We were lucky enough to take a roadtrip along the SnowRoads recently, showing a French blogger (you can read her blog here) and German blogger the stunning scenery in all its sunny, snowy, magical glory.
Here are our tips for getting the most out of your roadtrip in the Cairngorms, if you’re driving the SnowRoads.
1. Check your vehicle is ready for the SnowRoads
As the name suggests, the SnowRoads, which traverse the highest public road in Britain, can be snowy in winter, as they were with us.
This means your vehicle (and you!) need to be able to cope with the conditions, which could be trickier than normal driving and certainly require extra care. Your car, if it’s not 4 wheel drive, for example, may need fitted with winter tyres. You could also bring snow chains with you, too. It’s also advisable to pack a shovel and a sleeping bag/blankets in case you get stuck – always better to prepare for every eventuality!
We took our Landrover Defender, which was perfect for the job. If you want to hire yourself a Defender, you can do this from Highland Defenders (but not in the winter; they operate from April).
2. Fill up before you leave
Although the entire route is only 90 miles from start to finish and there are petrol stations en route, at Ballater and Braemar, they are not 24 hours. To reduce stress and ensure you don’t run out, always best to fill up before you start driving the SnowRoads.
3. Check the snow gates are open before you set off
When there is heavy snow and the roads become dangerous to pass, the council shuts the ‘snow gates’. The snow gates at the Spittal of Glenshee and the Lecht are sometimes closed for this reason. However, both being near to ski centres, the council works hard to open them as soon as the roads are made safe so the best idea is to keep monitoring the webcams, which can be accessed via the ski centres websites, the Lecht’s or Glenshee’s, or via websites like this. Traffic Scotland is also a good one to watch.
Setting out on our trip from Aviemore to the SnowRoads, the snow gates were actually closed. However, by the time we’d gone to visit the Heilan Coos on a Landrover tour at Rothiemurchus, they were open again and we were on our way! Hooray!
4. Use the SnowRoads app!
Download the SnowRoads app free from the Apple Store or Google Play.
Cinematic folk music by Calum Wood, relevant to the setting you’re driving through at any particular time, has been commissioned for the app and genuinely added an extra enjoyment to the roadtrip, making it even more atmospheric and personal. It was a buzz to hear Calum sing about the exact landscapes you were in driving through by name. (We particularly enjoyed fast section, in the second half, of the track composed for the Ballater to Tomintoul route).
We also learnt a lot about the scenery, landmarks and local stories we were driving past by playing the audio guide as we went along. It’s a particular joy for international visitors to hear the clear cut, crisp Scottish accent tell the stories.
We enjoyed hearing the ‘ding’ of ‘treasure’ as we ‘picked up’ various landmarks as we passed them, with the audio guide giving us a brief description of what we were seeing.
Obviously don’t use the app while you’re driving – get your passengers to activate it, or wait until you’re stopped. And, while the app contains a clear map of the SnowRoads and all the things to do / see along the route, bring a hardcopy map, too. Never a good idea just to rely on technology, which can glitch, while on a roadtrip…
5. Expect twists and turns!
The SnowRoads make for an exciting drive, that’s one reason people love them. They’re full of, not only fantastic scenery, but bends, twists, turns and steep sections, giving rise to amazing views. This means you have to really concentrate on the road, particularly at some sections, like at the Bridge of Gairn near Ballater, which has a stomach-churning gradient! The SnowRoads also have sections of single road with passing places, so be mindful of other drivers by looking ahead for oncoming traffic.
6. Drive slowly
Because of the already-mentioned twists, turns and single road, it’s best to take the SnowRoads at a slow pace and enjoy the views. The SnowRoads are, after all, called the slow roads! Due to the nature of the roads, we found that Google Maps estimations of timings were frequently inaccurate; driving often took longer than forecast, so leave enough time for your journey so you are not having to rush.
7. Give yourself more time than you think you’ll need
As well as the roads taking longer than we thought to drive, we also found we were wanting to stop and take pictures often – which also added to trip time. To get the most out of your drive, give yourself plenty of time for allow for these impromptu stops.
