It was twenty to eight on a Saturday morning when I alighted the train where I’d spent the past eleven hours playing origami on my cheap seat. Only two other passengers got off. I looked at their backpacks and for a moment thought that they were fellow hikers, until I saw their shoes: they weren’t. I stopped and watched the others leave the platform. The station was empty. I looked at the sky. The forecast hadn’t promised showers until the afternoon but dark clouds hovered low. It rained. I’d arrived in Scotland for a long weekend of hiking and couldn’t help but wonder if it was really worth the effort for just a couple of days in nature?
I hadn’t done any short hikes since the very first few times I walked into a National Park, in South Korea and Japan, when I realised that I enjoy hiking, that I relish going up into the mountains and watch the views unfold in front of me. During those first few hikes I’d stuffed carrots and peanut butter sandwiches into my daypack and wore a dress with Uniqlo leggings and hid a supermarket rain poncho in my rucksack. I slept in mountain huts on the bare floor and was marvelled by the fact that I liked going out into nature like that.
After those first few hikes I got thrown into long distance hiking, thru-hiking, and I never looked back. But now that I’m temporarily back in London with all my hiking gear stuffed in a cupboard, how could I not try and explore, just a little bit?
It was Speedy who’d first told me about Scotland. Speedy, who I met hiking the Te Araroa trail in New Zealand, kept talking about Scotland. I wasn’t too keen, at first. I’d had my fair share of rolling green hills in Iceland, but I did like the idea of getting on the sleeper train for an easy journey up and down. And so I found myself booking a cheap seat on the Caledonian Sleeper to Aviemore for the last bank holiday weekend in August, and prepared to spend three days and two nights in the Cairngorms.
I hadn’t read much about hiking in Scotland before I left, and the only accounts I came across were mainly from a host of dudes writing about bagging munros (‘Uh, I did five today’) and honestly, it doesn’t really get much more inspiring than that. But once I realised going up to Scotland was just about the easiest hiking trip you can undertake from London, I figured I should write about it myself. Because despite arriving in the rain and waking up to a storm hitting my tent sideways, it actually was quite worth it. And I hadn’t expected that.
HOW TO GET THERE
Ah, the Caledonian Sleeper train! If it wasn’t for this beaut, this escape from London wouldn’t be so easy. Sure, you can fly, but then you still need to find your way into the Highlands somehow. This baby however, takes you right through the Scottish Highlands overnight, so you essentially get a free place to sleep on top of the whole thing.
The train goes all the way to Inverness, and stops at all the little stations along the way. This is why it takes a crazy 11 hours, but that’s okay, because hopefully you’ll be asleep for most of that time anyways.
From London to Aviemore: Friday
I’d decided to go to Aviemore, the last station before Inverness. The town sits just north of the National Park and was a great entryway to all the trails. I went straight from work: I changed and showered after everyone had left, and slowly made my way to the 20:25 train from London Euston. It was the last Friday of August and I arrived about 7:40 Saturday morning.
The train itself seemed pretty well-equipped. I didn’t properly investigate, but even for the budget seated option it was possible to buy meals and drinks on board. All seats come with a menu, although no one passes to offer food or drink. You’ll have to go to the on-board restaurant. Most people around me however, brought their own snacks but got coffees from the restaurant in the morning. Which you shouldn’t, by the way: there are no fancy options like lattes (not even from powder sachets), and you are stuck drinking some watery concoction for which you will likely have to pay in cash and then you’re stuck with a bunch of heavy coins which are useless when you’re hiking in the Cairngorms. (Yes, this happened to me.)
Depending on how much you want to pay, you can get a proper bed and a good night sleep. If you decide to be a cheap ass like myself and are happy to sleep folded on a seat with the lights permanently on, then choose the cheap seats. I paid £70 one way and £50 on the way back. I also slept surprisingly well as the seats are quite big (2+1 in each row, so they are bigger than normal train seats).
After arriving in Aviemore it only took about forty minute of walking the pavement next to several roads before I was walking through a path in the forest.
From Aviemore back to London: Monday
The sleeper train I took departed at 20:45 and arrived Tuesday morning at 9am. It normally departs and arrives about 30 minutes later, though. I went straight back into my work showers! I did sleep that night but some people may want to choose a bed on the way back if they go straight back into work.
