A long day in the saddle on single-day round of the Cairngorms Carousel
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Experience the remoter parts of the national park as Mike Dennison of Sustrans Scotland explores the Cairngorms Carousel by mountain bike
It's 5.30am one early October morning. Dark… and damp. Not raining as such, but the beams of our lights are blunted by the misty clag that envelopes us, an impenetrable veil covering our surroundings.
We pick our way along the rocky shoreline of Loch Builg, contemplating the day ahead. We’ve been on the move for an hour-and-a-half, barely 20km from our start point in Tomintoul, yet already it feels like we’re in the middle of nowhere. With another hour before sunrise, we press on into the murk.
At the first hint of dawn a new sound invades our reality. The roar of a distant stag echoes down the glen, soon answered by another, much closer. Within minutes it seems we’re surrounded by these invisible giants, vocally objecting to the two intruders who are pedalling through their domain.
As night creeps into day, rocky single track morphs into land rover track and we reach our ‘bailout point’. Left down Glen Gairn past the ruined Corndavon Lodge, for an easy ride back to Tomintoul and bacon butties; or right to the old shielings, for a steep ascent of Culardoch – a physical and mental commitment to what will then be a massive day in the saddle.
We exchange a brief glance and, without a word, turn right. The ‘Cairngorms Carousel’… here we come!
At over 4500 square kilometres, the Cairngorms National Park is the UK's largest. Home to 55 Munros (mountains above 3000ft/914m) and with a network of mountain passes, hill tracks and historic drove roads, the options for bikepacking adventures are limitless.
One of the best ways to experience this ‘wild land’ is to ride the Cairngorms Carousel, a 190km mountain bike route which encircles much of the central Cairngorms. Linking many of its well-known glens and passes, and with the settlements of Tomintoul, Braemar, Blair Athol and Kingussie adjacent to the route, there are numerous options to tailor a trip to suit your own aspirations, be it a multi-day bikepacking adventure or, as in our case, a ‘fast and light’ extended day trip.
The route is composed of five distinct sections, each with its own unique character.
Between Tomintoul and the Linn of Dee, you’ll follow estate tracks where, with the exception of the single-track traverse of Loch Builg, progress can be swift. The climb over the shoulder of Culardoch marks the highest point on the route at 740 metres, affording panoramic views towards Ben Avon and Beinn a' Bhuird. You’ll see more red deer than people as you pedal through this rarely visited landscape.
From the Linn of Dee, the terrain opens out for expansive views north into the heart of the Cairngorms. The high tops of the Devil's Point and Carn a' Mhaim guard the entrance to the classic Lairig Ghru Pass, with the brooding hulk of Ben Macdui and the Cairngorm massif on the horizon.
This section offers the first serious test of skill, with sustained technical riding along a ‘path’, which clings to the side of a deep water-cut ravine. The drama is short lived, and you are soon barrelling down Glen Tilt on ever-improving land rover tracks past the picturesque Falls of Tarf, for a well-earned break in Blair Atholl.
The start of the next section is comparatively tame, with a 20km pedal along National Cycle Route 7 towards the Drumochter Pass adjacent to the busy A9, before it cuts off north to seek solitude in the lonely Gaick Pass.
Although the lowest, and most obvious, of passes between Atholl and Speyside, the mighty Gaick has seen very little traffic over the centuries and as you ride deeper into this remote pass, the silence is absolute. The Gaick is home to three ‘hidden’ lochs, with the peat bogs at the head of the first – Loch an Duin – marking the watershed between Atholl and Speyside.
This section ends with an easy traverse of Loch an t-Seilich on a well-maintained track, and an exhilarating descent down Glen Tromie on metalled roads, before the opportunity of a short detour into Kingussie for supplies.
For its final leg, the route changes in character again. Weaving through the ancient Caledonian pine forests of Glen Feshie and Glenmore, past Loch Morlich and the stunning An Lochan Uaine, solitude is replaced with the evidence of people – and the paraphernalia required to support them.
The riding is easy, and there’s much to occupy the mind as you pedal through a much softer forested landscape, into the Abernethy Nature Reserve.
With less than 30km remaining between you and a well-earned pint in Tomintoul, you’d be forgiven for thinking the Carousel was ‘in the bag’ – but think again!
The final section is tricky – doubly so if, like us, you tackle it in the dark – requiring both determination and navigation skills in equal measure. With river crossings, short sharp climbs and descents, and some technical riding along an often indeterminate trail, the final short section of metalled road into Tomintoul comes as a relief!
The Cairngorms Carousel takes in some of the most dramatic and remote corners of the Cairngorms National Park. Whether you choose to travel ‘fast and light’ or at a more leisurely pace, there are numerous opportunities to re-supply along the route, or wild camp as you go.
We opted to tackle the Carousel in one long continuous ride, travelling as fast as we could and as ‘light’ as we dared. We set off from Tomintoul at 5.30am, and eventually rolled back into the visitors’ car park some 16 hours and 190km later – just in time for ‘last orders’ at the Richmond Arms Hotel.
But however you choose to tackle it, the one thing you are assured of on the Carousel is a truly epic adventure!
Distance 120 miles / 192km (with 2500m of ascent)
Terrain Mix of estate tracks, cycle paths, singletrack trails and taking in many remote areas with rivers crossings and navigation skills required
Maps OS Landranger 35, 36, 37, 43 & 44; Cairngorms Carousel, available at www.bikemaps.co.uk/scotland-mtb/cairngorms-carousel-mountain-biking.htm
Squeeze it into a long day or take your time over this epic adventure around the Cairngorms National Park