Being Scotland’s and Britain’s second-highest mountain (1,309m), Ben Macdui is well-known to British outdoor enthusiasts. Located in the Cairngorms National Park in the Highlands of Scotland, the Ben Macdui and Cairngorm (Cairn Gorm) route is a fantastic trail option for conquering Ben Macdui. You’ll be exhausted by the initial vertical gain of this hike; but, the trail is straightforward to navigate, making it a popular route. Unsurprisingly, this trail is the premier hike of the Cairngorms.

You’ll feel a mighty sense of accomplishment by completing the Ben Macdui and Cairngorm route. Use this comprehensive guide to help you and your friends plan this epic hiking adventure. Not only will we provide informative trail specs and GPS-guided directions; but, we’ll recommend hiking essentials and logistical recommendations such as accommodation. This guide will help provide everything that you need to know for an enjoyable trip to the Cairngorms and an awesome ascent to Ben Macdui.

Before you dive into this guide, check out our YouTube production below, to further fuel your hiking appetite for Ben Macdui and Cairngorm.

For another epic hiking adventure in the Cairngorms National Park, read our guide on how to find the incredible Green Lochan.

Ben Macdui and Cairngorm | Day Trip

Hiking Ben Macdui and Cairngorm will take, at the very least, 5 hours for speed hikers, and more likely, around 6–8 hours for other walkers. So, you’ll probably need a day dedicated to hiking the Ben Macdui and Cairngorm route. Of course, for the speed hikers, there’s always an option to add in a shorter hike in the afternoon if you’ve still got the energy. We recommend the straightforward Green Lochan Circular or the longer Meall A’Bhuachaille Circuit (8km | 4 hours | Elevation gain: 580m | Trailhead: 57.167444, -3.693889), which also takes in the Green Lochan, to completely fill your day.

Admittedly, after hiking a ridiculous amount in the previous week in Loch Lomond and the West Highlands, we decided conquering Ben Macdui would be our only hike of the day. Plus, being Beck’s birthday, we felt that we should take it easy in the afternoon to celebrate! Also, the forecast for the afternoon was terrible, so it was the right decision for us!

Hopefully, you’ll have great weather to complete the amazing Ben Macdui and Cairngorm trail and any other Cairngorms trails you can sink your teeth into. Keep in mind though, in winter, the Ben Macdui and Cairngorm trail can become difficult to distinguish when covered in snow. Only experienced hikers with snow trekking equipment should attempt this trail when it’s snow-covered.

Ben Macdui and Cairngorm Trail Preview

  • Type: Loop
  • Distance: 18.5km
  • Time: 5 hours 10 mins
  • Accumulated elevation gain: 948m
  • Difficulty: Easy-Moderate
  • Trailhead: FCairngorm Mountain Upper Car Park (Cairngorm Ski Centre Car Park)

Travel Made Me Do It have personally rated this trail

Trail Description Preview: the Windy Ridge Path ascends to Cairngorm, before crossing the Cairngorm Plateau, where you’ll then complete an out and back component to Ben Macdui. The wide ridge of Miadan Creag an Leth-choin forms the scenic outward route, providing impressive views of the northern corries.

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Cairngorm

Your adventure begins at around 625 metres above sea level, from the Cairngorm Ski Centre. Almost immediately, you’ll be climbing Sròn an Aonaich ‘Windy Ridge’ Path. The steep ascent is unsurprisingly windy, so don’t forget your windproof jacket!

After 2.5km, you’ll arrive at Ptarmigan Station, where a once operating restaurant and funicular railway are now seemingly left unused. A table located outside the building provides a welcome rest spot and some reprieve from the wind. Following another 1km of climbing, you’ll reach Cairngorm (1,244m) – your first Munro of the day! It’s a large rocky cairn, so watch your step! On a clear day, you should have impressive views of Rothiemurchus Forest and the superb northern corries.

Stob Coire an t-Sneachda

From Cairngorm, you’ll be able to see the next peak of this trail – Stob Coire an t-Sneachda (1,176m). After a rocky and uneven descent of Cairngorm, the trail flattens as you head towards Stob Coire an t-Sneachda and the glorious cliffs surrounding it. At this stage, you’ll be navigating the even windier Cairngorm Plateau. You’ll also see Loch Avon to your left in the distance.

Similar to Cairngorm, the peak of Stob Coire an t-Sneachda features a large rocky and uneven cairn; so, you’ll need to tone down the speed hiking to navigate.

For more details on speed hiking: The Ben Macdui and Cairngorm hikes have nice long stretches where speed hiking is possible; but, you’ll need to slow down when it gets rocky underfoot on the various cairns along the route.

To your right, you’ll have excellent views of Cairn Lochan and the northern corries. Once you descend Stob Coire an t-Sneachda, you won’t be too far from Ben Macdui. With Loch Etchachan to your left, you’ll reach the trailhead for the out and back component to Ben Macdui at around the 7.5km mark. The summit of Ben Macdui is only 2.5km away and is reached via a gradually ascending trail.

Ben Macdui

Reaching Ben Macdui (1,309m) is a great accomplishment and another Munro you have now bagged! The summit of Ben Macdui is a huge cairn topped with a trig point. Given the large expanse of the cairn, the views are slightly underwhelming, particularly in misty conditions. But, don’t let that take away from the joy of getting to Scotland’s and Britain’s second-highest mountain!

If anything, your views of the surrounding landscape will improve once you descend Ben Macdui (the same way you came up), and pick up the outward wide ridge of Miadan Creag an Leth-choin (Miadan Path). From the flat and stony track, you’ll have fantastic views of Cairn Toul and Braeriach across the Lairig Ghru

Eventually, you’ll subtly veer right and begin to descend the Miadan Path. Not far into the descent, you’ll have more epic views of Cairn Lochan and the small loch below.

