Sweating pouring down my back, muttering expletives under my breath as I carried my On-One 456 on my shoulder. Seat digging in and the pedals constantly clipping my leg. As I emerged from the woods I put my bike down to find 4 ticks on my legs. That was it. I lost it.
Mountain bike the West Highland Way?! Who’s stupid idea was this?
The West Highland Way is 96 miles/ 154km from Milngavie near Glasgow to Fort William in the Highlands.
You can find all the details of the route on the official website, which has some great planning details including places to stay and eat along the route. https://www.westhighlandway.org/the-route/
Why mountain bike the route?
Well, I did ask myself that question a few times! There are definitely some sections of the route which are either very difficult mountain biking (and I pushed it!) or actually impossible (and I carried it!). But there are some fantastic sections to ride and some which I think are possibly better on a bike than on foot.
We decided to ride the route in 3 days, considering that to be achievable. We travelled light, carrying everything we needed for the 3 days. We’d hoped to send a change of clothing ahead to our destination in Fort William, but hadn’t thought about this till too late to post anything. Thankfully it didn’t rain or it would have been miserable in the same wet clothing.
We had family near Glasgow so had driven and left our car in Milngavie. It’s definitely possible to do this on public transport, and potentially even add a day cycling from Glasgow to Milngavie along the Kelvin Walkway.
Getting back from Fort William with bikes was an issue. We didn’t have bike bags to be able to put them on the buses, and you can’t prebook bikes on Scotrail trains. I didn’t want to take a punt that it would be ok to get them on and risk being stuck in Fort William. So I booked us a cycle tour company to give us a lift back south. More expensive but we had left this trip till the last minute for planning and post lockdown desperate holiday makers had make booking things tricky.
We carried what we needed for the 3 days. Partly as we’d failed to think about posting clean clothing to Fort William till it was too late and partly as we’d ended up with too many other costs to think about paying for a company to move a bag for us. This is definitely possible though.
Day 1: Milngavie to Rowardennan YHA
The West Highland Way starts in the town of Milngavie to the north of Glasgow. Having stayed at family nearby we parked up early and head into town to start the route. Oh and buy a route passport from the local shop. There’s nothing I like more than ticking off things as I travel and collecting stamps along the way is definitely in that category.
Heading out of Milngavie the route is an easy ride along cycle paths, tracks and country lanes. Its very easy cycling and I might have found this section a bit boring to walk.
As the trail heads north of Drymen, a popular first stop for hikers, it enters the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park where the cycling is on easy forest tracks before heading out on to the moorland. We certainly weren’t the only ones cycling the route, we passed as many people on bikes as over took us, with a couple of guys planning on doing it in two days.
As we approached Conic Hill I admit that I got off to push uphill. It wasn’t too steep but I’m not a great technical rider and this was a bit rocky for me. Unfortunately the downhill was worse. Steep, getting rockier near the bottom with the added problem of hundreds of hikers ascending from the Balmaha side. So I ended up pushing it downhill while Jared shot off to dodge hikers on the descent.
We were both fully prepared with stories of how difficult cycling along the edge of Loch Lomond was having read a few blogs, so I was surprised to find the first section mostly rideable on forest paths. Definitely some lovely descents.
We arrived at Rowardennan in time for a pint outside the hotel before heading to the YHA for a much needed shower and food. I highly recommend the Youth Hostel, it was a reasonable price and we’d pre-booked evening meal as well as breakfast so we didn’t have to think about food. They also did pack lunches which was handy.
Day 2: Rowardennan to the Kings House
Today was a tough one despite having mentally prepared for it. My attitude to cycling is generally if it gets too tough I’ll just get off and push. This was the day of cycling that made me realise sometimes even thats not an option.
We left the hostel at 8am and the first 5km along the trail was lovely wide woodland paths -there an optional higher track to take which is definitely rideable compared to the official trail nearer the lake.
As we approached Inversnaid we had to drop back on to the lower track and this unfortunately meant hiking with the bike. By which I mean putting it on my shoulder and carrying it, as its so rocky it’s not possible to push it.
We arrived at Inversnaid intending to get the ferry across – knowing full well north of Inversnaid wasn’t ridable. But when the ferry came the chap gave us such a stern warning about cycling on the A82 and the traffic being a death sentence, that we gave up and decided to take our chance with the trail.
