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Touring Scotland: 13 adventure holidays in the Cairngorms

Looking for a holiday that involves more than parking your bum on a beach towel for fourteen days? Want to get back to nature and discover some of the wonderful wildlife we have right here in the UK? Steam trains to zip wires, hiking mountains to floating down river: here are 13 ways to go wild in the Cairngorms National Park.

The Cairngorms National Park is not only Scotland’s largest national park, but also the biggest in the UK. This huge wildscape is dotted with epic mountains, including a volley of Munros – defined as peaks over 3,000ft – plunging rivers and sweeps of Caledonian Forest. There’s plenty of wildlife here too for nature enthusiasts looking to spot red squirrels, pine martens, ospreys and red deer. The Cairngorms is the perfect backdrop for an adventure holiday in the UK: here are our top picks of activities and a few day trip ideas.

1. Tackle Ben Macdui

The UK’s second highest mountain at 1,309m, we recommend you hire a guide in order to conquer the Big One. It takes a full day to explore the area’s flora and fauna and your guide should be able to point out the site of a World War Two air crash. Keep your eyes peeled for the Am Fear Liath Mòr or ‘the big grey man of Ben Macdui’ a yeti creature which legend has it lives on the mountain. The easiest route to the summit is from Coire Cas car park at the foot of Cairngorm Ski Centre, or you can ascend via the path from Loch Etchachan.

Click on the image to see more stunning photos of Scotland.

Climbers on the summit of Ben Macdui in the snow, Scotland
Credit: ©young_gedi / Flickr

2. Ride the Cairngorm Mountain Railway

Take a funicular train straight through the clouds up to 3,500ft and the Top Station in just a matter of minutes. Enjoy epic views out across swathes of the national park, post a letter from the UK’s highest post box, or grab a bite of lunch at the Ptarmigan Restaurant. There are guided walks up nearby Cairngorm itself, the sixth highest mountain in the UK at 1,245m – you cannot leave the Top Station without being pre-booked on to one of these guided tours. Train tickets start at £11.50 for adults, £7.50 for children.

Passengers on the funicular railway looking out over green fields and hills
Credit: ©Matt Sharpe / Flickr

3. Hop in a canoe

Paddle your way along almost 70 miles of the River Spey, the fastest waterway in Scotland famous for two things, salmon and whiskey – the former you can fish for, the latter is produced in vast quantities by distilleries along the banks of the river. Spirit of the Spey offers brilliant whisky themed Canadian canoe trips and are suitable for all levels. Head off with Dave, your knowledgeable guide, and discover the area’s stunning wildlife, watch buzzards circling in the skies, or pull-over for a wee dram at one of the distilleries along your route, including Dalwhinnie and Aberlour. These tours can take up to seven days, but best speak to Dave yourself to tailor your trip.

Speyside, river, autumn leaves on the trees

4. Grab two wheels

The Rothiemurchus Estate is ideal for rolling around on a mountain bike. Hire your set of wheels from Mike’s Bikes and they will furnish you with a map of the myriad trails – alternatively, you can bring your own equipment and pay £2 from the estate entrance for a map of three family routes. Take the 2-3 hour sweep all the way to Loch an Eilean and Loch Morlich, opening up two of the most scenic lochs in Scotland, as well as some brilliant forest trails.

Loch an Eilein, Scotland, ruined castle in the middle of the loch

5. Float along the river

Fancy getting wet and wild in in the Cairngorms National Park? Full on Adventures are there to help: they specialise in all different types of watersports on local rivers. For first timers river tubing is fun and requires absolutely no skill whatsoever! You’re kitted out with a wet suit, helmet and webbed gloves before diving into the rapids with only a rubber ring for company. Families can opt for a scenic rafting trip (organised on Sundays and Thursdays during school holidays) straight through the heart of Aviemore which lasts about two hours and costs £45 per person.

Kayaking on the River Spey beneath a big iron bridge spanning the water
Credit: ©John Mason / Flickr

6. Zip through the forest

The UK’s first zip trek park is a great day out if you’ve got a head for heights and want to see the landscape speeding by. There are 14 zip wires set out across a 2km course. Your adventure starts off relatively easily, but then the zip lines get longer and faster. The final challenge is an adrenaline pumping 550m long stretch and you reach speeds of up to 40mph! To get there head along the B9152 and don’t turn off until you see signs for the park and Alvie Estate – even if your Sat Nav will try to trick you. You must book before you set off, either on their website or over the phone (01540 651777) and trips cost £25 per person.

Cairngorm forest tree tops in the mist

7. Go wildlife spotting

The Cairngorms isn’t short on wildlife – grab your camo gear and get on your very own Scottish night-time safari. Hook up with Speyside Wildlife and they’ll take you to their wildlife spotting hideout at dusk deep in the Rothiemurchus forest. Here you can enjoy the unique experience of getting up close and personal with everything red deer, badgers and rare pine martens. A full tour costs £25 per adult – book online and you get a fiver off – and they start at 6pm in the winter, 9pm during the summer months.

Click on the image to read more about the world’s best destinations for wildlife spotting.

