Scotland is widely known for its rugged, wild landscapes all over the world. It’s no surprise that it offers one of the most popular long distance trails in the whole of Britain. If your heart is yearning for dramatic sceneries, rocky hills and mountains, idyllic lochs surrounded by vivid greenery, rich history and a bit of adventure, West Highland Way might be just the right remedy for your longing.
The trail was envisaged by Tom Hunter, passionate hiker and lover of the outdoors from Glasgow. It was approved for development in 1974 and opened in October 1980 by Lord Mansfield which made it the very first officially designated long distance hiking trail in Scotland. Today, around 30,000 people from all over the world walk West Highland Way each year which encouraged a development of a decent service infrastructure along the way.
Overview of Route
The West Highland Way stretches over 96 miles winding through some of the most picturesque Scottish landscapes. It can be comfortably walked in 7-8 days although more experienced hikers will not have trouble conquering it in 5 days.
Traditionally, hikers walk the way from South to North which keeps the sun out of your eyes leading them from less to more challenging terrains towards the end. The path starts off in a small town of Milngavie walking you through pastoral landscapes beneath the Campsie hills, pass the mysterious charm of Loch Lomond into increasingly rougher and wilder Scottish Highlands. Then the route crosses the astonishing Rannoch Moor, boggy moorland, Loch Leven, and finally, via the beautiful valley of Glen Nevis, reaches the famous Fort William.
While it’s more common to walk towards the north, you can make your way in the opposite direction, if you prefer.
If one week in the Highland wilderness is not enough, it’s possible to extend the journey on both ends.
To add few miles to the beginning of your journey you can start in the heart of Glasgow, and follow the Kelvin Walkway all the way to Milngavie. Or, you can extend your trip at the end, after reaching Fort William, by continuing on the Great Glen Way leading to Inverness or the unofficial East Highland Way to Aviemore.
If you don’t have that much time but still enjoy a challenge, you can climb the UK’s largest mountain Ben Nevis which is right at Fort William. The paths are good enough, and the hike is not extremely difficult, just long.
The trail follows many ancient roads such as old drover’s, military and coaching roads leading you along lochs, through forests, and up rocky hills. Usually, it’s in good condition and walkable by most as it avoids the highest hilltops. Nonetheless, there are some steep hills and big hills waiting for you as you make your way to the north.
In any case, any steeper climb will reward you with breathtaking scenery, so make sure to have your camera ready. If you are not a frequent or experienced long trail hiker, you should do some prep since the hilly nature of the trail can be quite a challenge for the knees.
The West Highland Way emblem is a simple white thistle within a hexagon on a wooden post. It’s pretty sensibly distributed, so you don’t need to be worried about getting lost. However, beware that where the line of route is extremely clear (e.g. across Rannoch Moor), there is no waymarking. Also, while the waymarking is pretty clear do not expect to signposts with timings and distances commonly seen along hiking trails in the rest of Europe. Thus, while it’s unlikely to get lost, it’s essential to have a map in order keep track of distances, campsites and other services.
When To Go
Due to its location, the trail is best walked between April and October. Before that, you will be greeted with snow, rain and difficult conditions on overall. Late spring is a perfect time to walk, especially if you want to avoid the notoriously dreaded midges present in the area in the warmer months of the year.
Given the popularity of the trail, there are numerous accommodation options along the way ready to cater to all your needs and requirements. That said, the trail can get busy, especially in the summer months, so it’s worth booking in advance if you are planning to stay in hostels or hotels.
Bunkhouses and Hostels. If you don’t want to carry around camping equipment but want to stick to a low budget, this type of accommodation is perfect for you. All of them have either mattresses or beds to sleep on and most also provide full cooking facilities. You will probably need to bring along your sleeping bag though.
Bed & Breakfast. B&Bs offer not only a comfy refuge but also a small glimpse into traditional Scottish food and way of life. They are pricier but much more personal than hotels.
Guest Houses and Hotels. Larger than B&Bs usually offering a dinner as well as a comfy lounge to relax. They are all very welcoming and used to catering to hikers, however, they are quite expensive.
