By Tom Butcher
I cycled the Great Glen Way earlier this summer and, apart from the infamous midges that Scotland’s famous for, it was a great ride. It took me two days in all. Due to the terrain and the nature of the route, this is a mountain bike trail but you can probably get away with a robust hybrid if you’re feeling lucky. I definitely would not recommend using a road bike (unless you’ve got a death wish, of course).
The 79-mile route follows glistening lochs and cuts through brooding mountains and ancient forests, giving you a spectacular taste of Highland Scotland.
It’s pretty easy to cycle the route in a weekend, and it’s not particularly gruelling (apart from a few uphill sections which you’d expect) which makes it a good ride for cyclists of most abilities.
Here’s the itinerary I followed.
I started in Fort William, underneath the towering mass of the UK’s tallest mountain, Ben Nevis. Standing at 1,345 metres (4,413 ft), the summit of Ben Nevis is actually the remains of an ancient, collapsed volcano. Scary stuff.
After you manage to tear yourself away from staring at the mountain, follow the signs for National Route 78 and the Great Glen Way and you’ll head along the shore of Loch Linnhe and up along the towpath of the Caledonian Canal.
The Caledonian Canal itself is a marvel of Victorian engineering and it’s hard not to be impressed by it, even nearly 200 years after it was built. Designed by Thomas Telford in 1802, and finally finished in 1822, it was created as a project to alleviate unemployment caused by the infamous Highland Clearances – where Highlanders were thrown out of their jobs and homes by landowners to make way for more profitable sheep-farming. Only a third of it is actually man-made because the canal connects a series of lochs for the most part.
It’s probably at this point that you’ll start to appreciate how impressive the Great Glen actually is, coming into contact with some pretty awe-inspiring landscapes. At some point, like I did, you’ll probably wondering just how these magnificent lochs and mountains formed in the first place. The Great Glen is a tectonic rift valley and a fault zone. The fault itself was created from a collision between tectonic plates over 390 million years ago and cuts a diagonal line from Inverness to Fort William, across the Highlands. When the glaciers of the Ice Age melted, the Great Glen was carved out by the floodwater and the series of lochs that the glen is famous for, like Loch Ness, Loch Lochy and Loch Oich, were formed.
Although there hasn’t been any major seismic activity for a while, occasionally tremors are detected here – so much so that the road bridge at Kessock has been built with special, anti-earthquake strengthening!
After a while of following the canal, you’ll end up at Neptune Steps in Gairlochy – a series of 8 lock flights that take the canal up a gradient. Next up, you’ll cruise along the shores of the funnily-named Loch Lochy and into South Laggan and then eventually end up in Fort Augustus. Fort Augustus is a sensible place to call it a day. It’s a good place to stock up on supplies (shops being few and far between on the route) and you can stay at the Lovat Hotel, or at one of the nearby campsites if you’re sleeping under canvas.
On the second day, you’ll probably start to encounter the changing terrain. As you leave Fort Augustus, the relatively flat canal towpaths that the first day presented you with give way to ascending forest trails that cut through what’s left of the ancient Caledonian Forest. If you’re lucky enough, you might spot a red squirrel – the Great Glen is home to around 75% of the UK’s population of these.
Eventually, you’ll get to the shores of Loch Ness – the UK’s deepest freshwater loch and home of the elusive Loch Ness monster. As you wind your way up past the loch, you’ll get directed on to the A82 for a short stretch but you’ll soon be back in the forest trails, past the small villages of Invermoriston and Drumnadrochit and coasting downhill into Inverness!
I was cycling the route with my pal, Will (who runs car leasing comparison website, LeaseFetcher) and even he was impressed by how easy it was to cycle the route. “It was much easier than driving it and trying to squeeze past huge camper vans on the A82, anyway” he said afterward, on the train back from Inverness.
That’s definitely a sentiment I can agree with!
About the Author
Tom Butcher is a freelance writer who recently escaped the world of print journalism. He covers a wide range of topics, including finance, business and motoring. You can follow his (new) Twitter feed here.