Cairngorms National Park

Cairngorms National Park is a national park in Scotland. It spans the mountains between Highlands region and Aberdeenshire, plus smaller areas of Angus, Perth and Kinross, and Moray. The park takes its name from the Cairn Gorm or “Blue Mountain” and surrounding peaks and plateaux, but it also includes the Monadhliath & Grampian ranges to the east, the Angus Glens, and the upper valleys of the Spey, Dee and Tay.

The park has no entry fees or gates. Permits may be required for activities such as fishing, and there are various commercially-run activities such as skiing and pony-trekking. But most of what the park has to offer is free, not least the scenery.

Most accommodation, eating and similar facilities are in the small towns listed below, especially Aviemore. This page describes facilities that range across the park, or that aren’t close to any settlement.

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The Cairngorms

The Cairngorms are essentially a huge block of granite. During the Ice Age, the ice sat on top but didn’t move. Elsewhere in Britain (e.g. in the English Lake District) it carved out U-shaped valleys and other distinctive glacial features; here, with the exception of a few narrow valleys such as Lairig Ghru, it just polished the block into a series of rounded tops of similar height. So what was left behind was a plateau at 1000-1200 m altitude, with the peaks of Ben Macdui (1309 m), Braeriach (1296 m), Cairn Toul (1291 m) and Cairn Gorm (1244 m).

This creates a habitat for hardy plants and animals that are common in sub-arctic countries but rare in Britain. It’s too cold, stony and steep for agriculture, and the Caledonian forests in the valleys represent the last stand of the primeval forest that once cloaked Scotland. Modern times have seen encroachment by sheep-farming, game hunting and forestry, and climate change has become appreciated as a threat. The area was therefore protected in 2003 by designation as a national park. It’s a remarkable wilderness, interspersed by lochs, rivers, woodland and moors. Wildlife includes crossbills, ospreys, capercaillie, golden eagles, red deer, red squirrels, otters, and mountain hare. Highlights include:

  • the Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber), with some 500 now inhabiting the Tay valley; likeliest sightings are May-Aug at Loch of the Lowes above Dunkeld.
  • a free-roaming herd of reindeer (Rangifer tarandus), about 150 between Cairngorm and Glenlivet; usually just a distant smudge on the moor, but they may come snuffling up for hand-outs.
  • you will be very lucky to spot the Scottish wildcat (Felis silvestris silvestris), or be sure that it’s not just a burly domestic cat – they interbreed enthusiastically and there may be only a few dozen “pure” wildcats out there.

Room for any more? As the UK’s largest park, with an area of 4,528 km2 (1,748 sq mi), the Cairngorms may be suitable for re-introduction of long-extinct species such as lynx, wolves, and even bears. But this has to be balanced against its IUCN designation as a “Category 5” area, where farming and commercial activity are permitted, and tourism is encouraged, within sustainable limits. The family picnic remains safe for now.

The main service town and access point for the western, larger side of the park is 57.2-3.8281 Aviemore, which straggles into Coylumbridge.

Other small settlements along or near the main road A9 are 56.767-3.8421 Blair Atholl, Dalwhinnie, Laggan, Newtonmore, 57.081-4.051 Kingussie and 57.284-3.8151 Carrbridge.

Going down the Spey Valley east from Aviemore are Boat of Garten, Dulnain Bridge and 57.33-3.611 Grantown on Spey.

The east side of the park, mostly in Aberdeenshire, is smaller and has fewer facilities, and most visitors come on day-trips.

Small places along the Dee valley are Ballater and 57.006-3.3991 Braemar.

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