I recently enjoyed a great adventure, riding Cairngorm MountainThe funicular from and then a walk to the top of the sixth highest mountain in the UK, Cairn Gorm. It is an excellent experience for families, people who do not have the experience or physical condition to hike from the base of a mountain to the top, and also for visitors who are short on time. Let me tell you more about it.
Train ride and hike to the top of Cairn Gorm
I love hiking in the mountains and having the opportunity to take in great views, but I don’t always have time to do it in the middle of the week. Therefore, the opportunity to travel by train at a higher altitude and take a short walk, a Guided Summit Hike – to the top of one of the highest mountains in the UK was very attractive.
Scotland’s summer weather has also proved a bit fickle this month and a shorter outing enjoyed in calm sunny conditions (I had seen a forecast showing a window of opportunity last Thursday morning) gave me added incentive to head up Cairngorm Mountain.
I booked the guided walk online for the 10:15am trip (priced at £40). The tours take place from Wednesday to Sunday at 10:15 and 13:15. You must allow two hours for the trip.
Group size is a maximum of 10 people and my hike guide was Ranger Stevie plus Assistant Joseph. The group included a family with three children from Belgium, two couples from England and myself.
Note: It is not possible to ride the funicular and then hike to the summit on your own. You can walk from the bottom to the top, but not just from the top station. The guided walks are part of an attempt to reduce footfall on the summit and subsequent erosion by keeping the number of trails built to a manageable level.
Our group met at the Ranger Base at the Cairngorm Mountain Base Station at 635m elevation (right next to a large parking lot). The funicular ride takes less than 10 minutes and climbs gently to 1,097m at the top station of Ptarmigan.
It was a delight to see the mountain sliding and without any effort on my part. I thought about the many times I have hiked and skied this mountain and in a wide variety of climates.
Instead, from the train, I could sit and just watch the scenery from the window.
Further down at Cairn Gorm, the view takes in the not particularly attractive structures of a ski mountain, though they are a necessary part of winter infrastructure for Scotland’s many ski fans. The higher we climbed, the better the views became of both the wildly beautiful Cairn Gorm mountain and the wider rugged landscape of the surrounding Cairngorms National Park.
I also saw three new downhill mountain bike tracks, which form a series of bermed serpents of varying lengths and up to 1.4 km. These look so much fun and will be worth a trip back up the mountain.
I was grateful that the forecast was better than I expected, and when we got off at Ptarmigan Station and headed out onto the mountainside, I had to take off my jacket. It felt warm and almost no wind.
Guided hike to the summit
Stevie gathered the group to tell us about the next part of the trek, which would involve a hike to the top (less than 1km and only 150m elevation gain) on a well done, gently climbing path.
There was no rush to the top and we each walked up the hill, stopping at regular intervals to take in the ever-widening views. Steve provided a lot of interesting information about the mountain, including potential wildlife sightings, as well as pointing out many other surrounding peaks. He gave an excellent lesson in local geography and geology, and also urged us to keep our eyes peeled for Cairngorm quartz.
Did you know?: The Cairngorms are best known as a source of smoky quartz, but specimens of beryl and topaz have also been found. In Victorian times, crystal hunting was a popular hobby, although very few fine specimens are discovered today.
More about the Cairngorms
The Cairngorms, Am Monadh Ruadh in Gaelic, roughly translate to The Red Mountains. The name is believed to come from the reddish-pink granite that was once the dominant color of the range when the glaciers of the last ice age retreated. Back then, the shattered granite rocks were exposed and looked reddish.
Today most of these rocks have been rounded by frost and snow and are gray in color with a cover of lichen and moss.
Meanwhile, the Gaelic name for Cairn Gorm is An Càrn Gorm, which means blue or green hill.
The Cairngorms form the largest area of high ground in the UK and temperatures are often cool, even in summer. We saw small pockets of snow, remnants of the winter season, on the northern slopes of the surrounding mountains, even in July.
The Cairngorms are also hailed as the largest climatic, geomorphological and biological arctic area in the UK. Surprisingly, there is an abundance of life on the vast mountainous plateau.
In addition to lichens and moss, plants like Mat Grass, Carnation Sedge, and Woolly Fringe-Moss thrive. Blooms, which tend to look best in spring, include Lady’s Mantle, Starry Saxifrage, and Dwarf Cornel.
A small, rounded bird called a ptarmigan is a relatively common sight on the mountain and its plumage changes color to suit the seasons. During our walk we saw other birds, such as the plover and the snow bunting. If you’re lucky, and I’ve been to other mountains in the Cairngorms, you might see a golden eagle soaring overhead.
Magnificent views from the summit of Cairn Gorm
Cairn Gorm rises to 1244m at the summit. As well as being one of the highest peaks in the UK, it easily falls under a list of Scottish mountains known as Munros. There are 282 Munros with an elevation of more than 914.4 m (3,000 ft).
At the top, near a weather station and a large cairn, the group stopped to take in the 360-degree views. I chatted with other people who were experiencing their first summit on a Scottish mountain. They spoke enthusiastically about the incredible feeling of being in a “wild and remote” place, the “peace and quiet” and the “stunning scenery”.
Although I have bagged all the Munros and often go for walks and runs in the hills and mountains of Scotland, it was a joy to see other people’s happiness and delight. For those too young or lacking the fitness and experience to hike Scotland’s rugged terrain, the Cairngorm Mountain Funicular and Guided Summit Walk offer an incredible treat.
I took my time slowly turning in a full circle and really witnessing the fabulous views in all directions.
To the northeast I could see the large rocky summit knolls of Bynack More and Creag Mhor (I completed a recent challenging hike to both of these mountains) and to the southeast Beinn Mheadhoin.
Further south, the UK’s second highest mountain, Ben Macdui, loomed over tall, steep crags, which also plunged down to the western shore of beautiful Loch Avon.
Looking north and northeast, I saw the sparkling waters of Loch Morlich far below, surrounded by the lush green of Rothiemurchus Forest and the tiny buildings of the town of Aviemore. On a clear day it can be seen as far north as Ben Wyvis and the Assynt mountain ranges north of Ullapool.
I have visited this exact location many times, in different seasons and all kinds of weather, on foot and on skis and it always lifts my spirits.
Other walks and things to do on Cairngorm Mountain
If you have the experience, fitness and energy, it’s a relatively easy hike in good weather to reach the top of Cairn Gorm. From the base station, a hike back on a trail extends to 6.5km and about 585m in elevation.
A longer walk of 11 km. See the summit of the Northern Corries and Cairn Gorm. see Walking Highlands.
A half-day ranger-guided hike. on a Thursday morning from June to October it also explores the Northern Corries of Cairn Gorm.
You also can ride the funicular up and down, but then you can’t walk to the top alone.
Spend time at Ptarmigan Upper Stationwhere there is a restaurant with panoramic views, Cairngorm Gin Bar, a terrace with views, an immersive 270 degree exhibition (I really liked it), Cairngorm Learning Zone with interactive sandboxes for children and Shop at the Top selling gifts, clothes and local products
Cairngorm Mountain Bike Park: Green trails for beginners and younger children; intermediate grade blue trails; and exciting red trails. Bike rental is available.
In winter, there is a variety of ski and snowboard options
- For the sake of disclosure, I was invited to join the Summit Guided Hike and did not pay for the trip. This article is my own point of view and has been written without input from Cairngorm Mountains.