skiing in scotland

Cairngorms road trip: 13 handy tips for driving the SnowRoads

Recently we had the joy of road-tripping along the SnowRoads with a French blogger (read her blog here) and a German blogger, delighting in the stunning scenery the Cairngorms National Park has to offer – in all its sunny, snowy, magical glory.

That means we now have a few tips and tricks for making the most of this scenic Cairngorms driving route. We’ve mapped them out for you below, so let’s get started.

Check your vehicle is SnowRoads ready

As the name suggests, the SnowRoads, which traverse the highest public road in Britain, can accumulate a lot of snow in winter – as it did during our trip. That means your vehicle (and you!) needs to be able to cope with the conditions, which can be trickier than normal and may require extra care.

Travelling the Snowroads

If you don’t own a four-wheel-drive car, we recommend getting fitted with winter tyres. It’s also advisable to pack a shovel and a sleeping bag or blanket in case you get stuck – keeping you prepared for every eventuality.

We took our Land Rover Defender, which was perfect for the job. If you want to hire a Land Rover, you can do this from WildTrax

Lecht Ski Centre

Fill up before you leave

The route is only 90 miles from start to finish, with petrol stations en route at Ballater and Braemar, but they are not open 24 hours. To ensure you don’t run out of fuel – and keep your cortisol levels down! – it’s always best to fill up before you start driving the SnowRoads.

Check the snow gates are open before you set off

Across the Cairngorms, heavy snow can make roads dangerous for driving, so the local council shuts the ‘snow gates’. These include the gates at Spittal of Glenshee and the Lecht. Recognising their proximity to ski centres, however, the council work hard to open them as soon as is safely possible. If you can’t travel over the high roads there is always another way round to your destination.

Braemar Camera

Here’s how to stay informed: keep monitoring the webcams, which can be accessed via the ski centres’ websites, or visit Traffic Scotland for updates.

When we set out on our trip from Aviemore to the SnowRoads, the snow gates were actually closed. But by the time we’d visited some ‘heilan coos’ (Highland cows) on a Landrover tour at Rothiemurchus, they were open again, and we were on our way! Hooray!

Expect twists and turns

Map out your SnowRoads trip and you’ll see instantly it really is a mountainous adventure. That’s why people love it – not just for the beautiful towns dotted along the way, but for the bends, twists, turns and steep sections that continuously provide the perfect platform for viewing standout scenery in the Scottish Highlands. 

Image: Neil Williamson

But it’s the twists and turns that also mean you really have to concentrate on the road – particularly at sections near the Bridge of Gairn, near Ballater, which have stomach-churning gradients! The SnowRoads also have sections of single road with passing places, so be mindful of other drivers by looking ahead for oncoming traffic.

Drive slowly

With so many bends and singletrack roads, we wouldn’t recommend whipping out your Lewis Hamilton-like driving skills. It’s best to travel slowly and take the SnowRoads at a safe pace – giving you even longer to enjoy the views. That’s why the SnowRoads are, after all, nicknamed the slow roads. 

The Snowroads are the slowroads – take it all in

On a guided tour with Yellow Welly Tours

Give yourself longer than you’ll think you need

Due to the nature of the roads, we found that Google Maps’ estimations of timings were frequently inaccurate; driving often took longer than stated. So, leave enough time for your journey so you don’t have to rush. Plus, that gives you even longer for those impromptu photo stops!

 Be sensible about where you stop to take photos

Safety before selfies, folks. While the SnowRoads are brimming with photo opportunities (we constantly wanted to stop!), some places are safer to stop than others. You don’t want to add to the growing statistic of ‘injury by selfie’ with a pullover on a single-file road bridge…

Pull into a layby off the road safely

Don’t miss the amazing art installations

Three art installations await you along the SnowRoads: Still, The Watchers and Connecting Contours.

Still is just before Tomintoul, but not particularly easy to see if you are driving from the north. You’ll find it up on the hillside to the left as you drive into the town. Park by the quarry, just before the entrance to the village, and look up to your left. Then you’ll see it in all its glory.

The Watchers installation is more obvious because it is right next to the roadside and offers a fantastic view of Corgarff Castle.

Connecting Contours is just outside Glenshee Ski Centre. Its slightly hidden location also makes it trickier to see when you’re driving. Look for the car park to your left as you leave the ski centre, then take the short track down towards the bench-like art installation.

The Whisky Castle in Tomintoul

Drivers need not miss out on whisky

A selection of fantastic distilleries are located on the route, ready for you to learn more about — and sample — their delicious spirits. We stopped at the Whisky Castle in Tomintoul, for example, and the Royal Lochnagar Distillery in Crathie. While drivers may feel dispirited (excuse the pun), most whisky-tasting hosts will offer drivers samples to take away for later enjoyment. And if they don’t offer, ask! It’s common practice.

Pack for every opportunity

The weather in Scotland can change very quickly. Even forecasters can get it wrong. So it’s a good idea to pack for every opportunity when you’re driving the SnowRoads. If you’re an avid skier/snowboarder, for instance, then there’s no harm having your kit in the boot.

We packed our hiking gear for a gorgeous hike up Loch Callater, located directly off the SnowRoads, with expert guiding company Hillgoers. Luckily, they packed the hot chocolate and flapjacks, which went down a treat at the bothy on the loch.

The Watchers Viewpoint

The Fife Arms

Squeeze in a stop at The Fife Arms

As the only 5-star hotel in the Cairngorms National Park, The Fife Arms – winner of the Sunday Times ‘Hotel of the Year’ – is a truly unique Braemar-based hotel and celebration of local Highland culture. This seeps into every aspect of its design, from the traditional dress of the staff (tartan and tweed) to the creative decor. Each of its rooms has its own distinctive theme, which may be a local person of interest, a Royal who has a connection with the area, or something more generic, such as the ‘Highlander’ room, which one of our bloggers stayed in.

While not everyone can afford to stay overnight there, it is well worth a visit for a drink or reasonably priced pub food, which you can do at its public bar, the Flying Stag. Plus, you’ll still be able to wander the hotel and visit the exquisite Fire Room and Library; the latter features wax works of Queen Victoria from Madame Tussauds.

Other accommodation options exist in the popular town of Braemar. We stayed in the charming Braemar Lodge Hotel, where we received a warm Scottish welcome – both from the staff and the hotel’s roaring fire. Make sure to book accommodation for your road trip in advance to avoid any disappointment. 

Have fun, take silly selfies and tag us on social media!

There are so many good photo opportunities on the SnowRoads – from scenic to pure silly.

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