Walking in the Cairngorms

Goldie and Foxy know these paths well. They’re gentle walking companions, sure-footed and steady on mountainous climbs, but strong-willed when they need to be – after all, they’ve had to survive in the wild Cairngorms National Park, on the eastern edge of the Scottish Highlands. They’ll even carry your kit for you – over 60kg of it.

Goldie and Foxy are Highland ponies, the native packhorses of Scotland. Their ancestors smuggled whisky across the Ladder Hills and down to the markets of Perthshire, but Goldie and Foxy carry less illicit goodies on their sturdy backs: heaters, warm showers, a proper toilet and spacious tents. It’s off-grid glamping and hiking.

This isn’t the only way to walk in the Cairngorms, but it’s one of the most exciting ones. Hiking and camping with ponies is the idea of Andy Bateman, co-founder and guide at our partner Scot Mountain Vacations. The trip was designed to solve a longstanding problem: how to dry out properly while hiking and camping in the Highlands.
“The problem with offering wild camping trips in Scotland is that you don’t know what the weather will be like,” says Andy. “If the weather’s like today, it can be an absolutely glorious experience and a fantastic time. If the weather is like it was yesterday, which is cold and wet and getting close to snowing, and you get wet during the day and you’re in a nylon tent, and the only way of drying out your kit is by wearing it… It can be quite off-putting, especially for young families. So the wheels started to turn in my mind: if you can get a heat source there, it’s an absolute game-changer. It’s proved to be exactly that.”
I feel that my job as a guide is to help people reconnect with nature.
The ponies are your ticket to comfortably exploring the Cairngorms beyond the campsites. In the care of guides like Andy, who consider Goldie and Foxy part of the family, the ponies can comfortably carry heavy tents that use breathable polycotton fabrics instead of lightweight nylon.

“With a heat source and breathable fabrics,” says Andy, “suddenly you start to manage the moisture. You drive away that pervasive damp. More than that: you can dry kit out overnight. And of course, it’s lovely walking with the ponies anyway.

“I feel that my job as a guide is to help people reconnect with nature. I’m qualified to lead in the mountains, but generally our population is very urban and increasingly so, and people are losing these connections.”

Hiking Caledonian forests

There’s a huge variety of landscapes to explore in the Cairngorms – purpling heather moors, dramatic mountain plateaus, peaty bogs and smugglers’ caves. But some of the most beautiful scenery is the least dramatic: the remnant of the great Forest of Caledon. Once a huge mixed woodland, it’s now largely young Scots pines interlinked with birch, hagberry and holly trees.

“When you mention the word pine forest to people, they immediately think of rank upon rank of tightly-packed Sitka spruces and no light can get to the forest floor,” says Andy. “But nothing could be further from the truth here. Caledonian pine forest is by far the most attractive native woodland we have in the UK.”
Caledonian pine forest is by far the most attractive native woodland we have in the UK.
Even without ponies, roaming these forests of the Cairngorms is a mystical experience. The best walking vacations explore it thoroughly. However, if you do choose them as walking companions, the ponies have an unexpected effect as they plod beside you: their hoofs gently break up thick heather and moss, just as the animals that were hunted to extinction would have done several hundred years ago.

“We’ve lost our big beasts in the woods here,” says Andy. “There’s the odd wild boar around, but they’re not spreading. The auroch – the forerunner to our modern Highland cow – has long since gone, so we don’t have these heavy animals in the woods that disturb the ground and make it receptive to pine seed.”
The Cairngorms has lost a huge amount of its forests over the years. It’s not a recent trend: most trees were cleared as early as the Iron Age, and were still being chipped away during World War I and World War II for ammunition boxes and timber for the trenches.
Scotland as a whole has as much native woodland now as it’s had in hundreds of years. Things are very much going in the right direction.
But the future is bright. Our walking vacations in the Cairngorms take you to the RSPB reserves working on reconstructing native woodland. They also support Cairngorms Connect, which gets disparate landowners working together to increase biodiversity and minimise the impacts of the climate crisis by restoring natural river flows, forests and carbon stores like peat bogs.

“Scotland as a whole has as much native woodland now as it’s had in hundreds of years,” says Andy. He points to Victorian pictures of the Cairngorms, where Queen Victoria herself loved to walk and ride. The hillsides then were stripped bare. “Things are very much going in the right direction.”

Where to go on forest walks in the Cairngorms

Tours through the RSPB Abernathy Reserve take you through towering Scots pine dripping with lichen and heather moorland favoured by black grouse. Follow the crystal-clear River Nethy before popping by the RSPB Osprey Centre on the way back.

You can climb through the native pine and birch woodland on the edge of the Monadhliath Mountains, where buzzards soar above. Once you reach the summit of Geal Charn Mor, you get far-reaching views across the lochs, marshes and peaks of the Cairngorms. A hike in Glenmore Forest takes you through the Ryvoan Pass, where you can forage for mushrooms and raspberries, depending on the season, and pass bright blue Loch Morlich.

