Hike Distance: 7.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,805 ft
Today we drove for slightly over an hour from Auldearn to Aviemore to hike Cairn Gorm via the Northern Corries in the Cairngorms National Park. This national park covers an area of 1,748 sq miles in the heart of Scotland and is the largest national park in the UK. The Cairngorms mountain range, at the heart of the national park, is home to 55 Munros and 7 of the 8 mountains in the UK over 4000 feet. Only Ben Nevis is not located within the Cairngorms NP.
We chose to hike Cairn Gorm, the 5th highest mountain in the park for a number of reasons including hiking distance and challenge, diversity of the landscape, location within the NP, and recommendations from numerous website and bloggers. It also gave us the opportunity to bag our 2nd Munro after climbing Buachaille Etive Mor earlier in August. Munros are mountains in Scotland over 3,000 feet (914.4 m). Click on the link to navigate to this Highlands blog.
The hike started from the Cairngorms ski area car park. It was a cool, clear morning and great for hiking. Unfortunately, it was also perfect time and weather conditions for midges; within seconds of opening the car doors we were descended upon by midges. Out came the hats with built-in bug netting and gloves. It was an easy decision between looking cool and being comfortable. This was only the third time we had experienced 'midge' problems: the end of the Buachille Etive Mor hike, the Fairy Glen hike, and here.
Cairn Gorm is the best known and most visited mountain in the range, but with a large car park and extensive ski facilities (snow fences, chairlifts, and funicular railway) it can seem spoiled. However, the Cairn Gorm hike via the Northern Corries, which stays to the left of the ski development, is known for dramatic cliff scenery and amazing views. It wasn't long before the ski area was a distant memory and our decision to hike this trail was affirmed.
We had great views in front of us as well as behind us. Since we had started out so early, there were only a few people on the trail with us.
Within 30 minutes we began to see the steep northern cliffs of Cairn Lochan. This picture isn't great, lighting conditions were harsh, but I wanted to bring up the steep cliffs and corries now since its the most significant element of the hike.
And now a quick Cairngorms geology lesson.
The Cairngorm mountains are considered a massif. A massif is a block of the earth's crust that is more rigid than the surrounding rock and has been moved or displaced as a unit. Another famous massif that we hiked was Torres del Paine located in Chile; click on the link to navigate to this South American Blog.
The Cairngorm Mountains massif is comprised of granite that crystallized very slowly when a large plume of magma rose into cooler surroundings and solidified a few kilometers below the existing land surface. A period of rapid erosion wore away the older rocks that originally lay above the granite, exposing the underlying rocks that we see today. Since granite is a very tough rock that resists weathering and erosion, only the very top of it has been worn away over the last 400 million years. A vast tundra-like plateau with an arctic-alpine mountain environment has formed on the massif at elevations between 3,330 and 3,900 feet. The edges of the plateau have been deeply cut by ancient glaciers forming steep corries with steep granite cliffs.
Corries or cirques are mountain valley heads which have been shaped into deep hollows by the erosion of small glaciers. The rock behind and under the ice in the corries was dragged away with the flowing ice. This happened many times as the temperatures fluctuated during the Ice Age and the glaciers came and went repeatedly. The head of a corrie is usually very steep with cliffs and rock faces.
Sitting on the northern edge of the Cairngorm plateau are the North Corries (Coire an Lochain and Coire an t-Sneachda. Our trail today approached the southwestern (left) edge of Coire an Lochain and then followed a line to the top and continued along the ridge of both corries.
Now back to the hike, but the concepts outlined above will be evident in the pictures that follow.
After reaching the top of the first hill, the trail split and we followed the path to the left (thin line barely visible in the middle of the picture) heading to the plateau and Cairn Lochan. Look at the vast openness of the environment. Nothing obstructing the view, just stones, paths, dirt and low ground coverings.
This picture shows the split from a higher elevation. It was at around here that the approach became pathless and we followed what we thought was the best line to the top. It was stony terrain and slightly steeper going until we reached the plateau.
