Things to see & do in the
Cairngorms National Park

The Cairngorms National Park folds nature reserves within nature reserves. Heathered hills lead up to five of the highest mountains in the UK. Whispers of forest were once the ancient Great Forest of Caledon, bristling with native species. Cold, clear streams dance down from the mountains to the sea via a chain of salmon lochs. And it all plays out just an hour’s drive west of Aberdeen.
However often I walk on them, these hills hold astonishment for me. There is no getting accustomed to them.
– Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain: A Celebration of the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland
The Cairngorms change mile by mile and season by season, drawing in poets, painters, photographers and philosophers for centuries. Generations of hands-off conservation management has given the land over to golden eagles and ptarmigan, wildcats and pine martens. You might even spot HRH Queen Elizabeth out for a drive; Balmoral Castle, the royal country retreat, is tucked away near Aviemore.

Things to do in the Cairngorms National Park

Hiking

Walking vacations in the Cairngorms feature every flavour of footpath. You can find peace in the backwaters of Glenlivet, trace the ridgeline of the Cromdale Hills and conquer the summit of Carn Mor (829m), all the while watching out for mountain hares and red grouse. Panoramic views – and the odd whisky distillery – guaranteed.

More in the way of peaks come courtesy of Cairn Gorm (1,245m). The climb to the plateau is strenuous but rewarding. You might pass snow bunting and dotterels hunting insects between the butterwort and starry saxifrage. Towering cliffs clasp Loch A’an basin. Ben Rinnes (841m) gives up sea glimpses on a clear day; you’ll descend through weird granite tors and cloudberry meadows.
To aim for the highest point is not the only way to climb a mountain.
– Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain: A Celebration of the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland
Wise words from Nan Shepherd, who must’ve known about folktale finds like the Burn O’ Vat. You’ll cross stepping stones and squeeze between giant boulders to get to this four-storey tall glacial pot hole. Abernethy National Nature Reserve is another place that’s barely changed in 10,000 years. It’s a leftover from the great Forest of Caledon, dripping with lichens and long abandoned stone houses.
Joining an organised Cairngorms walking vacation is the easiest way to hike here. Your transport and accommodation (perhaps a stone guesthouse stocked with homemade cakes and a herb garden) is sorted for you, plus you’ll be in the hands of a guide who knows their cairns from their Bens from their Munros. You’ll meet fellow walkers – usually groups are eight people max – from all walks of life. Walking typically ranges from moderate to strenuous, so pick your preference.

Wildlife watching

Antler-bedecked red deer strike a pose on every Cairngorms postcard, but you’ll also bump into red squirrels in the Caledonian pine forests, golden eagles and grouse on the mountains, and otters and osprey in Loch Garten. Stocky Scottish wildcats ghost through the forests. Abernethy National Nature Reserve is the must-see – one of Britain’s most biologically diverse habitats, sheltering over 4,500 species of flora and fauna.

A great tour operator will connect you with a trained field guide and wildlife tracker who can tell you the ptarmigans from the grouses and wake you up at dawn to go on otter watch. They’ll teach you to observe rather than disturb. A tour operator could also get you camping in cushty tipi tents (essentials – and Scrabble – included), where the animals come to you every evening.

Cycling

Many Cairngorms cycling vacations start off at Glenlivet Trail Centre, where newbies can get the feel for the bike and wannabe Chris Hoys can take on the blue and red runs.
Out in the wilds, the Kinkardine Circuit ticks off osprey hides, lochs, moorland tracks and mountain vistas. The Burma Road ascent was built by prisoners of war in World War II, twisting and turning around the mountain flanks. Your reward: ever more dramatic views over the High Cairngorms and a right-around summit panorama. A lovely long descent through heather valleys and pine woods fetches up at a pub.
Cycling vacations to the Cairngorms are often self-guided tailor made tours. That means you get the comfort of having advice and maps on hand, as well as accommodation sorted, but you can also pick the routes to suit you – especially useful if you’re bringing novice (or kid-sized) riders. Bike gear and transfers are usually provided.

Our top Scotland Vacation

Cairngorms mountain biking short break, Scotland

Cairngorms mountain biking short break, Scotland

A mountain biking extravaganza in the Cairngorms

From £511 4 days ex flights
Tailor made:
April to December
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Scotland or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.

Practicalities

The guides on organised trips in the Cairngorms can generally tweak your trip to your interests – photography, bird watching or sketching. Most Cairngorms vacations come in two sizes: small group or tailor made. You’ll meet likeminded hikers and cyclists on a small group tour. Tailor made vacations are more flexible, giving you the option to add extra nights in the Highlands or to shrink a five-day walking vacation to just two days. Trips to the Cairngorms tend to last three to five days. It depends on how many extra activities like white water rafting, stargazing and canyoning you want to squish in. Tours to the Cairngorms usually run April to September, when the weather’s best. Just remember to take local lass Nan Shepherd’s words to heart: “Summer on the high plateau can be delectable as honey; it can also be a roaring scourge.” Always pack waterproof layers, whatever the forecast; it might be warm sunshine on the moors and snowy paths on the tors. Choose early autumn to catch the gold-dusted aspen forests. This being a Scottish vacation, most trips include a whisky distillery tour. And if they don’t, request one. You might taste the new whisky expressions at Glenlivet Distillery, sup rare and contrasting malts under the eye of a sommelier at Whisky Castle in Tomintoul, or swing by the artful oak cask makers of Speyside Cooperage.
Photo credits: [Page banner: Joe Green] [Top box: andrewrendell] [Hiking: Ted and Jen] [Cycling: Phil and Pam Gradwell (to be)]
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