Camping Sites. And of course, let’s not forget about the numerous camping sites. Camping requires to carry more weight on your shoulders but gives you more flexibility in return as camping sites have plenty of spaces available throughout the year. Most campsites are well equipped with toilets, showers, launderettes (some), and shops. And make sure to follow Scottish Outdoors Access Code while staying out.
Best Guide Books
Again, thanks to the trail’s popularity, there is no shortage of good guide books.
The first one worth mentioning is The West Highland Way: The Official Guide by Bob Aitken and Roger Smith which has been out since the opening of the trail in 1980. The most recent edition is from 2013, so it’s still pretty up to date.
The next one, West Highland Way put together by Anthony Burton and published by Aurum Press, is well written and really easy to follow. The huge benefit of this book over its competitors is the map featuring Ordnance Survey mapping at the 1:25,000 scale (as supposed to usual 1:40,000). The last update was published in 2016.
Last but not least, there is Trailblazer British Walking Guide: West Highland Way by Charlie Loram. This book provides extensive information on accommodation, facilities, towns, villages as well as walking instructions with 53 drawn large-scale walking maps at 1:20,000 scale. Many hikers love the drawn maps as they are quite detailed. However, it might be good to have a proper map with you.
Travel Along The Route
Getting to Milngavie is relatively easy as it has frequent rail services from and to Glasgow which is only 20-25 minutes away. Trains from Glasgow leave from Glasgow Central or Queen Street and stop in Ardlui, Crianlarich, Tyndrum, Bridge of Orchy and Fort William. You can access timetables on the official Scotrail website.
Alternatively, you can travel to Milngavie by bus from Buchanan Street bus station. Also, Scottish Citylink runs a regular bus service between Glasgow and Fort William which stops in Inverarnan, Crianlarich, Tyndrum, Bridge of Orchy, Glen Coe and Ballachulish. It’s recommended to book a seat in advance as this line gets busy.
Milngavie to Gartness (17km )
This is the obelisk in Milngavie where the West Highland Way route officially begins. Time for the photos and move on. Apart from getting a bit to eat I don’t think the Milngavie hold much for the walker of the West Highland Way.
That said I know that in any long distance walk or any hill walking for that matter I am usually happy to leave civilization behind quickly. As I grew up a few miles down the road from Milngavie I had no interest to wander around it.
The main place here that most hikers would have a stop to look at is the Iron Chef; this houses the West highland Way Information Centre and the bag carrying company Travel Lite. Their baggage transfer service, for the whole route is only £33, fairly cheap I thought. So anything that you have forgotten will be here. They are located about 100 meters from the start here.
Get or have cash before leaving Milngavie
The first few miles out of Milngavie is easy going, on the whole the first day on the West Highland Way to Drymen is a walk in the park, several parks actually. This is the easiest of all the days along the route a good time to get the muscles used to walking all day, especially if you are carrying your own rucksack.
The noise from Milngavie disappears very quickly, it is a small town. The path leads directly to the right of the obelisk above, where there are also two West Highland Way benches. Head down into a small car park, cross and follow the signs, and feel the tension of city life ease away from your body.
west highland way map
Shortly the path turns and follows the Allander Water following the bank, then it turns again after a few hundred meters and heads uphill through the higher part of Allander park. There are some views over the edge of Glasgow from the top of this small rise.
The next park is Mugdock Wood, and the way continues easy along small paths. Mugdock Castle is contained here – it has toilets, a gift shop, and a small cafe should you need it.
The continues down a small road after Mugdock, then along part of the Allander Burn, then along the west shore of Craigallian Loch. From here you can now see Dumgoyne Hill at the western flank of the Campsie Hills. There is a short walk along the B821 the turning right walking along fairly flat ground passing Carbeth Loch. Turning right again off the B821, cross the road, over the stile, then walk down Tinker Loan. From here the path drops down again, with a view of Ben Lomond, that is were we will pass the next day.
After the route drops down into Strathblane it is fairly flat easy farmland for the rest of the day, good views surround you however they are far out of reach. Along this part we walk an old disused railway track most of the way to Gartness.
