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    Top Things to Do in the Cairngorms

    6 min read

    By Meike Burgess, Marketing & Paid Media Manager
    More by Meike

    Activities in the Cairngorms

    Here at Wilderness Scotland, we’re incredibly lucky to live and work in the Cairngorms National Park. To enjoy a quick humble brag, the Cairngorms is an area home to lush forests, adorable wee Highland villages, fantastic wildlife, wild open spaces and of course its very own arctic mountain plateau.

    We’ve got plenty of adventurous inspiration all around us. Based in Aviemore, we leave our office doors and have the Abernethy Forest, Loch Morlich, Rothiemurchus, Cairngorm Mountain and of course the mighty Spey within easy access.

    As residents, we’ve spent many weekends and lunch breaks exploring the local play spots. In this blog, I’ve gathered our favourite things to do in the Cairngorms National Park.

    Take Me Straight To:

      1. Go Outside and Play
      2. Go the Distance
      3. Get Familiar with the Spey
      4. Toast the Taste of the Region
      5. Keep Your Eyes Peeled for Local Wildlife
      6. Indulge in Cafe Cuisine
      7. “How it’s Made” Highland Edition

    Blog Updated December 2022

    Go Outside and Play

    The Cairngorms National Park, view above loch Morlich

    It’s not surprising that the population in the Cairngorms National Park swells in the summer months.

    Tourists flock from all over to hike, bike, canoe, kayak and climb their way across the park. There is something here for every adventurer no matter what age, interest or level of experience.

    • Fancy a climb? There are several places to go summer climbing in the park but my favourite is the picturesque Kingussie Crag. It has panoramic views of the surrounding valley and the crag has routes ranging from difficult to E4. There is also great winter climbing to be had straight from the Cairngorm car park, with around 50 routes listed. Please exert appropriate levels of care when winter climbing, ensuring you are well prepared for the weather, have the right equipment and know-how.
    • In the mood for some whitewater kayaking? Who isn’t? The Cairngorms is home to over various sections of paddle-able river. The options range from grade 2-3 on the Feshie all the way to grade 5 on the Falls of Muick! There is also great canoeing to be had at Loch Insch and Loch Morlich, both have watersports centres where you can hire canoes, as well as kayaks, SUPs and other flotation devices.
    • Wild Danny MacAskill sightings are not unheard of in the Cairngorms. This is not surprising with the range of mountain biking in the area. For family-friendly and purpose-built trails check out Laggan Wolftrax and the trails at Glenlivet Estate. For some more technical downhill pay a visit to High Burnside near Aviemore or Pitfichie Forest by Ballater, you can find exact routes and difficulty levels on Trailforks. Also, have a look at Top 7 Biking Routes in the Cairngorms for some inspiration for your own biking adventures.
    • With a mix of mountain roads and quiet country lanes past fields, there is great road cycling to be had in the Cairngorms National Park. The Best Road Cycling Routes in the Highlands features 4 Cairngorm routes.
    • Prefer to keep your adventures a bit simpler and less adrenaline-fuelled? There is no point in trying to list all of the amazing hikes here, as they are endless. However, Wilderness guide Peter Grant, a native Highlander, has sussed out five great walking routes for all levels of fitness. Get the first in a series of 5 here. Each blog contains a route description and GPX file.
    • Imagine living like a Royal on the Balmoral Estate – the castle is open to visitors at certain times of the year and there are also public walking trails on the estate.
    • Turn your eyes to the night sky, particularly in winter and particularly near Tomintoul ad Glenlivet. This area is home to some of the darkest skies in the UK and makes for excellent stargazing, so much, so it’s been awarded international Dark Sky Park status.
    • Immerse yourself in a story walk and get told all about the local folklore and natural history.
    • Explore The Cairngorms National Park with us and enjoy hiking the area with a knowledgeable Wilderness Guide.

    Go the Distance

    Walking along the Speyside Way in the Cairngorms National Park

    The Speyside Way, the local long distance route, starts in Spey Bay and finishes officially in our own Highland boom-town of Aviemore, although the route has been extended to Newtonmore via Kincraig. Due to the relatively short distance and easy terrain, the Speyside Way is good for the trekker new to the sport and wanting to ease into the experience. The Speyside Way passes disused rail stations, beautiful moorland, and a Highland coo or two. Route description here. There is also a more challenging off-shoot, linking Ballindalloch to Tomintoul, it’s harder than the rest of the Speyside Way due to its ascent and exposure, but it’s worth the effort as the views are incredible.

