The Cairngorms Loop is a well known bikepacking route in the Scottish Highlands, listed as a 186 mile (300km) independent time trial (ITT), meaning you can go and ride it any time you like and record your time on the route. There are many of these types of routes in the UK for riders to challenge themselves with, but they’re also fantastic touring routes if you’d rather take your time.
186 miles might not sound like much, but the Cairngorms Loop features anything but easy terrain. There’s 12 000 feet (3640 meters) of climbing over the route from rocky doubletrack to challenging singletrack, narrow quiet lanes to traffic free cycleways. Even over five days as we propose here, you’ll need a certain degree of fitness to make it enjoyable.
The beauty of bikepacking in this area of Scotland is the abundance of bothies - once remote huts for use by farmers, travellers or shoots, and now open for use by all as a shelter or even just a nice lunch stop. These refuges make the wilds of Scotland all the more accessible, and are charming places to visit. On this route, you’ll really make the most of them, staying overnight in three and visiting a further two. One night will involve wild camping and the penultimate night is in a Youth Hostel. Of course you can opt to change this as you like, but I’d suggest that the true bothy experience has to be sampled at least once!
Ideally you’ll need a mountain bike for this route. Although there are quite a few linking road or gravel road sections that would be fine for a gravel or adventure bike, there are some really technical sections where you’ll wish you had a rigid, hard-tail or even full suspension mountain bike!
Very early or late summer (May or September/October) will undoubtedly be the best time of year to ride the Cairngorms Loop, when the midges are out in full effect, when the river levels are lower and hopefully the weather will be more favourable! If you visit between June and September, make sure you prepare for the midges with nets, repellent and avoid camping in damp, boggy areas.
Parts of the Cairngorms Loop are very remote and you should take full precautions with your safety, including each carrying a survival bag, emergency provisions and taking special care at water crossings or avoiding them if water levels are too high. Make sure you know the emergency procedure should the worst happen far from civilisation.
Blair Atholl, the start and end point of the Cairngorms Loop, is a small village but thankfully served by trains. You can change for Blair Atholl from many major stations, including Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Inverness, all of which have local airports. If you’re travelling from London, why not take the Caledonian Sleeper Train to Edinburgh and change for local services to Blair Atholl? An alternative start to the double loop is in Aviemore, although this will not count as an ITT attempt if you’re ‘racing’.
Read more about the Cairngorms Loop here: cairngormsloop.net/index.html
Here are the rules if you’d like to complete as an ITT: cairngormsloop.net/rules.html
Starting with 43 miles (70 km) on the first day from Blair Atholl, the first day starts at the most Southerly tip of the double loop on the outer ring …
The second day starts on the East Highland Way, starting the inner loop of the Cairngorms loop heading clockwise. It’s a shorter distance at 25 miles (40.5km) but don’t be …
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At 45 miles (73km), the third day is the longest, including feet (500 meters) of climbing. Say goodbye to Bob Scott’s Bothy as you head South passing the Lin O’Dee, …
The penultimate stage of 36 miles (58km) takes you from the North of the outer loop down the East, from the Abernethy National Nature Reserve to the village of Braemar …
The final day of the tour closes the South-Eastern outer loop, from Braemar back to Blair Atholl covering 37 miles (60 km). Start by heading South-West along the road next …