A two-night break in Wester Ross with my friend Rachel, staying at Strathcarron Railway Cottages, provided the perfect opportunity for a brillaint bike and hike adventure to reach the remote Corbett of Beinn Dronaig.
Wester Ross: A fabulous outdoors destination
Wester Ross is one of my favourite areas of Scotland. It’s located in the north-west Highlands and, loosely speaking, it neighbours Sutherland to the north, Caithness to the north-east and Skye and Lochalsh to the south and west.
Perhaps for greater clarity, Wester Ross is edged in the south by Loch Carron, with Loch Broom and Ullapool to the north and Achnasheen in the east.
Wester Ross offers a wild and wonderful scenery, from a dramatic coastline and huge sandy beaches, through remote moorlands and glens, to sparkling lochs and magnificent mountain peaks. Settlements include Ullapool, Gairloch, Torridon and Lochcarron.
Since I’ve moved to the Black Isle, just north of Inverness, I am delighted to discover just how accessible Wester Ross is, whether travelling by car or train. It’s amazing to have, for example, Torridon and its many iconic peaks, such as Liathach, Slioch and Beinn Eighe, only around an hour’s drive away and Gairloch on the coast around 90 minutes by car.
The trainline west from Inverness travels to Kyle of Lochalsh stopping at places such as Strathcarron, Attadale and Plockton, which means you can reach Wester Ross without need for your own vehicle and, in doing so, in a more environmentally friendly way.
Also read: 6 gems to visit in Wester Ross.
Big adventure: Bike and hike to Beinn Dronaig
Staying at Strathcarron offered very easy access to Attadale Estate, where you can walk or cycle a long track to reach a number of Munros and the Corbett, Beinn Dronaig. (Note: Attadale can be reached by train. If coming by car, there is a parking area just inside the perimeter of the estate with space for up to about six vehicles.)
In fact, it wasn’t so long ago that I cycled the track to reach two of the most remote Munros, Bidein a’ Choire Sheasgaich and Lurg Mhòr. I remembered it being a fairly long and fairly hilly route but it’s strange how the brain manages to forget – or gloss over the pain – of a tough outing.
This route is actually really quite long and really quite hilly – and I quickly recalled these facts as Rachel and I rode the same track on mountain bikes, but this time to reach Beinn Dronaig.
Expecting it to be a chilly day and with snow likely on the mountain, we wore winter cycling clothing and carried winterised rucksacks packed with plenty of warm clothing, full waterproof layers, extra gloves, crampons, ice axe, food and water.
I hardly noticed my heavier pack for the first couple of kilometres, but as soon as the first ascent came – and there were plenty more to follow – I realised that each climb was going to be hard work.
In addition, the conditions were much warmer and calmer than forecast and just a short way along the spectacular glen that leads from Attadale Gardens, south-easterly towards the mountains, we both started to strip off layers. Within 8km of the start, I was wearing only a light long-sleeved baselayer and cycling tights.
Of course, the problem with taking off clothing is that I then had to carry it in an already bulging rucksack.
Pedalling and chatting
Fortunately, Rachel and I cycle at a similar speed (although Rachel is a better technical cyclist than I am) and we always have plenty to chat about on our adventures.
Where the track’s gradient allowed, we rode side by side, talking and enjoying the scenery.
Every so often, we stopped for a breather and to look back over our shoulders and westwards, where we were treated to widening views of Loch Carron with a backdrop of the Applecross mountains in the distance.
After a series of climbs, each seemingly longer and with plenty of steeper sections, the track flattened and undulated for a while through moors and forestry. We passed a small loch and then spotted another climb ahead.
This proved to be the toughest and included zig-zags and lots of loose rocks and stones.
I misread a steep stretch and found myself in the wrong gear. This forced me to get off my bike, while Rachel managed to keep going. Trying to get back on my bike was difficult in an easy gear and so I ended up walking to the top.
Two other cyclists had done similar and we chatted with them about the exertions of the route to get to the Munros and Corbetts.
But, oh, there are some great rewards for the climbs, including fantastic views, the delights of being amid a wild and natural environment and the taste of our picnic lunch. It always seems to me that home-made sandwiches or flapjack are so much tastier when you are outdoors and working hard.
As we rode downhill, enjoying the relief of easy pedalling, the view ahead took in the Munros of Choire Sheasgaich and Lurg Mhòr to the north-east, with Beinn Dronaig seemingly small and much less significant beside them.
Bendroaig Lodge came into sight after crossing a bridge and cycling around a corner. I recalled this as an overnight base for the Scottish Mountain Marathon some years ago.
By now Rachel and I had covered 17km and we stopped to look at the map. A track continued further to the north-east and we knew this would take us closer to the start of Beinn Dronaig, but we both remembered it was rougher and included a few steeper climbs.
It might be easier to walk, rather than try to cycle, we figured, but equally we knew we would be grateful of the downhill section when coming off the Corbett.
So, we decided to cycle on and stop whenever one of us felt it was too tiring or tricky to continue. In the end, we alighted from our bikes at 18.5km and right at the start of the Beinn Dronaig hike.
Walking to Beinn Dronaig summit
Leaving our bikes at the side of the track, we allowed ourselves some time to eat, drink water and assess what we would need for the hike – and could, therefore, leave behind and next to our bikes.
There is always the risk (slight, in my mind) that someone will come along and try to steal a bike and any left behind kit, but we thought it was unlikely this would happen and so we lightened our packs by stashing a few bits and pieces of cycling equipment next to our bikes.
We had both worn walking boots and used flat bike pedals for the ride in. I also changed into a dry base layer but we both walked in our cycling shorts and tights.
