The hulking mountains of the Cairngorms are where you’ll find some of the wildest landscapes in Britain – and some of its most challenging, rewarding hiking.
The Cairngorms is Britain’s wildest national park, and it contains some of Britain’s most testing – and rewarding – hiking and hillwalking.
In many instances, climbing the hulking, glacier-bitten granite mountains that make up the huge, roadless fastness of the central Cairngorms – Britain’s largest continuous area of high ground, a sub-arctic plateau studded with high lochans, plunging corries and rocky peaks – can often involve seriously long days or even overnights, and that’s before you even factor in the often-ferocious climate.
But lower down in the glens, walkers can also find much gentler delights: gemlike lochans, picturesque waterfalls, and some of the largest surviving remnants of the Caledonian pine forest that once carpeted Scotland.
The Cairngorms and the Northern Corries
The Northern Corries are one of the most visible spectacles in the Cairngorms, a great wall of glacier-carved, amphitheatre-like crags looking out over Strathspey, and the roads snaking up towards the skiing infrastructure make this one of the most popular jumping-off points for walkers looking to get into the big mountains. The classic round of Cairn Gorm (1245 metres / 4084 feet) and Cairn Lochan takes around 5 – 6 hours and is a high loop around the mighty granite crags of Coire an t-Scneachda and Coire an Lochan – some of the most impressive mountain architecture in Scotland.
Meall a’ Buachaille
Meall a’ Buachaille (804 metres / 2637 feet) is a modest hill by Cairngorms standards, but it’s a great place to start if you’re new to the region, with its manageable feel and its all-encompassing views of the Northern Corries to the south. The circuit to the hill’s summit from Glenmore via An Lochan Uaine (about 4 hours) is one of arguably one of Scotland’s prettiest hillwalks, with the gorgeous green lochan and stretches of Caledonian pine forest – which push almost to the top of the hill – giving a glimpse into what feels like a lost world.
Sgor Gaoith from Glen Feshie
This walk in the slightly lesser-visited western side of the national park embodies many of the characteristics that make the Cairngorms distinct. It starts amid the beautiful pinewoods of Glen Feshie; climbs up across austere slopes leading to a high plateau; and then reaches a summit where the land suddenly plunges down in a head-spinningly sheer fashion to Loch Eanaich, which sits in a glacier-carved trough surrounded by stern crags a whole 600 metres (2000 feet) below. After taking the most direct path to the summit you can return via Geal Charn for a satisfying circuit (around 6 hours).
Loch Morlich circuit
The Cairngorms isn’t all about the big mountains. Fringed by beaches, Loch Morlich is one of the most beautifully situated bodies of water anywhere in Britain, and it also sits in the heart of the Rothiemurchus forest, one of the largest remaining areas of the native Caledonian pinewood that once carpeted Scotland. A wander around it is a beautiful – albeit often busy – way to while away a couple of hours, offering a 360 degree panorama of the surrounding mountains and forest mirrored in the water as you make your way around.
The Lairig Ghru
This mighty mountain pass climbs runs right through the heart of the Cairngorms, connecting Speyside to Deeside, and is flanked by some of grandest, highest mountains in Scotland, including Ben Macdui and Braeriach. The walk through it from Coylumbridge to Linn of Dee is doable in a day, at around 30 kilometres (19 miles) and 8 – 10 hours. There are public transport options to get back in summer, but they aren’t great – you could instead consider linking the Lairig Ghru with the Lairig Laoigh, another beautiful pass through the mountains, to make a deservedly classic 2 – 3 backpacking loop.
Ben Macdui and Derry Cairngorm
Brooding and sprawling, Ben Macdui (1309 metres, 4295 feet) is the overlord of the Cairngorms: the range’s loftiest peak and Britain’s second highest mountain. Remotely positioned in the heart of the Cairngorms, it is a hulk of a mountain – unforgiving, hard-won and positively brutal in winter. The best approach is from the Linn of Dee, a 30km (19 mile) route across the exposed plateau. After an easy first 5km to Derry Lodge (which can be cycled), it’s a stiff climb to Derry Cairngorm’s conical summit (1155 metres, 3789 feet) before a steady ascent to Ben Macdui and a long walk out via the Sron Riach ridge.
Cairn Toul and Braeriach traverse
Following the edge of vast plateau, high above the Cairngorms’ most imposing corries, the Cairn Toul-Braeriach traverse is a mammoth 36km route with almost 2,000 metres of ascent. Super-fit (and sadomasochistic) hikers walk it in a day, but a preferable approach is to stop overnight at Corrour Bothy. From the Sugar Bowl car park, day one is a 15km warm-up via Chalamain Gap and the Lairig Ghru, which means all the action comes on day two: four Munros – The Devil’s Point, Cairn Toul, The Angels’ Peak (Sgor an Lochain Uaine) and Braeriach – and some truly arduous yet spectacular hillwalking.
Beinn Mheadhoin (1182 metres, 3878 feet) is an often-overlooked Munro that doesn’t get the adulation (or crowds) of its more-famed neighbours. It has a remote, secluded feel, as if the mountain is hiding secretly behind loftier surrounding peaks, and these higher summits prevent an easy approach. From the Cairngorm Mountain ski centre, you almost have to ascend and descend Cairn Gorm just get to the base of Beinn Mheadhoin – but the slog is worth it. You’ll experience the far-flung Loch Avon basin, the much-photographed Shelter Stone boulder and the idyllic Loch Etchachan, while Beinn Mheadhoin’s summit is crowned by dramatic granite tors.
Billed as one of the jewels of the southern Cairngorms, the Lochnagar hills are positioned compactly enough to enable a high-level, summit-bagging walk that can be tackled in a day. The White Mounth round, or Loch Muick circuit if you prefer, ticks off five Munros (Cac Carn Beag, Carn a’Choire Bhaidheach, Carn an t’Sagairt Mor, Cairn Bannoch and Broad Cairn) in a 28km (17 miles) loop from the Spittal of Glenmuick – and you’ll be surprised at how easily the Munros are bagged. Once on the plateau, the walking is joyously simple, and that’s rare in Scotland.
Uath Lochans and Farleitter Crag
Famed for its rewilding projects and efforts to restore native woodland, Glen Feshie is a real gem – and you don’t have to slog up towering Munros to experience its delights. This simple, low-level walk (5km, 3 miles) only takes about two hours. It visits four small lochans set among the pines of Inshriach Forest and also climbs to the craggy edge of Creag Far-leitire for glorious views. Once completed, you could always head for a night at Ruigh Aiteachain bothy, one of Scotland’s finest and an ideal way to immerse yourself in Glen Feshie.
WORDS: Carey Davies and James Forrest