The Cairngorms National Park is a huge natural adventure playground, with incredible scenery, outdoor activities galore, and some of the most unspoilt landscapes in the UK. Wildlife-watching, great food and drink, stargazing and some iconic driving roads are just a few of the reasons we love it - and we're sure you will too!
Image: VisitScotland / Kenny Lam
The Cairngorms National Park is an outdoor enthusiast's paradise - it's simply impossible to run out of things to do outside in this incredible natural playground.
Long-distance hikers can enjoy the rewarding 65-mile Cateran Trail on the Perthshire/Angus border, and the hikes in Glen Livet are also exceptional. Wherever you are, and whatever your fitness level, you'll be sure to find a suitable walk with stunning views. Munro-baggers will find themselves spoilt for choice as well, with Ben Macdui (1,309m) the crowning glory and Cairn Gorm also very popular. The long (20-mile round trip) up Cairn Toul is well worth it if you have the time and inclination, whilst quicker and easier options include Sgor Gaoith, Mount Keen (one of the best for beginners) and Beinn Dearg, known for its pink-tinged granite summit. If you're pushed for time and want two for the price of one, try Driesh & Mayar. Always check the local conditions and mountain weather forecast, and make sure you take the right equipment to stay safe on the mountains.
Adrenaline-seekers will go wild for places like Highland Fling Bungee Jumping at Killiecranke (40m freefall). Treezone Aviemore on the Rothiemurcus Estate will test even those with a head for heights, and Craggan Outdoor offers a range of exploits on and off the water, from boating and fishing to climbing and golf.
For families, the combination of rides, playparks and outdoor exploits at Landmark Forest Adventure Park is hard to beat.
The areas around Loch Insh and Loch Morlich are watersports hotspots in the Cairngorms, with enthusiasts flocking here in their thousands each year. There's a good range of activities and areas to explore from beginner to advanced level, including canoeing, kayaking, paddleboarding, sailing and even pedalos!
For those wanting a more bespoke experience, Outdoor Explore in Blairgowrie offers expertly guided kayaking across a range of locations in Scotland, with a special focus on the southern Cairngorms area.
Pitlochry is an excellent area for fishing and boating, and Loch Faskally boating station is a good place to start.
Mountain biking & road cycling
The Cairngorms is a real treat for mountain bikers, with miles upon miles of forest and mountain trails for all abilities. There are centres in Glenlivet, Laggan, The Lecht and Tarland where you can get advice and plan routes, as well as hire any equipment you need or a guide to take with you.
Road cycling is also very pleasant in the area - some of the stretches are hilly and challenging, whilst others are more level and punctuated by cafes at regular intervals to stop and refuel. The Snow Roads route is a great drive, and a fabulous road cycle for those who love a challenge - 90 miles on the highest roads in the country is not for the faint-hearted but the views will certainly help with motivation!
Winter sports & activities
Being up at altitude certainly has its benefits. The Cairngorms National Park offers the very best skiing and snowsports opportunities in the whole of the UK, with three separate ski resorts located here (of the five in Scotland in total).
Conditions vary by day, week and year, but when the snow does come, the area is very well set-up to help people take full advantage of it. Cairngorm Mountain is the best and most popular area for skiing and snowboarding as it's the highest and holds the snow well. The Lecht (best for families and beginners) and Glenshee (the largest and most varied wintersports area, and home of the famous Tiger black ski run) are also worth a visit. You can hire equipment directly at the resorts or in the surrounding towns and villages (especially Aviemore). You can either set out on your own with a lift pass or book some lessons first to get yourself read for the piste.
Whilst it operates year-round, the Sleddog Centre in Aviemore is fabulous in the winter snow when the dogs are in their element. As well as experiencing the thrill of a sleddog team in training, visitors can learn about the care and conditioning of these very special animals and take part in their own training sessions using the dedicated facilities.
Nature & Wildlife
The Cairngorms National Park is a haven for wildlife. With relatively low human population density, particularly in the middle of the park, this is the perfect place for rare species to thrive.
Raptors do really well here and can often be seen on a day out in the park. There are 14 species of raptor and four owl species in the Cairngorms, and ospreys are especially abundant.
Red squirrels are another species that thrives in the Cairngorms and can be seen all over, in contrast to their comparative rarity elsewhere. They're especially common in the area around Rothiemurcus.
Much rarer species exist in the park, but they will require a great deal more luck and patience to see. The Scottish wildcat is under extreme threat, but they still live in the Cairngorms, and there is a conservation project underway to help conserve the species.
