We’d only just got back from the Bernina Express when the opportunity arose to head up to the Highlands of Scotland to enjoy a little snow. While the views from the train between Chur and Tirano on the Bernina Express had been stunning, the brief hands-on encounter with snow at the top of the pass didn’t really satisfy, hence a spring weekend at Aviemore.
The train from Edinburgh to Aviemore took about three hours, the scenery after Dalwhinnie following the Truim River which cut through a narrow valley between snow doused hills, before the Truim joined the Spey and the valley widened.
I was quick enough to capture a tramper making his way into the snowy hills alongside a tributary of the Truim, a reminder of the Cairngorm’s place as the winter sport’s capital of the UK.
Before too long we were pulling into the station in Aviemore, a few hardy souls carrying on to Inverness, but the bulk of the passengers heading off the train with us for some winter excitement. We dropped off our bags at the MacDonald Morlich hotel, Ange almost abandoning the suitcase in her glee at seeing the snow.
Then it was back to the station to get our bearings from the nearby Information Centre. The staff there were very knowledgeable and gave us some good advice on the various walks and other entertainment available.
Next door was one of many outdoor/winter sporting shops and we got a plastic sled which was half price due to being the last day of winter. And then we headed to the nearby hill on a vacant lot next to one of the hotels.
The snow was getting a bit threadbare in parts, with the lawn peering through in places, but there was enough snow and a steep enough hill for it not to matter.
Some enterprising souls had collected enough snow to make a ramp of sorts and eventually Ange and I tried a ride on the sled with both of us aboard. I had worked out how to steer by this point and as we hurtled towards the ramp, I mentioned to Ange that she should hang on as we we’d be going over a ramp.
The second the words were out of my mouth we hit it at speed and there was silence as we floated through the air before landing and remarkably remaining on the sled. As we slid to a halt Ange was silent and I was worried she was upset before realising the shaking of her shoulders was from laughter rather than anger. Phew!
Our appetite piqued, and the snacks we’d had on the train being a distant memory, we decided to nip inside the Coffee Corner for a quick bite. It was the folksy down home sort of Mom-and-Pop sort of cafe that only took cash so we replenished our supply of cash from a nearby ATM (note: the closest one is at the Tesco supermarket).
For an unassuming cafe (that joyfully ignored our dripping wet sled), they did offer a venison burger, so I gave that a go. It was accompanied by coleslaw and fries and the chef came out with some salsa to go with it all and it was extremely good value.
Ange had a bacon and egg bap and some soup and had trouble finishing it all. I’d have helped but it was all I could do to finish mine.
Craigellachie National Nature Reserve
The main road of Aviemore runs parallel with the railway line, and perched on a slight incline between this road and the A9 are where most of the hotels are clustered. Towering above the town on the other side of the A9 is the Craigellachie Reserve, a ridge of hills capped in snow.
According to the lady we spoke to at the Information Centre, at the top of the hill was a cairn overlooking a lake, the Black Loch. We’d been told it was a 45 minute walk up, so we headed towards the underpass which would let us pass under the motorway and into the Reserve.
The path started off pretty easy, a well-marked dirt track sporadically littered with rocks and gently rising as it meandered around a reservoir.
It soon hit the snow line and the banks either side were covered in snow. The going was still easy and the steps well formed so we powered on ahead.
The path actually started back down, snow disappearing and then it joined one of the other routes and this time we headed up. This time when we hit the snow line the trees started to fade away and the drop to our right became more precipitous.
But it wasn’t until the path began to be covered in a nasty layer of ice that we realised it wasn’t going to be easy going all to the top. In fact when we passed someone coming down and asked how it was ahead, they paused and mentioned that it wasn’t terrible but that the ice made it a little treacherous. She was wearing sneakers without any tread, so we could see why that might have been an issue on the ice.
We were above the tree line when I discovered it was actually easier to walk on the snow which was centimetres deep on the side of the track rather than slipping on the ice on the track. This made the trek up a little faster and much less stressful.
