Outdoor adventure in the Cairngorms National Park
Updated: Jan 8
As part of our Green Traveller's Guide to Cairngorms National Park, Paul Bloomfield picks out a selection of outdoor adventure attractions in this glorious protected area in Scotland.
The Cairngorms is to outdoor adventurers as a sweet shop is to a wide-eyed child. Unsurprisingly, given its wealth of rugged landscapes – the national park encompasses five of Britain’s six highest mountains – the region has long been an epicentre for hillwalking and skiing, and as outdoor enthusiasts established a kind of adventure ghetto here, new activities arrived or evolved.
Mountain-biking in the region is among the best in the country, with plenty of dedicated trails, and rocky crags draw expert climbers looking for a new challenge. Rivers and lochs offer paddling opportunities at all levels of excitement, from gentle rowboat pootles and river journeys by canoe to extreme white-water fear-fests. And novel concepts such as canyoning, weaselling, river-bugging and zip-lining have also taken root here, giving families, schools and groups opportunities for testing themselves and their mutual trust. The region has three ski centres: CairnGorm Mountain in the central north near Aviemore, The Lecht to the east near Tomintoul, and Glenshee farther south near Braemar.
The organisers listed here provide a multitude of activities; some concentrate on one aspect – snow sports, for example, or canoeing – while others can set you off on a host of different adventures, whether for an hour or a week.
Every time of year offers adventures on the Cairngorms’ slopes, from hiking, rock-climbing and biking to downhill, snowboarding and ski-touring in snow season. We’ve listed some of the top providers for mountain fun.
Active Outdoor Pursuits
This dual-centre outfit, founded by outdoor-crazy husband-and-wife team Roy and Sophia Gibson in 1999, offers a frankly dizzying menu of summer and winter activities within the Cairngorms and across the rest of Scotland. In summer you can chalk up for rock-climbing and abseiling, mountain-biking and hill walking, or prepare to get wet tackling lochs, rivers and coastline in whitewater rafts, kayaks, canoes and duckies (or just in a wetsuit on a canyoning adventure). When the snow arrives, AOP offers courses, holidays and equipment hire for skiing and snowboarding, ski-touring and mountaineering, and winter walking.
Craigower Lodge, Craigower Lodge, Newtonmore PH20 1AT & Active Aviemore, Grampian Road, Aviemore PH22 1PT www.activeoutdoorpursuits.com
Aviemore Ski and Snowboard Hire
As the name suggests, this outfit, conveniently close to the CairnGorm Mountain ski area, rents all the equipment you’ll need – skis (performance or general) and boards, boots, suits, salopettes and helmets – for periods from half a day to a week. Group and private lessons are available, along with lift passes and good-value hire, lesson and pass packages.
Unit 4, Myrtlefield Shopping Centre, Grampian Road, Aviemore, PH22 1RH www.aviemoreskihire.co.uk
It’s based at a 14-hole golf course, but that’s not the only thing that’s unusual about Craggan Outdoors. While it offers some activities you’d expect among the mountains and rivers of the Cairngorms – walking, rock-climbing, canoeing, white-water rafting, fishing, mountain-biking – there are also plenty you might not. Raft-building, for example, or archery; clay-pigeon shooting and paintballing, massage and yoga, a high-rope traverse and a zipwire, a range of art and craft courses, and in true Scottish fashion, the chance to take part in a mini Highland games. There’s bunkhouse and bothy accommodation, and it’s ideal for family, educational, corporate or stag/hen groups. Craggan Golf Course, Grantown-on-Spey, Morayshire PH26 3NT www.cragganoutdoors.co.uk
Full On Adventure
There are several ways of getting down a mountain, but mountain-biking, skiing and snowboarding have to be high on the list of most exciting methods of descent – and Full On Adventure offers all of them. Likewise, you could kayak down a river, jump in a rubber tube or inflatable raft to tackle the rapids, or just leap and slide your way over the smooth rocks and down the crashing waterfalls on a canyoning adventure. These activities are complemented by a range of courses and longer journeys by sea kayak and canoe, bike and ski, or simple Shanks’ pony to explore the region. The Old Pavilion, Rothiemurchus, Inverdruie PH22 1QH
There’s always something new to try in the Cairngorms – and if you already know how to do it, you can always do it better. Which is why G2 Outdoor’s programme covers not only a healthy range of activities – including hill walking and rock-climbing, mountain-biking, canyoning and gorge walking, kayaking, canoeing and rafting, ice-climbing, skiing, snowboarding and ski-touring, including back-country – but also expert ski coaching for beginners or improvers, including an introduction to Telemark skiing. Group courses and longer expeditions are also available. The 1.5km zipline park offers vertiginous thrills.