Almost exclusive to the Cairngorms National Park and surrounding area is the curious capercaillie - a whopping 80% of the UK's total population lives here in the park. There are none at all outside Scotland. Roughly the size of a turkey, the males are black with distinctive red eyebrows and a fanned tail, whilst females are brown and speckled. You'll certainly know a male capercaillie if you encounter one, especially if they happen to be in the middle of a 'lek', an elaborate courtship ritual performed (noisily) in a specific site to attract a mate.
You can find the latest information about the various conservation projects underway and the best places to see certain species by visiting one or more of the dedicated visitor centres in the park.
Nature and views
There are too many incredible views in the park to list them all - make sure you leave plenty of time if you're driving or hiking in the park, as you'll want to stop and take photos or marvel at the ever-improving scenery surrounding you. Mountains, forests, lochs, and big open skies will take your breath away at every turn.
Some of the loveliest views to seek out in the park include Loch Uaine ("green loch", so-called for its distinctive bright green colour). Another 'classic Cairngorms' view is the one of (or from) Nethy Bridge, a pretty forest village with a distinctive wooden bridge across the River Spey. Muir of Dinnet National Nature Reserve is full of fairytale beauty with its woodland glades and waterfalls, and Mar Lodge Estate also has some incredible walks and views. Finally, if you have the time and fitness to tackle one of the Munros in the park, you'll be rewarded on a clear day with views of the most incredible landscape you'll have ever encountered.
As well as abundant wildlife, there are also some less wild animals to visit and spend time within the Cairngorms National Park.
A highlight is the herd of tame reindeer, Britain's only free-ranging herd of over 100. You can take a walk to visit them on the hill and watch them going about their day, or for a more leisurely option, you can meet and greet some of the reindeer in their paddock at the exhibition centre.
Other popular activities for families and animal lovers are to take a Hairy Coo Safari from Rothiemurcus, visit the llamas at Glenshee Ecocamp or visit the array of native and non-native species at the Highland Wildlife Park near Kingussie.
Dark skies and stargazing
As if there wasn't enough to do by day, the low population density in the Cairngorms National Park means low light pollution and excellent stargazing conditions. This is the case in most of the park, but especially in the area of Glenlivet & Tomintoul, where you'll find the UK's most northerly Dark Sky Park.
Castles are synonymous with Scotland, and you'll find stunning examples in most parts of the country. The Cairngorms National Park has a few of the most impressive ones.
There's no better place to start than Balmoral Castle, the royal family's Scottish home. You can step inside the castle to see the glorious ballroom, and you'll find a variety of works of art and sculpture on display. You can also take a walk in the formal gardens, which were originally supervised by Prince Albert and have grown and expanded ever since.
Close to Pitlochry at the southern end of the Cairngorms is Blair Castle, a beautiful building with white walls and turrets fit for any fairytale. You can visit and tour the inside of the castle and walk in the gardens (including one with a sculpture trail and a 9-acre walled garden) and grounds, drinking in the incredible setting.
Braemar Castle's grey stone facade is quite imposing at first sight, but at its heart, it's a warm and friendly community-run project which has grown into a popular and successful tourist attraction. You can visit the inside of the castle, and guided tours are available. As if one castle wasn't enough for a small village, you can also tour the ruins of Kindrochit Castle in the centre of Braemar.
Corgarff Castle has one of the most striking settings of all Scottish castles. It's a medieval tower house that still sits in isolation which only adds to the atmosphere. It's well worth the journey and is impressive in all lights and weathers.
If it's not enough for you to visit a castle, why not stay in one? Fonab Castle near Pitlochry is a stunning example of a 5* hotel located in and around a beautiful Scottish castle building. Poised on the edge of a loch with beautiful woodland all around, this is a stunning setting, and a stay here will certainly be a highlight of any trip to Scotland.
Besides the wonderful collection of castles to be found in this area, there are many other historical and cultural attractions that are not to be missed. These include the open-air Highland Folk Museum and the Highland Games Centre at Braemar, celebrating the history of the Braemar Gathering and the broader Highland Games traditions.
The nature, wildlife, and outdoor pursuits of the Cairngorms National Park are widely known, but perhaps a little more unexpected is this area's status as an artistic and creative hub. It's no wonder that the scenery inspires, though, and for many of the artists it forms the central theme of their work.
There's a cluster of small fine art galleries around the village of Braemar in the east and Kingussie in the north-west of the park, and another collection close to Pitlochry in the south. These are a mix of styles and sizes and old and new, and visiting and browsing a few of them is a wonderful way for any art lover to spend part of a day.
