The Cairngorms National Park is one of the last wild places in Scotland*. A mountain landscape framed by Caledonian Scots pines, bursting with wildlife, natural beauty, and endless opportunities for adventure. Here is a list of 40 things to do in the Cairngorms to inspire your trip to the national park – from scenic Highland villages to hikes on all levels and unique outdoor adventures. The mountains are calling!
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High up in the mountains of the northeast of Scotland lies the Cairngorms National Park, the largest national park in Britain. It covers a mind-boggling 4,500 square kilometres – that’s twice the size of the Loch Lomond & the Trossachs National Park. Nearly 2 million visitors come through the park every year.
As such, there is a huge area to explore and it can be tricky to plan a trip that is fun but feasible.
This article helps you decide on what to do in the Cairngorms National Park. It is packed with:
- Unique things to do in the Cairngorms,
- Plenty of great hiking routes for all levels,
- Suggestions for where to stay in the national park,
- Lots of practical information about getting to and around the park,
- And tips for where you can learn about the wildlife and landscapes in the park.
To make it easier for you to plan, look at the map below to see which places are close together or look out for the star icon (☆) – it highlights my personal favourites!
* A note on “wilderness” in the Cairngorms:
While large swathes of the Cairngorms National Park are uninhabited and dominated by nature, “wilderness” is a historically and culturally contested term in Scotland. Those seemingly empty landscapes have been shaped by human land use and impacted by harmful land management techniques, such as deforestation and sheep farming, for hundreds of years. There isn’t much left of Scotland that can be considered “truly wild”.
Instead, many such “wild places” in Scotland are made wild by human interventions, returning these lands to their original “wild state”. Mar Lodge Estate in the heart of the Cairngorms National Park is a good example of this. Learn more about the estate below!
Cairngorms Travel Info
Where is the national park?
The Cairngorms National Park is located in the northeast of Scotland. It is the largest national park in the UK and covers several mountain ranges and countless glens.
It stretches roughly from Blair Atholl, Glenshee, and the Angus Glens in the south to Grantown on Spey and Glenlivet in the north; and from Dinnet in the Royal Deeside in the east to Laggan in the west.
The biggest town in the Cairngorms National Park is Aviemore which is closest to Glenmore and the name-giving Cairngorm mountain. Other notable regions in the park are the Royal Deeside, the Strathspey region around the River Spey, Tomintoul & Glenlivet, Atholl & Glenshee, and the Angus Glens.
How much time should you spend in the National Park?
There are many things to do in the Cairngorms and several different areas to explore – as such, you could easily spend a week or two travelling around the park. If you just have a few nights or a long weekend, choose a specific area and explore that more in-depth.
For example, you could spend 3 nights in the Angus Glens, a weekend in the Royal Deeside or several days around Aviemore and Glenmore.
Do you have to hike in the Cairngorms?
You don’t necessarily have to be a Munro bagger to enjoy the Cairngorms National Park, but I do recommend that you set aside some time for shorter walks and really immerse yourself in nature. There are even trails that are fully accessible.
The roads through the national park are stunning, but to get a sense of the heart of this region, you have to leave the road behind. Luckily there are many beauty spots in easy walking distance from car parks and viewpoints you can drive to.
So, no you don’t have to be a hiker to experience the Cairngorms. But a sense of adventure doesn’t hurt!
Where to stay in the Cairngorms
There are many great hostels around the Cairngorms National Park, which are budget-friendly and suitable for hikers (social environment, great access to trails, drying facilities). For example, Aviemore Youth Hostel, Cairngorm Lodge Youth Hostel in Glenmore, Ballater Youth Hostel, Braemar Youth Hostel, Lazy Duck Hostel near Nethy Bridge, Fraoch Lodge in Boat of Garten.
Other great places to stay are Loch Kinord Hotel in Dinnet (Royal Deeside), Davaar B&B in Dufftown (north of the park), Lodge at Lochside near Kirriemuir (Angus Glens), Glen Clova Hotel (Angus Glens) or Woodland lodges by Macdonald Hotel in Aviemore.
If you really want to treat yourself, book a stay at the luxurious Fife Arms Hotel in Braemar.
Getting around the national park
Getting around the Cairngorms with a car will give you the greatest flexibility. Many hiking trails start in remote areas that cannot be reached by public transport.
That said, there are great train and bus connections to certain parts of the Cairngorms National Park.
- Trains from Glasgow or Edinburgh stop in Aviemore. From there it’s easy to take a bus down Glenmore to Loch Morlich and several hiking trails, or up to the Abernethy Forest.
