Bike Packing the Southern Cairngorms

It was getting late as I rode around the last corner to where the dot on the map was, but it wasn’t a bothy at all, instead an open faced Hay barn, well that’s disappointing I thought. I was not stoked to inform Dave of this fact as he rolled down the hill after an exhausting 12.5hrs out in the hills. He took it in his stride as we opted to leave the bikes in the hay barn and set off on foot. Those dark clouds that threatened us for over an hour took action and the heavens opened, we were dripping wet not that it mattered we had crossed 5 substantially sized rivers already today luckily it wasn’t too cold. Still it would be good to reach the Tarf Hotel before darkness, as I wondered if we were even in the right valley…
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I keep coming back to cycle the Cairngorms on bikepacking trips. The ancient tracks provide great cycling along remote glens, past arching mountains, spectacular waterfalls and ancient pine forests. The area is one of the few truly wild areas in the UK. Each time I’ve been I’ve seen a Golden Eagle soaring up above and the area far from roads or civilisation is so vast I can understand those who say it would support the reintroduction of wolves. However as a caution it’s far from perfect, outside the National park there’s the same issue as seen in large areas of Scotland, it’s like a giant fishing net has been trawled across the hills, leaving behind only heather, grouse and red deer.

Friday evening I set off for the Hills up north, after picking Dave up from Edinburgh Station at 6pm we drive straight up the A9. I am showing Dave the beauty of bike packing in Scotland with two full bike set ups ready to go in the car. A ever there’s slow traffic on the Forth Road bridge traffic, giving us time to debate how big a ramp you would need to jump the gap in the almost completed new bridge.

The destination is Blair Atholl, where the Fish and Chip shop shuts at 8pm, at 8.15pm this is not ideal. Back in the car and into the local shop for a rancid cold pastry Bridie and a cheap blended whisky for the trip, making a far from winning dinner. It’s lights on and riding time. The evening light still stretches into the night this far north, hopefully till 9pm at least.
We’re heading for Allt Scheicheachan bothy, but first because it’s just creeping into stalking season we take a quick check on the estate notice board. Dave wore a flouro London commuter jacket just in case he was mistaken for a Red Deer!
We headed out from Old Blair past Old bridge of Tilt along Banvie Burn before detouring over the open moorside in the ever darker sky. These deer missed the stalking season memo prancing along the horizon in full view for miles
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We switch on lights and blast down the final descent on a rough track to bothy. It’s all dark, but I nervously open the door no idea what it’s like inside. In one corner a girl has stirred and I apologise for waking her, shes been asleep since before 5pm though and welcomes the wake up call. She’s soon heading out night hiking. It’s a comfy bothy, small but with an open fire and even an attic space to sleep in. We make hot chocolate and chat about the route ahead. I take some shots of the now clear starry sky with the warm glow of the candle lit bothy. This is what bothy stays are all about, nothing but candles and silence along with random meetings and chats over OS maps.

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In the morning its a photo call for the bikes in front of our shelter. The bugs are here and buzzing like a detuned radio.
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The day starts well after initially we lose the path but ford a river to get on the track up Glen Bruar, we pass the impressive Bruar Shooting Lodge. untitled-6_result
We enjoy the track while it lasts, covering distance quickly would be rare today.
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Finally we hit the singletrack of the Minigaig pass. It’s too steep to ride as we enter the clouds.
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Higher up we can ride sections deep into the mists of mid-summer in Scotland.untitled-8_result

From the Pass we hope to climb Leathad an Taobhain, then traverse onto a 912m trig point before following a track down into Glen Feshie.
However it’s hard to follow the path after recent flood damage and with a few metres viability it means we’re in open featureless moorland, carefully using a compass to take a bearing NE. Just as it’s feeling a bit disconcerting we see people and the white quartz of a vague cairn on an even vaguer path. We are on track again, shame it’s still not much rideable! Then in a gust of wind the clag clears and reveals this view, not bad as outcomes go.
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It’s then back on the original route pushing up to Munro height is always a struggle!
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Luckily it’s soon time for the Chirizo and coleslaw wrap we’ve both been waiting for, not as bad as it sounds when your starving!
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Back onto tracks is a welcome relief as we speed over Meall an Uilt Chreagaich towards Glen Feshie. The views on this track lead me to jump off and take pictures all the way down. The heather is just breaking into a rich purple carpet of flowers.
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This was the best view of the trip I think and luckily we didn’t climb the hill in front.
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Once looking down into Glen Feshie we could see even further across the Cairngorms. untitled-17_result
Another view of the amazing Heather:
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Glen Feshie has some ancient pine forest great to ride through but sad there’s not more of this left.
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Crossing the river Feshie three times was less dreamy though:
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In higher water this ride might be pretty sketchy! However the main issue was the track ends in about 4km of wet ard to ride singletrack path. In the driest conditions it would be better but still a challenge. From the waterfall on the OS map to Geldie Lodge turn off it is hard work.