A few of our favourites on the eastern side of the Cairngorms include The Butterworth Gallery near Aboyne and the Braemar Gallery. Although not technically a gallery, the Fife Arms Hotel, whose walls, ceilings and halls are a vibrant celebration of art of all types and generations, is also in the area. It's well worth stopping off for a coffee or lunch to view and appreciate the incredible art in these grand surroundings. In the north-west, try 1896 in Boat of Garten, the Carrbridge Studio in Carrbridge, and in Kingussie, the Iona Gallery, Chapel House Arts and Eleven41.
A highlight of the calendar is the annual Braemar Creative Arts Festival, which sees exhibitions, events, workshops and entertainment taking place across the area to celebrate the arts.
For a quick bite to eat between activities, you could do a lot worse than the Rothiemurcus Estate Farm Shop, or if you're over the other side of the park, try Taste Coffee Shop & Deli in Braemar. KJ's Bothy Bakery in Grantown on Spey is well-known for being especially good at accommodating special dietary requirements such as gluten-free and vegan. The owner, an intrepid Newzealander (known as the 'Kiwi in the Cairngorms') relocated after the 2020 pandemic forced closure of their popular Mountain Cafe in Aviemore.
There are many excellent community and farmers' markets in the Cairngorms area, including the one at Blairgowrie and the Cairngorms Farmers' Market in Grantown-on-Spey. This land is incredible for growing produce, and the locals more than make the most of it - this is no more evident than when you get the chance to sample it yourself whilst visiting the area.
If you're looking for a proper sit-down dinner, the jewel in the crown is the Clunie Dining Room at the Fife Arms, or the more informal Flying Stag pub, if you're not up for the full works including tasting menu. Non-residents can enjoy the fine dining delights on offer here, but you'll need to book in advance to avoid disappointment. Other very special dinner venues include the Loch Kinord Hotel near Aboyne and the Cross at Kingussie.
For a great food-themed activity, check out the cooking classes on offer from Ghillie Basan, whose cookery shows influences from childhood in East Africa, teenage years in the Scottish Highlands and professional training in London. Day and residential workshops are available.
This is by no means exhaustive; you could practically write a book about food in the Cairngorms! Let us know if you think we've missed anywhere.
The Cairngorms National Park has some world-favourite whisky distilleries within its boundaries. We've covered some of these in detail in our separate destination guides to Speyside and it's top whisky destinations.
Thus far, one distillery not covered by our guides is Dalwhinnie, which just narrowly misses out on the title of the highest distillery in Scotland. At 1,154ft, it's pipped to the post by Braeval distillery in Glen Livet (1,163ft). However it's the highest one with a visitor centre, so that ought to count for something! The setting of Dalwhinnie is incredible - nestled in amongst the mountains in the heart of the Cairngorms, it's definitely one of the most impressive locations of all the Scottish whisky distilleries. There's a large shop, a visitor's centre and regular tours of the distillery, as well as innovative tasting options, including their legendary 'whisky and chocolate' masterclass, which is not to be missed!
Just a mile from Balmoral Castle is Royal Lochnagar distillery lives up to its grand surroundings in more than just name. While touring the distillery, you'll get to see and hear about all stages of the whisky-making process that take place on-site and take home samples to enjoy.
Whilst Speyside and the wider area around the Cairngorms are absolutely packed with stellar whisky destinations, that's not the only interesting thing in the drinks world here.
Aptly-named Cairngorm Gin Company does what it says on the tin, producing a promising premium spirit inspired by the grand surroundings and packed with locally-sourced botanicals, including Scots pine. Combined with the fresh waters of the River Spey, the traditional copper pot still named 'Ginger', a floral and fruity flavour and the water used is from the River Spey.
Persie Distillery at Bridge of Cally at the 'foot of Glenshee' is one of the more innovative gin producers in Scotland at the moment. You can drop in for a visit, book a tour or even hold your own bespoke private tasting. The friendly team don't take themselves too seriously, but they certainly take their small-batch craft gin range extremely seriously. The eye-catching labels and intriguing logo shows you straight away that this is something a little bit different. Good different, we think!
Also worth a mention while discussing the local drinks scene is the Cairngorm Brewery, based in Aviemore and producing a range of award-winning craft beers and ales. You can visit, tour the brewery, drop into the shop and have a chat with the team, who will be more than happy to help you choose the best beer to suit your tastes!