Wanting to see some of the Highland's majestic mountains during winter, my friend and I made a trip to the UK's largest national park, the Cairngorms.
The plan was to get to Aviemore, a town is conveniently placed near the park's centre, and do some hiking around. So, one mid-January morning, we boarded a train in Dundee to get there. One has to do a transfer in Perth, which we used to see the city in the rising sunlight.
However, just after getting off the railway station and taking a pic of the closest block of flats, the sky turned cloudy, hiding all the bright colours in a minute. Oh well. We got some food for the trip and returned to the station to catch the following train connection.
Boarding the train brought all the excitement back, as the landscape outside the windows was changing from good to better...
In about 90 mins, we got to the Aviemore station, which we immediately left into the woods.
Our first goal was the Loch An Eilein, a mountain lake featuring a small island with a 15th-century castle ruin It looks like a set from a fairy tale. Or a horror. Excellent either way.
From here, we walked to Loch Morlich, another lake roughly 8km (5mi) further towards the mountains, where we planned to spend a night in a hostel.
It was getting darker quickly, so we welcomed the fact that the last stretch of the journey was on a wide, easy-to-navigate gravel road.
At the time we got to the hostel near the lake, it was total darkness fractured only by stars and a few cars passing around now and then. As we didn't book anything in advance, my concern was whether the hostel would have a free space. However, there was a different problem: out of season, the hostel is open only during weekends — no luck, we were there during the week. A quick plan change pointed us back to Aviemore, where is a hostel available year-round. The timing was perfect, as we caught the last bus that day.
All Scottish hostels I stayed in before were great, and the Aviemore's wasn't an exception. One thing that stood out for me here was that about 1/3 of the guests were over 30 years old. This place destroyed the stereotype that hostels are only for broken kids and party animals no older than 20s. There was even a family with children. "All welcome" really works here, and it was so lovely to see it.
The next day we started at dawn with a brisk walk onto a ridge west of the town.
The sunrise got interrupted by light rain; nothing to spoil the fun, though.
Then we took a bus to the bottom station of the Cairngorm Mountain ski resort located 15km (9mi) from Aviemore, at ~590m (1935ft) above sea level. They have many ski slopes, but this winter's lack of snow caused it to be quiet. From here, there is a funicular railway that climbs up to a panoramic restaurant in ~1075m (3526ft).
I thought about taking it one-way up to give us a jump start to hike around the high plateau, which awaits behind the restaurant. However, then I learned that if you take the train up, you are not able to leave the station — unless you purchase a guided walk down. Pfff, right, nope. So we headed up by foot.
Gaining such elevation was something I was curious about how it would go because of my knee injury last year, but the path was nicely graded and it went well. A bigger challenge than the incline was the strong wind the trail was exposed to. There were wind gusts up to 50mph. I don't remember the last time I experienced such wind.
The scenery around was incredible, and thanks to the wind, it was changing every second. Noticed the dramatic clouds in the right portion of the image above? Well, that was nothing less than a snow blizzard quickly coming our way.
In a moment, the wind got accompanied by tiny ice spikes plummeting into us at high speeds. It might not be the most comfortable environment; but I mean, if I would like to have a calm picnic in a French garden I would not go to the Scottish Highlands in January.
The wind kept blowing, thus the storm was gone as fast as it appeared. Shortly afterwards, we were above the restaurant with some views to admire.
From there, we reached the summit of Cairn Gorm Mountain, (1245m/4085ft), and another storm approached us. The wind was stronger with every step, visibility worsened, but the clouds opened every once in a while, revealing a thrilling show.
Rugged mountains, rugged conditions… Heck yeah, now we are talking! I was excited to a level like I haven't been in a long time.
After the Cairn Gorm summit, the trail changed from a well-maintained road to a hardly visible path and gradually vanished altogether — leaving everyone to create their own. Considering the visibility during the storms, it was a challenge to take.
But given that the storms never lasted too long, and at the end of each was a surprise of yet another beautiful landscapes, there was nothing to complain about.
On the way down, we had the wind in our backs, which sped up our steps. This; however, wasn't as useful when walking on an icy surface.
It went all right, and eventually, there was a trail again. Once we got off the ridge, it wasn't as windy anymore, but the beautiful surrounding lasted.
From the loch, we took a bus back to Aviemore and called it a day.
The following day we walked on the Torr Alvie, a hill some 5km (3mi) south of Aviemore topped out with a Duke of Gordons Monument from the 19th century.
Until reaching the hill, the trail is well marked and nearly wheelchair ready.
Although cloudy again, it offered nice views, and we were at the foot of the hill in no time.
Here it started to be interesting because the path I saw on my map simply didn't exist. We had to improvise and find a different way.
We ended on a 4x4 trail that took us directly to the monument. The road was lined with great views of the mountains all around.
It is as colourful as the pictures show. The Gaelic names of the mountain range, Cairngorms and Am Monadh Ruadh, mean something like "blue and red mountains" in English, and it lives up to that description.
As I prefer to take a different road back than the one I arrived with, I planned to descend the hill from the other side. As it has been a pattern on this location, the map didn't represent the reality, and the path was nowhere to find; we just went straight down using some deer trails. Under the hill is a small settlement, and it was easy to navigate again.
In some time, the beaten track transformed into a newly paved road.
and soon, we returned to the Aviemore railroad station.
But instead of going back to Dundee, we went the opposite direction, to Carrbridge.
The reason why I wanted to visit this village is that there are impressive remains of a stone bridge built in 1717, the oldest stone bridge in the Highlands.
This checkmarked, we browsed a rainbow-decorated main street and then spent the rest of the day in the Ellan Wood park before another train took us towards home.
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