WHAT TO BRING
Scotland gets cold and wet. So be prepared with enough layers and whatever waterproofs you prefer. I even picked up an extra fleece on the way to the train station because I loathe being cold and was worried about the layers I was bringing. I ended up needing all of them, so that was a good choice.
I would’ve brought my lightweight waterproof trousers but had left them elsewhere and instead bought a £2 supermarket poncho as an extra layer on top of my waterproof jacket. I wouldn’t normally bring flimsy things like this, but I actually ended up using it, and the simple plastic proved a surprisingly good additional layer to trap heat.
When breaking up camp the second day, I also used the poncho as a shield over my head against midges, because those tiny little horrors are a true slice of evil – New Zealand’s sandflies are nothing in comparison. They are anywhere without wind, and I was lucky not to be bothered by them until I hit the trees lower down. Apparently, there’s an insect repellent called Smidge that helps, you might want to consider picking up some. I prefer to do without applying lotions so just hide in my tent as much as I can and deal with it.
I would recommend trekking poles, especially if you go off-trail, as the ground is uneven with rocks and heather and some muddy bits and you would be twisting your ankles and falling over multiple times without them.
Don’t forget about the wind: there’s a lot of it and you should bring a tent that can take it on. In this wide-open landscape you’ll struggle to find proper cover from it!
When it comes to maps I usually just use the Maps.me app on my phone, but Speedy had sent me a few OS Map PDFs of the area. These have all the elevation markers as well which proved VERY USEFUL when I had to go off-trail. Bringing something like this may definitely be an advantage.
Other than that, it’s the usual: enough food for several days and a water filter. There’s water all over the place so you’ll never run out. You will also have mobile phone signal whenever you are higher up so you can let people know you’re all right. If you have a PBL or Spot, bring it.
The Cairngorms are littered with hiking trails so there’s a lot to choose from. I was quite overwhelmed when I first started looking into it, so I got Speedy to help me put some possible routes together. I left with a vague plan of, ‘I’ll walk in that directions and after the first day I’ll go either east or west.’ And that was that. I was really happy with the choices I made in the end, so if you fancy quieter trails and some amazing views, you can follow this itinerary:
2. Old Logging Way
4. Lairig Ghru path
5. Ben Macdui peak
6. Braeriach peak
7. Falls of Dee
8. Cairn Toul peak
9. Devil’s Point peak
10. View north over Loch Einich
11. Allt Ruadh river
12. Sgòr Gaoith peak
13. Sgòran Dubh Mòr peak
14. The Argyll Stone
15. Allt Coire Follais
16. Loch an Eilein
DAY 1: SATURDAY (approx. 20 km / 12.4 mi)
The start of my hike was typically Scottish: I stood in front of Aviemore station with the rain falling down and not sure where to go. The town was quiet and the bitter taste of a watery coffee lingered in my mouth. I put on my waterproof jacket, checked my map and began to follow the road out of town.
Soon I walked on the pavement next to the Old Logging Way until I entered the forest just before Coylumbridge. I hadn’t expected this: trees. I’d expected grass and sheep and rolling green hills that were bound to bore me. Instead I got an easy path winding through a forest and it charged me despite the ever-changing weather. The forecast had promised showers every afternoon, but I was already beginning to realise that was entirely incorrect. One moment the sun peeked out from behind the trees and I was peeling off my layers and the next it was cold again, with low-hanging dark clouds angrily spitting out rain.
As I joined the Lairig Ghru trail I met some small groups of hikers and bikers. It was a bank holiday weekend so I’d expected it to get busy. But as I progressed the hikers dispersed. Soon I left the trees behind me and followed the river, finding myself in the great expanse of heather and growing mountains.
It was almost too late when I realised I needed to fork to the west and begin the climb up to Braeriach. I followed the path, some bits tougher than others with sections of rock but nothing proved too demanding. The trail was easier than I’d expected. The biggest challenge for me was the weather. It continued to change. Rain, then cold, then sun. And always that wind, making everything just a little bit more strenuous.
But as I progressed the views of the valley opened up and I was surprised by the dramatic views. These weren’t rolling hills with grazing sheep. This was something quite different. Rocks and cliffs and Ben Macdui gracing the other side of the valley.
