NEW POST, OLD TRIP: The past year hasn't been one for travel, thanks to COVID-19. But in reminiscing about going places, I've finally found the motivation to write about a trip I took two years ago.
I visited Scotland during the summer of 2019, taking a solo bikepacking trip along parts of NCN78 (“The Caledonia Way”). The trip began in Glasgow, where I rented a Whyte Friston gravel bike from Billy Bilsland Cycles before taking a train to Inverness. Travel by train was quiet, scenic, and relatively easy.
Arrival — Train to Inverness
Leaving Glasgow early and reaching Inverness by mid-afternoon, I checked into an Airbnb and spent some time exploring town. The Women's World Cup (U.S. vs. Netherlands) was showing that day, so I found a pub, ordered food, and settled in to watch. That evening I visited another pub for live music.
Day 1 — Inverness to Fort William
Leaving early for the longest day of riding (66mi), I went south from Inverness, first along quiet side roads, then along Loch Ness and B852. Lunch in Fort Augustus, then continued to Fort William. Fort William would have been the place to stop and hike Ben Nevis, spending an extra day, but I hadn't made plans for this and the weather wasn't cooperative.
Day 2 — Fort William to Oban
The route from Fort William to Oban included ferries, and was much easier than the previous day's ride, at 41mi. This left plenty of time for exploring Oban, which is worthwhile. My original plan had included some camping along the route. However, rain was coming and hostels were plentiful, so I took the more comfortable option and the hot showers.
Day 3 — Oban / Benderloch Loop
While the official route continues south from Oban, there isn't an easy train back to Glagow further along. I only wanted to spend one more day on the trail, so instead of going south I did a 30mi loop out of Oban. This route featured more gravel than the other days, and more challenging navigation as it wasn't on a well-established cycling route.
Return — Train to Glasgow
Train back to Glasgow, returned the rental bike, and continued on to Edinburgh for a couple days of free time. The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and live music at Sandy Bells were two highlights in Edinburgh.
The NCN78 is a well-planned route, quiet and unhurried. It was also my first try at solo bikepacking, so I was grateful for never being too far from a warm bed and hot meal along the way. A few practical notes:
- July provided plenty of daylight — sunset was around 9:30pm — and allowed more time to explore. It also brought unpredictable weather, and I rode through some amount of rain and fog on all days of the trip. I didn't mind the rain, but the fog was a bit much on the last day of the ride.
- If you're planning to take your bike on the train, reserve that in advance. There were limited spaces for bikes, although the bicycle compartment didn't appear to fill up on my trip.
- The route was probably 70% paved, 25% firm dirt/gravel, and one short section, just a few miles, of chunky gravel. On a gravel bike with ~45mm tires this was all fine, although I did get a flat on the chunkier section. A road bike with 35-40mm tires would have been fine on most of it, but that loose gravel wouldn't have been much fun.