The Corbett is very remote – it felt delightfully so – and we didn’t want to end up in difficulty, so we made sure we had our crampons and ice axe in our packs. There had been a late spring dump of snow in the Highlands the week before and we could see a thick covering form about 400m elevation.
There was no clear path to take to ascend Beinn Dronaig – this is the case with many Corbetts – but having looked at the OS map we agreed that the mountain was best tackled from the north.
The first part of the hike was on boggy ground and I was grateful for waterproof hiking boots. The flatter start quickly gave way to a steeper and craggier climb, which was thankfully a bit drier – for a while.
Avoiding a large and steep crag, we zig-zagged our way upwards and towards the south.
As well as being good cycling companions, Rachel and I walk at a similar speed, too. It’s always so much easier to enjoy an adventure when no one feels under pressure to keep up, nor hold back. Our pace was comfortable enough to continue chatting amiably.
As we had set out, we had spotted another walker up ahead and almost as soon as we reached the snow line, we could see the footsteps of their chosen route. It can be all too easy to follow someone else’s steps and find that they have not made the best route choice but, as it turned out, the hiker was a good navigator.
With the snow become deeper, it was easier to use his footsteps for the ascent than to create our own new steps. We had a chat about whether we needed to put on crampons but we decided that we were footsure enough.
However, we did take out our ice axes and held these in case of a sudden slip. There were some steep sections but neither of us were too worried.
It wasn’t long before we caught up with the walker – it turned out we’d met before on a mountain! – and we offered to break the trail for him. This meant the pace inevitably slowed but he seemed happy enough!
Every so often, we stopped to look back over tremendous views of numerous mountains, including the recognisable peaks of Torridon.
There is nothing daunting about Beinn Dronaig but with snow on the ground we took our time to carefully navigate and to avoid some craggier sections.
The summit finally came after taking an easterly route over a series of ever higher rises in the terrain.
The rewards of a remote Corbett
I had read that the summit of Beinn Droanig is best kept for a clear day. Thank goodness we did because the views are superb.
We were fortunate, too, that the forecast winds at higher altitude didn’t come to fruition.
As we sat at the top at 797m, next to a cylindrical trig pillar, and ate some food, we were able to enjoy a wide-sweeping panorama. The vista took in Loch Monar to the east, the Mullardoch and Strathfarrar mountains and west to the Island of Skye and the rugged ridge of the Cuillin.
The return journey
The plan was to return by the same route and although this can sometimes seem like a less exciting choice than a circuit, I was looking forward to the views in reverse.
It’s almost impossible to experience a poor vista in Wester Ross and the bonus of an out-and-back adventure was to be treated to great views but simply in reverse.
The descent from Beinn Dronaig was straightforward simply because we could follow our snowy footsteps. On the way up, Rachel and I had voiced concern about how steep it would be when descending but it turned out to be easily manageable.
Only a couple of times did I resort to sitting down on cold snow to negotiate a short and steep drop.
Heading back over the lower slopes of boggy terrain, we spotted our bikes on the track and made a beeline for them.
Again we rearranged clothing and kit and pulled heavier rucksacks on to our backs. But, wow, it was a delight to start the ride back to Attadale Gardens with a downhill.
We both grinned as we zipped along on the rough track that had seemed so much more daunting on the climb up. Passing the lodge again and then rounding a corner and over a bridge, we were presented with the first section of uphill.
The gradient eased for a while before a long ascent. We both had tired legs and we were forced to drop the gears and settle into a slow climb.
Fortunately, there was no urgency for speed and we knew we had plenty of daylight left. We chatted on the flatter sections and rode separately on the ups.
And then came the final 11km or so of spirit-lifting downhill. This was what we had been looking forward to and it didn’t disappoint. In fact, at times it felt like we were going too fast, which was a joy after so many testing climbs and with tired legs.
As we rode back along the flatter section through the garden estate and towards the car, we reflected on the adventure.
Although it is a challenging outing, with a testing bike ride and a steep climb to the top of Beinn Dronaig, this is truly an incredible and impressive wilderness area. It is accessible if you are fit and confident and the sense of achievement when you finally arrive back at the start is hugely uplifting.
Wester Ross: Where to stay
I enjoyed a two-night stay at Station Master cottage at Strathcarron Station. Originally built for the opening of the Kyle line in 1870, the Station Master has recently modernised and renovated to offer a welcoming home-from-home self-catering accommodation.
There are two double bedrooms, one with an en-suite, a separate shower room, a kitchen dining room and a living room. The cottage sits on the platform of the station and it’s exciting when a train arrives or departs. This is not a busy railway line so you don’t need to worry about the trains intruding.
I can see why the accommodation has a 100% five star rating on Airbnb. It is beautiful and comfortable – and with everything you could want for a lovely self-catering break.
The location for discovering wider Wester Ross is excellent, too. You could arrive and explore by train, or come by car or bicycle.
Wester Ross: Where to eat
Carron Restaurant, overlooking Loch Carron, is a great discovery in Strathcarron. Run by husband and wife team, John and Clare, there is an extensive menu, which focuses on fresh Scottish produce, particularly seafood and venison, and changes with the seasons.
It took Rachel and I a while to choose what we wanted for an evening meal. The meals are wonderfully cooked and simply presented so that the flavours of each ingredient can be tasted and enjoyed. Everything we ate was delicious.
I noticed the restaurant also has an amazing collection of whiskies for sale.
Another food tip is the home-made venison burgers that are on sale at the gatehouse entrance at Attadale Gardens. They are superb.
Corbetts bagged: 83
- I was the guest of Visit Wester Ross, which is a voluntary tourism association, for this short break. I planned the adventure and my article is all my own words.