Does expansive moorland, quiet forestry, marshland, wildlife, waterfalls and hidden bothies sound like your cup of tea? The Deeside Trail could be just for you; a 140 mile (225 km) bikepacking route across the Grampian Mountains from Aberdeenshire into the Cairngorms National Park and back again, following the course of the River Dee. It’s an area much admired by Queen Victoria over 150 years ago and home to Balmoral Estate, hence dubbed ‘Royal Deeside’. If it’s good enough for royalty, good enough for you, surely?
The route is circular, both starting and finishing in the town of Banchory in the east, not far from Aberdeen. It follows along the south of the Dee to Ballater and Braemar towns before looping north on the second, more remote leg, passing through Mar Lodge estate and back through Ballater for the second time before heading back to the Dee again once more in Banchory.
Here we present the Deeside Trail in five stages. You may wish to take these as a stage per day, or adjust according to your ambition or fitness level. Ideally you’ll need a good level of fitness to attempt the route as there are some tough climbs, and a few technical parts on the route. Be prepared that there might be some pushing!
You’ll also need to be aware that some of these trails are relatively remote, so be comfortable with emergency procedures and basic first aid. You can find ticks in this area so make sure you check yourself and your friends regularly and take a tick pull with you. Towns that have shops for resupply include Banchory, Ballater, Braemar, Tarland and Lumphanan.
You’ll find accommodation in these villages and towns too, although it’s very wise to book ahead to avoid disappointment. It is legal to wild camp in this part of Scotland, but just make sure you’re being respectful and follow the Scottish Outdoor Access Code (read more here outdooraccess-scotland.scot/practical-guide-all/camping). There are also a number of bothies on the route.
The best time of year to tackle the Deeside Trail is undoubtedly late spring to early summer, once the ground has dried out a little, yet before the onset of midge season. It’s not recommended for the winter season due to boggy conditions under tyre and potential severe weather.
Travel to the start of the Deeside Trail in Banchory is slightly less accessible than other nearby bikepacking trails, as there’s no train station at the start/finish. The closest station is on the coastline at Stonehaven (16.4 miles or 26.4 km by road) or direct from Aberdeen city is a little further (18.3 miles or 29.4 km by road). As it’s a circular route, you could travel by car and leave it in Banchory for a few days while you complete the ride, as you’ll finish where you started here at the bridge over the Dee. For more information on visiting Banchory, visit visitbanchory.com/the-location/how-to-get-here.
Fancy giving it a go? Find out more at deesidetrail.com/route
Begin the circular Deeside Trail in Banchory, leaving the bridge over the Dee heading west as you start the loop clockwise along the southern edge of the trail. You’ll be climbing gently straight away, with three big climbs on this first 40 mile (59.4 km) day and a few smaller ones in between.
Climb through the heart of Blackhall Forest on fire roads, summiting near the top of the Hill of Tillylair. Enjoy the forestry road descent through Slewdrum Forest before a short road stint to Craigmore Wood. There, you’ll ride up and over the smaller peak there and start the steady climb up to the highest point of the day; Carnferg Peak. As you cross the Forest of Birse it’s relatively easy going, but as soon as you near the summit, the trail ramps up to over 14 per cent gradients!
At the top of Carnferg you’ll (weather permitting) enjoy spectacular views of Aberdeenshire, before a fun descent on off road doubletrack heading north. Now you pass into the Cairngorms National Park, a bikepacker’s paradise with lots of other routes including the Cairngorms Loop. Descend to join the Water of Allachy in the Glen Tanar National Nature Reserve, before following the Water of Tanar.
Make sure you don’t pass by the Half Way Hut without popping in, especially if the weather is less than ideal! Soon after, you peel off to the north for the final climb of the day to reach into the Victorian village of Ballater. Follow the doubletrack over Black Moss and past Craigrae Beg down to the main road (B976), before hugging alongside the River Dee into the village. The Carriage Tearooms come highly recommended, and you’ll find lots of options here for overnight accommodation; just make sure you book ahead.
The second stage on the Deeside Trail is shorter at 28 miles (38.4 km), with one gradual climb and descent on the route linking the villages of Ballater and Braemar. It’s a wonderfully royal day too, passing into the Balmoral Estate in the Cairngorms National Park.
