Exploring Aberdeenshire: Mixed Emotions on The Deeside Trail

After an excellent trip last year on my bike around the Cairngorms and a successful Rob Roy Way attempt in a day in May, I was keen to organise another biking adventure. I’d considered a number of home-made and known trails and routes, but eventually settled on the Deeside Trail, a 140-mile circular route taking in swathes of Aberdeenshire and some of the Cairngorms National Park.

[Sep ’21]

The Deeside Trail starts and finishes in Banchory and (very vaguely) follows the Dee upstream on the south side as far as Mar Lodge before turning back downstream on the other bank. The trail twists and turns its way through forests, across moorland and along some pretty technical trails, so it would be a good test of skill, endurance, navigation and fitness.

Though not strictly bikepacking, I hatched a plan involving indoor accommodation in Ballater, allowing me to stay in the same place both nights. I booked 2 nights at Ballater Hostel (which turned out to be an absolutely fantastic choice) and on my way to Banchory from Ayrshire, I dropped an small holdall off at the hostel, which meant I didn’t have to carry any overnight kit at all – just the essentials for each day’s riding. By using Ballater as my stopping point, this split the route fairly evenly across the 3 days in terms of effort and ascent.

After a long drive north (via the toilets at Glenshee Ski Centre and then the hostel for my bag drop), I arrived in Banchory and parked in the free side of the Bellfield car park in the town. I was excited to see what lay ahead and got myself and my bike sorted as quickly as possible.

Ready to go

The route headed out of Banchory following the Deeside Way (a long distance multi-purpose route from Aberdeen to Ballater) and occasionally turning off to take in the odd piece of techy singletrack. It wasn’t long before there were some open views across the rolling green hills of Aberdeenshire.

Cracking views of the Dee

The Deeside Way was followed almost as far as Potarch, where the trail turns off to head into some quiet, remote woods. After a short road section, I was off into the wilderness once again as the route skirted around Carnferg. This was tough going in places due to the thick ferns and heather, but the odd bit of pushing and swearing saw me to a better section of track. As I learned pretty quickly on this route, the good track was short lived. The trail now headed down the Fungle Road towards Aboyne, which was very fun in places, but a wee bit rough in others.

Heading down the Fungle Road

The main Fungle Road headed for Aboyne, but the Deeside trail turned off this path and headed up and back down into Glen Tanar. The descent down into the glen was on a ‘landrover track’, but this was extremely rough and not easy to ride due to the large and very loose rocks – not one for the feint hearted for sure.

After this the trail improved once more as I followed the good track up Glen Tanar as it headed for Mount Keen, making use of the Half Way Hut for my lunch stop.

The lovely Glen Tanar

I soon broke through the trees and once again turned off the main track up the glen, this time heading up a pretty steep track that topped out around 530m. After this – you guessed it – the trail turned off to follow a much more feint path, which soon improved as it headed towards the B976 on the south side of the Dee.

Last up-and-over of day 1

Just a few miles were left on my first day and I was glad to be reaching Ballater soon. One final obstacle lay in the way though – an undulating path along the banks of the Dee. This was quite pleasant and I enjoyed some lovely scenes across the Dee.

I arrived in Ballater after around 36 miles and 1400m of climbing, a fair effort for the first of 3 days in the saddle. The journey had taken me just over 6.5 hours – probably slightly quicker than I’d planned initially, but I was glad to be in Ballater where I could get myself and my bike ready for the big day that lay ahead.

Arriving in Ballater

Other than being a little warm, I slept like a baby in my superb room in the hostel. I woke pretty early and was fed and ready to go for 0720 as I had around 60 miles to cover today, with around 1500m of climbing. This would also be the most remote day as the route twisted its way through the Cairngorms National Park. The first leg of the journey was into the lovely Glen Muick, a pleasant ride and a good warm up for what lay ahead later in the day.

Heading for Glen Muick

Around the Spittal of Glen Muick, the trail turns to follow the path towards Lochnagar. This was very steep going in places and some pushing was involved. I still kept a good pace and after topping out at just shy of 700m, I was ready to whizz down the other side towards Invercauld and the Bridge of Dee.

Cloud-capped Lochnagar

This was one of the most pleasant sections of the trail, through some lovely woods and on a good track, with nothing too technical to slow me down.

Having covered about 23 miles, I arrived in Braemar and made use of the shop to replenish my food and drink supply. I enjoyed a bite to eat as I gawped across at the very fancy Fife Arms hotel in the village – a little outside my price range I must say…!

Heading through Braemar

I set off again in great spirits as the sun shone and the cloud cleared, leaving behind a very lovely morning indeed. This was short lived though, as the first annoying encounter of the day was just around the corner. Although very picturesque, there wasn’t much cycling to be done through the Morrone Birkwoods towards Corriemulzie. I genuinely don’t think this was down to my own ability as there wasn’t enough room for my pedals along the narrow, high-sided path. A fair bit of pushing followed and I was thankful to reach the end of the narrow path where there was a decent track and a quick descent back down to the road towards the Linn of Dee.

The bridge across to Mar Lodge was shut during my visit, so my only alternative was to continue along the road as far as the Linn of Dee, before rejoining the trail as it headed up Glen Lui. I stopped once again as the trail crossed Lui water to have another quick snack and prepare for the up-and-over (mostly carrying the bike) to Glen Quoich via Clais Fhearnaig.

