The Cairngorms are a unique and vast plateau of high summits all of which rise to more than 1,000 metres above sea level. It is an area that retains its arctic character where scant vegitation clings to an overburden of scanty soils and grits. Buttressing these bare uplands, magnificent corrie headwalls cosset the birthplace of streams. The highest point of this elevated wilderness is Ben Macdui, 1,309 metres (4,295 ft).
These mountains form an arctic-alpine mountain environment, with tundra-like characteristics and long-lasting snow patches. This area is home to many bird species, mammals and Britain's only herd of reindeer. Surrounding the central massif are many remnants of the Caledonian forest in straths and glens of the Rivers Spey and Dee; these forests support many species that are rare elsewhere in Britain. There are no glaciers in the Cairngorms but snow can fall in any month of the year and snow patches usually persist all summer. Conditions suitable for snow and ice climbing are the most dependable in Britain. The mountains are also popular for hill-walking and ski touring, and there is a ski centre on the northern side of the range at Cairngorm Mountain.