Hit the Road

Cairngorms Carousel MTB Route

It’s been such a long time since we’ve managed to get out for a multi-day bike tour and this was a superb excuse to get back in the saddle.

My dad has been following our trips with keen interest over the years and jumped at the chance to come away with me instead of Ian. He suggested this route as a good 3-4 day trip that would work well on his e-bike as well as my full suspension mountain bike.

Here’s a great overview of the route from bikepacking.com

After postponing the trip several times due to the pandemic and unsurprisingly unpredictable Scottish weather we finally spotted a spell of sunny weather, packed up the bags and headed off in to the Scottish highlands.

Day 1 – Blair Athol to Kinguisse – 35 mi

The route starts in the small village of Blair Athol at the south-western end of the National Park. There’s very little in Blair Athol apart from the train station, the old hotel alongside it and a large caravan park but it’s a pretty village with an impressive set of castle gates which marked our starting point.

The route out of Blair Athol follows Cycle Route 7 alongside the A9 which is a well maintained cycle route that road riders can follow all the way to Aviemore and out the North end of the park.

We turn off after about 10 miles and head off-road down the valley towards Loch an Duin. Quite quickly we found ourselves in beautiful remote backcountry following good tracks over a gently inclining terrain.

We quickly discovered how important the GPX markers we were followling are as the route veers off towards the loch on an unmarked track which involves fording a small stream and pushing up a steep riverbank. The route alongside the lock is quite beautiful single-track. It’s worth taking your time here, not least because the trail is pretty rough but also to make sure you’re taking time to enjoy the views.

This was the only section of the route where we were bothered by Scotland’s usual band of midgees and horse flies.

The route undulates onwards past the equally impressive Loch Bhrodainn and Loch an t-Seilich before joining a 4WD track that rolls down towards Kinguisse, joining some very well-maintained cycle routes on the way in to town.

The first day was a relativly straightforward, fun ride through remote Scottish backcountry. But that was just the warm-up, the following days were to stretch us further so a big meal in Kinguisse and a comfortable night in the Duke of Gordon hotel would set us up for the road ahead.

Day 2 – Kinguisse to Tomintoul – 41 mi

Day 2 feels like you’re in a completely different country to day 1. Instead of loch-side single-track and open heathland it’s rolling trails thrrough dense forests.

Climbing gently out of Kinguisse the route winds through forest trails – GPS routing is essential here as it’s so easy to get disoriented in these woodlands and you could easily find yourself picking up the wrong trail and going for miles in the wrong direction before noticing.

As we rode past Loch an Eileen we started to come across others on the trail for the first time as we start to get towards more popular tourist spots around Glenmore Forest Park. There’s still plenty of perfect spots to stop for rest breaks and important flapjack refuling.

We missed out on the reindeer at Glenmore Forest Park, but we did stop to see the amazing emerald waters of An Lochan Uaine which reminded me of the blue-green glacial lakes of Canada.

There’s a tricky crossing of the River Nethy which was fine in the low water that we encountered but it wouldn’t take much to make it impassible. The trail afterwards was almost non-existant which meant pushing across swampy bogland for a quarter mile before rejoining the path. I think there are probably more sensible routes which bypass this crossing that I would recommend you try out to avoid this.

Some more tough single-track after that leading to the impressive sounding Braes of Abernethy. By this point we were thinking the day must be almost over, but the route just keeps on going today, breaking out of the forests and on to rolling hillside trails with ford after ford after ford.

It feels like Tomintoul must be just round the corner but the route takes us wide, around a large hill and through an exhillerating forest trail descent before finally joining the main road in to the friendly little town of Tomintoul.

Day 3 – Tomintoul to Braemar and Blair Athol – 53 mi

The guides suggest breaking this in to two shorter days, staying at Braemar, but advised that it’s doable in one day – so that’s what we were aiming for.

The day starts with some beautiful 4WD tracks running along the bottom of the valley that makes up the Glen Avon estate. Pink heather lights up the hillside in the bright summer sun. The forecasts of cloud cover were way off the mark and the sunshine that started off as a pleasent accompnyment turned in to more of a challenge as the route heads uphill towaards the high point of the trip.

Loch Builg provides a pretty rest spot before some steep climbing that was tough even for those assisted by an e-bike.

Cullerdoch marks the high point at around 900m and provides for great views in all directions. The descent in to Breamar after that is quick and exciting as you quickly lose all that height before winding through forest roads then joining the main road in to town.

We made it to Braemar by lunchtime and decided we still felt good to contine on to finish the route today after we stocked up on snacks and drinks. The route out of Braemar starts off easily on good road that follows the river to the Lin of Dee. Then deteriorates in to single track with river fords and on to steep rocky footpath that is unridable for many stretches. This is the point when we realised that the eaily milage we saw on the map would prove a lot tougher in reality as we had to walk for large stretches in the hot afternoon sun.

Tough as this section was, the remote valley it follows is definitely beautify and well worth the efffort. When we turned the corner and finally saw the Tarf Suspension Bridge looking over the gushing Falls of Tarf we knew the hardest part was over. I couldn’t resist taking a quick dip in the falls to cool off before we pushed on, the trail improved and we raced along the Tilt river, noticing as we whizzed past, the impressive granite formations and deep gulleys.

The ride back in to Blair Athol is straightforward and satisfying. When we finally found ourselves back at our starting point of the Athol Arms Hotel the long hot day all seemed worthwhile and suddnly so much easier!

I would definitely recommend this as a great short bike tour in this couuntry. The mix of remote riding locations with well appointed towns make this easy to pack light for. If you’re as lucky as we were with the weather you’ll enjoy a 3 (or 4) day tour that could match anything the Rockies or the Alps have to offer!

View the ride on Strava

Peter • Cairngorms National Park, Grantown on Spey, UK • 5th August 2021

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