The Great North Trail is the recent brainchild of national cycling charity CyclingUK, announced in 2019. Starting with the already well established Pennine Bridleway, it then heads North to either Cape Wrath or John O’Groats via the heart of the North, including Kielder Forest, the Scottish Borders and the Capital Trail, the Grampian Mountains and part of the Highland Trail550. Complete the whole route up and you can even enter the Cape Wrath Fellowship!
The route has been devised with touring mountain bikers in mind, and spanning a total of 825 miles (1328km) it’s certainly not for the faint-hearted! Having said that, there’s nothing stopping you doing a few days at a time over smaller tours rather than spending several weeks on the route to complete it in a single sitting. Here the route is set as 16 days which gives a reasonable target but you will certainly need a good level of fitness to complete the route in this time as there are some tough climbs.
There’s a whole variety of terrain types and landscapes as you pass through the North of the UK, from the Roman roads of the Pennines to the canal towpaths linking Edinburgh and Glasgow, the quiet lanes of Northumberland and the wild mountain gravel roads in the Scottish Highlands. Be prepared for a real adventure on two wheels!
The ideal bike set up for this ride is certainly a mountain bike, as there are some technical sections which would be too hard on a gravel, adventure or touring bike. In parts you will find you need to push too, where the terrain is very tricky or steep. Bear in mind the impact this will have on your daily timings. It is imperative that you pack emergency rations, first aid and other equipment such as a survival bag. You will be heading to very remote areas, particularly in the Highlands so make sure that you are familiar with emergency procedures.
In terms of accommodation along the route, there are usually many options for overnight stays in rural towns and villages, from hotels to hostels, guest houses and camping grounds. In Scotland you can wild camp legally thanks to the Right To Roam act (see more at scotways.com/faq/law-on-statutory-access-rights), and you might find that it’s best to do this in a few places where it gets more remote in the Highlands. Make sure you do book ahead, especially in peak season during the summer months.
The Great North trail is easily accessible from the South from nearby train station in Winksworth, and there are many stations along the route which make dividing the entire length into smaller chunks relatively easy too. When it comes to the other end, travel options are less easy so you’ll probably need to factor in some extra time in your trip. From Cape Wrath, the nearest train stations are Lairg and Thurso. Lairg is a 60 mile (96km) ride South back near the Oykel Bridge Hotel, and Thurso is on the North coast near John O’Groats, a 73 mile (117km) ride away. If you wish to fly, the nearest international airports are Inverness (North) and Manchester or Birmingham (South).
As with a lot of the UK, weather can be unpredictable and you’re certainly likely to experience all kinds of weather over a 16 day tour. Make sure you pack appropriate clothing for all conditions including good quality waterproofs. Spare sets of brake pads along with all the normal tools and spares are a good idea! The best times of year to take on this challenge are late spring and autumn - therefore missing peak tourist and midge seasons whilst still enjoying some better weather - we hope...
For more information on the route from CyclingUK, visit cyclinguk.org/route/great-north-trail-full-route-cape-wrath
Visit here for the latest trail updates: facebook.com/groups/greatnorthtrail
Check the Cape Wrath Ferry timetable here capewrathferry.wordpress.com/rates-and-services
Start the Great North Trail from the train station in Winksworth, Derbyshire to head North. This way you’ll gradually get used to your set up and self-sufficiency before it gets too remote in the remote Scottish Highlands! It’s a simple first day following the well sign marked Pennine Bridleway, covering 48 miles (77km) as you first follow the flat and easy High Peak Trail through the Derbyshire Dales before tracing the Western edge of the Peak District National Park on more hilly terrain.
Highlights of the day include the brilliant cafe stop at Parsley Hay on the High Peak Trail, ‘the street’ technical trail and a thrilling loose and rocky descent into Hayfield. There’s a tough climb near the end of the day so make sure you have some reserves left for that, climbing up to Lantern Pike from Hayfield. Don’t be afraid to walk if you need to, especially with a bike laden with gear!
After your first overnighter in Hadfield, the second day spans a shorter 36 miles (58km) up to Hebden Bridge in the Upper Calder Valley, Yorkshire. Again on the Pennine Bridleway route, you’ll experience some of the very best riding that this area has to offer, today with a lot of climbing and descending! The route first circumnavigates the city of Manchester, giving spectacular views down into the valley and to the Dark Peak on the other side.
The terrain today includes some tricky rocky singletrack climbs and brilliant descents - you’ll be glad to be on a mountain bike here! There’s some beautiful linking lanes in part too, and you’ll pass by numerous picturesque reservoirs that supply Manchester and the surrounding area. Be sure to stop in the Pantry Farm Shop and Cafe as you pass over the Rippondale Road for some refuelling!
