With its craggy peaks (including enough Munros to keep the avid Munro-bagger busy for a very long time*) and arctic-alpine lakes, the Cairngorms National Park is the gift that keeps on giving. Our multi-day loop concluded with a string of peaks in the vicinity of Loch Avon: Beinn Mheadhoin, Derry Cairngorm, Ben Macdui and Cairn Gorm.
*Unless you’re the guy we bumped into up Beinn Mheadoin and Cairn Gorm who’d packed eighteen into a single weekend, that is.
We weren’t particularly efficient at taking the tent down that morning, as tiny toads hopping around in the grass kept catching our eye. Naturally, as soon as I dug my camera out and moved over, they tended to jump away… but patience paid off and I managed to get a few half-decent shots!
We hit the trail just after 08.30, and were soon feeling very relieved to be tackling Beinn Mheadhoin (1,182m) on fresh legs after a decent night’s sleep – it was a wee bit on the steep side, and probably would have finished me off had we tackled it the previous afternoon-slash-evening. (A steep descent followed swiftly by a steep ascent doesn’t leave my knees feeling happy.) Little Loch Etchachan, which is sandwiched between Creagan a’ Choire Etchachan and Carn Etchachan, came into view before too long, and looked to be a popular spot amongst wild campers.
We skirted the edge of Little Loch Etchatan, and then began cutting up the side of Beinn Mheadhoin. What we should have done was cross the ford, and go straight up – but we didn’t spot the path. So we clambered up, zig-zagging across the grassy slope above Stacan Dubha until it petered out and became a rocky plateau topped with granite tors.
On our approach to the top, we had a stunning bird’s eye view of Loch Avon/Loch A’an (below). Beinn Mheadhoin, Ben Macdui and Cairn Gorm form a rough horseshoe above Loch Avon, but it’s only visible from Beinn Mheadhoin. Laurence also spotted a mountain hare, but it bounded away before I could pull my camera out.
We found a shady spot beneath one of the tors for a summit snack break, and got chatting with a guy who had squeezed more Munros into a weekend than I’d have thought possible. (As it happened, he recognised us from Cairn Toul, and we crossed paths again on the slopes of Cairn Gorm.)
Once we’d had our fill of the views from Beinn Mheadhoin, our attention shifted to Derry Cairngorm (1,155m). We followed the path across the plateau and picked our way down the slope towards Little Loch Etchachan. Just before the path turned into a gritty, slippery mess, we stopped to take photos of Loch Etchachan (below). I’ll let the photo speak for itself, as I’m struggling to find the right words to describe how beautiful that view was.
We filled our water bottles from the stream near Little Loch Etchachan, and then set off down the path that leads to Ben Macdui. A kilometre or so along the path – past Creagan a’ Choire Etchachan, but before Main Spout/Narrow Gully – there’s a track that veers off towards Derry Cairngorm. Although it’s only a short detour from the main path – four kilometres out-and-back, or thereabouts – we didn’t run into many people on this stretch. We saw a trio of girls, who’d dropped their enormous rucksacks at the foot of Derry Cairngorm, and a couple of trail runners, and that was it. Whilst it’s nice to chat with other walkers at the top, it’s also nice to have a summit to yourself once in a while.
After lunch, we picked our way back down the hillside towards the main path. Up next: Ben Macdui (or, to give it its Gaelic name, Beinn Macduibh). As the path climbed, we found ourselves continually stopping and turning to admire the view of Loch Etchachan – that’s one loch I wouldn’t tire of seeing!
Ben Macdui (1,309m) is the second-highest peak in the British Isles, and while there were a fair few people at the summit, there were none of the queues you get at the summits of Ben Nevis and Snowdon. As the summit sits in the middle of a large, fairly flat rocky plateau, Ben Macdui didn’t have the wow-factor on the views front – but that’s not to say it’s not worth going up. After all, it’s pretty cool to have been up the second-highest mountain in the British Isles!
We took a snack break at the top, and got chatting to a man from Galashiels who was busy making himself a brew on his stove (hiking goals!). Unlike the Munro-bagger we’d met at the top of Beinn Mheadhoin, this man felt firmly that you should just do the ones that you want to do rather than turn the hills into a tick-box exercise. I’d have to agree – although I have a list of which Munros we’ve climbed (I like lists!), I’d much rather it be something I want to do and enjoy doing, than something I feel like I have to do.
With the afternoon wearing on and another eight or so kilometres still to go, we pulled our rucksacks on and set off. After a couple of kilometres, the path forked. We veered right, towards Lochan Buidhe and Stob Coire an t-Sneachda.
There are a handful of few snowy patches that remain year-round in the Cairngorms, and we saw a few of these around Ben Macdui. Just after we passed Lochan Buidhe, we bumped into a young(er-than-us) couple who asked us if we had a spare lighter, as they’d forgotten to pack one for their stove. Moral of that story? Check you’ve got everything before you head off into 4,500sq kilometres of semi-wilderness. We were momentarily stumped – we had a lighter, but not a spare – and by the time we’d thought it through and decided we’d probably be able to buy a new one in Aviemore that evening, they’d headed off down the path and didn’t hear us calling after them. Hopefully someone else was able to help them!
By the time we reached the summit of Cairn Gorm (1,244m), it was cloudy and cool. Cairn Gorm isn’t the prettiest of summits, as it’s topped with not one but two automatic weather stations (AWS): one run by Heriot-Watt University, the other by the Met Office. A small plaque provided a brief history of Heriot-Watt University’s AWS, which I’ve condensed here.
The AWS was built by the university’s Physics department, and installed on Cairn Gorm in March 1977. Every half hour, the AWS opens for three minutes to take readings of temperature, wind speed and wind direction; its interior is heated, which enables it to capture this information during the winter months (when it gets pretty darn cold up here). These readings are relayed to a server at Heriot-Watt University, and allow researchers to study snow behaviour, avalanche risk and wind chill, and improve mountain weather forecasting.
We lingered just long enough to charge Laurence’s watch and polish off a tube of Fruit Pastilles, and then decided we needed to get moving to warm up. We bumped into the Munro-bagger from Beinn Mheadhoin on our way down (though he overtook us later), and headed down the path towards the now-defunct ski resort. We couldn’t believe our eyes when we passed a woman in a floaty skirt, strappy top and flip flops heading up the mountain, with her child in tow. Madness!
We reached the car park, weary but happy, just after 19.00. After checking back in at the Ranger Station and dropping some cash in one of the donation boxes, we drove down to Aviemore to stock up on snacks and find tea. A break from just-add-water meals was in order, and took the form of fish and chips from Smiffy’s. Sated, we tootled back through Glenmore Forest Park and found a spot to pitch up at Loch Morlich.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
- Maps and guides | Arm yourself with a copy of OS Explorer OL57 – and know how to read it.
- Distance | 25.5km/16 miles; 1,315m of elevation gain
- Camping | We camped by Loch Morlich. There’s been a fair bit of bad press around wild campers in this location, so if you’re planning to roll up here, be a responsible camper and take heed of the following. Firstly, although there’s a car park here, overnight parking isn’t allowed. There’s a small amount of verge parking on the road; this was where we parked. Secondly, when nature calls, go to the toilet block. And last, but by no means least: take all your litter home. I lost count of how many bags of rubbish we saw tied up on tree branches, here and in other laybys in this area.
- Misc. | Interested in seeing the weather patterns at Cairn Gorm? You can access the weather data at cairngormweather.eps.hw.ac.uk.