cycling the cairngorms

Markus Stitz Cairngorms Bikepacking – 360 degree loop

Planning your 5-day bikepacking adventure around the Cairngorms National Park

This route was mapped by Markus Stitz and 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.

Here in the Cairngorms, we have the best cycling in Scotland and the beauty of this route is that it connects the Cairngorms communities so you can choose to stay overnight in Bed and Breakfasts, Hostels or Hotels and enjoy the comforts of home while enjoying an epic adventure! The Cairngorms also boast some brilliant cafes and restaurants so you can fuel your ride on delicious food. There is also a number of bikes shops throughout the Cairngorms who all have brilliant insight to their local trails and who can offer bike hire and maintenance.

Below we set out the best places to stay and stop off on each day of the route, as well as a taster of each section and what to expect…..

Safety First

A clear warning that this ride is not for novices.

If you are cycling we recommend you travel with someone to enjoy the views together. We suggest you tell your accommodation you are travelling the route and where you will be cycling from that day. Good navigation skills along with a map and compass are essential.

Before setting off on each ride, you should always perform the M-check (a basic safety check) on your bike.

What to pack

An adventure of this nature involves some careful planning on what to take with you. The Cairngorms can throw every season at you in one day weather wise so be prepared for that. There are some remote sections of the route so bike tools and ability to use them is also a must for your adventure.

Markus’s new book Bikepacking Scotland has a great section on what to pack so is well worth purchasing for that and details of this route.

You can start the route anywhere as a circular, but for the purpose of this blog we will base the start and finish in Aviemore which has good transport links by train and bus.

Day 1 – Aviemore

Aviemore is one of the bigger communities in the Cairngorms National Park and has a really good selection of accommodation, places to eat and drink (best to book ahead for dinner in busy times) and some great bike shops who are on hand with excellent local knowledge of the surrounding trails.

If you want to hire a bike you can do this at Aviemore Bikes or Backcountry.Scot who love getting out and will happily share their knowledge and experience. Markus hired a bike at Aviemore Bikes to do this route and make the film.

Depending on when you arrive you can check into your accommodation, get your bike ready or pick it up from the shop and enjoy a good meal before getting a good sleep for the start of your adventure on day 2.

Markus hired a bike at Aviemore Bikes. You can also hire from Backcountry.Scot in Aviemore and other shops out with the village.

Day 2 – Aviemore to Blair Atholl

The start of your journey travels along the Speyside Way south to Kingussie. If you can make time for a stop at the Old Post Office Cafe & Gallery in Kincraig you will not regret it. Toni who runs the cafe is a huge biking enthusiast and the cafe is very bike friendly. This part of the Speyside Way is a good surface but features quite a few gates and undulating terrain. From Kincraig you cross the River Spey at Loch Insh and journey onto Kingussie passing some incredible landscapes of the Uath Lochans hidden in the Caledonian Pine Forest in Glen Feshie, and with a short detour Ruthven Barracks dating back to Jacobite times.

There are a further two bike shops in Kingussie (Bothy Bikes) if you need any supplies before taking on the Gaick Pass which is a remote section which joins Badenoch with Highland Perthshire.

Here you can enjoy the challenges of the Gaick Pass or choose to take the easier option of tarmac down Route 7 passing Newtonmore and Dalwhinnie alongside the A9 and onto Blair Atholl, the stop for the night.

The Gaick Pass section follows Glen Tromie upstream on gravel tracks passing Loch an t-Seilich to Gaick Lodge (an 18th-century hunting lodge) then past Loch Bhrodainn to Loch an Dùin where at the Northern end of this loch there is a short challenging section of single track. There is a short push through a boggy section at the southern end of the loch before you rejoin gravel tracks and travel downhill to the A9 to follow Sustrans route 7 along the B8079 to Blair Atholl. The scenery through this section is beautiful and a more enjoyable cycle than the path alongside the A9.

There is a choice of accommodation options in Blair Atholl from hotels to camping pods and if you stay at the Blair Castle campsite you also get entry into the castle grounds.

Glentromie into the Gaick Pass

Day 3 – Blair Atholl to Braemar

This is a big day with no services along the route for 75km until Braemar. The river crossings on this section can be dangerous after heavy rain so an alternative is to travel up Glen Tilt and along to Braemar that way.

The public road from Blair Atholl ends at Loch Moraig and turns into a wide double track then eventually singletrack beneath the huge mountain of Beinn a’ Ghlò. From here you hit the river crossings which will give you wet feet at the least. Singletrack through the heather continues for a while before eventually descending on a gravel track to Glen Loch. Soon you enter the landscape of the Cateran EcoMuseum, a museum without walls….. designed to reveal the hidden heritage of this captivating part of Perthshire and Angus by the community who live there, the Cateran Ecomuseum tells the story of its people, places and landscapes.

