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Cairngorms National Park
Britain's newest national park is also its largest, covering nearly 1,400 square mi of countryside. At its heart is a wild arctic landscape that sits on a granite plateau. Five of Scotland's nine 4,000-feet-high mountains are found in this range, and there are 13 more over 3,000 feet. These rounded mountains, including Cairn Gorm (meaning "blue hill" in Gaelic) and Ben Macdui, the second highest in Britain at 4,295 feet, were formed at the end of the last ice age. The Larig Ghru Pass, a stunning U-shape glen, was formed by the retreating glacier.
Hikers, underestimate this landscape at your peril: the fierce conditions often found on the Cairngorms plateau have claimed many lives. If you venture out into it, make sure you are well-prepared and have informed someone of your planned route and estimated return time.
The environment supports rare arctic-alpine and tundra plant and animal species (a quarter of Britain's threatened species) including flora such as the least willow and alpine blue-sow thistle, and birds such as the ptarmigan, Scottish crossbill, and dotterel. Lower down the slopes, terrain that was once filled with woodland is now characterized by heather, cotton grass, and sphagnum moss. This open expanse allows visitors to glimpse wild animals such as the golden eagle, roe deer, or red deer.
Fragments of the ancient Caledonian forest (largely Scots pine, birch, and rowan) remain and are home to pine martins, red squirrels, and capercaillie (a large grouse). Studding these forests are dramatic glens and the rivers Spey, Don, and Dee, which are home to Atlantic salmon, otters, and freshwater pearl mussels.
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