At more than twice the size of the Lake District, the Cairngorms National Park is the largest national park in the UK – and arguably the most dramatically and desolately beautiful, too. With an average altitude of over 1,000 metres, and boasting five of the six highest peaks in the country, this is a wild landscape that inspires just as much as it invigorates. Packed with towering craggy mountains, churning rivers, breathtaking views and mysterious lochs, the Cairngorms has dozens of beauty spots to marvel at – but to get you inspired, here are eight of the best.
1. Craigellachie National Nature Reserve
The beating heart of the Cairngorms has got to be the town of Aviemore, which is popular for its close proximity to the many secret lochs, ancient forests and imposing mountains within the national park. While Aviemore itself is a bustling, touristy resort, it’s just a short walk from the tranquil haven of Craigellachie National Nature Reserve, which is the perfect spot for a gentle woodland stroll.
Packed with silver birch trees, open glades, quiet lochs, and craggy peaks that loom above the woodland, Craigellachie Nature Reserve is beautiful throughout the year – but in autumn, when the trees turn red and gold, it’s especially magnificent. There are several walks you can enjoy in the reserve, ranging from 0.7 km to 4.4 km, so there’s something that’s accessible for all. You can find out more about the walks here.
The reserve is known to be a great place to spot peregrine falcons, so you might want to keep your eyes turned to the sky as you walk! After a hike through this beautiful scenery, you may want to head into Aviemore and refuel in one of their many pubs, restaurants or cafes. You can find out more about what’s going on in town on the official Aviemore website.
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2. Uath Lochans
One of the most magical spots in the Cairngorms is also one of the region’s best-kept secrets. Uath Lochans (pronounced “wah lochans”) is a patchwork of small lochs hidden away in a beautiful forest, and it’s one of the loveliest places to head for a hike. Arriving at Uath Lochans (which is near the small town of Kingussie in the Scottish Highlands) takes a little bit of effort – you have to trek up a narrow, winding road – but it’s absolutely worth it, and when you reach your destination you may well experience a genuinely magical sense of wonder.
Surrounded by pine trees, and with the snow-covered Cairngorm peaks behind them, Uath Lochans weave their way between some of the prettiest woodland in the Cairngorms – and if you fancy exploring it on foot, you might want to do the Uath Lochans circular walk. The lochs were formed 10,000 years ago, when the ice retreated and left only the shimmering pools behind – and with its colourful wildflowers, hovering dragonflies, and peaceful silence, the site feels both timeless and ancient. If you want to get away from it all, you won’t find a more magical spot.
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3. Ben Macdui
If you’re an experienced hiker and fancy a challenge, you might want to think about climbing Ben Macdui, Britain’s second highest mountain. Ben Macdui is located in the centre of the vast Cairngorm plateau, an exposed arctic-like wilderness which is said to be one of the most inhospitable environments in the UK, as well as the wildest place in Scotland.
Don’t let that put you off though! Climbing Ben Macdui is possible for most people as long as they have a decent level of fitness (Queen Victoria climbed it in 1859), though you’ll need to be prepared for the elements and have strong navigation skills. The plateau is extremely exposed and difficult to navigate unless you’re lucky enough to hike in perfect conditions – plus, the entire route (which takes around five to six hours to complete) is on unprotected rock above the trees, where only alpine vegetation grows.
Still, if you decide to climb Ben Macdui, it’s definitely an experience you’ll remember for years to come, and from the summit you can enjoy incredible views of the Cairngorm mountains, including Lairig Ghru, Cairn Toul and Braeriach. Keep an eye out for birds including the golden eagle, dotterel, ptarmigan, and snow buntings, and perhaps for something a bit more sinister: the summit is said to be haunted by the wraith-like Big Grey Man.
To find out more about walking up Ben Macdui, head over to Mud and Routes – or you can use the buttons below to find accommodation in Aviemore (the centre of which is one mile away from Ben Macdui).
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4. The Linn o' Dee
One of the most famous beauty spots in the Cairngorms is the Linn o’Dee (located near Braemer, Ballater), which was a favourite spot of Queen Victoria, who loved to picnic here. Linn o’Dee is a narrow gorge that was formed by the River Dee, and it’s just as beautiful as it was in the Victorian times. Encircled by larch and pine trees, there are lots of lovely walking trails here, and the Linn o’Dee waterfall, where the river runs along a twisting channel and cascades into the rocky pools beneath, is still a perfect picnic spot.
Be sure to check out the Linn, a beautiful gothic-style stone bridge just upstream. Built by the 5th Earl of Mar, the bridge was opened by Queen Victoria in 1857, who wrote of drinking whisky in “prosperity to the bridge” – an act you may want to emulate (you are in whisky country, after all!). Do be aware that the Linn o’ Dee also has a reputation for being one of Scotland’s coldest places, so you might want to bring extra layers with you just in case (or a flask of warming local whisky!).
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5. Loch Morlich
Lochs aren’t exactly a rarity in the Cairngorms, but Loch Morlich stands out for two main reasons. The first is its location, which is one of the most beautiful settings of any loch in Scotland; fringed by both beaches and woodlands, with the snow-capped summits of the Northern Cairngorms rising behind, it’s a wonderful, peaceful place to spend a day.
