Scotland's rich and dramatic landscape with stunning scenery really has to be seen to be believed. Scotland is also home to two wonderful national parks: Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park and the Cairngorms National Park.
Both are simply beautiful and have a wonderful selection of things to do, places to go and things to see. In this guide, we’ve shone the spotlight on the Cairngorms - to entice you to discover a few of our favourite spots for exploring, dining and holidaying. Whether you prefer adventure or relaxation, long walks or fun attractions, there’s something for everyone in this stunning region.
Ensure you visit at least one of these two beautiful regions during your time here - if you’d like to find out more about Scotland’s first National Park, take a look at our guide to Loch Lomond.
About the Cairngorms National Park
Established in 2003 as Scotland’s second National Park, the Cairngorms is the largest in the UK and twice the size of the Lake District. This mountain range and national park is a breathtaking choice for a holiday, sure to inspire awe in every member of your group. People pick this fantastic holiday destination every year for the wildlife-rich scenery, and the walking and skiing opportunities, as well as the famed distilleries where you can experience a real taste of Scottish culture.
Aside from the exquisite walks and explorations to be had on two wheels (or two skis if the weather is right) there is a wealth of other activities to do. Rothiemurchus is a Highland estate with a wealth of fantastic adventure activities. You’re welcome to go on a self-guided walk or hire a bike and go cycling, try pony trekking or hop on a quad bike for off-road driving around the rugged terrain. There is the opportunity for archery or a game of tennis, and there’s lots for kids and families including feeding the deer or meeting Highland cattle. And, of course, on such a beautiful and varied estate, there’s always the chance for some wildlife watching and photography – the wide range of activities here means there’s something to suit every member of your group.
On a sunny day, visit Loch Morlich’s sandy beach in the heart of Spey Valley. There’s the opportunity to get involved in water sports like kayaking and sailing at this loch too – take a lesson in canoeing, windsurfing or stand up paddleboarding. If you prefer to stay on dry land, they even offer guided mountain biking tours of the area.
Or visit a museum unlike any you’ve visited before – the Highland Folk Museum is open-air, so you’ll feel like you’ve truly stepped back in time and into an ancient village. See the 1700s township and visit the working croft, then head to the playground when the kids need to burn off some steam, before stopping by the café for a bite to eat at the end of the day. A fun and intriguing day out!
With everything from the Dinosaur Kingdom to roller coasters and a wonderful butterfly park, Landmark Forest Adventure Park really is full of adventure! Fun for everyone, from youngsters to big kids, this family-friendly attraction has the Lost Labyrinth for kids to explore, Forest Tower with a great view from the top, and the chance to wander the ancient pinewood forest where you can walk a treetop trail and might be lucky enough to spot a few red squirrels.
Take a ride through the landscape on a steam train as it’s a wonderful way to get the most out of this natural park as you’ll see miles and miles of gorgeous Scottish scenery. Beginning in beautiful Aviemore, the Strathspey Steam Railway will take you through moorland and through pine forest to Boat of Garten, also known as the Osprey Village. Get off here and explore the pretty surroundings - The Speyside Way and Sustrans Cycle Route meet in the centre of the village offering the chance to go exploring and there are places to eat and relax here too.
There is also the Cairngorm Mountain Railway which is the highest in the UK and takes you up the slopes of the magnificent mountain of Carn Gorm. If you don’t fancy the long walk or are ready for a short trip back down the mountain, then this is the way to do it. Prepare for breathtaking views across the landscape.
The wildlife in The Cairngorms
In The Cairngorms, you’ll find the fantastic RZSS Highland Wildlife Park, home to an incredible range of animals from around the world. Polar bears, Amur tigers and Japanese macaque all live in this park; get up close and meet these incredible creatures. With ancient Caledonian pine forest, wetland and moorland, all vital for Scottish wildlife, Loch Garten presents a beautiful landscape in which to seek out birds and animals. It’s an RSPB Reserve so the perfect place for bird watching - spot osprey, Scottish crossbill and woodland grouse can all be found here.
An excellent destination for your Christmas holidays, but welcoming visitors all year-round, Cairngorm Reindeer Centre take care of over 150 reindeer. At the centre in Glenmore, there are usually around four reindeer in the paddocks as well as an exhibition about these beautiful animals - an easy alternative for anyone who can’t make the hill walk. If you are keen to see them in their natural environment, you can take a guided trip to meet them. These reindeer are free-roaming so you may need to walk a fair way to track them down – although they are tame and friendly so you may get close enough to pet one.