- From Aberdeen you can take the bus down the Royal Deeside, all the way to Braemar, reaching several picturesque villages and scenic spots.
As anywhere in Scotland, it is important to treat the people, flora and fauna of the national park with respect. That’s easily done by adhering to the Scottish Outdoor Access Code, and following park-specific guidelines around wildlife and mountain safety. Find out more here.
You might also like: 14 Tips for Responsible Tourism in Scotland
Cairngorms National Park Map
Things to do in the Cairngorms
Places to enjoy the scenery
♥ Drive the Snow Roads (☆)
The Snow Roads scenic route is a linear road trip through the heart of the Cairngorms National Park. It runs for 90 miles from Grantown on Spey to Blairgowrie and takes in such highlights as Tomintoul, the winding Lecht Road with its pass at Cock Bridge, the pinewoods near Braemar in the Royal Deeside and the highest mountain road in Scotland at Glenshee pass.
You might also like: 16 Scenic Road Trips in Scotland
♥ Rothiemurchus Forest
The native forest at Rothiemurchus Estate is one of the last remnants of original Caledonian Scots pinewoods. 99% of the forest has been lost, but fragments survive in places like Rothimurchus, while elsewhere the native woodland cover is restored by conservationists.
At Rothiemurchus you can go for hikes, hire bikes or book outdoor activities like whitewater rafting, gorge walking or pony trekking. There is also a treetop adventure course with obstacles and zip wires, and a few ranger-led activities around the Estate.
♥ Abernethy Forest (☆)
Another remaining fragment of the Caledonian Scots pinewood, Abernethy Forest is part of the Abernethy National Nature Reserve. Half of the forest is original, while the other half has been regenerated – and more is being planted!
The forest is great for cycling and hiking – the Speyside Way actually runs right through it. Avid birders can also visit the Loch Garten Osprey Centre in the heart of the forest.
♥ Loch an Eilean
Loch an Eilean is a beautiful loch in the heart of Rothiemurchus Forest. There are low-level walking trails all around the loch, but you don’t have to walk far from the car park for stunning views.
The loch is a great place to get up close with nature and spot wildlife, such as red squirrels, Scottish crossbills or even ospreys. Out in the water, there is a ruined island castle from the 14th century.
♥ Linn of Dee
The Linn of Dee is a beautiful place in the heart of Mar Lodge Estate. Here, the River Dee shoots through a narrow gorge carved into the rocks over millennia, tumbling over itself and overcoming several small waterfalls.
In Spring you might spot salmon leap up the rapids. It’s a popular picnic spot and on a nice day, the car park gets busy early on. From here you can go for a stroll through the pinewoods or being a longer hike into the Cairngorm mountains.
♥ Muir of Dinnet (☆)
The Muir of Dinnet Nature Reserve lies at the eastern edge of the Cairngorms National Park, just a few miles from Ballater. The reserve covers the area around Loch Kinord as well as Burn o Vat, a beautiful hidden rock bowl carved by glaciers and waterfalls.
A walk along Loch Kinord Trail (approx. 4 miles) is one of my favourite things to do in the Cairngorms.
Scenic Highland villages to visit
Ok, Aviemore might not be the most scenic place in the Cairngorms National Park – but it is the main hub for the western side of the park. From Aviemore, you get clear views of the Cairngorm mountains and the town is surrounded by beautiful forest. There are also some very pretty buildings here, like the Cairngorm Hotel and the train station.
Aviemore would be a great home base to explore around the Glenfeshie, Rothiemurchus, Glenmore and Abernethy areas.
♥ Boat of Garten
Boat of Garten is a small village just north of Aviemore. It is best known for its historic train station. The Strathspey Steam Railway stops here during the summer and you can watch it roll into the station from The Boat Country Inn.
♥ Nethy Bridge
Nethy Bridge, just a few miles east of Boat of Garten, is a small village by the River Nethy. It is surrounded by the Abernethy Forest. There are several beautiful buildings in the village, including a three-arched stone bridge designed by Thomas Telford and built in 1810.
♥ Braemar (☆)
Braemar lies at the very top of the Royal Deeside – from here the road leaves the River Dee behind and heads south to the pass at Glenshee. The village is known for its beautiful 17th-century castle which is also the home of the annual Braemar Gathering – possibly the most famous Highland Games in Scotland. The Royal family regularly attends the festivities during their stay at Balmoral.
Stroll through the village for a journey back in history and stop at the historic Fife Arms Hotel for a meal of pure indulgence.
Ballater is a Victorian village in the heart of the Royal Deeside. Back in the day, there was a direct train connection from Aberdeen to Ballater – the final stop on the line and therefore quintessential on Queen Victoria’s journey to her summer residence at Balmoral Castle.
