I have wanted to walk the West Highland Way for a long time. It's a 96-mile walk in the Scottish Highlands starting just outside Glasgow, running the length of Loch Lomond, then hitting the stunning scenery of highland hills and moors, before reaching the final destination of Fort William.
This walk was a little different for me for two reasons:
1. I was walking it with my husband (I normally walk alone or with female friends)
2. I hadn't planned it. He had. Or rather, he'd arranged a travel company to do it.
While getting to spend a full week with my husband without kids was lovely (and a rarity), I found the lack of planning on my part took away from the sense of adventure I get when going for a walk. When I walked the Coast to Coast, I spent ages plotting out our route, choosing accommodation and getting familiar with what was in store. This time, we simply paid a travel company to plan the route and accommodation for us. And while that saves time, it doesn't give you the same satisfaction you get from doing it yourself. It also means that if there are any problems en route, we could just call the travel company to solve it. But again, this makes you feel like less of an adventurer.
And apparently I like feeling like an adventurer! So the first decision you have to make when deciding to walk the West Highland Way - or indeed any walk - is what level of adventure do you feel like having? Do you like the comfort and ease of having someone to arrange it all for you, book you comfortable accommodation, ensure your bag is moved and have them on call should something go wrong? Or would you prefer the other extreme of plotting out your route, carrying all your kit on your back and wild camping your way along the route? Or something in between?
What you choose will depend on your budget and appetite for adventure and potential discomfort!
Before I describe our experience of doing the route the easy way - i.e. staying in comfy accommodation with someone moving our bags with shortish days, here are a few things to note about the walk:
Number of days
This depends on your fitness level. We did it over 7 days, some do it in 4 or 5, others take up to nine for rest days or to spend a day climbing one of the many hills en route. You can even add Ben Nevis, the UK's highest mountain, as a bonus challenge at the end.
When to do it
You can do it year round, although to do it in the winter months you need to be pretty hardy and you will find more of the accommodation options closed. Summer months mean midges. And lots of them. Spring and Autumn seem to be the preferred months, with fewer midges and milder, if unpredictable, weather.
How tough is it?
I found it very manageable and a lot easier than the coast to coast. Lots of the walking is flat, but there are plenty of hills to challenge you. The bits that sound scary - like the Devil's Staircase - actually aren't bad at all. Conic Hill is a big climb but it's the descent that is harder on the knees more than anything. And day 3, scrambling around the northern parts of Loch Lomond are more tiring that you may expect, particularly if you're carrying a big pack. People of all ages and fitness levels do it - just know your own abilities and factor in enough time to go at a pace you're comfortable with.
Where to stay
We stayed in a mix of hotels, inns and B&Bs. Of the three, B&Bs were by far our favourite with better breakfasts and much better service. But there are also plenty of low cost options like bunkhouses and camping pods on the way. And if you're into proper camping, wild camping is allowed in Scotland and there are stunning spots to do it. If you're able to carry your own kit, this is definitely a good option. That said, if the weather is against you, you may hanker for a hot shower instead of a cold tent!
Where to eat
There are places to pick up food most of the way along - whether it's stopping for a pub lunch or getting snacks from a campsite shop. So bar one or two days, you don't really even need to preorder packed lunches as you can mostly get something along the way.
We had a map but didn't need it as the path is so clearly signposted. It was useful to get an overview of where we were heading. But I am a big fan of the Trailblazer guides which have simple to follow maps, with useful info on things to see on the way. We used the West Highland Way Trailblazer guide and it served us admirably. My husband took a compass with him, mainly because he is ex-military and likes to point to maps saying things like, 'We're here and the enemy is here', but seriously, a compass wasn't needed (unless you plan to go walking off the track).
Kit (not including camping stuff)
How to get back
It's a one way walk. To return to Glasgow (or Milngavie if that's where you left your car), you can get a train to Glasgow and back out again to Milngavie, or catch the Citylink bus but be sure to book a seat in advance. Ask the driver to drop you off at the stop closest to Milngavie and then just get a taxi (Uber operates there) back to get your car or catch the bus straight to Buchanan Station in central Glasgow.
Day 1 - 12 miles: Milngavie to Drymen
On Saturday 1 April, we found ourselves in Milngavie (pronounced Mullguy). As we'd had to drive from York that morning, we'd missed the baggage moving company so had to drop our bags off at a taxi station (recommended by the travel company) who would move them to our first night's accommodation. We then parked our car at the Premier Inn, which lets you park your car for free for the week and it's pretty safe as it's next to a police station. You can also get a train from Glasgow to Milngavie if you don't have a car.
