Key information: Cairngorms
- The Cairngorms, the heart of Scotland's Highlands, contain some of Britain's - and the world's - best walking.
- A huge, roadless, protected area teeming with precious wildlife. The scenery is almost painfully beautiful: grand crags and purple hillsides above glens and lakes. Pockets of the ancient - and beautiful - Caledonian forest.
- Is a walker's life complete without having surveyed the Cairngorms from one of its great peaks, trudged one of its many and wondrous hill tracks and explored a magical, remote glen?
- These can be serious mountains, with always unpredictable weather. Come prepared.
Walkopedia rating(Top 100)
- Walkopedia rating89
- Natural interest16
- Human interest6
- Negative points0
- Total rating89
- Length: Variable
- Maximum Altitude: 1,309m
- Level of Difficulty: Variable
The Cairngorms, the heart of Scotland's Highlands, contain some of Britain's - and the world's - best walking, and five of Scotland's six highest peaks. We really believe that no walker's life is complete without having surveyed the Cairngorms from one of its great peaks, and trudged one of its many and wondrous hill tracks.
Scotland's epicentral mountains are a huge, roadless, protected area teeming with precious wildlife. The main plateau, to the west, separates western Speyside from the Dee and Don valleys, themselves separated by the Ben a Bhuird and Ben Avon massif, which wind gloriously to the sea at Aberdeen, and the Avon, which turns north. South of the Dee at Balmoral is the Lochnagar massif.
The lower river valleys are often forested, the glens dotted with the remains of the ancient Caledonian forest, Scots pines interspersed with birch and rowan and carpeted with heather. The hillsides are (of course) clothed in trademark heather, the high ground is sub-arctic tundra. Wildlife includes eagles, ptarmigan, deer, otters and mountain hares.
The scenery is almost painfully beautiful: grand crags and purple hillsides above glens and lakes.
These are ancient granite mountains: while so eroded that they are small by world standards (few over 4,000 ft), you can reach all(?) significant summits, in a way that is unavailable in younger, higher, sheerer ranges. So you get huge views you won't have to die for, and the satisfaction of having bagged a Munro (there are 13 of them in the Cairngorms), the mountains over 3,000 ft which people can spend a lifetime collecting. And the scenery somehow combines wild with unexpectedly mellow.
The Cairngorm ski area is a bit of a spoiler of parts of the central massif around Cairn Gorm itself, but you can escape it reasonably easily. There is a railway to near Cairngorm summit, but you can't walk from it, which is probably a good idea.
Walks vary between:
- peak bagging
- hill tracks
- shorter walks in special places
Just look at any map and you will be able to create your own menu: there are fantastic works to be had everywhere.
Many of the highest peaks are only accessible, as day walks, from Speyside, often from the ski centre above Loch Morlich. Or you can tramp in with a tent from Dee or Don side. Most of these are Munros. Once again, you have a huge selection to choose from
- Ben Macdui, Britain's second highest peak at 1,309m, directly above the bottom of the Lairig Ghru. Often combined with Cairn Lochan. A tough 900+ metre climb from the ski centre to the high plateau with its superb 360 degree view across the range and over Speyside to the west. Don't let the ski mess depress you, as you can get away from it. Also doable in a long day's walk from the upper Dee.
- Cairn Gorm, which is usually approached from Speyside and a car park at 2,150ft. This is a skiing-scarred landscape which those serious about their scenery will want to avoid.
- Cairn Toul and Braerich: on the same plateau but the former more accessible from Deeside and the latter from Speyside.
- Lochnagar: grand, cliff-girt, dark mass, out on its own south of the Dee between Braemar and Ballater. One of our personal favourites.
- Ben Avon and Ben a Bhuird. North of Braemar and approachable in long day-walks from several directions.
- Morven, north-east of Ballater, the first outpost of the highlands, just under Munro height so less populated, and, unusually, grassy as it is a limestone hill.
