Katherine Moore

Across Scotland by canal and coastline — Cycling the John Muir Way

jsutcℓiffe (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Across Scotland by canal and coastline — Cycling the John Muir Way

Bike Touring Collection by Katherine Moore
2-4 days
3-6 h / day
129 mi
4,775 ft
4,750 ft

Welcome to the John Muir Way; a long distance walking and cycling route that spans the breadth of Scotland from Helensburgh on the west coast to Dunbar on the east. The trail totals 134 miles (216 km) from coast to coast, visiting the glorious Loch Lomond and through the city of Edinburgh’s historic heart before tracing the coastline to the finish.

It takes its name from the well regarded conservationist John Muir (1838-1914), who was born in Dunbar where the trail concludes. Muir later moved to North America and became a pivotal member responsible for securing the future of wilderness areas including Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks. You’ll pass through numerous wildlife reserves on your ride, mostly marshland and coastal areas, so if you enjoy birdwatching, you’ll love this trip!

Certain parts of the official John Muir Way cycling route differ to the walking route via so-called braids. These detours function to avoid particularly hard parts of the trail that would be awkward with a bike and protect some parts of the path that are prone to erosion.

The John Muir Way is the perfect challenge for novice tourers, or experienced riders looking to take it a bit more leisurely. The way is well signed and is mostly flat or gently undulating, frequently passing through villages and towns where you can get supplies and places to stay.

Here we propose four stages of around 30 miles (48 km) a day which can be combined or further split as you wish. These should give you plenty of time to explore the many historic landmarks, attractions and nature reserves that line the route.

Each stage of the John Muir Way starts and finishes in towns and villages where you’ll find many options for overnight accommodation, as well as places to eat and drink. Of course you can choose to camp along the route also. If you choose to do this, make sure you are respectful of the environment and follow the Outdoor Access Code (outdooraccess-scotland.scot).

The best time of year to ride the John Muir Way is likely to be in the summer months, although it might be best to avoid weekends if possible as there are many shared use paths that may become quite congested in the peak season. Springtime or autumn will no doubt give you some beautiful changing seasons, but make sure you pack your waterproofs and plenty of layers just in case!

A lot of the John Muir Way is on unpaved trails, so you’ll need a bike with wider tyres – typically 30mm or wider. A solid touring, cyclo-cross, adventure or gravel bike or a hybrid will be ideal. Alternatively a light-weight rigid or hardtail mountain bike would be fine, although a full suspension bike here would maybe be overkill!

Access to either end of the trail is easy, with both Helensburgh and Dunbar home to train stations that regularly link into the major connecting stations of Edinburgh and Glasgow. For more information on train travel in the region, visit scotrail.co.uk. It’s always worth checking if you can take your bike on the train before travelling, as these regulations may change.

For further information about the John Muir Way, visit johnmuirway.org/route or see our hiking Collection if you fancy exploring it on foot komoot.com/collection/892250/john-muir-way-stunning-coast-to-coast-across-the-heartland-of-scotland.

On The Map

Tours & Highlights

    Intermediate
    03:18
    30.9 mi
    9.4 mph
    1,575 ft
    1,375 ft
    Intermediate mountain bike ride. Good fitness required. Advanced riding skills necessary.

    Welcome to the Firth of Clyde, the west coast, and to Helensburgh! This is the starting point for your four stage adventure across the heart of Scotland. Today is a 32 mile (50 km) stretch which heads inland to the north of Glasgow, finishing in the little town of Lennoxtown. Start your route from the train station here, taking a very quick detour to the official start point in the grand Colquhoun Square. Now head inland to the north east via Luss Road. You’ll soon be out of the town, passing over Fruin Water twice before you reach the shores of Loch Lomond. The Loch is known the world over for its beauty, and you’ll surely understand why today. Pass the castle and cross the River Leven through Balloch at the southern edge of this expansive water, before riding by the privately owned Balloch Castle and country park to head east. Lanes lead you to Croftamie where you join a disused railway line to cross Endrick Water. Rejoin the lane, now on the same route as the Great North Trail (komoot.com/collection/904449/britain-s-newest-long-distance-challenge-great-north-trail) to ride along the Old Military Road, an unpaved route heading south which also forms part of the West Highland Way. You’ll start to climb here on this gravel road to Carbeth Loch, then descend through the woodland trails to Strathblane.Continuing east along National Cycle Route 755, you’ll pass into East Dunbartonshire as you skirt the edge of the hillier Campsie Fells to the north. This cycle route takes you along the River Glazert straight into Lennoxtown, your stage end. If you’re staying overnight here, you’ll find a couple of guesthouses and a campsite.

    Intermediate
    03:27
    34.7 mi
    10.1 mph
    1,150 ft
    1,325 ft
    Intermediate mountain bike ride. Good fitness required. Advanced riding skills necessary.

