Cairngorm crackers - mountain biking deep in the Highlands of Scotland

Mountain Biking Collection by

If you want true solitude, true wilderness and true mountain experiences in the UK, and you're coming (as most will be) from the south, your safest bet is to head north, and then north and finally north some more. Then head a little east, and eventually you'll find yourself in the Cairngorms mountain range.

For mountain biking, in sheer scale and scope, there's nowhere to rival the Cairngorm range in the UK. Indeed, for potential height gain, potential distance and potential weather experiences the region is unique, but the rewards are similarly colossal. Originally much higher and more forbidding, ice ages and weather have eroded the mountains to relative stumps in comparison to their previous glory - but they're still pretty forbidding. And of course, the somewhat more rolling shape affords many more exquisite possibilities for mountain biking.

There are no roads through the range; it's approached by skirting it from the south, or from the north; likely as not you'll find yourself on one of the settlements on the River Spey. The prime location is probably Aviemore. It's the most developed, and the town with the most facilities for tourists - although this can mean it gets busy, even in the summer. There's a train station, lots of accommodation options and plenty of outdoor shops and bike hire places. But although it's busy, as soon as you head more than a mile or two into the hills things become markedly more quiet.

Other alternative places stay include Kingussie (which also has a train station) to the south and Grantown to the north. They're both a little smaller, but they all offer suitable amenities to bikers - and of course, they all have excellent mountain biking opportunities on their doorsteps.

And what opportunities they are! From the quiet loch side pottering around Loch Gynack just north of Kingussie to the preposterously epic Lairig Ghru or the summits of Two to Five (which denotes the second, third, fourth and fifth highest peaks in Scotland) there's something here for everyone, but especially for those with a mind for real, honest to goodness isolated mountain riding.

Especially on those longer rides, there will inevitably be occasions when you'll need to carry your bike; make no mistake, these Tours aren't for the faint of heart, and it's essential that you follow proper mountain safety procedures. Take extra clothing, appropriate equipment, download offline maps (but make sure to take paper ones as backups), take a first aid kit and emergency rations and know where you are at all times. The weather can be extremely changeable, especially on the tops, so leave information about your route with someone - even if it's someone at a local bike shop or cafe, it's better to be safe than sorry. And the bothy shelters which can be found in the area - originally shelters for rangers and gamekeepers - have saved many lives in the past.

The weather is a key issue in the Cairngorms - they have experienced the highest winds ever in Britain (176mph, 283kph) in the winter of 1993 and temperatures as cold as -27℃ have been recorded. A lot of riding happens higher up on the plateau - but this should be avoided if the weather is poor; there are many more fantastic opportunities further down the valleys which don't offer nearly as much exposure.

But for all this doom-mongering, the Cairngorms can offer a variety of unique and glorious experiences you'll be hard pressed to find anywhere else in the world, let alone the UK. Make adequate preparations, plan properly and you'll be rewarded with two-wheeled adventures that you'll never forget!

On The Map

Tours & Highlights

  • Difficult
    28.0 mi
    5.7 mph
    3,375 ft
    3,375 ft
    Expert mountain bike ride. Very good fitness required. Suitable for all skill levels.

    This is a big old day in the saddle and no mistake. But all that effort is rewarded with some of the finest riding in the area. It's forested to start with, but soon gets more exposed - so prepare accordingly!

    The route starts at Inverdruie, which is just south of Aviemore, and wends its way southwards towards Lock an Eilein and its spectacular castle ruin.

    Trails and good doubletrack then take you up to the start of the Lairig Ghru, before doubling back past the north flank Castle Hill, and one of the highlights of the route.

    The biggest climb of the day is likely a push/carry, up from the Ryovan Bothy to the top of the Meall a' Bhuachaille. The Ridgeline trail that follows has technical sections, steep climbs and descents and some of the most jaw-dropping scenery that you'll find anywhere.

    Following the (excellent) descent down to the Badaguish Outdoor Centre, it's a gentle and quiet road back to the starting point.

    If you'd like to cut out the more exposed and technical parts of the ride, then the easiest shortcut would be to head past Loch Morlich instead of striking north to the Ryovan Bothy and re-join the route after it descends from Badaguish.

    The route starts in Inverdruie, but it's only a short spin from Aviemore, which boasts a train station, more restaurants and a positive plethora of accommodation options.

