Breathtaking is the word used by the Official Visitor Guide to the Cairngorms National Park when asked to sum up this beautiful, wilderness area and it certainly is a magical place where nature thrives. Plus, the area has a whole load of exciting stuff to do, catering for all ages and stages of life. There are many family attractions to be explored, castles to visit, whiskey distilleries to discover, nature reserves and wildlife centres, as well as hiking and biking trails, snow sports and water sports and much, much more besides. It’s a great destination for anyone who enjoys nature, and superb scenery and is looking for some peace and quiet, away from the suburban hum. Oh yeah and isn’t too fussy about the weather!
The Cairngorm National Park is the UK’s largest National Park and covers over 4500 km² of the sublime and contrasting countryside. With rocks dating over 700 million years old as well as the finest collection of glacial landforms outside of Canada, this is also a scientifically important place. The area takes its name from the Cairngorm Mountain range, which, in turn, gets its name from the mountain of Cairn Gorm, the seventh highest mountain in the UK. The national park is home to six of the UK’s seven highest mountains and has 55 Munros (mountains over 914m) in total, making it an excellent destination for peak baggers and hikers. Wintertime sees snow sports enthusiasts heading up to enjoy its three ski resorts and fishing.
Boasting some of the best mountain biking paths in the UK and catering for all levels, cycling is a great way to explore the park and with a range of restaurants and farmer’s markets linked by bike routes, eating on the go has never been better. Not to forget too, that biking is an excellent way to observe shy wildlife and there is plenty of that to be had, being a nature lovers’ paradise! With its nine nature reserves, huge swathes of ancient Caledonian Pine forests and the arctic-alpine mountain environment, many species of birds and mammals, rarely found outside of this area are present here such as the Scottish Wildcat, Mountain hare and the much loved and iconic red squirrel. Not to forget the birds; ptarmigan, snow bunting, curlew, red grouse, ospreys and golden eagles can all be spotted. The Cairngorms are also home to Britain’s only free-ranging herd of reindeer! There are around 150 of these amazing animals and the Reindeer Centre at Aviemore is definitely worth visiting. All these amazing features and attributes make the Cairngorm National Park an area of considerable national and European importance. Little wonder then that nearly four million feet set foot in this park each year!
With so many amazing hikes and trails, for all abilities and ages, it can often be difficult to choose any one trail to do, so here is a real mix of hikes to get you interested, serious hikers, peak baggers, family meanders, twitchers, read on, to discover your perfect hike!
The must-do – Cairn Gorm
The national park’s namesake, Cairn Gorm has many different routes, some skirting around its lower slopes, others leading to its summit. The car park at Coire Cas, at the bottom of the ski centre, is the main starting point for many of the tracks and trails for both this mountain and the massif itself. For a not too strenuous family hike, choose the 1.5 kilometre Lower Cas Loop, which leaves from the Day Lodge and goes up the side of the Funicular railway, midway up the mountain. The path crosses over the lower ski slopes and then climbs to the middle station before returning to the start point via the Homeroad.
For something more energetic, the Windy Ridge Path is much steeper and goes up the left-hand side of Coire Cas to the upper mountain. From this route, you’ll get stunning views of Loch Morlich, and the Ryvoan Pass and will discover the UK’s highest restaurant; the Ptarmigan. It is found at the Ptarmigan Train Station of the CairnGorm Mountain railway and is about halfway to the summit, so makes a good place to stop and refuel, before continuing upon the summit path to the top. Here there is a weather station and a cairn and obviously amazing views. Descent is via the same route with the option of getting the funicular railway at the restaurant back down to the bottom.
Best for summit baggers – Ben Macdui
As this is the highest peak in the Cairngorms and the second highest in the UK, it had to be included for the peak baggers and thrill-seekers! At 1309m, Ben Macdui is in the heart of the Cairngorm massif and has a wild, arctic feel about it. Its summit, which from Aviemore is mostly hidden by Cairn Gorm and Baeriach, is said to be haunted by the Big Grey Man, a ghost-like creature who stalks the mountain guarding its secrets. There are many routes up to the summit, especially from the north and east, the most direct route starts from the Coire Cas car park and climbs to the summit via Miadan Creag an Leth-choin. Return is by the same route, or take the north east trail at Lochan Buidhe to descend via Cairn Gorm and get another peak under your belt at the same time.
