Bikepacking the breadth of the Borderlands — Southern Upland Way

Mountain Biking Collection by Katherine Moore
7-14 days
3-6 h / day
218 mi
22,575 ft
22,400 ft

The Southern Upland Way is a spectacular long distance cycling and hiking route linking the west and east coasts of Scotland, crossing the remote hills of the Scottish Borderlands.

Starting from Portpatrick, on the Irish Sea, the Way travels 214 miles (344 km) through the border regions of Scotland to finish in Cockburnspath, on the North Sea. The rugged coastlines are linked via a hilly landscape sculpted by thousands of years of glacial activity.

In total it covers 214 miles (344 km) linking rugged coastlines, from remote Portpatrick to Cockburnspath, with a hilly landscape formed by glacial activity over thousands of years.

The resulting rolling hills and rocky outcrops make a great challenge for riders, more accessible than the remote Highlands with smaller summits (none above 3,000ft (914 m), but still plenty of climbing to test the legs and deliver some incredible views. You’ll also pass through many villages and towns so there’s plenty of options for resupply or even overnighting under a roof if that’s your preference.

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). If you’re choosing from the hotels, guesthouses and campsites along the route, make sure you do book ahead, especially in peak season during the summer months.

There’s some serious climbing on this route so you’ll need some low gearing and wide tyres to cope with the sometimes rocky and rough terrain. A gravel bike with tyres of 40mm or more or a mountain bike will be best, depending on your preference.

Although not as remote as other parts of Scotland, this route still passes over some inaccessible areas so you’ll need to make sure that you’re familiar with emergency procedure (such as telephone numbers for emergency services and route escape points) and have emergency equipment, including a basic first aid kit and a survival bag.

The best times of the year to tackle the Southern Upland Way include the spring and autumn, at either side of the midge season, but when it should be a bit drier under tyre and hopefully offer some better weather.

Always be prepared with waterproofs and extra layers should the worst of the weather hit you, even in the summer months. Attempting the Southern Upland Divide in the winter months is not recommended as some of the way is on grassy ground which can become very boggy and hard to pass after bad weather.

Travel options at either end are limited as it starts and ends in small coastal villages without great links for cyclists. Your best bet is to catch a train to and from either end. At the start you’ll need to catch a train to Stranraer, a 7 mile (11.5 km) ride to the start in Portpatrick, and then at the finish you’ll need to ride 8.7 miles (14 km) to Dunbar for the nearest station to make your way home.

Find out more about cycling the route at southernuplandway.gov.uk/coast-to-coast-long-distance-walking/biking.
If you think you like the look of this route but might prefer the challenge on foot, check out our hiking Collection for the Southern Upland Way here komoot.com/collection/904418/a-wild-and-undiscovered-coast-to-coast-challenge-southern-upland-way.

On The Map

Tours & Highlights

    Difficult
    06:23
    38.6 mi
    6.1 mph
    2,600 ft
    2,150 ft
    Expert mountain bike ride. Very good fitness required. Suitable for all skill levels.

    Starting from the west, the Southern Upland Way begins at the village of Portpatrick, a collection of colourful pastel-coloured houses on the edge of the Irish Sea. This first stage of seven covers 38.6 miles (62.1 km), heading inland from the Rhins of Galloway to the edge of Galloway Forest Park, near Loch Ochiltree. From the harbour in Portpatrick, take the path along the coastline heading north to start, firstly up a set of steps to the coastal path. Pass Port Mora and Killantringan Lighthouse before turning inland along the road, then climb along lanes to Knockniemoak.The Southern Upland Way leaves the paved road here to head over Mulloch Hill and south of Knockquhassen Reservoir. You will rejoin small country roads to navigate around the south of Stranraer, an important ferry port town linking south-west Scotand to Ireland. Between Castle Kennedy Airfield and Loch Ryan, the Way passes alongside White Loch through the woodland and then up along the edge of Glenwhan Moor. Cross the Water of Luce, before climbing up the doubletrack road to Kilhern.From here the general direction turns from east to north, the road to Balmurrie soon crumbling into gravel road before singletrack. The views from the forestry up here can be incredible on a clear day, here’s hoping it’s just that for you! From the high point of the day on Craig Airie Fell, start to gently descend to the east past Loch Derry, the disused quarries, onto the road past Darloskine Bridge and to Knowe. For the last part of the stage you’ll gently climb toward the shores of Loch Ochiltree, where you’ll find plenty of good spots to wild camp if you’d like to spend the night here. If you’d rather find accomodation for the night, you’ll have to ride another 3.4 miles (5.5 km) to the hotel at Bargrennan.

    Difficult
    05:07
    28.0 mi
    5.5 mph
    2,100 ft
    2,300 ft
    Expert mountain bike ride. Very good fitness required. Suitable for all skill levels.