Nearing the end of the day’s ride, the climb to Rake End and London Road are two real highlights of the day; ancient pathways built for traders and travellers to be able to cross these boggy valleys now give excellent mountain biking trails! There are lots of options for accommodation in and around Hebden Bridge, including the campsites that the trail passes by to finish this stage.
Get recommendations on the best single tracks, peaks, & plenty of other exciting outdoor places.
The third day of the Great North Trail takes you into the Yorkshire Dales National Park, after the 54 mile (87km) route passing through Lancashire. It’s a big day, so make sure you start early and are equipped with plenty of provisions!
Some of the best sections of the Pennine Bridleway feature today, including the descent to Lower Gorple Reservoir and a stunning ride over Extwistle Moor, zig zagging down the side of the valley on gravelly singletrack and winding up the other side. Weets Hill is a challenge mid way through the day, before a flatter section along the River Ribble. After that, the route heads along the Western edge of the Yorkshire Dales, heading into the market town of Settle - be sure to check out the Three Peaks Cycle Shop and Cafe. Finally pass by Langcliffe Scar and Stainforth before finishing this mega day in Austwick.
The Pennine Bridleway is finished by the time you complete today’s 36 mile (58km) route, heading North through the heart of the spectacular Yorkshire Dales National Park along ancient Roman roads and rocky singletrack. You’ll pass through the iconic landscape home to the famous Three Peaks Cyclo-cross race, from the hillside of Ingleborough to the engineering marvel of Ribblehead Viaduct.
Climb gently to start with Thwaite on your right along the doubletrack trail and past Trow Gill. This landscape is littered with both Roman relics and more recent mining works - be sure to take a look as you pass by.
Enjoy a gentle descent into the next valley to cross the railway line near Selside, before pitching up again, this time climbing for much longer. The double track briefly rejoins and then leaves the tarmacked road, some small respite! Join the ancient Roman Cam High Road with views to Ribblehead Viaduct, along this long and straight gravel road climb. Take a left near the summit to start the long descent into the valley below - it’s a belter, enjoy! Continue on the gravel road North again, climbing up to Wold Fell before contouring around Great Knoutberry Hill. From here you get to enjoy the marvellous Coal Road descent on tarmac - it’s certainly not so enjoyable if you’re climbing it though as it can be very steep in parts!
Climb up from the River Ure directly up towards Tarn Hill, before heading North towards the beautiful sculpture at Mallerstang, not far from the source of the River Eden. Make the most of the doubletrack descent into the valley before a hard climb up the other side. This is the last official climb of the Pennine Bridleway as it finishes when you meet the next main road and head into Kirkby Stephen for the night.
Leave the Pennine Bridleway behind you now as you continue North, now with less help on navigation from the signposts! On this fifth day of 16 you’ll pass through the county of Cumbria, climbing the mighty Great Dun Fell up onto the Northern tip of the Pennine Hills and onwards North to the lovely town of Haltwhistle, covering 58 miles (92km) in total. This might sound like a lot, but there are some brilliantly easy paved cycleways that tend gently downhill in the second half of the day.
Follow quiet lanes heading North West through Appleby-in-Westmorland, along the flat valley as you see the Lake District rise to your left and the Pennines on your right. After a stop at the Post Box Pantry cafe in Dufton take on the beast that is Great Dun Fell - you’ll soon see why this is often rated as the hardest road climb in England!
Thankfully from here it’s nearly all plain sailing to Haltwhistle, descending to Garrigill and Alston before talking the old railway line cycle path gently downhill for the remainder.
The last day before the border crossing, day six takes you into the centre of Northumberland’s gravel paradise; Kielder Forest Park. Climbing out of Haltwhistle, you soon pass by the old relics of Hadrian’s wall, once constructed to defend the Northern territory of the Roman Empire. It’s not far from here that you pass into Kielder territory, especially as today’s route is a much more modest 39 miles (62km).
Taking in the wide gravel tracks that give this area such prestige in off-road circles, you’ll soon see why the Dirty Reiver is hailed as one of the best UK gravel races, held here. It won’t be long before you reach the Southern shores of Kielder Water, a man-made reservoir that’s home to a successful Osprey breeding programme - keep an eye out! The trail then follows the waterside in an anticlockwise direction to the North shore where you can overnight in Kielder village.
Today’s the big day - the border crossing to Bonnie Scotland! You’ll tackle no less than 54 miles (87km) as you firstly head West, climbing out of Kielder Forest Park and across into the Scottish Borders. Don’t expect a fanfare, bagpipes and haggis just yet, the crossing is a very minimal affair.
