The Lairig Ghru is the best known hill-pass in Scotland. Nestled in the middle of Cairngorms National Park, it was once one of the main routes used for driving cattle and transporting goods through the Cairngorm mountains.
Its 500-metre deep trench cuts between the second and third highest mountains in the United Kingdom, creating a trail that is wild and remote.
The Cairngorms National Park contains the highest mountain range in the UK, with 55 peaks over 900 meters. The pass makes for a tough day walk, or one of the greatest two-day backpacking trips to be had in the country.
There is history in abundance as well as breathtaking scenery that includes glacial landforms that have deposited granite tors on many of the mountain summits. Here walkers will also stumble upon the largest extent of semi-natural pine forest in Britain and dramatic sub-arctic plateaus.
Five 4000-footers can be seen from the trail, including Cairn Toul, Angel’s Peak and Braeriach, Cairngorm and Ben Macdui.
Other highlights include sparkling waters of the Lui, Luibeg, Dee and Druidh. The source of the mighty river Dee can be seen falling from its beginnings at the Wells of Dee beside the mighty Braeriach, down the falls and into Garbh Choire Dhàidh.
The Pools of Dee are found near the high point of the hike and their crystal-clear waters reflect the surroundings, making for a perfect picnic or stopping off point.
The full route from Aviemore to Braemar is about 43 kilometres (27 miles), though many walkers cut the walk short by starting or finishing at Linn of Dee.
Like many traditional routes, both ends of the route through the Lairig Ghru are like a frayed rope, with multiple start and finish points. Below we focus on the classic route from Coylumbridge to Linn of Dee.
- A true classic walk through varied (yet constantly impressive) terrains
- One of the wildest areas in the country
- Hike through spectacular ancient woodlands of Rothiemurchus Forest
- Visit the Pools of Dee set against a rugged background.
Where can you hike to this destination
Trains run regularly to Aviemore from Glasgow, taking around three hours. Journey times are much the same to/from Edinburgh.
From these major hubs, trains run around the country and south to London King’s Cross.
Buses from Aviemore Rail Station to Coylumbridge operate hourly throughout the day, taking around five minutes.
Various options from the main street heading to Cairngorms all stop right outside Colylumbridge.
For those coming from further afield, it is possible to fly into Edinburgh, Glasgow or nearby Aberdeen airport.
If you have driven and wish to leave your car at the finish point and then take a transfer or taxi to the start, it costs just £3 to leave your car at Linn of Dee car park for the day.
Starting at Coylumbridge and finishing at Linn of Dee, near Braemar, the hike covers a 30.5-kilometre stretch.
Depending on hiking experience, fitness and how many stops you have, it can be completed in anywhere between eight and 12 hours.
Fit walkers who are hungry for a challenge will easily complete it in under 10 hours, but note that the route is made more enjoyable by an overnight stop, allowing additional time to soak up the views and see the sun set over the mountains.
Grade and difficulty of the walk
The profile of the route is a gentle incline and decline. The hike starts at 200 metres above sea level and takes almost 13 kilometres to reach the maximum height of 835 metres.
There are obvious paths for the majority of the route, though they get a little lost amongst the stones on the high and roughest section.
A testing boulder field slows progress for a couple of kilometres before the path reveals itself again and the enjoyable decline commences.
That said, it is a challenging walk and not to be taken lightly.
The route is committing and remote, with some exposed terrain. Once you start walking, there’s no escape route other than turning around and retracing your steps.
This is a serious walk and hence it has been given a Grade 4 rating.
As a Grade 4 route, Lairig Ghru is ideal for more seasoned walkers. There are no super steep or technical sections but the key challenges facing all hikers are the loose and rocky terrain, and Scottish storms.
Thanks to its location and exposed sections, wind speeds in the Cairngorms can exceed 150 kilometres per hour – more than enough to sweep you off your feet.
As such, aim to walk in settled conditions and make sure you are well prepared.
Luckily, there are no permits needed to hike Lairig Ghru from any of the start points and no fees collected en route.
Guided or Self-Guided
This route is well known, with plenty of downloadable maps and step by step guides, so the majority of people hike it solo or in their own group.
That said, various companies offer guided walks, starting at around £65.
This includes a guide for the day, who will lead the group to the start point, keep you safe along the way, point out the interesting features and tell a few stories as you walk.
At the end, a minibus or shuttle of some sort will take you back to your starting point in Aviemore or Braemar.
Two-day trips include accommodation or camping in the pass plus food and a guide, but will cost closer to £200 per person.
There are no out-of-bound times for Lairig Ghru but it is not an advisable winter route unless you’re a snow pro.
Because of its latitude and height above sea level, many of the peaks pose avalanche risks. The mountain slopes adjoining the pass are steep and snow can accumulate here well into late spring.