After much puffing and groaning, we made it all the way to the top. The sun was peeking out from behind the clouds, reflecting off snow and loch and the bright light made the view quite stunning.
The summit was 493m above sea level, and provided views over Aviemore to the Cairngorms beyond, as well as up and down the valley beyond.
The trip down was a joy. After discovering the secret was to go off the track and through the snow, there was no slipping and the only surprise was when the drift of snow you stepped into turned out to be deeper than you thought. Ange followed in my footsteps and heeded my warnings when I discovered boggy ground beneath the snow.
It wasn’t long before we found ourselves descending through the birch trees to the partially frozen reservoir at the base of the hills. It was hard to see how thick the ice was and other trampers had tried to satisfy their own curiosity on the matter by throwing twigs and stones through the ice, littering it with various debris.
But it was with no small sense of accomplishment that we followed the path markers out of the park. Happy that we’d enjoyed the great views from the top, and happy that we hadn’t taken a tumble on the icy paths.
An Lochan Uaine
The next morning we headed out to the Green Loch. The lady at the Information Centre had told us of a pretty loch on a lovely walk in the Cairngorms, leaving from beside the Reindeer Centre in Glenmore. Legend had it, she told us, leaning forward, that the colour of the loch came from fairies washing their clothes in the waters.
We took the bus from the center of town and got off at Glenmore. We could have stayed on and gone up to the top of the mountain, but the bus timetable meant we’d have either 4 minutes or 64 minutes at the top before the bus headed back down and we’d have too many photos to take for a 4 minute stop and not enough to do to fill 64 minutes.
So instead we headed to the Visitors Center at Glenmore and had a chat with the guy behind the counter. We made sure we were happy with how strenuous the routes there and back would be and sought clarification on what “narrow path” and steep inclines really meant.
We also checked the latest weather forecast and learned that there were some heavy snowfalls forecast for early afternoon. Finally we popped next door to the cafe for some snacks to replenish our energy mid trek and then we were off.
The initial going was through the forest and only varied from flat by way of gently undulating, so we made very good time. There was none of the ice like on the track in Craigellachie, so it was a much more relaxed trek.
After a while we spotted the Green Loch through the trees and much to my disappointment there wasn’t an industrial laundry on the banks, populated with fairies and mythical creatures. It was quite nice with snow down to the banks making getting close difficult: the steep bank threatened to turn a slip into a frozen bath, but that didn’t stop a pair of golden Labradors from dodging their owner and barreling down the stone stairs for a swim.
While there was a seated area nestled under the trees overlooking the lake, there really wasn’t a lot to stay for, so after taking a few photos, we decided to check out the Bothy (shelter) that the guy in the Visitor’s Centre had told us about.
The path remained very well used and suitable for vehicle access and we revelled in the difference from the day before. Not having the danger of your feet slipping out from under you made the trip more enjoyable, even as the clouds started to close in and the horizon became a faint smudge of grey – barely delineating where sky began and mountain ended.
The path branched and we consulted Google. Our way forward changed slightly – no longer a joy to walk on, it was now strewn with pebbles and rocks. Still very much ice free and solid to walk on, it was more raw, as befitted the transition in terrain from tree lined path to exposed mountain side.
Occasionally the small streams would actually flow along the path rather than across it, and we were glad that the constant flow of water hadn’t rested long enough to freeze in place.
In the distance we saw the bothy’s red corrugated iron roof starkly contrasted against the white of the nearby mountains. A group of mountaineers made their way down the side of the mountain and disappeared inside, out of the cold.
We’d seen the occasional pairs of walkers closer to the start of the walk and the route to the loch had proven popular with the dog walkers, but since then we’d only seen groups of well equipped young people heading purposefully along the track and now we could see their destination: the peak towering ahead.
They would cluster around their leader, heads inclined against the wind and tilted so they could hear what they were saying so we surmised it was some sort of winter trekking training.