Next we had to figure out how to get to the start of the walk, which proved to be the trickiest navigational part of the entire expedition as the actual walk is very well signposted. But we found the obelisk and giant West Highland Way sign in the centre of town and were soon on our way. The first part of the walk takes you through Allander Park, which is pretty enough with a bubbling stream keeping us company. But it's still urban and not quite the highland experience I had envisaged.
We left the park behind us, passed through Mugdock Wood, passed two lochs and a bunch of quirky wood chalets that looked like something out of Hansel & Gretel. We began walking across fields, with the first glimpses of the hills in the distance. At one point we passed what we thought was a ranger station where a very friendly 'ranger' hailed us and offered us free tea, coffee or water. I happily took up the offer of water as I'd had a 'little accident' with my water pouch (i.e. I'd somehow managed to drain its contents accidentally and it was bone dry). We had the option of making a donation and he was at great pains to assure us that one was not necessary. But we made one all the same. I have since seen statements on the West Highland Way website that no donations should be made to anyone other than directly via the WHW website. So I have no idea who the chap was, but hey, he gave me water so I was happy.
The scenery began to give us a taste of what was to come. Although not rugged, it was still fairly gorgeous. We plodded on along a farm track as the skies darkened and just as we reached the sign for the Glengoyne distillery, the heavens opened. So we diverted off the path and opted for a tour learning how whisky is made. As regular consumers of single malts, we felt it was our duty to know more about where it came from. And getting a wee dram was a bonus.
After smelling the yeast infused barley and water bubbling away in giant vats, and seeing the immense effort that goes into distilling and ageing the liquor, we felt obliged to purchase two half size bottles. They were tucked into our backpacks, in case of emergency!
After a picnic in the sunshine that had returned, we headed back to the path. It paralleled the busy, noisy A81 road and was fairly uninspiring to be honest. We eventually veered away from the road and headed into countryside that looked like it could be The Shire, from the Hobbit, and indeed, several signs seemed to indicate that it was.
We finally arrived at Drymen (pronounced Drimin as in drip, not Dry as in dry - why would you have a word that sounds like it looks?) We stayed at the local Best Western hotel and despite it having a pool, spa and steam room - great for tired muscles - it just didn't feel like a hotel for walkers.
So day 1 was good but hardly the epic landscapes I'd been envisaging. That said, the glimpses of highland scenery were a tantalising taste of what was to come.
Day 2 - 15 miles: Drymen to Rowardennan via Balmaha
After the first of many, many full Scottish breakfasts, we were on our way, bright and early. We retraced our steps to where we had diverted from the path the day before and immediately climbed a steep hillock in glorious sunshine. A boggy, wet and muddy field on the other side awaited us, reinforcing the need for good boots and gaiters.
We soon entered a forest with wide, dry paths and easy walking.
We got glimpses of Loch Lomond and Conic Hill, our first proper climb of the walk. It's 170m up, but the views from the top over Loch Lomond are well worth it.
After admiring the stunning setting for a while, we headed down, while scores of day trippers were heading up, sweating profusely. The downhill was actually tougher going than the up as our knees, not yet used to it, felt the strain.
At last we popped out in Balmaha where several cafes and shops offered us a choice of lunchspots. We opted for a quick and easy sandwich from the village shop and enjoyed them in the sunny park next to the Loch. We had the statue of environmentalist Tom Weir for company.
Having done our first 7 miles for the day, we had another seven to go. We began our long walk along the banks of Loch Lomond, regularly singing:
O ye'll tak' the high road, and I'll tak' the low road,
And I'll be in Scottland a'fore ye,
But me and my true love will never meet again,
On the bonnie, bonnie banks o' Loch Lomond.
As it was a sunny Sunday, the loch was busy with many people having BBQs on the sandy beaches. We followed the undulating track, finding a number of gorgeous coves that would be perfect for a dip if the water wasn't freezing. Although it was very pretty, it still didn't feel like the wilds of Scotland that I had imagined.
We got to our hotel - the Rowardennan Hotel (or Rhodedendron as we nicknamed it) - at last. It is right on the path and had a sunny beer garden with views of the loch. So we took our boots off and enjoyed a pint - although sadly most of Glasgow seemed to have the same idea. Perhaps a less sunny, non weekend day would have made for a quieter stop. If you wished to and had a spare day, you could head off to climb Ben Lomond (974m) and Ptarmigan summit (731m) from here, which would make a great day walk.
We weren't going to be doing that and had another early night instead - two days of walking in fresh air makes an 8pm bedtime a stretch goal!
