The Cairngorms National Park is home to one quarter of Scotland’s native forest and 25 percent of the UK’s endangered species. Half of the Cairngorms has been recognised as being of international importance for nature. This gravel bikepacking route follows old military and drovers roads through the UK’s largest area of high ground, regarded as climatically, geomorphologically and biologically the most extensive ‘arctic’ area in the UK. While the Cairngorms are home to four of the five highest mountains in Scotland, there are no extreme climbs and descents, and parts of the route will make great day trips as well.
A detailed itinerary with accomodation options can be found here on the VisitCairngorms website.
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The route starts at Aviemore railway station. It follows the Old Logging Way to the Old Bridge Inn, which is an excellent address for food. Shortly afterwards the route continues on the newest section of the Speyside Way. One of Scotland’s Great Trails, the entire route of this long distance path extends from the Spey Bay at Buckie on the Moray coastline to Newtonmore. After a short section on and next to the B9152 the route leaves the road, passes a bridge and continues on a gravel path between the River Spey and the railway line through a mixture of farm and woodland. The constant up and down makes for fun riding, but factoring in some extra time for this section of the Speyside Way is recommended. Adding time for a coffee stop at the Old Post Office in Kincraig is a must.
From Kincraig the route continues on the Speyside Way, with some shorter sections following the signposted Badenoch Way and the non-signposted East Highland Way at times. For the curious bikepacker both provide opportunities to alter the route and explore further. This section travels through Caledonian forest, typical for Strathspey. This landscape with magnificent Scots pines lining the route is typical for this part of the Cairngorms National Park. The route passes the scenic Uath Lochans, a collection of four small lochs hidden within the ancient pines of Glen Feshie. The route continues on the Speyside Way past Insh to Drumguish. Even though a short detour away, a visit to the Ruthven Barracks and the village of Kingussie are worth it. The next stop for food from here is the House of Bruar.
The best preserved example of four barracks built in 1719 after the 1715 Jacobite rising, the Ruthven Barracks dominate the countryside and give a great insight into a significant period of Scottish history, the 1715 Jacobite rising. They are accessible all day and free of charge.
Near Tromie Bridge the route leaves the Speyside Way to continue into Glen Tromie, following the river upstream through dense woodland, before the glen starts to open up and provides majestic views onto the mountains. What is to come is one of the most remote sections of this loop, with no shelter available once you have left the woodland behind. The route slowly climbs on gravel tracks past Loch an t-Seilich to Gaick Lodge. The 19th century hunting lodge was built to replace an earlier lodge that was destroyed in an avalanche in 1800. The route climbs past Loch Bhrodainn to Loch an Duin, where the well-maintained double track passes the highest point of this section and then turns into a challenging singletrack at the northern end of the loch.
Expect to push your bike for at least some sections along the loch and over the famous Scottish bog once you have reached the southern end. The effort is rewarded with an amazing gravel track that descends to the A9, from where Sustrans National Route 7 is followed into Bruar. Don’t let the tarmac fool you, watch out for some rather big potholes along this stretch on a road that has been neglected for years. The route continues with fewer potholes, still following Sustrans National Route 7, along the B8079 into Blair Atholl. As an alternative, if you want to add a bit more off-road riding, you can follow the Cairngorms Loop instead of the road.
The village is ideal for an overnight stop, with various accommodation options and a craft beer tap room. The entry to the grounds of Blair Castle is included in the campsite fees. Blair Atholl can also provide a good alternative start or finish, with frequent trains to Aviemore or Perth. From Blair Atholl the route follows ‘A Tour of Highland Perthshire’ for a while, which is one of the Scottish routes described in Great British Gravel Rides. The route follows the road past a few houses and on to Loch Moraig, where the public road ends.
From here Beinn a’ Ghlò dominates the views, a huge, complex mountain with many ridges, summits and corries. A wide doubletrack eventually turns into a singletrack, and shortly afterwards a river crossing will give you at least wet feet, but can be tricky to negotiate after heavy rain. The route continues through dense heather past the three Munros of Beinn a’ Ghlò, before eventually turning into a gravel track and descending into Glen Loch. You will travel through this wide open landscape for a while to reach the border of the Cairngorms National Park shortly after Daldhu, where a few houses are the first signs of civilisation. The route continues on a smooth gravel track first and then on a private road through Gleann Fearnach, following the route of the Highland Perthshire Drovers Trail in the opposite direction to Straloch, where you’ll enter a museum without walls, the Cateran Ecomuseum.
