April 09, 2021 8 min read
With summer fast approaching, and the prospect of adventures further than your front door on the horizon, I decided to take a look back at my favourite Scottish summer trip, The West Highland Way.
The West Highland Way (WHW), stretching 96 miles from lowlands to highlands: takes you from the outskirts of Glasgow, to the banks of Loch Lomond, all the way to Fort William, the gateway to Ben Nevis (the UK’s highest mountain). The walk is Scotland’s first official long-distance footpath, established 1980, and remains it’s most popular.
The great thing about the WHW is despite the varying terrain, the main trail is very well walked – making it the perfect induction to long-distance hiking. The trail passes numerous villages, pubs, cafes, making it easy to go at your own pace. For us, the pubs scattered along the route made a post hike pint a welcomed sight.
The trail also offers various options for accommodation to suit your needs: from the luxury of a hotel bed to the challenge of a wild camp. It’s even possible to have your bags transferred, so the only thing you have to carry is a day-pack. There is also no correct time scale for completion, however, the most popular option is to tackle the route in six to seven days. This allows you to really make the most of the trip, take in the experience and keep the 15 mile + days to a minimum.
I set off on the WHW in late May, which is seen as one of the better times to walk the route. The weather is warmer, the midges are not fully out yet and the trail is still relatively quiet compared to peak summer footfall. As I was walking with my family, we split the route up over seven days, and arranged to get our bags carried…a real privilege which made the trip feel much more like a summer holiday than if we’d carried our own gear. I must admit, I did feel slightly guilty when passing those taking on the challenge of carrying their full pack.
We woke up on day one to glorious sunshine, with the temperature close to 20 degrees by the time we set off in late morning…Scottish summers are very short and it appeared that we had lucked out and set off on the one week of the year where temps rose to above 20 degrees! Anyway, day one was fairly easy going, as you meandered along relatively flat paths taking you through Mugdock Country Park and onwards towards Loch Lomond along foot-paths, old railway lanes and country lanes. The benefits of walking in late May became evident as we passed through small forests laced with flowering bluebells.
If you’re a fan of a dram, I’d defo recommend taking the time out on day one to visit the Glengoyne distillery. Although day one is not the most stunning, or challenging, it definitely does a good job of getting the legs warmed up for the journey ahead.
After the first nights sleep on the trail, we awoke the next morning with a hike over Conic Hill. This is not a compulsory route and you can follow a shorter route along the paved loch shore. However, Conic Hill is renowned as having some of the best views over Loch Lomond, so we decided to take the slightly more strenuous path, to which we were definitely rewarded! We were able to bask in the sun and enjoy glorious views stretching as far as the eye could see. You soon become familiar with just how big the Loch is as you walk along it’s 23-mile banks over the proceeding few days. The rest of our day took us through the forests lining the Loch edge, getting glimpses of Ben Lomond until we reached our destination in the tiny village of Rowardennan.
It was at this stage that I began to notice a sense of community with others walking the route, striking up conversations with passers-by (I would say that walking the route with my dog attracted a lot of conversation). It almost felt like there was an imaginary race at some points, I'd pass a fellow walker, stop for a drink, take in the view, and then they'd pass me 5 minutes later. This kept happening the entire way and made for some good comradery.
The guidebooks all pointed to day three being the most challenging, but I did not totally believe them as we set out with the elevation profile just signalling lots of little ups and downs. The beginning of this stage was really enjoyable, absorbing gorgeous views of the Loch as well at the mountains surrounding the northern edge. As we continued on into the second half of the day the trail became noticeably more challenging, as you clamber over boulders, around trees and snake your way up and down the rocky steps along the lake edge.
The path begins to even out again as you descend to Inverarnan, crossing Beinglas Burn. The Drovers Inn came as a welcome sight and is a must visit along the route to soak up some Scottish heritage. Opened in 1705, there is no mistaking the history of this place, with full grown stuffed bears and grand suits of knights armour decorating the hallways. It really felt as though the place hadn’t been altered for hundreds of years, this made the ghost stories very believable.
As we left the bonnie banks behind the landscape becomes noticeably more rugged and wild, suddenly you are surrounded by those distant hills that seemed so far away a few days ago atop Conic Hill. The path transforms from the narrow-rugged trail that follows Loch Lomond into wide glens, scattered with ancient Scots pine. Through farmland and over streams, you are immersed into countryside walking.
