Distance: 48 km
Time: 5-6 hours but why not take longer to stop and see the attractions.
Difficulty: Easy forest tracks apart from a 4.5 km intermediate (red run) section in the middle, and 1.5 km of path that is unrideable.
Bikes: Mountain bikes only due to the rocky middle section.
Map: Ordnance Survey Landranger sheets 25 and 26.
Route summary: Cannich b Tomich b Guisachan Estate b Plodda Falls b Cougie b Allt Garbh b Affric Lodge b Dog Falls b Cannich.
Located approximately 25 km north west of Scotland’s Great Glen, and 7.5 km south west from the village of Cannich, Glen Affric has been described as one of the most beautiful glens in Scotland. Granted there are many others vying for that accolade, but as if to confirm its status Glen Affric was made a National Nature Reserve (NNR) in April 2002. The area contains one of Scotland’s largest remaining ancient pinewoods and is home to much wildlife including capercaillie, black grouse, crested tit, crossbill, golden eagle, red-throated diver, pine marten, otter and many others. A management plan is in place that among other things, promotes the recreational and educational values of the reserve for the local and wider communities. Surrounded by spectacular mountains including fifteen Munros, this is top notch mountaineering country. It is also a great place to explore on a bike as the reserve has excellent facilities for cycling, mostly on easy forest tracks.
Our accommodation for this trip was the Backpackers Hostel at Cannich, an excellent base for walking and biking. There is also a campsite at the same location in the village. The day dawned as less than perfect for July with heavy thunder showers forecast. Whilst my friends in the Mahgroynin Mountaineering Club elected to take on some of the surrounding Munros, myself and two friends Steve and Sharyn opted for a days mountain biking instead. Our route was a circular one starting and finishing at our accommodation in Cannich.
On leaving Cannich head for the attractive conservation village of Tomich, stopping to look over the bridge into the River Affric on the way. This was unusually full given the time of year, a symptom of how wet the 2004 summer had been, but trout could be seen rising and a little dipper - well, dipped its way along the edge of the river. Tomich is also an excellent base for walking and cycling. After Tomich the route continues on good forest roads on past the ruin of Guisachan (Place of the Pines) House and climbs steadily upwards to Plodda Falls. A 300 metre detour takes you down a rough path covered in tree roots polished by many feet to the falls. The path can be slippery in the wet but its worth it to see the falls, modest in size but attractive none the less. By the time we arrived at the falls the heavens had opened so we didn’t linger long. We headed on up the hill towards the remote croft at Cougie. No sooner than we had set off from Plodda the sun came out and we started to cook in waterproofs, time to stop and change a common theme for the day. The route to Cougie is easy riding and in the now warm sun the road was lined with beautiful small blue butterflies (Cupido minimus). There was also the occasional majestic dragonfly.
Check your map to make sure you take the correct route on leaving Cougie. Go on past the row of vintage vehicles, lined up like an exhibit from agriculture in the 1950's and 60's. From here on the route begins to get a little more technical, undulating quite steeply on rocky terrain, but still rideable. As the track approaches the open hill you will have the first of two deer fences to negotiate. Both are equipped with wicket gates but these are too small to get bikes through, fortunately both are also equipped with stiles and it is relatively straight forward to carry your bike over these. As the track continues out onto the open hill, it gets a little rougher and more like technical single track as you climb on up to 400 metres at the highest point. Take care not to miss the path off to the right (NH188212) as this is your route down to Loch Affric. The path is not that distinct but there is a scratching post and a ‘stags wallow’ at the turn that you can’t miss.
The path descends steeply to the Alt Garbh burn and you certainly wont be able to ride all the way down. The OS map (2003 digital data) shows the path descending and crossing the burn and continuing on the west side. We found the burn too dangerous to cross with bikes, and in any case there is a much better and more distinct path following the burn down on the east side. Ordnance Survey take note. You will have to walk with your bike down the path for approximately 1.5 km, there is no alternative but its not too much of a hardship as you are descending. Doing the route the other way round would be an entirely different matter.
The excellent track at the bottom is a welcome relief and good progress can be made along the south shore of Loch Affric. At the end of the loch the road forks (NH197231) and a decision has to be made whether you want to travel home on the relatively flat and easy tarmac on the north shore of Loch Beinn a’ Mheadhoin, or on the more undulating forest track on the south side. The track on the south side is the more interesting but as we had a problem with dehydration, we opted for the easier tarmac road. It’s ironic how dehydration can result from an excess of liquid intake – of the wrong sort the night before of course. The views over Loch Beinn a’ Mheadhoin from the road side are magnificent. A stop at Dog Falls allowed us a chance to admire this narrow gorge and the midges a chance to have their feast on us. They are not so much falls in that there is not a sudden steep drop, but the water is channelled into a narrow steep sided gulley giving it tremendous force. Due to this force Dog Falls is literally the end of the river for migratory fish, they do not have the power to swim through the fierce current.
From Dog Falls the road descends down through some fast twisting turns and passes the Fasnakyle hydro-electric power station right at the side of the road. This is one of the largest hydro-electric power stations in Scotland. The hydro scheme and the substantial dam on nearby Loch Mullardoch was completed in 1952. Water from Loch Mullardoch flows through a tunnel to Loch Beinn a’ Mheadhoin in Glen Affric below, a significant engineering feat. From the power station it is just a few kilometres back to Cannich where the hotels can provide just the remedy for that dehydration problem.