The West Highland Way is Scotland’s first official long distance walking route, and its most famous, attracting 15,000 hikers each year! It’s also one of the most scenic long distance hikes that I’ve done!
The West Highland Way is a 150 km (95 mile) route completed in 1980. It starts just outside of Glasgow, the largest city in Scotland, and finishes at the foot of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Scotland in Fort William, known as the adventure capital of Scotland.
Why I Wanted to Hike the West Highland Way
If you’re a regular reader you know that I absolutely love long distance hikes and try to do at least one every year. While I had walked the Wicklow Way in Ireland just a few months earlier, when I found out that I was heading to Scotland for the Social Travel Summit, a travel conference in Inverness, I knew that I had to hike in Scotland again. I’d done so ten years earlier, even summiting Ben Nevis, the highest peak in Scotland, but there’s just something mystical about Scotland that never leaves you, and keeps calling you back. Either that, or I’ve read too many of the Outlander books, but either way, I knew I had to do it. Being the most famous, and arguably one of the most scenic treks in the UK, the West Highland Way was an easy choice.
It’s not just me who feels that way. I recruited my friend and fellow hiker Simon from Wild About Travel in just one Facebook message (click on the link to read her article). With its dramatic landscapes, the West Highland Way is practically begging you to hike it.
Terrain of the West Highland Way
The landscape is ever-changing and almost always breathtaking. You’ll walk the length of Loch Lomond, the largest freshwater lock by surface area in all of Great Britain. You’ll pass through the Lowlands, cross the Highland Boundary Fault and head into the Scottish Highlands. For much of the way you’ll be following ancient and historic routes along Drove Roads, 18th Century Military Roads and abandoned railway tracks.
Starting Point of the West Highland Way
The typical way to hike the West Highland Way is from Milngavie in the south to Fort William in the north. The easier stages in the south will prepare you for the hillier parts that come in the northern part of the trek. In addition, the scenery just gets more and more dramatic in my opinion, so it makes sense to finish in the mystical Scottish Highlands.
Milngavie is a town ~ 10 km (6 miles) northwest of Glasgow. You can spend the first night either in Glasgow, as I did, and take an ~ 30-minute train ride to Milngavie, or head directly to Milngavie. The closest airport is the Glasgow Airport. I booked my flight with SkyScanner.
How to Walk the West Highland Way
You have three choices, each with their pros and cons:
1) Purchase the West Highland Way: 53 Large-Scale Walking Maps & Guides to 26 Towns and Villages and figure it out yourself.
Pros: This is the cheapest option, and ideal if you’re camping and on a tight budget.
Cons: It’s also the most time-consuming option, finding and booking accommodation can take a ton of time. You also won’t have the option to have your luggage transferred for you.
2) Do a self-guided walk as I did with Wilderness Scotland, named by National Geographic Adventure as one of the Best Adventure Travel Companies.
Pros: Very minimal planning and time to organize on your part as everything is done for you by Wilderness Scotland. They’ll arrange luggage transfer for you daily so you just need to carry your daypack. They also know the best B&Bs and hotels to stay in and book these for you. Finally, they provide support during your trek if something goes wrong.
Cons: While it’s slightly more expensive than doing it yourself, I honestly don’t see any cons. I think the slight extra expense outweighs the time and inconvenience of having to do it all yourself.
3) Do a guided trip with Wilderness Scotland.
Pros: In addition to the same pros as listed above with the self-guided walk, your guide will bring to life the rich history and legends which I missed out on by doing a self-guided walk. Your guide will also point out the diverse flora and fauna that you’d likely just walk right by.
Furthermore, you’ll be hiking in the company of like-minded hikers. There’s nothing like a shared interest over multiple days to really connect with someone. I met my husband while shark diving on a live-aboard, so am living proof of this – although I’m pretty sure the tour doesn’t come with a guarantee of meeting your future spouse ;). Most of the meals are included with the guided tour ensuring that you always have someone to revel in the day’s adventures with. I hiked the Wicklow Way in Ireland alone and while I didn’t mind hiking alone, I didn’t enjoy eating dinner alone as I wanted to share what I’d seen and done that day.
