We had two main goals for our short three day trip around the Highlands – bag a Munro (also known as, climb a mountain), and see as much of the gorgeous scenery as we could. With that in mind we planned to take most of the Friday and Sunday available to us driving to and from our destinations. And, of course, we factored in lots of time for photo stops! I can’t wait to get back to Scotland to see more of its beauty spots like the Isle of Skye and Loch Lomond, but the itinerary we came up with felt workable in three days. While we hit traffic a few times (hi, crazy roundabouts of Inverness), by and large the driving was stress-free, and we didn’t feel rushed. I’ve set out a map, plus our approximate drive times and costs below, in case you’d like to replicate our itinerary. I got lots of ideas for places to stop and photograph spots along the way from this informative Scottish National Heritage brochure.
Day 1: London > Edinburgh > Stirling > Pitlochry > Aviemore
The train to Edinburgh cost almost the same as flying from London, but with the bonuses of being stress-free and being able to leave from the centre of London. Two big bonuses when you’re going first thing in the morning! We decided that Stirling and Pitlochry would make perfect pit stops along the way to our base of Aviemore. We spent about 3 hours exploring the incredible Stirling Castle, a large part of which was admiring the stunning views on all sides.
Leaving Stirling we opted for the scenic Perthshire Tourist Route as opposed to simply bashing along the A9. I was so pleased we chose this, as the countryside was stunning. We had timed it perfectly to see the heather in full bloom, and the hillsides were purple with it!
In Aviemore we decided to keep it simple and stay in the Scottish YHA. We had a quad room for the three of us, so had plenty of space. The YHA was perfect for us – clean and functional, but certainly not flash. There are loads of accommodation options in Aviemore for all budgets – ours was definitely most popular with the hiking crowd.
Train time: 4 hours
Drive time: 45 mins + 1 hour 10 mins + 1 hour 15 mins
Day 2: Aviemore > Cairn Gorm > Urquhart Castle > Aviemore
Our only full day in the Highlands was spent first adventuring up the mountain of Cairn Gorm for some stunning panoramas. Then, with a full afternoon left, we decided to head north to Loch Ness and the beautiful ruins of Urquhart Castle. It was quite a lot of driving, but definitely worth it for all that we managed to pack in. And we had a fantastic gastropub meal at The Old Bridge Inn in Aviemore that night to relax and refuel.
Drive time: 20 mins + 1 hour 40 mins + 1 hour 30 mins (thanks to some excruciating traffic in Inverness!)
Day 3: Aviemore > Grantown-on-Spey > Balmoral > Linn of Dee > Edinburgh
First order of business on our last day was good coffee. Our fairy coffee godmother must have been smiling on us, as we headed to Grantown on Spey and stumbled upon the gorgeous wee High Street Merchants. When I saw their black pudding scones I knew I was in luck, and then there were flat whites on the menu too – heaven! We took a seat in their outdoor area and began chatting with the lovely owner Donna, only to find that she had lived in New Zealand for 10 years before returning to her hometown of Grantown-on-Spey! I guess we are just magnetically attracted to someone who can make a good flat white. I highly recommend stopping in here if you are in the area – we found it difficult to peel ourselves away from the sun-trap of the back yard and get on the road again. From Grantown we followed the road all the way around to Balmoral – with copious photo stops along the way. We passed ski fields in summer, more incredible heather, and saw some truly stunning panoramas – just incredible countryside.
That afternoon “Don’t mention the Queen”, became our catch-phrase for the rest of the trip. We’d decided to stop in at Balmoral out of pure curiosity – we knew you could visit the church where the Queen and Prince Philip worship, and possibly catch a glimpse of the castle. However, in what was our only major fail of the trip (so not too bad!), we failed to join the dots that Sunday + summer + around midday = the Royals actually being there! We pulled up to the main road intersection at Balmoral to be greeted by various police vehicles pulling away, and it transpired that we had missed them by about five minutes. Whoops! I’m not a royalist, but it would have been interesting to see them in person! It also meant that we couldn’t actually nose around the church properly, as worshippers were still milling around. Ah well. We entertained ourselves on the road from Balmoral to Braemar by unsuccessfully attempting to spot
Prince Harry Balmoral Castle through the trees.
Church, yes. Queen… no.
Our final proper stop for the day was the Linn of Dee, which I’d spotted on the Scottish Natural Heritage brochure. It was described as “Dramatic waterfalls cascade through the natural rock gorge at the Linn of Dee, a well-known beauty spot and a fine place to stop and have a watery contemplation” – how could I pass it by? A longish drive along a windy road from Braemar had us questioning whether we were going the right way at times, but the views of the River Dee tracing its way through the valley meant there were no complaints. Sure enough, we eventually crossed the bridge over the Linn, gasping at the tumbling river below us.
Had to have a shoefie with that crystal clear water
The Linn is a geographic feature where the river runs through a narrow gorge for about 300m. It was a favoured spot of Queen Victoria, not surprising given its proximity to Balmoral and her love for the natural beauty of the Scottish countryside. The gothic-style bridge that now runs over it was even opened by her, in 1857. We took the advice of the SNH brochure and rewarded our driving exertions thus far with a spot of sun-bathing on the rocks. We weren’t the only ones, but it wasn’t particularly busy either and the sound of water tumbling over rocks was far louder than any people. It was so relaxing I nearly fell asleep! Visiting the Linn of Dee was the perfect last stop on our Highlands weekend – filled with the natural beauty and fresh air we’d come searching for. From there, we hit the road back to Edinburgh, with our only other stop being for road-side provisions and petrol.
Drive time: 25 mins + 1 hour + 20 mins + 2 hours 20 mins (actual time taken = much longer due to many many photo stops!)
Return train London to Edinburgh: £116.15 each
Car hire: £85.50 / 3 people = £28.50 each
Petrol: £42.25 / 3 = £14.09 each
Accommodation: £190 for two nights a quad room at the SYHA in Aviemore / 3 = £63.33 each
Entry to Stirling Castle and car park: £14.50 and £4
Entry to Urquhart Castle: £8.50
I can’t recommend a stay and road-trip in and around the Cairngorms National Park highly enough. As I’ve hopefully shown, it’s within easy driving distance of many of Scotland’s main cities, and the beauty of the area is just stunning. More than worth the trip!
Have you visited the Cairngorm National Park area? Do you have any other questions for me about the trip?