IF there was to be a purpose-built playground for walking in the early hours then surely the Cairngorms would provide the template.
Long approach walks on good tracks and a superb network of paths through the hills take most of the strain out of the climbs.
And despite towering peaks on all sides, there is a great feeling of space around you. The way ahead appears clear often meaning a head torch is largely redundant.
The range is split into three sections by two passes, the Lairig Ghru and the Lairig an Laoigh, and to the east of the latter lies Bynack More, one my favourite early morning hills.
There’s parking near the Glenmore Lodge outdoor training centre where a track meanders through the Glen More forest before breaking out of the trees to turn east towards the old stables beside the River Nethy.
From here you can see the route ahead; in moonlight it looks like a silver trail snaking its way up on to the ridge. As you rise in tandem with the sun, the mountain ahead glows a fiery red like it’s getting stoked up for another hard day’s work.
Indeed, all around the hills are turning various shades of red, as if reminding everyone that the more accurate name for the Cairngorms range is the Monadh Ruadh, the red mountains.
One final steep push and you are at the big summit cairn of Bynack More. The first time I sat up here enjoying a peaceful breakfast came just one week after returning from a family holiday in Florida. After the crowds and giant rodents of the Disney parks, the solitude could not have been more marked.
There are several options for the return journey. It’s worth the short walk south-east to explore the Barns of Bynack, granite rock towers that resemble piles of giant pancakes slapped together by messy children.
From there, you can head south-west for the easy walk up to the Munro top of A’Choinneach and then drop down steeply west into Strath Nethy where you pick up a path alongside the waters of the Garbh Allt which lead back to the stables.
Another option is to drop down steeply east into the trench of the Lairig an Laoigh and the option of a short climb to the Corbett peak of Creag Mhor, another hill with outrageous rock piles scattered around its summit plateau.
There’s a long ridge to follow north over a series of bumps if you want to keep the day going, otherwise a drop back into the Lairig an Laoigh provides a route across the shoulder of Bynack More back to the incoming path.
Even then, the day isn’t finished quite yet. There are a few other good spots for a breather and a snack, the bridge over the Nethy if you fancy al fresco dining or nearby Ryvoan Bothy if you need shelter.
On one early morning jaunt I popped my head round the door of the shelter out of curiosity to find two half-clad Dutch girls singing away merrily while cooking breakfast.
But if there aren’t any semi-naked women around, there’s still one of the highlights of the day to look forward to as you head back into the trees. An Lochain Uaine more than lives up to its name, the little green lochan, as its still waters sparkle emerald in the sunshine.
It’s one of the hidden gems of Scotland and a perfect picnic spot.
(First published Daily Record, May 9, 2013)