The Cairngorms National Park is an area of outstanding natural beauty right in the heart of the Scottish Highlands. It is the largest national park in the UK and is absolutely packed full of adventure and opportunity.
Here you will find vast mountain plateaus, dramatic cliffs plunging into shimmering lochs, and ancient forests – all home to some of the most spectacular wildlife in Scotland.
The area is a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts – an endless playground of mountains to climb and lush green valleys to explore. Here are our top picks for hikes in The Cairngorms National Park.
One for everybody, Loch an Eilein (translation: Loch of the Island) is a true family classic. This charming circuit runs through a beautiful native pine forest and around the picturesque shores of Loch an Eilein. It’s suitable for everyone, with a wide path allowing wheelchair access.
The trail offers stunning views across the glassy waters to the ruined island fortress in the centre. You cannot help but be captivated by this fairytale setting, and it’s no wonder film crews felt the same, with scenes of Outlander, Outlaw King, and Monarch of the Glen all being shot here. The isolated island also has been known to host nesting Osprey – with any luck you might catch a rare sighting of one soaring overhead!
This beautiful low-level circuit incorporates the magical green “fairy” loch of Lochan Uaine, and a visit to a bothy. A bothy is a sort of simple shelter, often an abandoned croft building which provides open accommodation to walkers and climbers in Scotland. There is a strong bothy culture in the Cairngorms, and these basic dwellings are maintained by volunteers for the use of all who love remote and wild places. Though they may appear crumbling or cold, bothies are warmed by the strength of their character. A leaf through the visitors book will often unveil roaring tales told by open fires!
And what of this green tinted loch? The mysterious hue has been the source of great debate and no-one seems to agree on exactly where the colour comes from. Is it leached from fallen trees on the valley floor, dissolved minerals, or (just as plausibly!) from faeries washing their clothes? Whichever theory you subscribe to, you won’t hesitate to marvel at the glistening emerald waters.
Optional add on: For experienced walkers wishing to turn this into a full day out, there is a turn off from the track to the bothy signposted ‘Braemar’. This eventually leads to the stunning viewpoint of Bynack More, a 1090 m (3576 ft) tall mountain dotted with peculiar granite torrs which marks the north eastern boundary of the Cairngorm giants. A serious mountain walk with rewarding views – allow yourself an extra 4 – 5 hours if wishing to detour to Bynack More.
A postcard-maker’s dream, the sandy shores of Loch Morlich frame the stunning mountain range of the northern Cairngorms behind. Several way-marked trails tempt you through the pine forests, with plenty of opportunity to emerge onto the idyllic beaches and dabble your toes in the loch.
Loch Morlich is a great spot to try your hand at watersports – watch out for windsurfers, kayakers and canoers bobbing about on the water. The Boathouse Cafe will provide panoramic views and a well-earned slice of cake at the end of your adventure.
A popular mid-level walk, this easily accessible trail leads out of the Ski Centre’s ‘sugarbowl’ car park and climbs across gently sloping hillside right up into one of the most famous climbing corries in the Cairngorms. The views back down the path provide a perfect excuse to pause and get your breath back! The jewel-like waters of Loch Morlich twinkle welcomingly from the forested carpet of the valley below. The excellent path climbs up some 300m and into the high Coire an t-Sneachda.
If you’re lucky and conditions are favourable, you’ll be able to see climbers scaling these great rocky slabs. In the winter, the icy crags slashed with snow play host to the biggest gatherings of ice climbers in the UK.
A real all-rounder of a hillwalk and a great taster of everything the Cairngorms has to offer. The relatively short circuit takes in the green loch, pine forest, a mountain ridge and superb views. It is often said that smaller hills make better viewpoints, and while the ‘buchaille’ is certainly not conventionally small at 810m (2660 ft), it serves as an excellent viewing platform for the neighbouring Cairngorm giants.
