Highland Trail 550, Scotland

  • Distance

    550 Mi.

    (885 KM)
  • Days

    14

  • % Unpaved

    75%

  • % Singletrack

    50%

  • Difficulty (1-10)

    9

  • % Rideable (time)

    80%

  • Total Ascent

    52,500'

    (16,002 M)
  • High Point

    2,526'

    (770 M)

Contributed By

Lars Henning - Tour In Tune

Lars Henning

Tour In Tune
The Highland Trail explores 550 miles of the most rugged and remote terrain in the Scottish Highlands. The route features world class singletrack and dirt roads with stunning views throughout, but you must put in some serious effort to reap the rewards. The most impressive sections will require some hike-a-bike for even the most proficient mountain bikers.
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Originally conceived by veteran endurance mountain biker Alan Goldsmith as a training route for the Colorado Trail Race (CTR), The Highland Trail was later developed into one of the most challenging self-supported off-road individual time trials (ITT) in the world.

Most of the riders who finish the Highland Trail mass start event or as an ITT tend to finish the whole route in 4-8 days. This ‘summer version’ of the Highland Trail is presented as a touring route with a suggested average of 40-50 miles per day over 11-14 days.

The route starts from the Tyndrum Village Hall and traverses over the Lyon and Gaur river valleys before a phenomenal 10 mile singletrack around Ben Alder. Fill up on pizza in Fort Augustus before weaving north around the lochs, with a crucial resupply at the Contin Stores near Strathpeffer before embarking on the stunning northern loop. The coastal rollercoaster along the B869 to Drumbeg is rewarded with scenic views and the excellent deli at Drumbeg Stores, followed by the world-famous Scottish pies at the Lochinver Larder.

There are some long hike-a-bike sections worth considering, notably the rugged stretch around Suilven, the series of climbs through the picturesque Fisherfield Forest, a tough push up Glen Affric and the final hike up the Devil’s Staircase. These efforts are not without reward; the most difficult sections yielding the most impressive scenery, especially if you are fortunate enough to have the lovely clear skies we experienced on the HT550 2016.

The food stops are excellent, but you will need to check opening hours and distances carefully. Your speed will vary dramatically depending on the terrain, so be sure to pack extra food going into the more remote sections. The weather is highly unpredictable, with potential for horizontal dagger rain and blissful sunshine on the same day.

  • Highlights

  • Must Know

  • Camping

  • Food/H2O

    💧

  • Trail Notes

  • The 10 mile Ben Alder singletrack is a sublime bit of trail riding
  • The bleak yet stunning Northern Loop is a quintessential example of the Northern Highlands landscape
  • Fisherfield Forest, a great wilderness in the deepest corner of the Highlands between Loch Maree and Little Loch Broom, void of civilisation for miles in all directions.
  • The technical slick-rock singletrack Achnashellach descent, especially as the sun is going down
  • The waterfalls and spiky peaks surrounding the Glen Affric section
  • Some fast and flowing singletrack after the Glen Nevis climb
  • A white knuckle descent after the push up the Devil’s Staircase
  • The ScotRail service from Glasgow to Tyndrum Lower is frequent and bike friendly. The Tyndrum Lower station is a stone’s throw from the popular By The Way hostel and campsite.
  • The red deer stalking season runs from 1 July to 15 February, so it is not recommended to ride through the Estates during this time. You must check with the Estates if you are considering riding within these dates.
  • The Highlands are notorious for demonstrating all four seasons in one day, so be prepared for sun, snow, wind, rain and everything in between.
  • The Highland Trail is best approached between May-June. There are some sections which will be overgrown or covered in snow at other times of the year.
  • Whilst footpaths are generally off limits to bikes in England and Wales, bikes are widely accepted on all kinds of trails throughout the Highlands.
  • The opening hours for supermarkets and shops are limited in the Highlands. The pubs generally open in the evenings for dinner.
  • The best repellent for midges is to cover up and wear a midge net. The sprays are mildly effective at best.
  • The mountain bothies are a fantastic resource throughout the Highlands, especially when the weather goes sour. See the bothies marked on the GPX map.
  • Wild camping is easy and popular throughout the Highlands. A sunny day will draw out lots of campers.
  • The pay campsites marked on the GPX provide a good opportunity for showers and recharging gadgets.
  • The YHA Hostel in Ullapool has dedicated bike storage and a well equipped kitchen
  • Glorious Scottish spring water is plentiful throughout the Highlands. According to the locals, filtering/purification is not strictly required if you collect water from fast running streams.
  • The first major resupply point is Fort Augustus, around 100 miles into the route where you’ll find restaurants and a small supermarket.
  • Contin Stores is another essential stop before embarking on the remote Northern Loop.
  • Drumbeg Stores have an excellent deli counter and the owners are especially friendly to Highland Trail riders.
  • Don’t miss the world famous variety of Scottish pies at the Lochinver Larder. You can enjoy a sit down meal and also pack some extra pies for the trail.
  • You can expect large dinner portions at the Oykel Bridge Hotel; if you’re lucky, you can eat here twice as the Northern Loop also returns through this point on the way back.
  • The Tesco supermarket in Ullapool has the longest opening hours of all the stops on the route and is a critical stop before heading into the remoteness of Dundonnell and Fisherfield.
  • The Whistlestop Cafe in Kinlochewe provides a much needed reward after the tough terrain over the Tollie Path from Poolewe
  • Scottish breakfast at the Real Food Cafe in Tyndrum; this is essential grub for the start and finish
  • This route is formed from select sections of various trails and backroads. It is not marked and would be difficult to follow without a GPS. If you plan to use paper maps, you’d better have good navigational skills and plenty of food.
  • There are some hike-a-bike sections requiring careful considered with regards to the resupply points. In particular, the Northern loop, Fisherfield, Glen Affric and the final stretch over the Devil’s Staircase.

