Cycling the Caledonian Way – Sustrans Route 78

The Caledonian Way, Route 78 is lovely. Sustrans do an excellent job of finding fab quiet roads, and constructing off road paths. Caveat – my enjoyment was probably helped enormously by the uncharacteristically excellent weather over Easter, April 2019. Five days of sunshine, no wind, 4 drops of rain and temperatures that had me in shorts and t-shirt for five days straight.

The first section of Route 78 is normally cycled from Oban to Campbeltown. As we wanted to do the Oban to Inverness leg as well, we decided to start from Campbeltown. The best way to reach Cambeltown from Edinburgh is a train to, then ferry from, Ardrossan Harbour. Unfortunately, that ferry doesn’t run until 2 May. We didn’t want the hassle of boxing up our bikes to take on a four hour bus ride (that was the point of sticking to a UK cycling holiday and the number one factor for not cycling to Italy), so we planned our own first leg.

First, a train from Edinburgh to Gourock on Good Friday. We managed to get our bikes on the train with no problems and no reservations. Once in Gourock it was a short cycle to McInroy’s Point, timing our arrival perfectly with the roll on ferry to Hunters Quay in Argyle and Bute. From there, only 44km across Argyle to Portavadie and a short ferry to Tarbert where we’d pick up the Route 78.

Ferry number one: McInroy’s Point to Hunters Quay

Day 1

I looked at this section simply as a ‘how can I get to the start of the hike route?’ I did not reckon on the hills. I should have done more research, Argyle is STEEP! I had to stop twice on a hill and I can’t remember the last time I did that. It was only 189m but the gradient was a tough one.

We eventually made it to Portavadie: 44km, 2:37:49 (moving time), average 14.9km per hour and 734m of climb.

Well earned rest at the top of yet another hill. But check out the view!

We stopped at one farmhouse café and numerous picnic spots on the way. We’d just missed the ferry when we arrived at the concrete ramp that serves as the Portavadie ferry terminal so the sensible thing was: another picnic.

Ferry number two: Portavadie to Tarbert.

It was getting late-ish in the day by the time we sailed into Tarbert so we set off to find a camp, bypassing the delicious smelling seafood restaurants. Motivated by the idea that the more kilometres under our belts of Day 1, the fewer the kilometres required on Day 2. We cycled past a few nice Loch side spots suitable for camping. None perfect though so we pushed on.

Tiredness kicked in after another 10km, along with the fading light and with no campsites in sight. We started to wish we’d taken one of those not so perfect ones. Luckily, we found a lovely spot with views across the valley, relatively flat and free from ticks (after we moved from our initial choice).

It was too early in the year for midges and very little wind – the perfect Scottish evening.

13km, 58:20, 13.4km per hour, 177m of climb

Day 2

On our first night we learned that we didn’t need to be lugging around three sleeping bags (including the super thick winter one which I’m sure weighs 2kg). So warm, even at night. Still, better than being cold. I was tempted to post the extra sleeping bag home, but we were in the middle of nowhere with nary a post office in sight.

We managed to pack up camp and be on the road by 9:30am which is not bad for a couple who are capable of having a lie in even in a tiny 1.5 person tent on a 3/4 length self inflatable sleeping mat.

We had a big day ahead of us and it started well. Lovely coastal roads along the edge of Loch Caolisport with gentle hills, big seals sunning themselves on the rocks and more beautiful spots to try to remember to come back to some day. Scotland really is stunning.

Travelling by bike is the best.

Water stop, after an evening and morning of rationing.

With one big hill under our belts we stopped at Ardrishaig at the Steamer Terminal café for an excellent and substantial lunch of local seafood and well deserved chips. Great place for cyclists, with outdoor seating, loads of water and even some mini Kelpie statues. They also let me charge up my phone for the stats.

Luckily for our digestion, it was almost entirely flat for the next 25 kilometres (16 miles). We had a canal path to follow for awhile, wide, flat, traffic free and peaceful. We cruised across the Moine Mhor, some of which was tough going with the terrain, pedalled past some standing stones and took a break Carnasserie Castle ruins.

It was nice to stretch our legs off the bike but the steps leading up to the upper floors of the tower were a killer, especially on the way back down.

Yep. I’m tired.

We had one more big hill before our day was done. It was almost immediately uphill out of Ford as the route took us into some trees, high above the banks of Loch Awe. We were rewarded with some downhill bits but my enjoyment of them was shattered by the gravelly surface. I felt very skatey with the extra weight at the back and worried I might take a tumble.