About half way between Milngavie and Gartness, just before Dumgoyne, is Glengoyne Distillery. There are tours every hour from 10am, Monday to Saturday. Worth a stop I think, and a little dram!
The West Highland Way follows the road from Gartness to Drymen. However I don’t get as far as Drymen, my first night was at the Easter Drumquhassle Farm, sharing a wigwam for the night. This is about half way between Gartness and Drymen. An easy walk to Drymen to have some food in the evening, where there are a few places to eat.
west highland way wigwams
Easter Drumquhassle Farm has three options for hikers on the west highland way. They have a Bed & Breakfast, Camping, and wigwams which are used as bunkhouses and sleep up to six people.
This is the link http://members.aol.com/juliamacx/index.htm visit them for more information.
Gartness to Rowardennan
My first day was fairly easy, however it always takes that day for my feet to get used to walking and my legs to be aware that they are also carrying a rucksack and for me to slow down somewhat. One of the things I learned a few years back when walking the Camino de Santiago, was slow down – not to hurry everything – but it takes that first day to get this message into my head and body again. Walking a bit slower than normal makes life easy for my body and I always get to where I am going, maybe half an hour later – but that is fine as I get to really see all that is around me.
Drymen is the last place until Crianlarich for any reasonable shops. There is one small one in Balmaha, bear this in mind if you are carrying your own food.
Half an hour after leaving I pass through Drymen. Today I am heading towards Rowardennan. Today is 25km instead of yesterdays easy 17km, I am looking forward to getting passed Rowardennan, I know all of this area from my childhood and look forward to leaving the known behind after Rowardennan.
West Highland Way Maps
From Drymen to Balmaha is about 11km, a good place for lunch. There is a choice of routes here. Leaving Drymen there is the choice of two routes. The official route – walk east out of Drymen for about 500 meters, then it turns north. It is the longer route by far, however it is the most interesting, has great views, and stays away from the road all the way to Balmaha. It goes up into Garadhban Forest then round Conic Hill before descending into Balmaha. Half way along this route there is also an option to walk down and join the road at Milton of Buchanan, then continue along the road to Balmaha.
The most direct route is to walk along the path at the side of the road, (B837), all the way to Balmaha. This is okay except for weekends when the road can be quite busy. The views walking along the road in no way can compare to the higher route around Conic Hill, it is mostly like a forest walk.
In Balmaha there is shop, a cafe, a pub, and a visitors centre. There are buses back to Drymen, but none going any further towards Rowardennan.
I often think that the distance between Balmaha and Rowardennan is very short, a few km’s, it’s not it is 11km, I am used to driving this road, and have parked many times at Rowardennan to climb Ben Lomond.
The afternoon journey to Rowardennan should not be hurried. The path follows the edge of Loch Lomond, however it is harder than it first seems. There are many little ups and downs for the next 11kms, sometime the path follows the road – okay apart from high season, when the whole section is very and I mean very busy. However, please do not walk the whole length of the road here – keep to the West Highland Way route. Walking along the side of the road here can be dangerous, it is a very small road – often with too many cars. Only walk along the side of the road when there is a path at the side.
Rowardennan is beautiful and a great place to chill and watch the sun set over a beer at the one and only local, which also provides accommodation as a hotel.
However it is Rowardennan Youth Hostel for me, and a well deserved rest.
Rowardennan Lodge, the Youth Hostel can be found here – however the link has changed at least once in the last few months – so if that does not work this is their home page where you can book online.
Look up to your right – that is Ben Lomond – so perhaps it is worth an extra night here and walk up the Ben. It is fairly easy as Munros go, but still a days walk.
Rowardennan to Inverarnan
Now I get to go exploring and walk on new ground. It is a beautiful walk, on the left side Loch Lomond and Ben Lomond the right, up the full eastern side of the Loch. I had driven many time the opposite side of Loch Lomond and had wanted to walk the bit that I could not get to by car, it had been a long time coming, and I was glad to be here; however as always with hikes like this my body was sore and took a while evry morning to loosen up. No matter how fit I think I am before starting any long walk, I find the truth after a day or two.
