For cycling, the UK is the gift that keeps on giving. New cycling destinations pop up in conversation/social media feeds/articles all the time and each time they offer impressive reasons to be added to your own cycling bucket list. If you are looking for inspiration then you should certainly consider a trip to Dunoon.
If you have not heard about the seaside resort close to Glasgow yet, you properly should read on. Situated on the Cowal Peninsula in Argyll, which was once visited by massive steamer boats heading over the Firth of Clyde from Glasgow, has been re-inventing itself as a gateway to the great outdoors. A few years ago local businesses got together to turn the fortunes of the town around, and they have fully embraced the opportunities that the outdoors offer.
And there is another thing that is pretty unique about Dunoon. You can enjoy a wide variety of road cycling, gravel riding and mountain biking without the need to get there by car. The alternative to using your car to arrive at your destination relaxed and happy is called Rail and Sail and offered by CalMac, Scotland’s biggest ferry operator, and ScotRail. The ticket lets you buy a joint ticket for the ferry and train at the same time. Bikes travel free and there is good capacity on both the ferry and the train from Glasgow to take you and your bike, with no need to book in advance.
If you are travelling from outside of Scotland, the Caledonian Sleeper is a great alternative to taking your car or flying. You can board the train on Friday evening in London and wake up on Saturday morning in Glasgow. The Sleeper leaves again on Sunday night, and you’ll wake up at London Euston on Monday morning, ready for a week at work (still dreaming about Scotland). The trains have recently been upgraded and offer everything from the budget option of comfortable and reclining seats to a proper double bed with ensuite bathroom. You need to book your bike space in advance, but with a capacity of up to ten bikes, this shouldn’t be a problem.
Once you get to Glasgow, it’s a short train ride from Glasgow Central to Gourock, and then an even shorter ferry journey to Dunoon, where you can spend an action-packed or relaxed weekend. The choice is yours.
Steve Bates, a double World and Paralympic Champion and hopeful for next years Paralympic Games in Tokyo visited Scotland twice within a year to ride his bike in the off-season. And twice he came to visit Dunoon, a good indicator that there is something special about the place. When he rode the Wild About Argyll Trail the first time he visited, he was so fascinated that he talked his fellow teammate and friend Jon Gildea into coming to Scotland with him, and both had a great time.
And Steve is not alone. Greg Minnaar, three-time Downhill World Champion hailing from Pietermaritzburg in South Africa, recently visited the town to ride his enduro bike with a bunch of really enthusiastic local mountain bikers of all ages. Greg is an ambassador for the Dunoon Project, a local initiative to build a cable car system to make the town THE number one place for mountain biking in Scotland.
Jenny Tough, who is well-known for running across a mountain range on each continent and being the first woman to finish the Silk Road Mountain Race in 2018 loves Dunoon too. She was recently part of a merry bunch of fifty bikepackers that tackled the first Dunoon Dirt Dash in September and had only good things to say about the hidden gem on Scotland’s West Coast. Well, there was a bit of Type 2 Fun involved, but given she organises the Type 2 Fun Run every August, she was well prepared to cope with that.
We have picked three great bike adventures for you while you are there. But there is plenty more to do. With the Scottish Outdoor Access Code you can just grab a map or your GPS and explore yourself.
For all gravel and bikepacking enthusiasts, the Dunoon Dirt Dash is the perfect weekend trip. For a social experience, you can take part in a self-supported bikepacking event on the last weekend of September, organised by the author of the blog post, Markus Stitz, and Charlie Hobbs, a UK Singlespeed and cycling legend (formerly known as Charlie the Bikemonger). Entries for the event are open now, and for £85 you get two days of superb riding with others, a great campsite next to a proper Scottish castle and delicious food from Winston Churchill. To make this even more appealing, you’ll be sent off with a cannon shot (!) and only pay £80 if you are one of the first 50 people to secure a place.
You can also download the route as GPX and read more about the terrain on the Bikepacking Scotland website and head out yourself any time of the year. Good fitness and even better bike handling and carrying skills are essential for this route, but the effort is amply rewarded with extensive views over Loch Striven, fast single trails, castles, great cafes and many kilometres of fine gravel tracks. The 133km route packs in more than 2000m of climbing and is best ridden in two or three days. It starts and finishes at the Victorian Pier in Dunoon.
There are ample opportunities for roadies as well. A 108km loop across the Cowal Peninsula offers a great day out. It follows Sustrans NCN 75 for the first 25km, passing Loch Tarsan and Loch Striven, before climbing steeply into the mountains on the Otter Hill Road. After cruising along the coast with views across Loch Fyne, the route climbs over more hills to Strachur and follows the beautiful shores of Loch Eck for a short while. A final climb takes riders to the hamlet of Ardentinny and then along the shores of Loch Long and Holy Loch back to Dunoon. If needed, the route can be shortened by 25km by taking the road to Clachan of Glendaruel and along the eastern shore of Loch Eck instead.
If you are super fast, then we recommend stopping at Benmore Botanic Garden for either a stroll through the wonderful garden and/or a coffee and cake at the cafe. The garden itself is open from March to October, but the cafe is open all year. It’s a great place to hide from the rain, which might come as part of your travel package.
Bring a lock and comfy shoes and head out from Benmore for a walk in the beautiful Benmore Forest, which is home to Puck’s Glen. Deservedly the most popular walk-in Argyll, it follows a magical trail that winds along a Victorian walkway up the dramatic rocky gorge that is said to be home to mischievous spirits. Passing several waterfalls beneath the towering Douglas firs, this 5.8km walk is perfect to experience the rugged beauty of the Argyll Forest Park.
Benmore is also the start of another classic. A loop around Loch Eck provides a great day out for mountain and gravel bikers of all abilities. Starting and finishing at Benmore Botanic Garden and the Benmore Cafe, the 35km route is also accessible by bus from Dunoon, except on Sundays. Alternatively, a 13km cycle (one way) on quiet roads and paths leads from the Dunoon ferry terminal to the start. Almost entirely traffic-free, this is a great day out on the bike for families, with magnificent views of Loch Eck, Beinn Mhor and the west coast islands of Jura and Islay. The loop includes a section of the Wild About Argyll Trail on the eastern shore of Loch Eck.
And if you still have loads of energy left on a long summer’s day, why not burn it by running up and down the highest hill in the area, Beinn Mhor. You can take your bike for the first section along a small road from Benmore Gardens to Stoneyfield in Glen Massan, passing the famous Golden Gates. From there this is an out-and-back route, although navigation skills are required for the final climb. With 710m of climbing, this is a tough route, but the effort is well rewarded with extensive views.
Are you ready for an adventure on Scotland’s Adventure Coast? Simply go to wildaboutargyll.co.uk/railandsail where you can access all routes and book your tickets for a car-free adventure.