Top 15 Mountain Bike Trails in the UK 2020
What kind of a cyclist are you? Do you ride for fun; to keep fit; as a family activity; or just as necessary for a ‘healthier than other methods’ commute?
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- Top 5 Mountain Bike Trails in England
- Top 5 Mountain Bike Trails in Wales
- Top 5 Mountain Bike Trails in Scotland
In recent times, cycling has become something of a craze in the UK. Whether it’s been spurred on by the desire for a healthier way to travel, an activity all the family can participate in together, or the fabulous success British cyclists have had in the Olympic velodrome and Tour de France - the yellow jersey having been worn by no fewer than 6 Brits in the past 7 years alone – it seems as though it’s here to stay.
In a survey of almost 180,000 people published last month by Sport England, close to 10 million people now cycle at least twice per month, with approximately 2/3 being for leisure or sport as opposed to travel purposes.
Eco-friendly, great exercise and above all fun, biking is a sport which can be enjoyed by all age groups and abilities. For those looking to get a little more adventurous with their cycle rides though, mountain biking could be the way to go. With fabulous scenery, challenging routes and a real sense of achievement when you reach the end, mountain biking is quickly becoming a firm favourite for thrill seekers across the country. Choose an easier trail (maybe one with a public house at the end?) if you are with the family or just feeling in a more chilled out mood, and you could have an equally fantastic day out.
Here, we break down our top 15 mountain bike trails in England, Wales and Scotland, across a range of route grades as detailed by the Forestry Commission.
Quick guide for people new to the sport:
- Green trails are easy, suitable for beginner/novice cyclists, or families using a trailer.
- Blue trails are moderate, for people with basic off road riding skills and higher fitness levels. Hybrids would be fine to use here.
- Red trails are difficult, requiring better quality mountain bikes and are only for fit, proficient riders, as you’ll need to carry your bike at times (known as hike-a-bike).
- Black trails are… severe! Expert mountain bikers only need apply, and specialist mountain bikes are essential for these seriously scary, if not slightly insane (just my opinion!) trails.
Top 5 Mountain Bike Trails in England
The Dark Peak, The Peak District
Situated in the northern part of the Peak District, the 70km Dark Peak route is renowned for its gritstone, rocky biking tracks, which make for an exhilarating yet technically demanding ride. This particular region of the peak district is expansive, straddling the counties of Derbyshire, Staffordshire, Cheshire and Greater Manchester, meaning there’s plenty of countryside to explore, and all grades of routes available. There are more than two dozen different trails to embark on from this particular area, including a brilliant 17.5 mile route from Hayfield to Jacob’s Ladder, which takes cyclists over the imposing Mam Tor. On a clear day the views from here are just gorgeous, and there's a choice of great pubs at the bottom, which you may need to forego as you'll only be halfway round at this point!
Nan Bield Pass, The Lake District
The Lake District has long been a favourite for mountain bikers all over the UK, and it’s not hard to see why. With the region being inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2017, this breathtakingly beautiful part of Britain now enjoys the same status as the Grand Canyon and Stonehenge. The Nan Bield Pass has been dubbed one of the very best trails for mountain bikers, predominantly due to its epic descent through Kentmere Common.
The 35km trail takes cyclists from the Cumbrian village of Staveley through untouched countryside and past waterfalls, gradually building up to the infamous pass itself. Whilst the route starts off innocently, don’t be fooled – the second half of this trail is tricky even for expert cyclists, calling for the highest levels of technical skill and stamina. Other parts of the Lake District are thankfully much easier to ride, and benefit from the same gorgeous scenery.
Cannock Chase, Midlands
Home to the excellent red routes, the 7 mile Follow the Dog and 14 mile Monkey trails, Cannock Chase was the location chosen for the first purpose-built rides in the Midlands. It even has its own weekly team of volunteers that keep the trails at their best, Chase Trails, something we’re not sure exists anywhere else. If you are visiting the area without your bike, visit Cannock Chase Cycle Centre to hire some excellent equipment suitable for all rides but the Stile Cop downhill area.
Cannock Chase is the perfect place to explore on two wheels, having been hailed an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty back in 1958. The area boasts quintessentially English heathland and wood pasture, supporting rare wildlife and offering a home to wild deer. The bike trails feel organic to the area, twisting and turning through the pine forest on some lovely flowing tracks, which are kept open whenever possible even during forestry work. In addition to those mentioned, The Chase offers a range of easier routes suitable for families and less experienced riders, or those on hybrids.
