The idea had been brewing in my head for some time to cycle a circuit of the Great Glen. October holidays came round and the weather was settled. The route was well wooded so the autumn colours would be at their best. It was the perfect moment to go.
The Great Glen is a long, straight valley that runs between Fort William and Inverness. Formed along the course of an old fault line, it has filled with water over the millenia to create a series of lochs. The most famous of these is Loch Ness whose murky depths harbour the mystery of the Loch Ness monster. Man has added to the water in the Great Glen by building the Caledonian Canal which links the lochs together to create a navigable route that joins the east coast with the west.
I started my cycle around the Great Glen at Fort William, stepping off a late afternoon train. With a couple of hours of light left in the day, I set out along the tow-path of the Caledonian Canal. I felt a real sense of adventure and excitement for the five days ahead. I'd really anticipated this trip for some time and somehow I knew it would be a memorable ride.
The first section of canal was easy cycling and mostly flat except for the slight inclines at the locks. The margins of the canal here were lined by beech trees whose autumn leaves added rich, russet tones to the scene. As I pedalled north, the mountains were soon crowding in, providing a rugged backdrop to the gentle atmosphere of the canal.
As dusk descended, I pitched the tent in the woods at Gairlochy, right at the edge of the waters of Loch Lochy. Through the evening, I pondered how a loch came to be called "lochy". The still waters reflected a grainy, grey light while the lighthouse winked on and off through the long October night.
Next day, on a wet morning, I continued cycling north, along the canal and forest tracks. Some of the route here followed a disused railway, part of a grand plan in the 19th century to run trains through the glen. It was a dream to drift along here, deep in the woods, on a carpet of golden birch leaves. The place was in its own world, and so peaceful and still without a soul around. It was a contrast to then emerge from this into bustling Fort Augustus, at the south end of Loch Ness.
To continue north, I cycled the quiet back roads along the south shore of Loch Ness. It was a monster of a climb out of Fort August here but the reward was to be in a magical landscape, dotted with sapphire lochs and autumn woods that shimmered gold in the low October sun. This network of single track roads stayed high above the waters of Loch Ness before dropping eventually into Inverness on a skinny ribbon of tarmac that corkscrewed down through the trees.
On the outskirts of the city, I turned tail and started my journey back by picking up the Great Glen Way, a long distance footpath that runs along the north side of the loch. Although it's a walking route, I knew that it could be cycled for most of its length. I couldn't cycle the first part out of Inverness however and had to push up a steep, hot hill. I had company though as I chatted with a local walker heading my way. We talked about the hills and how the city had changed in the years we'd both known it.
Back on the bike, I cycled a little further that evening before pitching the tent in pinewoods at a beautiful high place in the company of old trees. Grouse gargled close by at dusk and after dark, the clouds glowed orange from the lights of Inverness below.
The grouse welcomed in the new day as I watched the sun rise and gradually flood the tent with light and weak warmth. The route continued south that day on forest tracks and footpaths through the woods. It climbed high again above the blue waters of Loch Ness. It was a tough ride for a wee lass on a loaded bike but the sun shone between showers and made rainbows above my route to cheer me along.
I was happy to eventually be pulling back into Fort Augustus to repeat the easy cycle to Fort William of my outward leg. In the late afternoon, I found myself back on the wonderful old railway line and said out loud "I could ride up and down here forever".
I didn't ride forever but lingered for another night out in the tent. Near the old ruin at Leitirfearn, I pitched at the edge of Loch Oich under the canopy of big, old beech trees. In the inky darkness out on the loch, I could see the lights and faint form of a large sea-going fishing boat that I'd watched earlier, navigating the locks. It passed by silently, pushing its wake to shore and ruffling an otherwise still loch.
As I took the tent down on my final morning to cycle the remaining miles back to Fort William, I couldn't believe the size of the enormous slug that had attached itself during the night to the underside of my flysheet. It was determined not to leave and I had to detach it with a tent peg. As it slunk away, I smiled to myself. I reckoned I'd encountered the true monster of these parts.
All the photos on Flickr - click HERE.
Start/finish: Fort William
Start/finish: Fort William
Transport: Train to/from Fort William.
My route: North out of Fort William I cycled national cycle route 78, also known at the Caledonian Way, to Fort Augustus. It uses canal tow-path, a small stretch of back road, forest track and the fabulous old railway line. This route continues to Inverness along the quiet roads on the south side of Loch Ness although I used some different but similar roads here. At Inverness I picked up the Great Glen Way heading south - an easy place to pick it up is as it crosses the Ness Islands as the cycle route passes by here as well. The Great Glen Way is signposted back to Fort William. It uses footpaths and forest tracks and passes through Drumnadrochit and Invermoriston before heading into Fort Augustus. Where the route uses a path through the forests before Abriachan, you'll come across Abriachan Eco campsite and cafe. It's a quirky set up that's well worth a stop. From Fort Augustus the Great Glen Way uses the same route as the outward cycle route on the Caledonia Way back to Fort William.