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A complete guide to Cairngorms National Park, Scotland

Cairngorms National Park is without a doubt one of the best places to visit in Scotland, it’s even a strong contender for the best places to visit in the UK.

Cairngorms National Park is one of two National Parks in Scotland and one of 15 in the UK, and covers approximately 4,528 km2 (1,748 sq mi) of stunning landscapes in northeast Scotland. It’s centred on the Cairngorms range of mountains, and surrounding hills, and it’s also fairly to Edinburgh and Glasgow if you fancy combining these cities with a National Park to make the ultimate Scotland road trip!

Cairngorms National Park includes 3 rivers, several mountains and hills, and lots of heather moorland, so it’s a great place to go walking in Scotland. It’s also the largest UK National Park! If you’re the type of traveller that seeks long hiking trails, stunning mountain views, and plenty of adventure, Cairngorms National Park is going to be right up your street. The very British weather I’ve experienced there (rain), has not taken away from the beauty and fun I’ve had in this UK National Park. 

In this Cairngorms National Park travel guide I am going to share with you the best places to stay in Cairngorms, the best things to do in Cairngorms National Park and my favourite adventures so far.

From going on challenging day hikes to trying winter sports and water sports, from wild camping in Scotland under the dark skies to exploring some of the picturesque town in the park, my time in Scotland has been nothing short of adventurous! 

A complete guide to Cairngorms National Park, Scotland

With this Google Map, you can have all my tips and recommendations at the touch of your fingertips. These are all the things I wish I knew and spent a lot of time researching before my 4-week adventure. 

This Google Map Legend includes:

  • Best walks, hikes, viewpoints, beaches and activities
  • Lochs and waterfalls to visit
  • Road trip tips (campsites, laundrettes, lunch spots)
  • My favourite places for coffee, brunch and dinner
  • Things you must add to your bucket list!
  • Travel guide links within each location

Cairngorms National Park: my complete guide

Where is Cairngorms National Park?

If you came here wondering ‘where is Cairngorms National Park’, ‘where is Cairngorms’, or ‘what does a map of Cairngorms National Park look like’ you’re in the right place.  Cairngorms National Park is in northeast Scotland and is centred on the Cairngorms mountains.

To drive to Cairngorms National Park, it’s about 3 hours from Glasgow, Edinburgh or Loch Lomond, 9-10 hours from London and the South East, or 6-7 hours from Leeds. If you’re using a Sat Nav, pop in the postcode of your accommodation or one of these car parks.

If you want to take public transport to Cairngorms National Park, you’re best bet is getting to Inverness or Aberdeen. There are rail and National Express links from all over the UK to Scotland. From Inverness or Aberdeen you can take the train to Dalwhinnie, Newtonmore, Kingussie, Aviemore and Carrbridge, all towns within the National Park. Book your train tickets online on thetrainline.com. .

Check out this map of Cairngorms National Park to see where in Scotland it is:

Cairngorms National Park: my complete guide​
Wikishire, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Where to stay in Cairngorms National Park:

Where to stay Cairngorms National Park really depends on what type of accommodation you’re looking for, and where you want to be based.

For example, if you want to stay in a hostel in Cairngorms National Park, Hostelling Scotland have 4 hostels within the National Park and more nearby. These are the perfect option for budget accommodation with close access to various locations in the Cairngorms. Book your Hostelling Scotland stay here.

Check out booking.com or Airbnb for more hotels or apartments in the area, or get inspiration and recommendations directly from the Cairngorms National Park website here.

There are also lots of campsites in Cairngorms National Park. Check out my camping packing list here.

Wild camping with a tent is legal in most of Scotland, so this is the perfect place to be at one with nature. As part of Scotland’s access legislation, the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, you are allowed to camp on most unenclosed land. This type of camping is lightweight, done in small numbers and only for two or three nights in any one place.