From Rowardennan to Inversnaid is 11km along the top end of Loch Lomond. If you are walking in high season, this will now provide a welcome relief from all the tourists and their cars.
Shortly after leaving Rowardennan there is a choice of hiking routes. The higher route is by far the easiest. I have since walked along part of this again on the path that follows the side of the loch and I found it hard going and fairly muddy. The high route is along a forest track. Both route join again just after Rowchoish Bothy.
West Highland Way Maps Day Three, by walking in scotland
Just before walking into Inversnaid you will cross the burn and have a great view of the waterfall there. There is a hotel at Inversnaid about 11km from Rowardennan so about half way through the day, therefore if you don’t have your own food with you for lunch it is a good place to stop for lunch. The other alternative that is the Inversnaid Bunkhouse – the Bunkhouse has now closed (Jan 2008), it is about ten minutes further on. They have a coffee shop and bar.
After lunch it is another 10km to Inverarnan and the end of my day. Many other hikers rate this part as the hardest part of the West Highland Way due to the constant ups and downs of the path, also it can be a bit rough underfoot, though I find it beautiful and wild. It does help not to be hurrying. The path for the first half of the afternoon winds along rocky paths through forest. Towards the end of the day we leave Loch Lomond behind and walk into Glen Falloch and shortly to Inverarnan and a well deserved rest at the Beinglas Campsite http://www.beinglascampsite.co.uk/ . (Please note if you want to stay here in the wigwams during any busy times it is advisable to book in advance)
Inverarnan to Bridge of Orchy
Day four on the West Highland Way is Inverarnan to Bridge of Orchy (32km)
Leaving Inverarnan we continued along Glen Falloch. The scenery is beautiful the walk to Crainlarich is easy. The West Highland Way route goes along tracks and an old military road following the river Falloch. However I want to have a rant here. While walking along this beautiful part of Scotland you share it with ugly electric pylons, the Highland Railway (not too bad and quite quaint), and my ears were constantly blasted by the traffic noise from the nearby A82. I forget how much noise cars and lorries make when travelling at speed until I am walking near them and hear them for too long.
Anyway, moving on. If you don’t have enough time to walk the whole West Highland Way, Crianlarich is a good place to start, (perhaps also finish). There is a train station here and you can get the train directly from Glasgow and have four days walking from this point. I would advise that the later parts are the better days than walking to here, even though the Loch Lomond area is beautiful and mostly unspoiled.
If you have a quiet day, (or ear plugs), parts of this day can seem quite idyllic. Initially walking along the side of River Falloch and then on an old milarty road. It is all easy going before Crainlarich, though mostly uphill out of the basin of Loch Lomond.
From Crainlarich the rest of my day is easy walking. I chose this day to be a bit longer thinking, from my reading, that it would be good for the long day I needed to finish in seven days. The rest of the way is fairly easy going along an old miltery road. There are hills and valleys, however all are gentle slops.
If you have only arrived at Crainlarich around lunch time consider only walking as far as Tyndrum. There is nothing between Tyndrum and Bridge of Orchy. Not a great time to run out of food or water.
Bridge of Orchy to Glencoe
Day five on the West Highland Way is Bridge of Orchy to Glencoe (Kingshouse) (19km)
The West Highland Way continues out of Bridge of Orchy by crossing the River Orchy.
An easy 19km’s after the hard going of yesterdays 32km. I find that it is better for me to vary the amount that I walk each day, and that too many hard days together leave me tired and not enjoying my walking.
There is almost nothing between Bridge of Orchy and Kingshouse, except for Inveroran (4km). The Way goes up the old military road, through the plantations eventually reaching a peak at just over 300m, and giving open wonderful views over the Blackmount Forest. You are now on Rannoch Moor, the largest uninhabited wilderness in the UK.
Then it is an easy down hill towards Inveroran, beside Loch Tulla, and the hotel, the last chance until Kingshouse to have some food and coffee or tea. There is a local Loch Awe web site which list good information about this area and a list of hotels and Bed and Breakfasts. It is a good area to stay if one wants to walk from a base for several days, and there is a lot of great walking and great hills in this area.
