My riding partner, Alan, and I had been riding in the mist since breakfast – and we’d just had lunch. We were in need of a view as our soup and sandwich combo repeated on us on the sharp ascent out of Fort Augustus, at the southernmost tip of Loch Ness. Much climbing still remained, but we were all out of gears.
Then, finally, we were blessed with a cloud inversion, a scene you can never tire of.
Cycling above the clouds revealed the, until now, hidden beauty of this most scenic of rides in a no-more-iconic Scottish location, at the summit of the new Loch Ness 360˚ trail above Loch Tarff. We stop to point, grin, gaze and marvel. Our homeland’s great fault line was now on display – at least partially, still buried in the mist below only added to the splendour of it all.
Circle of life
This 129km, off-road trail is a perfect challenge for your gravel bike and offers a memorable circumnavigation of the loch.
For some years now there have been some impressive long-distance, off-road routes here that covered much of the loch, but nothing, until recently, that gave a full circular route around it.
The Great Glen Way, established in 2002, goes from Fort William to Inverness and takes in all the north-west side. In 2009, the South Loch Ness Trail was completed on the south-east side, yet a lack of funding at the time meant that this trail stopped 10 miles short of Fort Augustus.
Long-distance paths are increasingly seen as a large source of business to such areas and subsequently, money from local wind-farm development, as well as Scottish and European government funding, was obtained. And so the missing link was removed, creating the Loch Ness 360 trail in August 2018.
Given we were here in the autumn, we opted for a complete circuit involving three days of riding in a bikepacking tour, but the difficulty of the trail is dictated by the days you have to spare. Tackle it in one day and you’ve got a frightening 129km of gravel riding and 3,000m of climbing to conquer.
A journey back in time
Our train journey from Stirling north to Inverness is a scenic cracker, putting us in the mood for adventure as we hatched our plan on the go. We’d arrive early afternoon, chalk off 33km with a ride to Drumnadrochit, then a further 53km to Whitebridge on day two and 43km on day three back to Inverness to catch our return train home.
This train ride punched right through the heart of Scotland, reviving childhood memories of noses pressed up against the window, eagerly awaiting the adventure on the other side of the glass as we zipped first through glorious Perthshire then the imposing Cairngorms. Not from our childhood, however, was the temptation to order something stronger than a cup of tea from the trolley service. In reality, well-laden gravel bikes and booze aren’t natural bedfellows.
The train doors opened in Inverness and we resisted the urge to cycle on the platform, but hurriedly jostled our bikes out into the car park and into the bright autumn sunshine, where we clipped in and wasted no time in heading straight onto the trail.
For now, it was a tarmac track even if things were destined to change, as houses thinned and the gradient rose sharply. It wasn’t long before we found ourselves sitting on a bench, gazing over Inverness and to the Cairngorms mountains forming on the horizon that, little over an hour ago, were wrapped around us on the train.
Rest quickly turned to effort as we cracked on through the woods, to make our lodgings by sunset. The trees whittled away into open moorland at Blackfold, mixing up a brief spell of tarmac before heading off-road again at Abriachan, through a wide forest track that plunged deep into trees and wound gradually down a pine needle-coated path. It’s pick ’n’ mix, this Loch Ness 360 trail, and the terrain keeps you on your toes.
This trip took place before the coronavirus pandemic. At the time of publication, the advice from the Scottish government is clear: do not travel. When the time comes and restrictions relax, the Loch Ness 360 – and the rest of Scotland’s incredible riding – will be ready for us to enjoy. And as ever, please ride reponsibly.
Not to be mist
We popped out into the fading light to see the Millenia-old Urquhart Castle, high up on the shores on the loch. It was at the centre of a tug-of-war battle between the Scots and the English for years, and it’s a magnificent sight at any time of day – particularly so for us as it signalled that a testing first day on the trail was nearing a close. It was also our first solid glimpse of Loch Ness – all that mist meant that we almost missed it.
At Drumnadrochit, our home for the night, the tourists were out in droves. Not that any of them had been out on the trail, which had felt like our own little secret for the afternoon.
A shower, pint, food and bed, in short order, was all that was left on our to-do list for the day before we could call time on it. What a day we’d had – and with the prospect of two more like it!
Day two dawned with more mist. It meant a thorough test of the trail’s signage – one, thankfully, it was more than up to.
