Adventure playground makes for perfect summer outing to Cairngorms summits
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Sarah Williamson, who works at the Bothy Bakery in Grantown, looks back on a long bike and hike onto the Cairngorms plateau
Midsummer in the Highlands has always held a special attraction for me. Eighteen hours of daylight gives plenty of time for unhurried adventure and the landscape itself seems bursting at the seams with such energy that it’s impossible to resist its call.
My plan for the day is to cycle along the Rothiemurchus forest trails from the campsite at Colyumbridge, into Glen Einich. At Loch Einich I will swap bike for boots and ascend into Coire Dhondail before heading south-east to bag three Munros: Sgor an Lochain Uaine, Cairn Toul and The Devil’s Point.
Cycling through the Rothiemurchus Forest is a joyous experience at any time of year, but particularly so at midsummer. The vibrant green of the forest floor brings lightness and life while the gnarled trees, with their wispy beards of lichen, lose their sinister look and become kindly old gentlemen of the woods.
The track climbs steadily until a magnificent view of the Cairngorms opens out in front of me. On this glorious morning it’s easy to pick out two giants of this landscape, Cairn Gorm and Braeriach. But my eye is drawn to the smaller, yet perfectly formed summit of Cairn Eilrig. It’s dwarfed by its grander neighbours and yet its elegant peak beckons to me every time I see it. An adventure for another day, no doubt.
For now, I leave the view behind and embark on my favourite section of this ride. The trail splits – either fork will carry me to the shores of Loch Einich but the broader path to the right is dull in comparison to the narrow track on the left that follows the river, giving wonderful glimpses of white water, green pools and swirling eddies.
Larch and Scots pine hug the banks, creating mysterious dells lit by shafts of sunlight. Knobbly roots and patches of sticky mud on the path demand concentration but the ride is exhilarating. Eventually I rejoin the wider track and can pick up some speed, whizzing through a strange landscape of lumps and bumps towards the loch.
Loch Einich is a rectangle cradled tightly on three sides by steep ground – only its short northern edge is easily approachable. It’s still early in the day and the sun isn’t yet high enough to illuminate the water, making for a dark and foreboding atmosphere.
I quickly stash my bike in the heather and pick up the path that traverses the hillside into Coire Dhondail. The steep ground to my left is riven by waterfalls that plunge down from unseen sources and it’s fun to hop across them on rocky stepping stones.
Looking down on the loch below, I spot an inflatable kayak. It’s a tiny speck on the vast expanse of water but I enjoy seeing evidence of another person out here in the wilds.
The path becomes increasingly sketchy as it ascends the headwall of the coire and I take care as loose gravel skips away from my feet. It’s not long before I can relax again though, as broad grassy slopes lead me away from the lip of the coire to where the land falls away dramatically into the Lairig Ghru.
I can feel my heart pumping faster as I quicken my pace, eager to see the full drama of the landscape open up before me. Now, Sgor an Lochain Uaine reveals itself and behind that, Cairn Toul. Up here, patches of snow still streak the mountainside forming weird shapes against the dark ground.
The path onto Sgor an Lochain Uaine is clear and I’m soon standing on this ‘Angel’s Peak’ – a heavenly viewpoint indeed. It’s little more than a kilometre from here to the summit of Cairn Toul, but the route is more scrambly with large blocky boulders spread across the shoulders of the hill like a knobbly cloak.
From here I can see my final objective, The Devil’s Point. The sun is high now, throwing familiar landmarks into sharp relief. Below me is the Corrour Bothy, the River Dee winds its way south and Cairn a' Mhaim and Beinn Bhrotain guard the southern entrance to the Lairig Ghru.
I wolf down a sandwich on the Devil’s Point. The sky is darkening to the north and I’m keen to begin my return journey. Sure enough, back on the lower slopes of Cairn Toul small bullets of hail start to fall, stinging my face. I don’t reascend Cairn Toul but skirt around it, sometimes on a path, sometimes picking my way across the tussocky ground.
I soon regain the saddle from where I must head north-east back towards Glen Einich. The hail has stopped and the sun is out again. I take a moment to lay back in the grass and enjoy its warmth.
From the saddle I take a compass bearing to ensure that I head in the right direction across the featureless ground. I detour around a wide patch of snow then pick up my bearing again, following it until I spot the small cairn that marks the start of the path leading down into Coire Dhondail. From here I can see the calm waters of Loch Einich, sunlit now, the kayaker long gone.
It’s late afternoon and the sky is deep blue, the hillsides lit by a magical midsummer light. I don’t want this walk to end so I find a patch of grassy ground, pull my stove out of my rucksack and make a brew. As I sip hot tea and gaze down to the starting point of my walk, I spot my bike and three figures busying themselves nearby. I squint curiously at them, trying to see what they are up to.
Eventually they begin making their way up the path towards me. Within 15 minutes they are close enough to greet. They smile and wave and I see that they are carrying skis.
“We’re in search of summer snow!” they say as they pass.
“There’s plenty up there,” I reply, feeling slightly envious of them heading uphill on this glorious evening.
Their adventure is just beginning but mine is almost over as I pack away my stove and amble down to my bike. Three more bikes are nestled beside it and I realise that’s what the skiers were doing as I watched them earlier.
I smile to myself as I pedal back towards home. I’ve walked and cycled, whilst others around me have journeyed on kayaks or carried skis in search of off-piste thrills.
This is indeed a wonderful playground and a magical midsummer.