In hindsight as much as I hate cycling in busy traffic on narrow roads, I think that might have been less stressful.
I am not exaggerating that the route north of Inversnaid to the Beinglas campsite at Inverarnan is 85% unrideable. And worse than that, 60% of it is hike-a-bike with added scrambling.
Squeezing along a narrow trail between trees and rocks, down climbing wet boulders with a bike on my shoulders and ascending a ladder.
I fell over twice with the bike flying over my head.
I had a moment of down climbing some rocks when I actually thought I might just fall face first down and get buried by my bike.
I swore an uncountable number of times.
I bashed my pedals against me too many times.
Oh and yes the ticks. I arrived at Beinglas campsite, sweaty, with mild heat stroke, tired as hell and with 4 ticks as passengers. I was not happy.
While we had a cold drink and crisps at the campsite cafe, I lost my shit a bit and said I wasn’t taking the risk that the next section of river path past the Falls of Falloch was more of the same and so we got on the road.
Thankfully at that point the A82 widens so is less of a death trap. So we slogged up the tarmac hill till we reached the point where the old military road crosses the main road and we could get back on the trail.
This easier detour also meant we could gain back some time lost through having to hike a huge section in the morning. Once on this section it was back to rideable trails.
Even the section through the woodland near Crianlarich was rideable, a few techy sections but otherwise great.
Being tired though I did descend a steep bit and gashed my leg on a stick, and was immediately covered in blood to go with the mud.
Nevertheless, the valley ride to Tyndrum was lovely cycling, lots of single track and wide open trails. It was really pretty too.
We stopped in Tyndrum and filled up on carbs at the Real Food Cafe, definitely in my top 5 favourite chip shops in the country and well worth a visit, even if your vegan. (The tofu-fish is worth it).
Being late in planning this adventure we’d ended up with our accommodation in Crianlarich but Robert was amazing and said he would pick us up from wherever we finished and drop us off again. This was a god send to not have to double back along the road. I recommend his place, a cute wooden cabin with hot shower, tv and beers. Lush.
Day 3: Kingshouse to Fort William
We woke stiff and raging headaches from yesterday’s sun and dehydration. Robert kindly drove us up to the Kingshouse and by then we set off in sunshine. Along with about 100 hikers.
This meant that the first part of the trail, which is mostly ridable, was made difficult with getting stuck behind hikers. But then we couldn’t complain; it is really a footpath.
After Conic Hill I’d also be worrying about the ascent up the Devil’s Staircase. On reflection, it was nothing like the horror of hike-a-biking along the Loch (can you tell I’m scarred by that?) and didn’t really take that long to get to the top.
The descent into Kinlochleven was great. Even for a newbie MTB’er like me. I managed to ride most of it, and we only stopped once to repair a pinch flat Jared acquired from hurtling downhill.
We stopped briefly in Kinlockleven to cool off in the shade, before the ascent out of the village. This final big ascent was hard going, it was hot, steep and technical and I found it more difficult hike a biking this section than the devil’s staircase – but that could have just been that I was tired and hot.
Once out of the woods, we had a lovely cycle along the wide track of the Old Military road that leads all the way around the south and west side of Mullach nan Coirean, the most westerly of the Mamores munros.
This seemed to go on forever, perhaps because its a very long valley, or because the road was ridable but rock enough to require concentration and we were in the baking sunshine with no shade.
Even when we reached the Nevis Forest we weren’t in total shade and here the track became single track which headed up and down endlessly. It would have been really good singletrack had I not been super tired and hot.
That said this whole section would have been tedious on foot so being able to get it done on a bike was great.
The final descent into Glen Nevis was fast downhill woodland tracks before we hit the tarmac to head into Fort William.
The map finishes the route at the junction of the A82, but the official end has now been moved to the centre of Fort William. So we pottered into town to get some photos, drink a pint of orange juice and eat a huge bag of salty crisps.
What did I think of the route?
Really great. Yes there were some sections I never want to ride again – Loch Lomond north of Inversnaid is NOT ridable. But it seems to be a rite of passage for MTBers on the West Highland Way to have done it at least once.
The rest of the route is great to ride. Yes there’s some steep uphills and there’s rocky bits which require hiking – but its also really rideable in most places. Some sections are definitely better on a bike too.