Monday, 4 June 2018

Around Ben Alder.

I've been planning to do a ride in the vast, largely uninhabited area around Ben Alder for some time. I'd plotted a route starting and finishing at Dalwhinnie (inspired by reading other accounts on the net) and taking in Loch Garry, Loch Rannoch and Loch Ericht. As I mentioned the area is quite wild so I'd hoped to do this ride with others (both for the company and for added safety) but the recent long dry spell and resulting good ground conditions prompted me to just go for it on my own.
The drive up to Dalwhinnie takes a while and this combined with a late start meant that I didn't actually start cycling until after 4pm. The first section was down the cycle path that follows the A9 from Dalwhinnie south to Dalnaspidal Lodge.
As I'd anticipated this section fell more into the "to be endured" category with the heavy traffic on the A9 roaring past and a stiff headwind to contend with. At least the surrounding hills and glens were picturesque to provide some distraction though.
It didn't take too long to get to Dalnaspidal where I left the cycle path and headed off road towards Loch Garry.
My route now followed a good estate track along the bank of Loch Garry for a few miles.

The track continued just beyond the end of Loch Garry where it petered out abruptly to be replaced by a vague walkers path across the low lying boggy ground leading up to the start of another estate road which would take me to Loch Rannoch. In accounts that I'd read of riding this section the going had been described as boggy hike a bike but as I'd hoped the dry weather meant that some of it was rideable for me. 
Spot the trail! The end of the estate road and the start of a tenuous path across the flat boggy watershed. 
After a mixed riding and pushing section for a couple of miles I reached the next estate track which led me to a lovely old bridge (with a more substantial modern bridge just upstream). It was a pretty spot so I stopped for a few pictures. 

From the bridge it was a short ride to my overnight stop for the night at Duinish bothy. This is an estate bothy (not one administered by the MBA) so I wasn't sure what to expect but it proved to be a nice enough place to spend the night. 
My plan for the next day didn't involve a huge mileage so I decided to have a lie in until 8am, despite this I was back on the trail by 9:30 and heading for Loch Rannoch on a good estate track. 

As I progressed further south the unmistakable profile of Schiehallion appeared on the horizon. From this direction it looks like a spectacular peak but in reality it's quite a boring walk (I know, I've climbed it!) It was to feature in my views for quite a while as I dropped down towards Loch Rannoch. 
After a fast dusty descent I got down to the road that runs along the northern side of Loch Rannoch.

The next section was along this road and I'd anticipated it being a bit dull, in reality it was very pleasant with light traffic and lovely views in the bright sunshine. 
I followed the road until just before Rannoch Lodge where I once more turned off road and climbed a steep forest track northwest. Eventually I emerged from the forest and the views opened up. 
It was really hot work and I passed a tempting clear green pool at the side of the track, curiously it had small fish in it but no obvious water sources feeding or draining it. How did the fish get there I wonder? 
As I gained height the views west opened up and I could pick out more familiar landmarks (such as the mountains of Glencoe) in the distance. 
Ahead the bulk of the Ben Alder massif began to appear.
The track turned downhill and I was treated to a high speed blast down towards Loch Ericht after which I continued along the western shore of the loch.

From past experience (and from online research) I knew that the good track along the lochside would only last so far after which another potentially boggy hike a bike section would be in store. Once again however the dry weather helped me out and much of the section between the end of the track and Ben Alder Cottage proved to be rideable. 

After one final push Ben Alder Cottage came into view in the distance and as it was downhill I was optimistic that I'd be able to ride all the way. Inevitably this lead to my front wheel sinking into a soft patch catapulting me knee deep into a bog! I managed to get out without losing my shoes (a real danger) and continue on down to the bridge over the Alder Burn and on to the bothy. 