If you’re camping in Scotland with a van, wild camping is not allowed but generally tolerated if you don’t outstay your welcome, camp repsonsibly, and away from no park zones and main roads. If it’s clear who owns the land, always ask permission and move on when required. Its important to exercise respect, responsibility, discretion and common sense. Check out caravan sites in the Cairngorms here. 

Find out more about responsible van life here. 

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The best things to do in Cairngorms National Park...

1. Spend some time in Aviemore.

Aviemore is the main town in the Cairngorms National Park, and it’s a popular place to visit in the Cairngorms. It’s a year round destination, with snowsports being a popular winter activity and hiking, cycling and climbing for the summer. It’s a great base for exploring if you’re looking for somewhere to stay in the Cairngorms National Park, with plenty of cafes, pubs, restaurants and shops to look around as well as all the outdoor activities you could imagine. 

From taking the Strathspey Steam Railway to hiking Cairngorm mountain, or from visiting the Cairngorm reindeer centre to exploring the Rothiemurchus Estate, there are lots of things to do in Aviemore and the surrounding area to keep you busy!

A complete guide to Cairngorms National Park, Scotland

2. Take on one of the many walks and hikes in Cairngorms National Park.

There are so many walks and hikes in Cairngorms National Park… it really is one of the best places to go walking in Scotland and even in the UK. with breathtaking mountain views, stunning moorland and magical woodland, it’s enjoyable come rain or shine! 

There are loads of walks and hikes in Cairngorms National Park for you to try, no matter whether you’re a beginner hiker or if you’re looking for a bigger challenge. (If you’re a beginner hiker, check out my hiking top tips here!). It’s the largest national park in the UK, almost twice the size of the Lake District, and home to four of the five highest mountains in Britain. It also boasts 60 lochs, many more lochans (small lochs) and more than half of the surviving Caledonian forest. 

Cairngorms National Park is also home to a variety of landscapes, so whether you want hills or woodland, waterfalls or heather moors, there’s something for you here. With so much on offer, it’s no surprise that walking and hiking are some of the best things to do in Cairngorms National Park.

Some of the best places for hikes in Cairngorms National Park include: 

  • Ryvoan Pass
  • Dalraddy to Ruthven
  • Falls of Bruar, Perth and Kinross
  • Jock’s Road
  • Loch Garten
  • Kingussie to Newtonmore
  • Glen Tilt
  • Carrbridge and Docharn circuit
  • Ben Macdui
  • Morrone

Long distance hikes in the Cairngorms include:

  • Speyside Way
  • Deeside Way
  • Cateran Trail
  • Dava Way
A complete guide to Cairngorms National Park, Scotland

3. Visit the Rothiemurchus Forest.

Scotland is home to some stunning areas of nature, and woodland is certainly something that is aplenty in the Cairngorms National Park. The Rothiemurchus Forest is what is left of the Caledonian Forest in the Cairngorms. There are plenty of walking trails here for those of you who are looking to hug a tree and spend a bit of time in the fresh forest air. 

As well as being one of the best places for walking in the Cairngorms, Rothimurchus is home to a wealth of outdoor activities! Whether you want to try pony trekking, quad biking, wildlife watching or river sports such as tubing, rafting or kayaking, some of the best things to do in the Cairngorms can be found in the Rothiemurchus Forest. 

A complete guide to Cairngorms National Park, Scotland

4. Go chasing waterfalls in Cairngorms National Park.

One of the best things to do in Cairngorms National Park has got to be seeing the waterfalls. They’re absolutely gorgeous! Furthermore, waterfalls hold a special place in Gaelic tradition, often being places where supernatural creatures were located, even though it it said that evil spirits couldn’t cross running water.

There are so many stunning waterfalls here, go and chase them all! It can be hard to choose. Some of my favourite waterfalls in Cairngorms National Park are:

  • Falls of Pattack
  • Falls of Bruar
  • Linn of Avon
  • Linn of Tanar
  • Linn of Muick
  • The Stulan
  • Falls of Damff
A complete guide to Cairngorms National Park, Scotland

5. Go wild camping in the Cairngorms for a night.

If you love the solitude of a ‘wild camping’ experience and a night under the stars, there are plenty of great places to go wild camping in Cairngorms National Park. As part of Scotland’s access legislation, the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, you are allowed to camp on most unenclosed land. This type of camping is lightweight, done in small numbers and only for two or three nights in any one place.