We didn’t stay long at the bothy, just enough time for the rest of our snacks and a drink of water before we headed back. The horizon had disappeared, the mountains in the distance overtaken with snow and we wanted to make sure we were a considerable portion of our way back by the time it hit us.
We reached the loch without delay and had to decide whether we should take the same (safe, flat) route back or to take the alternate route up the (steep, narrow) steps on the hill overlooking the stream.
I eventually deferred to Ange’s argument that we already knew what the safe path was like, and so we headed across the stream and started up the hill.
I’ll admit it was hard going. The path was narrower as promised and the dirt track up the hill was soon criss crossed with a tangle of tree roots, the elevation becoming steeper and steeper until it was necessary to have stone steps to ensure we could get traction in the mud.
Long stretches of the stony steps, periodically punctuated by the presence of a grand old tree which made for a good resting place, the evergreen branches protecting us from the gentle rain which soon turned to snow. The near vertical stretch seemed to go on forever but eventually we found ourselves moving along the hill instead of up it and even though the snow started to fall more thickly, the going became easier.
It was even more easier when we came across wooden walkways further along – the rivulets feeding the stream far below making the ground too boggy for good progress, so the the walkways had been added to aid in the trek.
Ange had literally said that “according to the map we should come to the lookout soon” when a clearing came into view, complete with park benches and a view across the valley to the trees on the other side. The snow was so thick that it was hard to see much more than that though.
The lookout was accessed by a very wide road which linked up to the Reindeer Centre adjacent to the Visitors Centre, so we ambled down it, wondering if we should have brought the sled for this section of the way back. The thick snow on the road would make for a fun way back. Or exhilarating if you failed to negotiate a bend in the road…
We warmed ourselves by the heater in the cafe at the Visitors Centre and waited for the next bus to take us back to town.
Back in town we headed to the Mountain Cafe, a restaurant on top of an outdoor goods which is run by a Kiwi. We had about an hour before our train and we hoped that would be enough time to have something to eat.
There was a queue, so they gave us a buzzer and we wandered around the store downstairs (until I found the couch in front of the fireplace, and then I slumped in front of it) until the buzzer came to life and we headed back up.
The menu featured tastes of New Zealand, so I got the NZ soft drink, L&P, and corn fritters NZ style (with salsa, guacamole, sour cream and bacon) while Ange made do with a savoury scone.
It’s a popular spot, as evidenced by the queue of people waiting for seats. The wide windows overlooked the Cairngorms and the winter sports equipment were interspersed with NZ cultural art, making for a very convivial atmosphere. The corn fritters took a while to come and we were planning out how long it would take to get back to the hotel, collect our luggage and then make our way back to the train station.
They were definitely worth the wait when they did come and were wolfed down in short order. As Ange put it: twenty minutes to wait, two minutes to eat. She may have been exaggerating my eating speed a tad but it certainly wasn’t long before we had paid the bill and were heading back to the hotel in a hurry.
We managed to scamper back to the hotel, collect our luggage and zoom back to the train station, arriving about ten minutes before the train. We had enough light to see some of the sights from the train, in particular the hairy coos.
You’re never far from history in Scotland and we were intrigued by the castles and castle-like structures visible for the train. One of them (unpictured) was Blair Castle, a very picturesque white castle nestled in forest which you can apparently stay in. Very nice.
Less obvious was another structure closer to the train which turned out to be a barracks built by the English during the Jacobite Rebellion. The Ruthven Barracks stood on a hill which had seen many castles built and destroyed before the English built the barracks to police the area following the 1715 uprising. It also featured in the 1745 uprising when the Scots retreating from Culloden used it as a rallying point. Definitely of interest to history buffs or fans of Outlander!
Eventually the weekend caught up with us and we were content with letting the countryside whizz past the window, until we arrived in Edinburgh, happy to have spent the weekend in the snow.