The best thing was just around the corner: a spectacular view onto Lochan Uaine, a small lake settled just below Cairn Toul. The river I’d walked next to meandered into the distance far below while I was getting close to Braeriach, Scotland’s third highest peak at 1,296 m (4,252 ft.) The view made me even more keen to continue the ridge to Devil’s Point, imagining the view onto lake from above.
It was close to 4 when I reached Braeriach peak. I watched several day hikers turning back. It was still quite early and I wondered if I should continue to Devil’s Point now or set up camp. I hadn’t hiked very fast but I felt tired. I wanted to enjoy the weekend and take it easy, allow myself to camp whenever I felt like it.
As I continued to the Falls of Dee I still couldn’t quite make up my mind. I passed a beautiful camping spot right there with a view of the valley, but it was too windy to set up. So I continued along, aiming for Devil’s Point once again, until I changed my mind for a last time. I decided I would enjoy the hike up to Devil’s Point much more if I did it the next day, fresh after a nights sleep. I followed the stream away from the ridge and set up my tent next to it.
DAY 2: SUNDAY (approx. 12 km / 7.5 mi)
I woke up to the wind hitting my tent sideways. I’d set up my tent with the back into the wind, but it had turned overnight, and now strong gusts were dangerously pushing the structure towards the ground. Moreover, it was bitingly cold and when I looked outside my views were obscured by a thick layer of fog.
There was no way I could continue the hike along the ridge to Cairn Toul and Devil’s Point now. In fact I didn’t fancy hiking out in these conditions at all. I decided to wait for the fog to lift and the wind to calm down but it didn’t. It only seemed to get worse. I realised I had to hike out and get to lower elevation.
Since the only official way down was the way I had come, I was forced to go off-trail for a different route. I was worried, in case I got stuck above cliffs or behind rivers, which had been my experience in Iceland the year before. But Speedy had told me it was a possible route and I’d heard some other hikers walk in that direction the night before. Clearly it was an option. I studied the elevation marks on my map and decided I should be fine.
It took me another two hours to pack up in the cold and the storm and I was finally ready to go at 2pm, bunched up in all my layers and that silly supermarket poncho on top. I took a last look at the hazy white view of where my tent had been, checked my GPS for the right direction and went.
Soon I began the long diagonal descend down a slope. The wind hit my face from the side and I began to count on this constant battering as a reference point to guide me in the right direction, along with the GPS on my phone. It was wet, grassy and the ground was covered in rocks. I was glad to have my trekking poles or I wouldn’t have been able to progress very fast.
After an hour the clouds, hovering low to the ground, dispersed for just a moment and I got a quick glimpse of the mountains in the distance. It was nice to be reminded of the views beyond.
Soon the landscape got interesting. Tiny hills of rock were dotted around and small lakes littered the surroundings. It would be a perfect spot for a campsite if Scotland ever had a sunny, windless day.
I was just south of Loch Einich and felt compelled to get closer, chasing the larger ponds nearer to the ridge looking out over the loch. Soon I found myself in front of one of the bigger lakes, with the fog lifting just enough to read the mountains all the way on the other side of the lake, set far in the distance. It was a beautiful view which would’ve been some sight on a good day.
When I continued my way I crossed a stream and faced a landscape of rocky hills. I was supposed to go right across, right into the storm that worried me a little, being so high up again. But I was still tempted by the lake. I wanted to get closer. I decided to take another detour and see if I could get a view north over Loch Einich. It may be my only opportunity of a real view that day.
My gamble proved worth it. I scrambled my way along a rocky stream until I met the edge, following the river to a clear view of the lake. With the thick clouds populating the higher elevations, the lake itself was clear. The view was dramatic, and it made the day worth it again.
When I returned to climb the rocky hills the wind was so fierce I struggled to move ahead. Despite the wind, it was easier to hike across than I’d expected. Scotland didn’t appear to have too much treacherous terrain. Once across, I resumed my slog through boggy grass until I found the trail that led towards the forests around Feshiebridge. I was relieved to be back on a path again.
It wasn’t long before I got below the clouds. Finally. I’d got to lower elevation and I was going to be able to set up my tent in the safety of trees. I watched the trail wind around several small, perfectly round hills between me and the forest. I was close.
