The West Highland Way is THE classic long-distance trail in Scotland. It’s an incredibly beautiful hike. And even though some guidebooks might tell you it’s not a good choice for your first long walk, I’m going to disagree with that sentiment. It was my first long distance (multi-day) hike and I thought it was a fabulous way to be introduced to the world of long-distance walking.
So what exactly is the West Highland Way? And why is it so amazing?
Table of Contents
- 1 West Highland Way – Scotland
- 2 About the West Highland Way Hike
- 3 Options for the West Highland Way
- 4 More about the trail
- 5 What Clothes do you need to walk the West Highland Way?
- 6 What other gear and equipment do you need?
- 7 West Highland Way – Additional tips
- 8 Why is the West Highland Way so amazing?
West Highland Way – Scotland
Start point: Milngavie Town (north of Glasgow)
Trek Distance: 154 km/ 96 miles
hiking Time: 7 days (average)
About the West Highland Way Hike
The West Highland Way trail is about 96 miles long beginning just north of Glasgow in the commuter town of Milngavie and ending in Fort William. The terrain takes you through Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park on a trail that is varied with parts of it winding through pasture land, forests and mountain valleys. At times it’s covered in pine needles, as soft as fine sand. And sometimes it’s an old military or cattle driving road.
You’ll scramble over rocky terrain along Loch Lomond and may even walk along one of “beaches” of this beautiful lake. There is some climbing — though nothing lengthy or overly steep— as you make your way over the shoulder of Conic Hill or as you climb up to one of the moors such as Lairig Mor.
But the scenery is always breathtaking — no matter where you are. Sometimes you have views that go on forever out to the mountains and lakes. Or simply the trees and flowers growing in the quiet forest you walk through. There’s no technical climbing. And the route is well-marked so you don’t need to be an expert — although having map orienteering skills won’t hurt.
The West Highland Way is a serious trail so it’s good to have experience hiking long days on rocky terrain and in bad weather. You can walk the West Highland Way between 5 to 10 days, with most folks taking 7 days to complete it. One of the great things about this trail is that it’s a short train ride from Glasgow to Milngavie where the trail begins. So it’s easy to get to. And there’s no way you’ll miss the starting point as it’s, well-marked.
Options for the West Highland Way
There’s no need to take all of your gear and camp along the way if it’s not your thing — but some people do. There are lots of places to pitch a tent along the trail and many folks walk with large packs carrying everything they need.
Accommodation + Carrying your Kit
You can also carry all of your things with you and stop when you want at a town or settlement and find a bed in a bunkhouse or guesthouse (book in peak season!) If you want you can carry everything with you and have your accommodation set each night by booking in advance. This way there’s no worry about where you’ll be sleeping for the night.
Accommodation + Bag Transfer Services
But if you don’t want to carry everything (that would be me) you can have your bigger bag transferred to your accommodation each day.
So all you have to carry is your daypack with what you need for the day’s walk.
There are several companies who can help you with any or all of this. It might cost a wee bit more to go with one of these companies. But I found it worth it because it included:
- The West Highland Way guidebook
- Directions how to find my accommodation (with phone numbers)
- Taxi rides and ferry rides included in my package price
- And the peace of mind knowing I had someone to call should I run into any problems
And as a solo female walker, this was important to me. And makes the West Highland Way a fabulous first time trail.
More about the trail
Part 1 – West Highland Way
The first 12-14 miles from Milngavie to beyond Drymen (my first stop) is relatively flat as you trek through pasture land and some forested areas.
Next, the climb up the shoulder of Conic Hill (typically Day 2 for those walking 6-8 days) is the big climb topping at 319 m/ 1,047 ft. The West Highland Way route doesn’t go via the peak, but you can add this on if you want. The descent is steep but you have the stunning views of Loch Lomond. You can drink in the scenery and snap a few photos. This is one of my highlights of the trail. It’s stunning, especially if you have good weather which I was fortunate to have.
Part 2 – West Highland Way
Between Rowardennan and Inverarnan (Day 3 for those on the 6, 7 or 8-day schedule) is what I call “the roller coaster ride around Loch Lomond.” While the first part isn’t too bad, the section after Inversnaid gets rocky with scrambles over rocks. This is the most challenging part of the West Highland Way. And if it’s something you’ve never done then it might scare you a bit — because often Loch Lomond is immediately there to your left so one slip and you may be taking an unplanned swim!