Climbing Cairn Gorm & beyond

However often I walk on them, these hills hold astonishment for me.
– Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain
Aberdeenshire writer Nan Shepherd lived in the house she grew up in on Deeside, where the Cairngorms were always on the horizon. They were her back garden and she walked them constantly, checking on them as though they were old friends and taking note of every crag, wildflower and birdcall. Her memoir about walking in the Cairngorms, The Living Mountain, is essential reading for anyone heading to the area.

Andy agrees with the Nan Shepherd way of walking: it’s all in the details. “When you’re walking, you’re going at a rate where you can spot things and see things,” he says. “It allows you to get under the skin of an area… This area is God’s country – I know I’m biased – but over the 20 years I’ve lived up here, it’s steadily grown on me as I’ve realised what a special place it is.”

Where to go hill walking in the Cairngorms

The most obvious place to start is the summit of Cairn Gorm, the sixth highest peak in Britain. The dramatic cliff scenery of the Cairngorm Plateau is home to alpine flora like moss campion and starry saxifrage, but you will also see broken columns of rock stacked like Jenga towers and tundra-like vistas streaked with snow.

Nan Shepherd was wise to the notion of too many hikers heading for the summit: “…Cairn Gorm grows scruffy, the very heather tatty from the scrape of boots (too many boots, too much commotion, but then how much uplift for how many hearts)…” Local guides know that the best views of Cairn Gorm aren’t necessarily from the peak, but from below – they’ll direct you to Loch A’an for dramatic big mountain scenery.
It is the largest area of least altered habitat we have in the UK.
In Strath A’an, a steep but short climb is rewarded with views of the Cromdale Hills. It’s a moderate descent to the Glenlivet distillery here, too. The Braes of Glenlivet are tracks across open moorland where red grouse, mountain hares and roe deer root around. But you can also climb Cairn Mor, where The Ladder takes you to panoramic views of the Grampians. Glen Feshie is one of the prettiest valleys in the Cairngorms, with heather sloping up its sides and a river running through it. The summit of Mullach Clach a Blair is reachable from here, too.

“One of the nice things with walks in the Cairngorms is that you go up through all these different natural vegetation zones,” says Andy. “I’m not saying that humans haven’t had a big influence on it – they have – but it is the largest area of least altered habitat we have in the UK. That’s also reflected in the number of different species we have in the national park.”

There are flatter routes, too, like the Speyside Way. This old railway route chugs through Knockando hamlet, where you can visit the wool mill and café and detour to Aberlour Distillery, whose cooperage makes most of the whisky casks in Scotland.

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What are walking vacations in the Cairngorms like?

Guided trips tend to be small group adventures headed up by an expert local guide. Groups are usually around eight people, and attract a complete mix, from solo travelers to families.

Self guided hikes are usually tailor made, accompanied by daily walks, notes and recommendations meticulously designed by expert guides who know the Cairngorms well. Tailor made trips can be adapted to your requirements – perhaps opting for easy or challenging hikes or adding in rest days. Whether you’re being guided by them or by their written walking maps, you’ll be looked after by people who often have a lifelong love of outdoors and the Cairngorms.

A week is a good amount of time for a Cairngorms walking vacation. It’ll include rest days – which can be for resting… or for zip lining, mountain biking, canoeing and Loch Ness day trips.

Accommodation and some meals are included, depending on your preference. You can stay at a base in a town like Boat of Garten, where you’ll snooze in a family-run B&B. Or you can walk from point to point, staying in inns with wildlife hides in the back garden. There’ll be no Premier Inns on their watch: the people who organise our walking vacations are passionate about supporting local farm shops, pubs and bakeries.

Transport and some activities are also included – that might be whisky tasting or entry to RSPB reserves. Some of our partners offer free transfers and discounts if you travel to the Cairngorms by train or bus.

Best time to go walking in the Cairngorms

A glorious day in winter can’t be touched.
Good news: the Cairngorms has some of the best weather in Scotland. Many walks focus on April to September, when there are better weather conditions and long, light days. Autumn is hugely underrated – and you’ll likely get the Cairngorms to yourself. The rich colours of the birch, pines, bracken and moors are striking against the first dusting of snow. You’ll also be treated to the spectacle of rutting stags bellowing across the valleys.

Mountain guides take experienced walkers out on expeditions in winter. You can even go snow-holing. “It can pretty brutal as well when you’re up in the mountains in winter,” says Andy, who is a winter mountain guide. “But a glorious day in winter can’t be touched. I know I’m not on my own – all the other guides, if they had to pick a season, they’d all pick winter.”
Photo credits: [Page banner: Strevo] [Intro: © Andrew Weild Photography] [Weather: © Andrew Weild Photography] [Hiking Caledonian forests: Mike McBey] [Forest: Mike McBey] [Cairn Gorm: John Allan] [Loch A’an : Clive Giddis] [Best time to go: Free-Photos]