The Highland Trail is a 550 mile bikepacking route winding through the rough, remote, and incredibly beautiful terrain of the magnificent Scottish Highlands. Conceived by Alan Goldsmith, the route was originally aimed to be a training ride for the Colorado Trail Race and has since been the course for a super challenging bikepacking race held annually in May.
After spending a bunch of lovely weekends exploring the byways and bikepacking routes of southern England aboard Gerty, my Curve GMX+, I was looking for something epic. Watching the dots of the HT550 bikepacking race move across my glowing screen through May, I knew I had found my next challenge. I decided on a touring setup that would enable speed and safety on the mostly remote HT550 route. The Scottish Highlands are renowned for their inclement weather and the remote nature of large sections of the trail was taken into serious consideration when making kit choices.
The route starts and finishes in the small village of Tyndrum, well serviced for adventurers due to its proximity to the West Highland Way, a popular long-distance walking trail. The train from Glasgow takes a few hours, the limited room for bikes must be reserved ahead. I arrived at the campsite just in time for midge o’clock. They are brutal! I hid in the tent as the drizzle came down and excitedly pondered the adventure ahead. The route consists of three loops, which offer a resupply point at their crossing and a possible fall-back position for the overwhelmed bikepacker.
I rolled out of the campsite at dawn, pleased to get the wind in my face and midges behind me. The trail went from gravel to rocky single track and back to gravel and the going soon slowed as the climbs hit. By lunchtime, I had already said g’day to highland sheep, weaved my way through highland cattle with young calves, and been gobsmacked by magnificent views. Intermittent rain had me donning and doffing the raincoat constantly, but being at the height of Scottish summer, it wasn’t cold. After traversing the valleys of the Lyon and Gaur rivers, a short boggy hike-a-bike, and what seemed like hundreds of little water crossings I entered some mind-blowing single track that flowed around Ben Alder for about 15 km. Only interrupted by some mega water bars that were enough to swallow even my 29” wheels, it was something special. The steep climb up to Loch Stac Ma passed quickly on what could almost be counted as ‘commodore’ gravel soon gave way to the rocky shore of the Loch and then another boggy mess to traverse. More gravel and even some road led to the Melgarve Hut at the base of the Corrieyairack Pass where I set up the tent for the night.
The Corrieyairack Pass is an off-road climb that begins sedately enough and, prior to the washed out and steep switchbacks proved to be entirely rideable on GMX+ with 3” tyres. The switchbacks of this climb are the feature of many a photo from both the HT550 bikepacking race and the GBDURO, a less rugged but longer bikepacking event. The descent off the pass is an absolute blast and takes its passengers towards the town of Fort Augustus. This is a significant resupply point for all the Irn Bru, sandwiches, Oreos, and Skittles you can carry!
On from Fort Augustus, the route takes its riders up high above Loch Ness and onto some forestry trails before a short road section. There are signs to alert the traveler of the presence of Red Squirrels and while my peering eyes did not see one here, I had seen one on the trails neat Ben Alder on the day before. They are like little ginger energizer bunnies! The road and subsequent gravel section of the trail are wonderful with magnificent views and rideable terrain despite the ups and downs of the highlands. Once over the Orrin Dam it is mostly road into the useful resupply town of Contin. The homemade sandwiches they sell at the Contin Village Stores are excellent. They also stock plenty of Irn Bru and all the varieties of Skittles. Necessities sorted, again.
After leaving Contin, riders are taken onward through Gave to a fantastic stretch of gravel double track that will not fail to raise a smile with its pleasant gradients, rideable, but not too smooth surfaces, and fantastic views. The route turns onto the road just before the Oykel River Hotel (with variable reviews from bikepackers, meals are available, sometimes) then onwards along the Cassely river and up and over the Maovally power station climb. There is a little bridge over a tributary of the Glen Golly River where the less rugged GBDURO route leaves the HT550. The hike-a-bike is soon to begin. This difficult section starts with a steep and rocky ascent to near Creag Staonstead, this is followed closely by a bog pit descent to a river crossing and what looks to be a lovely bivvy spot. The next ascent is a steep hike-a-bike up to Meall Horn where I was very glad to find some dried peaty grass to plonk the tent beside the trail and a fast-flowing stream. The HT550 route turns southward from here and the highlands scenery just keeps on giving through the remote fishing hamlet of Kylesku and onto the B869 leaving it 7km short of Lochinver for some singletrack. While Lochinver is blessed by a famous pie shop, the culinary highlight of this section for me was the Drumbeg Stores and its delicious Veggie Samosas.
