Three wild days in the Cairngorms: A family adventure

Family-friendly 3-day walk and wild camp in the Cairngorms An Outdoors Family

The Cairngorms are known as one of the largest areas of high ground in the UK, and a particular feature of them is the deep valleys which cut through them. We have been wanting to try a walk and wild camp with more than just a single night camp with our son for a while now, and in mid-March we got that opportunity.

The weather has been very settled lately, and as the weekend approached the forecast was for fine weather, particularly on the Sunday and Monday, with only some light rain showers on the Saturday. The daytime temperatures were forecast to be pretty mild for this time of year too, around 8-10 degrees Celsius, although nights were forecast to be below zero.

We got the maps out on the living room floor and all poured over them to form a plan of where we would go. We decided on a walk round the southern Cairngorms valleys, with the plan of covering about 9 miles a day, but with a lot of flexibility as fun and our son walking the majority were important. We knew the snow was melting, and the snow line should be around 650-700m, so we would only just hit it or be below it for the entire route.

We packed our bags with some excitement on the Friday night, doing our normal routine of packing our standard base equipment and making sure we have enough extra layers for warmth, and food to keep us full. This trip we decided to mix our food up a little, taking separate pasta and sauces and also hot dog sausages and hot chocolate mix, as well as our normal camping staples of packet pasta, noodles, mash, tea and coffee.

Raring to go... at a run

On the Saturday morning we were woken up by our son, running into our room, jumping on our bed and shouting “It’s camping day!” I don’t think we could have asked for a better start to the long weekend. We hastily ate our breakfast and loaded our bags into the car eager to get away, and were out of the house before 8am, and arrived at the Linn of Dee carpark, which was our starting point, shortly after 9am.

We got out of the car with a little disappointment to see rain… and not just the occasional light shower, but persistent moderate rain! Anyway, the disappointment was quickly washed away once we were all kitted up in waterproofs, hats and gloves, and we got underway with some excitement.

After around half an hour walking alongside the river Dee the route became more exposed, with a moderate wind blowing the cold rain into our faces. Our son started to drag his heels and be less keen. Fluctuations in mood are totally normal during a long walk as you go from excitement, to tired, to challenged and so on, so we didn’t worry, but set a goal to reach the edge of some woodland, which would offer us some shelter and provide a good spot to grab some mid-morning snack.

We actually had first lunch (or is that second breakfast) at around 11am, sheltered out of the wind in these woods. Before getting underway again we showed our route to our son, and took a bearing from the map, before giving him the compass to lead the way until we turned right, towards the Lairig Ghru, one of the major valleys cutting right through the Cairngorms. With some jelly bean trail mix and the compass our son was ready to go again, checking regularly that we were going the right way.

Once the path turned, it rapidly became a much smaller trail, with rocks, stepping stones and interesting waterfalls to look at. Our son bounded ahead of us, relishing the opportunity to test how far he could jump between rocks, and how quickly he could run along the narrow path above the river. We had great fun keeping up with him, and helping him across the most difficult bits (one time I picked him up to cross a river, to which he protested loudly “I’m not a baby, put me down!”). As we got into the high valley, we started to see more snow patches around us, and the day drew on.

Leading the way

At about 3:30pm it was clear our son was getting tired, so I offered him a ride in the carrier, which he accepted happily. We walked for about 40 minutes more, getting about a mile away from Courror bothy. Our son was keen to walk again, so we let him out of the carrier and started our hunt for a camp spot. After a while we found the rough area that looked good, and then hunted around to find the flattest, driest, most sheltered bit we could find.

We settled on a spot tucked behind a small glacier moraine hillock, where we had to clear a little snow before setting up, but was ideal for everything else. We quickly set up or tent, airbeds and quilt and jumped in to have a hug before we cooked dinner. Dinner consisted of pasta and carbonara sauce, with a side of smoked Bavarian cheese, followed by hot chocolate for drinks – yum. As the evening drew on the clouds started to lift a little, and we started to see the magnificent Devils Point and Lairig Ghru stretch out in front of us before we settled into our tent for the night.

