If you’re drawn to Scotland by the promise of astonishing natural beauty, there’s nowhere better to start than Cairngorms National Park. The largest national park in the U.K., it covers some 1,748 square miles of shimmering lochs and trout-filled rivers, snow-dusted mountains, and sweeping valleys. Its ancient Caledonian pine forests shelter many of the country’s most endangered animals, while activities range from mountaineering and whisky tasting to scouring unpolluted skies for the elusive Northern Lights.
Geography of the Cairngorms
Cairngorms National Park is defined by its many mountains, including 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 U.K. 52 Cairngorms mountains are classified as Munros—peaks higher than 2,950 feet. Unlike national parks in other countries, the Cairngorms is not an uninhabited wilderness. Instead, this protected area is occupied by people who continue to live and work in harmony with the landscape as their ancestors have done for thousands of years. There are roughly 18,000 people who call the Cairngorms home.
The park can be divided into five distinct areas. In the northwest, Aviemore, Badenoch, and Strathspey are 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 the historic Angus Glens in the southeast; an area known for its spectacular scenery and abundant indigenous wildlife. Royal Deeside is the park’s eastern gateway and the home of Balmoral Castle; Tomintoul and Glenlivet is a haven for whisky connoisseurs in the north east; and Atholl and Glenshee offer another ski resort and historic castles in the southern sector.
For animal lovers, Cairngorms National Park represents one of the U.K.’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. Those that are very lucky may catch a glimpse of a Scottish wildcat, a rare feline with just a few hundred individuals remaining in the Highlands area. Special bird species abound too, with top sightings including ptarmigans, ospreys, golden eagles, and capercaillies. One species, the Scottish crossbill, is the only British bird found nowhere else on Earth.
Top Things to Do
Scenic Appreciation: There are countless ways to immerse yourself in the wondrous landscapes of the Cairngorms. One of the most popular is to explore the park’s many trails on foot, mountain bike, or horseback. There are routes of lengths and difficulties to suit everyone, from families with young kids to experienced hillwalkers. Some of Scotland’s best long-distance trails traverse the Cairngorms including The Speyside Way, The Deeside Way, The Cateran Trail, and The Dava Way. If mountaineering is your passion, consider taking up the uniquely Scottish pastime of Munro-bagging.
Those that don’t feel like exerting quite so much energy can still discover the park’s scenery either with a drive along the 90-mile Snow Roads route from Blairgowrie to Grantown-on-Spey; or with a ride on the Strathspey Steam Railway. The former is the highest public road in Britain and the latter operates classic steam trains from Aviemore to Broomhill via Boat of Garten.
Wildlife Experiences: Wherever you go within the Cairngorms you will have a chance of spotting the resident wildlife. Specific activities that deserve a place on your bucket list include visiting the nesting ospreys that return each year to Loch Garten Nature Reserve, going in search of the UK’s only free-ranging reindeer herd on Cairngorm Mountain and the Glenlivet Estate, and watching for badgers and pine martens during an evening experience at Speyside Wildlife’s forest hide. Many Cairngorms estates offer wildlife experiences, too. We like the Highland cow safari and red deer feeding experience at Rothiemurchus, and the Land Rover safari at Atholl Estate.
Fishing: Fishermen are spoiled for choice in Cairngorms National Park, with the Rivers Spey and Dee and a wide variety of Highland lochs providing opportunities to fish for several different sought-after species. Alvie and Dalraddy Estate offers bank and boat-based fly-fishing on Loch Alvie and Loch Insh. 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 eels are also commonly caught.
Watersports: For watersports, there are two main centers: the Loch Morlich Watersports Centre and Loch Insh Outdoor Centre. Loch Morlich hosts stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking, and canoeing lessons from a golden sand beach and also has rowboats and sailboats for rent. Loch Insh offers summer courses for everything from paddling and powerboating to sailing and windsurfing, and also runs guided, five-day canoe trips from Loch Insh down the River Spey and all the way out to the ocean. Finally, wild swimming is a popular pastime throughout the Cairngorms.
Skiing and Snowboarding: Three of Scotland’s five ski resorts are located in the Cairngorms. These are Cairngorm Mountain, The Lecht 2090, and Glenshee Ski & Snowboard. All of them offer ski and snowboard lessons and equipment rentals with a season that typically lasts (weather-permitting) from December to April.
Castles and Museums: If you can visit only one castle, make it Balmoral Castle; the private holiday home of Queen Elizabeth II. Although most of the castle is out-of-bounds for visitors, it is open for tours of the Castle Ballroom and the Carriage Hall Courtyard as well as the breathtaking grounds and gardens. Other castles that are fully accessible for visitors include Blair Castle (the ancestral seat of Clan Murray and home of the Blair Castle International Horse Trials); and 17th-century Braemar Castle with its connections to the Jacobite uprisings.
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.
Distilleries: The production of fine whisky is an age-old Highland tradition and there are several exceptional distilleries within Cairngorms National Park. Royal Lochnagar Distillery produces spirits fit for royalty, as Queen Victoria proved when she visited in 1848 and was so impressed that she issued the distillery with a Royal Warrant. Other top places to try uniquely Scottish beverages include Dalwhinnie Distillery (for whisky), Persie Distillery (for gin), and the Cairngorm Brewery (for craft beer).
Where to Stay
Accommodation options in the Cairngorms are just as varied and diverse as the activities on offer with options for luxury hotels, self-catering cottages, and everything in between. Our top choices include the famous luxury hotel The Fife Arms in Braemar; boutique B&B The Dulaig in Grantown-on-Spey; and Strathspey Lodge, a magnificent four-bedroom, self-catering property near Carrbridge. For more affordable accommodation, consider the bunkhouse hostel or glamping eco-huts at Lazy Duck; or check out one of the many beautiful campsites. Top camping options include Blair Castle Caravan Park and Ballater Caravan Park next to the River Dee. Wild camping is also permitted throughout the park.
The Best Time to Visit
There are four distinct seasons in Cairngorms National Park, although locals will tell you that it’s possible to experience all four within a single day. For that reason, it’s a good idea to pack adequate protection for wet, cold, and sun 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 warmest for watersports, too, and long days with up to 18 hours of daylight mean even more time for exploring. Midges can be an irritation in summer: bring repellent.
In winter, December has the longest nights and January the coldest temperatures, 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 magnificent snowscapes, skiing, and snowboarding, although snow often lingers well into spring. Regardless, April is the park’s driest month (although it still sees 1.9 inches of rain). Spring is also a fantastic time to visit if you want to see baby animals and migrating birds. Autumn is defined by stunning foliage, fewer midges and tourists, and often a surprising amount of sunshine.
The closest airports to Cairngorms National Park are Inverness Airport (a 30-minute drive from the Aviemore, Badenoch, and Strathspey area) and Aberdeen International Airport (a one-hour drive from Royal Deeside). There are many roads into the park, with the most popular being the A9 Highland Tourist Route. This highway connects the park to Inverness in the north and Pitlochry in the south.
If you plan on traveling by train, there are stations at Dalwhinnie, Newtonmore, Kingussie, Aviemore, and Carrbridge. Those at Kingussie and Aviemore are both on the railway line from Kings Cross in London to Inverness. 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.