The landscape shifts again as you pass Crianlarich, and hike through forest trails. It was at this stage I began to notice a constant trickle of springs and streams crossing the footpath, these persisted pretty much the entire duration. For anyone considering walking the WHW with your dog, it was a real lifesaver keeping our dog hydrated and cool. This was despite the 20+ degree temps and saved us from sharing our own water supply…of which we were savouring every last drop!
The trail drops from the forest into another valley below full of rich green farmland, accompanied by spectacular views of Beinn More. This is approximately the halfway stage. The rest of the day was relatively simple, following good paths to Tyndrum.
Setting off for our longest day on the trail, we continued along the old military road. Although this day is the longest, the path is easy going and I even gave my feet a rest from my boots, instead opting for some running trainers. The first six miles take you towards Bridge of Orchy, along this section you are presented with spectacular views of the mighty Beinn Odhar and Beinn Dorian.
From Bridge of Orchy, the way climbs through a forest path and onto a hillside overlooking Rannoch Moor (the task that lays ahead). From this viewpoint, you wind down towards the secluded Inveroran Hotel. If you need to stop for some replenishments, this is the last opportunity before taking on the wilds of the Moor.
After passing Inveroran, the trail takes you across the western edge of Rannoch Moor; a straight 10 miles without a hint of civilization or shelter. This is the biggest uninhabited wilderness in the UK, and is often considered one of the last remaining wildernesses in Europe. It’s a vast area of lochans, rivers, flora and fauna. On that sunniest of May days, with barely a cloud in the sky or a walker in sight, it felt as though you had been transported centuries into the past, navigating vast spaces along ancient trails. Onwards we ambled, towards Glencoe until we caught a glimpse of our destination in a distant haze – Kingshouse Hotel. The decent from the Moor into Glencoe and Kingshouse is reasonable with the distinct white hotel coaxing you off the moor. Scotland’s midgey problem became evident that evening and reassured me that choosing to walk the WHW in May, before they were out in full force, was a safe bet!
As we set off for our shortest day (thankfully!!), we walked through Glencoe towards the Devils staircase. Being from Scotland, Glencoe presents a familiar romance and I was glad to be walking here within the shadow of Buachaille Etive Mòr. The ascent of the devil’s staircase was easier than the name suggests, however, at 548m (highest point on WHW), the views are stunning if you get a clear day. From here, there are panoramic views of the rising moorland around Kingshouse (namely Meall a’Bhuiridh, Sron na Creise, the Three Sisters of Glencoe and Buachaille Etive Mòr). It’s a great photo op which I couldn’t pass on.
The decent from this point down towards Kinlochleven is long and after days on the trail my knees began to feel it. However, cascading slopes, scattered with newly blooming wild flowers and warm weather made this particular section feel as though I’d signed up to a walking holiday in the Alps, rather than Scotland. Since this was our shortest day, we stopped off at Ice Factor upon entering Kinlochleven. This is the biggest indoor ice climbing wall in the world and is an impressive sight.
The final day of the WHW, a real mix of emotions were felt as we began to climb back out of the valley we had walked into yesterday. The knowledge that the end will quite literally soon be in sight spurs you on. At this stage the old military road cutting through yet another vast glen becomes a regularity, however, the ruins of old farm buildings do make you question how people could survive in such a baron landscape, hundreds of years ago.
Eventually, Ben Nevis, the tallest peak in Britain, comes into view – many walkers actually hike to the top of Ben Nevis at the end of the WHW as an additional achievement. It was a strange feeling laying eyes on the mountain, acknowledging the near 100 miles I had walked.
From this point you follow paths leading you through forest plantations towards Glen Nevis and as Fort William nears you drop into the valley. The final two miles felt like a long slog along the roadside leading into the center of Fort William. The WHW’s original ending (pictured below), is found on the entrance to Fort Willam. However, venture further into town to reach the official end, marked by a statue..conveniently it’s right next to a Weatherspoons.
The West Highland Way is the longest hike I’ve ever completed, by a long shot. The trail really provided the perfect introduction to multi-day hiking and I’d highly recommend it to anyone as the terrain is not very technical…all it requires is the desire and determination to see it through.
The perfect adventure if you’re craving the wild this summer!
Useful resources to start planning your trip:
The West Highland Way - Official site, brilliant for reading about each stage and very useful if you are planning to organise the whole trip yourself
Absolute Escapes, West Highland Way - Great if you want to take the holiday approach, they take care of everything from places to stay to organising baggage transfers.
AMS Baggage Transfer- Useful if you are just looking for a company to pick up and drop off your kit at every stage.
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