At the weekend, we decided to go and explore the Cairngorms; an area of relative wilderness that is only just into the Highlands, but has some dramatic scenery and superb hiking. The edges of the Cairngorms are also peppered with pretty little towns and villages, many of which have excellent hiking shops, cosy pubs, distilleries, and other attractions.
Since it was our first time hiking the Cairngorms together, we decided to do the obvious thing and hike Cairn Gorm itself; a popular Munro (though not in fact the tallest in the Cairngorms) that can be easily climbed from the Cairngorms ski centre with its cafe, shop, toilets, large car park and other useful amenities. Usually, a funicular railway can be taken to a similarly well-appointed centre just short of the top of Cairn Gorm, although currently both the railway and the higher centre are closed. In any case, we’re here to hike not to take a train. Even doing the walk is, while pretty, a little too short and easy and misses some of the more dramatic scenery in the area, so we decided to extend our hike to a roughly 7 mile look that takes in the northern Corries and eventually descends the short route from Cairn Gorm back to the car park. This makes for an excellent hike that is pretty and relatively straightforward in good conditions – although could certainly be difficult and even dangerous in poor weather or when there is snow on the ground.
About Cairn Gorm
Cairn Gorm is a 1,245 m (4,085 ft) high Munro, and the seventh-highest mountain in the UK. It is easily visible from the nearby mountain town of Aviemore, which is itself well worth a visit for some excellent hiking shops and a couple of decent cafes and restaurants.
Cairn Gorm itself is rather ‘busier’ than many Munros, with the previously mentioned large centres at the base and close to the summit, each with a cafe/restaurant, shop and toilets. These act as the top and bottom of some ski runs, marked out by ski lifts and fencing. In addition, on the very summit is a weather station although this is unmanned and not accessible.
All of these structures can create a false sense of security, and it’s worth bearing in mind that, like the rest of the Cairngorms, Cairn Gorm can be extremely exposed, creating very difficult weather conditions at the top. When snowbound, there is the risk of avalanches, as well as the danger represented by the steep cliffs that may become less visible under snow. Indeed, the UK’s worst mountaineering disaster occurred on the summit in 1971.
All that aside, Cairn Gorm is a pleasant hike with some truly stunning views available on a clear day, and is well worth the trip so long as you go properly prepared.
How to get to Cairn Gorm
Hiking from the Cairngorm ski centre car park is by far the easiest option, whether you hike directly up or, like us, take the roundabout route via the northern Corries. This is easily reached by car from Aviemore, but is a little trickier for those coming by public transport. The easiest option is probably a taxi from Aviemore, which is well served by trains from Inverness or, indeed, the sleeper train from London. On a previous trip I thoroughly enjoyed the ability to go to sleep in London on a Friday evening, and wake up in the crisp mountain air of Aviemore on Saturday morning, so I can certainly recommend that route.
Hiking Cairn Gorm
The hike round the northern Corries starts with a steady but not overly steep or difficult incline for the first half, and for the majority of the way there is a well-marked and well-maintained track that makes the walk fairly easy.
As you crest the top of the plateau, the path disappears for some period and this is also when you will see dramatic but potentially dangerous cliffs off to your left. A scattering of cairns give some indication of the route but in snow or low visibility you would want to move carefully and with a great deal of focus on your navigation.
After that, the route winds its way round, with some glorious views to both sides of the track, before finally summiting Cairn Gorm.
From the top of Cairn Gorm, where you will find the weather station and a large cairn, a well-made stone path leads down towards the top ski centre. Although well-constructed, the stone path is steep and slippery especially in wet or icy conditions. I’d recommend making good use of the rope handrails and, while it may be tempting to walk off the path for more grip, avoid doing so as this creates extended erosion on both sides of the path.
Once you reach the ski centre, the path largely follows the route of some of the ski runs, and finally winds its way back down to the side of the ski centre. This is the point when I recommend you reward yourself with a coffee and a slice of cake next to the roaring fire in the café.