A ‘micro-adventure’ on the Caledonia Way – cycling from Oban to Inverness on Sustrans' long-distance route
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Mike Dennison recalls a long-distance cycle on one of his favourite 'coast to coast' routes through the Highlands
Stretching for 237 miles between Campbeltown in the west and Inverness in the east, the Caledonia Way is a classic long-distance route, appearing on many an aspiring cyclist's ‘bucket list’.
Following the Kintyre Peninsula and the fault line of the Great Glen, it traverses ‘coast to coast’ through some of Scotland’s most dramatic scenery.
But take a closer look and you’ll find it’s much more than just a long-distance route. With numerous options for shorter rides; from the flat family-friendly towpaths of the Crinan and Caledonian Canals, to the demanding on-road climbs of the Kintyre Peninsula, the Caledonia Way offers something for every type of cyclist.
A meeting in Fort William presents an opportunity to revisit my favourite stretch. My plan is simple – take the train to Oban, pick up the Caledonia Way and follow it to Inverness, from where I’ll complete my journey home by train. I plan to cover the 116 miles over two days, with an overnight stop for my meeting in Fort William.
Arriving in Oban has an air of excitement about it, with its bustling cafés and restaurants. Known as the ‘ferry gateway to the isles’, it also offers the promise of future adventures further afield!
Heading north, the route follows the old Oban to Ballachulish railway line, with a sequence of interpretation panels charting the local history, fauna and flora. At Appin, I succumb to the temptation of locally caught seafood at the Pierhouse Hotel, and take a detour to Port Appin.
This leafy minor road is part of a longer day trip – the Port Appin Loop – a scenic circuit taking in Port Appin, North Shian and Loch Creran.
Suitably refreshed, I continue north through the abandoned sidings of Appin station, where locally quarried slate was transported south to Glasgow in the 1950s. A highlight here is Castle Stalker; best viewed from the Victoria Bridge, this 15th-century castle guards the entrance to Loch Laich, against a dramatic seascape of Loch Linnhe and the Isle of Mull.
The route continues through Ballachulish before a short ferry crossing over the Corran Narrows to Ardgour. Check the noticeboard here, and the timetable for the infrequent Camusnagual Ferry on which you will rely later; an error of judgment here could result in an extra 20 miles of cycling to reach Fort William!
From Ardgour, I turn north along the quiet loch-side road to Camusnagaul. With breathtaking views east to Ben Nevis and the Mamores, there’s a chance of seeing otters playing in the shallows here, or golden eagles soaring over the hills to the west. At Camusnagaul, a small passenger ferry takes you and your bike the short distance to the quayside in Fort William.
My bed for the night is at Glen Nevis Youth Hostel – an ideal ‘cycling friendly’ base, though this year most hostels are yet to reopen after the Covid-19 lockdown.
Day two dawns clear and bright, and my breakfast meeting sets me up nicely for the short ride across town to re-join the Caledonia Way at Corpach, and the start of the Caledonian Canal. Constructed by Scottish engineer Thomas Telford in the 1800s, the canal runs for 60 miles from Loch Linnhe, to the Beauly Firth. Neptune’s Staircase provides early entertainment for those travelling by boat. This dramatic flight of seven locks is the longest ‘staircase lock’ in Britain, and I’ve enjoyed many a morning coffee at the Moorings Hotel, watching the boats work their way through the lock flight.
The route now follows the canal towpath, making for easy family-friendly cycling. With a colourful array of passing boats, and an abundance of wildlife, there’s plenty to occupy the mind as the miles roll easily by.
Another favourite detour is Loch Arkaig. This vast hidden loch is accessed via the undulating estate road from Inverlochy. At the head of the loch, a bothy and several ‘adventurous’ route options await those with time to explore!
Signed as ‘remote, sparsely-populated mountain country’, the route now takes on a more adventurous feel. Tarmac gives way to rougher forest rides, and pinch punctures are a risk, so take it easy until the route emerges at Laggan Locks, where a scenic viewpoint and seasonal café will provide a welcome break.
Between Laggan Locks and Fort Augustus the route is a delight, with easy cycling along the line of the old Invergarry and Fort Augustus Railway, with panoramic views across Loch Oich; the preserved Invergloy station platforms and Loch Oich railway tunnel serving as reminders of a bygone era.
This 11-mile section is also ideal for a family day trip ; easily accessible from either end with parking, toilets and cafés, it’s a great introduction to cycling on the Caledonia Way.
Fort Augustus lies at the southern tip of Loch Ness, with much to offer visiting cyclists. Cafés, restaurants, and a range of accommodation make it a great place to break your journey. However, for me it’s just a quick stop for provisions – and then onwards… and upwards!
The first time I rode the climb up to the Suidhe viewpoint was on a fully loaded tandem, en route to John O’Groats having set off from Land’s End 10 days earlier. It was a tough climb back then… it hasn’t got any easier since!
Dig deep, and you’ll be rewarded with breathtaking views at the top… followed by a series of exhilarating descents towards the shoreline of Loch Ness, though not before the opportunity of a well-earned coffee break at Camerons Tea Rooms in Foyers.
From the shoreline of Loch Ness, a steady ride along paths and quiet roads lead to Inverness and the final short climb to the finish at Inverness Castle.
The panoramic views from the castle forecourt make a fitting end to my ‘micro-adventure’ on the Caledonia Way. The railway station is a five-minute ride from here… but so too is the wonderful Velocity Café and Bicycle Workshop… just time for one more helping of coffee and cake before my train departs for home!
Distance 237 miles (Campbeltown to Ardrishaig – 68 miles; Ardrishaig to Oban – 53 miles; Oban to Fort William – 49 miles; Fort William to Inverness – 67 miles)
Terrain From gentle towpaths to big climbs on minor roads
Start/finish Campbeltown / Inverness
Maps For online maps, route descriptions and service provider locations, visit: www.visitscotland.com/see-do/active/cycling/national-routes/map/#/the-caledonia-way
Getting there Accessing the Caledonia Way by public transport is easy, with rail links to Ardrossan, Oban, Fort William and Inverness. Campbeltown is reached by ferry from Ardrossan or Brodick on Arran ( www.calmac.co.uk ). For other public transport options, go to www.travelinescotland.com
Check ahead for services and accommodation which may be affected by ongoing coronavirus restrictions