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New trail is tough on rider — and brakes!

By John Davidson

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Fair Haired Lad's Pass
Fair Haired Lad's Pass

The Trail In Brief

Distance — 28 miles

Start — Loch Tarff, Fort Augustus (Grid ref: NH 431099)

Finish — Torbreck, Inverness (Grid ref: NH644409)

Partners — Destination Loch Ness Ltd, Highland Leader Programme, Highland Council, Scottish Natural Heritage, South Loch Ness Tourism Group, Stratherrick & Foyers Community Trust.

Sponsors — Hazelgrove Cottage, Inverfarigaig; Ticket To Ride (Bicycle Hire); The Waterside Hotel, Inverness; Morag’s Lodge, Fort Augustus; The Whitebridge Hotel; Ness Soaps, Inverness; Loch Ness Cottages; Jacobite Cruises.

Website — www.visitlochness.com/south-loch-ness-trail

IT'S not after every bike ride you have to replace all four brake blocks, worn down to the metal but that’s what I had to do after a day on the exciting South Loch Ness Trail.

I biked it south to north, and there are some serious descents that demand intense concentration as well as a few climbs that will test even the serious mountain biker.

But the trail isn’t all about bikes. In fact it is a multi-use route aimed at walkers and horse riders as well as cyclists.

The long-term hope is to link it up with the Great Glen Way on the north side to form a loop around the world-famous loch, attracting more tourists to explore the lesser visited south side.

For those of us who live in the area, it means this new trail — which includes some new sections of path as well as linking existing ones — offers even more possibilities to explore this wonderful area around Stratherrick and South Loch Ness.

I took a trip along the trail to see what it was like.

Loch Tarff to Whitebridge

A newly-built section of path climbs steeply from the small parking area at Loch Tarff, above Fort Augustus, where I began the route. There’s an information panel here outlining the route and the path begins the other side of the gate.

It’s low gear time here and even then it’s pretty tough to ride all the way, though this way up to Suidhe Chuimen would make a fine walk.

Near the top a lovely vista opens up ahead before a speedy descent that requires care on two wheels. Before reaching the fence, you fork left to stay on the path for a while before it unfortunately ends rather abruptly beside the forest and you are left on rather soggy grass until you can reach the B862 ahead for a short stretch on the tarmac.

Small blue marker posts with a squirrel symbol direct you throughout the route and one soon sends you left then quickly right onto a forest trail, one of the most enjoyable bits of the new sections for me.

It drops quickly through the trees to emerge on a tarmac track that takes you right, back to the B road where you cross over onto a vehicle track.

The route soon goes left to cross a new pedestrian bridge over the Allt Breineag near Ardochy then follows a boggy section to meet the lovely back road into Whitebridge.

Whitebridge to Foyers

A South Loch Ness Trail notice board beside the Whitebridge Hotel gives you local information, including some about the nearby Wade Bridge over the River Fechlin.

The route continues opposite the hotel down into the Dell Estate, initially on tarmac before being directed left behind Dell Farm and onto a rough track which crosses a few watercourses.

I lost the back light off my bike somewhere down here along the bumpy sections, so if anybody comes across it I’d love to get it back!

It’s not that easy cycling down here but it’s good fun and the trail is well marked as you go through a few gates before entering the forest.

A good track then leads through the woods and across a bridge over the Upper Falls at Foyers. You turn left when you hit the road to reach the village.

Foyers to Inverfarigaig

This section involves some parts which aren’t really suitable for cycling or horse riding at present – though I know from past experience the paths make fine walking territory with great views over Loch Ness.

Instead, I followed the alternative recommended by the South Loch Ness Trail website, which involved turning right just before the children’s playpark and forking right to pass some garages and follow a track into Glenlia. When you hit the Glenlia road at a crossroads, turn left and follow this delightful narrow road for a mile or so until a large forestry turning area.

Here, leave the road and follow the forestry sign to Inverfarigaig via forest trails. There’s a fair climb up here to reach Lochan Torr an Tuill, from where you keep to the main track which eventually descends rather steeply to a car park at Inverfarigaig.

Watch out for walkers down here as it’s a great spot for a stroll on these Forestry Commission signed routes.

Loch Tarff
Loch Tarff

Inverfarigaig to Dores

With the Corkscrew Road and the Fair Haired Lad’s Pass, this part of the trail is by far the most interesting and inspiring — and also the hilliest!