After 2 hours and approximately 1,900 ft of elevation gain, we reached the plateau. We made our way to the ridge and peered over the cliffs of Cairn Lochan and into the basin of Coire an Lochain. If you look closely, you can see our starting point at the car park (light area in the upper right of center portion of the picture).
Coire an Lochain has cliff buttresses that project far from the ridge line and create deeply indented gullies.
The trail continued with a short ascent to the summit of Cairn Lochan at 3,986 ft. Unfortunately, for all our effort Lochan is not a Munro but rather a munro top of Cairn Gorm. Munro tops are summits that are over 3,000 ft, but considered to be a subsidiary top of a nearby Munro. If Cairn Lochan were a munro it would be the 10th highest munro in the UK.
The summit cairn is visible on the horizon to the left of Dave. This stony terrain was common throughout the plateau.
At the summit of Cairn Lochan there were more incredible views of the cliffs.
Peering down into the corrie basin, we could see the highest lochan (small lake) in Scotland. The lochan at the base of the cliffs sits at an elevation of 3,000 ft.
A different view looking across the cliffs. What makes this corrie special is that it’s thought to have been the location of the UK’s last glacier that existed a few hundred years ago.
After enjoying the views we began our descent of Cairn Lochan to a saddle along the ridge before climbing Stob Coire an t-Sneachda, the hill directly in front of us. A lone hiker is visible on the clearly marked trail. The person is great perspective since it's difficult to determine size and distance on the wide open plateau.
Hiking along the ridge of Stob Coire an t-Sneachda, the views were amazing. The top of the headwall of Coire an t-Sneachda. In contrast to Coire an Lochain which is small and relatively enclosed, Coire an t-Sneachda is more dramatic.
Approaching the summit of Stob Coire an t-Sneachda (3,858 ft) with about 1 mile remaining to reach the Cairn Gorm summit.
After 3 hours of hiking we got the 'money' view of the western wall of the corrie, the wide-open basin with two lochans on the floor and the headwall with cliffs reaching 600 feet high. Fiacaill Coire an t-Sneachdaand is the ridge directly across the basin. This buttress ridge that separates Coire an t-Sneachdsa from Coire an Lochain provides challenging winter and summer climbing opportunities. But the ridge hike was more than we were willing to tackle on our first hike in Cairngorms.
This picture provides great examples of the almost 4,000 ft wide corrie with avalanche shoots and scree slopes. Scree is a product of rock falls. Previous glacial erosion, recent frost weathering of cliffs and other weathering processes lead to the detachment of blocks which tumble down the steep slope and accumulate in the region surrounding the lochans. Although not obvious from this picture, some of the rocks on the slope are the size of small cars.
The topographical map displays the layout of the 2 corries. Together the corries almost form the letter 'W'. The Fiacaill ridge jutting our from the corrie head walls is displayed in the map.
A close-up of the headwall and lochans.
The eastern edge of this impressive corrie with the Cairn Gorm summit our next target.
Making our way up the Cairn Gorm slope.
Views of the tundra-like plateau and trail we had followed with the summit of Stob Coire an t-Sneachda (3,858 ft) upper left and Cairn Lochan (3,986 ft) upper middle.
Although we were only at an elevation of 4,000 ft, as this video shows we were winded at the end. We had climbed over 2,000 vertical ft since leaving the ski car park.
After 3.5 hours we reached the summit of Cairn Gorms. At 4,085 feet it is the 7th highest mountain in the UK. There were a few people on the summit . Shortly afterwards more people joined us, having taken the chairlift to the top of the ski area and then walked the last 1/2 mile to the summit.
We enjoyed lunch, walked around the domed top taking in the surrounding landscapes, and then started down by following the cairn lined trail to the chairlift.
When we reached the chairlift, the path followed a ski trail for 2.4 miles back to the car park.
There wasn't much of interest from here to the car park but it had been a great hike with amazing views of the Cairngorms and Northern Corries. Since we had to choose just one hike in the park, I'm glad this was it. I've included the trail map for this loop below.