As someone once said for it to be a true adventure, the final outcome must be uncertain. And so with great uncertainty I took my first tentative steps in to bikepacking by taking on the Cairngorm Loop as an Independent Time Trial (ITT). It was a warm overcast morning in early May when I set off from Blair Athol on the 300km trail that loops through the Cairngorms, some of the trail would be familiar territory, some of it new to me. Previously I’d only ever ridden for maybe 11 hours “in a oner” so I’d no idea at what point I’d start to tire. I’d put in a respectable result at 10 under the Ben in Fort William a couple of weeks prior, so felt in decent shape. Devoid of alternatives I’d be riding my trusty 150mm travel trail bike with 27.5” wheels, not exactly built for this type of stuff, but I thought it wore the bikepacking kit rather well. It also had a decent range of gears thanks to its 2 x 10 setup.
After a trundle along the riverside heading north on the old A9 the route eventually crosses the dual carriageway and heads up through the trees along a good double track heading for the deserted Sronphadruig Lodge. There hadn’t been much rain lately and the fords were shallow, (there’s since been a concrete bridge put in so dry feet are now assured all the way up the glen). I’d adopted a very leisurely pace to try and conserve energy for the long haul. However in the back of my mind was the notion that it would be good to get off the inner loop and back down to the lower levels of Glen Feshie, or at least somewhere along Deeside by nightfall.
After the lodge comes the singletrack along Loch an Duin, the track is mostly fine but the drop off to the right sharpens your concentration. After a river crossing at the north end of the loch the route picks up a good double track. With the prevailing SW wind progress here can be pretty easy, giving you time to take in the 360 degree panorama from the valley floor to the high peaks all around. Once past Loch an-t seilich (named after the popular Magnum PI actor) the track turns from gravel to tar as it moves you swiftly down in to Glen Tromie. Familiar trails lead meandering through the forest and along the Feshie before following the nice singletrack past Drake’s bothy. Closer to civilisation now, it was at this point I regretted not having a bell fitted as I picked my way past the walkers and holiday makers taking in the sights of Rothiemurchus estate and Glenmore. Refuelling options abound at Glenmore and I opted for a baked tattie and soup at the Forestry Commission café as I prepared for the crux of the route. It was early afternoon and I was content with my progress so far.
Full of carbs I rolled up past the green loch and took the right hand trail to Bynack, I started to steel myself for the challenge ahead. First the long push up, the afternoon had turned hot for early spring and I was glad of the cooling breeze which greeted me near the top of the climb. I paused and looked back northwards over Strathspey and up towards the Ross-shire and Sutherland mountains in the distance before finally getting back on my bike. When it’s dry the track under the barns of Bynack is quick and easy, and before long I’d reached the first of the two descents. With nobody around to help, I took it canny through these and then picked my way along the broken path to the Fords of Avon. I had the place to myself and after getting over using stepping stones to stay dry I allowed myself to pause for 20 mins and have some pork pies for tea, lovely. Unfortunately, once over the river the track is much less defined and is dotted with rock gardens which, I found almost always unridable. After a long hike a bike I eventually reached the saddle at the end of the valley floor and was rewarded with spectacular views down Glen Derry with the mountains to each side bathed in the last of the day’s sunlight.
The ride down glen Derry starts a little sketchy, but after joining the track off to Loch Avon and the Hutchinson Bothy it improves and turns in to a good fun descent all the way down to Derry Lodge. It was now after 7:30pm and I was concerned that the route back over to Glen Feshie would take several hours putting me firmly in to darkness, but it was a lovely night and I decided I would press on. To my delight the route back followed a good double track for longer than I had imagined it would. This meant it was only 45 mins of slow riding/pushing to reach Eidart Falls and its slightly dodgy looking bridge. Even with the tiny amount of rain we’d had I could hear the roar of the falls long before they came in to view.
Glen Feshie can be tricky to navigate, there’s a low level vehicle track and a slightly higher single track off to the right. Normally the vehicle track is a boggy mess, so normally it’s advisable to try and seek out the single track. It’s little more than a deer track though, so it’s hard to spot. Eventually both tracks meet at a crossing point down river, the vehicle track urges you to ford here. It’s usually a good knee to thigh depth so the alternative can be more appealing. This is to follow the faint track staying on the NE side of the river and crossing the landslide. The path across the landslide is actually pretty clearly defined, knowing others have been before you does give some confidence. Still I found it pretty daunting on my own in the dark, if I were in a movie, a bird/bat would deffo have suddenly spring out and made my lose my footing just as I was edging across, (you get the idea), still better than wading through the river IMO.
The Ruigh Aiteachain bothy would make an excellent stop off point on this route, unfortunately for me it was closed for a refurb, I’ve visited since and it’s now very well appointed though can be busy, so don’t bank on getting space. I pressed on to Aviemore where I was very glad to make last orders at the Old Bridge Inn, this was vital as the BP garage too was closed for a refit. The thought of camping a couple of miles from home didn’t hold much appeal so I pressed on picking my way through the woods around Forrest Lodge still keeping my eye open for a bivvy spot. The familiar 2.1k single track seemed to take an age to complete in reverse in the darkness. It was as I neared thieves pass I glanced at my watch 3:30am, it would be daylight in less than an hour. All of a sudden I decided there would be no point stopping now, the forecast for the following day was for rain so the further I could get in the dry the better.
I got a mental lift as the sun finally appeared and I trundled through Tomintoul in the early morning haze. I meandered slowly up the well surfaced Glen Avon eventually reaching loch Builg and its nice singletrack section. After a torturously slow climb up Culardoch on estate tracks comes an eye watering descent first down the mountain, then down through the forest of Invercauld estate before being spat out on to the main road for a 15 min pedal to Braemar (and a cooked breakfast at the bothy café).
From Braemar it’s half an hour on the tar to Lin of Dee to retrace your tracks along the Dee to The Geldie Burn. This time crossing the Geldie and carrying on south in to Glen Tilt on a double track which narrows to single track before long. Now I like singletrack as much as the next guy/girl, but after 24hrs of riding this section gave me the heebie-jeebies. It’s techy, rocky and with a fall to near certain death on your left. It carries on like this for a while. Some of it is great riding but not all is ridable as there are water courses to be tackled. After a couple of miles of traversing this steep valley the official Cairngorm Loop 300km track crosses the river to begin a long hike a bike section up to Fealar Lodge. If you’re not too bothered about completing the official route I’d suggest carrying on down Glen Tilt as its downhill virtually all the way to Blair Atholl and is very scenic. If you’re committed to the official route be prepared for a nasty sting in the tail. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. So after a further 5 hours of lugging, lifting pushing and climbing I arrived at Blair Athol 33 hours after setting off. The rain arrived with about 2 hours to go, it was actually lovely and refreshing and also helped mask any tears I had as I took the last few turns and caught a glimpse of the iconic white castle. I was surprised by the sudden surge of emotion I felt as I freewheeled to complete my trip. I was back where my adventure had started the day before, but now the outcome had been decided and it felt good. The Cairngorm loop is quite simply stunning, best of all it can be broken down in to 2 loops, services and accommodation options are decent and it will give you a proper sense of remoteness and achievement as well as testing your bike handling skills.
Word & pictures – Iain