The circuit of the Beinn a’ Ghlo range of hills is considered a classic Scottish mountain bike route, a full 35-mile day out in a scenic and fairly remote part of Highland Perthshire. If you’re looking for a circular route which is mainly on rough vehicle tracks – plus a pub and/or a chip shop at the end – then consider adding this one to your list.
I was checking out the route for my Silver Duke of Edinburgh group who are walking it over three days in early September. The start point is at Old Bridge of Tilt, just near Blair Atholl. The route then follows tracks and paths northeast and parallel to the Allt Coire Lagain to an estate house at Daldhu before turning north along a good track to Fealar Lodge. It’s a singletrack path from Fealar Lodge west, dropping down to the Falls of Tarf, before the long descent of Glen Tilt along a rough track.
The route can be done in either direction. How you ride it perhaps depends on the wind direction and/or whether you want to start off with a steep climb and have a long downhill ride at the end of the day (as I did it, anticlockwise) or whether you want to ease yourself in gently by tackling Glen Tilt first of all.
Route description – Anticlockwise
From the car park at Old Bridge of Tilt it’s a long uphill to Loch Moraig, a good opportunity to get the heart muscles pumping hard. Having gained height, the views open out along the rough track west, with the Beinn a’ Ghlo massif directly in front. While the main route continues straight on to the northeast, our Duke of Edinburgh takes a detour southeast to the remote farm at Shinagag and so did I. While it stayed dry all day, dark clouds weren’t far away.
I took a faint grassy track north from Shinagag to climb a heathery hillside. This was the start of a tough stretch – certainly easier walking than with a bike – following a path that skirted the hill Sron na h-Innearach (‘inner ear ache’ perhaps?). The heather was just coming into bloom and the mountains loomed large over the landscape. Following a fast but rough downhill, and through a couple of stream crossings, I soon arrived at the estate house at Daldhu.
It’s a long, gradual climb north from Daldhu along a good track. I stopped for a well-earned breather at the summit where I met the only other cyclists I saw all day, a couple of guys who had done the route several times. I wondered, if this is considered a classic Scottish mountain bike route, why on a Saturday in mid-August it was almost deserted?
The reward for a long climb uphill is a good old blast downhill; it certainly got my eyes watering. A good track leads to another group of estate buildings at Fealar Lodge before the route turns west along a faint footpath. Just as I’d needed to push my bike for much of the section north of Shinagag so I also needed to get off quite a bit of the way along this path. While the last week had been fairly wet across Scotland the crossing over the River Tilt turned out to be easily passable and I hopped across the boulders.
After a short distance I came across the highlight of the whole route, the Falls of Tarf. This really is a magical spot: two large waterfalls, still pools perfect for wild swimming and even a flat, grassy patch ideal for a small tent. Maybe it’s just as well this delightful spot is over 10 miles from the nearest paved road since it would have been trashed in a more accessible location.
At the Falls of Tarf the route turns southwest along Glen Tilt and path widens into a rough vehicle track. I always find Glen Tilt to be quite a dark and foreboding place, with the river hemmed in by steep mountains at both sides. The coming cold front had already shrouded the Beinn a’ Ghlo hills in low cloud and the gloom hung heavily. It somehow seemed a spooky place in the dark, late afternoon …
However, all thoughts were erased out of my mind as I cycled down Glen Tilt. I’m sure the landowners have done a good thing by filling in the potholes with new stones but on a bike, even one with suspension, I felt as though I’d survived an endurance test on a boneshaker by the time I reached the car park again. My hands were throbbing with the handlebar vibrations.
While this is considered a classic MTB route I have mixed views on it. Much of it are on rough tracks which can be a little dull, and the path sections can be hard going since they’re not all cycleable. It took me eight hours, including the detour to Shenigag as well as breaks. It’s a fairly long day out and a bit of a slog at times.
Having said that, the scenery is great and there’s a real feel of ‘getting away from it all’. The path sections on the route are most scenic, particularly as the heather was just coming into bloom. Other than two other mountain bikers doing the route the only other people I met all day were two backpackers just setting out at the bottom of Glen Tilt.
I’ve come to the conclusion that in spite of the long stretches of track I think this is a better route on foot than by mountain biking. Why not take a tent and make a weekend of it? In fact, roll on next month when I’ll return with my walking boots and a tent.