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

    camera

  • Must Know

    alert

  • Camping

    home

  • Food/H2O

    drop

  • Trail Notes

    signpost

  • Resources

    link

  • 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

Terms of Use: As with each bikepacking route guide published on BIKEPACKING.com, should you choose to cycle this route, do so at your own risk. Prior to setting out check current local weather, conditions, and land/road closures. While riding, obey all public and private land use restrictions and rules, carry proper safety and navigational equipment, and of course, follow the #leavenotrace guidelines. The information found herein is simply a planning resource to be used as a point of inspiration in conjunction with your own due-diligence. In spite of the fact that this route, associated GPS track (GPX and maps), and all route guidelines were prepared under diligent research by the specified contributor and/or contributors, the accuracy of such and judgement of the author is not guaranteed. BIKEPACKING.com LLC, its partners, associates, and contributors are in no way liable for personal injury, damage to personal property, or any other such situation that might happen to individual riders cycling or following this route.

  • 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.

  • 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 … http://thex100diaries.wordpress.com/2016/06/29/my-bothy-face-part-2/

  • 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.

  • 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:
    http://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) http://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!

  • 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?

  • Are you referring to bug repellent @disqus_QkyqhVHPrQ:disqus ?

  • Tim Lloyd

    @milesarbour:disqus yeah good point. I plan on wearing long sleaves and possibly cycling tights the whole way anyways

  • Tom Blair

    this looks so fun!

    what an adventure! how fast does the registration fill up?

  • Bob Wightman

    Fairly fast but it’s not about speed. Alan (Goldsmith) likes you to provide a CV/resume then he picks 60 riders from the pool as it were. He likes to get a mixture of UK/foreign, men/women, new to the route/ride vets and so on. Within a week or so of Alan announcing that entries are open – check the highlandtrail website during September and October, the date will appear around then.

    Well worth doing. I did it this year and really enjoyed it.

  • Lennard

    Did you have any trouble with the deer stalkers?

  • Pavel

    Please help!!I am planing to travel on my bike the Highland Trail 550 from 15 September. I am reading your warning about Deer Stalking in the season from September-October. Is it really that serious and dangerous? Should I change a date of the trip and not buy a plane ticket so I don’t end up as a trophy on somebody’s wall :-)? Thanx Pavel

  • Lars Henning

    Hello, I would not recommend riding the HT during deer stalking season unless you’ve discussed it directly with the estates you will be riding through. This website may help.
    http://www.deerstalkingscotland.co.uk/

    The estates should be able to tell you which areas are ‘off limits’ during those dates.

  • Bob Wightman

    A better site might be http://www.outdooraccess-scotland.com/Practical-guide/public/heading-for-the-scottish-hills but it is aimed at walkers/hikers wishing to get to the hill summits rather than along the tracks in the glens, many of those used on the route were originally created for stalking! You’ll need a map to figure out which hills apply to the HT route – this site shows the boundaries of the estate http://www.whoownsscotland.org.uk/ again you’ll need to do some cross referencing with other maps to figure out which estates to approach.

    Access varies by estate, there isn’t shooting going on all the time and on any given estate some areas might not be used for stalking/shooting at all. Attitudes to public access also varies by estate – some will work with access bodies and be helpful, others won’t.

    I wouldn’t say it’s impossible to do the HT at this time but it might be frustrating.

  • Kadlíček Pavel

    Thanks for the info.I will leave it for the Spring.Thanks anyway.Pavel

  • Ypuh

    Beautiful photo’s! I was in Scotland for the past 3 weeks (on the road). 2 weeks of non-stop rain unfortunately, but when the weather was nice it was absolutely fantastic!

  • Amy Jones

    Hello, I cycled the great divide a couple of years ago and that’s rated 5.5 difficulty. This is rated 9 difficulty in comparison. Is that due to the quantity of single track or the technicality of it? E.g. Does it include any double black downhill grade sections that you couldn’t hike-a-bike if needed!? Many thanks.

  • luke sergent

    Whats the earliest in the year this could be attempted? i know it says May to June is best but i’m looking for a proper adventure and don’t mind pushing/carrying the bike through a bit of snow but want to ride as well.

  • Lars Henning

    Hola Cheesemonster, it’s hard to give an earliest date, as the weather is certainly variable. I think you could certainly attempt it in April, but it might be quite cold, wet and hard going. On the other hand, an earlier ride would avoid the midges! Either way, I’d advise monitoring the weather closely and talking to some Highland locals.

