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Roving the remote lands of Highland prospectors

By John Davidson

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Loch Naver on the way to Altnaharra.
Loch Naver on the way to Altnaharra.



Distance — 67 miles

Maps — OS Landranger 10, 16 & 17 or large-scale road map

Start/finish — Helmsdale/Lairg (with train links from Inverness)

Heading north for an exciting road ride through remote Sutherland countryside

I SOON forgot the 5.30am alarm call as the train sped north on a bright and sunny morning, mainly because I was eagerly anticipating this cycle around some fine single-track roads.

When the train pulled into Helmsdale it was already a fantastic day, with clear skies and a gentle breeze to keep the midges away.

Crossing the bridge from the platform, I looked up the Strath of Kildonan, where my route would lead me north to begin with.

What lay ahead I wasn’t sure; between here and Altnaharra, the whole route was new to me, so I was excited about going into the unknown with just my bike and my butties — and a spare inner tube, just in case.

At 67 miles, this is a fairly lengthy ride for me but the early train gave me a good eight-and-a-half hours to make it a comfortable timescale to enjoy this wonderful part of the Highlands and even take a few well-earned refreshment breaks along the way.

I headed downhill from the station, keeping left to cross the bridge over the River Helmsdale, which would be keeping me company for many miles ahead, then went left at the mini-roundabout after which a sign tells you it is 16 miles to Kinbrace. That’s the next junction.

Past the golf course, you leave the 30mph limit and head onto a single-track road which takes you deep into the Strath of Kildonan, with the river over to your left winding its way back down to Helmsdale and the sea along the lush green valley bottom.

Then, after 10 miles, I struck gold! Well, I reached Baile an Or, where a gold rush occurred in 1869 with 300 prospectors setting up home along the riverside here. It was much quieter today, with just one family in a mobile home enjoying this peaceful location by the Kildonan Burn.

See more photos from this route here

I didn’t stop too long to try and strike it rich, instead continuing over the nice narrow bridge and soon passing the turn-off to Kildonan station and the enticing road through Glen Loth.

Keep going on the A897 here, entering more and more remote hill country. Eventually, after a forestry section, you come to a junction where you should go sharp left to head back on yourself and drop down to cross the level crossing at Kinbrace station. If you wanted to save the first 17 miles, you could even get the train all the way here to start this wonderful journey.

A sign at Kinbrace tells you there are 27 miles to Altnaharra. After Helmsdale, that’s your next real opportunity for refreshments, so you need to be prepared to go it alone all day.

These narrow, single-track roads are important timber routes and signs along the way ask you to give them priority. Doing this ride on a Saturday, I only saw two all day but it’s good to be aware.

The road bends right to pass Badanloch Lodge — where a series of outbuildings are painted green and yellow — and roams through plantations and open moorland dotted with lochs and lochans. I saw a huge herd of red deer stags a few hundred yards off the road; they just turned and stared as I pedalled past, taking in the magnificent scenery on this rather lonely road to Syre.

Just before crossing the River Naver before the T-junction, there’s an interesting clearance village which you can visit at Rosal, though I decided the short detour was too much for this long trip. I rode up to the junction, where I met a couple of German cycle tourists who were about to head to Kinbrace.

"Are you very much alone?" one asked me, in peculiar but understandable English. I had been up to this point, but that all changed for the rest of the ride. I turned left at the junction onto the B873.

A little further on I met a lady cycling from Altnaharra to Bettyhill to "clear the cobwebs" — what a fantastic way to do it — and after getting a soaking in the only shower of the day as I rode into a headwind along Loch Naver, there were cyclists galore from Altnaharra onwards.

At the crossroads you go left into the village, over a wonderful stone bridge, and the hotel is easily found on your left. I’d stopped here before with my wife Meg when we were doing a north-west Highlands ride for my book, so I popped in for a cup of tea to relive the great memories!

There were more bikes outside, laden with heavy camping gear. Today I was travelling light, thankfully. Inside we chatted about our various trips as I enjoyed a warming cup of tea and dried off after that shower.

When I left, the sun was blazing again and I prepared myself for what I remembered was a long but not particularly steep climb up the pass. The impressive steep slopes of Ben Klibreck, one of the most northerly Munros, provided a fine view to my left as I headed along the snaking pass which eventually leads up to the Crask Inn.

Last time we didn’t stop here at this remote pub but I’d wanted to visit ever since. As I was making good time (and it was mostly downhill from this point anyway) I popped in for a swift ale and was soon joined by a host of End-To-Enders heading north.

The Crask is a fine, friendly place, and a Sustrans milepost sits in the parking area opposite, pointing the 80 miles to Inverness to the south or 90 miles north to John O’Groats. Thankfully it also pointed the 12 miles down to Lairg, the end of my superb journey for this day.

The single-track road ends two miles before the village at a junction where you continue ahead to soon enter Lairg, where a chippy was a fine finish to the day before continuing easily to the railway station, which you reach by turning right immediately after the level crossing.

What a fantastic day out in the saddle, and as the train rattled back to Inverness rocking me off to sleep, I enjoyed reliving a truly special day in the Highlands.

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