A guide to the Cairngorms National Park

Days out, The Great British Outdoors, Destinations

Posted by Ed Roberts on 23rd July 2021

A guide to the Cairngorms National Park

The Cairngorms is one of two national parks in Scotland alongside Loch Lomond and the Trossachs; it is also the largest in the UK. Located in the northeast of Scotland, the park was first established back in 2003. Famous for Mount Cairngorm, arguably Scotland’s best-loved resort for skiing and snowboarding, and its fabled birdlife and wildlife, there are abundant outdoor activities to enjoy like Munro climbing, hiking, hillwalking, cycling, salmon spotting, and whisky sampling.

The Cairngorms National Park covers 1,738 square miles of stunning mountains, vast green forests filled with wildlife, friendly villages, and picturesque clear lochs across four regions. This special place inspires you; with the wilderness of the Cairngorms, you’ll never starve from lack of wonders.

Read on to discover the very best things to do in the Cairngorms and even more inspiration in our Discover Scotland guide. Find your perfect self-catering holiday cottage in the Cairngorms by clicking the button below.

Cairngorms cottages

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The best walks in the Cairngorms

The Falls of Bruar

The Falls of Bruar 

The poet Robert Burns once wrote a poem from the point of view of this stunning waterfall in the Cairngorms. The 1.5-mile trail to the Falls of Bruar is occasionally steep but well worth the endeavour. It has been one of the area’s best-loved beauty spots for over 200 years.

Distance: 1.5 miles

Difficulty: Easy to moderate

Good to know: There are facilities at the nearby House of Bruar, and it’s dog-friendly too.

The Frank Bruce Sculpture Trail

The Frank Bruce Sculpture Trail 

Experience a fresh perspective on Scottish culture along the Frank Bruce Sculpture Trail in Inshriach Forest. The sculptures are made from wood and stones and have been created to become decrepit and once again find ingress with the earth, to represent the many life cycles in nature. The path begins at Feshiebridge near Cairngorm Mountain.

Distance: 1 mile

Difficulty: Easy (suitable for prams and wheelchairs)

Good to know: Parking available. The nearest WC and shopping facilities are in Kingussie and Aviemore.

The Seven Bridges Trail

The Seven Bridges Trail 

This gorgeous circular walk from Ballater centres around the bridges over the River Dee. It’s the perfect choice for wayfarers looking for a lengthy walk without the climb. The ascent is only 50 metres across its full length. Highlights include the Queen Mother’s former home, Knock Castle, and the elaborate wrought-iron Polhollick Bridge.

Distance: 6 miles

Difficulty: Easy

Good to know: The walk is also known to cyclists, so bringing your bike is an option.

The best things to do in the Cairngorms

Ski down Cairngorm Mountain

Ski down Cairngorm Mountain 

Skiing in the Cairngorms National Park is a serious pursuit for fun-loving outdoor sports enthusiasts, and the Cairngorms is among the top skiing spots in the UK. Skiers and snowboarders alike catch the train from near Aviemore to the top of Cairngorm Mountain to reach the ski runs. There is a visitor centre at the summit with places to eat, viewing points, a snow school for lessons, and hire shops. There are also ranger-guided walks available to get involved with too. 

Cost: Day passes range from £18.50 - £86.50. See website for details.

Best for: Winter holidays for extreme sports and nature fanatics.

Stay nearby: Dell Of The Wood | Sleeps: 4 guests + 2 dogs

Visit Balmoral Castle and Estate

Visit Balmoral Castle and Estate 

Visit the royal seat in Scotland, Balmoral Castle and Estate near Ballater. It is a royal holiday home and closes to the public for certain periods during the year, so check the website in advance of your visit. Admission provides wide access to the grounds, gardens, and exhibitions and there is also a restaurant on the estate where you can enjoy some lunch during your visit.

Cost: Day tickets are £15 for adults / £6 for children. See website for details. 

Best for: Garden lovers and fans of the royal family.

Stay nearby: Ferneyhowe Croft | Sleeps: 6 guests + 2 dogs 

See ospreys at Loch Garten

See ospreys at Loch Garten

Ospreys were reintroduced at Loch Garten in the 1950s as part of a rewilding project and they have been returning to the lake every year. Ospreys migrate to Africa in August and September before returning to Scotland for spring and summer, usually in March or early April, so coincide your visit to see them arrive. There is an RSPB visitor centre at Abernethy, where you can walk trails and spot many other birds that visit Loch Garten.

Cost: Day tickets are £5 for adults / £2.50 for children. See website for details.  

Best for: Bird spotters and those with an interest in conservation projects.

Stay nearby: Milton of Delliefure | Sleeps: 4 guests + 2 dogs

The best lochside beaches in the Cairngorms

Loch Morlich beach

Loch Morlich beach

Although the Cairngorms National Park is inland there is a popular beach at Loch Morlich. It has many accolades as one of the prettiest beaches in Scotland. Fir trees and woodland stand at the fringe of the loch and the surroundings are idyllic – how many beaches can you see snowy mountain peaks from in the UK? You can hire small boats and paddleboards at the beach or grab a light lunch at one of the cafes. The waters are lovely and calm and offer a great place for a swim (bring a wet suit!)

Lifeguards: No

Dog-friendly: Yes – there are no restricted areas for dogs

Other information: Sailing school, water sports centre, parking, refreshments, WCs

The best pubs in the Cairngorms

Glenavon Hotel

Glenavon Hotel 

The Glenavon Hotel is situated on the Glenlivet Estate, and it’s a welcoming pub with an informal air and welcoming staff. The selection of Speyside malt whisky is impressive, as is the range of craft ales. The menu is full of traditional Scottish fare for you to try too.

Menu pick: Haggis balls with whisky sauce.

Dogs welcome: Yes

Good to know: This is a great family pub.

The Balmoral Bar

The Balmoral Bar  

The Balmoral Bar in Ballater is a superb choice if you are looking for a gastropub. Its menu is full of interesting Scottish, English, Indian, and Italian dishes, bolstered by a fine choice of burgers and starters. The drinks at the bar are also sure to quench your thirst with a good range of ales, beers, and wines to choose from.

Menu pick: Butterfly king prawn special.

Dogs welcome: Yes (in the garden)

Good to know: The bar sells over 30 gins and 50 whiskies!

Bothy Bar near Kinlochleven

Bothy Bar

The Bothy Bar at the MacDonald Hotel near Kinlochleven is a lovely Scottish pub with fantastic views from the deck. It’s cosy inside with a wood stove and friendly staff who serve up an astonishing array of local dishes, as well as pub food staples like steaks, pies, and burgers. Major sporting events are screened in the bar, and as it’s a local hub, it can be a lively night out on occasion.

Menu pick: The mince, neeps and tatties.

Dogs welcome: Yes

Good to know: There is a good choice of vegetarian dishes on the menu.

Map of the Cairngorms National Park

Find each of these Cairngorms highlights on our handy map.

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Stay with us in the Cairngorms National Park

From the peaks of Cairngorms’ Munros to the salmon rivers, the Scottish castles, and wooded glens, there are lots of beautiful natural sights and things to do in the National Park. View our collection of self-catering holiday cottages in the Cairngorms National Park to feel inspired for your trip to the Scottish Highlands.

Cairngorms cottages

Disclaimer: Whilst every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information at the time of writing, please ensure you check carefully before making any decisions based on the contents within this article.