But now there was another worry: the forest was close to several roads and houses and I had no idea if it was possible to camp there. When I looked down towards the other side of the hills, I saw a narrow stream leading to a small forest. I decided to go off-trail and camp right there.
It wasn’t long until realised I’d made a mistake, but by that time it was too late to turn around and retrace my steps back to trail. While the patch of streamside trees had seemed quite near, the closer I got, the further away they grew. By the time I had descended down to the stream, I was surrounded by thick bushes of heather that was impossible to walk through. Something I thought would take forty minutes at most, took me almost two hours.
By the time I reached the trees I was more than ready to call it a day. Unfortunately, a second problem arose. There were no flat spots to set up my tent. So I went further down the stream and into the wooded area. When the stream bed turned into a steep incline, I climbed up the slope and sidled along a narrow path formed by animals.
When I climbed up to a small flat spot I was startled by what sounded by wild dogs and the fact that I’d forgotten to take water from the stream. I ended up moving on until I’d convinced myself the noise must have belonged to deer instead. After some time, I found a side stream with a small patch of grass the perfect size for my tent.
The only downside what the swath of midges I soon realised I was I the midst of, almost too small to see and therefore painfully cruel. I’d never experienced anything this bad before.
DAY 3: MONDAY (approx. 25 km / 15.5 mi)
The last day I woke up to thick grey skies and no idea what to do. I packed up as fast as I could, the midges a brutal force that made me wrap my plastic poncho around my head while getting my things together, choosing suffocation over the torrent of tiny maddening bites.
I bushwhacked until I got down to the river again, skipping across large stones only to realise I was but a few hundred meters from a bridge and a path going across. Unfortunately the heather was too thick to turn around so instead I climbed the steep slope up to the trail, which ran alongside the other side of the stream. Soon enough I was heading back in the direction I’d been the day before.
After pulling myself up on tree trunks and reaching the trail I decided to take the risk and head back into the mountains. I’d considered spending the day wandering the forest if the weather stayed bad, but my train was so late that I didn’t fancy spending all day roaming the woods.
So I continued the trail back up, close to where I’d been the day before and once again accompanied by some day hikers. This seemed to be a popular path to take and once at the top, I understood why. I had climbed up to the west side of Loch Einich and the views from Sgor Gaoith were marvellous. A dangerous cliff dived into the charcoal lake below. Somehow I hadn’t expected this from Scotland.
While most people looped back to where they’d come from, I continued the trail north along the cliff edge, taking in the views from all the little high points on the way.
The route was fun to walk, as it was easy and pretty with the rocks dotted around the green moss, the landscape lower down a contrasting brown. I spent a lot of time here and the weather stayed mostly good. Some light rain and thick grey clouds but nothing like the whiteout the day before.
By the time the weather took a turn for the worst I descended down an erratic trail carelessly dug out beside Allt Coire Follais stream. When I reached a forest of heather I knew it was almost over. I wandered around the last big lake, Loch an Eilein, through a deserted forest.
I got back to Aviemore an hour before my train departed. It was dark now, and I wandered through the town and bought coffee and snacks in the M&S by the petrol station. It was touristy and I thought it was odd there were no other hikers considering the location.
And so my weekend in the Cairngorms ended, folded once again on my seat into a complicated shape of origami, with heather still attached to my shoes and socks and a tiny tick I wouldn’t discover until de day after, it’s head eagerly dug down into my ankle, so small I had to magnify it using the camera on my phone. A souvenir from the Cairngorms.
- The trails in the Cairngorms are a lot less difficult than I’d expected, and going off-trail seems a common thing to do. Although rocky and at times a bit boggy, it was far from treacherous or overly taxing.
- Somehow, despite all the rain, crossing streams never meant wet feet. This is a huge novelty to me. There are a lot of rocks so hopping across is easy (and poles help a great deal with this!)
- The weather is just as rubbish as was promised by the look on everyone’s faces when I told them I was going to Scotland.
- The Cairngorms have better views than I expected. Much better. Far different from the rolling green hills and sheep I thought I’d be walking through.
- An alternative route: If you don’t mind busier trails, you can loop east from Devil’s Point and take the trail up to Ben Macdui on the other side of the valley, continuing north back to the start of the Lairig Ghru trail.
- Be careful with ticks!