I'd arrived much earlier than I expected and briefly contemplated pushing on but I was in no rush and it was a lovely afternoon for lounging about at such a nice spot so I had some late lunch then went for a swim in the burn to cool off and wash my muddy legs. Later I was joined by a couple of hillwalkers with a dog and some fellow bike packers (three guys on long travel trail bikes doing their first overnighter and a Dutch guy who had been riding the Highland Trail 550 route in reverse) who were all very friendly and interesting to chat with.
Clean legs again!
The next morning I woke early and packed and ate breakfast as quickly as I could before starting the singletrack climb up towards the Bealach Cumhann. This section (and the bit after it over the Bealach Dubh and down towards Culra) was the section of the route that I'd been looking forwards to the most. I knew that much of the climb should be rideable (despite climbing up to over 700m at the Bealach Dubh) as it was on well surfaced singletrack. The only slight fly in the ointment was the frequency of deep, square edged water bars that crossed the trail providing drainage. My fellow cyclists at the bothy had mentioned that they could be a hazard leading to a puncture, damaged wheel or worse a crash if they weren't negotiated with care so I started out cautiously. After a while though I got into the groove and was able to successfully bunny hop my bike clearing most of them which only added to the fun. 
 Looking up towards the Bealach Cumhann.
 The view back to Loch Ericht in the distance.
Although it was a bright morning, as I got higher the hills around me were shrouded in clouds adding to the atmosphere. 
Once I'd crossed the Bealach Cumhann the gradient eased for a while and there were even a few downhill sections which were fantastic fun to ride. 
The view opened up to the southwest down towards Loch Ossian and Rannoch Moor. 
I pushed on up the Bealach Dubh promising myself a rest at the top and a bite of food, the last section up to the bealach was pretty steep and hard going but soon I popped out at the top.
After a breather at the top I set off down the other side of the bealach, the guys at the bothy had warned me that the top section of the descent was very steep but it wasn't actually too bad other than a few awkwardly placed water bars. It was fantastic whizzing down the steep descent bunny hopping the water bars as I went. 

Lower down the gradient eased but the trail started to snake more making it even more fun to ride, I also passed a section in a small river gorge which was absolutely beautiful. 
All too soon the sublime singletrack came to an end and I popped out onto a landrover track which passed the sad sight of Culra bothy (now abandoned due to asbestos used in it's construction). 
 The Ben Alder massif looked very impressive back in the direction that I'd come from.
I pushed on towards Loch Pattack which came into sight in the distance. 
As I followed the track towards the loch I noticed another track branching off to the right, it looked a bit tenuous and I couldn't be bothered stopping to check the map so continued on following my gps, I was later to be caught up by my friends from the bothy who took the right hand fork in the track which they said cut out quite a lot of distance. I reached the loch and stopped to take more pictures before crossing the wobbly suspension bridge across the river feeding Loch Pattack. 

At the other side of the bridge I was greeted by two ponies one of whom was very friendly, enjoying being petted and scratching his/her neck on my bike handlebars. After a short break to enjoy the company of my new equine friend I set off again joining another estate track leading towards Ben Alder Lodge with it's impressive turrets and electric gates! My route now followed the shore of Loch Ericht once more back towards Dalwhinnie. 

As I've mentioned I was rejoined at this point by the three guys on bikes who I'd met at the bothy so it was really nice to have some company for the last few miles. All too soon it was time to go our separate ways though, they were heading on to Torridon for some more mountain biking adventures while I was heading home. 
This had been a great trip, I was very fortunate to be able to do the ride during a rare spell of dry, hot weather and the scenery was spectacular. I'd definitely hope to go back and ride the singletrack over the Bealach Dubh and Bealach Cumhann again (possibly doing an out and back trip to Ben Alder Cottage to ride the trail in both directions).
Below is the video that I made of the trip. 


  1. Absolutely brilliant post and read. Thoroughly enjoyed that. Fantastic ride through some glorious scenery. I think the ride over the two high passes are perhaps a bit above my level, but a ride I wanted to do as soon as I finished watching the video. Thanks for sharing :)

  2. Found this post while looking for pictures of Duinish Bridge (over Allt Shallain just NW of the Duinish bothy). I and a bunch of colleagues from the my university OTC rebuilt that over two summers in 1989 and 1990 in exchange for access to the Craiganour Estate for adventure training. I last visited it on a walking holiday in around 1999, so am glad (and a little relieved!) to see it's still standing.