The Cairngorms Area Guide


The wild landscapes of the Cairngorms (Martin Bennie/Unsplash)

The Cairngorms National Park is the biggest of the UK's 15 national parks – at 1,748 square miles (4,528 km2) it’s about twice the size of its nearest rival, the Lake District. It’s also the most northerly of the national parks, and one of the least densely populated. Rugged and remote, this is rural Britain at its wildest and most untamed.

If you're after a real get-away-from-it-all experience in the UK, the Cairngorms is the place to go – aside from a couple of high-season hotspots, you’re very unlikely to find crowds here. Hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts should find plenty of peaceful land to explore here, and the region's rich biodiversity means there’s also a lot of interest here for wildlife enthusiasts. Red squirrels, mountain hares and ospreys are among the rare species that live in this Arctic-Alpine environment, and the Cairngorms is the only place in the UK with a population of capercaillie.

Where are the Cairngorms?

The Cairngorms are in the Scottish Highlands, in the northern part of Scotland. The A9 main road runs through the park, giving good access from Perth in the south and Inverness in the north. It’s also easy to get into the park from Aberdeen and Dundee.

Aviemore is the biggest town in the Cairngorms, with a population of around 3,200. With a handy location on the A9 and the area's highest concentration of facilities, it's also the most popular base for visitors – it's estimated that around half of the Cairngorms' 2 million annual visitors stay in or around Aviemore. Smaller towns like Boat of Garten, Kingussie and Dalwhinnie are also lovely places to visit, and make good bases for a Cairngorms holiday.

Is Ben Nevis in the Cairngorms?

Although the Cairngorms is the UK's highest mountain massif area, it doesn't in fact include the country's highest peak. Ben Nevis, the UK’s tallest mountain, is some 30 miles west of the park, close to Fort William.

Ben Macdui is the highest peak in the Cairngorms, and the second-highest mountain in the UK. In fact, the five highest mountains (or munros, as they're known here) in the Cairngorms claim numbers 2 to 6 on the list of the UK's tallest. They are:

  • Ben Macdui (1,309 m/4,295 ft)

  • Braeriach (1,296 m/4,252 ft)

  • Cairn Toul (1,291 m/4,236 ft)

  • Sgor an Lochain Uaine (1,258 m/4,127 ft)

  • Cairn Gorm (1,245 m/4,085 ft)

Things to do in the Cairngorms

A trip to the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd is a highlight for many visitors (Joe Green/Unsplash)

The wild landscapes of the Cairngorms are like paradise for outdoor adventurers – hiking, mountain biking, climbing and watersports are all popular activities here, and there are also opportunities here for winter sports like skiing. For those who like a challenge, how about seeing how many of the park’s 55 munros (mountains over 3,000 feet) you can bag?

It’s not all about active escapades, however – there are plenty of more leisurely activities here, with many visitors heading for the chance to spot rare wildlife and go stargazing at the world's most northerly dark skies park. The Cairngorms National Park is also home to several whisky distilleries, animal attractions like the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd (the only free-ranging reindeer in the UK) and numerous heritage spots like the spectacular Balmoral Estate.

Throughout the year the park hosts various cultural events, food festivals and outdoor events. For a real taste of Scottish tradition, time your visit to coincide with a Highland Games event such as the Atholl Gathering or Braemar Gathering.

When to visit the Cairngorms

The Cairngorms National Park is a year-round destination, with the long summer days lending themselves to things like hiking and mountain biking and attention turning to snowsports in winter – particularly at the Aviemore and Lecht ski centres. Between the two, the wildflower blooms of spring and the golden hues of autumn trees make these particularly lovely times to visit.

If you do choose to visit in winter, it's worth bearing in mind that this is the coldest part of the UK – in fact, the coldest temperature ever recorded in the country came in Braemar (a very chilly -27.2ºC). Many tourist businesses close over winter, and you should always be prepared to encounter some bad weather, fitting winter tyres and making sure snow gates are open on your chosen road.

In fact, it's worth being prepared for bad weather at any time of the year in the Cairngorms – conditions can change quickly here even in summer, so you should always have warm and waterproof clothing on hand just in case. Whenever you're visiting, you should also keep in mind the Scottish Outdoor Access Code, to make sure you're having a minimal impact on these unique wild landscapes.