The circuit of Ben Alder is one of those ‘classic’ Scottish mtb routes. Kenny Wilson has a version as does Phil McKane.
The route typically starts at Dalwhinnie, tracking alongside Loch Ericht, until Ben Alder lodge, before climbing towards Loch Pattack and then Culra Bothy, which is now closed due to asbestos.
If you read any blogs or reports on tackling the route, it is rare that the side of Loch Ericht is utilised. Riders typically swing around the west side of Ben Alder, anti-clockwise, on the excellent Bealach Dubh singletrack, then descend Bealach Cumhainn to Ben Alder Cottage and then ascend, by means of steep, grassy, H.A.B, to the Bealach Beithe. The trail recommences alongside the Loch a’Bhealaich Bheithe, nestled under the east facing cliffs of Ben Alder, before dropping beside the Allt a Bhealach Beinnback, to Culra Bothy .
A different approach is to ride in from Loch Rannoch, climbing from Tigh an Uillt, into the Grampians cutting west then north to the southern tip of Loch Ericht, bog trotting to Ben Alder Cottage, then ascending north-west to the Bealach Cumhainn, then to Bealach Dubh.
Here, you stop, catch your breath as you take in the stunning view north, before descending to Culra under the watchful gaze of Sgor Iutharn and the impressive Lancet Edge.
From Culra, you can skirt Loch Pattack and it’s rickety bridge (if you ride it like I did, west to east, beware the ladder dismount) and drop on good quality estate track to Ben Alder Lodge. Then there is the simple matter of returning to Ben Alder Cottage via the loch side singletrack.
It’s hard going. I rode around 80% of it, but it is very rough in a low but sharp amplitude sort of way.
Then there is the sting in the tail.
On reading about the loch side trail, the ‘free style’ section around An Dun, which looks sternly down on Ben Alder Cottage, was something of a concern. The gate entry and exit are the least of your worries – they do not permit passage of a bike, you have to get your steed over the deer fence. It is the slippery, broken rock and loose grass and heather poised over substantial drops that give you the heeby jeebies. Indeed, about a third of the way around, I slipped, sliding towards a painful looking fall, before grabbing a handful of heather that arrested me and my bike mid calamity.
The cost of doing the route this way is high: the boggy section south of Ben Alder Cottage must be traveresed twice, the ascent to Bealach Cumhainn would be better as a descent and the loch side trail is hard going. However, the reward is the endless, peerless singletrack through Bealach Dubh and the hoot of a descent to Culra. It went on for ever.
Stats and kit notes.
The route, including 8km or so alongside Loch Rannoch to and fro, took me 7.30. I would class it as a strenuous route, not to be taken lightly with iffy weather. I think it would be best to miss the Loch Ericht trail back and try and put together a bigger loop, out by Dalwhinnie, perhaps returning to Pitlochry and making it a 2 dayer, or even to Feshie and back through the Gaick or Minigaig.
I rode my Vertigo cycles hardtail and the 120mm of suspension was welcome, but I think plus tyres would have aided the sections of boggy riding and perhaps allowed a little more comfort on the Loch Ericht singletrack.
I carried a 2L bladder and a water bottle and slaked my thirst at several of the gushing streams that pour down into the Loch when I ran short.
I used the Gaia GPS app on my phone for navigation, downloading the map as there is no signal in the area and it worked perfectly, yet again.
Two riders had completed this same route ahead of me. I was a little surprised about that as the ‘traditional’ route is used frequently. Goes to show…