Best for twitchers – Findhorn Valley
Findhorn Valley is found on the northeast edge of the National Park and is a rather isolated and lonely corner of the park. Completely surrounded by steep cliffs it is a haven for all kinds of feathered life; golden plovers and ring ouzels can be seen here in the summer as well as river and wading birds such as dippers, sandpipers and oystercatchers. It is, the birds of prey, however, that are the real attraction here, in fact the place is also known as the ‘Valley of the Raptors’ and is one of the best places in Scotland to spot golden eagles as well as hen harriers, kestrels, ospreys, white tailed eagles and peregrine falcons! There are two easy, low level river walks along the river Findhorn, both starting at the Logie Steading Visitor Centre on the Logie Estate, the Short River Walk (1km) and Randolph’s Leap (3km).
Best for Whiskey lovers – The Whiskey Trail
No trip to Scotland would be complete without sampling a wee dram of the golden liquid and the Speyside Malt Whiskey Trail is the only trail of its kind in the world. Set in the beautiful Moray Speyside region, the whole trail is 120 km long and leads through forests, across beaches and the Cairngorm National Park, but can easily be sectioned if time or will is lacking. With both working and historic distilleries along the way, you can be sure to get some tasting in.
Starting in Dufftown, the whiskey capital of the world, discover the distilleries of Glenfiddich and Glen Grant, still making whiskey with the original recipe. Also, stop at the fascinating Speyside Cooperage and see the traditional methods used in making the oak casks used by the distilleries. This trail is an experience like no other, getting the chance to try different whiskies and meet the craftsmen and women who have made making whiskey their life’s passion as well as learning about the heritage and way of life of this rather savage but beautiful area.
Best for little legs – Loch Morlich
Boarded by woods and beaches, Loch Morlich is surely in one of the most beautiful of settings. The flat and easy 6km circular trail running around the loch and through the forests makes a great destination for a family hike and with lots of paths sprouting off, the hike can be as long or as short as required. There are also some activities on offer, mainly water sports; SUP, kayaking and canoeing, but there is also mountain bike hire, making it a great place to hang out and ensure that the youngsters don’t get bored. Ample car parking is available at the visitor centre, located at the northeastern end of the lake. Fishing is also possible here although a licence is required.
Best short walk – The Falls of Bruar
Don’t let the short distance of this hike put you off. What it lacks in length it makes up for in scenery! Forests of pine, rowan, larch and birch, were planted, at the bequest of Scotland’s famous poet, Robert Burns, who observed that the river was short of water and asked the owner, a noble Duke to plant trees and shrubs to shade it from the sun ‘Then it would be home to more wildlife and make a pleasant place for wandering shepherds, lovers and bards’. It certainly is that now, the trees, the waterfalls, bridges and ravines are nothing short of sublime and it is a real gem of a trail.
Around 3km, the hike is steep in places with glorious views out over the Grampian Mountains. When you’ve finished, check out the House of Bruar, not far at all from the waterfalls and perhaps Scotland’s most prestigious departmental store, selling tweed clothing, outdoor wear, gifts and food.
Best long hike – The Cateran Trail
This 103 km circular trail is designated as one of Scotland’s Great Tails and straddles the border between Angus and Perthshire, in this rather forlorn corner of the Cairngorms. With no official beginning or end, the trail can be joined at any stage and can be completed in around five days. It has a variety of landscapes; mountains, forests and farmland and uses old drovers’ roads, minor roads and farm tracks and paths, so you can be sure that something different is just around the corner. The trail gets its name from the cattle raiders known as Caterans, who brought terror and turmoil to this area in times long gone. Eating and sleeping should not be difficult with the many pubs, hostels, B&Bs and campgrounds en route.
And finally, if you are heading up to the Cairngorms in early October, be sure to visit the village of Carrhill. Not only home to the oldest stone bridge in the Highlands, but the village also hosts the World Porridge Making Championship, this event takes place each year around World Porridge Day, the 10th October and sees competitors from afar come together to compete to make the best porridge, the traditional national dish of Scotland and win the famous Golden Spurtle! It makes for a really unusual and amusing outing!