The Cairngorms National Park is the largest of the UK’s national parks and one of its most striking. Covering over 4,500 km2, it’s home to a quarter of Scotland’s native forest, a third of the UK’s land above 600 meters, and five of the UK’s six highest mountains. The landscape is rugged, wild, and spectacular. Widely visited for outdoor activities such as hill walking, skiing, and rock climbing, it’s also home to some of the UK’s rarest and most unusual wildlife. With the open, mountainous landscape and ancient Caledonian pine forest supporting populations of black grouse, adder, capercaillie, pine marten, mountain hare, golden eagle, red squirrel, red grouse, and red deer. As well as the UK’s only free-ranging herd of reindeer!
Rumour also has it that the park was the inspiration for one of the greatest scientific discoveries of our time – when a revolutionary idea popped into the head of physicist Peter Higgs while he was walking in the Cairngorms in 1964. So get out there and be inspired!
Average rating: 4.3 (very good)
Average cost: entrance to the Park is free so your costs typically depend on food, guides, accommodation, and transport. Reports from WildSide users suggest around $30-60 per day is enough. Wild camping is free in the Park and a great way to see the area – or you can try staying in some of the Cairngorms free to use bothies. A guided tour to see the reindeer herd is around $23, a wildlife safari costs around $17 per person per hour.
Best time to visit: the Scottish Highlands are spectacular at any time of year. The (notoriously bad) weather is best from May to September although the warmer months are also the most midge heavy. If you want good weather and no midges go for May or September.
How to get there: despite its remote location, the Cairngorms National Park is relatively easy to reach from the nearby cities of Inverness, Aberdeen, and Dundee. There are routes into the Park by train, car, bus, or even bike – for all the details check out this really useful guide to getting to the Park.
Typical activities: bird watching, camping, hill walking, rock climbing, skiing, trekking, wildlife watching
Number of reports: 7
Last update: 2022
WILDLIFE IN Cairngorms
According to reports submitted to WildSide, the top ten most popular species that can be seen here are:
#1 Reindeer – 43% OF WildSide Users (3/7) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Reindeers used to be found throughout Scotland but are thought to have died out around the 12th to 13th Century. In 1952 a Sami reindeer herder visited the Cairngorms. Reminded of home, he decided to bring a small herd over from Scandinavia to see if they could survive. Today that same herd still roams the Cairngorms mountains. There are around 150 reindeer in the herd, mostly free-ranging on the mountains with some living in enclosures on the Glenlivet Estate. They are not wild animals although they are, for the most part, allowed to roam and feed freely. You can visit the Cairngorms Reindeer Herd near Aviemore. There’s a small shop and an enclosure which lets you see the animals up close. You can also take a guided tour to see the reindeer roaming the hills. Although this depends on the weather and whether the herd can be found!
#2 Black Grouse – 29% OF WildSide Users (2/7) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Black grouse are woodland birds although they are often found in areas where different habitats form a mosaic – as they also rely on moorlands and wetlands. The females are grey-brown in colour and the males are jet black with a distinctive red eyebrow. During spring and autumn, males take part in a ‘lek’ – a courtship display involving incredible dances and calls.
The Glenlivet Estate in the northeast of the Cairngorms is one of the best places to see black grouse thanks to its huge diversity of habitats. For the best chances to spot them, go looking in spring when you’re likely to hear their unmistakable calls. They can be difficult to spot so you may want to consider hiring a local guide who knows where the leks are. Highland Wildlife & Birdwatch Safaris in Aviemore get good reviews on TripAdvisor – and are happy to arrange (very) early starts to visit the leks when the grouse are most active!
#3 golden eagle – 14% OF WildSide USERS (1/7) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
In the UK, golden eagles are largely restricted to the Scottish Highlands where they can be found from the Outer Hebrides to the Cairngorms National Park. With a wingspan of over 2 metres, golden eagles are noticeably larger than other raptors such as buzzards. The mountains of the Cairngorms support healthy populations of ptarmigan and mountain hare which provide an excellent source of food for golden eagles. Currently, the Cairngorms supports around 50 eagle territories. Your best bet of catching a glimpse of one is to gaze up at the ridgelines of mountains in the Park. A pair of binoculars is essential for spotting these iconic birds, as they are typically observed from distance. Alternatively, you could hire a local guide or head over to the nearby eagle hotspot in the Findhorn Valley.
