When summertime does things properly around here, it feels almost rude not to make the most of every last minute of sunshine. Scottish summer nights can seem almost endless, and even when sitting inside having a post-ride cup of tea the evening sunlight streaming through the windows tells you to get straight back outside. To make the most of the amazing weather I decided to go bike-packing, and while I was at it to tick off a classic tour of the Cairngorms that I’d been meaning to do for a while. Starting from Blair Atholl and heading up Glen Tilt to Linn of Dee, I would then cross from Deeside into Glen Avon and Tomintoul, before traversing the northern edge of the Cairngorms across to Aviemore and Feshie Bridge and returning to Glen Tilt via Glen Feshie. The plan was to link the four great rivers of the Cairngorms – the Tilt, Dee, Avon and Feshie – travelling around 120 miles over the 2days.
I hit the familiar trail across the Forth and up the M90 once work was finished and the kayaks packed up on Friday, and headed to the Old Bridge of Tilt car park at Blair Atholl. The local boy-racers turned up to provide the late-night entertainment, and in keeping with the recent temperatures it was mosquitoes rather than midges that threatened the peace. I met an old boy who had driven up from the south of England to walk the hills; he’d obviously mastered making the most of the summer days, as he told me he’d been up since 5.00 am and had rolled into the car par at around 9.00 in the evening. Before going to bed I got my luggage sorted on the bike – I had borrowed a Revelate Designs harness to take a large drybag across the handlebars, and all weekend I was impressed at how simple and stable it was. Panniers or a trailer can be awkward to use on more technical trails, but balancing overnight kit between a drybag on the bars and one behind the seat worked out fine, and the extra weight even increased traction noticeably on technical climbs and river crossings.
I set off at 7.30 Saturday morning into a chilly mist that had settled in overnight, but as I span up Glen Tilt it quickly burned off to reveal another bluebird day. Tilt runs straight as an arrow, going from Blair Atholl right to the heart of the Cairngorms, and some sweepingly remote stretches of country. Crossing the Falls of Tarf on the footbridge, some incredible singletrack kicks you up into the headwaters of the Tilt and over the watershed towards Deeside. The extra weight of the bike was both a hindrance in terms of the effort required to climb, but also unexpectedly useful as the bike crawled up steep, technical sections glued to the trail.
I try not to complain, but I’m more used to hot aches and miserable dampness than heatstroke, and as the morning went on I started to feel the effects of the sun. I was glad the route followed rivers and streams for almost its entire length; climbing the singletrack on a loaded bike was sweaty going. Descending from the watershed towards White Bridge might have been only landrover track, but it was fun going. The extra weight of the luggage seemed to pull the bike through the air faster than when unloaded and glued it to the ground, allowing some sketchy speeds when paired with an aero tuck as I whizzed past Bynack Lodge. The multiple fords allowed a bit of water-assisted cooling.
Towards the Linn of Dee I started to see people again, and the car park by the bridge was pretty full. I followed the Dee along through woods that smelled of hot pine resin, feeling more like I was in the Alps than the Cairngorms. Passing the Linn of Quoich and the Punch Bowl, I stopped for lunch in the shade and refilled the water again before the long climb over into Glen Avon. Once I left the shelter of the trees the heat really beat down, and I was glad to see the top of Bealach Dearg at 650m. Descending to Loch Builg was wild: massive speeds on the loaded bike and naturally bermed corners. More singletrack greets you when you reach Loch Builg. Alternating between rocky and smooth sections, the kilometres ticked by as I concentrated more on the trail and the scenery than the distance covered.
The long drag following the course of the River Avon felt endless, but was helped by a strong following breeze. Although not the prettiest part of the ride, I noticed the Glen Avon estate have introduced areas of new forest protected by deer fence, so perhaps in the future Glen Avon will look more like Glen Feshie or Abernethy. The track soon turned to tarmac, and before long I left the glen and arrived in Tomintoul, where their Highland Games were taking place! I almost stopped in to have a look around, but I could smell delicious things frying, and decided the danger of a lengthy pit stop was too great, so I saddled back up and headed down to Kylnadrochit Lodge.
After leaving the main road there were a series of short climbs and descents to get me through to Abernethy Forest and the Ryovan Pass. The heat of the afternoon was a bit intense, but the Northern Corries started to come into view beyond Ryovan and Meall a Buachaille, still shrouded in the remains of the winter snows, and the smell of hot pine hung about in the air. I started to wish that someone else were there to share it, but took a few more photos instead. There was a slight hiccup before I reached Abernethy, as the track I had planned to follow to Lurg Farm didn’t exist, but luckily I picked up a few twisting deer tracks through the heather and soon found myself back in the shade of the forest. Dropping over the Ryovan Pass to Glenmore Lodge marked the last climb of the day, and I flew down the Old Logging Way to Aviemore to meet Annie and the other folk from TreeZone at the Old Bridge Inn. A quick swim in the river was super welcome, followed by a curry at the Royal.
We headed across to camp at the Sawdust Pool on the Feshie, near Feshiebridge. Pretty quickly, we realised the hard way that the parachute cord on Annie’s hammock did not support the weight of two people. Nursing sore heads, we laid it out on the ground instead, and went to sleep on a bed of warm pine needles.
Sunday morning dawned just as bright as the day before, and my sore bum was thankful that I only had around 40 miles to cover, instead of the 80ish of the day before. Once I’d passed Ruigh Aiteachain and reached the upper Feshie, the trail hit more singletrack; pretty exposed and with some committed sections on a loaded bike above the 20ft drop to the river. I kept moving, and met a group that were riding to Braemar, having stopped to sunbathe a minute and enjoy some lunch. Once you leave the Feshie watershed and follow the Geldie Burn to White Bridge, the trail becomes a little more vague. The sphagnum moss beneath the wheels made me glad for the ultra-dry conditions. Once the singletrack became more established, short, smoother sections were broken up frequently by lumpy, grassy stream crossings. After a few kilometres of this I became a bit sick of the lack of flow, but a golden eagle circling overhead made up for it, and I sat back to have a snack and watch it spin lazy spirals over the moors.
The sight of Bynack lodge marked a return to familiar trails, and I worked hard, eager to begin the descent of the Tilt singletrack. It was even better in the opposite direction, providing a shoe-lace thin trail draped along the side of the glen. To drop back into the narrow notch of the Glen felt like a good way to end the tour. The landscape of the Cairngorms is so expansive that to cross the rolling humps of hills that could be seen coming from miles away was a reminder of how far you can take yourself just by sitting on and spinning away. The four rivers that I’d followed had taken me to the four corners of the Cairngorms, showing me new corners of the hills and some classic remote singletrack. At the risk of sounding like the guys from Reveal the Path, the simplicity of moving through the land with everything you need on a bike was completely absorbing; any sense of time wrapped up in pedalling. It was beautifully simple. Okay, that’s it, deep stuff over. It’s a great ride though, and with towns at several points along the way it could easily be split into a three or four day trip. It would go as a one-day ride as well of course, which would make a great early-autumn all day epic…