The Cairngorms are a range of mountains between the Highlands region and Aberdeenshire, plus smaller areas of Angus, Perth and Kinross, and Moray. The national park, established in 2003, is by far the largest in Britain – it's named for the Cairn Gorm or "Blue Mountain" near Aviemore, but also includes the Monadhliath and Grampian ranges to the east, the Angus Glens, and the upper valleys of the Spey, Dee and Tay.
The park has no entry fees or gates. Permits may be required for activities such as fishing, and there are various commercially-run activities such as skiing and pony-trekking. But most of what the park has to offer is free, not least the scenery.
Most accommodation, eating and similar facilities are in the small towns listed below, especially Aviemore. This page describes some highlights and general features.
The Cairngorms are a huge block of granite. During the Ice Age, the ice sat on top but didn't move. Elsewhere in Britain (for instance in the English Lake District) it carved out U-shaped valleys and other distinctive glacial features; here, with the exception of a few narrow valleys such as Lairig Ghru, it just polished the block into a series of rounded tops of similar height. So what was left behind was a plateau at 1000-1200 m altitude, with the peaks of Ben Macdui (1309 m), Braeriach (1296 m), Cairn Toul (1291 m) and Cairn Gorm (1244 m).
This creates a habitat for hardy plants and animals that are common in sub-arctic countries but rare in Britain. It's too cold, stony and steep for agriculture, and the Caledonian forests in the valleys represent the last stand of the primeval forest that once cloaked Scotland. Modern times have seen encroachment by sheep-farming, game hunting and forestry, and climate change has become appreciated as a threat. The area was therefore protected in 2003 by designation as a national park. It's a remarkable wilderness, interspersed by lochs, rivers, woodland and moors. Wildlife includes crossbills, ospreys, capercaillie, golden eagles, red deer, red squirrels, otters, and mountain hare. Highlights include:
- the Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber), with some 500 now inhabiting the Tay valley; likeliest sightings are May-Aug at Loch of the Lowes above Dunkeld.
- a free-roaming herd of reindeer (Rangifer tarandus), about 150 between Cairngorm and Glenlivet. They're usually just a distant smudge on the moor, but rangers lead hikes from Glenmore to their usual grazing area.
- you will be very lucky to spot the Scottish wildcat (Felis silvestris silvestris), or be sure that it's not just a burly domestic cat – they interbreed vigorously and there may be only a few dozen "pure" wildcats out there. A program to re-build the breed started in 2023, releasing 20-some wildcats annually for three years.
Room for any more? Lynx, wolves and bears once roamed these hills, and some enthusiasts campaign for their return. But these beasts require huge terrains, so even though Cairngorms is the UK's largest park, with an area of 4,528 km² (1,748 sq mi), it may be too cramped. And the park's IUCN designation is "Category 5", a region where farming, commercial activity such as logging, and tourism are not only permitted, but valued as an integral part of the landscape. The family picnic remains safe for now.
West side of the park is accessed by the Tay and Spey valleys, which carry A9 and the railway to Inverness:
- 1 Blair Atholl is a large village just before A9 ascends bleak Drumochter Pass.
- 2 Kingussie, Dalwhinnie, Laggan and Newtonmore are small villages as A9 descends from the Pass into Spey valley.
- 3 Aviemore is the main service town and access point for the western, larger side of the park.
- 4 Carrbridge is where the valley narrows, passing Boat of Garten and Dulnain Bridge.
- 5 Grantown-on-Spey is set in forests at the start of classic whisky distilling country.
East side of the park, mostly in Aberdeenshire, is closer to lowland cities, so most visitors come on day-trips.
- 6 Ballater is near Balmoral Castle.
- 7 Braemar is the highest village on Deeside.
- 8 Blairgowrie & Rattray is at the foot of the Angus Glens.
Inverness (INV IATA) and Aberdeen (ABZ IATA) are the closest airports, with connections across Europe and the UK. Edinburgh (EDI IATA) is a longer drive but has more flights, and is west of the city so you drive straight out onto M90 then A9.
The railway line on the west (Tay and Spey) side of the park has trains from Edinburgh and Glasgow via Perth to Inverness every hour or two, plus the Highland Sleeper overnight from London Euston to Inverness. Stations along the way (with not all trains stopping) are Dunkeld & Birnam, Pitlochry, Blair Atholl, Dalwhinnie, Newtonmore, Kingussie, Aviemore and Carrbridge.
The railway to the east hugs the coast from Dundee to Aberdeen, and is always at least 30 miles from the park boundaries. Trains also run from Aberdeen to Elgin, Nairn and Inverness, but it's even less convenient to access the park from that direction.
Hourly buses from Edinburgh and Glasgow stop at Perth and Aviemore on their way to Inverness, but mostly rush past the other villages. One bus per day also stops in Blair Atholl, Newtonmore and Kingussie. Bus X37 from Inverness runs five times a day via Tomatin, Carrbridge, Dulnain Bridge, Grantown, Nethy Bridge and Boat of Garten to Aviemore.
Bus 201 runs hourly from Aberdeen to Crathes, Banchory, Ballater and Braemar.
The A9 from Perth to Inverness enters the park in the south and follows along the western side of it to the north east of the park.
