Cairngorms National Park: The Complete Guide

Meadow In Cairngorms National Park, Scotland, Uk

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Cairngorms National Park

Address
Grantown on Spey PH26 3HG, UK
Phone +44 1479 873535

If you’re drawn to Scotland for its astonishing natural beauty, there’s nowhere better to visit than Cairngorms National Park. The largest national park in the UK, Cairngorms spans 1,748 square miles of shimmering lochs and trout-filled rivers, snow-dusted mountains, and sweeping valleys. Unlike national parks in other countries, Cairngorms is not an uninhabited wilderness. Instead, this protected area is occupied by people who live and work in harmony with the landscape. This mountainous region includes five of the six highest peaks in Scotland. The tallest, Ben Macdui, soars to 4,295 feet and is the second-highest peak in the UK. And, the park's ancient Caledonian pine forests shelter many of the country’s most endangered animals. A trip to this region is not complete without embarking on a wilderness hike, skiing at one of the park's famed resorts, imbibing in local whisky tasting, or scouring the unpolluted night sky for the elusive Northern Lights. 

Things to Do 

There are countless ways to immerse yourself in the wondrous landscapes of Cairngorms. One of the most popular is to explore the park’s many trails on foot, mountain bike, or horseback. There are routes of varying lengths and difficulty to suit everyone—from families with kids to experienced mountaineers.

Those who aren't up for foot travel can still experience the park’s scenery with a drive along the 90-mile SnowRoads route from Blairgowrie to Grantown-on-Spey. Or, you can totally relax by kicking back on the Strathspey Steam Railway from Aviemore to Broomhill via Boat of Garten. 

No matter where your go in Cairngorms, resident wildlife are easy to spot. Visit the nesting ospreys that return annually to Loch Garten Nature Reserve. Head into the wilderness near Cairngorm Mountain or venture onto the Glenlivet Estate in search of the UK’s only free-ranging reindeer herd. The park houses 25 percent of the UK's endangered species, including birds and mammals that you can search for on a guided trek.

In the summer, the Loch Morlich Watersports Centre runs stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking, and canoeing lessons from a golden sand beach, and also rents rowboats and sailboats. Loch Insh Outdoor Centre offers summer courses in paddling, powerboating, sailing, and windsurfing. They also run guided, five-day canoe trips from Loch Insh down the River Spey and all the way out to the ocean.

Fishermen flock to Cairngorms National Park, complete with the Rivers Spey and Dee and a wide variety of Highland lochs, which provide opportunities to fish for several sought-after species, like salmon, sea trout, and wild brown trout.

Three of Scotland’s five ski resorts are located in the Cairngorms: Cairngorm Mountain, The Lecht 2090, and Glenshee Ski & Snowboard. All of the resorts offer ski and snowboard lessons and equipment rentals, with a season that typically lasts (weather-permitting) from December to April. 

History buffs will enjoy visiting Balmoral Castle, the private holiday home of Queen Elizabeth II. Although most of the castle is off-limits to visitors, it is open for tours of the Castle Ballroom and the Carriage Hall Courtyard, as well as the breathtaking grounds and gardens. The open-air Highland Folk Museum resurrects the lifestyle and traditions of the early highlanders, with restored buildings and live actors. "Outlander" fans will recognize the village from scenes filmed for the show’s first season.

Finally, there are several exceptional whiskey distilleries—an age-old Highlands tradition—within Cairngorms National Park. Royal Lochnagar Distillery produces spirits fit for royalty, as Queen Victoria proved when she visited in 1848. Other unique Scottish beverage offerings include Dalwhinnie Distillery (for whisky), Persie Distillery (for gin), and the Cairngorm Brewery (for craft beer). 

Best Hikes & Trails

Some of Scotland’s best hiking trails traverse Cairngorms National Park. You can choose from iconic long-distance routes that link the coast to the mountains to heritage paths that unveil the unique history of the surrounding land. If mountaineering is your passion, consider taking up the Scottish pastime of Munro-bagging (hiking a mountain that's at least 3,000 feet high), but make sure to hire a guide, unless you know the area well.

