When you imagine the Scottish highlands, the Cairngorms are probably what you see.
The UK’s largest national park – more than twice the size of the Lake District – the Cairngorms are wild, vertiginous, and possessed of a brutal beauty bound to bowl over even the most seasoned hill-walker.
Between the peaks you’ll find Balmoral Castle – probably the Queen’s second most famous residence, and reportedly her favourite. Her Majesty spends as much of the summer there as possible, and if you play your cards right, you could too.
6 ways to enjoy the Cairngorms National Park
Here’s how to explore the Queen’s summertime escape.
1. Stay at Balmoral Castle
No, before you ask, you can’t rent out the Queen’s quarters or meet the Royals but punters can stay at Balmoral for weeks at a time. Sadly, overnight visitors are relegated to a smattering of cottages in the grounds – and only when the Queen isn’t home – but being banned from the big house doesn’t mean you’re bereft of royalty.
Queen Victoria especially was known to frequent the cottages during her stays, and was apparently particularly fond of the widely-spellchecked Alltnaguibhsaich Lodge, which sleeps 12.
Geographically, this is as close as you can come to an Elizabethan summer holiday, unfortunately with far fewer footmen.
2. Hike through Caledonian forest
The Scottish highlands are better known for gorse and heather than trees, but what forest there is boasts an ancient, mysterious past. The phrase Caledonian Forest refers to remnants of Scottish woodland that date from the last ice age – Scots pines descended from the first trees to grow in the region around 7,000 BC.
Today only 44,000 acres remain, a large chunk of that in the Rothiemurchus Estate, criss-crossed by miles of footpaths and cycling trails. Needless to say, it’s an amazing place to get your nature fix, and spot staple Scottish species like capercaillie (wood grouse), red squirrels, and the last of the Scottish wildcats.
3. Ride the Strathspey Railway
Scenic trains are good, scenic mountain trains are better, and scenic mountain steam trains are about as good as transport gets.
The Strathspey Railway serves up panoramic views of the park’s peaks and crags – alongside sandwiches and sometimes local whisky – as it chugs steadily between Aviemore and Broomhill.
Set up by volunteers in 1978, this nostalgic locomotive channels an era of conductor’s whistles, billowing steam, and the click-clack of rail on wheel.
4. Swing by the Highland Wildlife Park
A Scottish slant on your stereotypical safari, the Highland Wildlife Park offers visitors the chance to drive through a vast enclosure packed with Scotland’s most sought-after species, from wildcats to red squirrels, and several iconic creatures that roamed the Highlands in times gone by, like wolves and European bison.
There is also a zoo section housing more global curiosities, including red panda, snow leopards, and an Amur tiger.
5. Go to the beach
Firmly inland and hundreds of metres above sea level, we wouldn’t blame visitors to the Cairngorms for forgetting to pack their swimming shorts, but bizarrely, the park boasts the highest beach in the UK.
The sandy banks of Loch Morlich have been designed to imitate the bucket-and-spade charm of the British seaside, while windsurfers and canoeists glide up and down the shore.
On a warm summer’s day the water looks positively Mediterranean. Dip a toe in, and you’ll swiftly remember that it’s not.
6. Visit the Highland Folk Museum
Entirely free from the airless galleries and pottery-filled glass cases typical of such establishments, the Highland Folk Museum consists of open air buildings and artefacts exploring historic Highland life.
Expect thatched cottages, a replica sawmill, and a shepherd’s ‘bothy’, patrolled by actors in period costume demonstrating traditional skills like woodcarving.
It’s particularly popular among fans of sword-and-kilt fantasy TV series Outlander, which used the museum as a shooting location.
You may also be interested in…