Unit 3, Plot 10, Dalfaber Industrial Estate, Aviemore, Inverness-Shire PH22 1ST
The national outdoor training centre, sitting pretty in the shadow of Cairn Gorm itself, is ideally placed for teaching activities on rock, water or snow. The on-site pool, climbing wall and mountain-bike training circuit provide excellent points for starting or improving skills, but best are the opportunites to get outdoors and tackle rock-climbing, mountain-biking, skiing, hill walking, scrambling, kayaking and canoeing. Coaching qualifications are available, as well as biathlon, orienteering and canyoning. Notably, Glenmore has been awarded the Green Tourism Business Gold Star Award for the most sustainable activity centre in the UK.
Aviemore, Inverness-shire PH22 1QU www.glenmorelodge.org.uk
Aviemore & Glenmore Snowsports Hire and School
What marks this hire store out from others is the sheer diversity of kit available – not merely standard downhill and cross-country skis and boards, but also snowshoes, sledges, fjellpulken (drag sleds for carrying gear on cross-country excursions), skiriders (like upright scooters for snow) and Rax skis – you’ll have to see them to understand. There’s also instruction for boarding, downhill and cross-country skiing, lift-pass sales and a small dry slope. In summer the shop converts to mountain-bike hire, and there’s a cosy café. Glenmore Outdoor Ltd, Glenmore Shop, Aviemore PH22 1QY www.aviemoreski.co.uk
Scot Mountain Holidays
This friendly, family-run outfit is based in homely Fraoch Lodge – homely because it is home to Andy and Rebecca, who run guided walking and biking holidays, family adventures and mountain skills courses from their simple but welcoming guesthouse. Andy’s knowledge of geology, botany and wildlife adds enormously to hikes in the hills, and his mountain skills and knowledge of the area mean every trip – whether a gentle stroll around Abernethy Forest or a tougher expedition tackling the legendary Lairig Ghru pass or the highest Munros in the Cairngorms – is safe and satisfying. Digging and sleeping in snowholes is a favourite winter adventure. Fraoch Lodge, Deshar Road, Boat of Garten, Inverness-shire PH24 3BN
Cyclehighlands Bike and Ski Hire
This bike shop has a range of high-quality mountain bikes, kids’ bikes, tandems and even electric-assisted Freego bikes for hire, and delivery of rental bikes can be arranged. One- and two-day mountain-biking courses and guided trips are available for individuals or groups, and there are plenty of excellent trails around Ballater. In winter Cyclehighlands sets up a ski and snowboard hire outlet in Braemar (Victoria Hall, Glenshee Road, Braemar, AB35 5YQ), ideally located for both the Lecht and the Glenshee ski areas. The Pavilion, Victoria Road, Ballater, Aberdeenshire, AB35 5QQ www.cyclehighlands.com
The Ski School and The Snowboard School
The only ski and snowboard instruction outfit actually on CairnGorm Mountain offers, as you’d expect, flexible options for private and group lessons, ranging from standard day and multi-day sessions covering all levels, from beginners upwards. Speciality courses cover performance skiing, freestyle snowboarding, back-country ski and snowboard touring, and the Snowlimit and Zero Gravity programmes are aimed at developing ski skills in children aged from five years upwards. Equipment hire and passes are included in the cost of most courses.