It had been a while since I’d ridden up the Corkscrew and I enjoyed snaking up the steep road, which was built in 1815. As long as you miss the very insides of the hairpins, it’s not too bad a climb.

Sheep dot the road further on and it’s worth a look back towards Loch Ness for a magical view past the rocky Dun Deardail. This peaceful part of South Loch Ness is a fantastic place to visit and is a superb inclusion on the trail.

Past Balchraggan, the route is signed left onto a forestry track (watch out for the dodgy gate here — it’s falling off its hinges!) and a gradual climb takes you up via a sharp left turn to the Fair Haired Lad’s Pass, marked by a Forestry Commission post.

I was concerned as I climbed, given that the trail map told me it was 533m high and my GPS told me I was still below 300m, so it came as a relief when I pedalled up a new section of path near the top to learn it is in fact only 333m high.

What a view there is from the top, too! I looked down the length of Loch Ness, over the five miles of land that the River Ness cuts through and out to the Moray Firth beyond. And this was on a miserable day weather-wise. I’d love to see this on a clear day.

The most exciting bit was to come, though, and that was the descent to Loch Ness 300m below.

This is not one for the faint-hearted, as a rough, slippery, overgrown path descends at an incredible gradient, with horrendously steep drops down to the loch-side.

Mountain biking skills are really required for this section, and I was feathering the brakes all the way down, trying to control my speed and keep my weight over the back of the bike. Alternatively — and this is the only way I would recommend doing this part to anyone but an experienced mountain biker — it might be better to get off and walk.

I somehow managed to stay on the bike, despite the wet weather making the slippery sections that bit scarier, and when I got to the forestry track at the bottom had a grin like a Cheshire cat across my face. Why has nobody told me about the Fair Haired Lad’s Pass before?

At the bottom, it’s more forestry tracks which lead you to meet the B852 a couple of miles from Dores.

Dores to Torbreck

After enjoying a well-earned cup of tea at the Dores Inn in a vain attempt to dry out (it was raining even harder by the time I got going again) I continued past another information panel at the bus stop and on towards the school.

Just up the hill from there, turn right onto the back road and climb steeply up the road towards Loch Ashie. Not long after the McBain Memorial Park, a track leads you left through a gate.

It’s another rough part of the trail along here, with very boggy sections of track out in the wilds of Drumashie Moor. At one point a track forks off right; you should ignore this and continue ahead, watching out carefully for the blue marker posts further on as one in particular was hidden behind some dense vegetation.

The track emerges at Cullaird, where you go through a gate and head left past the farm buildings before turning right into Torbreck Woods.

There are so many tracks and trails through the woods here that I get confused where I am at the best of times, so I struggled a little navigating my way along the trails and past the extremely wet (ie flooded) parts of the track with no further signs to keep me right.

However, I successfully emerged at the information board that marks the end of the trail at the Torbreck Road. If you’re heading back to Inverness, you can just take a right to the new houses, then go left to cross over the Essich roundabout and head down Stratherrick Road towards the city.

John’s verdict

When I was dropped off at Loch Tarff in the morning, I didn’t expect the South Loch Ness Trail to pose such a challenge. I had it in mind that it would be a fairly timid mixed trail, but it turned out to be a real adventure on the mountain bike.

Right from the off, it was tough going but the spectacular scenery of this beautiful area really makes it worthwhile.

It’s superb to see some brand new paths being constructed in this area, which has not always been the easiest to access. True, some of the existing trails are rough and often wet, but the South Loch Ness Trail is a real step in the right direction.

I’d love to see some more single-day loops being promoted as part of the trail, on foot as well as horseback and bike, and it would be superb to see the trail linked up to loop around Loch Ness in the future.

A wander down to the Ness Islands and up to the canal would link the trail to the Great Glen Way at the Inverness end, though there are clearly more awkward issues at the Fort Augustus end.

With slight improvements to the signage here and there, and maybe some improved drainage on some of the land, this trail will be a fine addition to the outdoor routes offered in this fantastic part of the Highlands.

Thanks to the sensitive way it has been implemented, the south side has lost none of its charm and beauty and hopefully more people will get out to discover that, even if it is just by exploring small sections of this magnificent new trail.

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