This is a long, moderately informative post for those who are interested in learning more about a first hand experience walking The West Highland Way in Scotland. This post will break down my route day by day with a small detailed snippet, including where I stayed.
Last year I was sitting on my couch finishing up a homework assignment, when I decided to take a break and read some blogs. I somehow stumbled across a blog post about a distance walk in Scotland I’d never heard of, but that immediately intrigued me. After learning the very basics of the walk, I told myself “after you graduate, you’re doing this walk.”
Fast forward to a year and some change later I graduated college, and had a trip booked to walk the 96 mile trail. My friend and I planned the trip ourselves, however there are options to have others plan your trip if you don’t want to do the dirty work yourself. We went in October, which meant the fall colors were alive, there were very few people on the trail, and when it rained…it POURED.
Good thing we’re from Washington.
The trail starts in Milngavie, which is about a 10 minute cab ride from where we stayed in Glasgow. We flew into Glasgow, took a bus to our B&B, and took a cab to the start of the trail. We stayed at the Clifton Hotel the night before we started, and the woman that checked us in was very helpful. We didn’t use a GPS, and we didn’t use a map, but if I could provide one travel tip for a well marked walk like this it would be: plug the end location for each day into the map app on your phone. You won’t have step by step directions, but this way you’ll know you’re heading in the right direction because the location dot still moves without a wireless connection.
Let’s start from day one, shall we? With a belly full of black pudding, we headed to the start of the trail.
Day one: Milngavie to Drymen – 12 miles
The start of the trail is in a small shopping center, which felt a bit odd. Especially after coming from five months living in Yellowstone. I quickly learned it was going to be impossible to get lost, and was thankful for the trail markers along the way. Day one walked along the road quite a bit, and was a warm up for the days to come.
Don’t let this day be the judge for the days to come, it felt more like a walk around country neighborhoods, but you have to start somewhere. The walk was quick on day one. We arrived a mere five hours after we started, with plenty of time to prepare for day two. Once arriving in Drymen, we got a bite to eat at the only pub in town which had delicious chicken and crispy chips. The town was quiet and quaint. We slept at The Drymen Inn, which was clean and cozy.
Day two: Drymen to Rowardennan – 14 miles
We ate a delicious breakfast at The Drymen Inn, and headed off for day two. Day one and two had something in common – they both had never-ending farm gates we had to walk through. The gates meant we walked past plenty of farm animals, which is always a good time. The sheep and cows were just as exciting the fifth time I saw them as they were the first. I also saw my first Highland cow this day, which was 95% of the reason I wanted to visit Scotland.
This section of the trail took us into Loch Lomond National Park, where we would spend the next couple days of the walk. The route took us up a solid mountain, giving amazing views of Loch Lomond. This day was a bit blustery, (and by that I mean I literally almost blew off a mountain and it was slightly terrifying) but the first half of the walk was dry.
The second half of the day it started to rain, and I mean RAIN.
We arrived in Rowardennan around 5pm sopping wet, and this area is even smaller than Drymen. There is literally one hotel with a restaurant, and a couple hostels down the way. We stayed at the Ben Lomond Bunk House, which is a hostel run by the park rangers. All the funds go back to supporting the park. How cool. At this bunkhouse we met a girl from Germany who was solo walking the trail, and we ended up seeing her everyday after that.
Day two was much more isolated than day one, which was nice, but still walked into towns and along the road. The terrain was ever changing from mountains, to meadows, to forests, to lakeside. It was bizarre, in the best way possible. I met a nice man at the Loch Lomond Visitor Center, and he gave me a national park pin for my collection. He was a grand fella.
Day three: Rowardennan to Inverarnan – 14 miles
The perk of staying at a bunkhouse was that we spent a whopping 18 euros per person, the downside was that they didn’t serve breakfast. We hiked 6 miles on an empty stomach, which was a mistake. I thought my partner in crime was going to pass out, or quit, or both. The first half of this day walked alongside Loch Lomond, up over rocks and trees. It felt like an adventure through Lord of the Rings.