Upon reaching the summit of Meall a’ Bhuachaille, you are treated to a panorama of sleeping giants; the rocky northern corries of the Cairngorm massif to the south and expansive views across Speyside and the ancient pines of Rothiemurchus. From the brambly fringes of the well made path, wild blackberries may be plucked and enjoyed in the late summer. And if that’s still not enough to tempt you, the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre sits right on the trail in Glenmore. I did say this walk had everything.
A delightful day out, this walk gives you the option to take in two easy Munro peaks, or simply saunter up lush forestry tracks in Glen Doll and explore the nature reserve encased in the crags of Corrie Fee. As the path emerges from the trees, exquisite views open up into the bowl of the corrie; a secluded masterpiece of glaciation.
And finally, a few challenging walks for experienced mountain walkers. See www.walkhighlands.co.uk/safety for useful advice before taking to the hills in Scotland.
The namesake of the National Park, Cairn Gorm is by far the most popular mountain in the range. Though ski developments scar the front face of the hill, the northern corries are exquisite. The summit offers good views for relatively little effort, especially for those tempted by the novelty of the funicular railway!
The Lairig Ghru is perhaps one of the best known mountain passes in all of Scotland, carving a deep channel through the very heart of the Cairngorms. Historically used as a drovers road connecting Aviemore with Braemar, it is now the territory of hikers and long-distance runners. A race actually runs the full marathon distance each summer, with the course record being under 3 hours – incredible when you think the route rises 650m and crosses through boulderfields.
Our suggested walk takes you a little way into the Lairig Ghru from Coylumbridge, before an ascent of the majestic peak of Braeriach unveils spectacular views across the landscape.
A good path from the start leads through Caledonian pinewoods and up to the Chlamain gap – a narrow neck of boulders which must be scampered over to gain entrance to the Lairig Ghru. From here, you can choose to simply journey back for a shorter day, or carry on up the sides of the valley to take in the lofty heights of Braeriach. The views back from this ascent are staggering – gaze across to the Lurcher’s Crag and marvel at the 90 different climbing routes which riddle the rock. From Braeriach itself, a sweeping panorama opens up over the Lairig Ghru below, and the craggy corrie of Angel’s Peak to the south cradles a high-level lochan in its stony basin.
After drinking in the Braeriach panorama, continue on to Einich Cairn, descend Coire Dhondail and follow the excellent track out through picturesque Gleann Einich back to Coylumbridge. A real challenge, this excellent mountain circuit should be saved for a good weather day, where it guarantees rewarding views to compensate your energy expenditure!
Immortalised in verse and song, ‘Dark Lochnagar’ is a hillwalk fit for a queen! Indeed, Queen Victoria herself ascended the mountain in 1849, describing it in a letter as “one of the wildest, grandest things imaginable”. Lochnagar sits within the royal estate of Balmoral in the southern Cairngorms and can be easily reached from Ballater and Braemar. An imposing fortress of rocky peaks, Lochnagar’s fine cliffs curl around its eponymous lochan. It is the highest point for miles around and affords spectacular views over Royal Deeside.
The classic route from Glen Muick will take you over heather-clad moors, clambering across the hillside and skirting the airy cliffs around the summit plateau. Peer down tentatively into the plunging gullies, and venture out to Meikle Pap for breathtaking views.
The return route takes you by a cascading waterfall and along the sandy shores of Loch Muick. Why not follow in the footsteps of royalty and attempt this characterful Cairngorms walk on your holiday?
“England thy beauties are tame and domestic
To one who has roved o’er the mountains afar
Oh for the crags that are wild and majestic
The steep frowning glories of the dark Loch na Garr”
– Lord Byron, Lachin y Gair, 1807
These are just our picks of some of the highlights of The Cairngorms National Park. No matter what you choose to do though, there is something for everyone here and you’ll never run out of options. The vast landscape hums with adventure – a beautiful wilderness beckoning to be explored.
If you’re inspired to explore the Cairngorms for yourself, Absolute Escapes offer award-winning self-guided holidays in Scotland. All of our packages are completely flexible, so if we can help you plan an unforgettable trip to Scotland, please do not hesitate to send us an enquiry.