The second reason Loch Morlich is so celebrated is because of it’s Scotland’s only award-winning freshwater beach, and it’s just as popular with watersports enthusiasts as it is with ramblers and photographers. If you’re looking to get active during your break, Loch Morlich is the place to come, and you can try stand up paddleboarding (SUP), kayaking, canoeing, and mountain biking at the outdoor centre. If you fancy taking a dip, the beach also has a designated bathing area.
Loch Morlich has lots of great walking trails too, and the trails that lead around the loch or through Glenmore Forest are among the best. On the eastern side of the loch you’ll also find the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre, where you can learn all about Britain’s only free-ranging herd of reindeer, who roam the Cairngorm mountains.
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6. Ruthven Barracks
If you’re interested in history and love visiting old castles, then you should definitely think about visiting Ruthven Barracks while you’re in the Cairngorms. Sprawled across a large rocky mound, Ruthven Barracks is an impressive infantry barracks that’s one of the most frequently-photographed historic sites in the country. Though it looks like a medieval castle, the Barracks was actually built in 1719 by George I, in reaction to the Jacobite rising of 1715.
History pervades this spot, as the Barracks are situated on the site of a medieval castle once owned by Alexander, the 1st Earl of Buchan, who went down in history as the ‘Wolf of Badenoch’. Visible for miles around, the strategic importance of the imposing Ruthven Barracks is clear to see – though it was burned and plundered by Bonnie Prince Charles and the Jacobites in 1746.
Today, only the ruined shell of the Barracks stands, but this makes the site look even more beautiful and mysterious. The Barracks are free to visit and open all year, so it’s a great spot to enjoy a walk and a fascinating history lesson. The site is just a mile from the small town of Kingussie, so you could begin your walk here, spend a few hours strolling around the countryside and exploring the Barracks, and then head back to Kingaussie – which is known for its excellent dining options.
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7. Laggan Beach
If you think you can’t enjoy a nice beachside break while in the Cairngorms, a visit to Laggan Loch should change your mind. Laggan Loch – which is to the West of Dalwhinnie in the Scottish Highlands – has the largest freshwater beach in the UK, and bordered by pine trees and rolling sand dunes, it’s a gorgeous spot to catch some rays on a sunny day – or even do a spot of swimming. If it’s not a clear day, the beach is just as beautiful a spot to take a walk.
If you were a fan of the BBC series Monarch of the Glen, you may well recognise Loch Laggan from the show, as many scenes were filmed along the South side of the loch. Just up from the loch is the grand Ardverikie House, a 19th-century baronial house that also featured in Monarch of the Glen, and is an imposing example of Victorian Gothic splendour. The house was also featured in the TV series Outlander, as well as The Crown, where it doubled as Balmoral Estate.
Though the house itself is privately owned, the public are welcome to walk around the estate, and you can spend hours here exploring the dense forests of this unspoilt wilderness. If you fancy trying your hand at some exhilarating outdoor activities, like quadbike safaris, Land Rover treks, archery or clay pigeon shooting, you can do this at the estate with Highland All-Terrain.
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8. Carrbridge Packhorse Bridge
One of the most iconic beauty spots in the Cairngorms is the old packhorse bridge, which is located in the pretty village of Carrbridge, just seven miles north of Aviemore. Built in 1717, the bridge was originally constructed to allow funeral processions to cross the River Dulnain and reach Duthil Church – and because of this, the bridge was known for years as ‘the coffin bridge’.
Today the bridge looks much more precipitous than it was back then: in 1839, a flood swept away the bridge parapets, leaving only a thin arch straddling the dark, peaty waters of the river as its thunders towards the River Spey. There’s a viewing platform at the bridge level, and if you fancy sitting by the water’s edge, there’s a set of steps leading to the river bank.
The best time to visit Carrbridge Packhorse Bridge is in autumn, when the leaves change colour and provide a stunning red, orange and gold backdrop – but this is a beauty spot that’s worth a visit any time of year. If you’re a keen photographer, you might want to think about visiting at dusk or dawn, when the bridge is illuminated and glows against the sky. The village of Carrbridge itself is worth a visit too, and has plenty of shops, pubs and restaurants to potter around or relax in. Head over to the Carrbridge website to find out more.
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With its ancient woodland, glittering lochs, open glades and dramatic mountains, the Cairngorms is undeniably one of the most wildly beautiful regions in the UK. Its jaw-dropping scenery makes it a haven for walkers and nature enthusiasts, or anyone looking to get away from it all and enjoy a unique sense of freedom and peace. But this remarkable region has plenty to offer visitors who want to get active, too, and there are plenty of exhilarating activities to try – from quad biking and clay pigeon shooting to canoeing and swimming. And finally, if you’re keen to enjoy some old-fashioned human interaction now that restrictions are loosening, the Cairngorms’ bustling towns and lively pubs are the perfect place to reconnect.
Have you visited the Cairngorms before, or are you hoping to visit this year? Do you have any of your own tips for Cairngorms beauty spots to share with our readers? We’d love to hear about your travel experiences! Leave us a comment below, or join the conversation on the Rest Less community forum.