Dan sits to admire Cairn Lochan
Cairn Lochan

The resulting winding stone steps cross the moor, passing streams of Allt Coirre an Lochan and some lovely cascades of Allt Coire an t-Sneachda.

Soon enough, you’ll arrive back at the Cairngorm Ski Centre. Needless to say, the return journey has sumptuous views of the Cairngorm mountain ranges!

Ben Macdui and Cairngorm Recap

The Ben Macdui and Cairngorm route is a magnificent trail to conquer Scotland’s and Britain’s second-highest mountain. Ben Macdui certainly isn’t as well-known as bigger brother Ben Nevis in the West Highlands; but, in our humble opinion, the Ben Macdui and Cairngorm route is a better one than the Ben Nevis Mountain Trail. Besides, the Cairngorms is a beautiful part of the world, with the Ben Macdui and Cairngorm hike one of its premier attractions. So, make sure to add Ben Macdui and Cairngorm to your hiking to-do list!

For more hiking content in Scotland, check out our West Highlands, Loch Lomond and NC500 guides.

Getting to Scotland

Flights: To do this trip from abroad, fly to Inverness, as this is the closest airport to the Cairngorms. When booking flights, use Skyscanner to search for the cheapest flights. When flying abroad, we always get the ball rolling with a Skyscanner search. Although, with the pandemic, we recommend booking directly with the airline, because it will be much easier to cancel or reschedule flights if need be.

Additionally, if you’re UK or US-based, you should sign up to Jack’s Flight Club for the best flight deal alert service. By simply subscribing to the free weekly newsletter or buying premium membership, you could save lots of money on international travel. For the Aussies, we recommend subscribing to I Want That Flight for the best flight deal alerts.

Getting to Ben Macdui and Cairngorm

Using public transport, it’s possible to get a bus (M10/M90) from Inverness to Aviemore and then the 37 bus from Aviemore to the Cairngorm Ski Centre, which is the trailhead for Ben Macdui and Cairngorm. However, this would be a time-consuming way to get there and so, we recommend driving. The Cairngorm Mountain Upper Car Park at the Cairngorm Ski Centre only has a voluntary parking charge. If you don’t have your own set of wheels, consider renting with RentalCars.com – they have an unbeatable free cancellation policy.

Accommodation

After camping in the West Highlands for six nights, we decided to treat ourselves with a proper roof over our heads for a couple of nights.

When searching for accommodation in the Cairngorms National Park, you’ll find most options are located in Aviemore and are very expensive. Thankfully, OYO Braeriach Hotel in Newtonmore is a fantastic option for those wanting to stay in the Cairngorms without the ridiculous prices. For only £43/night (if they’re still offering this special rate), you’ll be based opposite the magnificent Grampians mountain range and only 35–40 minutes to the Cairngorm Ski Centre.

At the OYO Braeriach Hotel, expect friendly and accommodating staff, who help with a seamless check-in. The rooms are warm and cosy with beautiful mountain views. Despite the rooms being small, they’ll have everything you need for a pleasant short stay. Conveniently, there’s a pub downstairs and free street parking.

The trailhead for Ben Macdui and Cairngorm isn't too far away from the well-priced OYO Braeriach Hotel
The trailhead for Ben Macdui and Cairngorm isn’t too far away from the well-priced OYO Braeriach Hotel

Five Hiking Gear Essentials for Ben Macdui and Cairngorm

These are our five hiking gear essentials for exploring Ben Macdui and Cairngorm. For a more comprehensive hiking gear list, check out our 66 Travel Accessories That You Must Travel With. Otherwise, for a general summary of everything you’d need for a trip, visit our Ultimate Packing Checklist.

Hiking Essential


Why do you need this?

See it in action

These hiking boots are super comfortable and are well suited for Ben Macdui and Cairngorm, when attempted on a snow-free trail

The wind-chill when hiking across the Cairngorm Plateau is pretty extreme, even in summer. Make sure to you wear layers on this adventure

The 'Windy Ridge' Path ascending to Cairngorm isn't called that by coincidence. A high-quality windproof and waterproof jacket is a non-negotiable for this hike

A fantastic backpack for hiking, which has plenty of storing capacity and a convenient compartmet for your hydration bladder

The GoPro Hero 9 is the best action camera on the market, and came in great use when filming along the Ben Macdui and Cairngorm trail

Trail Navigation

Hiking Ben Macdui and Cairngorm isn’t too challenging when it comes to navigation; but, if you’re unfamiliar with the area, it may be worth having GPS directions. Feel free to use our Wikiloc GPS-guided map.

For those not so prepared, if you’re needing navigation help during your hike and don’t have any phone reception, consider using Maps.me. Although, you need to have at least downloaded the map of the general area beforehand.

Bonus Tips

  • Start early: although this trail isn’t as busy as the Ben Nevis Mountain Trail, being Scotland’s and Britain’s second highest mountain, the route does get crowded on the weeeknd particularly during midday.
  • Check weather and trail conditons: this route is unsafe to inexperienced hikers and/or those without speciliast snow trekking equipment when the track is snow-covered. Also, the trail can get terribly windy, even on the nicest of days, so perhaps wait to do this trail when you’ve got decent weather.
  • Head to Newtonmore Grill: if you end up staying in Newtonmore, you must eat at Newtonmore Grill. Whether it’s a hearty Scottish breakfast or greasy fry-up of an evening, you’ll be pleased with a meal at this local institution.

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