Scotland, United Kingdom
Taking you 152 km north from Glasgow, the West Highland Way is a wonderful way to experience Scotland, its nature and highlands. You’ll probably want to come back to it, as so many people do, hiking it once in spring and then a second time in autumn. It’s that beautiful with it’s changing scenery, taking you along the shores of Loch Lomond, pastures and then through moors and up into the highlands.
'Hike the West Highland Way', a Scotsman once told me. We met briefly, both hiking in the French Alpes. I had mentioned to him I wanted to go to Scotland on my next trip. He had a brilliant sales pitch: the West Highland Way is well maintained, well way marked and gradually takes you into more rough territory and into the Scottish Highlands. You spend two days on the shores of Loch Lomond, cross moors and walk down into beautiful glens.
For large parts the West Highland Way follows old military and drover roads. Walking the West Highland Way, you'll rest in villages, inns or hotels where century's ago drovers would stay for the night driving livestock from the Highlands to markets in the south.
The West Highland Way also has a couple very practical plus-points. You're at the start of the West Highland Way within an hour from anywhere in Glasgow, and back in Glasgow from the finish in Fort William within a couple of hours. Also, on the West Highland Way you're never very far from civilisation, making it also suitable for the not that experienced hikers.
There's plenty of options to stay or eat, so you can walk the West Highland Way in as many or as little days as you like. I've hiked the West Highland Way twice (yes, it is that nice) and think 7 days is probably best. Shortening the hike to 5 or 6 days means you'll be rushing it. Taking 8 or 9 days (without detours) means walking only a couple of hours every day and having lots of spare time on your hands.
The ‘rule’ is you start the West Highland Way in Milngavie, close to Glasgow, and walk north to Fort William. But there is no law against starting in Fort William and making your way south to Milngavie. Many people walk only parts the West Highland Way and some return to hike another section. Thats very easy, since public transportation is never far away (as you get closer to Fort William, the trail is more remote though).
Although you can take on the West Highland Way whenever you want, May, June, September and October are probably the best times to walk the Way. In spring you’ll see nature waking up after winter, and autumn can be a pleasant surprise with nice warm days. In winter (or roughly from november to april) it will be cold and snow can make the path very difficult and parts will even be dangerous.
In July and August the weather is nice and warm (august in Scotland can be wet though), but the summer months are very busy. You may find hotels fully booked and see other walkers most of the day. And also in summer midges (very small, stinging flies) can ruin an afternoon lunch or even make you abandon the route and run home. Midges are small, but there’s lots and lots of them and they can detect the carbon dioxide in your breath 200 metres away.
The West Highland Way starts in Milngavie, a town just outside Glasgow. Milngavie is very easily reached by car or public transport. From Glasgow, take the train to Milngavie from Glasgow Central Station.
In case you’re flying to Glasgow International Airport, there’s a convenient shuttle bus to Glasgow Central Station. Fort William has regular trains and busses back to Glasgow.
If you stayed the night in Milngavie, you may have passed the obelisk in the centre of town, the official start of the West Highland Way. Most hikers arrive in the morning, starting their walk at the train station, just a few minutes away from the obelisk. Exiting the train station, turn left and head to the underpass that will take you to Station Road. Just follow the road into a pedestrian area and Douglas Street, where you can’t miss the obelisk.
For the experienced and fit walker, the West Highland Way is never hard, only if you head out in winter. But it’s not an easy walk either. If you decide to walk the entire way in one go, remember: it’s 154 km (96 miles). Because you’ll need to reach a place to stay every night and you’ll want to refuel at restaurants, pubs or a shop, some of your days on the way will be long and strenuous. But if you’re able to walk up to 8 hours in a day, you’ll be fine.
Camping can make the West Highland Way a lot harder, you’ll be carrying a large backpack and need to carry fuel, food, water for at least one or two days. I’ve seen plenty of hikers, heads down, eyes looking at their feet, toiling their rucksacks at the end of a day and wondered if they were actually enjoying themselves. I won’t advise against camping, I’ve hiked the way myself twice, once camping every night and I enjoyed that very much. Just make sure you realise that camping is not a picnic.
You can walk the West Highland Way in as many or as little days as you like. I’ve seen people running parts of the route, there’s actually a yearly race with competitors reaching Fort William in less than 16 hours!
Most of us will probably need a bit more than that. About 6, 7 or maybe 8 days. It depends on how much time you have, how fit you (and your companions) are, and also where you want to stay overnight. The farther north you go, the options to stay overnight are limited and the distance between hotels increase. You won’t find accommodation between Kinlochleven and Fort William, making the last day a 22-kilometer hike.
