The Cairngorms National Park is easily the largest national park in Britain, extending over 1,400 square miles. That is an awful lot of space, a glorious wildscape that really comes into its own in winter as other parts of the country go into hibernation.
The Cairngorms are a truly epic landscape, home to five of Britain’s six highest mountains. There are also sweeps of moorland, thick Caledonian Forest and gushing rivers to admire, all looking their best under a sheen of snow. This wildscape is alive with all manner of wildlife in winter, which you can spot, from the mighty red deer, through to the UK’s only heard of wild reindeer and on to mountain hares in their stark white winter hue.
This epic landscape is packed with things to see and do. Handily you can plan your adventures from the cosy surrounds of the Aviemore Youth Hostel. Last year, Scotland’s Natural Nature Reserves opened a visitor centre opened right here at the youth hostel. The staff are also great are helping you plan all your Cairngorms activities too. Look out also for Cairngorm Lodge, which lies deep in the wilds of the national park, another hostel that is perfectly set up for exploring the great outdoors. What are you waiting for? The winter delights of the Cairngorms are calling – here are my top 5 winter activities…
1. Ski or Snowboard
Natural Retreats Cairngorm Mountain is set on the edge of the finest arctic wilderness in the UK, the massive snow and ice plateau of the Cairngorms. The UK’s highest mountain railway – and Scotland’s only funicular - zips up to the main activity centre, with a flurry of ski lifts then on hand to take those looking for even greater tests on to the higher slopes and the challenging off piste action. The drop between the funicular stations is over 400m, with the longest ski run over 3km. There is a freestyle park too for those looking to perfect their skills. These days the ski centre is very much open to snowboarders too, with hire and tuition available for both skiers and snowboarders.
2. Enjoy Epic Mountain Walking
The Cairngorms offer myriad walking delights. You can enjoy a winter wonderland hiking in the snow drenched forests of the park in the Rothiemurchus Estate, but for a real challenge it is up on to the famous Cairngorm mountain plateau.. It is often a challenge in summer and downright dangerous in winter unless you are well equipped (we are talking ice axes and crampons and knowing how to use them) and experienced. Even then I recommend going with a guide, which can be arranged at the hostels. The rewards for your efforts? Well, I’ll leave that for you to be utterly blown away by!
3. Savour a Sled-dog Ride
I am not joking! In the Cairngorms you can get on a sleigh and be pulled along by real life sled dogs at the Cairngorm Sled-dog Centre. This is the only daily working sled-dog centre in the UK (and one of only five in Europe), so it really is a unique experience. The rides bash along through the forests and tracks in the foothills of the bigger mountains, with jaw-dropping views to enjoy and all sorts of nature to look out for. It feels like a scene from a movie being part of a sled-dog ride and you’ll probably have to keep pinching yourself that you really are still in the Cairngorms! I like that it is family-run business too and the Stewarts are always very welcoming. If you’re really keen they even run longer courses that help you learn about husky dog handling and care.
4. Pony Trekking
You might presume that the Cairngorm National Park’s popular pony operators are closed all winter, but not so in the Rothiemurchus Estate where their trekking and hacking centre opens from the beginning of February right up until the end of November. A pony ride is a great way to get a feel for the Cairngorms. As you settle into the saddle and gentle rhythm, of a pony ride the views start to unfold right in front of you. I’ve done a couple of pony and horse rides in the Cairngorms and they are great fun for all ages, whether you are six or sixty.
5. Take in the Views
There is a lovely low level walk around Loch an Eilein that I thoroughly recommend. This dreamily romantic loch comes with views across its waters to a wee island with a castle ruin that makes it feel very cinematic. A few miles away Loch Morlich is another stunner with the Cairngorm mountains at their best viewed across the (sometimes frozen) waters. The most dramatic introduction to the Cairngorms National Park is the aforementioned highest mountain railway in Britain. In eight minutes it whisks you safely up the slopes of the mountain of Cairngorm itself to a height that many people would struggle to hike to especially at this time of year. The visitor centre awaits you at the top complete with viewing points and both the UK’s highest café and restaurant, the Ptarmigan. The views from up here are jaw-dropping as the Cairngorms National Park unfurls all around.
Biography for Robin McKelvie
Robin McKelvie (www.robinmckelvie.com) is a Scottish travel writer, broadcaster and blogger who has been covering his native land since the 1990s. A member of the British Guild of Travel Writers, Robin is the author of a number of guidebooks, including National Geographic’s Scotland guide. He regularly contributes to a variety of newspapers and magazines across five continents, such as the Times and the Scotsman, as well as doing travel slots for BBC radio. Robin can be found on Twitter at www.twitter.com/robinmckelvie.