We investigate the route to dissipation in strongly stratified and rotating systems through high-resolution numerical simulations of the Boussinesq equations (BQs) and the primitive equations (PEs) in a triply periodic domain forced at large scales. By applying geostrophic scaling to the BQs and using the same horizontal length scale in defining the Rossby and the Froude numbers,
$\mathit{Ro}$
and
$\mathit{Fr}$
, we show that the PEs can be obtained from the BQs by taking the limit
${\mathit{Fr}}^{2} / {\mathit{Ro}}^{2} \rightarrow 0$
. When
${\mathit{Fr}}^{2} / {\mathit{Ro}}^{2} $
is small the difference between the results from the BQ and the PE simulations is shown to be small. For large rotation rates, quasi-geostrophic dynamics are recovered with a forward enstrophy cascade and an inverse energy cascade. As the rotation rate is reduced, a fraction of the energy starts to cascade towards smaller scales, leading to a shallowing of the horizontal spectra from
${ k}_{h}^{- 3} $
to
${ k}_{h}^{- 5/ 3} $
at the small-scale end. The vertical spectra show a similar transition as the horizontal spectra and we find that Charney isotropy is approximately valid also at larger wavenumbers than the transition wavenumber. The high resolutions employed allow us to capture both ranges within the same simulation. At the transition scale, kinetic energy in the rotational and in the horizontally divergent modes attain comparable values. The divergent energy is several orders of magnitude larger than the quasi-geostrophic divergent energy given by the
$\Omega $
-equation. The amount of energy cascading downscale is mainly controlled by the rotation rate, with a weaker dependence on the stratification. A larger degree of stratification favours a downscale energy cascade. For intermediate degrees of rotation and stratification, a constant energy flux and a constant enstrophy flux coexist within the same range of scales. In this range, the enstrophy flux is a result of triad interactions involving three geostrophic modes, while the energy flux is a result of triad interactions involving at least one ageostrophic mode, with a dominant contribution from interactions involving two ageostrophic and one geostrophic mode. Dividing the ageostrophic motions into two classes depending on the sign of the linear wave frequency, we show that the energy transfer is for the largest part supported by interactions within the same class, ruling out the wave–wave–vortex resonant triad interaction as a mean of the downscale energy transfer. The role of inertia-gravity waves is studied through analyses of time-frequency spectra of single Fourier modes. At large scales, distinct peaks at frequencies predicted for linear waves are observed, whereas at small scales no clear wave activity is observed. Triad interactions show a behaviour which is consistent with turbulent dynamics, with a large exchange of energy in triads with one small and two large comparable wavenumbers. The exchange of energy is mainly between the modes with two comparable wavenumbers.