores, and ends up in the Nevis Forest for a final blast into Fort William, and a well deserved rest, before you figure out how to get home again.
Facilities are in abundance at Fort Bill, as it's affectionately known. Shops, hotels, campsites; there's a train station and pretty much everything else you'd need.
If you're still in need of mountain bike excitement, there's the world-famous DH run up the side of Ben Nevis, or there are a variety of excellent XC loops available there too. More info can be found here: nevisrange.co.uk/activities/bike