Riding along and off the West Highland Way

If you think of the West Highland Way as a key to the Western Highlands, then you can use a trip along 'the way' as your base. You can take a number of diversions onto some top quality riding as you go, turning a 3 day trip into a 5, 6, 7 or more day pilgrimage to the Western Highlands and develop a taste for the wild side perhaps.

In 94 miles, the West Highland Way traverses many areas worthy of a trip, so in this instalment, we’re looking at some of the more outstanding options to get you thinking about settling down in the same place for a day and throwing an extra loop in. We’ll do it going south to north as you’d meet the options.

conic hill

This is either a short loop for you if you’re going to stop in Balmaha having chosen the low level route, or actually part of the Way itself. It’s a winding and at times rough ascent to the summit from the back, with some steep steps in places. From the back it doesn’t look like it should go on for as long as it does, but for some reason there’s always a bit further, but don’t let this put you off at all – coming on to the summit area makes it all worth it. You’ve just ascended onto a massive conglomerate ridge (rock with smaller rocks embedded in it) and are now stood on part of the highland boundary fault, where millions of years ago the surface of the planet split and what you’re standing on oozed out through the cracks. Once you’re on the top you’ll be able to see the other splits – the Menteith Hills above Callendar to your East, and even a line of islands across Loch Lomond to your West and below you.

From the summit, a nice off-camber rocky track takes you down onto the new walkers jump path razzing west towards the loch, rapidly coming to the parting of the ways – either left down the steps into Balmaha direct, or straight ahead over the grassy mound ahead. There is also a secret slightly left too.

Watch Conic Hill to see the highlights of the descent straight ahead – there are some steep bits (usually signposted by gorse bushes) where you can ride through if you’re a demi-god, but otherwise a couple of steps to carry down, but not many at all.

At the bottom, you can go through 2 gates to the lochside path and then either stay lochside or go up and over the new track to drop into Balmaha and finish the loop, or turn right on the lochside path and rejoin the Way heading North. Don't be put off by the headgear. (or the cheese levels)

ben lomond

Probably a full day in your trip. From Rowardennan it’s straightforward navigating up one of the most climbed Munros will give you a mix of ride and hike-a-bike up to the final mad squeeze through the boulders to the summit which is a lovely (if a little small) place with fantastic views in all directions. The climb can take a good 2-3 hours. Turning round will give you a slightly intimidating but totally rideable section back to the carry through the boulders, and then a surprisingly rideable trail all the way to the ‘waterfall’ section near the bottom. Technical, very rocky, and pretty brake boily, this is a classic Southern Highland ride well worthy of an extra day even just for the views. A great place for a bit of Banter on the way up and then a cheer on the way back down, it can’t be recommended enough, even with the carrying and pushing to get up there, it’s just brilliant.

inversnaid, trossachs loop via carrott farm

There’s a cycle route back out from Inversnaid towards the Trossachs. If you take it back to Loch Chon then you can use the estate tracks to ride through the edge of the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park, and North West to Carrott farm. It’s a lovely remote farm, mixing grazing, shooting, and forestry in the area and a lovely peaceful spot for a break in the day.

Moving on up and West on the left hand estate track from here, slowly rises to a slowly developing horizon ahead. As you eventually approach, you realise that this bit of the Trossachs is virtually on a plateau over Loch Lomond. What you get when you reach the edge of the Plateau is a mad fast, rocky, steep zig-zag descent right from the Plateau edge to the shores of Loch Lomond way below you. Eventually popping out on the West Highland way at Cailness.

If you’ve ridden to Inversnaid the day before, you will now be retracing your tracks back north to Inversnaid, but only for a handful of kilometres, and a nice cold beer in the hotel bar. The ride will have been at its most technical on the final shoreside section, but you will have had a great ride through the edge of the Trossachs and accessed Loch Lomond by a route seldom travelled.

Tyndrum or Bridge of Orchy to Loch Etive – the Glen Kinglass route

I’m afraid that we reserve the word epic for this route. Using the train back from Taynuilt to Tyndrum cuts the route from 80km to nearer 60, but with 1300m of climbing this is a big day in anyone’s book. It may have you repeating (reconnoitring?) some of the Way en route between Tyndrum and Victoria Bridge, but if you can manage it, this route defines awesome.