Our son having a bit of chill out time at the end of day 1

On Sunday morning we woke to much better weather, with only moderately high cloud cover, no wind and all the tops out around us. We ate breakfast of noodles (the only breakfast our son will eat when we’re camping) and cereal bars before packing up and getting underway again.

We chose to cut off path, towards the route linking the Lairig Ghru to Derry Lodge which was our target for the day. We made good progress up the rough rise, until it turned into a quite complicated bog, complete with significant snowdrifts. Our son decided the going was too rough and asked to be carried, after having a play on a boulder in the shape of a car. We carefully picked our way across the bog and snow until we got to the final rise to the path. Here we were treated by a sight of the most amazing tracked vehicle that the estate uses for maintenance.

We also bumped into some of the Aberdeen Mountain Rescue Team, who were out searching for a walker missing for a couple of weeks. They were very friendly, and after a quick chat we carried on, up to the path. Here the fun really started. Our son was back walking again, but the path was heavily covered with snow, which was melting in the sun, so was waterlogged and soft. With pretty much every step, me and Stacey sank knee-deep into the snow, whilst our son skipped along the top most of the time. This made for very tiring and slow going, if quite a bit more exciting than we had expected.

Hard going on the snow covered path

Eventually the path started dropping, and we got below the snowline much to our delight. We quickly descended to cross the river and reach Luibeg bridge and woods. This was our location for lunch, which was Warburton’s thin bread and primula – A brilliant backpacking combination as it’s easy to carry and very tasty! We highly recommend it.

The warm weather led to a lot of melt water

After lunch we carried on down Glen Luibeg to reach Derry Lodge, where we chose to dibble dabble our feet in the river which looked incredibly inviting, but was swollen by melt water, so was freezing cold. The area around Derry lodge is a wild camping dream. There is perfect short grass everywhere, shelter everywhere and great views wherever you look, so we took our time and chose a spot we liked the look of, and played dinosaur fighting and dino hide and seek before dinner.

Soothing aching feet

That night was totally clear and quite cold, but we were all snug under our quilt in our tent. When we got up in the middle of the night for a toilet trip we got to see millions of stars above our heads. We were woken in the morning to bright sunshine, but it was still too early to have warmed up much. Our boots were quite frozen and not desperately fun for all of us to put on, after they had got a thorough drenching the previous day through all that wet snow.

Wild camping near Derry Lodge

We slowly got up and started the day with a nice warm hot chocolate, followed by a few dino games. Somewhere on the previous day’s walk we had apparently picked up a large family of triceratops; 8 babies, a mum and dad and a brother. We had spent some of the previous afternoon helping the babies along and joining in with the triceratops parents in protecting the babies from T-rex, velociraptors and pterodactyls.

The triceratops family had not moved on overnight and so we had our breakfast of noodles whilst making sure that they all played nicely with each other. The dino family were a feature throughout our final day, although we did manage to send them off to play in a meadow for an hour or so which gave us a bit of a break!

After breakfast the day started to warm up properly and we slowly packed up, having decided to simply walk the few miles out, proud of our achievement. We packed then played and eventually set off at around 10am, following the now large track back down Glen Lui.

We waved at some mountain rescue landrovers heading up the valley, and got waves back from each, and one even flashed its blue lights for our son. A while later we were offered a lift by a mountain rescue landrover heading back down, but we were in no hurry and pleased to be out in the warm sunshine so continued our gentle walk. After all it was downhill all the way today!

Looking back at our route

We had an early lunch sitting in the bright sunshine near a bridge across the Lui Water before walking the final stretch back to the car. It was a funny feeling seeing the car again. In some ways it felt like we had been away for a long time and were glad to get back to comforts, in others we were quite sad to be back at the car so soon. Anyway, aching legs and physical tiredness were starting to show in our son (and us a little) so we put our packs back in the car and headed for home, stopping off in Braemar for ice cream as it really was that warm and sunny.

We drove home with large smiles on our faces talking about our next adventures. Our son said he so enjoyed walking and camping that we should do it for 15 days next time… the challenge has been set, now to see how we can make it a reality!

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