Climbing straight up out of the village, ahead was the impressive mouthful of Meall Fuar-mhonaidh, which dominated the view, a distinctive hill that’s visible from many places along the loch. At 700m it’s a majestic giant among dwarves, particularly as it was bathed in autumn colours. Allow five hours to walk its 9km if you’re ever here without bikes.
Along more wide forest track, sections of newly felled timber gave us glimpses of Loch Ness once more, before a caffeine fix in busy Invermoriston.
Progress was swift, and we felt armed for the fight with our gravel bikes, arriving in Fort Augustus to the usual sound of clicking cameras at anything Nessie related.
Our heads and bellies were firmly set on lunch, which proved a typically elusive balancing act of sensible calorie replacement and not wrecking our stomachs with an over-rich meal that’d render us useless once we were back riding – and, in all likelihood given the terrain round here, climbing.
And that we were, with our bodies, bikes and gears playing a tune just about good enough to lift us up the climb to 400m.
Countless undulating kilometres continued before, up ahead in the distance, we could just about make out our pub and lodgings for the night, releasing a feeling of excitement that I hadn’t felt since Scotland last had a good rugby season. In other words, it’s been a while.
In true Loch Ness 360 style, the long road to the hotel wasn’t a direct one and instead meandered towards it on yet more singletrack, then a grassy riverside trail and eventually to our beds for the night. But that was all fine by us. There’s no rush here and the trail does a splendid job of weaving a path through this magnificent natural arena, even if it did delay the quaffing of the haggis and pint that’d been on our minds for the past hour or so.
With a wood-burning stove warming our cold faces, we got chatting to a group of local workmen and some visitors from down south, up here shooting stags and catching salmon. Accents, lifestyles and stories mix. Blackened hands high-five wearers of pink corduroys.
We could have stayed in that bar for hours, our lungs full of Loch Ness air and our heads awash with memories of the day before calling it a night, sensibly, on the stroke of midnight.
Day three, and our bodies now felt the collective effects of testing off-road riding and too many tipples. Despite having an early evening train to catch we were hopeless to resist a hot chocolate and scone at Cameron’s Tea Rooms in Foyers.
The south-east side of the loch had a very different feel to the north-west. Less commercial and with no large settlements, it does feel like the pace of life is slower here. Shhh… nobody say a word to the tourists.
Hot chocolates quaffed, we saddled up and continued to head north-east, initially on tarmac and then on forest trail to Inverfarigaig. From here we climbed steeply on the broken tarmac, through more forest and then stopped to look over a splendid view of the glassy calm loch at the wonderfully named Fair Haired Lad’s Pass.
Down we went, on the loose gravel track, zig-zagging and sliding, our gravel bike skills tested to their limit. We were spat out once more into forest, this time on a smooth wide trail, which our aching fingers and joints rejoiced at.
At Dores, and lunch, it marked our farewell to the loch itself, with 10 miles left to go. We wound our way towards Inverness via a cycle path and then more trail, noticeably sandier than others. The coast was nearing. There was even some tight and fun winding singletrack through the trees at Torbreck, which we tried to hit with a final flourish, though our weariness showed.
And that’s the Loch Ness 360. With more than two hours until our train, we headed to the sports centre and paid our £1 for a well-earned shower, before pedalling to the station smelling better than we had done in three days. Then we set up shop for a final meal and pint, pulling out the maps to see where we’d been – and where we could go next. Any adventure that covers three Ordnance Survey maps is impressive. We point and ponder.
Our train beckons but a return trip is already planned and agreed. You’ve just got to love the opportunities for adventure that gravel bikes offer, and our love has now spread firmly to the Loch Ness 360 trail.
Total elevation: 3,000m
Grade: It depends on how long you take. Doing it in a single day would be very hard.
Getting there: The A9 to Inverness is the main driving route. Going by train to Inverness is also a fun way to start and end the adventure. Make sure you book your bike on in advance.
Where to stay: We stayed at the Loch Ness Inn in Drumnadrochit, and the hotel at Whitebridge. Camping would be a good option with plenty of sites but, as always, it’s best to do that before early May and after mid-September to avoid midges.
Where to eat: On the south-east side, Cameron’s Tea Rooms in Foyers is worth a visit. The Dores Inn just outside Inverness is also well placed.
Tourist info: LochNess360