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Portia Jones
11/18/2020

What Britain might lack in urban cycle lanes, it more than makes up for with scenic cycle routes on rough mountainsides, through dappled forests and along windswept coastlines. Here, Rough Guides writer Portia Jones shares a selection of brilliant bike routes in the UK. 

Jumping on a bike is an eco-friendly way of seeing some of Britain's beautiful landscapes and improving your fitness at the same time. Thankfully, the cycling revolution is truly underway in the UK, with more cycle paths, mountain-bike routes and cycling holidays being developed across the four home nations. Each bike route has different challenges, distance and ability requirements, so whatever your level, you’ll be well catered for. Many of the routes have great facilities along the way, too, including cafés and toilets – plus varied accommodation options if you are looking for a longer cycling holiday. From hardcore cyclists to families and biking beginners, there’s never been a better time to start discovering what’s on your doorstep on two wheels. 

The Camel Trail, Cornwall

Length: 18 miles

Difficulty: Easy 

This traffic-free Cornish trail is the perfect day-cycle for families with older children – inject a little pedal power into your family holiday with some fun exercise and exploration. Following an old railway line, the Camel Trail runs through the upper Camel Valley and offers gorgeous views of wooded countryside and the Camel Estuary.

It's a largely flat route divided into three sections, each around five to six miles in length. The trail runs between Wenfordbridge, Bodmin, Wadebridge and Padstow, and you can start at either end. With easy terrain and gradients, it’s ideal for families and less-experienced cyclists. Pedal at a leisurely pace through moorland, woodlands and past the estuary. This route is also popular with walkers, joggers and birdwatchers, so you'll need to be aware of your surroundings on this path. 

Visitors can easily hire bikes in Padstow, Wadebridge and Bodmin, and you can also explore off-trail if you’re after a more challenging cycle. There's also plenty of accommodation options in and around the trail including campsites, hotels and traditional B&Bs. 

Iron railway bridge on the Camel Trail, now used as a leisure route for cyclists and walkers © Gary Perkin/Shutterstock

Kingfisher Trail, Northern Ireland

Length: 298 miles

Difficulty: Moderate to challenging 

The Kingfisher Trail is actually the first mapped and signed long-distance cycle route in Ireland. It’s a long route (almost 300 miles in total) made up of two main loops that stretch over Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. It is named after the kingfisher bird, which is associated with the area’s tranquil lakes and flowing rivers. 

The trail can be started at any point, but we suggest beginning at Enniskillen Visitor Centre. From here, the route follows scenic country roads through the border counties of Monaghan, Fermanagh, Leitrim, Cavan and Donegal. Cycling this rural trail is the perfect way to experience the glorious countryside and Irish heritage, whilst packing in some serious exercise. The route has been brilliantly designed to allow for both long and short cycling trips, so you can tailor your ride to match your ability and time available.

The northern loop offers bikers the chance to visit lakes, forest parks, the Marble Arch Caves and Ireland’s oldest pottery in Belleek; the southern loop starts at Carrick-on-Shannon and packs in a range of parklands, rivers, charming villages and castle ruins. 

If you want to attempt the entire route, there are plenty of facilities available on the way, including toilets, cafés and plenty of accommodation options. 

Enniskillen castle in Northern Ireland © Helioscribe/Shutterstock

The Taff Trail, South Wales

Length: 55 miles

Difficulty: Easy to moderate 

The Taff Trail is an incredibly popular biking and walking route that runs from the Welsh capital of Cardiff to the small town of Brecon. The trail is named after the River Taff, which the trail follows. It’s a very well-known National Cycle Route, used by families, dog walkers, bikers and joggers, who sometimes vie for space on the path in more residential areas.

This river route is largely made up of old railway paths, forests and canals. There's plenty of facilities along the way, given the route passes by several charming Welsh towns and villages, such as Tongwynlais and Abercynon. If you plan on making a weekend trip of it, there are numerous guest houses, hostels and B&Bs along this trail. Try St David’s Hotel for a spot of luxury in Cardiff, or the rustic YHA Brecon for laid-back hostel vibes. 

Bikers can attempt the whole route, or break it up into smaller sections depending on ability and time constraints. The trail can be joined from any point, though most people riding the whole route start in Cardiff Bay, where the route officially starts. From the pretty marina area of Cardiff Bay, the Taff Trail soon leaves the cityscape behind for parklands, wooded areas and muddy paths as you progress onwards to Brecon. 

It's an easy cycle around Cardiff, as the path is mostly flat and well marked. As you head north, the inclines increase, especially around Abercynafon and the Talybont Reservoir, the highest point of the trail. It’s at this point that you’ll want to get your phone out and take some highly Instagrammable snaps of South Wales. 

The Pontsarn viaduct is now part of the Taff Trail walking and cycle network © Richard Whitcombe/Shutterstock

North Coast 500, Scotland

Distance: 500 miles

Difficulty: Challenging 

The North Coast 500 (NC500) is best known as a popular driving route around Scotland, but it’s also a challenging bike ride for serious cyclists. The route is known as “Scotland’s Route 66” and is a stunning way of reaching the northernmost point of Scotland via its wilder places. 

By bike, it’s a gruelling 500-mile loop around the magnificent North Highland coast, but the rewards are great: some of the finest Scottish scenery you can see on two wheels.  Experience an ever-changing landscape of crumbling castles, rolling farmlands and crashing waves along rugged coastlines. 

The route starts and ends at Inverness, and takes in spectacular sights along the way, including sandy beaches, wide sea lochs and iconic John O'Groats. Pedaling for 500 miles through untamed wilderness is no easy feat, so day-trippers can attempt smaller sections with a bit of planning and research. 