  • Luke Cape

    Same question I had! I did the Great Divide last summer on my Crosscheck, and just about managed the single track (but REALLY enjoyed it). Wondering if the Highland Trail is a lot more technical? Rockier? Or is the higher rating because of the remoteness (although parts of the GD trail were extremely remote)

  • Lars Henning

    Hi Amy, sorry for the late reply. This route is significantly more technical than the Great Divide, especially in poor weather conditions. There are several sections which are completely unrideable (possibly 30-40 miles of hiking overall depending conditions). There is a massive amount of climbing. I’ve not done the GD, but I spoke with someone who has done the Tour Divide and Colorado Trail and he said that he found the Highland Trail much more difficult.

  • Lars Henning

    Hi Luke, see my reply to Amy above. Yes, it’s rockier, steeper and would be quite punishing on a Crosscheck for sure!

  • Stefano Graziadei

    Hi Lars, how did you find cycling the HT with a 29+ rigid bike? I am going in May this year and I am not sure if I should bring my Salsa fargo 29+ rigid or my full suspension mountain bike. Many thanks

  • Lars Henning

    Hola, either of those bikes would do just fine. I was generally pleased with 29+ for most of the route, but there are a few sections where I was wishing for suspension. I think it kind of depends on the pace as well, because I was racing it in the group start, I think that my muscles fatigued more on the 29+. If you are going for long days in the saddle, I’d suggest full suspension, but be prepared to say goodbye to your pivot bearings!

  • Luke Cape

    Thanks Lars!

  • jimxc

    hey, just noticed in the last photo the GoreBikeWear jacket. I was looking at buying the same one for some bikepacking and general mtb. Would you recommend it? Cheers

  • Lars Henning

    Hello Jim, yes I recommend this jacket. It’s not the cheapest, but it’s a great waterproof, lightweight and slim fit. I recommend hand wash when it gets dirty to minimise wear.

  • Tom Simenauer

    Tiger balm is excellent for midges. There is no way they can handle it.

  • Davie Bruce

    Takeout it never worked out this April? It’s been awful.

    I’m thibking of doin parts of the route in 3 day stages can’t through bike it. Will be on a gravel bike (diverge with 40mm tyres). Think that’s achievable?

  • Lars Henning

    Hey Davie, I love my gravel bike, but personally I would want bigger tyres and possibly suspension for this route. I know a few others have done it on gravel bikes, but it would be super rough in some sections and I think it is so much more fun, fast and less fatiguing with big plus tyres and/or suspension.

    In terms of riding in April, I would restate what I said above. It really depends. The weather is so variable and you could get a week of nice Spring sunshine or you could get stuck in the snow. For this year, I think there is definitely snow. You’re better off late-May or June.

  • Simone Fontana

    Hello, I am trying to plan a shorter and easier version of this ruote. My idea is to ride only the first half of the route (untile the most northern point) and then go back by public transportation. How would you score the difficulty of this part of the route? It seems that the long hike sections are in the second part. Am I right? Thanks!

  • Lars Henning

    Hello Simone,

    Yes, your right. Based on my experience, the majority of the more difficult hike-a-bike sections are after the northern loop section. However, those tough sections are also some of the most scenic points in the route, so you may want to consider joining up with some of it on the way back rather than the train if you have time. In hindsight, I think my decision to rate the difficulty so high was that I was racing so my fatigue levels were already quite high when I reached the most difficult sections. On the other hand, we were particularly lucky to have near perfect dry conditions and beautiful sunshine. A big rain would have made things much more tough!

    Hope this helps!
    Lars

  • Simone Fontana

    Thanks Lars for your help!
    Maybe this route is still too hard for my abilities, since I have little experience with bikepacking and no experience with long routes. Probably I should choose an easier one, such as the cairngorms loop linked with other routes and try the highland trail next year. I would really like to explore the highlands!

  • Martin Kubes

    Hey Lars this seems to be a bit different route then the one on Allan’s web site just noticed that this one doesn’t include pass from Torridon to Achnashellach which is quite a big chunk and a really tough but beautiful pass. I wonder where does it make up the miles for this shortcut?

  • Lars Henning

    Hello Martin,

    The Torridon to Achnashellach section was removed in the 2016 race route and Alan added the Ben Alder singletrack near the beginning as well as a few other changes. Have a look at the previous routes on Trackleaders.com:
    http://trackleaders.com/highland15
    http://trackleaders.com/highland16
    http://trackleaders.com/highland17

    However, this route is actually the ‘summer version’ of the 2016 route which follows the Tollie Path instead of the Postman’s Path. It’s something Alan suggested for the ‘summer route’, because the Postman’s Path get seriously overgrown after early June. If you want to do the full race route, then follow the route on Alan’s site http://www.highlandtrail.net/ or the Trackleaders tracks above.