    Tip: Not keen on dedicating several days and 80-100 miles to a hike? The route consists of 8 sections so you can pick and choose just one to do for a day. The section between Boat of Garten and Aviemore is a great 2-hour walk or short bike ride. It includes beautiful views across to the Cairngorms, heather heathland, photogenic Scots Pines, and a birch tree forest.

    Alternatively – the SnowRoads offer an incredibly scenic 90-mile road trip through the east section of the Cairngorms National Park, linking up Grantown-on-Spey in the north and Blairgowrie in the south, outside of the park.

    Get Familiar with the Spey

    Canoeing on the Spey in the Cairngorms National Park

    • The Spey is the river famous for fuelling one of Scotland’s most beloved whisky regions, Speyside. However, there is a lot more to the Spey than its role in whisky production.
    • The river Spey runs for 107 miles from Loch Spey to the Moray Firth.
    • Due to its length and volume, the Spey has a lot to offer to the passing-by waterbabies.
    • You can canoe, raft, kayak, and even tube your way down sections.
    • We prefer canoeing, to be honest, it gives you plenty of time to admire the various sights on the river banks.

    Adventure Inspiration: Take on a new challenge and paddle the length of the Spey from Aviemore all the way to the sea on a true wilderness canoeing expedition. Along the way, stop to taste the local whisky, admire the wildlife and set up your own camp. Want to take on the rapids of the Spey in an open canoe but less keen on camping? We also have a Spey descent with evenings in comfortable Highland accommodation; find out more here

    Toast the Taste of the Region

    Nosing Whisky at a tasting in a Cairngorms Distillery.

    • Speyside is home to HALF of Scotland’s entire whisky production!
    • So for the lovers of whisky, there are over 40 different distilleries in the Speyside area. A large number are open to visitors with daily tours and tastings.
    • Distilleries that sit in the boundaries of the Cairngorms National Park, so a great wet weather alternative.
      • Royal Lochnagar Distillery
      • Dalwhinnie Distillery
      • Glenlivet Distillery
      • Balmenach Distillery
      • Tomintoul Distillery
      • Tamnavulin Distillery
      • The Speyside Distillery
      • Kinrara Distillery

    Keep Your Eyes Peeled for Local Wildlife

    Group of people feeding the reindeer that live in the Cairngorms

    This is something that I remember being amazed about when I first moved to the Cairngorms.

    My walk to work would involve sightings of at least ten wild rabbits just walking out of the village. I also saw a deer calf scampering across the bicycle path and a mole once (exciting, my first time seeing one). My walk would often feature a bird of prey swooping overhead, and to finish things off, my favourite wildlife encounter was two red squirrels having a violent spat between several trees.

    Due to the variation of the landscape, the park is home to an abundance of interesting, rare and endangered species. Examples of this include the shy wildcat, pine martens, capercaillies, ospreys, deer and even reindeer.

    • Spotting wildlife here can be as easy as paying a little bit of attention on a hike, but you can also go on a guided wildlife walk if it’s an absolute must-do activity.
    • Some quick ways to get a guaranteed wildlife encounter include a visit to the Osprey Centre for a wander in the beautiful reserve.
    • Alternatively, have a stroll along the Wild Cat Trail in Newtonmore, or even hand-feed reindeer on a guided tour.
    • The Highland Wildlife Park is part of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland and plays an important part in the conservation of various species globally. Pay them a visit to meet a wolf pack, snow leopards, wild cats and a host of other incredible animals.
    • Get yourself into a hide – a great example is a hide near Tomintoul, particularly good for spotting lapwing.
    • Explore the mountain species of the Cairngorms on our incredible Scottish Highlands Wildlife Adventure.

    Indulge in Cafe Cuisine

    The benefit of the Cairngorms being a tourist destination and a beautiful place to live in is the numerous high-quality and boutique cafes popping up in the park.

    As I’ve not been to every cafe and tried every scone, I don’t feel qualified to deliver a complete cafe review for the entire park (it’s rather big). Here are some favourites, though, to get you started.