West Highland Way Maps, Day Five, Walking in Scotland
The West Highland Way continues around Loch Tulla, to the next stop at Kinghouse. It should be noted here, this next part of the route is completely exposed, there is nowhere to rest or stop at in bad weather, e.g. heavy fog or snow. However there is a good track all the way to Kingshouse. It is possible along this track to sometimes spot a red deer.
There is another slow climb to about 300m leaving great views behind over Loch Tulla and some good chances for photos. From Ba Bridge the route climbs slowly again to the high point in the valley (about 400m) then descends again towards the A82; Kingshouse is not much further after with good food and a bed for the night.
Along this stretch it is fairly easy to imagine that there is no-one nearby, that I have the mountains of Scotland to myself. It is beautiful, bleak sometimes, and can be if you are lucky lonely. Not so tomorrow, Glencoe is a very popular destination and the devils’ staircase, just from the name stops many tourist.
Glencoe to Kinlochleven
Day six on the West Highland Way is Kingshouse, Glencoe to Kinlochleven (14.5km)
Leaving the low lying land of Kingshouse the West Highland Way slowly ascends until the Devil’s Staircase (550m). From here it is a slow decent to Kinlochleven.
Leaving Kingshouse the route shadows the A82 until Altnafeadh; before here though and only about 1 km out of Kingshouse there is a choice of two paths. The higher route and easier one, follows the old military road, the lower and slightly longer road follows River Coupall.
Both route meet at Altnafeadh where the strikes out right and north away from the A82. The route should not present any difficulties for anyone who has a little walking fitness. The name Devils Staircase really makes it sound much harder than it is; it is a zig-zagging path to the top.
West Highland Way Maps, Day Six, Walking in Scotland
Once you’re passed the Devil’s Staircase the route is open to all weathers. Have a compass and map and know how to use them. It is not a good place to have to wait out any mist or snow clearing before being able to move on, as there is no shelter. That said it is a glorious part of the route, with stunning views of the mountains around and the Glen at Glen Coe.
Leaving the top of the Devil’s Staircase the route wanders along flatly for a while before beginning to slowly descend. The decent becomes steeper the closer you get to Kinlochleven, eventually joining the old works road, leading down into the town.
Kinlochleven itself has a good choice of accommodation from hotels to Bed and Breakfast, however as usual I choose the local hostel. It can be found here http://www.blackwaterhostel.co.uk/accommodation.html
Kinlochleven to Fort William
Day seven on the West Highland Way is Kinlochleven to Fort William, (the last day! But a good 22.5km)
My last day on the West Highland Way, but not my last day of walking, Ben Nevis is next, a have to, since I don’t know when I will be back in this area; and really it has to be done.
Leaving Kinlochleven the military road climbs steeply out of Loch Leven valley to about 250m and continues to rise though not as steeply to the summit of the Lairigmor, just over 300m.
Often I think before starting any long walk that I will have time to “think about things.” I forget that it does not happen like that for me, what normally happens is that during the first day or so I notice how fast my head is moving. Walking slowly along all this thinking slows down and nearly stops – it is quite a relief and a holiday from normal daily living. However sometimes my mind wanders to how small I am. This is the type of place that it often happens.
West Highland Way Maps, Day Seven, Walking in Scotland
After Lairigmor the mountains close in, and the valley is all that I see stretching out before me. I feel my smallness in the whole scheme of things. As a human I have a life, I know lots of people, I love, laugh, and cry – but out here… Out here I connect with something else that put a perspective on my life that does not happen as I sit each day in front of a computer thinking how important what I am doing is, and how quickly it has to be finished. Out here there is a freedom, one that I find difficult to put into words; I matter and I don’t, in equal measure, that’s as good as it gets.
The route continues. And I walk, feeling a connection to the world that is missing in my hectic life. The mountains keep me company, and lead me round and then down into Glen Nevis, back to life and civilisation. The end of the way is a walk in a park, literally and metaphorically. Through first the plantations, then the lower forests along the roadside and into Fort William. It is good to finish, however Fort William is a busy town at most times of the year, and I have become used to a little more quiet than I get at first – then I fade into it all, once again…