One of the best things to do in the Cairngorms is to find a quiet space away from roads and attractions, pitch up a tent, and enjoy being at one with nature.

Note that the rules are different if you want to camp with a campervan – you should have permission to park or a permit. 

See more about responsible van life here. 

Get the ultimate camping packing checklist here. 

A complete guide to Cairngorms National Park, Scotland
A complete guide to Cairngorms National Park, Scotland

6. Go skiing in Cairngorms National Park.

Cairngorms National Park is a winter wonderland for those of you who enjoy skiing or other winter sports. The park gives you the opportunity to try loads of snow activities which include skiing, snowboarding, sledging, and even dogsledding.

While you might not think of the UK as a key skiing destination, one of the most popular things to do in Cairngorms National Park in winter is to hit the slopes. More people come skiing here than anywhere else in the UK.

The Cairngorms National Park has three ski resorts, open to both skiiers and snowboarders: Cairngorm Mountain near Aviemore, Lecht near Tomintoul, and Glenshee near Braemar. Each resort offers ski gear hire and ski lessons if you need it. If you’re an experienced skiier there are also opportunities to go off-piste or go cross-country skiing in the National Park. 

Check out my skiing packing list here. 

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7. Explore the towns, villages and communities in Cairngorms National Park.

If you’re looking for places to visit or places to stay in the Cairngorms, make sure you don’t miss out on the cute villages and market towns. Soak up a bit of Scottish culture as you wander around the streets, grab a cup of tea or a pub lunch, and chat to some of the locals. The communities are full of variety, culture and character.

The best market towns and villages in the Cairngorms to visit include…

  • Aviemore
  • Dalwhinnie
  • Newtonmore
  • Kingussie
  • Boat of Garten
  • Nethy Bridge
  • Cromdale
  • Grantown-on-Spey
  • Tomintoul
  • Dinnet
  • Blair Atholl
  • Glenshee

8. Go cycling or mountain biking in Cairngorms National Park.

If you enjoy cycling or mountain biking, one of the best things to do in the Cairngorms is to rent a bike and enjoy the cycle paths or mountain bike trails. Whether you want to cycle along the quiet village roads and stop for a cup of tea, to take on one of the more challenging mountain biking trails, to enjoy a cliff top challenge or to have a quiet day in the countryside or forest, the Cairngorms offer something for every avid cyclist. 

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9. Drive the Snow Roads or North East 250.

If you know me well, you’ll know I love a good road trip. And a Scotland road trip is no exception to this!

The Snow Roads is a 90-mile route from Blairgowrie to Grantown-on-Spey. The route is absolutely stunning, offering beautiful scenery, and linking a variety of natural, cultural, and historic attractions. It’s a slow, scenic route, rather than a quick route, and best enjoyed if you’re willing to stop off and enjoy the views. Keep an eye on the weather, as given the name ‘Snow Roads’ you can expect heavy snow here and parts of the route might get shut off in winter. Definitely take snow chains with you! 

The North East 250 route connects the Cairngorms with Aberdeen and the east coast villages. It’s a circular route from Glenshee in the Cairngorms National Park around the Moray Firth coast of Scotland. Within the park you’ll see Glenshee, the Cairngorm mountains, Balmoral Castle and more. 

If you are planning to drive the North Coast 500 while in Scotland, the Snow Roads are a great scenic route to take to travel between Edinburgh and Inverness.

See how to plan your Scotland road trip here. 

10. Taste the local whiskey.

Scotland is famous for its whiskey, and one of the best things to do in Cairngorms National Park is to visit a local distillery and to have a tour and try it for yourself. There are many places to go on a distillery tour in Cairngorms National Park, where you can learn about how to make Scotch whiskey and then try the famous drink at the end. Some Cairngorms distillery tours even allow you to make your own blend of whiskey. 

