Trail Report: Whinlatter Altura Trail
Trail Report: Whinlatter Altura Trail
Whinlatter Forest Park is perched on a steep hillside overlooking the pretty market town of Keswick, sandwiched in between Bassenthwaite Lake and Derwent Water and surrounded by the imposing rocky fortresses of Skiddaw, Blencathra, Helvelyn and Grisdale Pike. A dramatic and imposing place to go riding your bike, in anybody's book. Our visit was made all the more dramatic by the weather - an ever present variable in mountain biking. Thick mists swirled in hollows in the mountainsides and peaks were capped with snow.
Altura is billed by its creators as the trail that puts 'mountain' back into biking and this was certainly true on the day. With snow capped peaks, it felt like all the world that we were in the Alps.
We visited Whinlatter's Altura Trail at the end of the coldest January for years, when temperatures averaged just 1 degree Celsius. 'We' being a bunch of mountain bikers from distinctly average (me) to distinctly good, so we had a wide range of experience levels to draw from.
The trail head area is nestled in a hanging valley around halfway up the narrow twisting Whinlatter Pass. There you'll find a visitor centre with all the usual gift shop ephemera and woodland nick-nacks, plus a nice looking coffee shop with outside seating area (which was unfortunately closed during our visit) Toilets with underfloor heating were a real bonus, especially after a chilly ride in the hills - I almost wanted to lie down and soak up the heat after the ride, but that wouldn't have been appropriate...
Above: Cyclewise, the fully equipped bike shop within freewheeling distance of the North Loop trailhead
A little further down the forest road was Altura's very own bike shop, Cyclewise, which offer bikes for sale or hire, plus spares and repairs. Past the bike shop and the coin operated bike wash was an enticing wooden Altura 'A' arching over a shimmying piece of singletrack disappearing down into the woods, signalling the start of the Altura's North Loop.
The first section of the trail sloped down gently and was an instant appetiser for what was to come - flowing narrow, rocky, singletrack with plenty of roots and rocks to keep you on your toes. Eventually the singletrack starter ended and there was a mercifully small portion of fireroad which linked onto a wonderful but nerve jangling goat-track traverse across a steep open hillside, which switched back and forth a few times before summiting onto a fireroad for a welcome breather.
The trail had already asserted itself with its physical and technical challenge. Graded as a Red route with some minimal Black options (the odd bit of token North Shore is the extent of the Black graded stuff), the trail challenged the rookie pilots in our group, while the Top Guns found it fun but easily within their compass. Sounds pretty much bang on for a Red route then.
Then came the longest section of fireroad we encountered all day, a gentle drag across the contour lines up to Beckstones Plantation, before the trail turned back on itself for more singletrack climbing to reach the top of Ullister Hill at around 520 metres, with the trail initially still in thick evergreen plantation before emerging into the open and an awesome view looking south across Whinlatter Pass to Grisedale Pike. There followed the first real descent of the day on a twisting berms-and-rollers chute through the forest. We were eventually spat out onto another short section of fireroad, with disc brakes red hot and grins wide, before the trail forked off to the left and the final descent of the North Loop, with steep tight berms making short work of the switchback turns on the open hillside. Make sure you're confident on bermed turns on this section and look for the smooth line on the corners - it's a long way down if you overshoot.
Before we knew it we were back on the tarmac of Whinlatter Pass and the visitor centre. But we'd only had the first course. Whinlatter is unusual in that it offers what's essentially a big figure of eight with the visitor centre at its intersection, perfect if you want to grab a bite to eat, visit the loo, fix your bike or wuss-out before the second course of the South Loop.
On the day we'd visited the upper section of the South Loop, which takes you to the top of the oddly named Hospital Plantation, was closed due to icy conditions, leaving only around 5km of up and down for us to savour. However, the South loop afforded perhaps the best view of the day. Once the trail left the opening forested section, it headed onto singletrack, with wonderful views up the steep flanks of Grisedale Pike, crossing Grisedale Gill on a wooden bridge, before plunging into great technical singletrack section, which led to the foot of day's last big climb. Granny gear engaged, the climb was engaging and challenging with nice tight switchbacks to test the technique, plus rock and root obstacles to take your mind off the heavy breathing bit.
We reached the top of the singletrack climb and, due to the trail closure, took the detour which led us straight into the adrenaline highlight of the South Loop - a fast open descent on loose shale track with big berms, tabletops and rhythm sections. The descent continued down into the trees, getting tighter and more twisting, before rejoining the outbound leg back to the visitor centre.
It was a shame that the upper section of the South Loop was closed on the day, as this looked to be the highest point on the route and much of the final descent was lost. But even without its geographical high-point, there were enough technical and scenic high points to recommend a visit to anyone. The most impressive aspects of the trail were its scenery, its high singletrack quotient and its ability to please a wide range of riders. It would be great to go back there in warmer climes, when the full trail and facilities were open to get a proper taste of Altura's undoubted charms.
Above: What Altura is all about - rocky high level trails and stunning views
Above: The black sections are small - like this North Shore drop-off - but don't let that put you off - there's plenty of edge on the rest of this red graded trail.
Above: Both North and South Loop trailheads are marked thus
How to get there: Whinlatter Forest Park is situated on the B5292 (left off the A66 between Keswick and Cockermouth. For sat nav use postcode: CA12 5TW
Opening times: Visitor Centre, Shop and Siskins Tearoom are open 10am - 5:00pm (summer) 4pm (winter). Check website below for info on trail closures prior to visiting.
Bike Hire: 'Cyclewise Whinlatter' located at the trailhead. Contact 017687-78711 or email:firstname.lastname@example.org
Further Information: Contact 01768 778469 or www.forestry.gov.uk/whinlatter
Whinlatter didn't surprise me, which is good news: I tend to travel to Trail Centres wreathed in optimism, only to come away disappointed. But Whinlatter didn't let me down and I left well impressed.
The setting is a start. It's slap bang in the middle of my favourite corner of the Lakes. The views are perhaps the best available at any British trail centre and they alone make the trail worth visiting, with the whole patchwork of villages, lakes and mountains around Keswick opening up beneath you.
But the trail has some real highlights as well. For me, the first half of the North Loop is superb. I love the tight, climbing trails which take you very high, very quickly. Technical in places and carved out of the side of a plunging mountainside, they really get your ride off on the right footing. The two swooping downhill sections towards the end of the North loop also appeal: the upper one, tight and twisty gives the hardtail boys a chance against lazy full-suss riders, whilst the lower one has some very smooth jumps and turns and again the views are stunning.
Add to that top class on-site facilities and the ease of access - A-Road or Motorway to within a couple of miles - and it completes the picture of a very tempting addition to the country's trail centre network.