Christmas in the Cairngorms

First off, I should confess that the title of this blog is a bit of a fib. We didn’t actually spend Christmas Day in the Cairngorms, heading up instead two days later and spending the week over New Year in a cottage near Tomintoul. However, ‘New Year in the Cairngorms’ doesn’t have quite the same alliterative ring to it as ‘Christmas in the Cairngorms’ and so here we are. The Cairngorms had been on our ‘to visit’ list for years but I’d always struggled to find somewhere in a good location which accepts two dogs – therefore, when I finally found somewhere, I booked it almost immediately. Sadly our trip, planned for December 2020, was delayed due to Covid, so it was a year later than planned when we eventually headed north into the mountains.

Glenmore Forest Park

The first few days of our trip were cold. Even though there was no snow, the low temperature meant that everywhere was coated in frost all day, rather than disappearing when the sun came up. The result was a magnificent winter wonderland and lochs which were completely frozen – both of which were on display at Glenmore Forest Park.

The walk we decided to do was the Ryvoan Pass walk from our Pocket Mountains guide. The walk itself is about 6.5 miles starting from the Glenmore Visitor centre – this was full when we arrived so we parked down the road at Allt Ban car park (pay and display). There is a similar route on Walkhighlands.

This was one of my favourite walks of the trip – there’s very little effort required in terms of climbing but maximum views all the way around. The walk starts out on spacious forest trails, reaching Loch an Uaine before leaving the trees to cross heather moorland until you get to the Ryvoan Bothy. The views here are brilliant, and from the bothy you retrace your steps to Loch an Uaine before venturing off the main path to climb a steep set of steps through dense forest. The view across the forest to the distant mountains is more than enough to make it worth your while – and at the end of the climb you reach a wide forest track with an amazing view down to Loch Morlich. While the track to the bothy and to Loch an Uaine was fairly busy, this track was almost deserted, and it felt like we were a million miles from the track below.

We both really enjoyed this walk – it’s an easy stroll which, aside from the relatively short climb up the steps, isn’t remotely taxing. The paths are mostly well surfaced forest tracks (which when we visited were icy and slippery) and the ascent and descent is mostly gentle. We did cut off the section along the shore of Loch Morlich as it was absolutely heaving with people – it’s a popular walk with both locals and visitors alike. If you want to extend this walk, from the Ryvoan Pass you can add a climb up the small hill of Meall a’ Bhuachaille. We were tempted but it looked like a lot of other people had a similar idea, so we just decided to stick to the planned route!

Dog friendly rating – 5/5. This walk is a great dog walk – we were able to have Coal off lead all the way around, and there are opportunities for dogs to have a splash in the river or in the loch. While the lower down paths were fairly busy with people and dogs, the higher up path was much quieter and we only saw one other walker up here. There were no stiles on the route and just a short section along the road to get back to the car park at the end. Both of ours loved exploring all the trails – the only thing to note is that from April-August, dogs need to be on leads due to the sensitivity of the Capercaillie breeding season. This is the case for lots of woodland areas in the Cairngorms, which is one of the only places in Scotland where the Capercaillie can be found.

Carn Daimh

All three walking books we took with us included at least one route up Carn Daimh. We followed the way marked route from Clash Wood near Tomnavoulin – this route is detailed in the Day Walks in the Cairngorms guide and also on Walkhighlands. Parking at Clash Wood is free and there’s space for a small number of cars.

The way marked trail is one of several routes around the Glenlivet Estate, which is owned by the Crown and has introduced a number of trails to improve public access. The route follows mixed terrain through woodland, field tracks and over moorland, ranging from well surfaced trails to unavoidable mud – luckily the cold stopped it being too sloppy! You also spend some time walking along the Speyside Way which I would love to explore more of on another trip.

