I had a weekend on my own and the weather in Scotland was set to be fine. So what should I do was the burning question? I have a few Scottish bike packing trips in mind for this year:
The West Highland Way, more West Coast islands, Highland 500, finding an off-road route through the borders to the Lake District or exploring the Cairngorm Mountains.
I decided on the latter and Googled; “loop of the Cairngorm Mountains” and as to be expected in these days of GPS logs there is already an official loop of the Cairngorm Mountains. However it looked a bit too much like it was trying to get more miles in and going around in circles. I took the outer loop and added a few extra bits and removed some of the rougher MTB sections so it was ideal for a Cross bike or Gravel Bike. THe main surface was mostly gravel roads, then paved roads and a few KMs of singletrack overall it covered some serious distance north to south. It seemed ideal for bikepacking with my Kinesis Tripster ATR still set up for the Dirty Reiver race and ready to go.
With all the recent sunny weather in Scotland, I hadn’t had a rest day since before the Selkirk MTB marathon 8 days ago so I struggled to get out of bed with tired legs. It was past midday when I set off from Pitlochry and headed south away form the Cairngorms. There are so many small Hydro electric schemes here and this is a momumnet to those who died building them in the late 1940s:
I was heading south away from the Cairngorms because for some reason I felt compelled to add an extra 40km loop on despite feeling tired out. I rode a fun but exhausting rollercoaster B-Road into Tummel Bridge on a loop of the lochs. It was then north to cross the A9 and head up towards Feshie Bridge off-road. While enjoyable I probably should have followed the cycle path straight up to Blair Atholl.
The track here was rough but easy enough on the Tripster, wider tyres would be better as per the dirty reiver race feedback! The views were now across totally empty wild countryside as I chased two Roe Deer from the edge of the forest. Looking back I saw the colossal wingspan of a Golden Eagle soaring high above the brown heather clad hills. What better introduction to the beautiful isolated Cairngorm mountains.
While not as individually spectacular as other ranges in Scotland the Cairngorms are crowded with wildlife and unique landscapes The ancient Caledonian Pine Forest which although decimated still lingers on the hillsides is one of my favourite landscapes to explore – home to all kinds of birds and animals. I literally saw no one outside the vicinity of Aviemore and Braemar. How many places in the UK can you truly get away from it all like this?
Here is a map of the Cairngorm loop I roughly did the outer loop
At about 20km from the A9 the track turn to single track outside an abandoned looking house, I thought maybe it was a bothy but then a Lurcher dog charged out barking at me, does someone actually live out here I thought to myself.
The singletrack started by Loch Eanaich and it was hard work and the low bottom bracket height meant I was clipping pedals on all the rocks, teetering dangerously close to a tumble into the loch itself.
Finally I was back on tracks then a narrow paved road (built for a hydro plant) for the long stint out to Feshie Bridge. On the final section of track I saw and narrowly avoided running over an Adder sitting on the track:
From Feshie Bridge I was back into more forest with fantastic views out over the hills towards Ben Macdui and Braeraich. Patches of snow cloaked the shadowed hillsides but skiing was certainly over for the season.
I passed loch an Eilein before detouring into Aviemore for some Fish and Chips. I had clocked up about 100km in 6 hours. I ddn’t quite have enough OS maps so was relying on my phone for small section of navigation, this met I couldn’t track the route in full to save battery.
It wasn’t a race today and I was stopping to take pictures quite a lot! I’m not sure I like Aviemore Town as a place but the location is stunning. I rode on towards Glenmore Lodge and into Glenmore Forest having passed Loch Morlich. It was starting to feel like I was ready for sleep. The clouds were grey and drizzly – the Prospect of bivvying was not that enticing.
Seeing the Adder (the UK’s only poisonous snake) on the road earlier and imagining it sneaking into my bivvy bag wasn’t helping with the bivvy idea. By luck I arrived at Ryvoan Bothy. It was empty and clean and the perfect spot for a good nights sleep.
In the morning I woke early and packed my mat and sleeping bag into the Apidura bags and ate my oatcake breakfast, I had no stove or cooking equipment. Just sleeping bag, bivvy bag, mat, change of clothes and bike spares. I used a Water 2 Go filter bottle straight from the streams to drink.
Map of the Cairngorm loop
Day two was going to be longer as I had stopped earlier than expected. From the bothy the track was winding through the forest and required careful navigation as I missed a river crossing and had to retrace onto a sweet section of singletrack.
Take a careful look at the GPS route here for this section.
I was headed towards Tomintoul but got lost and did bit of a detour ending up in Bridge of Brown.Here is a map of the Cairngorm loop I roughly did the outer loop
From Tomitoul it is a private estate road following the River Avon, with the sun fully out it was a magnificent ride. No cars or passers by just great views along the river.
Finally I reached Inchrory and the grand white house here. After stop to eat and soak up the sun it was 5km along at Loch Builg where the single track started. It was still easy going and tempting for a swim. After the lochs I turned right on a newish looking stalking track, one of the recent scars on the landscape that are quite common up here outside of the national park.
There was then a huge climb up with good views of Mt Keene a favorite Munro of mine to mountain bike, before the route rolls up and down to Braemar via Crathie and Easter Balmoral along what was probably the most enjoyable stretch of the day.
Braemar was loaded to max with motor bikes. Here I was still feeling rough so I opted to spin the road back. Given the Sunday traffic I wish I’d followed the track per the mapped Cairngorm loop. The climb up to the ski resort at Spittal of Glenshee was a good challenge lets say but the descent was fast, dangerously fast as I aero tucked the whole way!
It was a rolling twisty road to Bridge of Cally which felt a bit dodgy to ride and then a quiet road back up to Pitlochry.
I really enjoyed the last leg of the road spin and even had the first tail wind of the trip! It was unfortunately a head wind both days with the northerly wind switching overnight to a warm southerly on the Sunday, what are the chances and no wonder I felt shattered.
I thoroughly recommend the outer loop for a wild bike packing adventure. A great trip and next time (yes already planning!) I would probably take my 29er MTB next time and ride across the singletrack in the middle too. However as a first explore it went pretty smoothly and the Bothy was a great find, although being close to Aviemore I suspect I was lucky to have it to myself. If it is busy the forest and hills there present many wild camping or bivvy opportunities.
While the full Cairngorm loop looks fun, this route is possible on a gravel bike and easier to have a go at.