Dalby Forest, South Yorkshire
Dalby Forest in South Yorkshire offers fantastic trails for cyclists of all abilities. From short 2 - 6 mile green routes perfect for younger children to daring red routes featuring sharp descents and uneven terrain, there is a path for everyone. What makes Dalby Forest unique is that it also features a black-rated World Cup Course, which begins at Adderstone Field. For those who fancy themselves as a young Bradley Wiggins, the course is only 6.5km but includes steep climbs and some very technical descents. For some helpful extra reading on Dalby Forest mountain bike trails check out MBR.
Ullswater, The Lake District
Ullswater is the second largest lake in the Lake District and arguably one of the most impressive natural wonders in the UK. Surrounded by ancient woodland and sloping hills, the landscape is perfect for people who love exploring the outdoors. If you’re up for a challenge but not quite ready for anything too technical, try out the 9 mile bike trail starting at Patterdale.
This circular route will take you through Birk, Sleet and Place Fells in addition to going right along the edge of the beautiful lake itself. For the best experience, book a long weekend in the height of summer, when if you are feeling brave you could even have a dip in the lake after a morning on the mountain bike! There is a manageable 60 meter hike-a-bike needed to get to the top, just be aware. Visit Eden have some great resources about the area, if you want to learn more.
Top 5 Mountain Bike Trails in Wales
Llanberis Trail, Snowdonia
Uniquely positioned on the bank of Lake Llyn Padarn in northwest Wales, the small village of Llanberis is the start of the renowned Llanberis Trail, which leads adventurous cyclists to the summit of Mount Snowdon, Wales’ highest peak. This path, which is around 15 km one-way (you really need to come back down via a different route, according to this account), begins in the village and takes you past spectacular mountain scenery. Not for the faint hearted, the trail is best reserved for experienced cyclists looking to hone their skills.
Riders can expect a steep ascent at times and rocky, hostile terrain. Don’t let that put you off though – the view from the summit is nothing short of outstanding (weather permitting of course, this is Wales!) – and there’s the hugely popular Penceunant Isaf cafe (or Pen-y-Ceunant Isaf Tea House, where it is rated number one on Tripadvisor out of all of the dozens of local eating options, which maybe isn’t surprising considering the rave reviews received about the owner Stefan!) for that much needed cake and cuppa on the way up - as you’ll miss it if coming down a different way.
Afan Forest Park, South Wales
Recently voted one of Red Bull’s top 10 mountain bike spots in Wales, Afan Forest Park offers 6 incredible trails for cyclists of all abilities and ages to enjoy, from the aptly named Rookie trails right up to the black-rated 44 km W2 trail. The forest is situated near the south coast within a forty minute drive from the buzzing Welsh city of Swansea – for those partial to a post-ride beverage or two! Boasting over 100km of mountain bike trails, the forest is home to exposed single-track paths carved from the ancient hillside, and also has a bike park launched in 2013, an ideal place to take your younger family members to enjoy berms and jumps in a safer environment than out on a trail.
Elan Valley Loop, Central Wales
Situated to the west of the market town of Rhayader in central Wales, the Elan Valley (pictured above) is often referred to as the ‘Welsh Lake District’, having around 180 square km of countryside and open water. The valley has a well-deserved reputation as one of the best areas in the country for mountain biking, offering a unique combination of natural open space with picturesque reservoirs, Victorian railways and old miners’ trails.
Best suited for those who want to soak in the gorgeous surroundings, the Elan Valley loop is fairly family-friendly and suitable for those new to the sport, being around 11 miles in length. For those wanting more information on all of the trails in the area, from blue up to a couple of interesting black routes, head to the Elan Valley guide for further inspiration.
Brecon Beacons, South Wales
The former training ground of Tour de France legend, Geraint Thomas, the Brecon Beacons is no stranger to avid mountain bikers from all over the UK. A beloved and beautiful national park, this area has over a dozen different biking routes all wonderfully preserved thanks to both government and private funding. Whether you’re a visitor looking for a relaxing ride through idyllic Welsh countryside, or an expert biker looking for a new challenge, the area is perfect for all cyclists.
If you’re up for an adventure, we suggest checking out the 52km Grwyne Fawr Reservoir trail, which goes up to 700m in height giving some spectacular views, and is the only black route in the park, leading you to the medieval ruins of Castell Dinas. Pro tip: ride it in the reverse direction from the route linked, if you dare!
Often described as one of Wales’ hidden gems for mountain biking, Penmachno is a village situated in the Machno valley in North Wales. This delightful area offers vast swathes of unspoilt forest and woodland for cyclists to enjoy, and is a true mountain biker’s dream; situated within the convenience of Snowdonia, whilst still relatively untouched by the tourism that engulfs the area directly around Snowdon itself. The area offers two red-rated tracks to explore: the Dolen Machno (19 km) and the Dolen Eryri (11 km), each taking between 1 and 3 hours. Bikers can choose to complete either of these routes individually, or combine together in a 30 km loop.
