UK gravel trails: 10 of the best to try around the country
Looking to get your grind on? From sea-swept Scottish vistas to monument-strewn English routes and Wales’ peak attractions, the UK has plenty to offer experienced and amateur gravel bikers alike.
Originating in North America, gravel biking was borne out of cyclists heading off of traditional routes to explore the likes of forest fire roads, old ridgeways and long-forgotten wagon trails. And like fast food, trap music and Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson, it quickly became a global export and crossed the pond to the UK's humble shores.
Combining elements of road and mountain biking, gravel grinding aims to open up the land around us for adventure. Essentially, wherever you find an unpaved road or trail, you’ll likely find gravel riders. And because most unpaved roads are found outside of urban areas, the discipline naturally requires you to step into the wilderness and literally off the beaten track.
Ultimately, it’s a sub-section of cycling driven as much by the joy of discovery as it is by the thrill of getting your heart rate up on two wheels. To help you dive wheels-first into this new craze, a selection of the UK’s cycling authorities on gravel riding have recommended their favourite spots across the country. Some are mammoth slogs, while others are more beginner-friendly woodland loops. All will get your heart thumping and your face smiling though. Time to saddle up.
“Although well known for mountain biking, the southern uplands around the Tweed Valley contain many amazing gravel routes,” explains Ed Shoote, Kinesis bikes ambassador and the man behind We Love Mountains. “Starting in Peebles, this route climbs on gravel tracks up Soonhope Valley, then up through Glentress Forest to the mast at the top. From here, it leaves Glentress behind on a sneaky cut through where you can choose the fast downhill towards Leithen water or head northwest up to the local classic tour to Bowbeat wind farm.”
From Bowbeat, you’ll have fantastic views of the sea and the fringes of Edinburgh as you struggle up a steep climb. But you aren’t done there.
“The descent hairpins sharply before a smooth and flat out fast ride along the Leithen Water valley,” says Ed. “Innerleithen's cafes provide a coffee stop before gravel tracks through Traquair, Glenbenna and Elibank forests and a quiet backroad take you to Yair Forest. Here you can climb to the Three Brethren and back along the ridge top Southern Upland Way to Traquair village. It is then a cycle path spin back to Peebles after a stunning ride of 80km and 1,800m climbing.”
2. Salisbury Plain
“This 85km route takes you up onto the Plain from west to east in a circular course,” explains John Pagan of Wiltshire’s mobile cycling repair service Cannimore Cycles. “The loop is primarily a mix of fast and rough gravel, and has almost 1,000m elevation for the whole route.”
John’s route highlights include the Westbury White Horse, the ancient hill fort at Bratton, a ridgeway section that takes you round the main military areas in the centre of Salisbury Plain (a 300-square mile chalk plateau), the old Marlborough road and the view of Sidbury Hill. Plus, he notes: “There’s also a shop, cafe and pub in Netheravon that make for a good rest stop.”
A word of note though: as Salisbury Plain is a military training area, you’ll likely bypass areas of live firing or exercising troops, so stay on the path and obey all flags and signs. (Or stick to weekends when there is very little troop activity.)
3. Cambrian Mountains
Matt Page from ACycling – organiser of popular local events Gritfest and Gravel Fondo Cymru – promises “a beautiful, scenic, but very isolated landscape within the Cambrian Mountains.”
The mid-Wales mountain range is Matt’s backyard and he points to the “endless forest roads within the Upper Towy Valley as particularly suited for gravel biking as long as riders are prepared for challenging climbs and all weather conditions.
“The area is very barren and tranquil but that is what makes it feel so special,” he explains. “With lots of great viewpoints and rolling terrain it has helped Gritfest become such a hit event. For riders who love adventures, it is a brilliant place to ride. With several bothies dotted around the Cambrian Mountains close to this route, it is also perfect for multi-day expeditions.”
4. Kielder Forest, Northumberland
“Kielder Forest in Northumberland is one of the biggest areas of commercial woodland in the UK. Accessing and moving all of this timber requires lots of roads, making the area a Gravel Riders dream!” explains Andy Heading of Dirty Reiver event organiser Focal Events.
At a touch under 42km, this looped route follows the picturesque shoreline of Northumberland through a variety of woodland with plenty of open vistas.
“The trail is well-marked and can be done in either direction,” adds Andy. “Though undulating, the surface is very good; perfect for honing those skills!”
Andy adds that there’s plenty to interest the more casual rider along the way, with places to stop for refreshments as well as some famous sculptured landmarks. Experienced riders can opt to add loops along the way to make it that bit tougher.
“Clatteringshaws to Glentrool and back is world-class gravel,” says Esther Tacke of West Scotland’s outdoor experts Galloway Cycling. “Done as a 56km there-and-back it offers plenty of different character, including a ‘lump of a climb’, or fantastic single track if you use the Southern Upland path on the south side of Loch Trool.”
The biggest draw has to be Esther’s promise that Galloway is a much-underexplored area of Scotland, meaning it’s all there for you to discover. “The route winds through an International Dark Sky Park and there’s a forest there that you could lose Manchester in. It’s also the first bit of Scotland you come to after crossing the border, saving you time and miles searching for anything better further north.”