CairnGorm Mountain, PH22 1RB www.thesnowboardschool.co.uk
An Aviemore-based adventure tour operator with an exceptional programme of holidays across the country, Wilderness Scotland has tours tailored to all interests, ages and activity levels. Many trips are dual-centre, so you can discover the contrasting landscapes of the west coast and the Cairngorms, while working up an appetite with wilderness walking, canoeing or kayaking (sea or river) or mountain-biking. There are specialist wildlife-watching tours, too, and family adventures combining these activities with lessons in bushcraft, geo-catching and other outdoors fun. As well as the guided tours, self-guided options include long-distance treks such as the West Highland Way, with logistics arranged for you, and centre-based walking holidays. Inverdruie House, Aviemore PH22 1QH www.wildernessscotland.com
The Caingorms’ lochs, gorges and rivers offer plentiful opportunities for kayaking, rafting, sailing and even leaping into waterfalls. We’ve picked the best options for courses, equipment hire and group activities on the water.
There are a lot of rivers in the Cairngorms region – which means there are a wealth of opportunities for grabbing a paddle and getting active on the water. Ace Adventures specialises in river activities, offering journeys by white-water raft, inflatable kayaks and canoes and river tubes on the Spey and Tay, as well as the wilder Findhorn and Tummel rivers and farther afield. Canyoning trips see adventurers sliding down cascades, jumping into gorges and climbing behind waterfalls, and a high-ropes course, bungee-jumping and paintballing are also available. Auchnagairn, Dunphail, Forres, Moray IV36 2QL
Based on the banks of the Spey between Cairngorms National Park and the Moray Firth, Aquaplay has on its doorstep the best locations for watery activities – and makes full use of them. Beginners can pick up a paddle and canoe or kayak on calm waters, while the Spey and white-water sections of the Findhorn beckon those who want a more tempestuous experience with kayaks and hydro speeds. Don a wetsuit for burn-scrambling, canyoning or coasteering – leaping off rocks and traversing the Moray coastline, which also offers great boogie-board surfing. Team-building and other group activities, coaching and safety courses, and trail cycling and mountain-biking round off the programme. 6 Seafield Square, Rothes, Aberlour, Moray AB38 7AZ www.aquaplayscotland.com
Boots N Paddles
Well set-up to cater for groups but with plenty of scheduled activities for individuals and families, Boots N Paddles is particularly strong on water-based adventures around Scotland, from peaceful canoe jaunts – including the three-day River Spey Canoe Expedition – to kayaking, raft-building, gorge-swimming and (at the high-adrenalin end of the spectrum) white-water sledging. Along with familiar activities such as climbing, abseiling, hill walking and mountain-biking, this outfit offers more unusual options such as archery, Segway excursions, Highland games and weaselling – crawling through narrow rock crevices. 14 Cabrich, Kirkhill, Inverness IV5 7PH www.boots-n-paddles.co.uk
Loch Insh Watersports
With the Spey feeding and draining the lake and its tranquil Insh Marshes, this wonderful spot is ideal for watersports, whether wind- or paddle-powered. Kayaks, Canadian canoes, rowboats, various sailboats and windsurfers are available for hire, along with instruction at all levels; the five-day Paddlesport course is a great way for young beginners to become comfortable on the loch, while river expeditions attract confident paddlers. Land-based activities – archery, mountain-biking and walking – are also popular. There’s a 60m dry ski slope, and equipment hire and instruction during the winter months. Loch Insh, Kincraig, Kingussie, Inverness-shire PH21 1NU www.lochinsh.com
Loch Morlich Watersports
This beautiful lake, in a wonderful setting beneath Cairn Gorm’s northern slopes and surrounded by swathes of pine forest, has a sweeping beach on which to relax. But relaxing can wait: canoes, kayaks, rowboats, sailboats and windsurfers won’t steer themselves! Lessons and longer courses provide instruction for beginners and improvers of all ages, with dedicated junior and family courses and activities as well as group programmes and individual sessions. A comprehensive selection of equipment is available to hire, and there’s an attractive café with renowed home baking to refuel. Glenmore Forest Park, by Aviemore, Inverness-shire PH22 1QU www.lochmorlich.com
Spirit of the Spey
Dave Craig is the Spey’s most experienced river guide, with an enviable knowledge of the region’s natural and social history. He’s also a whisky connoisseur, and every multi-day open-canoe journey – be it the Classic Spey Descent, the wildlife-focused At One With Nature or three-day Spirit of the Spey, majoring on whisky experiences and distillery visits – reflects that interest and knowhow with an element of whisky tasting. The trips are suitable for beginners or experienced paddlers, with Dave (a qualified canoe coach) on hand to provide advice. There’s wildlife galore to spot, too – dippers, ospreys, otters and perhaps even dolphins at the coast. The Beeches, Station Road, Newtonmore PH20 1AR www.spiritofthespey.co.uk
Activities in and around the Cairngorms make the most of the natural adventure playground created by hills, glens and forests. These providers offer guided and self-guided walks, bike tours and even treetop challenges.