As we turn past Geldie lodge we are hit by this view of Glen Tilt in a stormy afternoon show. The sunlight was catching random hills, on the left flank was a herd of about 60 red deer. The flowy singletrack here is fantastic fun and for me the highlight of the trip. An exhausted Dave was all too aware of the consequences of a fall high above a steep slope into the river tilt!
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Just after the beautiful falls of Tarf we hit the realisation it was about to get wet.
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This was the view straight ahead along Glen Tilt:
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We had one last climb up a steep track past Dun Beag and Dun Mor heading for the Tarf ‘Hotel’ Bothy (Feith Uaine). One of the best bothies around I had heard, especially as it used to be an Hotel I thought! Dave not used to big days on the bike was pushing the steep track as it gained a brutal 350m of height.
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The first building on the map could have been the Bothy in an optomistic world but it wasn’t. It was the Hay barn discussed already. Clealry disappointed we ditched bikes and set off along the river Tarf for the actual location of the Bothey 2km further along. It was wet under foot as we saw what appear to be a camper van ahead, “It’s the Bothy I exclaimed” it wasn’t the bothey but 3 4×4 trucks packed up forming a mirage!

FInally the building came into view and out theories on the owners of the 4×4’s ranged from stalkers, poachers, irresponsible 4×4 enthusiast etc. THen we saw smoke form the bothy chimney and we didn’t care.

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THe door proudly shows an old AA Hotel sign from the 1950s. THis old shooting lodge was never a hotel but still as we opened the door it could have been a five star hotel for all we cared. The owners of the trucks had a fire going, we stood there dripping as two chairs were pulled up to the fireplace, “A wee dram” was offered and accpeted, a hot coffee poured out too. THe room was roasting, the guys in T-Shirts in thick Scottish accents this was tropical to them. We kept all our jackets on as the rapidly dried out in the sauna. This was a work party we had gate crashed, there to repair the bothy and also to drink a bit of Whisky!!

After us finally relaxing and drying out, the 5 or so guys heckled the musician amongest them to play some tunes. Dreading some awkward guitar playing we waited, but to our relief we enjoyed some great Scottish tunes before a good old sing a long with the Whisky flowing far too easily.

Finally we retired to sleep and that other Bothy institiution – the Snorer.
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In the morning we awake to incredible strong winds, inside the bothy it was hard to motivate getting ready. The wind was whipping the cloud across faster than I’d ever seen. We later discovered it was the windiest August day ever at 120mph!!!

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After a full Scottish cooked breakfast kindly donated to us both by the work party, we left in a state of disbelieve at the most enjoyable Bothy experience we’d ever had. We had the wind at our backs getting blown all over the place.untitled-33_result

THe wind put pay to the plans of a longer loop it would be dangerous riding in this wind. THe sun was however out and we flew up the first climb:
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The issue was the incredible headwind all the way back down Glen Tilt. It literally stopped us still at times. I was blown off my feet into the heather while pedally harder down a hill. Finally we reached some trees and made progress. A stop for wild raspberries then back to Old Blair and the parked car. For a short day riding downhill that was the toughest I could have imagined it!

Not the longest multiday route but certainly a weekend of hills and lows, I wouldn’t recommend the Minigaig singletrack to anyone unless it’s been dry for weeks. It’s just not worth the effort with a bike but we both enjoyed the challenge (I think). Likewise the cut across from Glen Feshie towards Braemeart was a lot less enjoyable riding than I anticipated in anything but the driest conditions.

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4 Comments
  1. was a braw night lads good company and yes the drams were flowing as usual.

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    • We’ll bring some more Whisky next time – cheap and blended obviously!

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  2. Enjoyed your blog and I am pleased you enjoyed the craic at the Tarf Hotel, Alan the guitar player is also a renowned snorer so is good at both. We enjoyed your company and hope to see you again at the Tarf. Ricky Maintenance Organiser for the Tarf

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    • Thanks Ricky, glad you found the blog. We seriously couldn’t believe our luck at the Bothy. I think Dave would’ve killed me if it wasn’t for you guys!

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