Male Snow Bunting in winter

8. Splash around on a loch

The watersports centre on Loch Insh offers plenty of water splashing action. Paddle out on to the loch on one of their open deck canoes. These are really easy to handle, even for first timers, and you don’t just paddle aimlessly – they take you out in search of wild ospreys. Or if you want to take your sailing more seriously then get yourself onto one of their certified courses which last for two to five days, depending on how advanced you wish to go – they’ll take you all the way up to racing competency. Minimum age is eight years of age.

Loch Insh, Cairngorns, Scotland, brown grass in front of the loch, mountains in the background

9. Get steaming on the Strathspey Railway

This railway races out of Aviemore in a plume of steam bound for the whisky-drenched delights of the Spey Valley. You can stop in the trim little village of Boat of Garten or just come straight back again after snapping some photos of the vintage train in action – read more about the quaintest villages to visit in the UK. Book early for the Santa Express (running at various times between December 5th and Christmas Eve) for the chance to ride through the Scottish Highlands with Mr. Claus, mince pie, mulled wine or fruit juice (for the kids of course) in hand.

Click on the image to find out where the best walking routes in the UK are.

Strathspey railway steaming through green fields
Credit: ©Dave Corner / Flickr

10. Hang out in a hammock

Want to stay the night in the wild but don’t want the trauma of basic, old fashioned camping? We’ve got the perfect glampingsolution for you. The Lazy Duck is one of the cutest campsites in the Cairngorms. Named after the resident ducks who are too lazy to hatch their own eggs, you may feel similarly soporific after a stint in their sauna followed by an hour or two chilling out in a hammock surrounded by heather. If you don’t fancy sleeping in a tent then there are other accommodation options available on site, from an eco-cabin for two to a luxury lodge – this hideaway sleeps two and is a great base for any wildlife photographers who don’t want to stray too far from their front door to get the perfect shot. Of course, there are plenty of other hotels in Aviemore for more accommodation alternatives.

11. Hit the beach

Get in some beach time on Loch Morlich, where you’ll find a one kilometre stretch of sand for you to throw your beach towel down on, build a few sandcastles or catch a bit of peace and quiet with a good book. If you’re looking for a distraction then there’s a watersports centre here (open from around March to October) offering sailing and canoeing lessons. However, be warned if you’re thinking about popping a toe in the loch, even on the balmiest of days (average summer high is 9°C) the water is still freezing – the loch freezes over in winter.

Loch Morlich, Scotland, stones leading out in to the water, snow-capped mountains in the distance

12. Speed along on a sleddog ride

Dreamed of going to Lapland, or Iceland to see the Northern Lights, but haven’t got the cash to get all the way out there? Well, we can’t promise you the Aurora Borealis or Santa, but you can hop on a sleigh and enjoy a thrilling sleddog dash across the snow in the Cairngorm Mountains. Head to the Cairngorm Sleddog Centre, the only daily working sleddog centre in the UK, and join a team of 12 dogs and one ‘musher’ (driver) for the ultimate sleddog experience and 30 minute romp through parts of the Cairngorm’s most remote forests. Trips start at £60 per adult, £40 per child, and don’t forget to pack some warm waterproof clothes.

Siberian husky in autumn forest

13. Ski and snowboarding for less

All aboard the Cairngorm Mountain Railway, it’s time to enjoy this season’s dump on the slopes of the Cairngorm Mountain and the surrounding corries. You don’t have to fly to the French Alps for world class skiing and snowboarding, the Scottish Highlands has plenty to offer snowsports enthusiasts, and at a fraction of the cost. Check out the newly opened Snow School and get group or private lessons for up to five days – one day per adult is £99, £75 per child. Buy your season pass before the end of October and save more than £100! Get more tips on how to have a budget ski holiday here.

Click on the image to read more on alternative ski destinations.

Ski-ing above Coire Cas, Cairngorm Mountains, Scotland

How to get the the Cairngorms National Park?

The closest airports are Aberdeen and Inverness, and flights start at £51 from London to Aberdeen and £34 from Bristol to Inverness.*

You can also catch the train to Dalwhinnie, Newtonmore, Kingussie, Aviemore, Carr-Bridge or Aberdeen to access either the east or the west of the park.

Alternatively, to come and go as you please and to explore this vast wilderness at your leisure, why not hire a car?

For more adventure holiday ideas in the UK and abroad, check these out:

10 best walking, hiking and biking routes in the UK

Fancy staring down a steep granite ridge or skirting a gritstone cliff? Or perhaps you’d prefer a coastal walk atop brilliant white cliffs or above the crashing surf on a series of tunnels and bridges? Lace up those hiking boots and put your best foot first on our pick of the UK’s top trails.

The UK’s top 10 castles and fortresses

Fair maidens and chivalrous knights, it’s time to take a tour of the UK’s prettiest and most impressive castles.

World’s 5 best adventure holiday destinations

Cycling, safaris and snow-shoes: five destinations to inspire your next adventure from Finland to Botswana.

*Flight prices are for return journeys from the UK. Prices sourced within last 2 days and are indicative and subject to availability.

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