For a hill walk, this was surprisingly non-strenuous. From the start, you make your way steadily uphill until you arrive at the summit – more difficult than the uphill element was clambering over, under and around a number of fallen trees in the plantation close to the summit. The Glenlivet Estate’s website says that all tracks have been cleared following Storm Arwen, however, I wonder if they’d checked this stretch! We did eventually manage to get through and the rest of the route was clear.

When you leave the Speyside Way and start your descent, the majority of the walk follows a moorland track. We then crossed a field to get back into Clash Wood – there were quite a few cows in here but they were mostly uninterested in us (we did give them a wide detour though!).

Dog friendly rating – 3/5. This was another walk where we were able to have Coal off lead nearly all the way, excepting a section at the start with sheep and the above cow field. Depending on your dog, they might need to spend more time on the lead as you cross the moorland tracks (like Merry), but three stretches through woodland offer plenty of time for letting your dog stretch it’s legs. The walk is quite exposed and could get hot in summer, with no water, so make sure to take some extra for your dogs. There are a few stiles near the start which we were able to avoid using gates, and another near the end which both of our dogs managed to get over with no problems.

Burn O’ Vat and the Muir of Dinnet

The Burn O’ Vat is a pot hole which was formed by a melting ice sheet thousands of years ago, and is a popular tourist attraction in Aberdeenshire. The Vat can be accessed on foot via stepping stones and once inside, there is a tumbling waterfall. Walking across the stepping stones feels very much like going on an adventure, and the attraction is understandably popular with families. We combined our trip to the Vat with a walk around the Cambus O’ May forest and Loch Kinord, joined up via the Deeside Way. This route was the longest of our trip at 9.8 miles and was another from our Day Walks in the Cairngorms guide. Parking at the visitor centre was plentiful and there was a box for donations towards the upkeep of the site – there was even a clean and centrally heated toilet block!

I’ve had a look online but can’t find the exact route we followed – though to be honest I wasn’t a fan of the 3-4km stretch along the Deeside Way, and would instead suggest two separate walks. The Cambus O’ May has a number of way marked trails and is a great place for spotting wildlife – we saw a red squirrel scampering around the car park, and the forest is also home to capercaillie. Loch Kinord was my favourite part of this walk – we got there towards the end of the afternoon as the temperature was falling and mist was rolling in across the water. It was all very moody and atmospheric – I was half expecting the Lady of the Lake to emerge from the mist!

Loch Kinord can be walked as a circular which also visits the Vat, but is well worth a visit in it’s own right. The loch includes an artificial man made island dating from the Iron Age, and you can also find a ninth century Pictish stone along the edge of the shore. If nature is more your thing than history, the walk around the loch also takes you through the Muir of Dinnet nature reserve. The loch is home to a range of wildlife, including otters who fish on the shores. Sadly we didn’t see any otters but if you do want to try and spot them your best chance is at dawn or dusk.

Dog friendly rating – 4.5/5. While the Burn O’ Vat is pretty busy, the Cambus O’ May and Loch Kinord are excellent dog walking locations. While neither were busy, we did see a fair few other dog walkers, but the large amounts of space mean you are rarely crammed in close to others. We were able to let Coal off the lead for the majority of the walk, putting him back on his lead for the road crossings (including crossing the busy A93). If you do follow the Deeside Way, the start and end run close to the A93, but mostly it swings away from the road to follow the river. For such a long walk it was lovely not to come across any stiles – and both dogs slept very well after such a long walk!

The Invercauld Estate

After our very long walk (for us) the day before, we decided to have a slightly easier day and do a shorter walk. After spending hours scrolling through Walkhighlands (there really is too much choice) we settled on one of the way marked trails around the Invercauld Estate. We followed the trail up to Keiloch Crag, the shortest route of the three. The walk starts from the Estate’s walker’s car park (pay & display, toilet) and took us just over an hour – we didn’t hang around though as there was a very cold wind blowing!

We were surprised to find the car park completely full when we got back from our walk – we’d only seen one other group while we were out. The walk itself is not strenuous but offers great views of the surrounding landscape.

