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The Snow Roads through the Cairngorms

Published
July 22, 2022
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The Cairngorms National Park in Scotland. Map data ©2022 Google. North at top.

THE CAIRNGORMS National Park is the largest national park in Great Britain. It lies north of Dundee and south of Inverness, west of Aberdeen and east of the Great Glen, the dead-straight crack in the earth that runs between Inverness and Fort William, and which contains the fabled Loch Ness.

The park takes its name from a mountain in the park called Cairngorm or Cairn Gorm, meaning the green or blue cairn. The highest peak in the park is actually Ben Macdui at 1,309 metres or 4,295 feet, but Cairngorm has given its name to area in recent times.

The Cairngorms are famous for patches of snow that linger through summer from one winter to the next and are generally among some of the most exposed country in Scotland. The website of the authority that runs the park is cairngorms.co.uk and the official visitor guide to the park is visitcairngorms.com.

There are two ways to drive between Dundee and Inverness through the park, the more motorway-like A9 on the western side and a scenic route through the eastern side called the Snow Roads, which go past the skifield at Glenshee and the castles of Braemar and Balmoral (yes, that Balmoral).

The Snow Roads through the Cairngorms (the white route). Map data ©2022 Google. North at top.

Between Grantown-on-Spey at the northern end of the map just above, and Blairgowrie, just off the map to the south, is a distance of 90 miles or 144 kilometres. That gives you an idea of how big the park is!

The Snow Roads traverse the highest point for a public road in Britain, the Cairnwell Pass at 670 metres or 2,199 feet above sea level. You can download the official Snow Roads leaflet here.

The Snow Roads form a continuous through-route, but they are called the Snow Roads, plural, all the same.

The northern and southern sections of the through-route are each called the Old Military Road for most of their length. A section between the two military roads is called the Lecht Road. And there also a few side roads and short cuts as well.

Travelling north from Dundee, the first sign that you are about to enter the Cairngorms on the Snow Roads route is at the Bridge of Cally, which is also on the Cateran Trail, a circular long-distance hike into the Cairngorms that begins and ends at Blairgowrie.

The Bridge of Cally Hotel, across the road from a Cateran Trail Sign

Another view of the Cateran Trail Sign

And then, before long, I was officially in the park. Oddly enough, while Cairngorm means blue or green cairn, the Gaelic name for the area, a’ Mhonaidh Ruaidh, means the red hills!

Cairngorms welcome sign

At the entrance to the park, there was a visitor centre that had lots of fascinating information displays.

Driving on, I got my first glimpse of the hills, up which I would soon climb to the Cairnwell Pass.

My first glimpse of the hills

It wasn’t long before I made it to the pass, which also contains the Glenshee Snowsports Centre. This large facility is open in summer as well as winter. Even when there is no snow, people take the chairlifts for the views.

The Glenshee Ski Field with lifts and café

Here are a couple of photos of the mountains just past the sports centre.

And then I descended into some very pleasant country once more, before arriving at the Invercauld Arms Hotel in Braemar.

The Clunie Water, south of Braemar

Another view of the Clunie Water

This section of the road was called the A93. Part of it was also called the Old Military Road, which then diverged off to go its own way while the A93 carried on to Braemar, at which point the A93 became the Old Military Road again.

The Invercauld Arms Hotel

The Old Military Roads were built in the eighteenth century to suppress the Jacobites. Presumably they did not go all the way and then the Lecht Road joined them up.

Anyway, the Snow Roads are widely regarded as one of the top drives in the UK, not all that busy as most of the traffic takes the A9. The Snow Roads twist and wind through scenery and past picturesque castles, lots of excellent cafés, and the odd whisky distillery.

There is apparently even a reasonable chance of bumping into the royal family in summer as Balmoral is their summer retreat. I remark on this in the following video.

I might have visited Braemar Castle, but ironically it was closed because the weather was too cool. This was a few weeks before the notorious 2022 heatwave.

Braemar Castle Sign

Another Braemar Castle sign, saying that it is too cold to open (24 May 2022)

The northern part of the Snow Roads also forms part of the Highland Tourist Route, which runs from Aberdeen to Inverness.

Highland Tourist Route signs, among others

Before too long I was back up in the Lecht Road section of the Snow Roads, where the second ski field is. This is nearly as high, once more, as the Cairnwell Pass.

The Lecht Ski Centre

Glenfiddich to the right, Glenlivet to the left. I wonder if the cops lie in wait for those who have visited too many distilleries?

A roadside information sign pointing to the two distilleries of Glenfiddich and Glenlivet

Toward the end of my journey, I entered the Highland Council area, which covered most of the rest of Scotland to the north. It is actually an administrative district. In the usual sense of the word, I had been driving through the Scottish Highlands already.

Highland Council Roadside Information Sign

And finally, I came to the big roads again, the ones with green signs rather than white ones.

Arriving at the A95 near Grantown on Spey

My next post will be about Inverness, the site of the Battle of Culloden, and a visit to the wonderful Glen Affric, ‘the dappled glen’.

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