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National Parks Without the Crowds: Cairngorms

© Dan Bailey

With foreign travel largely off the agenda, and the nation newly inspired by the outdoors, rural Britain is bracing for a glut of visitors this spring and summer. After a year of lockdowns, no one should begrudge the universal urge to break out into open green spaces; but problems will arise if we all head in similar directions at once. Crowds magnify the visible impact of poor behaviour such as littering, fire lighting, livestock disturbance, and the mess of roadside camping and wild toileting. But even if everyone behaves responsibly (and we know they won't), the sheer pressure of numbers will inevitably show in the most popular areas, bringing traffic-choked country roads, congested parking, and teeming trails.

The Cairngorms are defined by space and scale  © Dan Bailey
The Cairngorms are defined by space and scale
© Dan Bailey

National Parks are likely to be among the places most overrun, and though the visitor economy needs the money there are fears that the infrastructure will struggle to meet demand. Every National Park has its major tourist centres, but while the predictable towns and villages will be thronged, and the usual over-used peaks groaning under a heavy footfall, other parts of even the best-loved Parks will receive far less attention. That's where you'll find us!

Seeking solitude in the West Mounth  © Dan Bailey
Seeking solitude in the West Mounth
© Dan Bailey

At the height of the staycation boom in our National Parks it should still be possible to maintain a healthy social distance, and enjoy some comparative peace and quiet. By looking beyond the usual tourist traps you'll help spread the impact of visitors, thus avoiding becoming part of the problem. It'll make for a much more enjoyable trip on your part, too.

In this series of articles we aim to suggest crowd-avoiding alternatives to the standard visitor fare in some of Britain's busiest National Parks.

The Cairngorms 

By far the UK's largest National Park, the Cairngorms combine high mountain plateaux and extensive forests with low-level visitor attractions and plenty of tourist facilities. With over 1.92 million visits annually, the Park is busy year-round, and this spring and summer looks likely to be exceptionally so. That's not going to be problem-free.

The Cairngorms have their honeypots, but you don't have to go far from the beaten track to escape  © Dan Bailey
The Cairngorms have their honeypots, but you don't have to go far from the beaten track to escape
© Dan Bailey

"Most visitors are responsible and appreciate the area for its natural beauty. However, the national park received more than its fair share of irresponsible visitor behaviour last summer" says local resident Anne Butler.

"A minority of visitors treat the area with a heartbreaking lack of respect, with little apparent thought about how their actions will affect others. Residents are anxious about the weeks and months ahead, and this anxiety has less to do with the risk of increasing Covid infections, than with problem behaviour."

Much of the footfall is concentrated in a few key locations, but with a National Park this big, and largely empty, opportunities to think outside the box are everywhere.

"Over the last year people have been packed into small local areas for recreation, so why, as soon as we are allowed to travel, would everyone choose to go to the same overcrowded places?" asks Anne. "Explore off the beaten track and you will still have a fantastic day out. The National Park is massive!"

The Devil's Point from Monadh Mor, a big peak in the heart of the massif that you really have to earn. Crowds unlikely  © Dan Bailey
The Devil's Point from Monadh Mor, a big peak in the heart of the massif that you really have to earn. Crowds unlikely
© Dan Bailey

Escape the tourist traps

As the major honeypots of Speyside and Deeside, respectively, Aviemore and Braemar will always be bustling, and could probably do without your presence this year. Why not give their packed pavements a swerve, and head to one of the many less-obvious bases? 

"Try Newtonmore, Kingussie, Tomintoul, Nethy Bridge or Grantown on Spey" suggests Anne. "They might not have Loch Morlich or Linn of Dee on their doorstep but they all have excellent visitor facilities and many places to explore away from the crowds. After the long shut-down, local businesses in these quieter centres might welcome your custom too."

Parking congestion 

The obvious car parks close to well-used picnic spots and the start of popular footpaths will inevitably be congested, particularly headline locations such as Loch Morlich, Linn of Dee, Cairn Gorm and Glen Muick. Arrive early if you want to secure a space at any of these, or better yet head elsewhere altogether.