The route heads to the Borders town of Hawick via the gradual Leap Hill, before climbing the steeper Drinkstone Hill and Grain Hill. Pass through Ashkirk before the last, and biggest, climb of the day before Innerleithen. This takes you up to Minch Moor at 1702 feet (519m) before a wicked descent into the town which you will love - makes all that climbing well worth it.
Enjoy your brief stay in Innerleithen, a town that really does thrive on the outdoor spirit. There are plenty of accommodation options here from camping to hotels, hostels and guest houses, but make sure you book ahead, especially in the busy summer months.
Head back up the hill to Traquair to rejoin the Great North Trail on the Capital Trail after your night in Innerleithen, to start today’s stage at 44 miles (71 km). Cut off part of the Capital Trail on the drovers road over near the top of Birkscairn Hill before enjoying the descent of Gypsy Glen down to Kirkhope Law, on the Cross Borders Drove Road, which is part of a blue rated mountain bike trail network. You’re soon in Peebles, home of Glentress, one of the best MTB trail centres in the UK.
Continue North through West Linton, Carlops and East Cairn Hill before descending through Green Cleugh, a beautiful valley here in the Pentlands outside of Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital city. After the last climb up Castlelaw yielding incredible views over the city on a clear day, descend down to the suburban border where you can find a place to stay for the night before tomorrow’s more easy day.
Day nine is certainly a unique one on the Great North Trail, linking the two largest cities in Scotland via flat, traffic-free tow paths; the Union Canal and the Forth and Clyde Canal over 59 miles (95km). It might not be the most exciting day in terms of terrain and views, but it’s a good easy day on the legs which by now will be much needed after eight tough days of hills, and another ten ahead!
Start out heading West from the edge of Edinburgh through Broxburn, picking up the Union Canal towpath in Kingsknowe. Navigation will be easy today at least! The Union Canal meets the Forth and Clyde at the Falkirk Wheel, where you continue West through Kirkintilloch to Dawsholm Nature Park on the outskirts of Glasgow before turning North East to Milngavie along the Kelvin Walkway on Allander Water.
Wave goodbye to civilisation as you leave the city of Glasgow behind today to start the more remote segment of the Great North Trail into the mountains of Scotland. Today you’ll head up into the Grampian Mountains so make sure you have plenty of food and emergency rations too, not to mention wet weather gear!
You’ll be riding 50 miles (81km), firstly following the well known West Highland Way to Drymen, with beautiful views of Loch Lomond to your left. You’ll climb up next to Bat a Charchal before descending on wide gravel tracks into Aberfoyle village, home to the popular Duke’s Weekender gravel event.
Be prepared for a big climb up next around Meall Ear, before descending halfway down the other side to Loch Drunkie. Next up is Loch Venachar, all linked by easy gravel trails which make for great riding before dropping into Callandar. Why not hit up Fat Jacks Diner for a much needed meal after the big day in the saddle?
Another long day on the cards today, with no less than 61 miles (98km) to tackle heading up through the central Grampian Hills. Start by following National Cycle Route 7 along the Western shore of Loch Lubnaig, a very gentle and easy off road cycle path. Head on North through Lochearnhead, up Ogle Burn and descending to Killin by the Falls of Dochart.
Start climbing gradually as you head West from Loch Tay towards Loch Lyon, where the steep Kenknock road climb will test your legs! Once you’ve descended to the River Lyon, you join the famous Highland Trail 550 route, highly regarded as one of the hardest bikepacking routes in the UK. After a stint on the road following the river, start the next climb on rocky doubletrack from Glenlyon, between Beinn Dearg and Meall a’ Mhuic. Descend through the Black Wood of Rannoch, around Leagag and down to the Bridge of Gaur for the night. There’s a guesthouse and hotel here, or make the most of Scotland’s Right to Roam and sleep outside!
Another mega day on the cards here heading to Fort Augustus over 62 miles (99km) of riding with the mighty Corrieyairack Pass. Hope you’re ready for it!
Start the day by climbing firstly on paved, and then unpaved road up past the summit of Carn Dearg, dropping down a little to Loch Ossian. It’s well worth a short detour here from the official route to visit Corrour Station which also houses a great pub with brilliant food and drinks in this very remote spot!
Pass along the Northern shore of Loch Ossian on doubletracks, over to Loch Laggan on relatively flat roads. After here you start the Corrieyairack Pass, summiting at 2530 feet (771m) before flying down the other side into Fort Augustus, where you’ll find many options for dinner, drinks and overnight stays in this beautiful mountain village.