Start by leaving Ballater heading south. If you camped out and haven’t eaten yet, it’s well worth popping into the Bothy cafe there. You’re straight back onto forestry doubletrack roads as you follow the River Muick, climbing steadily up through the glen towards the loch.
Head west before you reach the loch to pass the slopes of Conachcraig without the slog to the summit and ride north as you start the fun moorland rocky descent. There’s an optional detour here to visit one of the royal bothies; Gelder Shiel Stable, which is highly recommended as a shelter if the weather is rough.
From the bothy it’s not far into the village of Braemar with it’s impressive castle. Follow the doubletrack roads down the River Dee once again to rejoin the smooth, fast paved road back into civilisation.
Braemar is a lively little Cairngorms village with a great hostel and a few places to eat. Enjoy your time here before getting a bit more remote in the following stages!
Get recommendations on the best single tracks, peaks, & plenty of other exciting outdoor places.
Stage three is a challenging one, with a greater distance of 36.4 miles (58.6 km), so make sure you’re prepared for today! You’ll be returning once again to Ballater at the end of the ride, but it’s time to go high and remote into the Mar Lodge Estate National Nature Reserve and along the River Gairn first.
Start the stage by climbing gently in a south west direction, through the Morrone Birkwoods Nature Reserve, keeping your eyes peeled for the abundant wildlife here. There’s a short descent before crossing the River Dee into the Mar Lodge Estate Nature Reserve.
Pass the beautiful waterfalls near the Lin O’Dee as you turn north, heading up the Lui Water valley, a gentle but long climb up to the pass where the River Gairn is sourced. From this high point, the route gently descends for the rest of the stage, following this river down through the glen to where it meets the Dee, just to the west of Ballater, before joining a small lane back into the village that you’ve already visited.
The penultimate stage is the shortest at 21.6 miles (34.7 km) and fairly easy and flat until the end when it climbs up to the summit of Pressendye. You’ll leave the Cairngorms National Park behind, heading east now, yet still in the Grampian Mountains area of the Highlands.
Start with the Ballater & Burn o’Vat circular singletrack route (Deeside Way) heading north east past Tullich and north over the small Cnoc Dubh climb. Then ride through the Muir of Dinnet Nature Reserve, through the marshland and wooded trails past Loch Kinoch on the northern shores.
You’ll rejoin the road for a short stretch north before pedalling north east again on a mixture of doubletrack gravel roads and quiet paved lanes to Tarland. There’s a shop here so make sure you stock up on supplies whilst you can. You’ll start the day’s climb here, a gentle gradient taking you up on a lane that crumbles into doubletrack and then off-road singletrack, ramping up in steepness towards the summit of Pressendye.
Don’t enjoy the summit views for too long as it’s often very breezy up there, and descend down a zig zag of singletrack and gravel roads to Queen’s View, which owes its name to Queen Victoria, who admired this spot over 150 years ago.
The best option for tonight is to wild camp here, or you can detour to the nearby villages for rooms in Inns or guesthouses.
This is the final stage of the Deeside Trail; but don’t be fooled into thinking it’s an easy one! You’ll have 24 miles (38.5km) to cover by bike today, which will bring you back to your starting point in Banchory. There are a few peaks on the way; Craiglich, Blelack Hill, Sundayswells Hill, Craigenet, Hill of Fare, Craigrath and Hill of Brathens.
Start your day with the climb up Craiglich. If you were cold to start with, you won’t be for long! After bagging this hill summit, continue along the top past Blelack Hill and start to descend gently, contouring around Mill Maud, and down into Lumphanan.
After a short stint on the main road, turn left onto the Sundayswells climb, head up to the summit on doubletrack and then across the moorland. Continue up to Craigenet, before following double and singletrack to the highest point of the day at the Hill of Fare.
It’s mostly downhill from here; starting with a fantastic descent to Craigrath and then down past Craigbeg on the singletrack trail.
After all the climbing you’ve already done, the very last climb up the Hill of Brathens will feel like nothing, over moorland and forestry to descend back down to the town of Banchory. While the official route finishes back at the bridge over the Dee, we’ve routed you to the Ride Coffee House nearby for a celebratory drink and something to refuel on!