Outdoor activities in The Cairngorms
When staying in this area you will find that all you want to do is be outside exploring it. Luckily there are hundreds of things to do thanks to the natural woodlands, mountains and lochs whether it be adventuring by yourself or visiting an outdoor experience centre. Here are some of the top activities to try in the Cairngorm National Park…
Explore on two feet with some of the best walks in Scotland
There are endless walking trails to explore in The Cairngorms including two of Scotland’s highest mountains: Ben Macdui, which is Scotland’s second highest summit after Ben Nevis, and Braeriach, which is Scotland's third highest. Both offer a mix of challenging and easy walks for explorers looking to trek the beautiful terrain found in the Scottish Highlands. If you are looking for a challenge, try one of these three hard routes up Ben Macdui or one of these two difficult walks on Braeriach. You’ll uncover some breathtaking views during your climb up the mountainside.
For a gentler trail, try the waterfall walk to the Falls of Bruar. Park up and follow the footpath along Bruar Water and through pine woodland to the falls. It’s a steep climb but, at 2 miles long, it’s a wonderful choice for a family morning out or dog walk with your partner and your canine companion.
Enjoy a relaxed day wandering the edge of a loch at Loch an Eilein in the Rothiemurchus Forest. It’s considered a top place for picnics and offers a gentle 3-mile footpath and the beautiful views include the pine woodland, mountain, and the ruins of a castle sat on an island in the middle of the loch.
Walking is a great way to burn off the energy, especially for kids, and we know many of you take the dog too. Check out our guide to the best dog walks in Scotland and get some good ideas on where to take them.
Pick the cooler season and try a spot of mountain skiing
For some top skiing, why not head to the mountain after which this entire national park has been named? Although Carn Gorm has great walking and a variety of activities all year, one of the reasons it remains so popular with holidaymakers is the fantastic skiing and snowboarding opportunities offered with the ski company, Cairngorm Mountain.
Another Munro that welcomes snow sports enthusiasts year after year is the Cairnwell, where you can find the Glenshee Ski Centre on the eastern slope of the mountain. Go skiing, snowboarding or snow touring to see as much as you can of the beautiful slopes while here. The views are incredible and there’s nothing like seeing these Munros covered in glistening snow during winter.
Explore the waters by kayak or canoe or try a new water sport!
The Cairngorms National Park is a great place to try out canoeing and kayaking as well as many other water sports. This is a lovely way to see a new area at a gentle pace, or a fast one if you wish! You can canoe on the many lochs in the area and on the River Spey and River Dee throughout the Aviemore, Angus Glens, Royal Deeside and the Atholl and Glenshee areas. This is a great activity to enjoy as a whole family and, whether you are beginners or more experienced, there is a body of water to suit every level. Many people flock to this area, kayak on car, and spend hours adventuring the waters of the Cairngorms National Park.
Here are a few centres which hire out canoes and kayaks in the Cairngorms National Park.
Spin and pedal your way through woodlands and mountains
Another popular sport in this region of Scotland is mountain biking; as with most places nowadays, it is rare to go out anywhere and not see cyclists! With miles and miles of off-road tracks, woodland paths and mountain downhills, the Cairngorms National Park is one big adventure playground for those who love to explore on two wheels.
Whether you are up for a slow meander away from traffic through forest paths or looking for an adrenaline rush on downhill single tracks, there is something for every kind of mountain biker. Here are some popular areas within the park that would be great for a day of adventure:
- Glenfeshie – there is a 16km route which takes you through the valley with amazing views of the countryside. Start at Auchlean car park and enjoy this brilliant route.
- Loch an Eilean – A great family-friendly route which can start at either Boat of Garten or Coylumbridge. This is a short one compared to many of the other more advanced rides, but perfect for a morning spin followed by a cuppa in the café to refuel.
- Anagach Woods in Grantown on Spey – this woodland boasts some of the best kept mountain back tracks in the park. It boasts a skills section course which many play on to warm up the muscles before taking on the whole route.