What’s more, the route boasts the gravel biker’s essential – a good cafe – at both ends, as well as the House O’Hill pub at Glentrool. Despite not being in the Highlands, you’ll ride alongside two lochs and Merrick, the largest mountain in southern Scotland.
6. Lake District
“Keswick is the obvious start point for this north lakes gravel loop,” says Ed Shoote. “Gravel bike loops can be a challenge in the Lake District but this is a great mix of forest tracks, back roads and smooth open hillside tracks. Rolling out of Keswick on cycling paths to Braithwaite, you’ll soon get up to Whinlatter Pass via gravel tracks in the forest. Pass the visitor centre and cafe before riding up to Seat How summit path, then enjoy the fast, smooth-but-loose descent all the way west to Spout Force.
“Here, keep turning right and follow tracks and lanes around to the A66, where you head over to Bassenthwaite. From Bassenthwaite, the loop follows back roads to the village of Longlands and then it's fantastic bridleways, rough lanes and old mining tracks that skirt around the back of Skiddaw from Fellside to Calebreck. At Mungrisdale, you have a choice of the cycle path back to Keswick or the grand finale of heading to Troutbeck and the old coach road to Keswick.”
Got all that? Good.
7. The Ridgeway
With the option to tackle a 74km one-way route, or a slightly different 133km loop, the Ridgeway from Goring to Averbury is a fantastic one or multi-day cycle with a total of either 1,000m or 1,710m of climbing, and a maximum gradient of 6%. In other words, there’s plenty of punishment along the way, as Phil Harrison – one of the brains behind gravel events company CX Sportive – explains:
“The Ridgeway is one of the oldest roads in the world,” he says. “Dating back 4,000 years, it has been a direct and relatively safe west-east passage for man, horses, goods and animals. Dotted with ancient burial mounds, hilltop forts and chalk characters, this is a ride packed with ancient history.”
What’s more, vehicle usage is now very limited and most of the surface has been regraded, making for a manageable and satisfying long distance gravel ride. That said, it’s worth noting that the Ridgeway is predominantly chalk based, offering a good surface but one that can be very slippery in wet conditions.
“Staying predominantly high and on the front edge of the ridge, it offers the rider astonishing views as it rolls through an amazing and ancient landscape,” adds Phil. “With the predominant wind coming from the west, many will travel from that direction but I feel the finish in Avebury, with its impressive stone circles offers the best route.”
8. South Downs Way
“The South Downs Way was for many years considered to be a mountain bike route, but its most renowned sections on mainly chalk surface are classic ridge riding on what are technically ancient roads,” explains Phil Harrison. “Like the Ridgeway, these routes traditionally ran along the tops of the hills, making them safer from ambush and robbery!”
While you’re unlikely to encounter bandits on the South Downs Way today, with 857m of elevation at a maximum gradient of 12%, this 40km mid-section will still leave you feeling shaken.
“Although quite tough, the whole route is passable on a gravel bike,” says Phil. “This section, from Steyning to Cocking, offers open hill riding on the classic South Downs chalk, with stunning views both north to the downs and south to the sea. There are some tough climbs that will test the best riders but the rewards are massive with stunning views and long looping descents.”
9. North Yorkshire
With a mix of forest road, tarmac, and singletrack, this woodland loop is one of the underrated jewels of North Yorkshire. “This route is one of my favourite local rides,” says Deborah Goodall of Yorkshire True Grit, ‘(the UK’s toughest adventure ride’). “This ride starts off in Yearsley Woods then mixes in some farm track gravel, before getting into Hovingham/Castle Howard Woods. The views across to the North York Moors are breathtaking.”
After coming through the woods, drop around Castle Howard and drink in the architecture before taking the road and gravel track toward Terrington. Deborah advises you stop for coffee in the “brilliant” village shop, before riding back through the hamlet of Scackleton and back into Yearsley Woods.
“I think some people think that gravel riding has to mean a long day in the saddle,” Deborah continues. “The reality is that I don’t always have time for that. Gravel should be about getting outside. Big sky, adventure and coffee.”
10. Chiltern Hills
"This 55km trail showcases the spectacular scenery of the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty," says Wild Cycles' John Heard "It's specially for those after a gravel adventure and showcases the widely varied terrain of this area."
A loop from Wendover, the route rolls out along the Grand Union canal before a quick blast along the rolling segment between the picturesque Tring reservoirs and bird sanctuary.
"Pull into the Musette Cafe – a favourite with cyclists – for a caffeine top-up before tackling the challenging climb up through the forest to Ashridge Estate," adds Heard. From here, you wind through ancient woods, down the valley and up onto the Ridgeway to enjoy breath-taking views across Aylesbury vale.
"The final highlight is an exhilarating loop of Wendover Woods – it's the highest point in the Chilterns with views at every corner. Bomb down through the woods before dropping back onto the canal for the final few miles back into Wendover."