Obviously it’s massive, but behind this lies river crossings, technical climbs, fast fast descents, amazing scenery, wonderful remote mountain vistas, and just West Highlandness that make this area a stunning place to just be. You can watch the highlights on Glen Kinglass, but be aware that this is 4 ½ minutes out of what was for us 7 hours – all totally rideable, but epic in proportion, and requiring you to be able to fix your way out of trouble or risk spending the night in Taynuilt waiting for the next train. The carnage count rises even on our day on the route, so prepare well, check the return train times, but definitely ride this route if you have the opportunity.

Wild and Whacky

if you’re prepared not to be a purist, then you can get the morning sleeper as it goes through Tyndrum and get off at Rannoch Station. A forest and estate track will then take you West about half the way across Rannoch Moor, after which you can pick your way through bogs following the pylons across the moor in stunning remote scenery as you move towards Glen Coe. Eventually an old military road will slowly appear which will carry you down towards the Glen, carrying you down to the back of the Kingshouse Hotel, which could be your destination, but certainly the bar round the back should be very welcome. This is you back on the Way, having missed Tyndrum to Glen Coe, but having sampled another adventure in a remote and seldom travelled area.

Descent Choice into Kinlochleven

There are choices at the back of the Devil’s Staircase for your forward travel. Basically split into up and down when you get down to the waterboard track after the Devil’s Staicase descent, you can choose your terrain. To be fair, depending on whether you’re travelling to Kinlochleven and staying or through on your way to Fort William you may already have done enough high class technical descending for one day. Going straight down (turning left) will see you descend the ridiculously fast estate track, but for a more interesting way down, keep an eye out for the pipeline, and follow that until you find a thin ribbon of singletrack that will lead you to the bottom on a much more interesting ride beside the pipeline.

Ignore the numpties in the foreground, check out the scenery down Loch Leven - Mamore Lodge is just above them

Turning right (or actually going straight through the bog and round the right hand side of the mesh fence) on reaching the estate track will give you access (I recommend using the pipeline – just ride along the top) to a world of singletrack options. Crossing the Blackwater Dam and negotiating the ridiculously deep bog on the other side will see you back on the pipeline traverse towards the outflow from Loch Eilde Mor and Beag. Options here are a short time on the pipeline and then drop down a thin ribbon of singletrack on the left towards the glen below the dam – this is the famed Ciaran path. If it were graded it would beat all the Black routes at trail centres into a cocked hat – I’ll just say that.

Carrying on round on the pipeline will eventually get you to several well defined tracks heading down to the left. These are all named downhill tracks leading into Kinlochleven giving mad riding through steep rocky and muddy terrain but worthy of a visit if you’re staying in the area. See Kinlochleven (above) for a snippet of one of these routes ridden by RWR riders last Autumn. Otherwise carry on round until you can get to the track heading past Mamore Lodge and back onto the Way at the carpark at the back of the lovely but derelict old hotel.

The descent from the West Highland Way just past the Mamore lodge, into Kinlochleven is well worth a ride and can easily be done in an evening if you're staying in Kinlochleven too. Just head up the road to the Lodge and turn left at the top to get there.

An alternate finish from kinlochleven

Getting to the Kinlochleven area gives you access to the routes round the Mamore mountains. Rather than finish on the Way, from here you can turn away from Mamore lodge and head along Lochs Eilde Mor and Beag towards Luibelt. Now on the infamous (?) ‘Tour De Ben Nevis’ route you have a days ride crossing the river at Luibelt, and then heading towards Spean Bridge, turning off into the Leanachan forest ending up at Nevis Range where you can either head on the cycle path into Fort William, or even with time and energy allowing, sample some of the great riding available there, and maybe even a trip up on the Gondola if it’s running, for a descent of the red downhill route – I’m just saying.

The Remainder of the Way

If you’re sticking to the Way out of Kinlochleven, then there are a number of ways to finish, including getting on to the road at Blar a’Chaiorainn for a quick razz into Fort Bill if you’re rushing for the train, or traversing to Cow hill before a shortish singletrack descent into Glen Nevis, or actually just sticking with the Way, all of which are good ways to finish dependent on your time and energy levels.

Obviously, finishing in Fort William then gives you access to a number of other routes in the area, but to be fair even if you’ve been a purist, you’ll probably need a rest, and there are loads of places to stay in the area if you’re stopping to sample the riding in the area for a day or two or more before heading back to Glasgow, or onward to your next adventure…..

In the next episode – Riding the Way.