#4 Red squirrel – 29% OF WildSide USERS (2/7) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
The UK’s red squirrel population is restricted to the Scottish Highlands and a few other small sites in England and Wales. The Cairngorms National Park is one of the best places in Scotland to spot them. The native pine forests, birchwood, and plantation woodlands in the Park are the perfect habitat to spot this elusive species. Red squirrels are most likely to be seen up in the tree canopy. With their red fur being noticeable against the backdrop of the leaves. While you may stumble across one in pretty much any woodland in the Cairngorms, the best spot is Abernethy Forest. If you don’t have any luck amongst the trees try the feeders at RSPB Loch Garten.
#5 Capercaillie – 0% OF WildSide Users (0/7) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Capercaillies are a large species of grouse that live in woodlands. The males of this charismatic bird look almost mythical in appearance, although the females are much less vibrant. Sadly capercaillies are rare in the UK, and spotting one can be extremely difficult. They can now only be found in Scotland in the remnants of the Caledonian forest.
For the best chances, visit one of the native pine forests of the Cairngorms, such as Abernethy Forest or Anagach Woods. Much like red and black grouse, males perform a lek during spring and can be heard from a good distance. If you visit the Cairngorms in April or May check out the Caper Watch at RSPB Loch Garten in Abernethy Forest to look for these magnificent birds. Capercaillies, and their lek sites, are protected by law so make sure you go with a trained guide and keep dogs on a lead to avoid disturbance.
#6 Mountain hare – 14% of Wildside users (1/7) reported sightings
With their thick fur and incredible camouflage, mountain hares are designed for life in the mountains. In summer their coats are grey, helping them hide amid the rocks and heather-covered hillsides. While in winter they turn pure white to blend in with the snow. In the Cairngorms, they are generally found on the higher slopes of the mountains. Look out for them on the path to the summit of Cairn Gorm Mountain. It’s also reported that a couple of mountain hares shelter close to Top Station, the final stop on the railway. They are skittish creatures so a slow, low approach is the only way to get anywhere near them. Reports on TripAdvisor suggest that the Grant Arms Hotel is a good base for mountain hare spotting, or taking a tour with Highland Wildlife Safaris.
#7 Pine marten – 14% of wildside users (1/7) reported sightings
Pine martens are one of the most charismatic and elusive of the Highlands species. They are mostly found in coniferous woodlands although can also be seen in scrubby, rocky areas, as well as gardens with bird feeders. Pine martens are mostly nocturnal so the best times to see them are early morning or evening. It is also worth looking out for footprints, scat, and lost fur in the undergrowth. For a realistic chance of seeing one in the wild a dedicated hide is a good bet – check out the pine marten photography hide or the evening wildlife watching hide.
#8 Red Deer – 43% OF WildSide USERS (3/7) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
There are plenty of red deer in the Cairngorms – but finding them in this vast area of land can be difficult. You may well have some luck hiking through the mountains, moorlands, or forests. Or driving through the country lanes in the evening. Good spots to look include Glen Muick, taking the minor road from Ballater, or the uplands of Atholl Estate and around the Ladder Hills, east of Glenlivet. If you want to give yourself the best chance of seeing them a guide is a good idea. Reports on TripAdvsior suggest Highland Wildlife & Birdwatch Safaris and Speyside Wildlife are both great options.
#9 red grouse – 14% OF WildSide USERS (1/7) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Red grouse are endemic to the moorlands of Britain and Ireland. They are a subspecies of willow ptarmigan – identified by their distinctive red feathers. Red grouse are game birds, with much of the moorland habitat in Scotland being managed for shooting grouse. They prefer open heather or moorland with few trees. Much like black grouse, the males ‘lek’ during the mating season. Red grouse are fairly easy to spot if you head to an area with a sizeable population. The Ladder Hills and the Glenlivet Estate being good examples. Here they can be spotted chasing each other through the open moorlands. They can even be spotted in and around the ski resorts and car parks during the skiing offseason.
#10 Adder – 14% OF WildSide Users (1/7) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
The Cairngorms National Park is a refuge for Scotland’s only snake. However, spotting one of these secretive, well-camouflaged creatures is a real challenge. To make things a bit more difficult, they hibernate from October to March. Adders are found in sheltered sunny areas on woodland edges and dry moorland. May is a good time of year to look out for them as they’ve just woke up from hibernation. Being cold-blooded they spend their mornings basking in the sunshine on rocks or open ground to warm up. There’s a video of a sighting from a walker in the Cairngorms here and an article here. Chances of spotting one are low but keep your eyes out and you might just get lucky like we did!
Photo credit: Free-Photos under a Creative Commons license from Pixabay