Glen More and Loch Morlich - very pretty, but the parking will be mobbed  © Dan Bailey
Glen More and Loch Morlich - very pretty, but the parking will be mobbed
© Dan Bailey

"Last summer rangers had to operate a one in, one out system to access Glen Muick" says Anne.

"Surely, if you get to a car park and it is full you turn around and go somewhere else? If the car parks at Loch Morlich or Loch Muick are full, they are full, so go somewhere else - don't double park on the road or park in passing places or trash the verges. Think about the consequences for other visitors and the people that live full time in the areas you are visiting."

If you want to use the car to get a leg-up on a hill day, Glen Shee or even Drumochter might be preferable to the traffic up at Cairngorm Mountain.

Bustling hills, and some quieter alternatives

No one goes hillwalking with the aim of joining a queue, but it's a dead cert this summer that the best known hills will see unprecedented footfall. While the Cairngorms have their share of easy and accessible summits, this is also the most extensive high ground in Scotland. Even in peak periods, much of the National Park will remain empty. The following are some fairly obvious suggestions: there's a wealth of more obscure walking, biking and climbing to be had if you can read a map. 

If you're after wide open spaces without the hordes, Ben Avon will probably deliver  © Dan Bailey
If you're after wide open spaces without the hordes, Ben Avon will probably deliver
© Dan Bailey

Busy biggies: Cairn Gorm and Ben Macdui

With the attractions of a high start, a short walk-in, stunning plateau and corrie scenery, and blissfully easy walking, it's no wonder the giants at the centre of the Cairngorms are a magnet for walkers. Expect company, and lots of it.

High without the hustle: Ben Avon and Beinn a' Bhuird

Over to the east, Ben Avon and Beinn a' Bhuird sprawl across a vast and wild area. Lacking nothing in scenic impact, and with the benefit of a long approach to thin out the visitors, this remote pair is your escape route if you like acres of high plateau and cavernous corries, but don't fancy sharing them with hoi polloi.


Big sky country - Mount Keen from The Goet  © Dan Bailey
Big sky country - Mount Keen from The Goet
© Dan Bailey

Mobbed Munros:  Driesh and Mayar

Thanks to their accessibility from the south, and of course the scenery, Glen Clova's popular pair of 3000-ers are unlikely to be quiet this side of next winter.

Nearby alternative: The Goet (Ben Tirran)

Head to the other side of the glen and there's a vast sprawl of hills that see only a fraction of the footfall. A long circuit of Corbett The Goet allows you to take in two scenic corrie lochans and some enjoyable high striding up on the plateau:


Creag and Dubh Loch and Eagles Falls from Broad Cairn  © Dan Bailey
Creag and Dubh Loch and Eagles Falls from Broad Cairn
© Dan Bailey

Impressive but inundated: Lochnagar

With a classic Cairngorms combination of rolling plateau and deep-gouged corries, Lochnagar is one of Scotland's truly great mountains, exerting a magnetic pull at any time of year. When the floodgates open this spring it'll be hopping. 

Quieter by far: Broad Cairn and Cairn Bannoch

Enjoy comparative solitude on these nearby hills, where the wide open spaces up high are a lovely contrast to the cliff and glen scenery below. You'll probably be sharing the busy start at Glen Muick with the Lochnagar contingent, so arrive early to be sure of a parking space (the alternative start from Glen Clova is unlikely to be car-free either). Having traversed the high rim of Glen Muick, drop into the glen for a spectacular return leg under the Dubh Loch crags. Or if you're feeling frisky, go for the full glen circuit and hit Lochnagar late in the day when the humans have thinned out:

 


Beinn a' Ghlo (left) and Carn an Righ from Glas Tulaichean  © Dan Bailey
Beinn a' Ghlo (left) and Carn an Righ from Glas Tulaichean
© Dan Bailey

Don't go: Beinn a' Ghlo

Big, graceful, and easy to get to, it's no wonder the high ridges of Beinn a' Ghlo pull in the punters. But though you could lose yourself among the obscurer corners of this complex massif, there's really only one standard, logical round for walkers, and parking is bound to be problematic. 