Cons: While the guided trip is reasonably priced at £1375, it is more expensive than if you did it by yourself of choose the self-guided walk. Still, I think it provides exceptional value.
Medical Advice and Travel Insurance
After one expensive incident years ago where I didn’t have travel insurance, I always travel with travel insurance. It’s especially important when doing something adventurous, like hiking the West Highland Way, where a slip can lead to a broken ankle. Often the nearest hospital is miles away so even a taxi ride is costly, let alone the medical treatment. I’m a fan of World Nomads Insurance.
You should also travel with an Outdoor First Aid Kit, and have something for blisters which often plague hikers and can ruin your trip. I always have Compeed in my backpack. It’s the best solution for blisters that I’ve found.
Packing for the West Highland Way
If you’re carrying all your own luggage, you’ll want to travel as light as possible. If you’re having your luggage carried for you, you don’t have to be as strict, but still want to keep the weight of your day pack to a minimum. It’s worth noting that you should carry electronic equipment like laptops, cameras, etc. with you at all times. Don’t place them in your carried luggage, as they’re not covered if they go missing or are damaged. As Scotland can be rainy, put any electronics in a Waterproof Dry Bag to make sure they stay dry. Check back for further info on what to pack…coming soon.
Eating Along the West Highland Way
Every B&B that I stayed in provided a hearty Scottish breakfast. If you haven’t had a Scottish breakfast, they’re very filling! There was also a place to eat dinner each night in the places I stayed. However, on most days you won’t find restaurants while you’re hiking, or they will be several kilometres out-of-the-way. So either bring food with you, or ask your B&B to prepare a packed lunch for you (at an additional cost). There are a few days when you will not come across anywhere to buy food during the day or in the evening so I stocked up at a grocery store in the evenings when available. On average, I had 3 days of food (lunch and snacks) with me. I took when I needed for the day, then packed the rest in my luggage that was being transferred to keep my backpack weight to a minimum. One of the advantages of booking with Wilderness Scotland is that they give you a PDF of all the amenities along the way, so that you can prepare appropriately.
My 9-Day West Highland Way Walking Itinerary
Day 1: Arrival in either Glasgow or Milngavie
It’s ~ a 30-minute train ride from Glasgow to Milngavie so you can either sleep in Glasgow and take an early morning train to Milngavie or head straight to Milngavie where the walk begins. Also worth noting is Milngavie is pronounced Mul-guy.
Day 2: Walking from Milngavie to Drymen
Distance: 19 km (12 miles)
Description: Your hike starts in the town of Drymen, with plenty of cafes to give you a caffeine fix. It then continues through wooded areas and pastures passing Craigallian and Carbeth Lochs before you reach the village of Drymen. It was a popular stop in the 18th and 19th centuries for Highland cattle drovers.
Highlights: Meeting a couple of other hikers who I often ended up walking with throughout the walk and getting a taste of the scenery that was to come.
Day 3: Walking from Drymen to Rowardennan
Distance: 22.5 km (14 miles)
Description: Following the eastern bank of Loch Lomond, one of the most gorgeous lochs in the entire country, until you reach the rural area of Rowardennan, which offers fantastic views of Loch Lomond.
Highlights: Spending hours walking along Loch Lomond and the incredible sunset over Loch Lomond from Rowardennan. It felt as if the sunset was my special reward for hiking the West Highland Way.
Day 4: Walking from Rowardennan to Inverarnan
Distance: 22.5 km (14 miles)
Description: This is one of the remotest parts of the West Highland Way in which you hike along the north-eastern shores of Loch Lomond. The trail is slippery, and slow going with rocks and branches peeking out on the trail, but it improves as you reach Inverarnan. Some walkers consider this the most difficult part of the trail because of the terrain. As long as you’re prepared to go slower though, it won’t give you any problems, and I loved it. There’s also an easier detour outlined in the guide books.
Highlights: This was one of my favourite days of the entire walk. There’s something incredibly peaceful about walking along water and because I had to slow down because of the terrain, I appreciated it more.