    The second stage is marginally longer than the first, covering 34.7 miles (55.8 km) from Lennoxtown to the coastal town of Bo’ness on the Firth of Forth. Most of today’s route is along the pretty Forth and Clyde Canal, so you’ll enjoy a great deal of the stage totally traffic-free.Firstly make your way south from Lennoxtown to Kirkintilloch, as the John Muir Way follows Glazert Water between the two towns. Here you pick up the Forth and Clyde Canal, which leads you through Dullatur Marsh Nature Reserve, past Bonnybridge and to the mightily impressive Falkirk Wheel. Do take some time here to admire this unique boat lift, plus pop into the visitor centre to find out more about the local heritage, including the many Roman fortifications and ruins you’ve already passed today. Next, head away from the canal to the south, riding through Tamfourhill Wood, crossing the road to experience the quiet peace of Lionthorn Wood Park before joining another canal towpath, this time the Union Canal.Follow this water as it flows between the hills that surround you as you ride under the striking Avon Aqueduct before heading through the western suburbs of Lithinglow away from the canal. Next head north to the coastline near the head of the Firth of Forth, marking the end of stage two and the halfway point in Bo’ness, also known as Borrowstounness. There are a few inns and hotels for accommodation here, or alternatively if they are full, seek some in Lithinglow, a neighbouring village.

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  • Intermediate
    02:55
    24.6 mi
    8.5 mph
    1,175 ft
    950 ft
    Intermediate mountain bike ride. Good fitness required. Suitable for all skill levels.

    This third stage is perhaps the most scenic of them all, following along the southern shore of the Firth of Forth coastline before turning inland into the fascinating history of Scotland’s capital city. Ending in Edinburgh, this stage is a shorter 24.7 miles (39.7 km). You’ll be hoping for good weather today, as the views on a clear day are something else. Rejoin the John Muir Way as you head out of Bo’ness to start the stage, passing the beach after Carriden as you ride close to the shore. A light gravel path will lead you to Blackness, where you might want to divert to explore the castle. Continue east through West Shore Wood, over Midhope Burn at Abercorn and through East Shore Wood. Here you’ll see the three bridges that span the Firth of Forth before you pass under all of them; firstly the Queensferry Crossing, then the Forth Road Bridge (access to pedestrians and cyclist on this one) and then the Forth Railway Bridge. Admire their scale as you pass under each, making your way along the coastline of Queensferry town. You’ll follow the coast some more yet, around the head past Peatdraught Bay and Barnbougle Castle (some incredible names, eh). It’s only when you near the River Almond that you’ll turn inland, following gravel tracks to Cramond bridge and joining the fine city of Edinburgh after riding through Cramond Golf Course.Take great care as you rejoin the urban and sometimes busy city roads, especially after a few days enjoying being nearly traffic-free. Climb up through the beautiful Corstorphine Hill Nature Reserve and past the tower, a memorial to Sir Walter Scott. Thankfully this is your only major climb for the day. Next you’ll skirt around the edge of Edinburgh Zoo. Keep your eyes peeled, you might see something a bit different to the native wildlife! Keep heading south on a mixture of cycle and shared use paths including the Corstorphine Branch Railway Route, the Water of Leith Walkway through Saughton Park and the Union Canal towpath. The stage finishes at the Lochrin Basin at the end of the canal, so you are free to choose from the many accommodation options in the city for the night. Why not take your bike and kit to your overnight stay and then explore more of the city by foot?

    Intermediate
    03:30
    38.7 mi
    11.0 mph
    875 ft
    1,100 ft
    Intermediate mountain bike ride. Good fitness required. Suitable for all skill levels.

    The fourth and final stage of the John Muir Way by bike will take you from the vibrant character at the heart of Edinburgh city to the birthplace of John Muir himself, Dunbar. Covering 38.7 miles (62.3 km) it is the longest day by distance, reaching east to the North Sea and the craggy cliffs that couldn’t contrast more to the smooth lines of the inner city start. After passing through the meadows by Melville Drive, your first assignment of the day is the Innocent Railway – so called as the operators of the time continued to use horses rather than newfound steam engines to pull the wagons. These tunnels are a little spooky but well lit and slightly downhill in this direction. These pass by Arthur’s Seat, one of the seven hills of Edinburgh. The Innocent Cycle Path continues along Niddrie Burn heading east, onto the Brunstane Burn Walkway towards the coastline where you join the Edinburgh Road, which forms part of the Capital Trail (komoot.com/collection/902010/edinburgh-s-bikepacking-escape-the-capital-trail). Pass along the beach at Musselburgh and cross the River Esk, following the coastline past the nature reserve at Levenhall Links. A short inland diversion takes you back to the beach at Prestonpans and further to Cockenzie. Ice cream, anyone?Next along the coastline is the beach and grasslands at Longniddry Bents, a popular spot for birdwatchers due to the frequent sightings of marine wading birds. You can really see the value in this stretch of coastline as you next pass through Aberlady Bay Local Nature Reserve, a string of conservation projects that would make John Muir proud today. The next section past North Berwick sticks a little more inland along some quiet lanes and off road tracks across the flat agricultural land. Join the East Lothian Trail for the last stint into Dunbar town, where no doubt you’ll be ready for a celebratory meal to toast your achievement. If there’s time, do visit the castle here or maybe stay a night to extend your break before travelling back home. Very handily, the train station in Dunbar has a direct line to Edinburgh connecting station for your homeward travel.

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Collection Stats

  • Tours
    4
  • Distance
    129 mi
  • Duration
    13:09 h
  • Elevation
    4,775 ft4,750 ft
Katherine Moore

Across Scotland by canal and coastline — Cycling the John Muir Way