Follow the A93 from Aberdeen to enter the park from the east.
Some trails are reachable on foot, and bus 30 runs hourly from Aviemore via Coylumbridge and Glenmore to Cairngorm ski area. But beyond that, buses are sparse and you need your own wheels.
National Cycle Route 7 mostly follows A9. There are bosky back lanes and old railway tracks along the Spey valley, but crossing Drumochter Pass is on the busy main road.
- Balmoral Castle is 3 miles west of Ballater. Completed in 1856, it's the archetype "Baronial" Scottish mansion. It remains a royal residence - Queen Elizabeth II usually resided here in Aug and Sept, and died here on 8 Sept 2022.
- Blair Castle in Blair Atholl was 15th / 16th century, but rebuilt in Victorian times to resemble Balmoral.
- Other castles are ruins. Most are medieval, though Ruthven Barracks near Kingussie was built in 1719 to quell the Jacobites.
- Highland Wildlife Park near Kingussie is a branch of Edinburgh Zoo.
- Prehistoric monuments such as atone circles cluster round Aviemore.
- Highland Folk Museum near Newtonmore is an open air museum of rural highland life from 1700 to the 1950s, open April-Oct.
- Strathspey Railway is a standard gauge heritage line, usually steam-hauled, coursing 10 miles from Aviemore to Boat of Garten and Broomhill.
- Mountain biking: Laggan Wolftrax is a network of purpose-built mountain bike trails, along A86 between Spean Bridge and Newtonmore.
- Abernethy Forest is a remnant of the original Caledonian Forest and much is a nature reserve. The main entry points are near Loch Garten in the west and near Nethy Bridge in the north.
- Loch an Eilein is an easy 5 mile stroll in Rothiemurchus Forest south Aviemore. A ruined castle perches on an islet in the loch.
- Speyside Way is a walking trail, 85 miles / 137 km southwest from Buckie on the Moray coast, upriver to Grantown, Aviemore and Newtonmore in the Spey Valley. Most of it is also suitable for cycling and horse-riding.
- Cateran Trail is a 64 mile / 103 km hiking circuit of the southern glens, through Blairgowrie, Bridge of Cally, Kirkmichael, Spittal of Glenshee, Cray, Kirkton of Glenisla and Alyth.
- Lairig Ghru is a 19 mile / 31 km route through the Cairngorms from Coylumbridge to Linn of Dee above Braemar. You need transport set up at both ends; the first bus of the day to Coylumbridge is leaving it late to get through the pass before nightfall. It's heavy, boggy going, with snow and ice underfoot in winter. There are no bail-out options if you get cold and weary midway.
- Cairn Gorm (1245 m) and Ben Macdui (1309 m) are ascended from the ski centre car park above Aviemore.
- Lochnagar, a Munro of 1155 m / 3789 ft, is climbed from Ballater.
- There are three downhill skiing facilities within the park:
- 1 Cairngorm Mountain is 12 miles east of Aviemore. This resort has been hamstrung by extended breakdown of the funicular railway, check status before visiting.
- 2 Glenshee Ski Centre is 10 miles south of Braemar.
- 3 The Lecht 2090 is a rinky-dinky beginners' slope along A939, 18 miles northeast of Ballater.
- When they're good, they're great, but they all have limited skiing areas, unreliable snow, and overcrowding especially at weekends and school holidays. Consider driving the extra distance to Glencoe ski area or Nevis Range near Fort William.
All the villages have small stores, mostly open M-Sa to 22:00 but with limited hours on Sunday.
Fuel is available but expensive. Fill up in the Perth or Aberdeen area as you approach.
All the individual towns have food outlets designed to refuel hungry skiers and hillwalkers quickly.
- All the towns have pubs, which usually serve food and are dog-friendly.
- Whisky distilleries: lots, in and around Kingussie, Carrbridge and Grantown-on-Spey. But not Blair Atholl, as Athol Distillery is further south in Pitlochry. Aviemore has a gin distillery.
- Camping: wild camping is a legal right in Scotland, but you must stay away from houses and not disturb livestock. There are serviced campsites and caravan parks in Aviemore, Blair Atholl, Grantown, Ballater and Braemar.
- B&Bs are the mainstay of accommodation in the Highlands, small independent guesthouses.
- Hotels are likewise mostly independent, though Aviemore now has a Premier Inn.
Most risks are the same as in the lowlands. Beware traffic – drowsy homebound skiers and hill-walkers, and long lulling sections of A9 with few overtaking opportunities, are recurrent causes of accidents. Take usual care of valuables.
The mountains are of no great altitude but are on the same latitude as Labrador. Loss of direction in mist, and falls on ice or slippery scree, in cold wet winds can escalate into tragedy.
The mountain weather forecast is relevant to all outdoor activities in the park.
In an emergency, dial 999 or 112 and ask for "police, mountain rescue". But can you get a mobile signal?
- Inverness is a pleasant Victorian town. North Coast 500 motoring itinerary starts here.
- Aberdeenshire has more ruined castles and whisky distilleries than you could shake a stick at. Aberdeen is its grand old granite city.
- Rannoch Moor: and you thought the Cairngorms were boggy?
- Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park is very scenic, but being on Glasgow's doorstep is busy on fine weekends.