  • Difficult
    32.4 mi
    6.2 mph
    3,575 ft
    3,625 ft
    Expert mountain bike ride. Very good fitness required. Suitable for all skill levels.

    By all accounts, General Wade was an unusual chap. Served in all sorts of wars, and then got a bee in his bonnet about subjugating the rowdy Scots by building all manner of barracks, bridges, and road all over the highlands of Scotland. This proved lucky for us bikers though, as his roads provide an excellent way to get into some truly remote places with relative ease.

    This is not a difficult route - although expect some climbing - but the main attraction is the wonderful scenery and the breathtaking feeling of beautiful isolation. It's also relatively palatable when the weather isn't particularly attractive, although it can get blowy in parts. But the surface tends to hold up well.

    The route starts from Aviemore, drops south for a spell, and then (as all things inevitably must) heads upwards at Lynwilg. Roughly following the course of the Alt Dubh, the track winds its way between Geal-charn Mòr and Geal-charn Beag before dropping down to the River Dulnain.

    There then follows a real treat, as the trail meanders along with the river through some glorious scenery, before ending up at one of General Wade's creations, the Sluggan Bridge.

    From here, another of the General's roads drops down to the main road, and crosses over to find the Speyside Way back to Aviemore.

    Aviemore itself is the natural start-point for this route; well served with restaurants, bike shops and outdoor shops, accommodation of all stripes and a train station.

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  • Difficult
    37.0 mi
    4.4 mph
    4,225 ft
    4,225 ft
    Expert mountain bike ride. Very good fitness required. Advanced riding skills necessary. Some portions of the Tour may require you to carry your bike.

    This is an enormous day out, with some substantial mileage. It's certainly an all-dayer! But for all that mileage, there's not a colossal amount of climbing. Sure, 1,260m (4,232 ft) of climbing is not to be sniffed at, but it's mostly contained within one long haul at the start, and another half way through. The rewards, in both trail technicality and heat-stopping beauty, make this one worth getting up early for.

    The trail starts at the Reindeer Centre by Lock Morlich and heads through Rothiemurchus before heading south over the Lairig Ghru, which is a glorious trail through some of the most epic scenery that Scotland has to offer.

    Eventually the trail runs south of Carn a' Mhaim, and becomes somewhat more woodsy as the route strikes northwards up Glen Derry, winding its way past the Fords of Avon refuge (not recommended for overnighting unless you're totally desperate) and past Bynack Móre and an invigorating descent back to the start.

    As mentioned, this is a huge ride. It's possible to ride it in a day at the height of summer; but either side of this it might be more fun split into two, with an overnight at the Corrour Bothy off the Lairig Ghru itself.

    There is only one opportunity to cut the ride short, but that requires a carry up to the summit of Ben Macdui from the path near the Allt Clach nan Taillear stream and then skirting Lock Avon. It adds a substantial amount of altitude.

    The route starts from the Reindeer centre and campsite at Lock Morlich (there's also a cafe); total masochists might enjoy putting a few more miles on the distance by staying in Aviemore.

  • Intermediate
    29.5 mi
    6.8 mph
    2,175 ft
    2,175 ft
    Intermediate mountain bike ride. Good fitness required. Suitable for all skill levels.

    This is a loop to be savoured. Slightly to the north of Aviemore, Grantown-on-Spey is smaller, and not quite as festooned with tourists and outdoor enthusiasts, and so has plenty of appeal if you like things slightly more quiet.

    The route initially heads out north, and into Lynmacgregor Woods. Here, after you've climbed, you can follow the route, or you can keep your eyes peeled for a wide variety of excellent singletrack which leads down the hill; it's all fantastic.

    Another diversion then follows, up to Beachen Woods. Much the same technique is suggested here - the route provides some excellent trails and singletrack, or you can look out for the somewhat steeper singletrack opportunities off to your left that drop you back down to the dismantled railway.

    After a stop, if you so desire, in Grantown, the cycle trails just to the south of Grantown provide an amusing distraction, before the route heads south on the Speyside Way dismantled railway to Nethy Bridge, and then plunges into Abernethy Forest.