    The second stage covers no less than 28 miles (45.1 km) from the shores of beautiful Loch Ochiltree to the small town of St John’s Town of Dalry, also as Dalry for short. Today you’ll pass through the picturesque Glen Trool valley, ride to the remote Loch Dee and visit White Laggan Bothy.Leave Loch Ochiltree to descend to the road at Bargrennan. For a short while, you’ll follow the River Cree to the south, before turning to head north-east through Glentrool Forest on very steadily climbing forestry roads.By following the water, you’ll be led to Loch Trool, where you’ll follow the singletrack path along the southern edge. If it’s a hot summer’s day and you fancy a dip, save yourself for Loch Dee’s sandy beaches up next! Rejoin the doubletrack gravel road to ride to Loch Dee. We’ve added a detour to visit White Laggan Bothy here. Although you might not want to stay the night here, it’s always fun to explore bothies on your route, as you never know when you might want to come back! Moving away from Loch Dee, you’ll gently descend the gravel road by the River Dee, touching on the northern shore of Clatteringshaws Loch. Turn north here for the last climb of the day; again steady and long, up to pass Benbrack.Drop down to Garroch Burn and past Drambuie, taking the broken road down to the power station at the main road. From here you simply cross the Water of Ken into the town, where you’ll find a few places to stay, as well as more options in nearby New Galloway to the south.

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  • Difficult
    05:56
    26.4 mi
    4.5 mph
    2,975 ft
    2,800 ft
    Expert mountain bike ride. Very good fitness required. Suitable for all skill levels.

    The general bearing for the third stage is north-east, spanning 26.4 miles (42.5 km) from town to town to Sanquhar Castle. There are no major climbs or descents on this stage, but rather long, gentle climbs or gradual descents. The Southern Upland Way leaves St John’s Town of Dalry on doubletrack and singletrack, gently climbing past Ardoch Hill and along the edge of Corseglass Forest. Cross over Butterhole Bridge and then up and over Culmark Hill.Pass the ancient Stroanfreggan Cairn just before you reach the road, then cross to continue in the same direction up Manquhill Hill and further up to Benbrack peak, where the famous Andy Goldsworthy ‘Striding Arch’ sculpture marks the summit. Start to descend gradually off the tops, over Cairn Hill and Black Hill, then more sharply down to Polskeoch Burn. Follow this water to the east along the broken road, before taking the track left at Polgown to climb over Cloud Hill. Enjoy your descent to the end of the stage now, off the hill and down to the town of Sanquhar. You’ll finish the stage to gaze at the stunning ruins of Sanquhar Castle, now privately owned, but if you’re finishing for the day here you’ll find a couple of hotels and guesthouses here.

    Difficult
    06:28
    28.2 mi
    4.4 mph
    4,650 ft
    4,750 ft
    Expert mountain bike ride. Very good fitness required. Suitable for all skill levels.

    Leave the town of Sanquhar to start the 28.6 mile (46.1 km) stage to Beattock, a small village just south of Moffat, still in Dumfries and Galloway. In this fourth stage you’ll face some more climbing than before, with the radar station on Lowther Hill being the most notable summit of the day, followed by Beld Knowe.Start by heading north-east out of the town, with a climb to seriously warm up those leg muscles! Up to Cogshead, you’re now riding into the Lowther Hills, known for their steep sides and more gentle gradient summits. After a short descent between the hills, you’ll be climbing again, this time past Glenaber Hill. Next you’ll pass through the village of Wanlockhead where there is a pub, brewery, and shop.The third and final peak is the highest, the unmistakable Lowther Hill. The giant golf ball-like aircraft radars at the top stand at 2,297 feet (700 metres) and mark the highest point on the Southern Upland Way. Descend over Laght Hill to the road and cross Potrail Water, heading along a more flat section through Watermeetings Forest now to the edge of beautiful Daer Reservoir. From here you’ll start your last major climb of the day up to Hods Hill and Beld Knowe on the edge of Greskine Forest.Descend past Brattleburn bothy (a great refuge in poor weather) and climb a little over Craig Hill, before the final approach to Beattock by singletrack and then a small lane. If you’re staying here for the night you’ll find a few accommodation options, plus many more in the town of Moffat just a few minutes ride to the north.

    Difficult
    06:40
    34.2 mi
    5.1 mph
    3,850 ft
    3,675 ft
    Expert mountain bike ride. Very good fitness required. Suitable for all skill levels.

