Over the next few months, we’ll be providing a look at the National Parks of Great Britain. We’ll be showcasing some of the highlights, uncovering a few of those special places, and sharing tips on when to visit, where to stay, etc. For this week’s National Park Spotlight, we’re heading north of the border. Pretty far north in fact. We’re off to explore the Cairngorms.
Scotland is home to two National Parks, one of which is Cairngorms, established in 2003. It is twice the size of the Lake District National Park. Covering a vast 1,748 square miles in northeast Scotland, it is the largest National Park in the British Isles. Parts of Aberdeenshire, Angus, Moray, Perth and Kinross, and the Highlands all fall within its borders. Each year, an estimated 1.6 million visitors come to the park.
There are a number of visitor centres in and around the National Park, as well as multiple ranger stations. Information centres at Aviemore, Pitlochry, Ballater, Braemar, Grantown-on-Spey, or Kinussie are all good spots to plan your trip. There is also a ton of information on the Visit Cairngorms website, including accommodation, events, and activities.
What to do.
Because is is so vast, the landscape of the Cairngorms is very diverse. Peatlands, wetlands, forests, mountains… they’re all here. And that means you have a huge selection of activities. Cycling, horse riding, and hiking are always popular ways to see the landscape. Guided walks are a wonderful way to learn about area wildlife and history, without the danger of becoming lost if the weather should change suddenly. There are several spots in the park where climbers can work on improving their skills and a number of lodges can provide accommodation and climbing packages.
Then, of course, there’s the skiing. Cairngorms National Park is the site for 3 ski centres. The best known of these is CairnGorm Mountain at Aviemore. Other are at Glenshee and The Lecht. In warmer weather, enjoy fishing, rafting, and other watersports on some of Scotland’s best lakes and rivers.
Whether you visit in ski season or during the warmer months, opportunities for wildlife watching abound. Twenty five percent of the country’s threatened species make their home within the park. Among the types of wildlife to be seen here: red squirrels, osprey, golden eagles, wildcats, capercaillie, and many more. To improve your chances of seeing as much as possible in this remote part of Scotland, a number of companies offer wildlife watching tours. These are highly recommended as the guides know where the best spots are, increasing your odds of getting that perfect photo.
Whatever time of year you visit the National Park, please remember that weather conditions can change rapidly, and you can easily become lost or disoriented. Every year, rescue services have to go in search of walkers and climbers who have got lost. Therefore, it is important to follow some basic safety steps: Always leave word with someone (a friend, at your hotel, etc) about where you are going and what time you expect to return. Keep an eye on the weather reports. Make sure you have warm clothing (even in summer) and water.
What to see.
As always, the landscapes themselves are the main reason to visit the Cairngorms. At the risk of sounding cliched, the views are stunning. However, there are also a number of historic attractions within the area that are worth a visit.
Balmoral and Braemar are two castles that are open to the public, and are fun for history buffs and families alike. Meanwhile, the Highland Folk Museum offers a fascinating look at life in this rugged area from the 1700s to the present day. The Mountain Railway runs daily up CairnGorm Mountain and is Scotland’s only funicular railway. After riding to the top, you can enjoy spectacular views, grab a spot of lunch at the restaurant, and mail a postcard from Britain’s highest postbox.
And of course this is Scotland, so a visit to a whisky distillery is in order. Tours and tastings at the Glenlivet Distillery run from March to November. Learn about the distillation process and enjoy a guided tasting.
Avoid the crowds.
Given the vastness and remote location of the Cairngorms, avoiding the crowds is easy. The ski slopes at Aviemore will certainly be busy at certain times of year, as will some of the attractions. But finding a quiet spot for a hike or picnic should be no trouble at all, so make the most of it.
Where to stay.
Camp and caravan sites are available at several locations through the park. Reservations are recommended during peak visiting times.
Whatever your accommodation preference–hotel, bed and breakfast, log cabins, or self-catering–you will find a huge range of options to suit a variety of budgets. Our sidebar includes several affiliate links to hotel chains and cottages within the area.