Some places that you can go on a distillery tour in Cairngorms National Park include: 

  • Dalwhinnie
  • Glenlivet
  • Tomintoul
  • Speyside
  • Royal Lochnagar
  • Tomatin 

If you want to go on a distillery tour, but you’re not into whiskey, try the  Balmenach Distillery for gin or the Cairngorm Brewery in Aviemore for beer. 

11. Try your hand at climbing in Cairngorms National Park.

One of the best things to do in Cairngorms National Park is to try your hand at climbing. According to Mountaineering Scotland, the Cairngorms is one of the best places to go climbing in Scotland. For those wishing to give climbing a try, lessons from a qualified instructor will help you, but for the experienced climber, there are plenty of options for bouldering, multi pitch traditional routes, bolted sport climbing and winter classics.

There are 55 munros in the Cairngorms, so plenty of peaks for you to choose from! Some of the best places to go climbing in Cairngorms National Park include Creag Dubh Loch and Lochnagar in the southern Cairngorms, and The Shelterstone Crag in the northern Cairngorms.

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12. Look at the stars in the dark skies of Cairngorms National Park.

While you’re in Scotland, head to Cairngorms National Park to look at the stars. Just imagine… lying back on the grass and watching the wonders of the night sky with the naked eye. You can see even more if you have a telescope or a pair of binoculars.

Scotland has some of the largest areas of dark sky in Europe. Dark skies are found in rural areas that are free of urban light pollution. From a city centre you can only see fewer than 100 stars with the naked eye, but under a dark sky you can see over 1,000, and you can even see the Milky Way!

One of the best things to do in Cairngorms National Park is to appreciate the dark skies and snuggle up under the stars! The Tomintoul and Glenlivet area is one of the best places to go stargazing in the Cairngorms, as it holds the  status of International Dark Sky Park. Not only is Cairngorms National Park home to some of the darkest skies in the UK, but it is the most Northerly Dark Sky Park in the world. and among the darkest skies in the UK! The National Park often run dark skies events alongside experts if you want to learn more about astronomy.

Check out how to improve your travel photography in this blog post. 

13. Get in the water!

While Cairngorms National Park is not on a coastline, it boasts 60 lochs, more smaller lochs called lochans, and rivers for you to splash around in! Whether you want to try wild swimming, go river tubing, white water rafting, river kayaking, canoeing, sailing, canyoning, gorge walking, windsurfing and more… watersports are some of the best things to do in Cairngorms National Park. The water here is some of the cleanest in Europe, so get in and give it a try yourself!

A complete guide to Cairngorms National Park, Scotland
A complete guide to Cairngorms National Park, Scotland

14. Take the Strathspey steam railway.

The Strathspey steam railway has been running in the Scottish Highlands for over 40 years. One of the best things to do in Cairngorm National Park is to travel back in time to an era when steam whistles blew, carriage doors slammed shut and there was a familiar click-clack, rhythm of the rails, as the train travels along the track.

Trains depart from Aviemore, in the heart of the Cairngorm mountains. The train takes you past heather-clad moors and woodland travelling parallel with the Speyside way, arriving at Boat of Garten and Broomhill. 

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15. Learn about Scottish history at the castles.

There are many historical sites and castles in Cairngorms National Park, and one of the best things to do in the Cairngorms is to learn about Scottish history in these places. Whether you want to observe ancient ruins such as Kindrochit Castle, Castle Roy or Drumin Castle, visit a conserved and restored castle such as Braemar Castle, Corgarff Castle or Blair Castle, or explore the grounds of the working Balmoral estate there are plenty of places to visit in Cairngorms National Park if you are a history buff or just have a small interest.

What are your favourite things to do in Cairngorms National Park?

Where are your favourite places to visit in Cairngorms National Park? Anything you’d add?

Love as always and happy adventuring,

Mollie.

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A complete guide to Cairngorms National Park, Scotland
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