BOASTING a long, distinguished history and some of the most jaw-dropping views in Scotland, CairnGorm Mountain ski area occupies two corries on the north face of the Cairngorm Plateau: Coire Cas and Coire Na Ciste. From the car park, a funicular railway takes skiers up to the Ptarmigan Restaurant – Scotland’s highest eatery, at an altitude of 1097m/3,600ft – and from here it’s possible to access either side of the resort.
A short traverse to the east will take you to the gentle beginners’ slopes of the Ptarmigan Bowl, which in turn lead to the more advanced terrain of the Coire Na Ciste proper. Traverse to the west, meanwhile, and you can drop into the Cas side, either tackling the steep reds following the line of the funicular back down the hill – the White Lady and the M1 Race Piste – or cruising the blues and greens that meander through the bottom of the corrie. If the train’s busy, using surface lifts can be a good way of maximising your time on the snow. The Car Park T-Bar takes you to the Ciste side of the mountain, while the Day Lodge Poma leads to the Ciste via a blue run, Over Yonder.
If the snow is in good condition all the way down to car park level, there are good beginner runs beneath the middle station, notably Lower Slopes, which has its own mini poma tow. Later in the season, however, as the snow retreats up the hill, the higher altitude Ptarmigan Bowl is usually the best bet, often holding its snow into late April and even early May. The wide open expanse of the bowl is ideal for learning, and there’s a dedicated Kidz Zone here too, served by the Polar Express Poma.
CairnGorm is a great mountain for cruising around, and the speed of the funicular (it can go from car park level to the Ptarmigan Restaurant in just four minutes, not including mid-station stops) means it’s possible to clock up plenty of miles before lunch. If you’re looking to kick back and enjoy the views, ridge runs like the M2 and the Fiacaill Ridge are good options, while the natural gullies of the Gunbarrel (in Coire Cas) and the Ciste Gully offer more challenging terrain. Those with a need for speed, meanwhile, should head straight for the White Lady and the M1 Race Piste.
Once there’s enough snow to get it up and running, the terrain park in the Ptarmigan Bowl will keep hardcore freestylers happy for hours, and by late season it can feature some truly massive kickers.
The only marked black runs within the resort boundary are the West Wall of Coire Na Ciste and No 2 Gully on the East Wall of the Ciste. These are both good, steep options, but many advanced skiers and boarders are drawn to CairnGorm not because of what lies inside the ski area but because of what lies just outside it. A short hike from the Ptarmigan Restaurant takes you on to the summit of Cairn Gorm itself, and from here the sub-arctic tundra of the Cairngorm Plateau stretches out for miles, just begging to be explored. This is serious ski touring country, however, and should only be attempted by experienced backcountry skiers and boarders. It is now possible to buy a low-cost ski mountaineering ticket specifically for accessing this area of the mountain. It permits one-off use of two items of uplift only (not including the funicular).
With its comfy sofas and roaring fire, the Cas Bar at the bottom of the funicular is a popular place to rest tired limbs, while later in the evening Aviemore’s main drag is your best bet for apres fun. The Skiing Doo and Winking Owl are long-established watering holes (also serving food) popular with locals, and the pizza restaurant La Taverna is usually good and busy. Slightly off the beaten track, meanwhile, the Old Bridge Inn is a gem of a pub, serving seriously good food and drink, and offering a live music programme that would put many big city venues to shame.
Pisted runs: 30km/18½ miles
Longest run: 3.3km/2 miles
Max vertical descent: 560m/1,837ft
Number of lifts: 11 – 1 funicular, 6 Pomas, 4 T-bars
Number of runs: 22 (7 green, 6 blue, 8 red, 1 black)
Uplift capacity: 8,042 per hour
Snowmaking: Yes, 4 new snow cannons
Cafes/restaurants: Two at base, one on mountain
Off piste: Yes, 10sq km/4sq miles.
Ski/snowboard school: Yes
Ski/snowboard hire: Yes
Ski/snowboard clothing hire: Yes
Artificial slope: Not on-site, but available locally
Ski guiding: Yes
Terrain park: Yes, for season 2012-13 plan up to 3 different parks
NEW FOR 2012/13
Relocated dedicated hire and ticket office to reduce queuing
Snowcat tours for non-skiers
Address: Cairn Gorm Ski Area, Aviemore, PH22 1RB
Tel: 01479 861261