Top 5 Mountain Bike Trails in Scotland
Kinlochleven Ciaran Path, Scottish Highlands
Located 7 miles east of Glencoe, Kinlochleven has been a hotspot for sports enthusiasts and adventurers for some time. This small Scottish town sits at the foothills of the Mamores mountains, which provide a superb backdrop to Loch Leven. Cyclists who visit the area can expect their technical skills to be tested to the extreme, with difficult terrain and super-steep descents.
We suggest trying out the 13.3 mile Ciaran Path, which was named Mountain Bike Rider’s Trail of the Year in 2009. The path offers spectacular scenery, particularly during the summer months, but is described as a hellish ride by some, so don't say we didn't warn you! For an easier route, the moderate-grade 20 mile Loch Leven is a much more level ride, and goes past plenty of eateries and coffee shops. Then if you'd like a different outlet for your energy after your ride, head to Ice Factor, the National Ice Climbing Centre, which includes the largest indoor ice climbing wall in the world!
The Isle of Skye Route, Inner Hebrides
One of the best places to ride in the UK if you prefer not to have to navigate around hoards of other riders, the Isle of Skye offers visitors a whopping 639 square miles of spectacular open space, varying from mountainous to fairytale woodland glens. And with Scotland’s open access laws, if you can see it, you can ride it! If you’re not familiar with this part of Scotland, it might be worth getting a guide though, as discussed in this article, as it could be dangerous to be stranded miles from anywhere when your energy has run out. Not many facilities in these here parts!
We would recommend trying out the 18km Boreraig loop, which offers an easier introduction to mountain biking on the island than others, albeit with some hike-a-bike. This at-times single-track trail takes you through stunning scenery and includes a fun descent into the abandoned, historic village of Boreraig, which is said by locals to be haunted. If you do visit, I defy you not to get the Skye Boat stuck in your head, as I have now!
Nevis Range, Scottish Highlands
Nevis Range in Fort William is home to extreme winter sports, including the UK’s only mountain gondola. The area has increasingly earned a reputation amongst mountain bike enthusiasts, with the UCI Downhill World Cup being hosted here since 2002. This famous region of the Grampians includes a network of mountain bike trails known as The Witch’s Trails which are suitable for cyclists of all abilities, including some breathtaking downhill tracks for thrill seekers looking for a white-knuckle experience.
Nevis Range is perfectly equipped to host families and visitors from all parts of the country, with fantastic on-site facilities including showers, a bike wash and multiple places to eat and drink. If you visit between April and October, you can even hire a bike at Nevis Cycles, which also has a shop at Inverlochy open all year round.
Newcastleton, Scottish/English Border
Situated close to the English border, Newcastleton is one of Scotland’s 7Stanes' 7 award-winning mountain biking centres spanning the southernmost part of the country, plus some awesome downhill trails at Innerleithen, where you can even book the Adrenalin Uplift bus service to get you and your bike back up to the top of the hill for maximum fun in the day!
The 7Stanes get their name from the Scottish for stone, and there is one featured at each centre, all designed by a team led by artist Gordon Young. Unlike its sisters, Newcastleton’s biking trails are generally quite short, which makes it perfect for people who are new to mountain biking. The blue single-track provides an interesting and fun route through the forest, leading cyclists through boardwalk crossings and the Liddel Valley. This 6 mile route is suitable for families, and can be followed by a 14.5 mile red route for those wanting to put their skills to the test a little more!
Torridon, Scottish Highlands
Last but not least, if you are looking for a really remote location for your challenging cycling holiday, this could well be it. Torridon is a small village on the shores of Loch Torridon in the northwest highlands of Scotland. The 28.7 mile Torridon Loop is one of 8 well known trails, ranging from 13.7 to 36.3 miles (which we're thinking is probably not called ‘The Monster’ for nothing!). With a feeling of true remoteness, the area is known for its impressive open scenery, with its three imposing mountain ranges Liathach, Beinn Eighe and Beinn Alligin.
The region is perfect for mountain bikers looking for an enjoyable and challenging ride without the risk of bumping into too many other cyclists along the way. This is a great report of a ride around the Torridon Loop, complete with some amazing photos! Annat Descent looks like an absolute must; starting relatively gently along the loch, cyclists can expect a fast single-track with incredible views. Be prepared for some seriously hard climbs before you enjoy your downhill finale, where there’s even a nice pub for a well-earned drink at the end - just check it will be open when you plan to visit!
We hope you have got some inspiration for a forthcoming holiday from our ideas, and would love to hear from you if you do visit any. Reading about all these wonderful places certainly makes us want to grab our bikes and get on the road!