Cairngorms National Park in the heart of the Scottish Highlands is the largest national park in the United Kingdom. In these expansive rural mountains, there’s no shortage of wilderness and wildlife to keep you company. But don’t fret, welcoming Scottish civilization is never very far away. Cairngorms National Park is the perfect escape from Great Britain’s most popular cities.
History of Cairngorms National Park
Cairngorms National Park was designated in 2003, which is relatively young compared to some American National Parks. However, the Cairngorms represent thousands of years of Celtic and Pictish heritage. Castles, ancient ruins and historic sites are sprinkled throughout the park. Roughly 20,000 Scots call the park home year-round. Cairngorms is a Gaelic word which roughly translates to “blue hills.” In Gaelic, the park is also sometimes called “Am Monadh Ruadh,” which means “russet mountains” in English.
Getting to Cairngorms and other parts of the Scottish Highlands is simple. Catch a bus or train from major cities like Edinburgh, Glasgow and London, and disembark in any number of small towns along the way. Or, ride all the way north to Inverness. For this trip, we hopped on a train from Edinburgh’s Waverly Station to the small town of Aviemore. On our return journey, we opted to take a Megabus. Both trips took less than three hours. While the train is more comfortable, the bus is more scenic. Both options were easy, affordable and more eco-friendly than driving a personal car.
Where to Stay
The Cairngorms region is dotted with quaint towns that welcome visitors from around the world year-round. Aviemore, a small ski town located on the western edge of Cairngorms National Park, served as our home away from home during our brief stay. The town is full of lodging options, from the warm and rustic Cairngorms Hotel to cozy chalets. The area also has campgrounds, RV parks and inns. We opted for an adorable “tiny house” style Airbnb located just a few blocks from the Aviemore Railway Station.
Things to Do
Aviemore dates back to the 1600s but didn’t see significant growth until the development of the railroad in the 1800s. The next economic boom came when the town was redeveloped as a ski resort in the 1960s. After falling on difficult economic times several decades ago, the area was revitalized as an all-season outdoor enthusiast hub. In winter, skiing is still popular, in addition to all-season activities like hiking, cycling, mountain biking, horseback riding, fishing, and water sports.
For our short stay, we rented mountain bikes and cycled around the various lochs in the area. Electric bikes are available from several outfitters and allow you to travel even further, faster. Advance reservations are highly recommended during the busy summer months. Whether you opt for standard or e-bike, cycling is a marvelous way to see Cairngorms National Park. Scotland has a world-class network of cycling paths and trails that span the country, especially the Highlands. Our outfitter, In Your Element, provided us with a helpful map of the area.
In just a few hours, we pedaled to three gorgeous lakes. The first, Loch Morlich, is a popular place for paddle boarding and water sports. Next, we continued up the mountain trail to Loch en Greine. Here, folklore says that the teal waters come from woodland fairies. Last, we saw Loch en Eilen, where the 13th Century ruins of Loch en Eilen Castle sit on an island in the middle of the loch. For longer journeys and unexpected weather, keep an eye out for bothies. These primitive shelters are a staple of outdoor adventures in Scotland. They’re available for anyone to use and provide protection and respite for weary hikers and cyclists.
There are plenty of ways to enjoy Cairngorms National Park and the Scottish Highlands. Don’t forget to pack your all-weather clothing and appreciation for the great outdoors.