If you take a tent and camping gear and you’re willing to camp in the wild, of course you’re options are almost limitless. If you plan to camp, be aware that camping is not permitted everywhere. Along Loch Lomond, between Drymen and Ptarmigan Lodge, you’re not allowed to pitch your tent in the wild, so you’ll need to stay the night at one of the official campsites or treat yourself to a hotel or hostel.
The ‘officials’ that maintain the West Highland Way have divided the route into 13 sections, each section starting and ending at a village or hotel. In this Hikable Guide I describe a 7-day hike. But you can make your own decision and even change your mind on the go. You could also find a couple of extra’s, like the option to hike up Ben Lomond to enjoy grand views over the Highlands.
So, it’s really up to you. On different points on the route you’ll be able to take a bus or order a taxi, making the number of options you have almost limitless. To give you some inspiration, here’s how I hiked the West Highland Way in august of 2013 (yes, I went in high season). And 3 more conventional ways: one in 6, one in 7 and one in 8 days.
My summer of 2013 itinerary is somewhat peculiar with some long and some short days. I brought a tent and camping gear and changed my plans almost daily, maybe more than once every day. Depending on the weather (august can be rainy) or how my feet felt, I would stop early of push on at the end of the day.
Day 1 Milngavie - Milarrochy campsite, just north of Balmaha (34 km)
Day 2 Milarrochy - Rowchoish bothy (16 km)
Day 3 Rowchoish - Beinglas farm (15 km)
Day 4 Beinglas farm - Bridge of Orchy (30 km)
Day 5 Bridge of Orchy - Kingshouse Hotel (20 km)
Day 6 Kingshouse Hotel - Kinlochleven (15 km)
Day 7 Kinlochleven - Fort William (22 km)
Because most people prefer a hotel, B&B or bunkhouse over a tent, a more usual option would be this:
Day 1 Milngavie - Drymen (19,2 km)
Day 2 Drymen - Rowardennan (24 km)
Day 3 Rowardennan - Crianlarich (32 km)
Day 4 Crianlarich - Bridge of Orchy (20,8 km)
Day 5 Bridge of Orchy - Kingshouse (19,2 km)
Day 6 Kingshouse - Kinlochleven (14,4 km)
Day 7 Kinlochleven - Fort William (24 km)
If you want to take it easy, you could choose to do the West Highland Way in 8 days. Because the first stretch of the West Highland Way is easy going, shortening the first two days isn’t really necessary. Between Bridge of Orchy and Fort William, accommodation is scarce, so taking an extra day somewhere between Drymen and Bridge of Orchy is probably your best option. I also found that the path along Loch Lomond is beautiful, but also the hardest part of the West Highland Way making the 30-kilometre day between Rowardennan and Crianlarich a long one. You could stay in Inverarnan for the night.
A good way to squeeze the route into 6 days would be not to stay in Bridge of Orchy, but to keep going for about another 3 kilometres to Inveroran and make it all the way to Kinlochleven the day after that. You could do it in 5 days, but even if you’re super fit that will be tough.
The West Highland Way is very well waymarked, with a white thistle within a hexagon. In theory you could probably get lost, but that won’t be easy. The path is well maintained, and I’ve found that the moment you start looking for the next waymark, you’ll see it shortly.
If you don’t want to rely on our digital map on your mobile device, you could bring a paper map. Harvey publishes a perfect (waterproof) map for the entire West Highland Way (scale 1 : 40,000).
What, and how much, you bring on a long distance hike is a matter of personal preference. I try to take as little as possible. Even when I camp, I make sure to keep my backpack under 10kg. That means little comfort though, reading my book on my mobile phone and putting on the same t-shirt every morning.
So it's a matter of choice, really. Just realise that the West Highland Way is not a walk in the park. At some point you'll be a couple of hours from the nearest village or major road. And although the trail is well maintained, you'll definitely do some scrambling on rocks and tree roots. So, wear good (waterproof) hiking boots, bring a waterproof jacket and trousers (even in summer) and an extra set of clothing to keep you warm after a long day. A (small) first aid kit can be helpful in case painful blisters and absolutely necessary in case of a fall.
Don't expect to find something to eat or drink every hour or so. This means you'll need to bring a backpack that is large enough for a water bottle, lunch and snacks next to your personal items. If you plan to camp, don't forget you'll need to carry plenty food and water, you won't find a shop on every stage of the West Highland Way.
Such a great walk! Walked the WHW last year in 5 days and had the best weather ever. Some inspiring pics :) https://www.behance.net/gallery/20962661/West-Highland-Way-
Outstanding walk. Done it twice: in 5 days from Milngavie to Fort William and 4 days in the opposite direction.
Although it can get be quite desolate in places you'll always find somewhere to pick up some food and provisions.
Brilliant. Everybody should do this!!