Backyard Epics | Trail running in the Cairngorms

woman running in mountain trail in Scottish landscape

Hannah Bailey switched the flatlands of Amsterdam for the Scottish hills

Northern Corries, Cairn Lochan (1,216m), Stob Coire an t-Sneachda (1,176m) and Cairn Gorm (1,244m)
Distance from home 20 minutes’ drive to the Coire Cas car park
Time Around a three-hour round-trip, depending on how fast you run, the number of snack stops and how the conditions are

When I first moved to Aviemore almost two years ago, I had come from the flatlands of Amsterdam, where the idea of running up hills was unfathomable. Not only did they not exist, but I simply didn’t think I would be able to do such a thing. It was something best left to ultra, endurance athletes. But how wrong I was! Now two years later, I love running up hills (which my friends reading this will snigger at). Why? Because it’s a challenge, it’s a quicker way to the top or over a pass should you be short on time, and it’s more possible than you think.  

Last June, pro snowboarder Lesley McKenna, ultra runner Kirsty Reade and I took part in Patagonia’s ‘Running Up For Air‘, an endurance challenge to raise awareness on the issue of air pollution, which involves running up and down a mountain for three, six, 12 or 24 hours. We chose six hours of running up and down Meall a’ Bhuachaille, the 810m hill to the north of Loch Morlich and Glenmore Forest. Time wise, this pushed me beyond anything I had ever attempted before and with that the door was flung open. Only a few weeks later I began to eye up bigger routes. There are many amazing running routes you can take on in the Cairngorms, going as far as the 4,000 Challenge (climbing all the mountains in the region above 4000ft within 24 hours) or running the full 32km Lairig Ghru – and some brilliant groups taking people out in the hills, from Trail Running Scotland to Girls on Hills.  

The adventure I want to tell you about is, in the right conditions, totally simple and starts from the Coire Cas car park. But it is epic. The 11km tour of the Northern Corries – taking in Cairn Lochan (1,216m), Stob Coire an t-Sneachda (1,176m) and Cairn Gorm (1,244m), all three of which are Munros. Sounds like a lot of up, but you start at 600m. 

A scottish munro photographed while trail running in the cairngorms

When I took it on for the first time in July, it was a glorious sunny day, with no wind in the air, and 100% visibility. I left my desk in the centre of bustling Aviemore, picked up Lesley McKenna, and we drove the 20 minutes up to the Cairngorm car park. I crammed a few porridge bars in my water pack, turned off the emails, and off we went directly from the Cairngorm café (no time for cake, yet).  

We ducked under the T-bar and followed the path up to the right and around the corner, out of the Coire Cas into Coire an Lochain. Keeping right, it is a consistent up, but on a good path, and with amazing views of the Corries – it makes you feel tiny, as they tower above you. The path can be busy as it’s a popular hiking route, but most people act impressed as you run by them, which is good motivation.  

As we reached the top of this first hill, the path branched – if you go straight you are headed to Ben Macdui, which for us was left for another day. At this point we had a really vital water and snack stop. Pocket porridge bar demolished, we took a left and headed up, and I mean UP, to Cairn Lochan. This was the hardest part of the run for me, the steepest, but once it’s over, that’s most of the uphill battle.  

Now is your time to sit back, err ok I mean continue running and take in the view, standing on the Northern Corries feeling all big and mighty. We kept on the path hugging the corries, passing the Fiaciall ridge and weaving above Coire an t-Sneachda. Don’t forget to stop and look back at what you just ran from the ridge-eye view, it is an impressive angle of your route.  

Continuing on, we did a final ascent to Cairn Gorm, for our steepest summit of the day at 1,244m. Giving the weather station a high five, we headed back down the ridge, with the café in full view as our final destination, back to civilisation. An hour and a half, 11km, and 790m of uphill later, we were back at our car with a Pure Bakery Highland cake from the café in hand feeling lucky.  

Getting to run these hills, having the freedom to do so and call it my backyard is really humbling – when I can, I will pay it forward.