Late spring (April/May) through to mid autumn (October) is the best window for trekking the Lairig Ghru. As mentioned above, settled weather with a promising forecast is your safest bet for maximum enjoyment. Pushing on through sleet and wind is not only risky but will rob you of the stunning views.
Below is a suggested itinerary if you are hiking from north to south (Coylumbridge to Linn of Dee), broken down into eight main stages.
Note that the full route, which is covered in the annual Lairig Ghru race, runs from the police station in Aviemore to the the police station in Braemar – spanning 44 kilometres. But beware, the last nine-kilometre stretch from Linn of Dee is all on tarmac road.
The best starting point is at the Rothiemurchus Camp and Caravan Park at Coylumbridge.
Head through the gate and follow the lane through the first section of Rothiemurchus forest.
When you reach a fork take the left hand path, signed for the Lairig Ghru, crossing the small river and onwards through various gates. Within no time you reach the edge of the dense forest and will see the Cairngorm mountains and great cleft of the Lairig Ghru ahead.
Head straight over the junction and continue to the Iron Bridge. About one kilometre later, at the Piccadilly cross-roads, turn right – following signs for the Lairig Ghru. The route weaves through the pinewoods, slowly gaining height. The trees start to thin as the path climbs up through a natural tree line.
The trail then crosses an open area with views into the pass ahead. Stay on the constructed path, ignoring all adjoining paths, as it eventually crosses the stream and continues the ascent.
The wild setting includes broken cliffs of Lurcher’s Crag on the left followed by Sron na Lairig on the right.
This stage is the highest section, passing through the great trench and peaking at 835 metres. This section is also the trickiest as the terrain underfoot is extremely rocky for around a kilometre and the path disappears several times.
Within about half an hour, Cairn Toul’s peak comes into view, as well as the Pools of Dee – one of the two sources of the mighty river that flows to Aberdeen. The tough section is over.
Just beyond the larger of the pools, the path starts to improve and you can get back on track to the left side of the burn.
Continue on for four kilometres to reach the Clach nan Taillear (meaning Stone of the Tailors) and follow this path (ignoring the branch path headed to Corrour bothy) until you hit a fork in the road. Go left and the route steadily climbs around the southern flanks of Carn a’Mhaim.
You’ll notice the trail curving round to the left, at which point it starts to descend and you’re on the homeward straight.
On reaching the Luibeg Burn, look for the footbridge detour on your left rather than trying to cross it. On the other side, follow the good path downstream, crossing the River Derry footbridge and arriving at the derelict Derry Lodge.
From here follow the vehicle track southeast down Glen Lui until you reach Black Bridge. Cross this and keep heading south for a couple of kilometres, looking out for a well-maintained path on your right. Turn onto this and walk over the duckboards into the Linn of Dee car park.
Wherever you are choosing to start and finish your hike, there is plenty of accommodation in each destination.
In Aviemore, there are the standard options of a bed and breakfast, guest house, hotel or an upmarket resort. Families or groups that would prefer to self-cater can choose between log cabins, hostels, camping or caravanning.
You can stay in the bustling heart of Aviemore village, with pubs, restaurants and shops on your doorstep, or out amongst the natural scenery of the park. Depending on your budget, facilities include pub gardens, al fresco dining, onsite restaurants, hot tubs and wood-burning stoves.
For those on a strict budget, Rothiemurchus Camp and Caravan Park is a low-cost option that is literally a few steps from the trail’s start point.
Thanks to the Land Reform Act in 2003 it is perfectly legal to wild camp in Scotland as long as it’s not on private land or in an area of high footfall.
If you’d like to stay in Braemar at the end of your hike, there is a similar range of options available. Braemar Lodge Log cabins are an affordable option, as is the Caravan Park and Camping Pods.
Take a day to rest and recuperate after your hike and then get back out into the thick of it. The Cairngorms National Park is a magnet for outdoor and nature enthusiasts, and you won’t be short of things to do.
There is canoeing and kayaking on Aviemore’s Loch Morlich and Strathspey Steam Railway, Cairngorm Mountain Railway and the Cairngorm Mountain Centre can all be found nearby.
If you’re not quite done with the trails, there are almost 300 kilometres of footpaths criss-crossing the park. Whether you want a short jaunt with coffee in hand, or a multi-day challenge, you won’t be disappointed.
You might be lucky enough to spot some local wildlife, ranging from deer at dawn, to otters and ospreys, and even golden eagles.
Come winter time, the surrounding peaks turn into a top ski destination. Aviemore even has its very own reindeer centre.
If you’ve flown in to one of the country’s major hubs, tag on a few days in the city of Edinburgh or Glasgow and soak up the rich Scottish culture and history.
|Starts at||Coylumbridge, Aviemore, UK|
|Finishes at||Linn of Dee Place, Braemar, Ballater, UK|
|Length of route||30.5 Km|
|Average time to complete||8 - 12 Hours|
|Possible to complete sub-sections||Yes|
|Highest point||835 metres|