Reaching Dalavich was a relief.

We almost stopped for a pint in the village but we were worried we wouldn’t have the energy to get back in the saddle to find a camping spot if we stopped. The terrain and gradient was mercifully friendlier so we whizzed past the families playing in the village green.

The light was fading and the skies were threatening so we found an accessible spot just off the side of the road, where we could slide down a slight ditch and pitch the tent on soft fallen leaves. I thought the rain would pelt down as we ate the last of our vegetables (still more chocolate in the bag though) but four drops was all it managed.

Although we were quite close to the road we were sheltered by a moss covered bank and passed a pleasant peaceful night, deserving of a nightcap of whisky.

89.6km, 6:07, 14.6km per hour, 1197m of climb

(Gutted we didn’t go another 400m. We discovered the next day that if we’d pedaled another couple of kilometres, we could have had a curry at a household restaurant.)

Day 3

The sun was shining brightly without a cloud in the sky (at least that’s how I remember it). I was very excited to be wearing shorts and t-shirt for the third day in a row. And Barry and I didn’t have to pack up a wet tent. Success!

Today was the day we’d finish the Oban-Campbeltown route and cross on the Oban-Inverness leg. A lot of ups and downs but no major climbs were in store for us for the day. It was also Easter Sunday so lots of chocolate stops too.

Again, Sustrans managed to send us through some of the best parts of Scotland, through farmlands and small villages and there always seemed to be a park bench with a view just when I needed it. I loved cycling the single rack road through the farms in Glen Lonan. We saw a couple of cars but mostly sheep and hairy coos. Another cyclist past us, in a hurry to catch a ferry from Oban. We had no such plans for time constraints so ate more chocolate. We had enough food (and chocolate raisin square) making a stop in Oban unnecessary so we skirted the edge of it, saving ourselves a few kilometres, crossing the bridge in Connell. We were then traffic free for ages and onto a different map.

Passing Castle Stalker on the banks of Loch Linnhe

We got to use the lovely new tarmac path which had only just opened in April 2019 (thanks Sustrans), which took us along the waterfront and next to camp grounds. We dodged walkers and dogs at an easy pace.

We stopped for lunch at the cycle friendly cafe at Benderloch, Ben Lora, adjacent to the cycle path. Barry is usually the one trying to cut down my cake intake by always sharing one slice of cake instead of having one each. But the hills and kilometres must have got to him. “We’re having three!” he said of the ginormous scones. Good choice.

The traffic free cycling continued to be the norm, along with some flat, lochside sections.

We encountered a few hills on the farm trail (and some hairy coos) at Kentallen and the sun came out again so I was happy. It was worth a rest stop at the top of the biggest hill for views of Loch Linnhe and a handy park bench.

We did ‘lose’ the nice parts of the cycle in the last section to catch the Corran Ferry. The path is still off road but runs along a busy A road. The holiday traffic and trucks passing spoiled the view a bit. Still, the section was short and at least we weren’t cycling with the trucks.

We’d planned to stop at the campsite marked on the Sustrans map, just before the ferry but as we passed, we learnt it’s only open to caravans and mobile homes – no tents or bikes. So we missed out on a shower for another night. Not sure why it was even marked on the map to be honest.

Luckily, the Corran ferry is very regular and although it was late in the day, we were able to cross the water and get away from the motor traffic (actually all traffic as there weren’t any other cyclists on the ferry either).

The ferry was free for us too. The very friendly ferryman also told me it was 50p for a pee on the Corran side but free if I could wait until the Ardgour side where the Ardgour Inn provides toilets for staff and passengers. Obviously, I could. Thanks for the facilities. And the water bottle refill.

Ready to roll again

Although we still had plenty of daylight, we’d already cycled further than originally planned for the day so we stopped at the first (okay, maybe second) good looking wild campsite we could find. I was no longer sad about not getting a shower. It was one of the most beautiful wild campsites I’ve had in Scotland. It was a little exposed to the road but there’s very little traffic on the single track A road so it wasn’t a big deal. The ground was soft and squishy but dry and made a comfortable bed. Being right on the water was delightful and thew views of Ben Nevis topped it off.

It turns out we’d camped by a tidal estuary at Inverscaddle Bay and we spent some happy hours exploring the rocks and then watching the water roll in, and back out again. Thankfully, the water didn’t rise high enough to swamp the tent!

