To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the beautiful Cairngorms National Park we have compiled our bucket-list inspired top 20 things to do.
After all, who needs far-flung destinations and long, expensive flights to satisfy a craving to live your life to the full when you have all these treasures on your doorstep? Use this as inspiration to create your own Cairngorms list – we’d love to hear about them!
1. See the Northern Lights from two of the best spots in the world
The Cairngorms now has two official Dark Skies Park awards, after Tomintoul received the accolade a few years ago, joining the existing park at Glenlivet. This means that it is recognised as one of the best places to see the Northern lights due to its crystal clear skies and lack of interference from light pollution. The Tomintoul park has been handed ‘gold tier’ status in acknowledgement that it’s the darkest in the UK and the most northerly Dark Sky Park in the world, so for aurora-hunters in particular, a definite must-do.
2. Experience a Highland Games and delve into this Scottish tradition at Braemar’s centre
A Highland Games gathering is a ‘must see’ if you’re in the area in the summer season and, with ten Highland Games across the region, there’s plenty to choose from.
Gatherings feature Highland traditions such as traditional dancing, tossing the caber and tug o’ war, to rousing Scottish music and formidable marches from clans across the globe. The Braemar Highland Games Centre is dedicated to exploring and preserving these traditional Scottish sports.
Housed in the striking Duke of Rothesay Highland Games Pavilion, the exhibition offers up history, a gift shop and a fittingly elegant cafe. A definite must-do for anyone interested in history and the links between the Braemar Gathering and the Royals.
3. Dare to dip; wild swim in a Cairngorms loch!
If you are looking for experiences that really make you feel alive, then wild swimming in the Cairngorms should be right at the top of your bucket list. If you’ve never done it before, the buzz will continue long after your first dip – the colder, the better, according to Cairngorms Wild Swimmers club members! For more inspiration see this blog.
4. Work your way through the Cairngorms food bucket list
The Cairngorms is increasingly making a name for itself as a premier destination for fine locally-sourced food and drinks.
The Park is brimming with foodies who are passionate about eating well, and that includes sourcing quality homegrown ingredients, sourcing seasonally and reducing food miles and waste as much as possible. One of the most endearing qualities about the food scene here is the number of independent producers operating niche, artisan shops, from the likes of Braemar Chocolate shop to the Bothy Bakery, formerly Aviemore Mountain Cafe to Alvie Forest Food set outside amidst the pine trees at Dalraddy Holiday Park. There are also a growing number of food festivals celebrating local produce.
5. Drive the SnowRoads
This is a good one to satisfy those that like to break records because this stunning, scenic 90 mile route traverses the highest public road in Britain, the highest point being at Cairnwell Pass, 670m above sea level, by the Glenshee Ski Centre. The SnowRoads cuts through the Cairngorms from the market town of Blairgowrie to Grantown on Spey and takes in some of the park’s most striking landscapes, taking in Braemar, Ballater and Tomintoul on the way.
6. Discover our Castles
Explore the history of the Cairngorms from royal feuds to bloody Jacobite battles, Castles in the Cairngorms’ have a rich, chequered past. The Cairngorms boast an impressive number of castles, from standing ruins to lived-in residences.
7. A stay in the 5 star luxury hotel The Fife Arms
This former Victorian coaching inn situated in the historic village of Braemar is on our want-to-experience list because it is so uniquely Scottish and is guaranteed to give any guest a Highland stay they will never forget. The attention to detail is what makes this hotel so unique with, for example, bedrooms dedicated to celebrating great Scottish characters, from poets to scientists. Set in the stunning landscape of Royal Deeside, as well as the beautiful bedrooms, you can while away your time in the bar, restaurant, cocktail bar, library or garden, all lovingly crafted to give you a distinctive experience celebrating its local roots at every turn. Homogenous hotel chain experience – this is not!
8. Bag A Munro
With 43 Munros (mountains over 3,000ft) situated in the Cairngorms and 5 out of the 6 highest mountains having their home here, there is no shortage of routes to tackle. No matter what your experience level or scale of the expedition you want to undertake, you are guaranteed the most spectacular views. For more inspiration on what to climb see this blog.
There are lots of experienced local mountain guides who can take you out and help you conquer the mountains.
9. Have a tipple
The Cairngorms has long been associated with world class whisky but is fast becoming famous for its gin too. If you’re a fan, or just fancy a different distillery experience, why not visit the new Caorunn gin distillery at Balmenach, or the family run Persie Distillery near Glenshee, in the south of the Cairngorms.
10. Step back in time
There are plenty of places across the National Park that allow you to step back in time and escape the hub-bub of modern day living. Castles, museums, historic sites and even a walk through the spectacular countryside can leave you wondering about those who have gone before. If you want to learn more about Highland history then turn off your phone and immerse yourself in bygone years at the Highland Folk Museum (the setting for many of the scenes in Outlander).