We stopped for food at the Inversnaid Hotel along the way, where we met up with our German friend. The hotel was beautiful, and the staff was very accommodating to walkers. We were rained on about an hour after we started, and continued to get good use of our ponchos. This day introduced us to the waterfalls in Scotland. I have literally never seen so many waterfalls in my life. I also discovered what Scottish mountain goats smell like, it wasn’t pleasant.
The second half of this section felt like a scene from Jurassic Park.
Our day ended at the infamous Drovers Inn, which was decked out for Halloween. The building is over 300 years old, and it was amazing. The food was great, the staff was amazing (and quite attractive), and the room was cozy.
Day Four: Inverarnan to Tyndrum – 12 miles
By day four the walk felt like second nature, after two back to back 14 mile days it was nice to have a 12 miler. The weather was dry, and we got our first real taste of the Highlands to come. This route was nothing short of magical, the colors, the views, and the animals. We walked through open farmland, and came face to face with herds of cattle free ranging everywhere.
One of the main perks of going in the off season is having the hills to yourself. Sure, we saw a few people, but nothing like it would have been in the peak of the summer. Plus, I’d rather need a jacket and a poncho than be dripping sweat or overheating. Upon arrival in Tyndrum we stayed at Muthu Ben Doran Hotel, which had amazing staff and a beautiful garden look, but mediocre food. We ate dinner down the road at the Tyndrum Inn, which is where I’d stay next time.
Day Five: Tyndrum to Inveroran – 9 miles
Day five should have been the easiest day of the walk, however for me it was the hardest. On day two I started to notice discomfort in the arch of my left foot, but ignored it thinking it would pass. Day three and four it didn’t pass, and by day five the pain was so bad I could barely walk. The route from Tyndum to Inveroran is mostly flat, and the terrain is like a gravel backroad, but I was hobbling behind my friend a good 50 feet almost the entire way.
About a mile into the walk I decided to ditch my hiking shoes (which I last minute decided to wear, I should have stuck to my gut and wore my Nike Free’s) and walk in my Teva sandals. Yes, sandals. I wore two pairs of wool socks and tightened up my sandals and embraced wet feet. Thankfully this day for us was the sunniest of them all, and it was amazingly beautiful. I cried for a few hours on this day, because I wasn’t sure if I would be able to continue.
I had planned to do this walk for over a year, and was destroyed by the thought of having to quit because of a rookie mistake. I cried, and cried, and cried some more, and then I pulled my shit together and told myself to take each step at a time. I enjoyed this route as much as I could, and upon arrival into Inveroran we were officially in the heart of the Scottish Highlands. Talk about AMAZING. From here on forward, we no longer walked through roads, neighborhoods, or even woods – this was the true Highland experience.
We stayed at the Inveroran Hotel, which was by far the best stay along the way. The hotel is in the middle of no where, and follows the route perfectly. The staff was WONDERFUL, and the food was the most amazing food I’d had since arriving. 10/10 would recommend. The rooms felt like a room in your grandmothers house, and the food was all handmade from scratch – you could truly taste the love.
Day Six: Inveroran to Kinlochleven – 19 miles
I ended up throwing away my hiking shoes in Inveroran, and planned to walk the remaining 35ish miles in my Teva’s. Where there is a will, there is a way. Now, before you drop your jaw to the floor, we didn’t actually walk 19 miles this day. Usually people stop halfway at a place called the Kingshouse, however due to reconstruction the Kingshouse was closed. After hiking my ass off in Yellowstone, including plenty of 12-16 mile hikes and one 20 miler, I wasn’t phased by 19 miles. Until my foot failed and my partner in crime lost interest in the walk all together.
I had every intention of walking to the Glencoe Ski Resort about 8 miles from Inveroran with my friend, and then continuing on alone to Kinlochleven.
The weather on day six was great (so thankful for expansive views of these amazing hills) just until we hit the ski resort, and then it was absolutely atrocious. Winds strong enough to knock over a horse, rain hard enough to flood a small city, and it got COLD. The second half of this route takes you up to the highest point of the walk, and my ego really wanted to finish this part of the trail. Realizing there would be zero visibility, and that climbing a mountain in sandals while the wind was roaring would be miserable, I decided to skip this section with my friend and take a bus from Glencoe to Kinlochleven.
