The other day a friend asked me if I preferred exploring the mountains by boot or by bike. Despite years in the outdoors, it was a question I hadn’t really thought about very deeply. I was just vaguely aware of pros and cons on both sides. But last weekend’s trip to the Cairngorms to cycle a route I’d previously walked, gave me the chance to ponder the idea more deeply.
As early morning sun filtered through the trees and cast long shadows on Loch Morlich’s sandy shores, I made breakfast in the lee of an old pine. It was a rare moment to enjoy peace and solitude in a place overrun by people at the height of the holiday season. Roll on winter, I say. I rinsed the coffee dregs from my mug in the water of the loch as the mallards remained curled up asleep by the water’s edge, looking like a row of curling stones. The sun was already climbing and the day was warming as I cycled out along the bike trail that descends to Aviemore, the Old Logging Way.
It’s a beautiful trail to walk as you keep company all the way with the trees but it’s an exhilarating trail to cycle. It twists and turns through the forests, never technical and always taking you gently downhill, as your tires crunch over loose gravel or a winter frost. It's a perfect descent because you do still have to pedal so you experience a deep satisfaction from travelling at speed under your own power. That exhilaration is something you can only experience on a bicycle.
The disadvantage of the Old Logging Way is that it speeds you to Aviemore. You can mostly avoid Aviemore on this route by sticking with the river and picking a way through charmless, modern bungalows that look like a new-town housing estate rather than the gateway to a national park. Or you can go into Aviemore and on a hot summer’s day marvel at over-baked, obese Brits stuffing their faces with chips and ice-cream.
The second part of my route was very different as I left the grand, old pines of the Caledonian forest and picked up the Speyside Way. I biked the gently undulating trail through summer birch woods whose tuppenny-sized leaves fluttered in the breeze. In the open glades the view stretched to the Cairngorms across moorland in the purple flush of late summer heather. In no time I was in Boat of Garten. A short hop on the bike. But I remembered that a few years back I walked this stretch of the Speyside Way. I stopped often to get my nose close to the trailside wildflowers and wandered into the woods to examine the huge ant hills. Thousands of ants busily shifted pine needles here and twigs over there, like cranes moving containers around a cargo terminal. Both look chaotic but you know there must be some underlying plan. I noticed neither of these from the saddle. You cover more distance on a bike but you see things at a more superficial level.
It was time now to start the route back to Loch Morlich, through the Scots pines of Abernethy Forest and over the Ryvoan Pass. I zipped along the single track road that skirts Loch Garten, famous for its nesting ospreys. Despite the huge numbers of people that visit, Loch Garten still seems to me like a secret place. Mostly I go there in the quiet mid winter when the solstice sun barely penetrates the dense stands of tall pines that guard the water. Beyond the loch I left tarmac and bumped along rough track as I started to climb steeply. The old forest here is simply sublime. Gnarled, granny pines rise from a rich understory of heather, blaeberry and juniper. They are interspersed with younger trees whose closely-packed, straight trunks, some thick and some thin, looked like a giant barcode. In summer the air is alive with the buzz of insects and the twitter of birds. It’s a place to savour and absorb and breathe deeply in. But today I didn’t as I was enjoying too much the onward momentum of the bicycle. The bike is fast but often it's too fast.
I recalled walking this way many years ago. Then I ambled slowly through the forests with tent, food and everything else I needed on my back. There’s a real joy to walking like this. It’s pure and simple and, unencumbered by bicycle, you can access tricky routes and out-of-the-way places. It was in one of those off-the-beaten-track spots that I became aware of a strange gargling and clicking noise behind me. I turned around to see, just a few metres away, a male capercaillie in full display with neck and tail feathers fluffed out and head held so high it must have reached above my waist. As I walked slowly on, I became aware of bits of the forest raining down on me from above. I looked up to see a cluster of crossbills, as colourful as parrots, busily breaking open pine cones. I didn’t cover many miles on that walk but I experienced the places I passed through more intimately than I did by flashing through on the bike.
At the top of Ryvoan pass there is a single-roomed bothy, the remaining gable of end of a once bigger croft, whose sole window looks out across the moor. Beyond here the route descended on a more technical, rocky trail and I had to concentrate on the bike and the few metres of track ahead. I barely raised my eyes to take in the landscape. And that’s the thing with a bike. It can be fun and liberating but it can also be annoying and sometimes get in the way of your enjoyment of the outdoors. When walking, there is nothing between you and simple pleasure. I cycled on through Ryvoan and back to my starting point at the top of the Old Logging Way.
The last time I was home in Scotland during a really snowy winter, I cross-country skied here around the forests and foothills of the Cairngorms. In the last light of a short winter’s day, I skied down the Old Logging Way all the way back to Aviemore. Cross-country skiing is quite similar to walking in pace and depth of experience but then you also get the bicycle-like exhilaration from a bit of downhill speed.
So I can't choose between bike and boot and perhaps it's in skiing that I get the best of both.
Start/finish: Glenmore (or Aviemore at the train station)
Map: OS Landranger 36
Route: The Old Logging Way starts opposite Glenmore Shop. Follow it all the way to Aviemore. Once you cross the Spey stay on that quiet back street and eventually pick up National Cycle Route 7 signs - they'll take you to Boat of Garten on the Speyside Way. At Boat of Garten turn right on the main street and follow the road over the Spey and to its junction with the B970. Turn left then right for RSPB Loch Garten. After the osprey centre take the first right and follow this road around to the dirt track for Forest Lodge - it's the biggest track that leaves the road on the right and has a two-way split at its junction with the road. At Forest Lodge follow the sign for Ryvoan. The track splits - both splits join again later but I prefer the right split that climbs to Rynettin as the open views are good. Once it rejons the other route, follow this track back to Glenmore.
Tip: Boat of Garten is always worth a stop - steam train, cute old station, cute outdoor shop in a shed, beautiful sculpture of a horse pulling whisky barrels and look out for old local postcards recreated in metal and embedded in the pavement - all this beside the station.