Climbing Ben Macdui and Cairn Gorm

Jul 11, 2018 | Hikes, Munros, Scotland's Mountains

Ben Macdui is Scotland and the UK’s second highest mountain which makes it popular among tourists and hikers alike. I ended up climbing Ben Macdui on a warm summer’s day and it’s one of the busiest mountains I’ve been up in Scotland. This route is a great option if you’re finding your feet in the Cairngorms and plan on tackling some tougher hikes later on.

view of crags on cairn gorm before climbing ben macdui

Admire the natural beauty and landforms on this hike

I found the peak itself to be quite unassuming, especially considering it’s only 36 metres (118 ft) smaller than Ben Nevis. Despite its underwhelming shape, Macdui gives you fine views of Cairngorm National Park. It’s one of those hikes which is a dream in the summer but winter conditions can get treacherous and make navigation a nightmare.

This hike is more a case of appreciating the scenery en-route and the magnificent landforms such as small lochans and formidable crag formations along the way.

Ben Macdui can be tackled from a few different angles which can incorporate various mountains. In this post, we’ll focus on the most popular route which combines it with Cairn Gorm mountain. It’s worth mentioning that Cairn Gorm is merely a stepping stone and can be enjoyed much more on a different route.

 

Contents


Munros Climbed


  1. Cairn Gorm – 1245 metres (4085 ft) – pronounced CAYRN-GORM
  2. Ben Macdui – 1309 metres (4295 ft) – pronounced BEN-MAC-DOO-EE

Getting There


You’ll want to park up at the ski centre car park. At the time of writing, it costs £2 for a car or £8 for minibuses and campervans.

Come off the A9 and head straight through Aviemore before taking a left onto the B920 at the roundabout. Follow this road for 11 miles (17.7km) up to the car park.

Check out the exact location on Google Maps.

Difficulty


In good conditions this isn’t a strenuous hike and this is mainly down to a large chunk of the ascent covered in the car. Remember that the car park sits at around 618 metres (2027 ft).

A lot of walking is on level ground between the 2 peaks where the final ascents are what prove to be the toughest sections. Paths are clear throughout, there are even dozens of cairns dotted up to the summit of Ben Macdui.

In poor levels of visibility, the Cairngorm plateau is notoriously difficult to navigate so proceed with caution.

Duration & Length


Duration: 5 – 8 hours

Length: 10.9 miles (17.5 km)

viewranger screenshot of hike data

Ordnance survey map for route: Explorer OL57.

Where To Stay


Aviemore is just down the road and has a plethora of options. A couple of these include:

The Hike


There are several ways you can tackle Ben Macdui.

For this post, I’ll focus on the most popular option which includes Cairn Gorm mountain. There are a few different ways you can head up Cairn Gorm, the most popular being both the windy ridge and Coire Cas path. Oh, and I forgot to mention the Cairngorm Funicular Railway – but that’s cheating!

I chose the windy ridge which is to the left of the ski centre. It’s well signposted so you can’t get lost at this point. Follow the steps up and onto the clearly marked path.

steps at the beginning of the hike

The first kilometre or so of the path is really quite steep and you gain around 1000 feet quickly. Enjoy some beautiful views to the northwest over Loch Morlich and the Glenmore Forest Park.

loch morlich view

Stunning views over Loch Morlich

Here the track levels out and it’s a steady ascent up to the Ptarmigan Restaurant. Yes, there is a restaurant almost at the top of a Munro……No, I haven’t tried it but feel free if you’re making a day of it!

Follow the cobbled path for the final 500 feet up to the summit cairn for a relatively straightforward 1st peak of the day!

 

fenced path up to the summit cairn

This is the final stretch before the summit cairn

 

The views of Cairn Gorm’s northern corries are epic and to the northwest there’s forest and greenery as far as the eye can see.

view of corries from Cairn Gorm summit

The path follows the ridge of the corries

Continue on your way towards the looming corries to the west. The path curves around the edge before eventually forking right towards Ben Macdui. Follow this path for the next mile – it’s flat and easy going until you reach the quaint little Lochan Buidhe.

small hill loch

This small loch an is a nice rest spot before heading up Macdui

The path around to the right heads back to the car park and completes the Cairn Gorm loop, but we want to reach the top of Ben Macdui so will head south and up the rocky trail.

Continue up and follow the gradual ascent until you reach the vast summit. The relatively short trek doesn’t make it feel like the UK’s 2nd highest point!

There’s a stone pillar on the top which gives you an idea of all the mountains in your surroundings. I was most impressed by the views of Braeriach and Devil’s Point to the west – these peaks have a lot more character than Ben Macdui. You’d expect this with a name like Devil’s Point. Views to the south are limited because of the vast and expansive Cairngorms plateau.

selfie on Ben Macdui's summit

Selfie on the vast peak of Ben Macdui

To descend back down to the car park, retrace your steps back down the rocky slopes to the Lochan Buidhe. Continue the path northwest up and onto the exposed Cairngorm plateau.

From here a clearly marked path gradually leads all the way to the ski centre car park.

long path leading down cairngorm plateau

The vast plateau is treacherous in winter

NOTE: I’m writing this having done the hike in perfect conditions. This plateau is a different beast in the winter or with low visibility – good navigation skills are a must.

Alternative Routes


There isn’t many variations to the above route, the main one missing out Ben Macdui and just doing the Cairn Gorm mountain loop. This will shave off a couple of miles but for what it’s worth I highly recommend going up Macdui while you’re so close.

me next to Cairn Gorm summit cairn

Top of Cairn Gorm with Ben Macdui in the background.

You can also do the route the other way around by crossing the plateau first. This is purely a personal preference – the difficulty won’t change at all. What I will say is that climbing Macdui first and Cairn Gorm on your return will help you appreciate Cairn Gorm mountain more because you don’t have all the skiing fences and ramps on the ascent.

Nearby Hikes & Things To Do


Hikes

Take your pick? You’re in the UK’s largest national park with over 50 munros to choose from. The main ones from the same starting point are:

  • Braeriach traverse and the Devil’s point.
  • Bynack More.

 

To Do

Again, you’re in a massive national park with loads going on whatever the season.

To Conclude


Climbing Ben Macdui and Cairn Gorm can be seen as sort of the gateway to dozens of mountains and possible trails in this spectacular national park.

Cairn Gorm is one of the UK’s best-known peaks – mainly due to ease of access. Ben Macdui is popular because of it being the 2nd highest in the country but other than that it’s quite an underwhelming peak.

Apart from bagging 2 Munros, this hike gives you a taster of the Cairngorms’ tundra and landscape. It might just suck you deeper into the park and serves as a great starting point for further exploration.

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