Make no mistake: this is a route for fit and experienced cyclists. Completing the loop in eight days means cycling around 63 miles a day, through remote landscapes and dramatic inclines. If you feel like you need a bit of route support, there are several companies that offer cycling holidays around the NC500, taking the hassle out of the logistics and planning. Accommodation and facilities along the route are sparse (as you might imagine), so you will need to plan and pack accordingly. 

The route lends itself perfectly to wild campers and bikepackers, who don't mind carrying a lightweight tent and all their equipment with them. Wild camping is legal in Scotland, so long as you follow all the rules and respect the local environment.   

Ducansby Head near John O'Groats in Scotland © JWCohen/Shutterstock

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The Elan Trail, Mid-Wales

Length: 9 miles

Difficulty: Easy to moderate 

The beautiful Elan Valley is a popular biking hub in the Cambrian Mountains in Wales, with a variety of trails suited to a range of abilities. One of the best-known routes is the largely traffic-free Elan Trail, which follows the line of the old Birmingham Corporation Railway. 

The Elan Trail offers beginner bikers and families an easy route around the glorious Elan Valley, though there are some steep gradients and sharp corners that require a reasonable level of fitness. The area is home to the spectacular dams and reservoirs of the Elan and Claerwen valleys, a magnificent network built more than one hundred years ago to supply water to Birmingham. The dams remain today, attracting thousands of visitors each year.

The trail starts from the pretty community of Cwmdauddwr, located near the market town of Rhayader. You can ride the trail in either direction but most people head west, towards the valley. The route climbs 165ft from the Elan Valley Visitor Centre and past the impressive Caban Coch and Garreg Ddu reservoirs. When they are full, you'll be treated to millions of gallons of water cascading over the historic, 120ft-high dam walls of Cabin Coch: it’s a picture-perfect moment. There's also plenty of opportunity to see wildlife on this trail, including bats and red kites. The latter are remarkable birds of prey with angled wings and distinctive forked tails.

Facilities and accommodation options are plentiful in this area, with camping and glamping on offer, as well as some cosy guest houses. At Cabin Coch, you’ll find the Elan Valley Visitor Centre, where you can stop off for hot drinks, lunch and snacks at the café and also learn more about the dams. Biking groups should check out Mid Wales Holiday Lets for bike hire, secure bike storage and activity deals. 

Caban Coch dam in the Elan Valley, Wales © Allen Paul Photography/Shutterstock

Forest of Dean Cycle Trail, Gloucestershire

Length: 9 miles

Difficulty: Easy 

The Forest of Dean is a beautifully diverse English landscape of woodlands, rivers and valleys. It's a mecca for outdoor adventurers, where you can go climbing, hiking, biking and canoeing. 

For families looking for a bike ride to remember, the Family Cycle Trail is the ideal place to start. It’s a peaceful, traffic-free 9-mile route around the Forest of Dean beginning in the Cannop Valley and then tracing the old Severn and Wye railway line. Groups, couples and families will enjoy the ease of this leisurely, circular trail, with the advantage that it's well marked and easy to follow. 

It's a great trail to explore the highlights of the forest on two wheels, and the perfect active day out for the whole family. Take in local features such as the sculpture trail, wildlife and Mallards way. Start the route at Pedalabikeaway where you can have breakfast in their rustic café and hire bikes at reasonable rates. 

Many of the paths on this route trace old railway lines and so are long, straight and flat; you’d be very unlucky to get lost here. It's a well-surfaced trail that is suited to most ages and abilities. In addition, there’s plenty of rest stops, picnic spots and cafés along the way, which is ideal if you’re cycling with children.

Accommodation in the Forest of Dean ranges from campsites to cabins, hotels and guest houses. The Royal George Tintern is a great tradition inn to bed down in the area.  

Wild daffodils near Dymock in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire © PJ photography/Shutterstock

Dark Peak Three Reservoirs Cycle Trail, Derbyshire

Length: 18 miles

Difficulty: Moderate 

For enthusiastic riders, the Dark Peak Three Reservoirs Cycle Trail offers impressive scenery and a lovely pub stop. The route runs for 18 miles and takes in the reservoirs of Derwent, Howden and Ladybower in Derbyshire's Dark Peak area. This is the wilder and more remote part of the Peak District, and is a wonderful biking and hiking hotspot. 

Whilst the trail is largely traffic-free, it's still moderately challenging, with some rough-and-ready tracks, so a mountain bike is advisable. As far as mountain-bike routes go, it's pretty flat, though some biking experience will come in handy. 

Start your adventure at the Fairholmes car park and information centre, then cycle out and follow the route towards Derwent Reservoir. Cycle hire is available at the starting route, where you can also get detailed information about the cycle path and terrain. 

The Dark Peak Three Reservoirs Cycle Trail is a great way of drinking in striking reservoir and moorland views, whilst also taking on a bit of a challenge as you traverse rugged tracks, bridges and a viaduct. The trail runs alongside the eponymous three reservoirs before taking you down towards the A57. You'll find quite a few birdwatchers here as the Derwent Valley is home to a range of wildlife habitats where you can see buzzards, peregrine falcons and sparrowhawks. There are several facilities on the route including toilets, a car park, bike hire and refreshments at the Yorkshire Bridge Inn. Accommodation in the area includes traditional guesthouses and inns, glamping escapes and cottages. Check out Dunscar Farm Bed & Breakfast for lovely rural vibes.  

Ashopton Viaduct, Ladybower Reservoir and Crook Hill in the Derbyshire Peak District National Park, England © Rob Thorley/Shutterstock

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