The 6 best gravel destinations in the UK
Gravel cycling is hugely popular in the UK but where are the best places to ride off-road in 2022?
More and more road cyclists are discovering the unique pleasures of gravel cycling – and the UK is laced with a stunning range of off-road trails, narrow towpaths, scenic bridleways, muddy climbs and rocky descents for new gravel cyclists to explore. Gravel bikes – which in the UK are also known as ‘adventure bikes’ – combine aerodynamic road frames and drop handlebars with thicker tyres and disc brakes which free you to explore off-road.
Faster and lighter than a mountain bike, but more rugged than a road bike, gravel bikes enable you to dash along the road at speed but also to blast along forest paths and mountain trails, without switching bikes. When riding a gravel bike, even road cyclists who have spent their whole lives riding on smooth tarmac will feel comfortable heading out for off-road adventures.
Whether you are a UK road cyclist looking to enjoy your first gravel adventure, or a visitor to the country who is searching for the best places to ride off-road, the good news is that there are plenty of exciting destinations to choose from. But to help you find the best places to explore, we asked experienced British gravel rider and ultra-endurance cyclist Chris Hall (chrishallrides.com) to share his favourite UK gravel cycling destinations.
Hall, who has raced everywhere from the Atlas Mountains to Australia, has enjoyed epic gravel rides around the UK, including a 640km off-road ride from London in the south of England to the stunning Lake District and Yorkshire Dales in the north. He is now an ambassador for the popular route-planning and navigation app Komoot (komoot.com). Here he reveals his favourite gravel cycling destinations in the UK.
The Peak District
From rugged limestone valleys to dramatic heather moorland, the Peak District is a spectacular hilly region in the heart of England. “This has to be my number one location for gravel cycling in the UK – I even moved from London to the Peak District in the ‘lockdown’ of early 2021,” explains Hall. “The Peak District has always been a part of the UK I have found incredibly beautiful and brutal in equal measure.
There are many old railways which have been turned into gravel trails, including the Tissington Trail. If you jump onto it in the right place, it gives you about 30km of rolling downhill gravel goodness, with three cafes along it for good measure. From where I live there’s a lot of climbing to get to that glorious downhill section, but it is well worth it.”
The Cairngorms is a wild and beautiful mountain landscape in Scotland – and one of the finest destinations for gravel cycling in the UK. In fact, National Geographic Traveller magazine has crowned it one of the top 20 places to visit in the world. “I first visited the Cairngorms when I cycled 107 miles every day during the 107th Tour De France to help fundraise for a children’s charity called The Pace Centre,” explains Hall.
“One of my routes went across some of the region’s old roads and fire tracks. One of the most well-known bike-packing routes, the Cairngorms Loop, circumnavigates Cairngorms National Park – one of the most stunning areas in the Scottish Highlands. It is a place where dirt roads and singletracks climb through valleys and twist their way through ancient Caledonian Forest. It’s pretty spectacular.”
Lon Las Cymru
This is a stunning long-distance bike route which takes in some of the finest scenery in Wales, including the mountainous Snowdonia National Park and the coastal trails near Anglesey. It knits together quiet roads, railway paths, forestry tracks and ancient coach roads to create a uniquely memorable adventure.
“Last year, with all the limits in place with international travel, one of the things I tried to do was explore more of the UK and I decided to bikepack the Lon Las Cymru route,” explains Hall. “This route runs right across Wales. Some of the biggest highlights for me were the Cambrian Mountains and the Brecon Beacons. If you follow the route from Cardiff to Holyhead, you’ll experience some monster climbs, some fantastic coastal gravel and lots of trails snaking through the forests of Wales.”
The Pilgrims Trail and the South Downs Way
The Pilgrim’s Cycle Trail is a beautiful 75km cycling route from Rochester to the historic cathedral city of Canterbury, passing castles, rivers and charming village pubs along the way. “The Pilgrims route is an old trail or road route which travels across the south of the UK,” explains Hall. “It features many bits of gravel I used to cycle along as a kid, long before gravel riding really was a thing.
These old routes were used by pilgrims to travel from cathedral to cathedral, so they could make a pilgrimage across the south. These routes traditionally ran along the tops of the hills, making them safer from ambush and robbery – but at the same time making them pretty punishing to ride hundreds of years later! The South Downs Way – a beautiful 160km route from Winchester to Eastbourne – has a similar story. Also, make sure you check out SSX Mystery Tour (a huge 245km ride through Sussex and the South Downs) for a serious challenge in 2022.”
The North Pennines
The North Pennines – a rugged world of scenic dales, hay meadows, woods and rivers in the north of England – is a protected Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.“Similar to with the Peak District, I have been lucky to explore lots of the North Pennines as a few of my friends, such as Francis Cade of Attacus Cycling, moved here for similar reasons to me: to have lots more access to the outside,” explains Hall.
“There’s a bounty of trails which are based on old train lines snaking around the North Pennines, giving you glorious views. You can also easily get into the city of Newcastle to have a spot of lunch or a bagel and a coffee at Backyard Bike Shop.”
Home to England’s largest forest and the biggest man-made lake in Northern Europe, Kielder Forest is a playground for adventure. It is so remote and quiet here that it is now classed as an official Dark Sky site, beloved of stargazers – and adventurous gravel cyclists too. “This is the location for the iconic Dirty Reiver event (a 200km off-road adventure), which is one of the best gravel races and challenges I have ever done in the UK,” explains Hall.
“I’ve done it several times and each time I have lucked out with the weather and the company. It’s 100% an event you should look at joining, especially with how good their feed stops are. But you can still ride the route at any time just to enjoy some of the best gravel around the Scottish and English border.”