8. Be sensible about where you stop to take photos
As you’ll see, the SnowRoads are brimming with photo opportunities – we constantly wanted to stop. But, while it might be lovely to stop on the top of a single road bridge and take a snap, remember safety before selfies! (You don’t want to add to the growing stats of injury by selfie…).
9. Don’t miss the fabulous art installations
There are 3 art installations along the SnowRoads: Still, The Watchers and Connecting Contours.
Still is just before Tomintoul but is not particularly easy to see if you are driving from the north of the road south. Still is up on the hill side to the left, as you drive into Tomintoul. Park by the quarry just before the entrance of the village and look up to your left and you’ll see it!
The Watchers installation, being right next to the road side with a fantastic view of Corgarff Castle, is more obvious.
The third, Connecting Contours, is just outside Glenshee Ski Centre, and is also trickier to see as it’s slightly hidden from sight when you’re driving. Look for the car park to your left as you leave the ski centre and then take the short track down towards the bench-like art installation.
The SnowRoads app will help you ensure you don’t miss any of the key ‘treasure’ to see on the route.
10. Ask for whisky samples (if you’re driving!)
There are some great places to learn more about, and sample, the region’s delicious whiskies. We, for example, stopped at the Whisky Castle in Tomintoul and Royal Lochnagar Distillery in Crathie. As the driver, it can be dispiriting (excuse the pun!) watching your passengers enjoying tasting when you can’t, because you’re driving. However, most whisky tasting hosts will offer drivers samples to take away, to be enjoyed later. And if they don’t offer, ask, as it’s common practice.
11. Pack for every opportunity
The weather in Scotland can change very quickly. Even the forecasters can get it wrong. So it’s a good idea to pack for every opportunity when you’re driving the SnowRoads. For instance, if you’re an avid skier/snowboarder, there’s no harm having your stuff in the boot!
We packed our hiking gear and got out for a gorgeous hike up to Loch Callater, directly off the SnowRoads, with expert guiding company Hillgoers. Luckily, they packed the hot chocolate and flapjacks, which went down a treat at the bothy on the loch.
12. Make a stop at the Fife Arms
The Fife Arms is the only 5 star hotel in the Cairngorms National Park. Having only opened last year, it won the Sunday Times ‘Hotel of the Year’ for 2019.
It is a truly unique hotel which celebrates local culture and art, a celebration which seeps from every aspect of its design and composition from the traditional dress of the staff (tartan and tweed) to the hugely creative approach it has to its room (every room is different and based on a theme; could be a local person of interest, or a Royal who has a connection with the area or a more generic theme such as the ‘Highlander’ room, which one of our bloggers stayed in).
While the Fife will not be in everyone’s budget to stay overnight, it is well worth – whatever your budget – at least stopping in for a drink or reasonably-price pub food, which you can do at the Flying Stag, its public bar. If you do, make sure you have a wee wander of the hotel and visit, if possible, the stunning ‘Fire Room’ and ‘Library’, the latter complete with wax works of Queen Victoria from Madame Tussauds.
The Fire Room
There are plenty of other accommodation options in Braemar, too. We stayed in the charming Braemar Lodge Hotel, for instance, which also has a distinctly ‘Scottish warm welcome’ feel with its roaring fire, cosy public bar and penchant, also, for local taxidermy! It’s advisable to book any accommodation in advance, particularly in peak season, to avoid disappointment. For a full list of accommodation providers on the SnowRoads, see here.
Braemar Lodge Hotel
13. Have fun, take some silly selfies and tag us on social media!
There are so many good photo opportunities on the SnowRoads from scenic to pure silly.
Here are a few we found!
From left to right, ‘Still’ art installation, ‘Watcher’ art installation, The Fife Arms, Ecocamp Glenshee, ‘Connecting Contours’ art installation.
Tag us with @SnowRoads and @VisitCairngorms on Facebook and Instagram with yours!
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