Day 3 - 14 miles: Rowardennan to Inverarnan
Waking to beautiful views of the mountains, we got up bright and early as rain was forecast later in the day and we wanted to get most of the miles out of the way before it set in. After another huge artery clogging breakfast, we set out at the same time as another couple of walkers. The first two hours sped by as we chatted, barely noticing the stunning scenery to our left as we walked easily along a broad plantation track. There are two choices of paths here - the easy one which we did, and the other than runs closer to the water but was described as far more challenging and may potentially have been closed due to a landslip. Given the rock scrambling that was to come in the afternoon, I'm glad we chose the easy one.
Waterfalls cascaded down rocks to our right at regular intervals. Trees and rocks covered in bright green moss made for a ridiculously pretty backdrop. Bubbling burns every few paces gave a calming soundtrack. It was idyllic and much quieter than the busy path of the previous day.
After following the undulating path for some time, we crossed a bridge over an impressive waterfall, before arriving at Inversnaid Hotel. We had ordered packed lunches from our previous hotel, but as it turned out, we hadn't needed to as the hotel was serving food (the guide book had said it only did this from Easter). So we stopped for a quick bite to eat and a warm drink, before adding a few more layers and heading out. The bad weather was definitely approaching, with strong gusts of wind whipping up white horses on the loch.
The path seemed to match the volatility of the weather. Our smooth easy way of the morning was replaced with a path the bucked and bent every few paces. At times it was almost at the Loch edge. At others, you climbed and scrambled over rocks with sheer drops down to the water below. The wind whipped up waves that crashed relentlessly on the shores while the trees groaned and creaked above us. It was fabulous. And a little exhausting.
We saw the sign for Rob Roy's cave, but had it on good authority that it wasn't worth going to investigate. So we didn't, as we still had a fair way to go and the rain was inching closer. We also passed a lovely little snack stop for walkers, using an honesty system to refuel if necessary.
Our friends from the morning, who'd fallen behind us, came charging past in a tearing rush to catch the ferry to Ardlui, where they were spending the night. We meanwhile stopped to admire the feral goats, something the guide book had told us to look out for, so we were rather pleased we'd found them. To be fair, they looked like normal goats but on a day where the scenery involved beautiful - but repetitive - water, trees and rocks, goats made an interesting diversion.
As we reached the very top of the Loch at Ardleish, the rain set in. Our last few miles were a damp splodge along a track into Glen Falloch. At last we got to Beinglas campsite, with many miserable looking campers attempting to put up tents in the rain. We walked on to the famous Drover's Inn for our night's accommodation instead.
The Drover's is an ancient inn, which trades on its history rather than it's exceptional service, food or rooms. The plethora of stuffed animals that greet you in the entrance hall definitely add to the ambience, but we both agreed it was our least favourite stop, despite its 'must see' reputation. Nonetheless, after several glasses of wine we agreed that we'd still rather be there than sleeping in a wet tent.
Day 4 - 12 miles: Iverarnan to Tyndrum
We woke to a drizzly day, had another full fat breakfast and headed out, stopping at the Beinglas campsite shop for a sandwich for our lunch. Having done several multi-day walks, I have long since learnt that there is no need to pay for the packed lunch as they invariably include a piece of fruit (that gets squashed), a biscuit (that gets squashed), a carton of orange juice (that tastes foul) and a sandwich. My top Glamorak tip is to take your own snacks and just stick with the sandwich.
Our walk took us alongside a river, the rushing noise of which helped masked the noise of the A82 road running nearby. This was a feature of the West Highland Way that I hadn't appreciated. It basically follows the road for a good stretch of the walk. And while the surrounding scenery is gorgeous, it hadn't yet felt wild and remote, which is what I had expected.
The wet weather came and went with showers on and off throughout the morning. Using an underpass we crossed underneath the A82 and made our way up the hill on the other side before coming across what is apparently known as cow pat alley. The track runs to a farm, which is frequented by cows. At times the muddy cow pat mixture was lapping up to my ankles and my gaiters were worth their weight in gold.
We passed a cow that seemed to be in some kind of distress, possibly calving? We attempted to contact the farm but had little joy. To our relief we saw a land rover approaching the cow, so we assumed that someone had alerted the farmer to the poor cow.
Leaving the bovine drama behind us, we climbed a hill to Crianlarich crossways, the official halfway point of the West Highland Way, before climbing higher to a viewpoint spot and then on through mossy forests with pretty streams every few minutes. The path plunged down again, crossing a river in the valley before climbing again. We took our time as we only had 12 miles to go. We found a picnic spot on the crest of a hill with views out below us and had our lunch while our feet aired (at military husband's insistence!)
