When you find a day out that’s as much fun for the adults as it is for the kids, you’re onto a winner. This is my pick of five great options for outdoor-themed family fun in the Cairngorms National Park, to keep everyone entertained without breaking the bank.
1. Spot Ospreys at Loch Garten
£10 for a family ticket means two adults and two kids can come and go all day, and you don’t have to be a die-hard twitcher to love it. The Loch Garten Osprey Centre is an RSPB site manned by friendly expert volunteers, and it’s a great all-weather option where you can enjoy walks in the woods and a picnic spot as well as the centre itself.
If you go during ‘Osprey Season’, as we did, there are telescopes a-plenty all trained on the Osprey nest – including child-size telescopes to get the kids involved! The nest itself – an incredible construction as big as a double bed – is visible with the naked eye, making the view inside all the more fascinating: a real time window into the Ospreys’ treetop world, where you can see the adult birds and their chicks. In the Osprey Centre there’s a coffee machine and shop, as wall as a very jolly children’s corner stocked with giant Osprey jigsaw; colouring kits, soft toys, a book box and wall friezes, all with a ‘natural world’ theme. With little table and chairs, bean bags to jump on, secret doors to open and games to play, it’s friendly, inviting and fun.
Ospreys aside, there’s a feeding station for small birds; a pond to peer into; and an ‘I-spy’-style activity sheet to keep children entertained throughout your walks in the woods, with the promise of a special sticker in return for a completed sheet.
2. Get crafty at the Reindeer Centre
Loads of fabulous nooks and crannies to explore at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre if you’re happy to take your time and dwell on the details. £3.50 per adult for a ‘Paddock Visit’; under 5s go free and it’s £2.50 for older children. There’s also the option to make a ‘Hill Visit’. We timed our visit badly and missed out on the hill, but found more than enough entertainment in the Paddocks to spend a happy couple of hours!
The activity sheet given out on arrival has something in it for everyone – whatever your age! – and encourages you to explore the displays in full detail. There’s a special sticker to be had when you complete any single quiz or activity and return the sheet at the end of your trip, as well as a chance to win a one-year ‘reindeer adoption’ in the monthly draw. Our two year old enjoyed finding the ‘naughty gnomes’ hiding around the paddocks and sheds; we adults enjoyed tracking down intriguing reindeer trivia on the many info boards provided. The ‘Elf House’ and Santa’s Bothy were definite hits; child-size dens full of fun detail. The real-life reindeer we came to visit were almost overshadowed in the eyes of the toddler by all the peripheral marvels around them!
A good stock of (nicely sharpened!) colouring pencils in the barbecue hut mean that you can make your own Reindeer Badge and have it converted into a pin-badge back at the shop (included in the cost of entry); you can also make your own reindeer antlers to take away; do drawing and colouring; read Reindeer-themed books; complete a ‘treasure hunt of letters’ … there’s something for kids of all ages.
No cafe or toilets, but you’ll find those two minutes’ walk away at the nearby Glenmore Information Centre, which is well worth a look as well – we spotted red squirrels at the feeders.
3. Ride the Strathspey steam railway
The Strathspey Railway steam train runs several times a day throughout the summer season, travelling between Aviemore and Broomhill near Nethy Bridge with a midway stop at Boat of Garten. £14.25 each for adults, free for under 5s, otherwise £7.15 for children.
This was a perfect afternoon activity for a weary-but-not-sleepy toddler! The sights and sounds of the old steam railway kept parents and children entertained and happy, and with spectacular views to the mountains, there’s plenty to look out for along the way. With your ticket, you’ll get an info sheet highlighting some of the key sights on the way there and back; long pauses at each station mean that you can get out, examine the engine … perhaps even climb up onto the footplate for a peek inside!
Allow just over an hour and a half for a return journey.
4. Hang out at the UK’s favourite picnic spot
Voted the UK’s favourite picnic spot, Loch an Eilein is a gem of a place to spend a day or an afternoon. You’ll pay to park – up to a maximum of £4.50 per car, depending on how many of you are in it – but the rather nice info sheet and explorer map of accessible, family-friendly walking routes handed out on arrival take the sting out of the parking fee. We chose Loch an Eilein as the base for our Family Friendly Adventure – but it’s also great for a stroll, a picnic, a coffee-and-ice-cream at the shop, a family bike ride … or, of course, a stop-off on a longer walk or a bigger adventure.
5. Make a splash at Britain’s highest beach
Loch Morlich recently received the Keep Scotland Beautiful Best Beach award, and it’s not hard to see why. Expansive sands; cafe; watersports activities for those who fancy them; a campsite adjoining the beach and miles of woodland walks and mountain walks accessible from its shores; Loch Morlich is hard to beat. We paddled; swam; walked and bicycled on this visit; on other visits we’ve run and walked further (but swum less – and made fewer sand castles!)
When the sun shines on Loch Morlich you could be forgiven for thinking that you’d been transported to the Alps or beyond.
If you have other top recommendations for outdoorsy family fun in the Cairngorms, please share them!