The Cairngorms is the largest National Park in Scotland, and we’ve got everything you need to know about exploring these smokey blue mountains! Get planning and hiking tips, learn about the wildlife, and discover some royally incredible activities inside this one-of-a-kind National Park.
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The Cairngorms National Park
The Cairngorms is spread across 1008 square miles. And half is wildlands. It’s located in the north of Scotland, with the closest city in Vanessa – home of the Loch Ness Monster. It also crosses over to Aberdeenshire and others. It holds four of the five highest mountains in Scotland – so much to do for the elitist of the walking trails as well as the smaller hills for families.
The origin of the park’s meaning comes from the Cairngorms – a large mountain inside the National Park. Carin means ‘top of the mountain’ in Gaelic, and gorm is smokey blue. When you see the Cairngorm mountain from a distance, it has a tinge of smokey blue to it. So the name comes from a mixture of the two words.
Scotland National Parks
Scotland National Parks are a part of the UK system, but they also have their own rules that are pretty different up in Scotland. There are two National Parks, but there are fifteen altogether in the UK. The Cairngorms – the largest National Park in all of the UK, and the Trossachs on the west coast. They were created in 2003 to conserve and enhance the natural and cultural heritage of the area. There are no fees to get in – they are FREE to enter.
Landscape of The Cairngorms
It’s quite an immense area – all the way to arctic conditions inside the Cairngorms. Towering mountains lead to arctic plateaus because it’s so cold on the top of the Cairngorms. There’s also a mixture of hidden glens, deep forests, heather, locks (lakes), and moors. Even when it’s “dreaque,” which means miserable, it still looks so dramatic and picturesque when covered in snow. And it’s also gorgeous when the heather comes out when it’s purple and blooming. The landscape looks completely different throughout the various seasons. You can go time and time again and see a very different scene.
Planning a Trip to The Cairngorms
Planning a trip to the Cairngorms will really depend on the type of trip you’re taking – whether it’s an all-day’s walking excursion or a short hill, etc. There’s no advancing booking, so you can simply go. However, you should know where you’re going, how long it’s going to take you, and make sure to tell people where you’re going. And always start small. Start on a small hill and progress to a more challenging level.
Walking the Highlands is a great resource to use. It provides step-by-step directions for various walks and well as the walk gradient. Visit Scotland and Maps.me are also good hiking resources to use.
Weather in Scotland
The weather in Scotland can be very fickle – we get all four seasons in one day. So always prepare for any type of weather. And pack your waterproofs for every trip. You can be the best planner, but it will also depend on the weather.
Are The Cairngorms Family-Friendly?
The Cairngorms is family-friendly, but there are a lot of areas not suitable for children. It’s great to encourage children, but it’s also important to teach them about the safety of the mountains. The weather can be extreme, so you have to pack for four seasons in one day. There can be severe avalanches that kill people every year, so safety is so important! There are many treacherous mountains in the Cairngorms to be aware of and not take lightly.
Tip: Start small with small hills and only move forward when you’re ready.
Hiking Tips at The Cairngorms
We’ve said this before, but it’s really the best advice. The best way to hike is to start small and get the kids used to walking, so it becomes second nature. Most of the longer walks in the park have shorter walks beside them to utilize, so get them familiar with the conditions before venturing on to something more challenging.
Loch Negar is a beautiful hill to hike. It’s a 10k trail around the loch (lake) which is quite flat. It’s a great hike for families to start with – just a short walk around the loch, and then you can move onto the trail.
Mount Keen is a more challenging 5-hour walk. However, the hike itself is gentle, giving kids the confidence to climb the hill in one day.
Lara Groove is a 22-mile trail. Its a stunning walk, but too long for children. It’s an excellent hike for camping on the way, but you have to bring your own tent, so be prepared for the extra baggage.
You should always bring a map and compass with you on any hiking trip. You never know when you’ll need them.
We like to use the 6Ps for all our hiking trips:
Just Plan! And Prepare for four seasons!
Hiking Tip: Know what works best for you and your family. Don’t try to push something that you’re not ready for.
What Type of Wildlife Can Be Seen at The Cairngorms?
There is extraordinary wildlife in the Cairngorms to be found. The white mountain hares are enormous here and so fun to spot. Ptarmigans are white mountain birds that match their coloring to the highland region seasons. You can also spot grouse, golden eagles, Scottish wildcats, red squirrels, adders, and many types of birds. And a highlight is seeing wild reindeer. There’s a company that lets you feed the reindeer, which is a great family activity. And don’t forget about the midges – those nasty little flies like mosquitos. They are strongest from May through September.
“Every day is a school day when you’re out exploring.”
Cairngorms Sport Activities
For sports enthusiasts, there’s everything at the Cairngorms. It’s like a Queenstown from New Zealand – the extreme adrenaline sports town. We’ve got paragliding, three ski resorts in the area, canyoning, ziplining, ice climbing, canoeing, mountain guiding, and paddleboarding. The guiding companies in the area are great for encouraging these activities without having to invest in the equipment.
The Highland Games are a real highlight of the year. They occur all over Scotland in the summer. Every year, the Queen comes to the Games, which include the games, highland dancing, a hill running contest, tug of war, pipe bands, and more. It’s a fantastic day out! The Queen comes at lunch and watches the Games from her area. It’s an international festival that takes place in September.
Along with the Games, The Cairngorms has another special royal connection. Inside the Balmorough Estate – where the Queen lives – Queen Victoria erected an actual pyramid for Prince Albert in 1862. There are eleven pyramids all together throughout the area. It’s a fascinating and phenomenal site to see.
Recommended Lodging at The Cairngorms
There is a whole range of accommodation around the area within the little towns that surround the park. Campsites and wild camping are available inside the Cairngorms. In Scotland, ‘no trespassing’ laws do not exist, so you can walk or camp anywhere. For small camper vans, you can pretty much park wherever. Wild camping is free – you can sleep under the stars at will.
There are also bothies which are little stone cottages placed throughout the National Park that you can sleep in. They might be a bit old, but you can always sleep there if you get stuck somewhere. They are first-come, first-serve, so make sure to get there early if you want to stay in a bothy.
And of course, there are Airbnb, hotel, and home rental options as well. Everything from free camping to 5-star resorts in the area.
There are so many hidden gems throughout the Cairngorms! The Green Loch outside Abbey Moor is great for walking or cycling. It’s so green and stunning! The water temperature is frigid in Scotland, so if you’re brave, you could try to jump in.
The Steam Railway inside the park is also a great find. In December, you can take a Santa Steam Railway trip up to see the reindeer. It’s such a remarkable Christmas memory.
And the Cairngorm hotel is a great place to have a good pint of beer with traditional ceilidh music. After a long day on the hill, it’s the perfect way to end the day with your pint in your hand and listening to someone playing Scottish music in the background. The combination of violin, flute, and accordion is so good for the soul.
Do Not Miss Moment at The Cairngorms
The best way to immerse yourself into nature is by reaching the middle of the hills, shutting off, being in your own headspace, and enjoying the moment you’re in! There’s nothing like it!
About Our Featured Guest:
Julie and her family of four are from Scotland and have been traveling around the world for the pure fun of it. They are always trying something new as a family, such as exploring the great outdoors, new life skills, and using the world as a classroom – including trekking the Everest basecamp with their family!
National Trippers Podcast
Did you know we also have a podcast all about The Cairngorms? Get ready for even more awesomeness of this incredible National Park!