The town benefitted from this Royal tourism and even though the train line is discontinued today, it is still one of the most popular villages in the Deeside.
Don’t miss the central square at Glenmuick Church, the historic train station (“Royal Station”) and the stone bridge across the River Dee.
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Walks & hikes in the Cairngorms
♥ Uath Lochans (☆)
This route in the pine forest of Glenfeshie leads around a set of four small lochs and climbs up the Farleitter Crag for fantastic views. The hike is fairly easy and straightforward. It’s just over 3 miles long and takes about 2 hours to complete. Find a description here.
♥ Munros near Aviemore
Many of the Munros in the Cairngorm Mountains southwest of Aviemore can be hiked from Glenmore or Glenfeshie. Most of these routes are rather long and challenging. For example, Braerich, the third-highest mountain in Scotland (16 miles), Cairntoul, a 22-mile circuit taking in four Munros, Beinn Bhrotain and Monadh Mòr, a double-Munro route of 18 miles, or Bynack More (14 miles).
You might also like: A Beginner’s Guide to Munro Bagging
♥ Corbetts from Glenmore
One of the most popular hikes in the Cairngorms for first-timers is the circular walk to Meall a’ Bhuachaille, a Corbett near Glenmore Lodge. A Corbett is a mountain over 2,000 feet, by the way. This hike gives you the chance to reach the Cairngorm plateau and see the magnificent green loch, An Lochan Uaine. The hike is just over 5 miles long and takes around 4.5 hours to complete.
Another great Corbett circuit from Glenmore is the route leading to Creag Mhòr and Loch Avon. It’s long – 18 miles – but you can break up your journey by staying overnight at the rough shelter at the Fords of Avon. You’ll need to bring a sleeping bag & mat as well as plenty of clothes to keep you warm – there is no fireplace in this very basic shelter.
♥ Falls of Bruar
The Falls of Bruar are a series of waterfalls on the southern edge of the national park. Park up at the House of Bruar shopping complex – great for Scottish-made and -inspired foods, fashion and home decor – and hike up the woodland trails along the river gorge. It only takes around 1,5 hours.
♥ Loch Muick
Loch Muick is a beautiful loch on Balmoral Estate, about 20 minutes from Ballater. You could just drive to the loch and enjoy the views, but if you want to stretch your legs, consider following the trail around the loch. It’s about 8 miles long and takes 3.5 hours.
Note, that this is a very popular spot and the car park gets busy early on a beautiful summer’s day!
♥ Prince Albert’s Pyramid
On the grounds of Balmoral Estate stands Scotland’s only pyramid – a stone pyramid erected by Queen Victoria after Prince Albert’s death in 1861. They were married for 21 years.
The hike to the pyramid starts in Crathie and offers great views of the Deeside and Balmoral Castle. You will also pass a series of cairns built in memory of other members of the Royal family.
Note, that this hike should not be done in August when the Royal family stays at Balmoral.
♥ The Cairnwell Munros – an easyish multi-Munro day
On the southern edge of the national park there are three tall mountains that make for a fairly easy multi-Munro route – perfect for Munro baggers who want to tick off several peaks in one day.
The starting point of the hike to the Cairnwell Munros is Glenshee Ski Centre. It lies at over 2,100 feet which means, you only have to climb under 1,000 feet elevation to reach the first peak – Càrn Aosda (3,008 ft). The other two peaks are not much higher and the trails beneath them offer stunning views of the Cairngorms and Glenshee.
You might also like: 10 Munros for Beginners
♥ Glen Clova & Loch Brandy (☆)
One of my favourite things to do in the Cairngorms National Park is to explore the Angus Glens. And Glen Clova is arguably the most beautiful of them.
From Glen Clova Hotel at the tops of the glen, a trail leads up to beautiful Loch Brandy. This would be a great short hike (for example for sunset), or could be turned into a longer route by also taking in the peaks framing the loch.
♥ Corrie Fee (☆)
The next glen past Glen Clova is Glen Doll. From the Ranger Station, you can follow the forestry track up towards Corrie Fee, a breathtaking corrie that is also a national nature reserve with countless rare plants and precious bird species.
The corrie is a massive bowl carved by a glacier – framed by mountains, it looks like amphi theatre. At the back, there is a waterfall. Left and right of the river you can see mysterious mounds that look a lot like burial sites but are actually just small bumps formed by debris left behind by the glacier.
