Last updated on September 25th, 2020
Muir of Dinnet National Nature Reserve in the Scottish Highlands
The Muir of Dinnet is a national nature reserve located on the eastern border of the Cairngorms national park in the Scottish Highlands. The reserve features a wealth of different habitats including heath, woodland and wetland, but it’s perhaps best known for ‘the vat’, a natural gorge formed by glaciers over 10,000 years ago.
Category: Forest or woodland, Loch, Nature
Suitable for ages: 5 to 10 years, 11 to 18 years, 18+ years, 65+ years
Ideal for: Couples, Families, Tour groups, Solo travellers
I rate it: 8 out of 10
About Muir of Dinnet NNR
The Muir of Dinnet national nature reserve is one of the most popular woodland areas in the Cairngorms, and with good reason.
This wonderfully picturesque area sports a host of different wildlife habitats and a walk along any of the four main pathways will take you through a combination of heathland, bog, woodland and lochs.
The reserve is easy to get to by car, and if you’re heading there from the direction of Aberdeen all you need to do is follow the A93 to Ballater road which eventually passes through the quaint Highland village of Dinnet.
From there it’s just a 2 1/2 mile drive to the Vat o’ Burn visitor centre where you’ll be able to park the car and set out on foot to explore the natural attractions in the area.
But before you go stomping through the undergrowth you might like to take a look inside the visitor centre to discover exactly what this nature reserve is all about.
Its history stretches back thousands of years – over 10,000 in fact – to the time when glaciers covered this entire region of Scotland.
As the massive ice sheets gouged their way across the landscape they created a deep gulley which is where you’ll find the Vat Burn, while two remnants of the melting glaciers formed the two lochs – Loch Kinord and Loch Davan – that are now home to a variety of animal and insect species.
Thanks to the water being so clear, the light manages to reach all the way to the bottom of the shallow water so these lochs have become incredibly rich ecosystems. You’ll see nesting birds alongside the buzzing thrum of dragonflies in summer while the colder months offer wintering birds a much-needed refuge from the freezing conditions of the Highlands.
If you’re a keen birdwatcher take a pair of binoculars and head down to Loch Kinord where there’s a good chance you’ll see teal, tufted ducks and greylag geese, and you might even catch a glimpse of pairs of goldeneye ducks which are one of the rarest breeding animals in Scotland.
There’s even a bit of history to discover during a visit to this nature reserve.
The northern edge of loch Kinord features one of the best-preserved examples of a Celtic cross in Scotland, which is one of several signs that people have lived at the site for thousands of years. The other major tell-tale indicator that our ancestors lived at Muir of Dinnet is a small island to the north-west of the loch.
Incredibly, this island is actually man-made and at one time it contained a defensive structure made by iron-age people. It’s amazing to think those supposedly primitive humans managed to somehow build an entire island in this remote body of water in the Scottish Highlands.
You’ll find these historic remains if you follow the Little Ord trail through the nature reserve but there are other equally interesting walks waiting for you on your visit.
Things to do at Muir of Dinnet NNR
There are four main trails that can be followed from the visitor centre – the vat trail, Parkin’s Moss trail, Little Ord trail and the Loch Kinord trail.
During my visit I managed to follow the vat trail and the Loch Kinord trail as well as take a short jaunt along the other two and I’m happy to report they all offer a different, but equally enjoyable experience.
From the visitor centre I suggest picking up one of the free maps which has a handy route planner but while you’re there you may as well take a look at the deep gorge of the Vat Burn as it’s easily completed as part of a 3/4 mile pathway from the car park.
The vat is a large cauldron formed by sheer granite walls that’s a fascinating place to explore, but I personally found the nearby raised viewpoint that overlooks the reserve to be an even more enjoyable experience.
From the raised platform you’ll look across Loch Kinord and the surrounding forest which is circled on all sides by the stunning vista of the Cairngorms, and if you take a look at the engraved wooden panels and you’ll be able to make out some of the mountains rising in the distance. It’s an incredibly scenic place.
After you’ve soaked up all that nature you can return to the visitor centre where you’ll find picnic benches and toilets while the path across the road from the car park takes you through thick mixed woodland to the start of the trail that circles the larger of the two lochs.
This walk is the longest of the four (although it’s not even that long at just at four miles) and it’s quite rough in places due to the muddy bogs that line the path. If you’re visiting in summer it’s not so bad but on my last wintry visit the path had a multitude of large muddy pools blocking the way.
Thankfully I was wearing my trusty wellies so I was able to happily splosh my way through the lot of them – and I recommend you wear the same if you decide to visit after a rainfall.
It would be easy to spend all day in the nature reserve but keen walkers will no doubt be itching to give their boots a good workout and venture elsewhere.
If you fall into that category you could do a lot worse than join the pathway that leads from the northern edge of the Vat Burn to the forest of Cambus o’ May to the west where you’ll pass through pine forests bordered by grand views of Deeside’s mountains.
Alternatively, you could head further into the Cairngorms to the village of Ballater (continue down the A93) where you’ll find paths leading into equally appealing open countryside.
- The Muir of Dinnet offers a surprisingly wide variety of wildlife habitats so it’s a great place to take your camera. You’ll walk through heaths and mixed woodland as well as trails circling the loch. Don’t forget your camera!
- The Burn o’ Vat visitor centre has lots of information about the local area and it tells the story of how the ancient glaciers carved their way through the landscape. There are picnic benches there too so it makes the perfect spot to munch away on a cheese sarnie while enjoying the picturesque woodlands.
- All four signposted trails that run through the reserve are lovely but I have to recommend the trail that circles around Loch Kinord as it offers an easy-going walk in a beautiful setting, and the loch is a superb place for birdwatching.
- Muir of Dinnet is miles from anywhere so if you’re thinking of staying all day you’d be best off packing a lunch. If you don’t fancy a picnic the best alternative is to head back to Dinnet village where you’ll find a hotel (Loch Kinord Hotel) that serves bar meals.
- Make the most of your time at the reserve by picking up one of the free trail maps from the visitor centre. Walk the short 3/4 mile ‘vat trail’ to see the reserve from a raised viewpoint, then pick up one of the other paths. They vary in length between two and four miles on well-maintained surfaces.
- If you want an all-day walk you can join the trail that runs from Muir of Dinnet to Cambus o’ May which is a nearby forest, or if you’d like to visit a historic site in the area I recommend heading to Dunnottar Castle on the east coast (a one-hour drive).
Photos and video
Address and map
Scottish Natural Heritage
Burn O’Vat Visitor Centre
Click the map for directions
The Muir of Dinnet NNR is open 24/7 365 days a year.
The Vat o’ Burn visitor centre is open 9am to 5pm between Easter and October and 10am to 4pm the rest of the year (staff permitting).
Telephone: 01339 881667
email: [email protected]
Website: Scottish Natural Heritage
Getting there: Car park on-site.
Getting around: Uneven paths.
On-site conveniences: Picnic area, Toilets at the Vat o’ Burn visitor centre.