The Cairnwell (SW #65) Bike Climb - PJAMM Cycling

5.1 mi
1,113 ft
3.9 %



Cycling Cairnwell Pass - The eighth longest of the 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs (Britain). The Cairnwell is the 933m summit above Glenshee Ski Centre. There are no other 100 GCC in the vicinity of this climb.

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Cycling The Cairnwell, Scotland - road bike with PJAMM Cycling jersey draped over it leaning against blue road sign stating "Welcome to Aberdeenshire - From mountain to see, the very best of Scotland", along a two lane road in the hillside

Cycling The Cairnwell, Aberdeenshire, Scotland.

Climb Finish.

The Cairnwell is named after “The Cairnwell” mountain peak (933m) to our left as we approach the finish of the climb.  This is the eighth longest of the GCC 100 and is bordered by sloping hills the entire ride.  We follow the river Ghlinne Bhig, Allt a' about 6.3 kilometers before it bends east away from our final two kilometers southbound.

Cycling The Cairnwell, Scotland - road sign advertising 12% grade, very narrow stone staircase cut out of hillside, two lane well paved road winding through hillside, PJAMM Cycling logo in corner

The first 5.3 kilometers of the climb consist of a series of long rollers that average a very modest 1.6%.  The meat of this climb is 2.6 kilometers at 9% beginning at kilometer 5.5 and not tapering off until the gradual 2% finish over the last 200 meters to Cairnwell Pass.  The climb ends at Glenshee Ski Centre.

Cycling The Cairnwell, Scotland - road sign advertising 12% grade

Start of what we calculate as a 500 meter 11.3% grade (km 7.5).

The “Devil’s Elbow” is the name given to a steep double hairpin bend on the old road to the east of the new highway that we ascend.  We looked but could see no remnants of the old road or Devil’s Elbow:

“A mile south of the summit is the Devil's Elbow, a notorious double-hairpin bend. The often-quoted gradient of 33 percent (1 in 3) is a myth: in reality it is no more than 1 in 6 (17%). The double bend can be seen clearly on Taylor & Skinner's map of 1776, with the 1749 military road already bypassed. The modern road bypasses the hairpin bends, but the old road still exists and its route can be walked, or carefully cycled” (Cairnwell Pass).


Steepest ½ kilometer begins at kilometer 7.4 (11.5%).

Cycling The Cairnwell, Scotland - stretches of straight, two-lane roadway along green rolling hillsides, craggy creek-bed along hillsides, road sign noting falling rocks in the area, PJAMM Cycling logo in corner

Simon Warren’s 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs in Britain #65 travels 8.3 kilometers northerly into Cairngorms National Park:

“Cairngorms National Park (Scottish Gaelic Pàirc Nàiseanta a' Mhonaidh Ruaidh) is a national park in north east Scotland, established in 2003. It was the second of two national parks established by the Scottish Parliament, after Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park, set up in 2002. The park covers the Cairngorms range of mountains, and surrounding hills. Already the largest national park in the British Isles, in 2010 it expanded into Perth and Kinross.

Cairngorms National Park covers an area of 4,528 km2 (1,748 sq mi) in Aberdeenshire, Moray, Highland, Angus and Perth and Kinross Regions. The Cairngorm Mountains are a spectacular landscape, similar in appearance to the Hardangervidda National Park of Norway in having a large upland plateau. While the Hardangervidda National Park is recognised as a Category 2 national park under the IUCN categories (no activity that has a lasting impact on the natural environment is permitted) the Cairngorm National Park is a Category 5 protected landscape (sustainable development area) that has farmed and managed landscapes in which tourism is encouraged. Aviemore is a busy and popular holiday destination. The Highland Wildlife Park and Dalwhinnie distillery also lie within the National Park. In 2015, 53 km (33 mi) of the 132 kV power line in the middle of the park was taken down, while another section along the edge of the park was upgraded to 400 kV.

Cycling The Cairnwell, Scotland - aerial drone views of two-lane roadway winding through green and brown hillsides along very winding creek bed, grey cloudy skies, PJAMM Cycling logo in corner

A skiing and winter sports industry is concentrated in the Cairngorms, with three of Scotland's five resorts situated here. They are the Cairn Gorm Ski Centre, Glenshee Ski Centre, and The Lecht Ski Centre.

The Frank Bruce Sculpture Trail is located near Feshiebridge. This short trail through the woods features a sculptures created by Frank Bruce between 1965 and 2009” (
Cairngorms National Park).

100 Hills For George writes of The Cairnwell:

“The Cairnwell was another lovely climb - beautiful weather, blue sky and really nice. There was even a chance to get a bit warmed up – the hill didn’t really ramp up early doors – indeed it was a flattish bomb along with a few ups and downs, but plenty of time to admire the quite spectacular scenery.

Somewhat unsurprisingly – my legs felt really “good” on this bit – and I was really enjoying doing the cycling equivalent of putting the pedal to the metal and having a look around - I think that it is right to start the climb back before this section so you can enjoy the build up.
After a suitable period of time though, the road does get harder, I knew the pleasure couldn’t last! The gradient picked up and kept climbing up a bit – the scenery stayed beautiful, but the hills seemed to be a lot closer to you than when you were bombing along!

I do remember that there were these big long straights – that seemed to stretch out in front of you endlessly, with the heat and the sun, I was drinking lots from my bottle and working really hard to get up the hill.

A massive change from the early part of the climb – and I was regretting having bombed along so merrily as my legs weren’t quite feeling as brave as they were earlier on.

The “No-Stopping” signs were just mocking me now and at the end of the climb, my mind obviously starts to wander as I start prattling on about some sort of nonsense on the video. Again – you kind of drag yourself over the top and then it is a nice cruise to the Glenshee Ski Centre where I had myself a welcome sit down.”  

Cycling Uphill says of this climb:

“The Cairnwell is a long climb in the south of the Cairngorms National Park in central Scotland. The first 3 miles of the climb is a very gentle introduction as you rise slowly up the valley floor. It is the last mile and a half where the climb gets testing rising to a 10% gradient. The climb takes you up to Glenshee ski resort so the weather can be quite inclement, but there are wonderful views on the way up and from the top.

The modern A93 bypasses the old steep hairpins, known as the “devils hairpins”  

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