96.56km, 6:36, 14.6km per hour, 947m of climb

Day 4

Sunny again (I could get used to this) so we spent the morning enjoying our camp, the sunshine and a dip in the freezing water. A very quick splash.

Eventually, we had to pack up and leave, and mosey along down the coastal road. Jumpers were off within minutes and I definitely needed my sunglasses. Exciting. The road was flat and the cycling easy.

We reached the ferry ‘terminal’ way too quickly. The Camusnagaul ferry is just a bus shelter and ramp into the sea. Perfectly fine for the two or three ferries per day to Fort William.

We were too early or too late, depending on how you look at things, so we ditched the bikes in the trees and read our books for awhile. I was enjoying the sun, Barry was hiding in the shade (see, it does get hot sometimes).

We fretted a bit about whether the ferry would run on Easter Sunday. It did eventually show up, landing directly onto the beach rather than by the bus shelter ramp. We were happy not to have had to cycle another 60km or so around the road way.

We arrived in Fort William in time for a quick lunch. A few kilometers back on the Route 78 and we came to some old castle ruins of Inverlochy Castle. It would have been a nice spot for a picnic. Next time.

Just outside Fort Willie we stopped at Neptune’s Staircase, a flight of eight canal locks. I’d never seen a canal lock working so we chilled out while watching a yacht enter the lock, the water fill up, the yacht rising and the gates open to allow the yacht another step up the staircase. Very cool but a slow process. Cycling is much faster.

When we reached the end of the canal a friendly canal worker told us to avoid the signs leading us to the Great Glen Way and to stick to the B road as the track through the forest was too rough. I had my doubts about ignoring local advice but Barry was determined to stick to the trees.

Although it was treacherous in some places and I had a few scary moments navigating my laden bike on downhill section so rocks, we made it unscathed and were rewarded with lovely forest smells on the Great Glen Way and glimpses of Loch Lochy. Very peaceful.

I wouldn’t recommend it for road bikes but if you have a hybrid, touring or mountain bike I’d definitely go that way. You can always walk the scary bits.

When we pulled into Gairlochy locks we rewarded ourselves with a beer at the barge bar. It gave us the energy to continue along the canal path. Aided by alcohol and fairly strong tail wind (yea!), we made good time to Laggan and the Old Invergarry Stations which looks like it’s getting some restoration.

It was tempting to hang out on the shores of Loch Oich with its calm waters and sunshine but a shower and more food were calling in Fort Augustus.

Back onto the canal path, delightfully wide and absent of people as we headed into the evening.

We rolled into pretty Fort Augustus just before tea time. I’d never been before but it looks like a pleasant place to spend a couple of days, with pubs spilling onto the grass by the canal waters, folk enjoying a beer in the sun, the depths of Loch Ness to great you. All round top spot.

The shower was also ideal, after a very sweaty few days of cycling and wild camping. Especially in this heat!

Dinner on the banks of Loch Ness at the Boathouse restaurant, where the canal meets the monster’s home was well deserved I thought.

We also deserved a bed with a pillow. Luxury.

65.92km, 4:25, 14.7km per hour, 439m of climb

Day 5

We knew the first section out of Fort Augustus would be a tough one, so we stocked up on the continental breakfast at the Richmond House Hotel, which included some excellent DIY waffles. Best continental breakfast ever. I might have overdone it, I needed a lie down after. Luckily we didn’t have too far to go in terms of kilometres so we didn’t need to set off at the crack of dawn.

The time soon came when we had to get out and tackle the hill. The first bit was quite steep and hard work. Great views.

High above Fort Augustus

It seemed to taper off quite quickly but definitely a false plateau as minutes later we were going up and up. Definitely plodding along. For a full 5 miles/8 kilometres.

No time for stopping

The speedy downhill was not quite as rewarding as we’d hoped thanks to the super strong cross wind that had me battling to stay upright. Still, the legs did get a wee bit of a rest.

Finally, the top. But the wind!

We stopped in Foyers to be tourists and check out a waterfall.

We stopped to eat the last of the chocolate raisin square by the shores of Loch Ness. Cycling the length of the loch really brings home how big Loch Ness really is. The dark moody waters reminds you how deep it is too. Impressive.

Finally, we reached Inverness Castle, the terminus of the Caledonia Way.

We took the train back to Edinburgh.

53.76km, 3:27, 15.6km per hour, 689m of climb

I could see the route 1 signs from the trains and some beautiful traffic-free tarmac paths. Looks tempting…

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