11. Meet the locals
From red squirrels, Highland coos and Scottish wildcats to osprey, ptarmigan, Cairngorm reindeer and even the UK’s first polar bear cubs in 25 years born at our very own Highland Wildlife Park, there are plenty of creatures great and small to put on your must-see list. Take a walk and keep your eyes peeled as you will more often than not see wildlife on your rambles here in the Cairngorms. For guaranteed sightings visit the Wildlife Park near Kincraig or Cairngorm Reindeer Centre at Glenmore. Book a wildlife guide to take you to the best places.
12. Follow in the steps of the Outlaw King and other movie stars
Create your own movie memories and walk in the footsteps of some movie giants. From Disney Pixar’s ‘Brave’ to the gruesome ‘Centurion’to the World War II set ‘Outlander’, and most recently, Netlfix’s Outlaw King, the Cairngorms National Park has long been a magnet for the silver screen. It’s not hard to see why the area has provided film directors with inspiration – sweeping landscapes, ragged mountain tops, rolling hills and picturesque villages – we have it all. For more inspiration see our movie blog here.
13. Take to the ice
The Cairngorms National Park really is ‘Where winter comes to life’! Ice has returned to Aviemore after 22 years and there is no better place to experience the thrill of the chill. Centrally located within the Macdonald Aviemore Resort, Aviemore Ice Rink offers plenty of fun for guests of all ages. Rain, wind or snow won’t stop the skating as the ice rink is housed within a large marquee with an alpine theme with plenty of room for skaters and spectators to take those selfies. Daily public skating sessions as well as fun Ice Discos and Snow Parties are on offer! You can also try introductory sessions to Curling and Ice Hockey. There are bob-skates available for little ones as well as Penguin and Polar Bear skating aids to help guests stay steady on the ice.
14. Love it like a local
There are plenty of places to head to ‘off the beaten track’ and when you live within the Cairngorms National Park there is nothing better than finding that quiet, untouched place – whether that be cutting the first tracks in fresh snow on a winter’s day or mountain biking out to a lonely bothy for some wild camping. To find out about the best places to discover head to the local and get chatting over a pint of Cairngorm beer – you’re certain to glean all manner of nuggets of information! The Old Bridge Inn in Aviemore is a perfect spot.
15. Ski Touring
Ski touring has soared in popularity lately, no doubt due to the feeling of delicious escape into the wilderness of the Cairngorms’ hidden nooks and crannies that it provides. What feels like freedom more than floating down a Scottish mountain, turns flowing through powder snow?
If you haven’t tasted the joys of this sport, then there is no better place to try it than under the expert, passionate guidance of a Glenmore Lodge instructor. The centre is world renowned for its teaching, having been in the business for over 60 years, and a course on ski touring would cover the blend of mountaineering and skiing skills necessary for touring. Check out Glenmore Lodge’s website and book an experience to look forward to! Courses of all levels, from beginner to expert, available. As Adrian Wood, who did Glenmore’s ‘Discover Ski Touring‘ 2 day course says: “One of my best days on the hill.”
16. Discover Badenoch the Storylands
The area of Badenoch in the Cairngorms National Park, in particular, is steeped in stories. For example, there’s tales of bygone battles, artists who’ve been inspired by its stunning scenery and colourful characters that have lived in its communities – all these influences have shaped the landscape over the years.
By downloading the ‘Badenoch The Storylands’ app, you have all these stories at your fingertips, told in a variety of ways including audio, augmented reality re-creations, music, maps and walks.
17. Take to Two Wheels
One of the best ways to explore the Cairngorms is on a bike! If you would like to cycle gentle family trails, set out on gravel biking journeys or experience adrenaline stoked trail centres in a stunning natural environment then the Cairngorms is THE place to come…. we have two trail centres – Bike Glenlivet and Laggan Wolftrax, a pump track at Boat of Garten and the new Bike Park at Cairngorm Mountain. There is also the Speyside and Deeside Way and many, many off road adventures to be had. Discover lots of brilliant routes for all levels of ability on our RidewithGPS account.
18. Visit the Royal Family
The Cairngorms has long been a favourite retreat with the Royal Family. Throughout the year (except for August when the Royal family are in residence) Balmoral Castle is open to the public.
19. Glamping in the Cairngorms
After so much adventure to be had in the Cairngorms, lay your weary limbs down under the stars in style and comfort. The ultimate glamping experience, embrace the slower Highland pace of life.
20. Eat cake!
There are so many adventures to be had throughout the Cairngorms National Park and to fuel those adventures we are incredible lucky to have some amazing cafes throughout the communities that make up the Cairngorms. Hazelnut Patisserie in Braemar is one of the best if cake is your thing. Be sure to check opening hours if travelling specialy…. Locals will keep you right in your quest for good cake so always get the insiders guide and have a chat with the friendly folk of the Cairngorms.