Cairn Gorm lies at the northern end of the Cairngorm Mountains; a high and exceptionally remote plateau largely over 4,000ft in height and segmented by deep north-south valleys. Cairn Gorm is Scotland's sixth highest mountain at 4,082ft or 1,244m: the Cairngorms collectively also contain four other, higher, summits culminating in Ben Macdui at 4,295ft or 1,309m.
A sense of the plateau can be gained from the picture of the summit, left, and of the view below it along the path towards Ben Macdui. Ben Macdui is said to be the home of the Grey Man, a Yeti-like creature. Early 2001 saw the mountain in the news for more tragic reasons, as the site of the crash of two US military aircraft.
Cairn Gorm can offer no mythical creatures, but it is sometimes home to a number of reindeer that can be glimpsed from time to time now that the upper parts of the mountain have lost some of the crowds of visitors that had been a growing feature in recent years.
Because while the Cairngorms are very remote, Cairn Gorm itself is far from being as remote as many would like. The northern side of the mountain has seen significant ski-related development over a period of forty years. This used to involve a chairlift operating all year round carrying visitors in two stages up to the Ptarmigan Restaurant, at a height of nearly 1,100m, and only 150m below the summit itself. The "old" Ptarmigan can be seen from below in the photo on the left.
As a result the area has benefitted from the year-round business that goes with being a major ski centre as well as a summer attraction; but the mountain suffered badly from being by far the easiest of Scotland's really high (ie 4,000ft+) mountains to ascend. Most people using the chairlift to get to the Ptarmigan Restaurant then went on to use one of the two eroded paths to ascend the final 150m to the summit.
This all changed in December 2001 with the opening of the CairnGorm Mountain Railway, a funicular that replaced the 40 year-old chair lifts. This has provided a much improved service for the winter skiers.
The proposed railway was extremely controversial because people feared that the impact on Cairn Gorm would be even worse than that of the chairlifts. The solution is a "closed system" in which summer visitors using the railway to access a much larger top station and restaurant are not allowed out onto the mountain, though they can enjoy it from a large viewing terrace. The only exception to this is as part of one of the small guided groups which began operating in 2010. Visit our feature page on the CairnGorm Mountain Railway.
The signs are that this is working well, and that the summit of Cairn Gorm has seen far fewer summer visitors since the opening of the funicular than at any time for years. If you do want to visit the summit, there are good paths from the base station car park: though guide books will also provide a number of alternatives that take you rather further from the ski developments in the northern corries.