As well as the great views, there’s a series of pull-out information posts dotted around the trail telling you about the history of the estate. About half way around we came across the Fog House, a little hut which would’ve originally been thatched with heather, and a great spot to sit and eat some lunch while admiring the view.

The trail is well way marked (we followed it backwards which was less well sign posted) and the tracks are clear and easy to follow. While you do gain height in order to get the magnificent views, at no point was I out of breath, enjoying a steady amble around the trail.

Dog friendly rating – 5/5. This is a wonderful short dog walk – short enough that you can do it easily in a limited good weather window (which is all too often the case in Scotland!) while being able to let your dog have a good run around off the lead. The Keiloch Crag walk is entirely through woodland (but still offering plenty of views) and doesn’t have any stiles. There is a short stretch along a private road at the start/end depending which direction you walk in, but this was very quiet and we didn’t see any cars down here at all. The perfect New Year’s Day walk to brush away cobwebs and set us up for another year of wonderful dog walks.

Sgor Gaoithe

Sgor Gaoithe, not to be confused with the much larger Sgor Gaoith, is the most westerly of the Cromdale Hills. On our penultimate day, we looked at the snow forecast for the next day and decided to pack up a day early and head home while the roads were still free of snow and ice. As it was such a beautiful sunny day, we wanted to squeeze in one final walk before leaving, but short enough that we wouldn’t be getting home ridiculously late. After another trawl through Walkhighlands we settled on Sgor Gaoithe, with the promise of a reasonably quick and easy ascent with outstanding views of the Cairngorms and over Grantown-on-Spey.

The route on Walkhighlands is an out and back linear walk of just under two and a half miles. Parking is free in a large lay-by close to the start of the walk. The description describes the gradient as gentle – I’m not entirely sure I agree, but it certainly isn’t the steepest hill we’ve ever climbed. Navigation is pretty easy, following a landrover track nearly all the way, and even when this disappears the path can still be picked out without too much trouble. It is very exposed on the hillside – we got battered by the wind which wasn’t forecast as being particularly strong – so make sure you only head out onto the hills in the right conditions for your ability and with the right gear.

Dog friendly rating – 2.5/5. You walk across open moorland all the way on this walk, so you’ll only be able to let your dog off if you trust them not to chase or disturb any birds (Merry always stays firmly attached to me!). There is a stile at the start to get onto the moor, but there is a reasonably large gap under the gate next to it that both of ours were able to wriggle under. We didn’t see any other people or dogs on this walk which is a bonus if you have a reactive dog like Coal – it seems like the Cromdale Hills are less frequented than the bigger, more famous mountains in the Cairngorms.

Where we Stayed

After spending months searching for the perfect base to explore the Cairngorms, I stumbled across Balneden Steading on Instagram. Comprising three holiday cottages sleeping from 2-4 people, the cottages are beautifully decorated and equipped with everything you could possibly need, with both a log burner AND underfloor heating. A don’t get me started on the view from the front of the cottages! Rurally located a short drive from Tomintoul, these cottages are ideal if you want to totally get away from it all.

Visiting in December meant that when we arrived, the long drive connecting the cottages to the main road (up hill) had sheet ice in multiple places, making getting up the hill impossible without winter tyres. The owners very kindly came and collected all of our stuff and drove it up the hill for us, meaning we were able to relax completely right from the very first night.

Dog friendly rating – 4/5. Both our dogs loved Balneden and it was so quiet and peaceful – no noises making Merry bark constantly, and even at midnight on New Year’s Eve, while there were a few bangs, it lasted for just seconds. We absolutely loved how spacious the living/kitchen area was – anything less than palatial and Coal’s permanently wagging tail is in danger of sweeping every surface clean! I’ve just knocked off one point due to the lack of enclosed garden but really that’s just nit-picking. If our dogs could talk, I’m pretty sure they would be requesting that we install underfloor heating ASAP!

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