The highest area of land in the country and the largest National Park...
The Cairngorms are a grand objective for walkers and one of the best places to experience wilderness in Britain. Here, the weather can fluctuate between balmy summer days where the sun stays up long enough for darkness to never truly fall, to the fiercest Arctic storms, with the strongest winds in the country and snow banks higher than buildings.
If this is a land made famous by extremes and by scale, it is often the little things that people come to love about the Cairngorms. The sight of a forest spreading naturally up a hillside rather than being planned by man, the unfettered motions of a spring stream, the snow that lingers year-round in the great corries, and the daily struggles of the wildlife that calls this place home. Because of the height and the climate, the Cairngorms are an Arctic ecosystem; on the summits you will see stunted plants and lichens gripping to whatever ground they can, and higher than any red grouse dares to go are the ptarmigan, Artic birds that vary with the seasons, changing from white to brown.
The National Park stretches for many miles either side of what are considered the ‘true’ Cairngorms, which are the peaks emanating from a great granite plateau, stretching from Braemar to Aviemore, from the Dee to the Spey. Among these peaks are five of the six highest mountains in Britain, countless streams, lakes and pools, and the great forests of Rothiemurcus, Abernethy and Mar.
For walkers, the challenge is that in this remote country many peaks are far from roads and require a long walk-in. Cairn Gorm is the most accessible because of the ski centre, and Britain’s second highest Mountain of Ben MacDui is also relatively easy to get to, though still a long day out. Over the the west, the great mountain of Sgor Gaoith stands within east reach from Glen Feshie, and back east, Bynack More is reachable from Glenmore. But after this the great peaks lie far beyond the car, meaning long days out, nights in a bothy or tent, or simply always remaining beyond the reach of the day walker.
The Cairngorms though aren’t all about the mountains. In this land where the tops of the passes are higher than most of the Lake District fells, any day out exploring is an adventure, and if you only confined yourself to the tops you’d miss a lot the range has to offer. Running south to north through the mountains lie several famous passes, where drovers used to herd cattle hundreds of years ago. The most famous of these, the Lairig Ghru, is an objective perhaps more fulfilling than a mountain peak, where you can gaze up at the slopes on either side and marvel at this deep glacial trench dug through the hard granite. The forest and outer hills too have their charms, where you may see a deer or capercaille vanish into the trees, or perhaps convince yourself you’ve seen the rare and elusive Scottish wildcat.
The lower regions are also the places to be if you want the comfort of a path, which there are plenty of, and where marked on the map they are normally easy to follow and well maintained. When up on the plateau, because of the granular nature of the granite, paths do not stay so definite, which is perhaps the mountains’ way of keeping their wildness.
The Cairngorms leave you struggling with perspective. One minute you may be looking out at the plateau, at the unrestricted view over hundreds of mountains. The next minute, down from the heights, the Cairngorms seem less about the tops and more about the intricate detail, those moments of discovery, of sheltered plants, human history and lonely valleys that make every mountain journey special. So whether you get to the remotest peaks or not, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is seeing the many sides of this range, from wind blasted Arctic to a stream-side summer’s day, and seeing what nature is when we leave it alone.
Author: Alex Kendall
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