  • The Speyside Way: The Speyside Way is one of four long-distance routes that can be tackled in the Cairngorms. This route links the coast to the Grampian Mountains and follows the River Spey for a 65-mile backcountry adventure. Along the way, you can stay at lodges and bed and breakfasts, and stop in at local distilleries. This route is a mellow walk through pastures and countryside, with an offshoot option for a hillier trek from Ballindalloch to Tomintoul. You can tackle this hike in stages, with the shortest stage being a 17.5-mile walk from Buckie to Fochabers.
  • The Dava Way: The shorter Dava Way, a 24-mile trail, follows the route of the old roadway and can also be completed in sections, with gentle gradients and muddy areas. The shortest section is the 10.5 kilometers (6.5 miles) from Dava to Dunphail, however, there is no lodging along this route (lodging is only available at the start), making it a hike that is best completed in one long haul.
  • Mount Keen: Those looking to gain elevation might want to hike the heritage path up Mount Keen. This 37-kilometer (23-mile) old service road takes you up 890 meters (2,919 feet) to the top of Mount Keen via a long and easy approach, followed by a steep ascent. This trail traverses through forests and fields and over bridges and up rocky outcroppings.
  • Capel Mounth: This 9-kilometer (5.5-mile) heritage trail can be walked or biked, as it follows a road that climbs the shoulder of Capel Mounth, and then descends in switchbacks down a ridge to Glen Clova and a ranger station. Back in the day, this route was used as a pass between Glen Muick and the Braes of Angus, when the area was more populated. 

Wildlife Viewing

For animal lovers, Cairngorms National Park protects one of the UK’s most diverse wildlife habitats, with a quarter of the region’s threatened species finding refuge here. Possible mammal sightings include otters and mountain hares, pine martens, red deer, and the endangered red squirrel. A lucky few may catch a glimpse of the Scottish wildcat, as this rare feline population numbers only a few hundred in this Highlands area. Plentiful bird species here include ptarmigans, ospreys, golden eagles, and capercaillies. One species, in particular, the Scottish crossbill, is found only in this park.

Many of the regional Cairngorms lodging options offer wildlife experiences. The Highland cow safari and red deer feeding experience at Rothiemurchus, and the Land Rover safari at Atholl Estate, are among the best ranger-led experiences in the park. You can also take a night excursion to search for badgers and pine martens at Speyside Wildlife’s forest hide.

Where to Camp

Cairngorms National Park is a camper's haven, with a multitude of campgrounds located near villages throughout the park. Pull up your motorhome on a hard-surfaced plot or sleep in a deluxe camping pod, complete with heat and electricity. Those embarking on a backpacking trip or bagging a Munro can also backcountry camp, just be sure to follow the park's code of conduct.

  • Oakwood Caravan & Camping Park: Oakwood Caravan & Camping Park hosts campers, motorhomes, camper vans, and tents all year long. All motorhome and some tent sites have electric hookups and there are bathrooms and hot showers on site. Tent sites have a grassy plot and pets are welcome, but must be kept on a leash at all times. This campground is within walking distance from Aviemore's shops, restaurants, and pubs.
  • Glenmore Forest Park: Glenmore Forest Park provides campers with an authentic experience, as it's situated in a natural setting on Loch Morlich. Its 206 sites, including grass, hard-surfaced, and electric pitches, accommodate campers, tents, and motorhomes. From this campground, you can enjoy hiking and biking trails, as well as kayaking, canoeing, and swimming in the lake.
  • Braemar Caravan Park: This caravan park offers hard-surfaced sites with electric hookups, grass pitches with electric hookups, a backpacking tent area, and six camping "pods," or cabins, that each sleep up to four people. Their on-site store offers camping and RV equipment and their bakehouse serves fresh bread made to order.
  • Cromdale Station Camping Coach: Located on the Speyside Way, this Great North of Scotland retired railway carriage can be reserved by private families of four. The carriage has a fully-equipped kitchenette, electric heat, bathroom and shower facilities, and a gas stove. Free WiFi is available inside the carriage, and dogs are welcome. Cromdale Station and its amenities are a short drive away.
  • Blair Castle Caravan Park: Located in the shadow of the historic Blair Castle, the pod-like cabins at Blair Castle Caravan Park each contain a sofabed that sleeps two. Each 9-foot by 15-foot pod has electric lighting and heating, as well as sockets for charging your electronics. This campground also offers hard-surfaced motorhome sites, complete with hookups, and tent sites, with shower and toilet facilities located conveniently close by.

Where to Stay Nearby 

Accommodation options in the Cairngorms are just as varied and diverse as the region's camping and activities. The park's villages offer options for luxury stays, self-catered cottages, and everything in between.