    • Many other residents of the park were heartbroken when the Mountain Cafe closed down at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. It was the absolute shining star of the cafe scene in the Cairngorms and what I imagined heaven may look like to a lot of people. I’m a little bit afraid to admit it in an office full of sweet-toothed cake lovers, but I’m not that big a fan of cake. However, the Mountain Cafe made me rethink my position on cake altogether. Threatening to spill over the sides of the counter, the cake selection was vast, colourful and very varied. Muffins, cakes, bakes, brownies, squares, cookies and home-baked bread aplenty. Luckily the team at Mountain Cafe are ingenious and resilient and bounced back with a bakery pop-up in Grantown on Spey called KJ’s Bothy Bakery, which sells the same delicious bakes! Be sure to check it out.
    • The Druie and the Barn in Rothiemurchus provides a reliable source of delicious scones and gluten-free brownies. More than anything, their savoury lunch options are of the more-ish kind that are perfect after a long hike out in the hills. The Druie embraces the best of the Scottish natural larder, frequently using locally sourced ingredients. The menu features venison, homemade bread and locally roasted coffee.
    • The Bothy in Ballater is one that I remember from one of my ventures into the Cairngorms National Park before I moved here. I clearly remember being squeezed into the corner seat with my group of giggling girls. Them all tucking into their cakes and scones (with great delight), and me slurping away at my soup in cake-protest. The atmosphere was great, and the cafe was cosy. This is the place to go on a rainy morning whilst you are waiting for the weather to clear. The sister company the Bothy Braemar comes highly recommended as well (great views).
    • People travel far and wide and test their parking skills for the pizzas, focaccias and cinnamon doughnuts from the Kincraig Old Post Office & Gallery Cafe – an adorable art gallery and cafe which serves incredible food throughout the day with indoor and outdoor seating and also take away. If you’re in Kincraig anyways, be sure to check out the bakery bus Reviving Food -> the sourdough bread, and artisan pastries are also worth travelling for.
    • A lovely and beautifully located cafe is the Tarmachan Cafe in Crathie. Everyone raves about the simple but delicious fare, especially the homemade bread. Perfect spot to refuel after a hike. Like many other cafes in the park, it’s worth checking their opening hours and service levels ahead of time.
    • A local favourite, Nethy House in Nethybridge serves delicious cakes and hot drinks and caters equally to savoury and sweet lovers, with also plenty of options for vegans and the gluten-free. Check their Facebook page for opening hours.
    • The Carriage – Cafe, Tearoom & Bistro in Ballater is worth a visit for the atmosphere alone, although it helps that they serve scrumptious lunches too. The cafe serves seasonal soups and sandwiches, and you can get an unforgettable champagne afternoon tea experience in the traditional tea room.
    • Not a cafe – but worth a mention, and the best place to get a delicious and fancy pub lunch in Braemar is the Flying Stag Bar inside the Fife Arms Hotel. The interior design is spectacular, and the bar has a great ambience, a favourite among locals and hotel residents.
    • Also not a cafe, but if you fancy indulging in some proper delicious grub, then Alvie Forest Food is a great shout. This is a static food truck based next to the Dalraddy Holiday Park and serves up incredibly indulgent fries, burgers, cakes and daily specials that often feature locally foraged ingredients. It’s a must-try if you’re in the area and great for lunch or dinner.

    "How it's Made" Highland Edition

    3 people being instructed on how to carve a wooden spoon by Wooden Tom, a Cairngorms local.

    If you are with kids or have seen enough of distilleries, why not try The Speyside Cooperage? I actually cannot stress enough how surprisingly interesting and fun the Cooperage is. The tour above the factory floor is noisy but it’s great being able to watch the skilled craftsmen at work. The tour also includes a 4D video presentation which is guaranteed to delight. Also, be open-minded to a bruised ego when you are given a chance to put together a little barrel yourself.

    • Like the idea of a more hands-on experience? Wooden Tom offers woodworking courses. If you are willing to dedicate the time and money, you can learn how to carve your own spoons or make your own rustic furniture or even your own quaich. 
    • The Cairngorm Brewery offers tours during the week and some on the weekends. Although the tour is short (the brewery is small…), you do get to taste a lot of different beers, ales and ciders.
    • Not to miss either is Cambus o’May Creamery – where you can watch highland cheese being made, interesting and delicious!


    Our Trips in the Cairngorms National Park

    Meet the Author: Meike Burgess

    “Having grown up travelling across the world I've developed an addiction to all things spice and to travel! When it was time to go to university I wandered off to Scotland for a new adventure and now 10+ years later I've not managed to leave yet. Scotland's welcoming culture, beautiful scenery and a Scottish man captured my heart. Moving to Scotland has made me develop a passion for the outdoors and I love heading out for an explore.”

    View profileMore by Meike

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