Based in Aviemore, Adventure Scotland taps into the tremendous outdoor resources in the area – the rivers Spey and Dee, the Cairngorm Mountains, the lochs and the gorges – to design activity days and classic adventures. Geared to providing learning and development experiences for groups, activities available on ‘fun days’ include climbing and abseiling, gorge and hill walking and biking, indoor climbing, riding the rivers on ‘duckies’ (small inflatables) and weaselling – crawling through narrow rock crevices. Classic climbs tackle high-quality mountain routes, while you could tackle a five-day descent of the Spey or explore the Dee by canoe. Suite 5, Aviemore Business Centre, Grampian Road, Aviemore PH22 1RH
Cairngorm Bike & Hike
This well-stocked shop has all you’ll need to plan a DIY hill-walking or biking adventure. As well as selling clothing and equipment from top outdoor brands, there are high-quality mountain bikes for hire, and staff are on hand to advice on the best hiking and cycling routes in the area for all levels of confidence and experience. Railway Station, Boat of Garten, Inverness-shire PH24 3BH www.cairngormbikeandhike.co.uk
Deeside Nature Activities
This wildlife-focused organisation offers a selection of walks around its Ballater base, guided by an experienced nature guide and tailored to maximise opportunities for spotting the region’s charismatic birds, mammals and other animals. Gentle half-day walks might traverse the Balmoral Estate or follow a circuit in the countryside around Ballater, watching for dippers and otters on rivers, while longer or more strenuous hikes could take in a circuit of Loch Muick, hopefully spotting grouse, divers and numerous birds of prey, venture up Craigendarroch or tackle an ascent of Lochnagar. Knockanduie, Crathie, Ballater, Aberdeenshire AB35 5TP www.deesidenatureactivities.co.uk
Firmly focused on the Eastern Highlands, Glentrek offers a carefully curated programme of guided and self-guided walking and cycling holidays. Hiking options range from weekends of luxury walking or Munro bagging to the five-day, 103km circular Cateran Trail, which can be undertaken on a guided small-group tour or independently as a self-guided holiday with logistics arranged. Similarly, guided and self-guided cycling holidays are available, as well as group day-rides. Women-only offerings are noteworthy, and include the challenging Lairig Ghru trek through the Cairngorms and a navigation course to improve mapreading and orientation skills. 100 East High Street, Forfar, Angus DD8 2ET www.glentrek.com
TreeZone Aerial Adventure Course
Scotland’s mightly pine trees look impressive enough from below – but from way up among the canopy, they’re positively awe-inspiring. TreeZone is an arboreal adventure playground, a succession of 34 challenges – balance beams, rope swings, zip-wire rides and more – offering about 90 minutes of adrenalin-boosting fun for children and adults. Start on the TreeCreeper section at just 6m above the forest floor then, when you’re confident with the safety harness and your own ability, progress to the Buzzard section, rising to 12m off the ground. You might even spot red squirrels or ospreys from your lofty viewpoint.
Rothiemurchus Estate, Aviemore PH22 1QH www.treezone.co.uk
Experienced mountain, cycle-trail and ski leader Paul Fairbrother is passionate about the Cairngorms, and his love of the region around Aviemore is evident in the care with which he puts together itineraries for walks and guided cycles. Half- and full-day tours are graded according to the level of challenge and traverse varied landscapes – corries and plateaus, forests and glens, lochs and rivers – and a night in a bothy can be incorporated in a two-day hike. Courses include introductory and intermediate mountain-bike skills and mountain navigation skills. PH22 1QB www.trekntrail.co.uk
There’s a lively calendar of events throughout the Cairngorms, from live music, walking and food festivals, to sports meets, craft workshops and – of course – Highland games. For the latest listings see http://visitcairngorms.com/whatson
For information on characterful places to stay, local food and drink, and nearby visitor attractions, see our Green Traveller's Guide to Cairngorms National Park