Have a wild wander: West Mounth

Head a little east and the footfall thins out dramatically. Here in the wilds of the Mounth you'll find a cluster of Munros with a back-of-beyond feel - the ideal place for a long, lonely day or a weekend away from it all with a tent.


A beauty, but busy: Meall a' Bhuachaille

Standing apart from the main mass of the Cairngorms, and just above the idyllic woods of Glen More, little Meall a' Bhuachaille deserves its popularity. Needless to say, however, it's likely to be mobbed this year.

Cast the net wider: Cromdale Hills

"Some of the more peripheral small hills give equally challenging days out" advises Anne. "Take the Cromdale hills for example, two rough Grahams with fantastic views of the surrounding landscape and more often than not, just birds and the occasional reindeer for company."

Long distance routes - some to avoid, and peaceful substitutes

"In comparison to the West Highland Way, the Speyside Way and the Dava Way are deserted" says Anne Butler.

"Aberdonians may choose to walk to the Cairngorms via the Deeside Way, or there is the circular Cateran Trail through Perthshire and the Angus glens, which again is under-used."

Looking north towards the long and lonely pass of the Gaick, from An Dun  © Dan Bailey
Looking north towards the long and lonely pass of the Gaick, from An Dun
© Dan Bailey

"In terms of classic through-routes linking glens and passes across the massif the Lairig Ghru and Lairig an Laoigh will inevitably be popular, since they are so well known. But the remote and scenic Gaick and the nearby Minigaig won't be anything like as busy, and each offers a challenging north-south crossing of the mountains. There are endless options to be had by exploring the Mounth Roads to the east of the National Park, too. Not many people take the time to explore the Fungle Road and the Firmounth, so the next few months might be an ideal time to do so."

Go early, stay out late, or make it an overnight

Most walkers are creatures of the day, and as dusk approaches even the heavily-travelled hills begin to empty. With an early start or a late finish you've a realistic shot at solitude. Better yet, pack a tent and go off grid for a bit. If your chosen location is a few hours from civilisation, then that's a few hours next morning to enjoy it in peace before the day walkers start to arrive.

Up early from a wild camp, and we've got plenty of time to reflect on the solitude before things get busy   © Dan Bailey
Up early from a wild camp, and we've got plenty of time to reflect on the solitude before things get busy
© Dan Bailey

Wild camping tips

Last summer saw a huge increase in informal roadside camping across the UK, and a similar explosion of van lifers. The Cairngorms suffered the impact of both. Woodland verges in Glen More began to resemble a festival site, while other perennially popular car camping options such as alongside the A93 north of Glen Shee got a hammering too.

The best known wild camping spots are likely to suffer this year, so it'd be sensible to look elsewhere  © Dan Bailey
The best known wild camping spots are likely to suffer this year, so it'd be sensible to look elsewhere
© Dan Bailey

"Folk were lighting fires, leaving litter, indiscriminately pooing wherever they fancied, chopping down live trees and disrespecting locals" says Anne Butler. "It is not acceptable to empty the toilet of your mobile home into laybys or car parks, nor is it acceptable to tell the person challenging you about your irresponsible behaviour to 'f**k off and mind your own business'."

The situation this spring and summer is bound to be fraught once again, and however well behaved you may be, it would be considerate not to add your weight to the pressure of numbers. Until things die down, avoiding informal roadside camping and camper vanning in the National Park may be a sensible policy.

Crowds? What crowds? Getting some personal space is easy in the Cairngorms  © Dan Bailey
Crowds? What crowds? Getting some personal space is easy in the Cairngorms
© Dan Bailey

Even in the hills away from roads, perennially popular spots such as the woods around Dee Lodge, and up on the Macdui plateau, are bound to feel the pressure of numbers. Throughout the season tents will dot the shores of Loch Etchachan and Loch Avon, and it's a safe bet the Shelterstone will be occupied most nights. But with some imagination you need never camp in sight of another tent. With a wealth of high corries and wide open spaces, there are no end of tucked-away corners in the Cairngorms if you're willing to study the map, put in some effort, and spread out. Be sure to camp with zero impact.