Into the wilds of the Cairngorms

The section of pushing and carrying I’d just endured wouldn’t be the last of the day, but there was some respite in the form of the good track up Glen Quoich as far as the ford across the Allt an Dubh-Ghlinne. I stopped again here to fill up my water from the crystal clear river and headed off up Glen Quoich for what would be the last bit of decent riding for a while.

Glen Quoich

Although initially very good, the path soon became too narrow and/or rough to ride as I emerged above the trees. There was a brief moment of respite as I crossed Quoich water, and headed along the Ben Avon approach path, but this was short lived and I was soon on a rougher path (as usual).

Upper Quoich and Beinn a’Bhuird

I reached the top of the pass and there appeared to be some actual ridable trail once again, but this was very short lived and the on-again-off-again hike-a-bikey nonsense lasted for several miles – as far as the crossing of the River Gairn several miles ahead.

Apparent relief from the hike-a-bike

This section of the trail really wasn’t much fun due to the excessive amounts of pushing and carrying and once again I don’t imagine any improvement to my riding skills would have massively increased the amount of riding (perhaps slightly, but I’m no Danny MacAskill!).

After plenty of grumping and not a lot of smiles, I reached the ford across the River Gairn and trundled through the knee-deep water with my bike on my back, excited to get some miles on top of the bike under my belt again, rather than the other way around!

I’d been in this exact spot a year earlier on my Tour of the Cairngorms trip, but this was where I was riding into a 40+mph headwind, so it was such a joy to ride the other direction (downhill!) with the wind at my back. I made light work of the trail down Glen Gairn and soon found myself at the end of the track and back on tarmac. I’m definitely not into road cycling, but it was a relief knowing I wouldn’t have to push my bike on the tarmac bit!

Looking back up the Gairn

The final section of what had been a long day involved following the Gairn all the way to Ballater, firstly along the A939 and then soon on the other side of the river along a track. As on the previous day, I rolled into Ballater very relieved to be finished up. Shower, food, bike sorted, bed!

With another big day ahead and a long drive home to follow, I woke early and was ready to go just before 0720. The first part of the final day was along the Deeside Way that I’d followed a couple of days before – this time along a disused railway line. Just before Cambus O’ May, the trail crossed the A93 and followed a track up and over Cnoc Dubh, before descending down some lovely singletrack towards Loch Kinord. After skirting round the north side of the loch, the route followed the A97 for a short distance before weaving along a mix of tarmac and gravel to reach Drummy Wood above Tarland. Tarland Trails looked like a great wee setup and although short, following one of the trails down to the village was great fun (this would definitely be worth a visit for an hour or two in its own right).

Tarland was my first supply stop of the day, so I stopped and made use of the small shop in the centre of the village and made a decision about the next stage of my route. The weather had been pretty wet and miserable so far, though I was in and out of forest for most of the morning so far so it hadn’t been too much of an inconvenience, but the next big climb was out of the trees and onto the moors (and a notoriously steep hike-a-bike) to reach Pressendye. I could see the hills ahead were very much in the clouds and made the decision to bypass this climb, instead taking the B9119 to join the trail a couple of miles further on.

Even missing this big climb, I still had 2 fairly significant periods of ascent to go. I started the second – up and over Craiglich – which was on a very overgrown and likely seldom used track which wasn’t really ridable due to the bracken taking over the track. I reached the summit of Craiglich and was once again enveloped in cloud – another viewpoint with hee-haw view!

No view whatsoever

After Craiglich, there was a short down-and-up to reach another hill amongst trees and heather, but the path completely disappeared a short distance from the next downhill section and pushing through knee-deep heather in the cloud and rain wasn’t exactly enjoyable. After I finally reached a proper track, the short downhill section to the road was good, then followed some more road riding before a short section along an old military road to reach Lumphanan.

My plan upon reaching the village was to make use of the small cafe for a wee treat and perhaps a hot drink, but I was very surprised to hear that they didn’t accept card payments, so instead I treated myself to a meal deal from the village shop.

I had one final stretch of ascent to reach Banchory, but having really disliked the last climb, I was in no frame of mind to push my bike through more heather and bracken for a very short descent. I decided instead to make my own way back to Banchory (which was now only a few miles down the road) via the A980.

I rejoined the trail for the last time a couple of miles outside of Banchory, though I wished I hadn’t bothered as the next mile or so through the woods was wet and, for the most part, fairly unrideable. I finally reached the bridge over the River Dee and took a quick photo to mark the end of my journey, before heading to the car to carefully pack away my mucky bike and kit without getting the entire interior dirty.

Back in Banchory

My third day consisted of around 36 miles and only 840m of ascent due to missing a couple of the larger climbs of the day and I reached Banchory in 5hrs 40 minutes from Ballater. Had the weather been better on the third day, I may have been more tempted by the additional climbs for the views across Aberdeenshire, but the cloud and rain spoiled the journey somewhat.

Across the 3 days of my trip, I had covered 132 miles with 3800m ascent in around 21.5 hours.

Overall, I had very mixed feelings about the Deeside Trail. Some sections were absolutely superb and followed some lovely singletrack and some good tracks through glens and over hills, but there was far too much pushing and carrying for me to say I enjoyed the whole route. I’m really glad I attempted the trail though, as it was a good fitness challenge and a chance to get some miles in the legs, but it taught me a lot about what I want to get out of mountain biking. I’m definitely not a fan of hugely technical trails and places where a lot of carrying will be involved, so it’ll be good to take that learning into any future biking trips – of which I’m sure there’ll be a few!

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