My ego is still a little bruised, but now I have a reason to return. I ended up skipping about 10 miles of the overall trail.
We took a bus from the ski resort to the heart of Glencoe, and ended up meeting a Scottish woman coming home from her trip to Greece. She offered us a ride in her taxi, which we accepted. We arrived in Kinlochleven shortly after and this was the first time in a few days we were in actual civilization. The town was adorable, and we stayed at the Blackwater Hostel. We ate dinner with our German friend at the MacDonald Hotel, where I had the most amazing chicken and sweet potato fries.
Day Seven: Kinlochleven to Fort William – 16 miles
The final, and most amazing day of the entire trail was day seven. I ended up walking the final day solo, and while I love my friend (hi Sam!) there was nothing more meditative than walking a trail like this alone. I was in my element, and all the pain and stress from the previous few days disappeared. My foot still hurt, but the Teva’s were still better than my other shoes that were long gone in the trash.
I ate breakfast at the MacDonald Hotel, because the hostel in Kinlochleven did not provide breakfast (usually people make their own food in the communal kitchen.) I’m a big fan of the traditional English/Irish/Scottish breakfasts. They’re very similar, with a few small differences. The start of this route climbs a hill to get out of Kinlochleven, which ends up bringing you DEEP into the hills of the Highlands. It was pure, and absolute bliss. The weather was moderate, with rain here and there, and my feet were soaked from the get go, but there was nothing that could dampen my spirits being surrounded by the Scottish Highlands.
I passed a few people, but for the most part had the entire 16 miles to myself, aside from some sheep of course. This part of the trail had plenty of rolling hills, but nothing overwhelming physically. Upon arrival in Fort William, I felt a wave of emotions. I was sad that the walk was over, but excited to have completed it. Once I made it to the town center of Fort William, I was ready for a meal and a shower. My friend arrived by bus, and had checked into our B&B for the night, which was an adorable house right next to the city center. The Gowan Brae House is a highly recommended spot in Fort William, our host was amazingly accommodating, friendly, and the breakfast was wonderful.
It can be hard to prepare for a distance walk, if you have no idea what the terrain or weather will be, but here are my main takeaways and tips for walking the WHW.
- Be in shape. You don’t need to run marathons everyday, but I spent my entire summer hiking at least once a week before doing this walk. This made my experience enjoyable. The trail itself is not difficult, but you mustn’t be fresh off the couch or you’ll be in pain.
- Hiking shoes are great, but tennis shoes will do just fine. Or in my case, Teva sandals. If you’re a big stickler about wet feet, then definitely bring waterproof shoes (even in the summer, it’s Scotland.) October wasn’t a cold month, so wet feet were fine for me.
- Don’t buy a GPS. It’s just not necessary. The way is very well marked, and it is difficult to get lost. I didn’t even buy a map.
- Use your cell phone GPS instead, just as a worst case scenario.
- This website is super helpful for getting started, as well as a reference while walking. It has a more detailed breakdown of each day.
- Depending on the time of year, pay attention to when it gets dark and leave early enough to avoid walking in the dark.
- You’re able to camp along the way, which might be nice in the warmer months, but planning to stay at B&B’s ensured we had a big, hot meal before we started (aside from the two hostels.) A nice meal before the start was necessary, and I didn’t need to eat again until the end of each day.
- Be flexible. Things don’t always go according to the blueprints.
- Don’t overthink it. Just walk. Whether you complete this in seven days, six days, eight days, or five, it goes by quick. Enjoy it because it’s a memory that will last a lifetime.
It’s been a handful of weeks since I completed this walk, but I constantly crave the simplicity of this type of activity. I really enjoyed waking up and thinking of nothing more than what I wanted for breakfast (which was always the same) and where I was going to end up that night. This was the deepest form of meditation I’ve experienced, and it was amazing. I can’t wait for the next distance walk, I’m officially addicted.
Q: Would you/have you ever done a distance walk?