Additional Resources

Tags

  • http://asphoto.co.nz/ Andrew

    Wowsers!

  • Theseplacesinbetween

    Wow! What timing, We’ve just booked our train tickets to Scotland to ride this in August! Praying for blue skies and that it’s not too over grown.

  • http://www.bikepacking.com/ BIKEPACKING.com (Logan)

    Nice. Let us know how the guide helps… Lars did a great job putting it together!

  • Matthew Crompton

    Lovely images in this – the two cover photos especially are absolute knockouts. Thanks for sharing!

  • André

    Wow, great timing indeed. I’m heading to Scotland in August also, but I’ll be biking from Aberdeen to Ullapool. The pictures only made me crave the trip even more.

  • Lars Henning

    Thanks Matthew for your kind words!

  • mikeetheviking

    Love the tarp set up using the h-bars as a pole. Very unique. Absolutely beautiful countryside!

  • Nigel Cooke

    Fabulous write-up and images … just back from my first bike packing (albeit only 2 days) around the Scottish Highlands …. Loved it … out of my normal comfort zone for plenty of the ride but can’t wait to plan the next one … Some images from the 2 days here … https://thex100diaries.wordpress.com/2016/06/29/my-bothy-face-part-2/

  • http://przygodnik.net/ Andrzej Brandt

    written this one in the long term bucket list ;) great pics!

  • DavidHine

    Hey :) Nice guide, great route. There are a fair few bothies on route which are not shown on the map. I wouldn’t put up details of the non-MBA bothies, but let me know if you want the details of the MBA bothies which are missing as these are really nice little shelters. Also, the Glen Licht hut is usually locked as it is a private mountaineering club hut. If someone forgot to lock it then you can get in, but you’re unlikely to be able to.

  • Doug Nielsen

    Great route! What bikes are in the photographs? I always like to know what rigs/setups people are using. Thanks!

  • jon bonallie

    Crickey that is as epic an adventure as you could have here in the UK, brilliant.

  • http://www.fueledbyporridge.tumblr.com Mario Angst

    Thanks a lot for this route, we made good use of its Northern Loop this summer – truly spectacular but also quite a tough route I must say. The whole story is here:
    https://marioangst.exposure.co/suitpacking-scotland
    One update on the route: I must say that the northernmost “bivy spot” is pretty hardcore – see the picture below. The guy who mapped this must have quite a capacity for suffering :). We passed on the experience and found a friendly estate owner in the valley below who let us sleep in the horse stables…

  • Rose-Frédérique

    Hey! Do you think that some parts on the 550 can be done with a cx bike (or which ones cannot be done)??
    Thanks

  • Lars Henning

    Sure, you can do any or all of this with a CX bike, but there are some sections that would be way more fun on bigger tyres and/or suspension. For example, the Northern loop, Fisherfield, Glen Affric and Glen Nevis sections would be menacingly bumpy on a CX bike. I just don’t see the point. On the other hand there are some road and gravel sections which might be just fine on CX if you like to ride out of your saddle a lot. It comes down to personal preference.

  • Lars Henning

    Mario, thanks for the feedback. This bivy spot is not intended to be a shelter. I actually bivied in the grass nearby. I was just using this as a landmark.

    I found the breeze atop this climb provided a nice escape from the midges. I arrived in the dark and left in the fog, so it wasn’t really a scenic highlight.

    Thanks for mentioned the horse stable in the Achfary valley below. I recall that some other riders stayed there on the HT550. If it’s the one I am thinking of, it’s after the long descent to the sea from Northern Loop (see image below, for anyone who is interested) https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/60dec5520cc4e18ec042d0dcdac346fefbb83568c21bf5af85c4d250c80b6ccc.png

  • Lars Henning

    Indeed, there are plenty. I didn’t bother including all of them, but the information is out there if you search ;-)

  • Lars Henning

    That’s my DIY super narrow tarp. Super light and fine for short stays, but a bit narrow!

  • http://www.fueledbyporridge.tumblr.com Mario Angst

    Ok, we were a bit concerned that anyone actually would sleep in there. About the stables, that exactly was the spot.

  • Omer Singer

    Hi there…
    As a tourist who have only 3 days….is it posible to do a small section of this route ? and is there a shop were one can rent a bike that or OK ?
    thank you
    Singer

  • Bobington07

    Never really seen anyone bother with insect nets in the highlands. Avon skin so soft is the best for keeping the midges away, got 2 bottles on the way in preparation for the summer. :) Smidge has also started getting a good reputation, only tried it a couple of times when the midges weren’t too bad though so can’t say for sure how well it works. If you’re planning on adventures in Scotland it’s worth giving one of them a go.

  • Lars Henning

    Hello Singer, I wasn’t looking for bike rentals, but you might find decent shops in Fort William or Inverness. It depends on where you are starting from. If you will be near Fort Augustus, you could head over to Bothy Bikes at Laggan Wolftrax http://www.bothybikes.co.uk/bike-hire/

  • Lars Henning

    I saw plenty of people wearing midge nets. It does look a bit silly, but not as bad as a face full of midge bites. I tried the Smidge stuff and it was okay, but honestly I preferred the midge net.

  • Omer Singer

    Hi Lars, thank you for your help :)

  • Tim Lloyd

    I am from america, 17 years old, and i work at my local shop so my bike setup should be good. However I’m unsure of what i need to pack for repelent. Any ideas?