Cycling the Monega Pass: Bikepacking the highest road in Scotland
A few weeks ago I spent the long Easter weekend in Alyth, a small town on the foot of the Angus Glens, building my first Coracle. After three days of manual work, with my hands torn up and covered in plasters, I was waiting at the breakfast table for the coffee to brew and listened to Mark Knopfler playing in the background. YouTube did the choosing for me, and for the first time in my life I found myself listening to ‘Telegraph Road’ from the Dire Straits. I listened up. The song instantly caught my attention. I had to listen to it again. Over the smell of fresh coffee I looked up the lyrics.
‘A long time ago came a man on a track
Walking thirty miles with a sack on his back
And he put down his load where he thought it was the best
Made a home in the wilderness.
He built a cabin and a winter store
And he ploughed up the ground by the cold lake shore
And the other travellers came walking down the track
And they never went further, no, they never went back.
Then came the churches, then came the schools
Then came the lawyers, then came the rules
Then came the trains and the trucks with their load
And the dirty old track was the Telegraph Road.’
A few hours later I found myself on the top of Monega Hill. This morning, while listening to Telegraph Road, I had picked the walk that intrigued me most in the Angus Glens. It was a clear, sunny day and the views from the top were mind-blowing. For almost ten years now I had lived in Scotland. I had spent most of my weekends travelling, either by bike or by foot. But what unfolded in front of my eyes on that sunny Easter Monday not only made me really happy, the happiest I had been for months, it also inspired me to take my bike up here. Walking here was great, but if I was able to cycle up here, this would not only be the highest I have been on two wheels, but also the mountain crossing with one of the most spectacular views I have seen so far in Scotland.
Almost three weeks later I found myself waiting for the 18.11 train from Glasgow to Pitlochry. It was a Sunday on a bank holiday weekend. I had just finished two days of guiding people and while waiting for a coffee decided to treat myself to a day off. I remembered that I had a return ticket from Dundee left to be used before the 12 May. The snow had returned to the hills, the temperatures dropped significantly. The forecast looked great for my plans. I knew I had one last stab at this before the snow was gone.
I stocked up on supplies for the next day and for dinner when I got into the town and checked into the hostel in Pitlochry. Egg mayonnaise and mashed potatoes were washed down with a local ale. Loaded up with protein and carbs I enjoyed the conversations in the lounge. I didn’t sleep well, I was way too excited about the things to come.
Not many people had heard of the Monega Pass when I talked to them. Even fewer had been there on a bike. The highest of the Mounth Roads that cross the Cairngorms, the Monega Pass reaches over 1,000m near the summit of Glas Maol. It crosses a high, exposed and featureless plateau which in winter is frequently swept by storms. It runs close to a much better known tarmac road, the Cairnwell Pass, connecting Braemar in the North and Spittal of Glenshee in the South. With Glenshee Ski Centre situated at the summit, at 670m the Cairnwell Pass is the highest main road in Britain. The much lesser known Monega Pass passes the top of Little Glas Maol at 973m, and my planned route also took me over Monega Hill at 908m and Cairn of Claise at 1,064m.
While I was excited and frightened at the prospect of cycling up there on a gravel bike with 42mm tyres and drop bars, the route to get to Braemar, from where the Monega Pass runs to Auchavan, was equally stunning. Part of the Cairngorms Loop bikepacking route, Glen Tilt is one of the most scenic routes to cross from Highland Perthshire into Royal Deeside, offering a delightful mixture of vistas ranging from woodland to open glens and hillsides. But there is more to this glen than just pretty views. It was also the site of a long drawn-out Victorian access battle through the Scottish courts when the 6th Duke of Atholl tried to eject a party of wandering botanists in 1847, access was later granted by the Scottish Rights of Way Society, Scotways.
The ride though here was stunning. The sun broke through the clouds from time to time, while I enjoyed the views to the majestic snow-capped mountains around me. This was like cycling the northern part of Carretera Austral in Chile a few months back. The only difference was that this was so close to my front door, less than two hours on the train from Edinburgh. On a well graded gravel track I followed the River Tilt northbound, which after a while turned into singletrack. For the first time my skills on the drop bars were put to a proper test. With a few bits of pushing I joined another double track and cruised into Braemar around 13.30 in the afternoon, ready for a coffee and brownie and some rest at The Bothy.
After a few miles on the road I spotted the sign on my left, ‘Public Path to Clova’. There wasn’t any hint of the Monega Pass here, but another well-graded track took me to Loch Callater, where a nice bothy invited me to stop. While the weather in the morning was calm and dry, the clouds over the hills indicated that the conditions would soon turn. This was Scotland after all, and it only took a few more minutes for the first snow shower to start while I signed the bothy book.
From here another well graded path climbed rapidly into the mountains. The gradient of up to 20% made cycling tough, at times impossible. With the bad weather looming all around me I could have been worried, but the higher I climbed, the more ease I felt. I had the right mind-set, enough food and good equipment, there was nothing to worry about. The sheer marvel at the landscape send my confidence to levels it hadn’t been for months. Every time I turned around I admired the views around me: The snow capped mountains looming in the background, while the path was twisting its way up the hill. It felt like I had left all my worries and anxieties of the past months deep down in the valley, and the higher I climbed, the closer I got to my happy place.
Finally I reached the top of Cairn of Claise, the highest point of the crossing at 1,064m. The snow showers came and went and in between the clouds broke. When the sun peeked through, sometimes just for seconds, it made the barren landscape look even more dramatic. Memories of Iceland shot through my head. The views were breath-taking, with steep corries covered with a dusting of snow and a small loch to my left. The conditions went from snow showers to more intense snow fall, but I kept pushing on.
Once I had reached the top almost everything was rideable on a gravel bike. The path was clearly visible, navigation even in bad weather was ok. From time to time I stopped, left my bike on the track and wondered closer to the edge. I went as far as I could to the edges of the steep gullies, with corninces still lingering around. The views from here were amazing. At times the track was covered in snow, which was a welcome invitation to get off, push and enjoy the scenery.
At around 6pm I reached the summit of Monega Hill. The clouds were hanging much lower now, and I was happy that it was downhill all the way from here. Once again my bike handling skills were put though a proper test, descending steeply on skinny tyres into the valley. By now the showers had become permanent, and I was glad when I reached another well graded gravel road that took me to Auchavan, before it turned into tarmac all the way to Kirkton of Glenisla.
“I had spent a day in the wilderness, which made me the happiest I had been in a long time”
I reached into my pack, dug out my headphones and put on ‘Telegraph Road’. I didn’t need any music for distraction during the day. But the song made me think again. I had spent a day in the wilderness, which made me the happiest I had been in a long time. I experienced a Scotland I had not seen in this beauty before. Never before I had been that high and able to enjoy the world from above on two wheels for such a long time. And while the scenic tarmac road over the Cairnwell offers great views, the beauty I had just witnessed on the Monega Pass was only accessible by foot or by bike. In many ways I was thankful. Although I was most thankful that this was still a dirty old track, and not a Telegraph Road.
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