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.
Why West Highland Way?
The question you should ask is: Why not? The wild, rugged landscapes and fresh air are definitely worth the effort. Even if you are not such an experienced hiker the route is not that long and services along the way are plentiful, allowing you to split it into manageable sections. It’s a perfect opportunity to escape into breathtaking nature and truly unplug.