Day 5: Walking from Inverarnan to Tyndrum
Distance: 21.25 km (13.25 miles)
Description: Congratulations! You’ve now reached the Highlands where the mountains are much bigger. You’ll get an especially stunning vista in Strath Fillan. At the end of the day, you’re more than half way finished hiking the West Highland Way.
Highlights: I was excited to finally reach the Highlands and see how dramatically the landscape changed after walking along the serene shores of Loch Lomond. In all honesty, this day landscape-wise, was one of my least favourites. It was scenic but lacked the wow-factor that many other days had.
Day 6: Walking from Tyndrum to Kingshouse
Distance: 29.75 km (18.75 miles)
Description: While this is by far the longest day of hiking on the West Highland Way, you’ll be constantly entertained with some of the finest scenery in the Highlands. You’ll climb up past Loch Tulla, then across the remote and wild area of Rannoch Moor to Glencoe. After your long day of hiking there’s a cold one waiting for you at the King’s House. Note: It’s closed for reservations for 18 months, but their brand new Bunk House will be open. You’ll likely need a taxi to pick you up from here and bring you to your accommodation. It’s one of the reasons I really appreciated hiking with Wilderness Scotland, as they arranged everything for me, and after hiking 30 km, the last thing I wanted to do was figure out how to get a taxi.
Highlights: I met two other Canadians while hiking this section – Go Canada! The scenery was spectacular and during the second half really remote, which I absolutely loved. I stayed in a B&B in nearby Glencoe. With its high mountain peaks, rivers and waterfalls, it has a mystical feeling that will pull at the heartstrings of any adventurer. I definitely plan to go back.
Day 7: Walking from Kingshouse to Kinlochleven
Distance: 14.5 km (9 miles)
Description: While the first climb up over the Devil’s Staircase, a high mountain pass, will get you huffing and puffing, it’s not nearly as difficult as the name indicates. Besides, you’ll forget all about it once you take in the stunning vista from the top. You’ll descend to the small village of Kinlochleven, famous for its Ice Factor Sports Centre, where ice climbers come to practice in artificial, yet realistic conditions.
Highlights: The landscape was absolutely stunning, especially from the top of Devil’s Staircase and for the entire descent. This was one of my favourite days, and not just because it was short ;).
Day 8: Walking from Kinlochleven to Fort William
Distance: 24 km (15 miles)
Description: The trail climbs over a mountain pass, but then rewards you with spectacular views of Glencoe. You’ll continue on, before walking along the foot of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Scotland. It’s usually shrouded in clouds, as it was when I climbed it 10 years earlier as well. But keep looking up, the weather can quickly change and it just might show itself. Finally, you’ll descend to the end point of the West Highland Way in Fort William. The last few kilometres walking along the road feel like a slog, but knowing that you’re THISCLOSE to finishing keeps you going.
Highlights: The views of Glencoe after the first climb, the way the sun hit an old farmhouse while I was walking through a valley, and how Ben Nevis peeked out from behind the clouds for about 20 seconds, revealing just how massive it is. And most importantly, completing the West Highland Way!
Day 9: Depart Fort William
Revel in your success, then climb Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Scotland if you still have energy to spare, or head to your next adventure!
Final Thoughts About Hiking the West Highland Way
I’ve been to Scotland before, hiked Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Scotland, and had high expectations for the West Highland Way. Despite that, it far exceeded them. It’s one of the most beautiful long distance hikes I’ve ever done with its dramatic changes in landscape, from walking along the shores of Loch Lomond, to hiking over mountain passes in the Highlands. Scottish hospitality is also out of this world. I felt so welcome at each B&B that Wilderness Scotland had booked for me. I’d highly recommend walking the West Highland Way to anyone even remotely considering it and can’t recommend doing it with Wilderness Scotland enough, either with their self-guided tour, that I did, or their guided tour.
Disclosure: Thanks to Wilderness Scotland for making my self-guided tour possible. As always, all opinions are my own. This post has some affiliate links in which I make a commission if you purchase something, at no extra cost to you.