Tyndrum to Kings House is one of the best sections of the trail with fabulous views of the mountains. The most dazzling part of this stretch is the starkly beautiful landscape of Rannoch Moor. It’s gorgeous. You’ll take in a bit of Glen Coe as you hike beyond Kings House.
The next major climb is not as scary as its name, ‘Devil’s Staircase’. It’s just a slog uphill with some switchbacks. However, it is very exposed. One of the best views of the West Highland Way comes when you reach the top of the staircase and gaze upon Allt a´Choire Odhairbhig. It took my breath away — soaring peaks, little streams and lochs — just stunning.
The last climb comes on the final day (7 or 8-day schedule) as you leave Kinlochleven and make your way into Lairig Mor, another of the highlights. This is a gorgeous valley especially when the weather is good. In bad weather, it could be a nightmare. Ben Nevis — the UK’s highest peak — is the star of the final push into Fort William.
What Clothes do you need to walk the West Highland Way?
Despite that I didn’t see a single drop of rain — yes, you read that correctly — you will want waterproof hiking shoes or boots, pants and a jacket.
- Wear appropriate clothing — wicking shirt to keep you warm and keep you dry as you sweat and comfortable hiking pants.
- Be sure to wear a good pair of socks. Don’t skimp on shoes or socks!
- Carry a warm hat, a pair of gloves, an extra shirt.
- And dress in layers as the Scottish weather can be fickle.
What other gear and equipment do you need?
- Carry plenty of water and pack healthy snacks such as dried fruit, nuts and energy bars.
- Lunch (some accommodation may be able to offer a packed lunch each day).
- If you are walking the West Highland Way in summer, you’ll definitely want a spray for the midges (wee biting bugs).
- And be sure you have a small first aid kit with blister care and sunscreen
- A good guidebook — such as Walking the West Highland Way by Terry Marsh — is a must, as is a map.
- Don’t forget your mobile phone in case of emergency.
- And if you are one to use a regular camera and not just your phone, then pack your camera gear. The scenery is gorgeous!
West Highland Way – Additional tips
Planning the walk
One of the best tips for walking the West Highland Way is to decide how you want to walk this and in how many days. Be honest with yourself about your abilities. If you’re not a “sleep in a tent” kind of person, then stay in bunkhouses or guesthouses. Book in advance if you know you want that peace of mind.
If you don’t want to carry your bigger bag, arrange to have it transferred. It may cost more but it will be worth it.
Don’t try to walk the West Highland Way in 6 days if you don’t want to have two 19 mile days. Be realistic.
And be prepared for crappy weather. Rannoch Moor and Lairig Mor have exposed spots on the trail as does Devil’s Staircase. You won’t want to be caught there in a downpour.
Lastly, be open to meeting people along the way. Everyone is supportive and helpful — after all, we’re all in the same boat just wanting to finish the 96 miles without too many blisters! I ended up walking with a few men I had met earlier in the week on my last day. It was a wonderful way to end the hike.
Why is the West Highland Way so amazing?
- There are a few aspects that make this trail so wonderful. Number one is the Scottish people. They are funny, kind, helpful and warm. You’ll most likely run into a lot of them actually walking the entire trail or at least part of it. They’re eager to cheer you on as you make your way along this 96-mile path.
- Secondly, I love that the trail itself is a good route. You can tell it’s “the trail.” It’s in good shape and relatively well-marked.
- And lastly, the scenery really is stunning. I really appreciated the variety of the landscape — from the rolling pasture land to the rocky shoreline of Loch Lomond to the moors surrounded by the craggy peaks of the northern reaches of the way.
All the reasons why the West Highland Way is THE classic long distance walk of Scotland.
Are you planning on hiking the West Highland Way in Scotland? Is there anything else you would like to know about the hike?
About the author
Lynne Nieman is a travel addict, Europe lover, photographer, writer, runner, hiker and nature lover. She’s happiest in the mountains, but also loves the feeling of sand between her toes. She hasn’t met a French cheese she doesn’t like — nor an Italian wine or Irish whiskey. And she truly believes in the transformative power of travel — independent travel that connects the traveller to the locals.
Lynne created Wander Your Way — a travel agency specialising in creating customised, independent trips to Europe. For 4 years she has been planning amazing trips to Europe for her clients. And travels to many destinations herself to get to know the areas and can then pass on all that first-hand experience.
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