Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Galloway Forest Trails

The smell of the pine forest in the damp air is all pervading, fresh and clear; trees in long regimented ranks march out into the distance close packed phalanx upon phalanx, impenetrable and dark. Trunks arrow straight stand sentinel, and from above comes the gentle rustle of pine needles in the wind. Ahead the fire road, a river of grey at the bottom of a canyon of green and brown winds it's way off into the distance before bending round and out of site.

The road vanishes behind, devoured beneath the wheels of the bike which flow over the packed gravel as pedals beat out and easy cadence. Above the trees and in the distance the hills of Galloway tower above the forest a role reversal from yesterday when I looked down on these trails from the high ridge of the Rhinns of Kells.

I had had my eye on biking in Galloway for a while, particularly the Glentrool Tour one of the standout routes in Phil McKane's Scotland Mountain Biking. A monster on the legs, and clocking in at about 90 km it ranges between Loch Doon in the north of the forest and Minnigaff in the south. Not quite fancying that distance in one bite just a few days before embarking on a coast to coast ride and not having the time to split it over two days I decide to ride the northern section and chop the loop just below half hight by using a good track between Loch Trool and Loch Dee.

Using the Glentrool car park as a starting point the route follows the road up the valley until it fades into a good forest road which slowly climbs up the hillside. Arriving at a coll the track drops away and the view opens out to reveal Loch Dee shining in the mist and the great forestry plantations in the valley of the Silver Flowe.

Later the route goes passed the now abandoned MBA both of Backhill of Bush, it's occupied with smoke coming from the chimney and a van parked up outside. Knowing the problems with vandals and antisocial behaviour which sadly forced the MBA to stop looking after this bothy I decide not to risk popping in to say hello.

The ride runs through the valley from left to right

There are a lot of forest opperations going on at the moment with large areas being harvested and replanted and new roads being constructed to facilitate this.  A few miles past the bothy a new track leads off into the trees freshly buldosed into the forest, apparently this will (does?) go all the way through to Loch Doon which I have to say is a good thing concidering what happened next.

Not knowing if the new link is complete I follow the guidebook route which is described simply as a short "off-peiste" section through the fire brakes. It soon becomes clear few bikers if any have passed this way recently, the brakes are a mass of tussocky grass and sucking bog, unrideable and with little if any hint of a trail; it gets worse with a small river crossing and then the piste de resistance the fire brake is completely blocked by fallen trees forcing me to push through the thickly packed trees and their mass of dead lower branches. 

I hope the new road does go all the way through the forest, this off road section is just nasty; it's completely out of character for the ride which apart from this short section is a glorious (if long) route for mountain bikers of almost any ability. Frustratingly taking 40 min to cover about 1.5km whilst carrying a bike pushed my sense of humour to the limit and could completely put off occasional bikers or beginners from moving from trail centres to somewhere a little wilder.

Back on solid trail and a few kilometres I emerge from the forest on the shore of Loch Doon. Lunch is taken inside the stout walls of Loch Doon Castle, which the more you think about it is all wrong; it sits on the side of a hill easily overlooked by surrounding land and with its main door opening straight out into a steep slope. 

Loch Doon Castle - geograph.org.uk - 95470
Brian Joyce [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Such eccentric positioning, and approach to the finer points of siege warfare would not have allowed the castle to last very long in the turbulent history of the Borders, but all is not what is seams and this castle has migrated! The strange positioning is not the result of a particularly mad local laird but the conscientious decision of the Board of Works in the 1930's who upon raising the water level of the Loch took the castle from it's old soon submerged island home and reassembled it in it's current location.

From Loch Doon the ride follows the Forest Drive, closed to traffic at this time of year up through more open woodland of pine, fern, and lochan until it emerges from the forest  practically at the high point of the ride. From here it's a last joyous 20km downhill along quite country roads with great views across to the Merrick before the Glentrool car park and the promise of a hot drink swing into view.

Ride info
Total Distance 72km
Time on bike 5:40
Total time 6:30
Map to follow (probably!)

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