Galloway Forest Park is the largest forest park in the United Kingdom. Being close my home town has meant it’s a place I’ve explored regularly, and it won’t be possible to fit all it has to offer into one blog post. Or possibly one website.
Bearing that in mind, I’ve chosen my favourite activity in the park, cycling. The scenery here is absolutely stunning, taking in the rolling hills of Ayrshire, the Galloway Hills and the park’s various lochs and rivers. Setting out from the picturesque village of Straiton in South Ayrshire we cycle east, over some wild hills (and lots of cattle grids) towards the old mining town of Dalmellington.
Stay on the main road through town, following signs for Loch Doon. Less than a mile after leaving Dalmellington, take a right turn (again following signs) and here the ride gets tough. The road rises up into the heart of the Southern Uplands, the highest Scottish mountains south of the Highland Boundary Fault.
After a couple of miles of climbing, the road levels out on the shores of Loch Doon. This seven mile expanse of water is surrounded by hills and mountains on all sides and offers some spectacular vistas. There is a small information hut, with maps for walks in the area, on the right hand side just after crossing the dam.
From here you can follow the road along the western shore of the loch. The road is single track, with passing places and cattle grids, so you will need to stay alert in case you meet any traffic. Easier said than done when surrounded by this kind of scenery!
Towards the southern end of the loch, you will come across Loch Doon Castle on your right hand side. Built in the 14th century, the castle was originally situated on an island in the middle of the loch. With the coming of the Galloway Hydroelectric Scheme in the 1930s, Loch Doon Castle was deemed to important to lose, and was rebuilt on a small patch of flat ground on the banks of the Loch. During spells of low rainfall, the island it was originally situated on can be seen about 300m offshore.
Leaving the castle and heading further south you’ll come across the Loch Doon Tearoom. The perfect place to stop for a snack, it has stunning views across the loch, as well as a bookshop and some local crafts.
After fuelling up with some coffee and scones, get back on the bike, but not for long. jest before the road turns away from the loch you’ll come across Carrick Lane, which feeds the loch from the south. It’s well worth getting off the bike (or out of your car) and walking down to where the Lane empties into Loch Doon. There is an incredible waterfall here, around 8 feet high and 30 feet across, which thunders deafeningly after even light rain. It’s even more impressive as you can’t see or hear it from the road.
This is where the unsurfaced Carrick Forest Drive begins. Open only May to September this is the easiest way to get close to the heart of the wild mountain area of southern Scotland. The Forest Drive meanders along the side of Carrick and Whitespout lanes with glimpses of the mountains appearing through the trees.
The half way point of the Forest Drive is at Loch Riecawr, where there is a car park, picnic area and adventure playground – and some of the best views the area has to offer. Sadly when I last visited with a camera, the clouds were down but you still get a sense of grandeur.
The view takes in Tarfessock, Kirriereoch and Merrick on the right hand side of the loch and Corserine on the left. It is possible to climb Merrick from here, via Tunskeen Bothy, but it is a long hard trudge through over boggy ground – one for another day!
The Forest Drive then heads downhill, again through thick forest towards Stinchar Bridge. The River Stinchar is the south west’s premier salmon fishing river and it starts here, high in the Galloway Hills.
The young river flows down a steep waterfall towards the bridge, which is on the Straiton to Glentrool Road, which becomes National Cycle Route 7 a few miles south of here. There is a parking area at Stinchar Bridge, where you can start a hill walk to Cornish Hill, where you are afforded fine views across the Carrick Hills towards the sea. Don’t worry, you don’t have to get off the bike – the views from the car park are pretty impressive too!
Turning right at the bridge, it’s all downhill towards Straiton. As you decend out of the mountains, the trees make way for rolling farmland and the road widens, so you get a little bit more chance to take in the views. If you feel the need to replenish your energy reserves after a long day in the saddle, there’s nowhere better than the Black Bull in Straiton, where you can get good food in a great atmosphere in a traditional coaching inn.
Since my visit I have learned that this cycle is actually the new route of the David Bell Memorial Race, one of Scotland’s Super6 cycle race series. The 2011 edition takes place on June 5th. To find out more about the race, and the man it’s named after you can visit the website of Ayr Roads Cycling Club.