Whoever said that less is more has never set foot in the Cairngorms National Park. Situated in the heart of the Scottish highlands, it’s twice the size of Scotland’s sister park, Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, and a whopping 40% bigger than the Lake District. Better still, it’s just a short trip from Aberdeen, or a manageable train or road trip from Edinburgh and Glasgow. Especially for active types, take a look at our guide to hiking in the Cairngorms.
Home to vast landscapes, world-renowned peaks and granite tors, as well as a quarter of the UK’s endangered bird, animal and plant species, the park is far more than the sum of its parts. Hikers travel to the Cairngorms for the simple reason that five of the UK’s highest mountains reside here, with heaps of lower, less strenuous peaks on offer too. Go all in with a hefty climb, or on lower land, take your pick from beach routes, forest trails and gorge and glen walks.
So where to start? Here, big really is better. Of all the park’s mighty offerings, Ben Macdui is a must. At just over 1300m (4,295ft), it’s the highest peak in the Cairngorms, and stands proudly behind Ben Nevis as the second highest mountain in Britain. There are a couple of decent routes up, but we’d recommend starting from the car park at the Cairngorm ski centre. Best to be attempted in good weather conditions, sharp navigational skills and decent stamina are a definite plus, and the nearby town of Aviemore is a good shout for a stopover when you’re done.
Given the park’s vast space, the options are plenty. The well-known wild Lairig Ghru mountain pass, which cuts through the central Cairngorms, is not for the faint-hearted, but worth the effort. It can be done in a day – though at 20 or so miles long, it’s worth considering packing your tent and camping en route.
For something a little less raucous and low level, Loch Morlich offers some great family friendly options for hiking in the Cairngorms, as well as some great watersports. With the peaks of the northern Cairngorms as a backdrop, the forests and beaches are a magnet for locals and visitors alike – and the 4ish mile circuit of the loch is a great way to experience the national park on some very manageable terrain.
The village of Braemar, around 60 miles west of Aberdeen, is well known for its close proximity to Balmoral Castle, but similarly also offers some fantastic walks up some of the park’s smaller hills. The Morrone is a lovely climb and offers an extraordinary panoramic over the Cairngorm peaks. Give yourself half a day to do it justice, and plenty of time to soak up the views. Braemar itself offers some great wee spots for a libation when you come back down. If you’re around that area anyway, the far more taxing and wonderfully atmospheric Lochnagar Mountain is simply unmissable.
Header image © Jennifer Campbell
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Have you been hiking in the Cairngorms? Share your tips with us in the comments section below.
Written by Anna Millar