After lunch we followed a relentless downhill path (I felt very sorry for the few people coming up the other way), before passing underneath an old arched stone bridge. We crossed the A82 again and walked on towards St Fillan's priory, with views of Ben More in the distance. There's not much left of the priory, but interesting noticeboards give its history.
As we arrived at Wigwams, a little campsite at Strathfillan, the rain came down again so we took shelter under the shop awning and hat a restorative cup of tea. Once the rain cleared, we headed back out passing another little piece of history - the place where Robert the Bruce had the battle of Dalrigh and a little loch where it was rumoured his sword had been thrown (but never found). I wondered how many ghosts still wandered the area.
Despite our dawdling, we still got to our Tyndrum B&B before 3pm, the time it opened, so we loitered looking at pretty streams of which there are several thousand (or so it seemed) on this walk. After checking in and husband dutifully cleaning the remains of cow pat alley off our boots and gaiters, we ambled into the town centre for a pub dinner.
There is a gap in the market for someone to open a really good curry house or pizza joint along the Way as ye old Scottish pub faire - while lovely - starts to become a bit repetitive. We would play food bingo with every menu. Haggis? Tick. Black pudding? Tick. Whiskey sauce? Tick. Macaroni cheese? Tick. A highland burger? Tick. Venison of some kind? Tick. Sticky toffee pudding? Tick.
Despite walking many miles every day, this is not a walk you do to lose weight!
Day 5 - 19 miles: Tyndrum to Kings house
This was the day I had been waiting for. While the scenery had been getting steadily more wild and more beautiful, this was the day that promised really spectacular and wild Scotland. It didn't disappoint. After an excellent breakfast by our hosts at Glengarry House B&B, we headed off, for once with a packed lunch that sounded worth getting. Beef and horseradish and ham and pickle sandwiches, two chocolate bars and a cereal bar. Now that's more like it.
It was a gorgeous start along a lengthy military road, which initially ran parallel to the A82 but soon separated from it. The views were simply breathtaking. When the clouds cleared we could see the munros of Ben Dorain (1076m) and Beinn an Dothaidh (1004m), which are options for anyone wanting an additional hill climb while on their trip.
Thanks to the relatively flat path, the walking was easy and we made the seven miles to the Bridge of Orchy in just two and a half hours. As it was still early, we stopped at the Bridge of Orchy hotel for a coffee. It was the best coffee and friendliest service of the entire route. Keen to get on though, we headed out again and climbed up and up and up through a plantation until we reach a cairn at 320m with views over Loch Tulla and Rannoch Moor. We descended to Inveroran, not to be confused with the recently visited Inverarnan. Here you will find a hotel and had we not had our exciting packed lunches, this would have made a good lunch stop to break up the day.
But we soldiered on, past a very pretty spot ideal for wild camping next to a little river. We headed up towards Rannoch Moor, stopping for our picnic lunch next to a little burn. Obviously a sock rotation was required....Then it was time to tackle the moor.
We were crossing ten miles of exposed moorland - the largest uninhabited stretch of land in the UK - with exceptional views of Coire Ba, the largest mountain amphiteatre in Scotland. It was spectacular and exactly how I'd (naively) imagined most of the Highland Way to be. The path we walked along was the old cobbled drovers road, still in use until the 1930s. It also really hurt your feet to walk on it due to the cobbles. You are warned to take plenty of kit to protect you from the elements for this stretch, but we were lucky and had just the odd spot of rain and chilly gusts of wind coming off the snow topped mountains to contend with.
A bigger issue was trying to find somewhere to have a pee privately. The flat expanse of land didn't offer up much privacy to the walkers stretched out along the route.
At last we saw the Glencoe Ski Centre's chairlifts and knew we were getting close to our destination of Kingshouse. Despite the 19 miles, we both felt strong and filled with the contentment you can only get after a long walk in a beautiful, remote place.
We made our way to Kingshouse, which has a hotel (closed for refurbishment at the moment) and a bunkhouse, with handy cafe. It's here we passed some time while waiting for a taxi to pick us up and take us to our accommodation in Ballachulish for the night. There are plenty of day walks from here if you want to break up your trek.
Day 6 - 9 miles: Kingshouse to Kinglochleven
This short day seemed a doddle after the 19 miler of the day before, but it featured something called The Devil's Staircase, which sounded terrifying. Particularly when you'd drunk a little too much red wine the night before....
We returned by taxi to Kingshouse and set off along a path running alongside the noisy A82. If you can block out the road, the mountain views are spectacular. We soon veered away from the road and headed up the dreaded Devil's Staircase, which as it turned out was far less daunting than it sounded. Yes it was a fairly steep climb with quite a few zig zags to reduce the gradient, but we'd had tougher hills on the walk and this one made up for it with stunning views at the top.
