Scotland in the spring: To the top of Cairn Gorm

Both of us slept pretty badly despite exhausting ourselves on our Rothiemurchus walk. Perhaps it was the light, for the sun sets late and rises early during summer in the Cairngorms.

So neither of us had the energy for anything too exhausting, despite a much better weather forecast.

After another ample breakfast and a gossip with our fellow guests – the benefit of staying in a small hotel is that everyone gets to know each other – we opted for a trip to the top of Cairn Gorm, the mountain that gives its name to the region.

The ancient bridge at Carrbridge
The ancient bridge at Carrbridge

A visit to the information centre at Aviemore proved a wise move, as a webcam stationed at the mountain restaurant showed clouds swirling around the top station. Neither of us wanted to go all that way to be enveloped in fog so we opted instead for a morning walk around Carrbridge.

Best known for its ancient 18th century bridge across the Dunlain River, we left that till last and started with a 3-mile hike that circled the town through nearby forests. It wasn’t the best of walks, being reasonably level and predictable. And after you’ve seen one managed pine forest, you’ve seen the lot.

The funicular railway at Cairn Gorm
The funicular railway at Cairn Gorm

The bridge over the river, though, was a memorable sight, reminding me of the angry river we saw thundering through the village of Braemar a few years back. In Carrbridge, the Dunlain crashed over rapids below us as it wound its way through the village, under the curious old stone bridge and its ugly, modern offspring.

The old bridge was built with an extra-steep crown to help protect it from the river at its fiercest, but clearly the builders hadn’t catered for the worst the Dunlain could throw at it.

In a cafe a few yards away (notable for the smell of grease and pretty dismal service), we saw an old photo of the river in full flow and the punishment the bridge had to endure.

A stream on Cairn Gorm
A stream on Cairn Gorm

With the sun breaking through, we drove off to Cairn Gorm. The landscape looked transformed in the better weather, with green fields grazed by rare breed sheep and cattle, and green and purple hills draped in pine forests and heather.

We stopped at Loch Morlich, a beautiful stretch of water with a beach, overlooked by mountains that still had patches of snow and ice clinging to their peaks.

We drove on up to Cairn Gorm’s funicular railway station, stopping every now and again to lap up the views. The funicular itself took just a handful of minutes to climb to the summit, up slopes that proved to be very different to the Alps.

The view from the top of the mountain
The view from the top of the mountain

Barren, thanks to the ferocious winds that can blow across the mountains, the scrub was thin, dotted with granite rocks that hid the local ptarmigan. Streams bounded down the hills amid the ugly detritus of skiing infrastructure and snow fences.

At the top, our train disappeared into the hillside below the Ptarmigan Restaurant and we found the obligatory gift shop and an average exhibition. We tucked into pie and chips and a big, fat lager.

The views were magnificent but a grey cloud layer hovered just above us, threatening to descend at any moment. We could see up to 70 miles to the mountains of the east, including Ben Nevis, and north to the Moray Firth. Sunshine lit up the landscape in places, reflecting off the majestic Loch Morlich below.

I’d never seen a view like it in Britain.

The Spey
The Spey

We descended from the chill of the mountain peak, driving through the countryside to stop and appreciate the beautiful Spey river carving its way through the valley.

I’d eaten far too much and the result was that I couldn’t fully appreciate dinner in the hotel restaurant. Stomach bursting after pie at lunch, a scallop starter and tomato soup, I had to leave half the turkey.

As we dined, two young deer scampered around the hotel gardens. And by the look of it, it was a stag trying to have his evil way with a doe!

While they went about their business, we adjourned to the lounge for red wine and and a wild night of Scrabble.

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