The museum provides a great network of gravel and mountain bike itineraries on its website, which can be used to extend the route further.. The route passes the historic Kindrogan House on the way to Enochdhu, from where the Cateran Trail is followed for a while. Big planted forests soon give way to barren hills as you approach the Lunch Hut at Dirnanean, which offers great shelter. From here onwards you’ll be travelling in the footsteps of the British royal family as you make your way north. This was the route taken by Queen Victoria on her way from Dunkeld to Balmoral in October 1865, riding her Highland pony. You’ll get a good sense why the queen stopped for tea on her trek. Once you reach the top of the trail, which requires some pushing, a majestic view into Glenshee is the reward.
The descent is as good as the views, and while there are no services in Glenshee, the church and stone circle are worth a stop. You’ll cross the historic bridge which was constructed by Major Caulfeild as part of the Blairgowrie to Braemar Military Road, now largely followed by the A93, part of the SnowRoads scenic route. The route climbs steadily towards the Cairnwell Pass, Scotland’s highest road at 670m and the highest point of this loop. If you are after a more adventurous route, you can follow the Cateran Trail for a short while out of the Spittal of Glenshee, take a track towards Loch Beanie and follow the route up the Monega Pass, which is described on the Cateran Ecomuseum website. You’ll eventually end up back on the A93 in Braemar, where the route meets another bikepacking route, the Deeside Trail. The village which often records Scotland’s coldest temperatures in winter, is home to a thriving outdoor community and has everything a bikepacker needs – food, an outdoor shop with cafe, two hostels and for those who are after luxury, one of Scotland’s finest hotels.
From Braemar the route follows the Queen’s Drive, a carriage drive once favoured by Queen Victoria, and then joins the A93 to Invercauld Bridge. A cycle path, currently under construction, will provide a great alternative to this part of the route in the future. There are two bridges over the Dee – the Old Bridge of Dee dates back to 1753 and was built by Major Caulfeild as part of the military road from Perthshire through the mountains to Speyside. What follows from here is a brilliant section through Ballochbuie Forest, one of the largest continuous areas of Caledonian forest in Scotland. You are now on Balmoral Estate, purchased by Victoria and Albert in 1852, with the surrounding hilly landscape reminding them of Thuringia, Albert’s homeland in Germany, and also where the author of this route grew up.
The route continues on a smooth gravel track through the forest, and then climbs towards Ripe Hill, offering great views towards the Lochnagar massif. If you want to add a stay or seek shelter for lunch, Gelder Shiel bothy is just a short detour once you cross the Gelder Burn. The route descends back towards Easter Balmoral. An alternative is to continue on the route of the Deeside Trail, climbing on the track towards Lochnagar and then follow the gravel tracks on the western side of Glen Muick to Ballater. Our route passes Royal Lochnagar Distillery and then climbs again. From the highest point the route follows a track into a beautiful woodland past an abandoned steading at Bovaglie, and you will pass a few more abandoned houses as you descend into the beautiful Glen Girnock. An alternative to this route would be to carry on instead and follow the gravel track into Glen Muick.
The route meets the B976 and crosses the River Dee into Ballater, which has all services needed as well as a brilliant bike shop. With trails like Heartbreak Ridge, the village is an ideal base for mountain bike and gravel day trips, and hosts the annual Thrive festival. Ballater is connected to Aberdeen on the Deeside Way, Sutrans National Route 195. Our route once again overlaps with the Deeside Trail and follows the riverside trail out of Ballater. It continues on the eastern side of Glen Gairn to Lary, and after crossing the river on a footbridge joins the A939 to Gairnshiel Bridge and the B976 to Braenaloin. From here one of the smoothest gravel tracks in Scotland follows the River Gairn through a beautiful valley to Loch Builg, from where the Cairngorms Loop is followed through the rugged landscape of Glen Builg and Glen Avon to Scotland’s highest Highland village, Tomintoul.
