Beginners’ guide to cycling the Great Glen Way
The Great Glen Way is one of Scotland’s Great Trails. It is 79 miles long, starting in Fort William and finishing in Inverness. The Great Glen Way can be walked or cycled.
The off-road trail is on paths and tracks as well as along canal and loch shores. It links together a number of settlements and offers plenty of places for short stops and overnights.
My friend Tansy recently cycled the Great Glen Way with her eight-year-old son Archie. These are her top 10 tips for mountain biking the Great Glen Way with (or without!) kids over four days.
10 tips for cycling the Great Glen Way
1 Have the right bike for the terrain
The route is on a wide variety of trails, from quiet single track roads, through flat canal towpaths, to single track in woodland and includes some serious ascents and descents.
I have a good quality mountain bike and Archie has a lightweight kids’ Frog bike.
Although young, he is used to biking blues and reds at mountain biking trail centres and so he managed all of the downhill sections.
We passed some fellow bikers on hybrids with panniers that were not ideal for the bouncier downhills or grippy enough for the rockier uphills.
2 Allow plenty of time
We divided the 79-mile route into four days and while the southern sections are flatter and easier, the northern sections had 600m climbs each day and followed a route along the wooded banks of Loch Ness.
We were on our bikes from around 9am until 3pm or 4pm each day with a stop for lunch and plenty of snack breaks.
It is vital to consider your fitness, as well as taking into account the hillier sections when planning how long you will take to ride the great Glen Way,
3 Choose one to one
I think that a ratio of one small person to one adult is best for this route. Much of the northern sections of the route involved me mastering the art of pushing two bikes up the hilly sections to allow Archie to walk.
This was perfectly possible and it was still enjoyable for both of us at a nice slow walking pace. I also made up songs to keep him going, which was a lot of fun!
4 Travel light and hostel it
Some cyclists carried tents and all the necessary equipment for camping but this meant they had bike trailers or panniers. I wondered how they coped with some sections of the Great Glen Way.
I guess that many cyclists get used to having a heavier load but I think this would take away from the enjoyment of being able to ride more of this lovely route.
Instead, we travelled light and booked hostels and B&Bs. We carried all our gear in smallish rucksacks (mine was 25 litres and Archie’s was 15 litres).
We restricted our kit to a few spare clothes, a first aid kit, puncture repair items, snacks and water.
We also stopped at cafes and shops when we saw them so we did not need to carry extra food.
Every ounce weighs heavily over a whole day and we found the hostels were perfect places to relax at the end of the day with common rooms for Archie to play in.
5 Learn basic bike maintenance
I’m ashamed to admit that I’m a new arrival to proper bike maintenance so I made sure I knew how to fix the basics and that I had the right tools. This was just as well because I did have to use the new techniques to keep us mobile.
6 Plan well for facilities and provisions
Know where the shops and cafes are – and book your beds ahead. The Great Glen Way can be busy and so it is better to be prepared than to hope for the best.
Planning ahead also enabled us to carry only the basics and to be sure we would have food, water and a place to stay each day.
7 Stop at every opportunity
There is so much to see and explore with numerous interpretive boards along the route. We learned about canals, WW2 commando training routes, Victorian railways, woodcutting and spotted lots of flora and fauna.
I wasn’t prepared for how many elements of history and nature there would be to take in, which helped break up every stage.
We even took a boat trip at Drumnadrochit, which was a real treat for Archie.
8 Get involved
Archie got to open and shut locks, ring the bells when boats came through and we stopped to chat to everyone along the route.
We even hitched a ride on a boat for 1km of the route (albeit in the wrong direction!).
We made friends at the hostels and always stopped to chat to fellow trail travellers and this added to Archie’s sense of pride and excitement at the whole undertaking.
He was very proud to tell people about what he was doing.
9 Celebrate your arrival
We ended the trail at Inverness and celebrated with a freshen-up swim at the fantastic Bught Park water flumes. Then we headed to the castle for a more formal finish.
The end monument can be a slight anticlimax for a child and this was quickly remedied by obtaining our finishers’ certificates from the Castle Tavern. They give these out free to those who come in on completion of the route and they couldn’t have been nicer.
10 Take the train
Both the Fort William and Inverness ends of the route are well connected with a frequent train service.
ScotRail are very accommodating for bikes and it removes the hassle factor, or how to double back with a bike in tow.
I was slightly nervous about undertaking such a committing route with a small child but I can honestly say it was one of the best trips we have done together.
See Great Glen Way.