Update: the Hydro Bothy has been demolished (June 2020).
Today you’re heading into the Western Highlands, and with a shorter 41 miles (66km) to cover over some more testing and remote terrain. Tonight you’re heading for the Hydro Bothy, a staple in the Highland Trail 550 rider’s journey, which is anything but glamorous but often a much needed shelter in this sometimes bleak area.
Start the day heading West from Fort Augustus, climbing up the zig zagging singletrack and over into the next valley by the main road. From here head North, still on the Highland Trail 550 route, climbing the often steep slopes up past Beinn Bhan, the gravel doubletrack peaking past Loch na Beinne Baine.
Descend off the tops through Guisachan Forest, through Tomich onto Tomich Road. This follows the River Glass for a while before meeting the main road in Struy and passing Erchless Castle. From here you take the gravel road climb which leads to the Hydro Bothy, past Lochan Fada and crossing Breakachy Burn, past Loch Ballach before the last flatter stretch to the Hydro Bothy. Don’t expect five star accommodation, but surely a bit of shelter!
Update: the Hydro Bothy has been demolished (June 2020).
Leave the remote beauty and minimalism of the Hydro Bothy behind you as you head on North today, passing into the Northern Highlands and covering a total of 57 miles (92km).
For a change, today starts with a descent rather than a climb, heading down from the bothy and Orrin Dam to the road at Marybank. It’s a fantastic descent with massive views on a clear morning. Next ride into Contin and don’t miss the village stores as the perfect opportunity to replenish your food supplies. Rogie Falls is just up the road and well worth a short detour - why not take a picnic?
There’s a lot of climbing ahead, so you’ll be glad of the extra food from Contin. Head up past Loch Garve and follow the doubletrack that runs parallel to the road and Black Water, through the Longart Forest. This then rejoins the road to Black Bridge, before taking another gravel road up past Loch Vaich. The summit of this long slog is near the peak of Meall a’ Chaorainn, immediately starting to descend past Deannich Lodge. Follow down through the river valley, past Croick Church and along further before the last descent to Oykel Bridge where there’s a great hotel. You’ll be glad of the hot meals and luxuries after a night in the bothy!
You’ll be glad of the respite today with a shorter ride of 33 miles (53km) after a few mammoth days in the Scottish Highlands. Leave the comfort of the Oykel Bridge Hotel behind today, and look forward to the very gentle ride, bar the one climb and descent of Maovally, or the Power Station climb.
Start by heading East on the main road alongside the River Oykel, turning off left just after Cassley Bridge in Rosehall. Take this little lane Northbound along the River Cassley valley, now on the Highland Trail 550 route again. It starts to very gently climb before it gets serious on the Power Station climb, zig zagging up the valley side away from the river and up the side of Maovally.
Descend on the road before the unpaved path takes you between Loch Shin and Loch a’ Ghriama. From here it’s an easy last stint heading North on the road from Corrickinloch to West Merkland, passing by Loch Merkland. Find a good spot here to wildcamp, or if you’d rather stay under a roof, detour South on the main road to the Overscaig House Hotel.
Brace yourself - it’s the last day! You might be sad or relieved to have reached this point, but no matter how you’re feeling, you will certainly be in for a treat today as you head to Cape Wrath. It’s the most North-Westerly point of the United Kingdom mainland but you’ll be glad to hear at the end of it there’s a cafe! There’s even a ferry crossing thrown in for good measure too today.
The route on this final 50 mile (80km) leg starts with a gravel road climb, continuing along the Highland Trail 550 route, passing Loch an t-Selig to start before descending off the top to meet Strathmore River. You follow along this waterway heading North on the Strathmore Hope Road before turning left onto unpaved roads again to cross the river.
The second climb of the day starts here to reach Am-Feur-Loch, then descending the switchbacks over the other side of the hill to the coastal Loch Eriboll. Make your way around the Southern tip of the water, and up the Western flank. Don’t be afraid to stop and take a look around Smoo cave as you’re passing, but make sure you check the ferry times for Keoldale first! This short trip doesn’t cost very much and is the main way into Cape Wrath.
What comes next is totally unique, and pretty bizarre. If you complete the last section from Keoldale Ferry to the Cape Wrath Lighthouse, you can apply to CyclingUK to be entered into the Cape Wrath Fellowship, established in 1949 to celebrate cyclists riding this challenging road in one of the most beautifully rugged and remote parts of the UK.
When you reach the Lighthouse at Cape Wrath you’ve made it - what an achievement! Time to put your feet up and enjoy some food and drink in the Ozone cafe before crossing back over the ferry. Congratulations!