A West Highland Way ambassador I'd met the day before while waiting for our taxi had said that the climb up wasn't the problem. It was the descent that killed you. And so we began the descent, which was long and slow. My husband said he didn't see what the problem was. But several hours later, he'd changed his mind. As had I. The way down never ended. You see Kinglochleven away in the distance and think it won't be long before you get there.
But down the stony path goes, threatening to twist ankles with every step taken. Each step jars the knees and challenges the toes. We took note of the Blackwater Reservoir we were passing, but frankly, our concentration was purely on how to stop the pain in our knees.
It may only have been 9 miles, but they were nine exhausting miles and we were VERY happy to stumble into the Ice Factor, an indoor ice climbing centre, for a sit down and a spot of lunch. My husband who had said at the start of the day that he was keen to have a go at the ice climbing funnily wasn't feeling quite as keen anymore.
So we just chilled out, headed to our B&B - Allt-na-Leven (the best place we'd stayed all trip) and spent the afternoon having a lazy nap. A very casual dinner was grabbed from the pub next door and we happily spent the evening with our feet up, doing not very much at all!
Day 7 - 15 miles: Kinlochleven to Fort William
And so the final day dawned. After an exceptionally good breakfast at our B&B, and a quick stop at the co-op across the road for a lunchtime sandwich, we headed out of town. Almost immediately we had a hill, which gave the Devil's Staircase a run for its money. As always, our way was dotted with bridges, burns, little waterfalls and mossy trees. Quintessential highland terrain.
At the top of the hill, we followed an old military road that continued into the descending mist along a valley between two high hills on either side. The mist gradually turned to rain and wet weather gear was called for once again. While blue skies would have made an incredible backdrop, there was something very atmospheric about the rain and swirling clouds. Old stone ruins would emerge spookily and the sense of old tales lingered over them. It was easy to imagine highlanders from hundreds of years before galloping horses along the track swathed in faded tartan.
That image almost became reality when, having stopped for a short break, a young man came strolling along the path. He wore a button down shirt, tartan tie, full kilt with sporran, a Harris tweed waistcoat and blazer, long woollen socks, an old fashioned haversack on his back and a shepherd's crook as a walking pole. The only nod to modernity was his hiking boots, but even they looked the part.
As the sun came out, we left the barren scenery behind us and instead were faced with what looked like a scorched earth policy put into practice. Warning signs earlier in the path had said that the way was closed and that a diversion had been put in place. The path was now reopened but it was easy to see why it had been closed. Forestry operations had felled hundreds and hundreds of trees, which lay strewn across the path. In places we had to scramble over the fallen logs. While the smell of pine was lovely, the site was horrible and a far cry from the pretty plantation we might have been walking through. It wasn't quite the ending we'd hoped for.
We stopped for a picnic on two of the tree stumps, before heading up a final hill. We could have diverted off to see an ancient iron age fort, but we'd reached the stage where we just wanted to take our boots off. With views of Ben Nevis ahead of us, we began our final descent down to Fort William on a wide forest path. Here at least the trees were still standing.
The West Highland Way ends rather drably with a walk along a busy road into town, so we opted for an alternate route that the book suggested. We stayed on the forest path, skirting around cow hill and only dropped down into the town at the last minute. Our final short stretch was along the bustling high street until we found the West Highland Way end sign. We saw many of our fellow walkers there, all getting their pictures taken. We chatted to a few, although I found that we'd met fewer people on this walk than I had on the coast to coast. I'm not sure why, but there just didn't seem to be the same bonhomie as I'd experienced before.
But we settled down for a pint at the Ben Nevis arms with a couple of them and toasted our achievement. The bar kindly (and with a hint of clever marketing) gave us free certificates acknowledging our success. And that was it. A final walk to find our accommodation for the night. A final menu featuring haggis, black pudding and sticky toffee pudding. A final bottle of wine and a final single malt. Our Scottish adventure had ended.
So would I recommend it?
It's a great trail with some incredible scenery. You get a mix of lochs, moors and mountains. It's relatively easy and there is accommodation, wild camping and plenty of food stops on the way. I just wish it didn't follow the road for as much of it as it does. It didn't feel as wild and as remote as I had hoped. That said, it's still worth doing. And if you're short on time, I'd recommend starting at Tyndrum and heading north as those are the best bits scenery wise. I'd also make sure you go when the midges aren't out as EVERYONE mentioned them.
If you are a woman who would love to do this walk but don't have anyone to do it with, join the Glamoraks community and find a walking buddy.