  • The Fife Arms: The Fife Arms in Braemar takes you on a luxurious trip back in history, offering rooms and suites filled with antiques and traditional Scottish decor. Some rooms and suites feature freestanding copper bathtubs, rain showers, and a double bed, while other rooms tell a story of historical Scottish figures. One restaurant and three bars grace the premises, offering wood-fired cuisine and local libations.
  • The Dulaig: Located in Grantown-on-Spey, the Dulaig bed and breakfast is the perfect place for a romantic stay in an elegant country house. The historic 1910 residence is prized for its comfortable beds and delicious homemade food. Choose from one of several rooms, complete with a super king or double twin beds, walk-in showers, heated towel rails, and under-floor heating. Then, indulge in the lodge's breakfast buffet and daily sweets in your room.
  • Strathspey Lodge: This modern mountain lodge and self-catered property near Carrbridge contains four bedrooms, an open floorplan, and expensive decks with views of the countryside. Visitors can enjoy the surrounding recreational opportunities, including golf, skiing, hiking, fishing, and hunting. Just up the road sits the Muckrach Hotel, offering a luxury dinner menu, and the Lochanully Country Club, complete with a gym, swimming pool, and a bar.
  • Lazy Duck: Adventurous travelers will enjoy the accommodations at the Lazy Duck bunkhouse hostel and eco-huts. Glamping options can accommodate up to six people in the bunkhouse, complete with a full-service mini-kitchen, four people in a pre-pitched safari tent, and two people in a rustic cabin. On-site wellness facilities include a wood-fired hot tub, a sauna, massage services, and yoga classes.

How to Get There

The closest two airports to Cairngorms National Park are Inverness Airport (a 30-minute drive from the Aviemore, Badenoch, and Strathspey area) and the Aberdeen International Airport (an hour drive from Royal Deeside). You can rent a car at either airport, allowing you the freedom to explore the area on your own. Many roads traverse the park, with the most popular being the A9 Highland Tourist Route, which connects the park to Inverness in the north and to Pitlochry in the south. 

If you plan on traveling by train, you can depart from Kings Cross in London and arrive at one of two gateway stations in Aviemore and Kingussie, or at an interior station, like Dalwhinnie, Newtonmore, and Carrbridge. Regular coach services connect the park to London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, and Inverness, while the towns and villages within the park are linked by local buses. 

Accessibility

Cairngorms National Park provides "access for all" with wheelchair-friendly paths at the Atholl Estate at Blair Atholl. The Lochan Trail at the Craigellachie National Nature Reserve by Aviemore offers wildlife viewing opportunities for people of all ability levels. And, Glen Tanar National Nature Reserve near Aboyne offers handicap-accessible facilities and some walking paths.

Stay at a wheelchair-accessible cottage on the River Dee, offered by Crathie Opportunity Holidays, and get around using Badenoch & Strathspey Community Transport Service's minibus service. This operation also offering mobility scooters and wheelchair rentals.

Tips For Your Visit

  • The area surrounding Aviemore, Badenoch, and Strathspey is considered the park’s adventure capital. Filled with hiking and cycling trails, watersports centers, and the Cairngorm Mountain ski resort, this is the most visited area of the park.
  • For a more off-the-beaten-track experience, head to historic Angus Glens in the southeast section of the park, an area known for its spectacular scenery and abundant indigenous wildlife.
  • The Tomintoul and Glenlivet distilleries offer a haven for whisky connoisseurs and are located in the northeast section of the park.
  • Cairngorms National Park experiences four distinct seasons, and the locals will tell you that it’s possible to experience all four within a single day. For that reason, pack adequate protection for wet, cold, and sunny conditions, no matter when you travel.
  • Summer is the warmest month with July to mid-August yielding temperatures of up to 66 degrees F (19 degrees C) during the day. This is when the water is the warmest for watersports, too, and long days, with up to 18 hours of daylight, mean even more time for exploring.
  • If you travel during the summer, bring bug repellent to deter pesky midges.
  • January boasts the coldest temperatures in the Cairngorms, averaging around 40 degrees F (4 degrees C) during the day and falling well below freezing at night. This is the best time of year to travel for skiing and snowboarding, although the snow often lingers well into spring.
  • Avid fishermen may want to book a trip on Loch Alvie and Loch Insh through Alvie and Dalraddy Estate. Invercauld Estate promises ghillie-led fishing for salmon and sea trout on the River Dee and excursions to remote hill lochs in search of wild brown trout. Char, pike, and eel are also commonly caught in the region.
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Cairngorms National Park: The Complete Guide