Exploring NCN Route 78
Distance – 42 miles
Maps – Sustrans "Oban to Fort William" leaflet; OS Landranger 49
Terrain – Tarmac cycle path; minor roads; two ferry crossings; some sections on busy A road.
Start/finish – Layby at Appin off A828 Fort William to Oban road
An island hop returning on a new stretch of tarmac cycle path
The Caledonia Way is destined to be one of the UK’s finest long-distance cycle routes when it is completed. Even now, there are tempting sections of this wonderful path open and already in good use by local people and visitors to the west coast.
I’d seen little glimpses of this fantastic tarmac cycle path skirting the shore when I’d passed by this part of Scotland, and knew I had to try it out for myself.
Ultimately, the National Cycle Network Route 78 will link the Highland capital, Inverness, with Campbeltown, taking in Loch Ness, Fort Augustus, Fort William, Oban and the beautiful Kintyre peninsula.
A good stretch of the new cycle path is open between Oban and Ballachulish, and studying the map it looked like I could make it a round trip if I included a couple of ferry trips and a visit to the island of Lismore.
Our route began at Appin, where there is a large layby, marked as a car park on the OS map, opposite Shuna Island.
It was still a bright, frosty morning when we arrived and unloaded our bikes from the rack. The cycle path is signposted from the end of the layby towards Appin, and we headed off along the section of old railway line, passing under a bridge then along what used to be the platform of a station.
The sun was just rising as we headed towards it, waiting for the warmth of the day to come. The frost shimmered in the morning light and we were so taken by our surroundings we continued across the main road where we should have left the NCN78 to head for the Lismore passenger ferry.
There are two options to get there from the cycle route. The first is a shortcut immediately after a burn, where you can cut down onto a path then cross a low bridge to meet the Port Appin road. The way we eventually went was to turn right when you reach the main road, then go right again just 20 yards or so ahead, following a road sign for Lismore Ferry.
Follow this road for a couple of miles around a wonderful bay to reach the pier, where a small boat was anchored out to sea which would take us to the northern tip of the island.
A family with two young children were also waiting at the pier with their bikes. "How are we going to get across?" asked the wee girl. "Swim," her mother replied, much to the girl’s horror.
I wouldn’t have fancied that on this morning, but another woman did emerge from the water with her wetsuit on after an early morning dip. Not for the faint-hearted!
Alighting on Lismore, we followed the single-track road south, past the heritage centre and café (closed for winter, unfortunately) and turned left for Achnacroish after four or five miles. We were early for the Oban ferry so enjoyed a cup of tea from the flask and took in the spectacular views across to the mainland.
A 45-minute crossing takes you to the busy port of Oban, where we headed past the ferry terminal building then went left out of the taxi rank to follow the main road around the shore. Keep left where the road bends then turn left at a roundabout ahead, where a cycle sign points to Ganavan along a lovely road.
This road ends at a car park beside a golden beach, and a new section of the cycle route turns right up a hill and through a gate to cross the moor to Dunbeg. There’s one short but serious hill in this stretch, so use a low gear after the warning sign!
Follow the cycle signs once you reach the street and continue until you meet the main road, which you must follow now for a mile or so. At a left turn, you can follow the Old Shore Road for a stunning section which cuts out more of the main road and brings you out nearer the Connel Bridge.
Go left when you hit the main road again, then turn right before the bridge, signed to Fort William, to climb up to the traffic lights.
The other side of the bridge, we took the first right just to avoid a further stretch on the A828.
This took us around the edge of Loch Etive with fantastic views ahead as we skirted around the bay, turning left to return to the trunk road.
A right turn here would soon lead us to the next stretch of cycle path after Benderloch, which flows through the trees for a mile or two before emerging at a minor road where the track ends. Don’t follow the bike sign here but instead rejoin the main road for the next couple of miles.
The cycle track is continuous from the Sea Life Centre, so turn left here and follow the tarmac path immediately right. It soon crosses the road and then uses wonderful minor roads and forest tracks at Barcaldine – where there are woodland walks and mountain bike trails – before continuing on the newly-built cycle track.
After crossing the bridge at Loch Creran, we went right to loop around the loch on the road. This used to be the main route until as late as 1999, but now it is a wonderfully quiet detour with stunning views down the glen ahead and back out to sea.
Take the right turn at the end of the loch to return, crossing the Loch Creran bridge on the cycle path again when you get back to the main road.
This time, keep left to continue towards Appin, crossing the road once before following the line of the old Oban-Fort William railway all the way back to the layby.
Updates on the progress of the Oban-Fort William path (includes link to download the pdf map and leaflet)