    Here, wide fire-roads and easy tracks wind south towatdfs the truly excellent singletrack trails to the west of Carn a' Chnuic, where the route heads back north through twisty forest roads, singletrack and nature reserves back to town.

    Grantown boasts plenty of accommodation opportunities, but sadly no train station - the nearest one is Aviemore - but the ride there is rather pleasant. It does boast some good pubs, an excellent bakery and more hills than you can shake a substantially sized stick at, and as mentioned it's not quite as seething with tourists in the summer months as its neighbours can be.

  • Difficult
    30.7 mi
    4.5 mph
    8,000 ft
    8,000 ft
    Expert mountain bike ride. Very good fitness required. Advanced riding skills necessary. Some portions of the Tour may require you to carry your bike.

    This is a monster. A long, long ride, with 2,440m (8005ft) of climbing. That's a whole lot, by anyone's standards. The rewards, though, are totally phenomenal. Technical climbs. Technical descents. Staggering views. Scotland's second, third, fourth and fifth highest summits. And true, true wilderness riding. If you want to get away from it all, then this is the one.

    From the ski centre, the trail takes a line straight south past Cairn Lochan and on to the summit of Ben Macdui. Don't be fooled though, this is quite a climb and no mistake. The views from the summit (once thought to be taller than Ben Nevis) are beyond compare, though.

    The descent from here is steep and nadgery, as the trail picks its way down the mountain to spend a short time on the Lairig Ghru before another steepening climb/carry past the Corrour Bothy towards the Devil's Point.

    Here's another one of the route's highlights, as it takes in the next highest points in Scotland (you've already bagged the second) as the trail slowly heads back north and joins the descent back from the Lairig Ghru before heading back to the Ski Centre.

    This is one of those routes which is really only for good weather. There's an awful lot of height gain, and there is plenty of potential for problems if the weather sets in, so be properly prepared! Tell people of your route and take adequate safety kit, as well as more food and water than you think you'll need. There's nowhere to refuel if you get caught short.

    The start of the route is properly remote, too. Granted, the ski-centre isn't too far from Aviemore, but it's a fair old climb to get there, and taking the initial sting out by car to the ski centre is probably the more sensible option!

    If you don't feel like talking the whole thing in one day, then there's a bothy half-way round, which could offer an excellent point to stop and spend the night before tackling the second half. The Corrour Bothy is well placed, then, but there's no fuel gathering locally (it's prohibited) so take fuel with you, or pack plenty of warm things.

  • Intermediate
    7.22 mi
    7.9 mph
    525 ft
    525 ft
    Intermediate mountain bike ride. Great for any fitness level. Advanced riding skills necessary.

    A good, straightforward ride with not much climbing; excellent for a quick poor weather blast, or a picnic with the kids, with a taste of good wilderness riding thrown in.

    From Kingussie, the route heads north past the golf course, and up to Loch Gynack, which is ridiculously picturesque, nestled as it is between two large massifs.

    The trail then skirts the edge of pretty woodland before plunging through it (look out for a couple of fords) and crossing the moor towards the Pitmain Burn, and returning back on the road.

    There's plenty of accommodation on offer in Kingussie, and a train station. The town itself also boasts plenty of amenities, a cycle hire facility close to the post office, and the Highlands Folk Museum.

  • Intermediate
    21.6 mi
    6.7 mph
    2,175 ft
    2,175 ft
    Intermediate mountain bike ride. Good fitness required. Suitable for all skill levels.

    This is a terrific route which packs plenty of singletrack, plenty of views and a whole lot of fun.

    From Kingussie, the route drops south before heading east past Drumguish and heading into the woods to reach the top of Creag Dhubh.

    From here, there's a brilliant trail down the eastern flank to the road, which the route follows for a while before heading for a loop of wonderful trails on the northern side of the hill.

    Once playtime is over, the route follows the Badenoch Way back to Drumguish (a perfect place to cut the ride short if you prefer) and over to Glentromie Lodge, where the trail heads up and over Being Bhuidhe and drops - via another excellent trail - back to the road and Kingussie.

    Kingussie is an excellent little town, not as busy as Aviemore up the valley, which nevertheless boasts a variety of accommodation options, shops, restaurants, bike hire and a train station.

Collection Stats

  • Tours
  • Distance
    186 mi
  • Duration
    33:54 h
  • Elevation
    24,050 ft

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