The landscape turns from forest plantation to barren hills as you approach the Lunch Hut at Dirnanean, a welcome shelter and rest spot. Making your way north from here you will come to the top of the trail (with a bit of pushing) and take in the amazing view into Glenshee. From here you can enjoy the descent and make a stop at the church and standing stone at the Spittal of Glenshee. There is plenty of history to take in here in the Glen of the Fairies and the route now follows the Snowroads scenic route with a steady climb towards the Cairnwell Pass on the A93. This is Scotland’s highest road at 670m and the highest point of this loop. If you extend the route with cycling the highest off-road route in Scotland, check out the Monega Pass route on the Cateran Ecomuseum’s website, which is also featured in Markus’ book Great British Gravel Rides

At Newbigging on the descent to Braemar you can take the smaller road on the opposite side of the river and join the Deeside Trail into Braemar. Braemar is a great place to stop and rest overnight. You can choose from Hostel, Campsite, Guest House or even the 5 star Fife Arms Hotel accommodation here. Braemar is a bustling village with many cultural events if you happen to time your visit with one of the many events (event listings on our site) on, you are in for a treat.

The Cairnwell Pass

Day 4 – Braemar to Tomintoul

Bid farewell to bonnie Braemar and cycle along the Queen’s Drive before you join the A93 to the Invercauld bridge. There is a cycle path under construction here. You cross the Dee here twice…. once on the newer road bridge and then the Old Bridge of Dee which was part of the old military road from Perthshire. The route now travels through the beautiful Caledonian Pine Forest of Ballochbuie and onto the Balmoral Estate. There is lots to take in here on short detours such as the Balmoral Cairns, the Castle itself and Lochnagar Distillery. The route passes through beautiful Glen Girnock before joining the B976 and crossing the River Dee again into Ballater.

Ballater would also make for a great overnight stop with plenty of accommodation to choose from. There are also two excellent bike shops here with lots of local knowledge. Cycle Highlands and Bike Station Ballater.

The route follows the riverside out of Ballater. You cross the river on a footbridge and join the A939 to Gairnshiel Bridge and the B976 to Braenaloin. The route follows the River Gairn on an amazingly smooth gravel track to Loch Builg and then through Glen Avon to the highest village in the Highlands – Tomintoul! Tomintoul and Glenlivet, in particular, have been awarded the prestigious status of ‘International Dark Sky Park’ making it the most northerly park of its kind in the world. A visit to the Whisky Castle here and some star gazing is a must for your down time.

Credit – North East Adventure Tourism / Rob Grew – Cycling through Ballater

Day 5 – Tomintoul to Aviemore

The final stretch of your adventure starts with quite a climb out of Tomintoul and over the Bridge of Brown, a steep stretch of road out towards Grantown on Spey. Before you join the Speyside Way at Grantown, a must-visit for fuel a short detour off route is KJ’s Bothy Bakery (check opening times to avoid disappointment). This is a treasure trove of baking goodies hidden on the industrial estate and well worth the detour.

Follow the Speyside Way to Nethy Bridge (there are a number of gates along this flat section of the route). Nethy Bridge is also a great stop and has a lovely little cafe at the bridge – Nethy House Cafe as well as the Nethy Bridge Hotel across the road.

From here continue along the Speyside Way to Boat of Garten, a fantastic wee village with a very friendly shop full of tasty treats, the Boat Country Inn and a bike shop. There is also a pump track here which is a great addition to the village. The Strathspey Steam Railway station in the village is a great place to stop and take in the views. The final part of your journey travels through the forest in Boat of Garten out onto the open heather moor of the Speyside Way with big views to the Cairngorm Mountains and delivers you back to Aviemore where you started.

The Speyside Way at Grantown on Spey

What bike should I ride?

This route is suitable for gravel bikes with drop or flat bars or mountain bikes (suspension is optional).

There are remote parts of the route so being confident with maintenance of your bike is important.

What time of year is best?

Late Spring once the snow has cleared the higher ground, summer and early autumn are good times to cycle the route.
In the Cairngorms we can have all weathers, even in the summer so watching the weather and changing your plans accordingly is important for your own safety.

How do I get to and from the Start and Finish?

The Cairngorms National Park is easy to reach by road, rail, train or bike. Inverness Airport is within easy reach. 

Trains travel direct to Inverness, Glasgow, Edinburgh and London, with an overnight Caledonian Sleeper service daily from Euston.

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