Fires and barbecues

"Last summer the fire brigade was called out daily to Loch Morlich beach to extinguish fires" says Anne Butler. "Why come to the area just to trash it?"

Damage from a suspected camp fire in the Cairngorms, which took two days to bring under control  © Muir of Dinnet National Nature Reserve
Damage from a suspected camp fire in the Cairngorms, which took two days to bring under control
© Muir of Dinnet National Nature Reserve

If you aim to leave no trace, then don't light a fire. It really is that simple. For some, wild camping is synonymous with a camp fire, but even if carried out responsibly (and many are not), camp fires are environmentally questionable, and the cumulative impact of hundreds in a small area will inevitably take its toll. When the crowds descend, every available beach and layby soon sports a sad blackened ring of stones, often scattered with half-burned rubbish. Lying timber is hoovered up to be torched, leaving nothing for insects; green wood is hacked from live trees. And every year, dry weather in the hills is accompanied by wildfires, carbonising rare woodland and acres of moorland. Some of these will have been sparked by a careless barbecue or camp fire.

Give bothies a miss

With the issue of Covid transmission in confined spaces, bothies are likely to remain closed for now. When they do re-open, the usual suspects are going to be mobbed. Don't add to the problem - for the foreseeable future, aim to stay away from: Corrour, Hutchison Hut, Ruigh Aiteachan and Ryvoan.

Bothies are off the agenda for a while yet  © Dan Bailey
Bothies are off the agenda for a while yet
© Dan Bailey

Lochs less busy

With direct road access, stunning views, and the option of watersports, the beach at Loch Morlich will inevitably be thronged. Nearby, the wood-fringed pool of An Lochan Uaine may feel like a secret spot at six in the morning, but by lunchtime the peace will be shattered. Don't add to the problem at either location. If you're after a slightly quieter stroll in lochside woods, try Loch an Eilean and Loch Gamhna; for watersports there's also Loch Insh; while if wildlife floats your boat, head to Loch Garten Nature Reserve. Over in the east, not on many long distance visitors' radars, Loch Kinord and the Muir of Dinnet National Nature Reserve offer a beautiful woodland walk with loads of bird and wildlife-spotting opportunities.

It's well worth looking beyond Loch Morlich  © Dan Bailey
It's well worth looking beyond Loch Morlich
© Dan Bailey

Put in some real leg-work, and you could have a high mountain lochan to yourself for the day. Lochs Avon and Etchachan are the obvious mountain objectives, and therefore worth giving a miss at the height of high season. There are plenty more obscure options if you study a map.   

There's more to the Angus Glens than Clova

Once the leash is off, half of Dundee may decamp into the southern fringes of the National Park. Glen Clova may be the obvious destination, and while it'll still be easy to escape into the rolling space of the hills above the glen, there's only so much car parking space to go around. Consider upper Glen Esk, with its fantastic loch and waterfall walk; Glen Prosen (a comparatively little-trodden approach to the Clova Munros); or the rural backwater of Glen Isla, start point for a wilder take on Glas Maol:

   

Public transport

To ease the pressure on roads and car parks, try letting the bus or train take the strain (don't forget your mask). By the standards of highland Scotland, the Cairngorms National Park is well served by public transport, thanks to the A9 corridor and the Perth-Inverness rail line, that together loop around the west and north sides of the area. Useful hubs on the main rail and road link include Pitlochry, Blair Atholl, Dalwhinnie, Kingussie/Newtonmore, and Aviemore. For long distance visitors, Braemar and Ballater are a bit more of a faff to reach, but perfectly do-able by bus.

Mountain biking and bike packing

With countless gravel tracks threading the glens and hills, the Cairngorms National Park is an ideal place to saddle up and get far out.

"For mountain bikers there are purpose built trails at Laggan Wolftrax and Bike Glenlivet" says Anne, "but a glance at the OS maps will show hundreds of miles of forest tracks and isolated glens ripe for exploration. Abernethy Forest is vast and has a  network of tracks for walking and biking. Glen Tromie and Glen Banchor are flattish bike rides, ideal for family days out."

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