While thousands flock to the small village for its famous Whisky Castle shop, the village is also one of the best places in Scotland to experience dark skies and has an excellent hostel and pub.
The route follows the A939 to Bridge of Brown, where your climbing legs will be put to a proper test, and then meets the A95 outside of Grantown-on-Spey. KJ’s Bothy Bakery is just a short detour from where the route joins the Speyside Way, but worth every metre of added cycling. KJ, formerly the owner of the Mountain Cafe in Aviemore, turned her bakery in an industrial estate into a great stop for coffee and cake along the route. The route flattens out from here and the Speyside Way is once again followed to Nethy Bridge, passing through an impressive section of Caledonian forest.
Boat of Garten is home to one of the finest pump tracks in Scotland, and also one of the stops for the Strathspey Railway. Ride Scotland can help with bike repairs and local riding advice, before the route follows Sustrans National Route 7 through another stunning forest to a clearing, which provides superb views onto the highest mountains of the Cairngorms. The last section into Aviemore follows the Speyside Way.
As guidance for your own adventure planning we have divided the route into four day itineraries.
Day 1 – Start in Aviemore – Finish in Blair Atholl
Day 2 – Start in Blair Atholl – Finish in Braemar
Day 3 – Start in Braemar- Finish in Tomintoul
Day 4 – Start in Tomintoul – Finish in Aviemore
Cycling distance: 266km (165mi)
Ascent: 3,350m (11,000 ft)
Terrain: 44% tracks/paths, 10% singletrail, 6% cycle paths and 40% roads
Difficulty: A great mix of smooth gravel tracks, singletrack and mostly quiet roads.
Where to fuel?
- Old Bridge Inn, Aviemore
- Old Post Office Cafe Gallery, Kincraig
- The Bothy Bar, Blair Atholl
- The Bothy, Braemar
- The Bothy, Ballater
- Richmond Arms, Tomintoul
- KJ’s Bothy Bakery, Grantown on Spey
Selected places to stay
- Ravenscraig Guest House, Aviemore
- Blair Castle Caravan Park, Blair Atholl
- Braemar Youth Hostel, Braemar
- The Smugglers Hostel, Tomintoul
- Aviemore Youth Hostel, Aviemore
For anything bike related
- Aviemore Bikes, Aviemore (shop, hire)
- Backcountry Scotland, Aviemore (shop, hire)
- Bothy Bikes, Kingussie (shop, hire)
- Cycle Highlands, Ballater (shop)
- Bike Station, Ballater (shop, hire)
- Ride Scotland, Boat of Garten (shop, hire)
Scottish Outdoor Access Code
Scotland’s outdoors provides great opportunities for open-air recreation and education, with great benefits for people’s enjoyment, and their health and well-being. The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 ensures everyone has statutory access rights to most of Scotland’s outdoors, if these rights are exercised responsibly, with respect for people’s privacy, safety and livelihoods, and for Scotland’s environment. Equally, land managers have to manage their land and water responsibly in relation to access rights.
The Code is based on three key principles:
– Respect the interests of other people.
– Care for the environment.
– Take responsibility for your own actions.
For more information visit www.outdooraccess-scotland.com
Selected Press Coverage
2023/01/23 Press & Journal – Home is Where the Trails Are: New film showcases 165-mile bike journey through the Cairngorms
2023/01/23 CyclingEurope – Markus Stitz: Home Is Where The Trails Take You
2023/01/24 Bikepacking.com – Home Is Where The Trails Take You (Video)
2023/01/25 Gravelunion – Gravel Inspiration – Home is where the trails takes you
2023/01/26 Gravel Collective – Durch die Britische Arktis
2023/01/29 Daily Record – Journey through Scottish mountains captured in new ‘bikepacking’ film of the Cairngorms
2023/01/30 Gear and Grit – Home is Where The Trails Take You – Bikepacking in the Cairngorms National Park
2023/02/01 Scottish Field – Cairngorms Star in New Markus Stitz Film
2023/02/03 Much Better Adventures – Inside the new 266km Bikepacking Route through the Cairngorms
2023/02/05 The Herald – Wheels are in motion for a Scotland-wide cycling tourism boom