A Tale of Two Lairigs: Backpacking in the Cairngorms

With winter coming to an end and conditions slowly shifting towards spring in the mountains, Easter has always been a time that my dad and I enjoy getting out and about in the hills. We had completed the West Highland Way and East Highland Way at a similar time in previous years, but with a little less time available this year for a number of reasons, my dad tasked me with devising a one-nighter. There are few better places for backpacking than the Cairngorms, so naturally my mind went straight there!

[Apr ’22]

My chosen route was a 2 day circuit from Glenmore, taking in 2 of the most well-known passes in the area, the Lairig Ghru and Lairig an Laoigh. As Derry Lodge was an obvious camping choice, this felt like the best place to spend the night. The final decision was the direction of our walk, something I deliberated over a great deal. We eventually settled on doing the route clockwise as this would mean a (slightly) shorter day on the first day as well as the potentially tricky crossing of the Fords of Avon being done sooner rather than later, with fresher minds and legs.

As always, our trip began with a jaunt up the A9 with a quick pit-stop at Ralia for coffee and a cake (expensive but very tasty). We arrived at Glenmore and parked up, checking our kit once more and getting our heavy(ish) packs on before setting off just after 1000.

I love a green sign!

The first stage of the walk is one I had done in September 2021 as part of myself and Sarah’s day on Bynack More, so finding our way was nice and simple. We enjoyed the pleasant surroundings and agreed that, being slightly overcast, the weather was pretty much perfect for backpacking. We left the cover of the trees after a few miles and emerged in the moorland as the path crossed the River Nethy, marking the start of our first ascent of the day.

Crossing the River Nethy

We took it easy on the way up the shoulder of Bynack More, stopping occasionally to admire the fine views over Speyside behind us. There were only a few hundred metres to climb so it didn’t take long to reach the highest point of the path (and our first day). It was here we headed for less familiar territory as we took the left fork instead of the right one (which heads for Bynack More).

Bynack More

As we slowly descended towards Lochan a’Bhainne, things started to feel much more remote and wild. We made a quick stop at Corrie of the Barns to refill our water bottles before heading on our way once again and chatting about the upcoming obstacle – next stop, Fords of Avon!

It is well documented that the Fords can be tricky to cross at the best of times, but given the lack of rain in recent days, the only thing we had to worry about was any potential snowmelt, of which there would have been a fair bit given the recent rise in temperatures.

We passed the refuge on the north side of the river and made our way to the water for a reccy.

A welcome refuge if conditions were difficult

The river wasn’t overly deep or dangerous looking, but it was still pretty angry in places and wouldn’t be any shallower than thigh-height for the crossing.

The River Avon

There was only one thing for it – boots off, socks off, trousers off! Looking rather silly, I headed across first, making use of a small island in the middle of the river to re-assess my line choice and make sure I’d picked the best spot.

Making the crossing

Other than a couple of splashes I made it across with dry kit (and a big smile). It was now my dad’s turn. Fortunately (or unfortunately depending on your sense of humour) he made it across dry too. He was rather smug as he left the icy waters of the Avon as he had brought a pair of wet shoes to wade in, whereas I had opted for the much more adventurous barefoot option. I felt very exfoliated after my crossing, I must say!

After the crossing we got ourselves dried, fed and watered. All in, the crossing and dithering had taken us pretty much an hour. It was worth not rushing though as we made it across safely and – most importantly – with dry kit!

The final thing that lay between us and our spot for the evening was the Lairig itself and one small ascent later we made it to the highest point of the pass, before descending slowly down into Glen Derry.

Lairig an Laoigh

We passed through the glen as the light was beginning to change and things became more and more spectacular the deeper down the valley we walked. What a place!

Beautiful Glen Derry

After almost 17 miles and 8.5 hours, we finally reached Derry Lodge. This is a popular place to spend the night so you can imagine my surprise when we arrived to find that we had our pick of the entire area, with not a single other person in sight. We picked a cracking spot next to the burn and got our tents pitched and dinner on, retiring shortly after and getting ready for another long day to follow.

A perfect spot for the evening

We both slept well as there hadn’t been much more than a gentle breeze all night. The downside, of course, was that my plastic bag (I mean, Laser Comp…) was ringing with condensation. It’s a fantastically lightweight and spacious tent but unless there’s a good breeze you’re almost guaranteed to wake up to a wet flysheet.

I spent some time trying to dry the tent off as best I could before having breakfast and packing away my kit, ready for the day ahead. We set off again at the very lazy time of 0840 (for me, anyway) and headed up Glen Luibeg, enjoying the clear blue skies and beautiful surroundings.

Luibeg Burn

The going was easy as far as the Luibeg Burn crossing, where the bridge detour involves some rockier and boggier terrain on either side. We soon rejoined the main path though (the ford wasn’t an option with dry feet unfortunately) and once again made good progress round the shoulder of Carn a’Mhaim towards Glen Dee.

The Devil’s Point made its way slowly into view and looked as spectacular as ever, hiding some of the higher and snowier mountains beyond.

Bod an Deamhain (The Devil’s Point)
Upper Glen Dee

We stopped for a quick snack break just before we drew level with Corrour bothy, being overtaken by a couple of walkers who turned off the Lairig path and headed up The Devil’s Point. It was really difficult not to stop and enjoy the scenery so we took our time getting going again, soaking up as much of our surroundings as we could.

As the path climbs out of the glen towards the Lairig Ghru, things become a little rougher and rockier. This slowed us slightly as my dad was fatigued after 2 long days with a heavy bag, something he hadn’t really done properly in a couple of years now. We took our time as we climbed towards the high point of the pass, stopping again for another wee lunch break before finally reaching the summit at more than 820m. It still amazes me how high the summits are around you even at that height!

Cairn Toul & Sgor an Lochan Uaine

The boulder-field was tricky in places, but we took our time and made it through in one piece, eventually being met with fine views over Rothiemurchus and Aviemore in the valley below.

Up and over the Lairig Ghru

The descent was long, slow and pretty tiring, but we plodded along and eventually found ourselves back amongst the trees once more. We followed the Lairig Ghru route as far as a crossroads in the forest, where we turned off and headed towards Loch Morlich and Glenmore, where the car (and a room in the Youth Hostel) was waiting on us.

Heading down into the trees
Loch Morlich

The last mile or so long the logging road was very pretty indeed, but we were glad to finally have the hostel come into view. Pretty exhausted but pleased with our efforts over the last 2 days, we reached the hostel after almost 10 hours and 18 miles.

I really do find it hard to stay away from the Cairngorms. It offers so much to so many different types of people, from multi-day epics across some of the most wild and remote terrain in the country to some of the most stunning easy low-level walks through woodland – it really does have it all. I’m almost certain that it won’t be long til I’m back again, on foot or by bike!

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