♥ Mayar & Driesh
From Corrie Fee, you can continue your walk to the Munros Mayar and Driesh. These are two of my favourite Munros in the Cairngorms National Park. The entire hike from Glen Doll Ranger Station is 9 miles long and takes abour 5.5 hours.
♥ Glen Esk
Glen Esk is the easternmost of the Angus Glens, northwest of the picturesque village of Edzell. From the car park near Invermark Castle you could either bag the easterly most Munro in Scotland – the aptly named Mount Keen – or complete the less challenging, but very diverse Loch Lee circuit.
The hike around Loch Lee also takes in the remote Glen Lee, two impressive waterfalls (the Falls of Unich and the Fall of Damff), climbs up through gorges and moorland and finally, reveals magnificent views of the glen above. It’s a very scenic and rewarding hike!
♥ Hike the Speyside Way or Cateran Trail
There are two long-distance trails that skirt the mountains of the Cairngorms National Park:
- The Speyside Way starts in the heart of the Cairngorms and runs 65 miles from Aviemore to Buckie on the Moray coast.
- The Cateran Trail is a circular route that starts in Blairgowrie and takes in the Spittal of Glenshee as well as Glenisla, one of the Angus Glens.
Outdoor activities in the Cairngorms
♥ Boat hire at Loch Morlich
Loch Morlich is often considered one of the most beautiful lochs in Scotland. It is located east of Aviemore in the heart of Glenmore and the Rothiemurchus Forest. The loch is a great place for watersports, from SUP and boat hire (canoe, kayak, rowing boat) to lessons with qualified guides on the loch.
♥ Pony trekking in the national park (☆)
One of the most unique things to do in the Cairngorms that I’ve come across is a pony trekking experience with Scot Mountain Holidays. Their Highland Wilderness Glamping trips are packhorse-supported multi-day expeditions through the Cairngorms.
Guests stay in a heated Nordic tipi and thanks to the help of the sturdy Highland ponies there are comfy camp beds and even a hot shower!
And just in case you wonder about the ponies and the load they are carrying – I certainly did when I first heard about it. Here is some information on the way Scot Mountain Holidays looks after their ponies’ welfare. Native Highland pony breeds are really well adapted for carrying loads and need exercise to stay healthy. Think of huskies and dogsleds – if done well, these kinds of activities are beneficial to the animals, not harmful.
♥ Cairngorms Dark Sky Park
The area around Glenlivet and Tomintoul has been declared a Dark Sky Park in 2018. Although you can probably enjoy the dark night skies from anywhere in the region, there are three official Dark Sky Discovery Sites: Blairfindy (just southwest of Glenlivet Distillery), Tomintoul and Scalan near Chapelton which provide easy access to great viewing sites.
This far north, chances are high you can even spot the northern lights in Scotland – only in the winter though, when it’s dark enough!
♥ Skiing in the Cairngorms
Three out of five ski resorts in Scotland are located in the Cairngorms National Park:
- The biggest and highest is Glenshee Ski Centre between Blairgowrie and Braemar. Here you can find about 14 lifts and tows on both sides of the road, giving you plenty of options on a day of skiing.
- Lecht Ski Centre is smaller and lower-lying and is particularly suitable for kids and learners.
- The third centre lies at Cairngorm Mountain. Note that the funicular is currently undergoing repairs and is expected to re-open in autumn 2022. There are 10 lifts and tows, a freestyle terrain and great landscapes for ski touring.
You might also like: 20 tips to visit Scotland in Winter
History, art & heritage in the Cairngorms
♥ Old Packhorse Bridge, Carrbridge
One of the most beautiful places to visit in the Cairngorms is the historic Old Packhorse Bridge in Carrbridge. It was built in 1717 and was primarily used for funeral processions across the River Dulnain. Carrbridge is about 7 miles north of Aviemore and just a short detour from the A9 – definitely worth a stop!
♥ Strathspey Steam Railway
The Strathspey Steam Railway is a heritage line running from Aviemore to Boat of Garten and on to Broomhill. An essential train connection back in the day, a 10-mile stretch of the rail line was restored by volunteers in the late 1970s. Ever since it has been one of the most popular tourist attractions in the Cairngorms.
The return journey takes approx. 2 hours. The railway runs during the summer and on weekends during the festive season as well as on days between Christmas and NYE.
♥ Highland Folk Museum, Newtonmore
The Highland Folk Museum is an open-air museum illustrating historic life in the Highlands. There is an area depicting an 18th century Highland Township, several 19th and 20th-century buildings and a traditional croft as it would have looked in the 1930s.