Food and drink in The Cairngorms
Aviemore is a real hub in the Cairngorms and has a range of delightful eateries, restaurants and cafes for you to dine in. The Boat Country Inn offers a great outdoor area where you can dine amidst the stunning mountain scenery, while the quaint and cosy Anderson’s Restaurant is the ideal place for a romantic meal or group dinner with a chilled-out atmosphere. Stop by La Taverna for Italian dishes (always a crowd pleaser!) or the warm and welcoming Macdui’s. Enjoy a meal from The Happy Haggis which serves fish and chips and, of course, haggis, or try an evening at the stylish Old Bridge Inn.
Slightly further afield, The Druie Café over at Rothiemurchus is a delightful place to stop and grab a bite to eat between exploring the fantastic estate – pop in for a hearty bowl of soup after a brisk walk. And in the south of the Cairngorms, you’ll find Gordon's Tearoom and Restaurant, Clachan Grill, and the delightful Victoria’s Tearoom all located in Braemar.
If you love Scottish whisky, head to The Cairngorms! A big selection of the top distilleries reside in Moray Speyside, including The Glenlivet Distillery, Edradour Distillery, Dalwhinnie Distillery and The Speyside Distillery.
Five things to try when staying in the Cairngorm National Park:
- Hot chocolate from Mambos in Aviemore – you will not regret popping in here and sampling the hot chocolate with its creamy top and marshmallows. Remember to order the large!
- Battered haddock and chips in The Boathouse Restaurant – enjoy a freshly caught fish in a delightful Scottish restaurant with views out over the shores of Loch Insh.
- A haggis supper from The Hungry Highlander – you can’t come to the Cairngorm National Park and not sample a Scottish takeaway. This is a friendly takeaway in Braemar with a delicious menu ranging from smoked sausages to black pudding suppers. Yum!
- Sample different whiskys in a Scottish pub. Throughout the National Park there are traditional pubs just waiting to show you a good time – and half the fun is pub crawling until you find the perfect one!
- Deep-fried Mars Bar from a chippy – yes, the legends are true – this is a Scottish speciality which you have to try at least once. Whilst most would consider it a full meal due to its filling consistency, we suggest you save it for dessert!
We can’t forget the magnificent castles that are dotted throughout this beautiful region. Discover intriguing history as you explore these incredible buildings sat by lochs and hidden amongst the landscape of Munros.
The exquisite Balmoral Castle is the Scottish holiday home of the Royal family and offers winter guided tours of the house. You are also welcome to tour the grounds or enjoy a Safari Tour which will take you out into the ancient Caledonian Pine Forest.
Striking against the backdrop of Scottish woodland, Blair Castle has over 700 years of history for you to uncover. See historical artefacts in the grand rooms, follow a sculpture trail as you explore the gardens, and kids can take the Castle Detectives Challenge and hunt down clues as they explore the castle.
Discover the incredible Braemar Castle in the heart of the Cairngorms. You can explore the interior of this dramatic castle during one of their open days or visit an event here; from a Teddy Bear’s Picnic to a Murder Mystery Dinner, there’s plenty of fun to be had at this attraction.
Dating back to the 16th century, the pretty Corgarff Castle has an intriguing military past. The star-shaped perimeter wall is the distinguishing feature of this structure, and inside you can see the reconstructed barrack rooms where the Redcoats would sleep back in 1750; you’re welcome to take their fun fact-finding quiz available at the castle.
Many of the castles hold myths and legends, and not all are light-hearted. Read our guide to the most haunted castles of Scotland and brush up on your Scottish castle history.
Self-catering cottages in the Cairngorms National Park
The Cairngorms is a beautiful region with stunning scenery, endless activities and attractions, alongside warm and welcoming places to dine. Here, you can tick ‘whisky tour’ off your bucket list and go skiing down magnificent Carn Gorm. There’s so much to do and see, not to mention endless natural space for that much-needed peace and tranquillity: it’s the perfect place for a holiday.
Retreat into a large holiday cottage for big groups or to a family-friendly getaway in this beautiful location. Steal away with your partner to a romantic cottage for couples or take the dog along with you on your trip with a stay in one of our pet-friendly holiday homes. Pick out a stylish lodge, cosy log cabin or family-friendly cottage for your escape to the Cairngorms National Park; we have a wonderful selection of self-catering accommodation for you to browse.
Ready to discover the Cairngorms National Park? Stay in a holiday cottage in the Cairngorms and enjoy a wonderful holiday in this scenic region of Scotland.