Out of Lochniver is a rugged path with breathtaking views of Suliven and the surrounding Lochs. It was here that I experienced the worst weather of the trip with rain and winds that stopped me in my tracks and created whirlwinds over the Loch na Gainimh. Eventually back on to the road, the northernmost loop of the route ends as it brings riders past the Oykel River Hotel again. As I crested the last climb before Ullapool, I came across another bikepacker boiling up a brew. It was great to see the owner of the wide MTB tyre tracks I had seen for the previous two days. He had decided to divide the route into sections based upon the three loops and was saddened to be nearly finished this one. Time briefly stood still as we drank tea and discussed gear choice, hike-a-bike, and tales of magnificent experiences. I continued on as he decided to linger longer, eventually descending into Ullapool, a town filled with summer tourists, pubs, and multiple resupply options.
The next section of the route consists of a series of climbs and descents through the Fisherfield Forest. The weather was fantastic for me on this day (thanks universe). I had been worried about the river crossing in this section, but I shouldered Gerty and the crossing was a breeze with the fast-flowing water at only thigh height and the river bed relatively smooth. I later swore at Gerty for being so big-boned as I climbed, and pushed up a steep rocky walking track. However, the stunning views well and truly compensated for the effort. I met a couple of downhill MTBers at the top. They had seen a part of my struggle up the trail while eating their lunch and were up for a chat. They had heard about the HT550, admired Gerty, and gave me some advice to take care on the way down as the way was tricky even for those familiar with the terrain. They were “absolutely not” going down where I had just come up but loved where I was about to go. The descent was fantastic and technical and left me shaking with nerves, awe, and excitement by the time it flattened out. A quick stop at the chippy in Poolewe then on to another rough section, the Tollie Path through to Loch Marie. After a massive day of loveliness, struggle and amazement, I set the tent up on the shore of the Loch and was soon fast asleep.
I awoke at dawn the next day with about 300 km to go and 48hrs until my train home from Tyndrum and a seven-day finish. I needed to get a wriggle on at the current pace and while there were a few road sections that sped me along, I would need to continue through the night to complete the remainder of the route. I have never regretted riding my bike through the night, the challenge of fatigue and forcing the eyes open is often rewarded by sights or incidents and even feelings not possible during daylight. On reaching a particularly low moment, I was brought back to normal cheery me by the sight of a badger scrounging beside the trail. Amazing to see a creature I knew only from stories! Mojo returned, I happily continued onward until dawn. The moon and the occasional owl guided me over the long forestry road section between Tomich and Fort Augustus. After an early morning nap on a churchyard bench, I continued onward on the bike path beside the rather sedate Caledonian Canal before heading back off-road through some fantastic single track and on to climb the Devils staircase. A few rough trails and I was soon rolling into Tyndrum in time to organise myself a great picnic and celebratory beer from the roadside shop before closing time. This was promptly followed by a shower and long sleep at the campsite to be fresh for the train home the following morning. What a bloody fantastic adventure!
Bike: Curve GMX+ (aka Gerty), Small with 50 cm Walmer Bar
Wheels: Curve 29” Wider Dirt Hoops with SP Dynamo front hub and 3” WTB Ranger Tyres
Groupset: SRAM R-Eagle 32 x 10-52
Bags: Terra Rosa Gear and Apidura
Lights: K-Lite and Exposure
Other: One-person Big Agnes Copper Spur Tent; Sea to Summit inflatable mat and pillow, 0 degree sleeping bag, poo trowel, stove, and all the warm and wet weather clothes. Only one water bottle after I lost one on the train… No worries as there are streams running with delicious Scottish water almost everywhere! (I took a filter, but stopped bothering after day one)