    There’s another hilly one on the menu for stage 5, connecting the settlements of Beattock and Traquair via three main climbs, with 34.8 miles (56 km) between. The first climb of the day is certainly the biggest challenge, so at least your legs will be fresh after a night’s sleep if you stopped in Beattock or Moffat. You’ll ride, or push, up to the highest point next to Wind Fell, next to Ettrick Head. You’ll change from singletrack onto a gravel road here and just over the top you’ll find Over Phawhope Bothy. It’s a small and humble bothy but with remarkably cosy sofas and a wood stove - do pop in and have a look.Follow Ettrick Water from its source down through the valley now, watching it grow as you gently descend along the paved road past the edge of Craik Forest. You won’t quite reach Ettrick village before turning off the road to the left, following Scabcleugh Burn up on the second climb of the day. It’s not a severely steep climb, but as it is mostly grassy rather than technical it can get pretty boggy and slow-going when wet.After reaching the summit of the climb near Pikestone Rig, you’ll drop down on the gravel roads to Loch of the Lowes and St Mary’s Loch. We’ve included a short detour here to Glen Cafe on the other side of the bridge, which is well worth a visit with an extensive menu and friendly locals! Cross back to the east side of St Mary’s Loch, following the singletrack way along the shore to the North. It’s a spectacular valley that you’ll struggle to leave, it really is that picturesque. It’s a fairly flat section before the last climb of the day, which features a very steep ascent after you cross Douglas Burn. Thankfully this starts on a doubletrack gravel road before narrowing to singletrack, and it’s not too long before the hill starts to ease off near the top.The hard work for the stage is done at the summit of Blake Muir, as you then sail down the side of the hill on a brilliant singletrack path, through Kirkbryde and into Traquair. There’s very little here at this crossroads village, but a 2 mile (3.2 km) detour north will take you into the lively town of Innerleithen. Here you’ll find a huge array of accommodation types and eateries which are all well accustomed to looking after outdoorsy types!

    Intermediate
    04:09
    16.5 mi
    4.0 mph
    2,450 ft
    2,650 ft
    Intermediate mountain bike ride. Good fitness required. Suitable for all skill levels.

    The smallest of the seven stages by distance, stage 6 is a mere 16.5 miles (26.5 km), so you can choose to use it as a gentle ‘rest’ day, or roll it into another stage for a longer day. Be warned though, the following and final stage is the longest of them all! Start by leaving Traquair straight onto the longest climb of the day, which is also pretty steep in sections with some parts at over 17% up onto Minch Moor. There’s a network of mountain biking trails up here which are popular with locals and visitors alike as part of the 7Stanes network in Scotland.Summit Minch Moor on the Cross Borders Drove Road before rumbling along the tops past Hare Lawe and over Brown Knowe. On a clear day, the views from this spine trail are simply remarkable.There’s a slight descent on this well surfaced singletrack to the Three Brethren cairns, one of the most iconic climbs in the Scottish Borders. Take care when it’s busy up here, especially in the summer months with other trail users.The singletrack and gravel road descent that comes next is a corker; down along Shorthope Burn to cross the River Tweed through Fairnilee. You’ll be straight into another climb up the other side of the glen here, albeit much more gradual and shorter. Descend over the other side of the hill past Gala Hill and Gala House to reach the edge of the urban sprawl of Galashiels. You then skirt the town heading south east, passing the other side of Gala Hill before passing Abbotsford, the house of Sir Walter Scott on the banks of the Tweed. After crossing the river you’re in Tweedbank at the end of the stage. If you’re finishing your day here, you’ll find plenty of places to eat, drink and stay in this valley which is well populated.

    Difficult
    07:24
    46.0 mi
    6.2 mph
    3,975 ft
    4,075 ft
    Expert mountain bike ride. Very good fitness required. Advanced riding skills necessary.

    We’ve saved the biggest stage for last in this Collection, with a brilliant 45.1 miles (72.6 km) leg to the end of the Southern Upland Way in Cockburnspath. You’ll cross the expansive Lammermuir Hills before reaching the rugged cliffs of the North Sea to complete your awesome coast to coast adventure.You’ll start the day with a flat section along the River Tweed. Cross the river, following along the same way as the Capital Trail (see komoot.com/collection/902010/edinburgh-s-bikepacking-escape-the-capital-trail). From here you’ll start the first climb of the day up past Camp Knowe and the eerily named ‘Deadwife’s Grave’. You’ll ride along the tops here on the straight gravel road, over Kedslie Hill and onto the paved road at the crossroads, then back onto gravel to Woodheads Hill. Here’s where you’ll find the singletrack descent that’ll take you into the town ot Lauder, yippee! After passing through the town, where you’ll find plenty of places to pick up supplies or enjoy a cuppa, climb up out of the other side of the valley on singletrack over Leader Water, up to Park Hill. Continue up and over Blythe Water next nearing the summit, first over Scoured Rig and then to the very top at Twin Law with its two large cairns. The first part of the descent will take you to to Watch Water Reservoir on a mix of paved and unpaved roads, then on tarmac down to the incredibly-named Longformicus.The major climbs are mostly over for your trip, and this last leg features numerous rolling hills as you head north-east to the coast. A combination of singletrack and gravel roads lead to you Abbey St Bathans and over to Penmanshiel Wood. Before you reach the coastline, make sure you make time to explore Pease Dean nature reserve, which is incredibly diverse in both invertebrates and small mammals and amphibians. The very last part of the Southern Upland Way takes you to the clifftops by Cove before turning back inland to finish at the small village of Cockburnspath. There isn’t much here, so your best bet will be to hug the coastline north to the town of Dunbar where you’ll find plenty of facilities, places to stay and a railway station to make your way home.

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Collection Stats

  • Tours
    7
  • Distance
    218 mi
  • Duration
    42:06 h
  • Elevation
    22,575 ft22,400 ft

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