Great hill tracks
Scotland's ancient hill tracks - many of them drovers' roads, along which cattle would be driven to the markets of the lowlands - provide outstanding walking, often over long distances. This can require to-ing and fro-ing, although you can create marvellous circuits - for a day or longer - with combinations of tracks. Some of these are old military roads, built in the mid 1700s to enable the rapid deployment of troops to keep the unruly highlanders in their place.
Some of the best, in the heart of the high range, are:
- Lairig Ghru: a track through a dramatic, sheer-sided cleft in the high Cairngorm plateau, linking Spey to the Dee. A very special, very long day's walk (20 miles or so) - or bring a tent and overnight in the superb upper Dee valley.
- The Lairig an Laoigh, which cuts straight north-south through the high range, via Glen Derry and Glen Lui on Deeside and the highlands by Bynack More.
- Glen Feshie, which links the Spey and Dee south of the main massif.
Wonderful tracks from Deeside south across the Grampians to the southern glens and then the lowlands include:
- The Monega Road, south from below Braemar to Glen Isla.
- Jock's Road from Braemar to Glen Clova (or vice versa): 14miles/7hrs, including the summit of (just a Munro) Crow Craigler
- The Capel Mounth track from Ballater to Glen Clova via Loch Muick (15miles/7hrs, which can be walked as an 8hr circuit between Loch Muick and Glen Clova).
- The Mounth track from Ballater to Glen Clova via Glen Tanar and Mt Keen. These could be combined for a superb circuit.
- The Fungle Road south over the hills to Glen Esk from Aboyne (not strictly in the Cairngorms but a lovely walk nonetheless).
- One of several tracks linking the upper Dee and Don valleys via wild Glen Gairn, downstream of the highest hills.
Scottish Hill Tracks, published by The Scottish Rights of Way and Access Society (ScotWays) gives excellent information on these trails, and is a must-buy, and can be got from ScotWays as well as bookshops, although it was last published in 2004 and can require a wait. There is a brilliant leaflet "Hill Tracks in the Cairngorms National Park", also published by Scotways and findable in Information Centres.
Other great trails
Almost every glen is a gem: you need do no more than have a good study of the map to find a fabulous walk, often improbably empty of humankind. There are numerous lakes and oddities to check out, too.
- The glens north and south of the upper Dee are all marvellous - Glens Quoich, Lui (a Walkopedia favourite) and Ey in particular (you can make a circuit by crossing between Glens Quoich and Lui via a narrow ridge-top fissure loch or cross from upper Glen Lui into the upper Dee valley and circuit back).
- The upper Dee valley, above the Linn of Dee waterfall, is beautiful in a broad-bottomed way, but relatively popular. A little above the junction with the Geldie Burn is the lovely low Chest of Dee waterfall. Further on is a longish flattish boggy stretch, then Glen Dee becomes a truly wild, romantic place, below the high peaks and sheer cliffs of the high Cairngorms. Stay in the Corrour Bothy, or wild camp, and tackle a Cairngorm peak or tramp north through the Lairig Ghru the next day.
- Wild, remote Glen Gairn between the upper Dee and Don.
- The Donside glens are also fabulous - the hills a bit lower, granted, but almost every glen is a beauty - and emptier than better known Deeside.
- Lock Muick: circuit in 3 1/2 hours, or climb high above, this beautiful glacier-carved lake below the Lochnagar massif. Fabulous.
- Muir of Dinnet:a nature reserve featuring Loch Kinord, a lovely lake with the sites of ancient crannogs (artificial islands) and an island tower and wonderful naturally reforesting moor and bogland, and Burn O'Vat at about a mile, too short to be a real walk, but a magical little glenlet between glacial moraine banks leading to an extraordinary sheer-walled "vat" into which a waterfall - er - falls.
We have to add a word for the visitors' centres at some of the more popular places such as Loch Muick and Burn O'Vat. These are masterclasses in well-presented and fascinating information, for interested grown-ups and children alike, with very helpful leaflets and books available. And, while care for the environment is at the heart of everything, they aren't tediously right-on either.
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