    Hope this helps,
    Lars

  • Martin Kubes

    Thanks for that I am heading for it in two weeks actually so will depends on weather conditions too how I decide ,

  • Gary Nuttall

    Hi Lars
    I am going to be based in Durness for a few days at the end of May and thinking of doing part of the Northern Loop from Eriboll down to Strathmore joining the Northern Loop south of Strathmore, over to Creagan Meall Horn to Loch Stack. I will be riding a Gravel Bike with 32mm tubeless Maxxis Mud Wrestler tyres. Are the tyres suitable? And how much push and carry is there on this section? Any advise would be greatly appreciated!

  • john

    hello I wil cycle the ht 550 from 19 Mei
    now anybody of I can buy litle gastank for my jetboil in Tyndrum
    Any advise would be greatly appreciated!
    greetings,john

  • Lars Henning

    Hi Gary, end of May is a good time for exploring the HT.

    Note – the Group Start for the annual ITT will be 26 May from Tyndrum, so you may see some fast riders coming around depending on which days you are there.

    There is definitely a bit of pushing and carrying on the northern loop. I’d recommend reassessing your gear ratios if you’re on a gravel bike with road gears. The 32mm tyres should be okay for the gravel sections, but you may find it hard going on the harder sections of the northern loop. I’d recommend bring a tyre boot or needle and thread in case of a cut sidewall! At the very least, brings some worms if you are running tubeless!

    Have fun!

  • Lars Henning

    Hello John, you might be able to buy a butane / propane gas canister from the Green Welly Shop https://www.thegreenwellystop.co.uk/outdoor-essentials/camping-extras.html

    But I would call them to check. You’re probably safer bringing one with you.

    Hope this helps.

  • John Duren

    hi lars
    thx i wil give them a call
    I can take it with me ion the airplane I com flying to Schotland
    greetings john

  • Rob Sharpe

    Hello Lars,
    Forgive me if this question has been asked and answered. I was planning on taking a Santa Cruz Blur on the Trail (full suspension, but only 100mm travel). Are XC wheels (Maxxis Aspens) ill advised for the HT550, or do you think they would work well enough (I was planning for mid-May, next year)?

    Many thanks in advance.

  • Lars Henning

    Hello Rob, in my opinion that would be a fine bike for the HT550. Have fun!

  • Brenwell

    I literally just finished the 550. It was amazing. I am sitting at the campground 10 mins after rolling in and need to share it somewhere ;)

    Thanks guys

  • Bas Rotgans

    Buy one in the bigger town that you’re flying into. There’s bound to be a outdoor shop where you can get the right tank.

  • We’re planning to ride the lower 2/3’s of the route in late Aug/early September. Any input on weather and/or amount/intensity of rain/cold to expect?
    Thanks for mapping out such an awesome looking route. I can’t wait to ride it! :)

  • Gus Allen

    This route looks amazing and I’d love to do it! Could I get some advice on which paper maps to get as well as where to get them? I live in the states so stopping by local shops isn’t an option but I’m willing to pay to have them shipped.

  • Lars Henning

    Hello Gus, the best paper maps for cycling in UK are the Ordinance Survey (OS) Explorer.
    https://www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/shop/mapsheetfinder.html#mapsheet-viewer

    They are 1:25,000 so you will need quite a few of them in order to cover the entire route. It may be more economical and practical to purchase the sections you need online and then print off the sections you need.

    I am no expert on the best way to do this, because I generally don’t use paper maps for cycling. I use OpenMTBMaps (variant of Open Street Maps) on my Garmin (with OS maps on my phone as backup).

    Hope this helps.
    Lars

  • Carlo Tonello

    (DEER STALKING INFO) Hi Everyone, this has already been asked but I feel little information is available nether less. I am planning to ride the highland trail soon hopefully, but I have difficulties understanding where exactly the trail meets the various hunting estates.

    If I understand correctly, the only way to get around this is to go to this website (http://www.whoownsscotland.org.uk/geo/index.htm), cross reference the map with the HT 550 path; when you know what hunting estates you cross, go here (https://www.outdooraccess-scotland.scot/Practical-guide/public/heading-for-the-scottish-hills), find the estates one by one, then call/email them to ask for a safe passage. While doable, the trail crosses 35 estates, which is a lot of prep work if it needs to be done this way.

    I am trying to figure that out to understand what sections of the trail might still be rideable without extensive planning – can someone with experience tell me if maybe one of the loops does not have this problem ? Does anyone actually ride this trail in July- early August and how have you done this ?

  • Lachragh Mackinnon

    As long as your careful most estates wont mind you cycling through they will mostly inform you if anything is happening and they will know where people are cycling

  • Lars Henning

    Well done, glad you had a good time!

  • Richard Munro