♥ Balmoral Castle (☆)
Balmoral Castle is the Scottish summer residence of the Royal family. Queen Victoria bought Balmoral Estate in the 19th century and commissioned the construction of the castle to replace a former building on the grounds.
The castle grounds are open to the public from May to July. You can visit the grounds on an audio-guided tour and see the fruit and veggie garden, flower garden and landscaped areas like forests and meadows. The tour also includes one ballroom in a side wing of the castle.
Members of the Royal family visit Balmoral each August, so the castle is closed from 1 August until the next Spring season.
♥ Braemar Castle
Braemar Castle is the seat of the Clan Farquharson. It was built by the Earls of Mar in 1628 but lost to the Crown and the Farquharsons of Invercauld after the 2nd Jacobite Uprising in 1715. After Culloden (1745), government troops were stationed here to suppress any more Jacobite activity and once they left in the 19th century, the Farquarhsons turned the castle into the stately family home you see now.
Today, the castle is leased to the local community and plays host to the popular annual Braemar Gathering.
♥ Blair Castle
Blair Castle is a grand white castle on the southern edge of the Cairngorms National Park. It is the ancestral home of the Clan Murray and the seat of its chief.
You can visit the grand castle and its massive grounds with several gardens and woodlands.
♥ Malt Whisky Trail (☆)
The Speyside is Scotland’s most productive whisky region and lies in the north of the Cairngorms National Park. The Malt Whisky Trail connects many of the distilleries from Grantown on Spey to Dufftown and beyond.
But there are also several whisky distilleries in the Cairngorms – from Glenlivet in the north to Royal Lochnagar near Balmoral Castle.
♥ Snow Roads art installations
Along the Snow Roads scenic route, there are three beautiful, public art installations:
- The Watchers, a group of sculptures made from folded steel sheets. They look like standing stones overlooking the glen and Corgarff Castle from the steep slopes of Lecht Road.
- Still, a mirrored box on a hill near Tomintoul. It takes just a few minutes to walk to the structure for rewarding views and photo ops.
- Connecting Contours, an installation near the pass of Glenshee encompassing a seating area that serves as an ‘amphitheatre for nature’.
Learning about Scottish nature
♥ Glenmore Visitor Centre
The Glenmore Visitor Centre near Loch Morlich has visitor information, a cafe and public toilets. It’s also is a great start point for several hikes in the area.
♥ Cairngorm Reindeer Centre
Did you know there were reindeer in Scotland? One of the most unique things to do in the Cairngorms must be a visit to the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre near Loch Morlich. The reindeer were introduced here in 1952.
From Easter to New Year a small number of reindeer are kept at the paddocks in the centre, the rest roam freely on the plateau. Which reindeer are down in the glen changes and depends on their health and condition.
Note that reindeer cannot be touched or fed at the centre – this is a low-impact wildlife experience.
During the summer, visitors can also participate in hillwalking with reindeer.
Want to see more Scottish wildlife? Read my guide to find the places!
♥ Nethy Bridge Visitor Centre
The Visitor Centre in Nethy Bridge has visitor information, exhibits and displays as well as historic information about the area. It lies in the heart of the Abernethy pinewoods and provides information about wildlife watching.
♥ Loch Garten Osprey Centre
Operated by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), the Osprey Centre at Loch Garten is a research facility and visitor centre where you can learn about Osprey birds in the Cairngorms. There is an exhibition, daily talks and plenty of spots where you can look for Ospreys with binoculars and telescopes.
There is also a cafe and a forest decking with bird feeders where you can watch the wildlife of the forest.
♥ Mar Lodge Estate (☆)
The vast Cairngorms National Park is made up of privately owned Highland Estates ranging in size from less than 100 hectares to over 40,000 hectares. One of the largest estates in the Cairngorms is Mar Lodge Estate, owned by the National Trust of Scotland.
Since the mid-90s the Trust has been regenerating native pinewoods on the estate, bringing back wilderness to the Deeside and the Cairngorms. Visit the Linn of Dee to see leaping salmons in spring, go for a walk at the Linn of Quoich or bag one of the 15 Munros on the estate.
Together with the estates Invercauld, Balmoral, Glenavon and Glenlivet, Mar Lodge is partnering to develop land-use strategies that benefit the planet as well as the economical aspirations of its landowners.
The 10-mile Clais Fhearnaig circuit is a great trail to see some of the woodland regeneration areas and other habitat zones on the estate.
As you can see the Cairngorms National Park is packed with great experiences and beautiful places to visit.
I hope that this list of things to do in the Cairngorms inspires you to plan an action-packed trip to enjoy the natural beauty and immerse yourself in the nature of Scotland’s biggest national park.
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