Exploring the World on Foot

How to Conquer the West Highland Way

How to Conquer the West Highland Way

Ready to conquer the 100-mile journey through one of Scotland’s most scenic trails? This guide is a compilation of my personal experience hiking the West Highland Way with friends in August 2015 as well as the combined  insights of other walkers I met on the trail.  In case you were wondering, I use the term “walk” instead of “hike” because in the U.K., the term “walk” is equivalent to the term “hike” in the States.

 

What is the West Highland Way?

The West Highland Way (aka the “Way”) is a ~96 mile long walking trail through the Scottish Highlands. (Fun fact: The West Highland Way was made a part of the International Appalachian Trail in 2010.) While most of the trail runs through the scenic Scottish Highlands, the trailhead for the Way actually begins at the Scottish Lowlands, just outside of Glasgow at the town of Milngavie.  Since the trail was built on old military and carriage roads, the Way will also take you past historically significant sites such as the King’s House and the Bridge of Orchy.

West Highland Way Trail
West Highland Way Trail

 

How to Walk The West Highland Way

Most walkers complete the West Highland Way over the course of 7 to 9 days. I did the walk in 7 days.  See my 7-day suggested itinerary for more information.  A GPS or map is not absolutely necessary, as the trail is well marked. The most common direction for walkers is south to north, starting at Milngavie and ending at Fort William. While it’s possible to arrive by train from Glasgow to Milngavie and start the walk the same day, my group preferred a less hurried pace.  We decided to stay overnight in Milngavie so we could wake at 6 am the next day for an early start.

West Highland Way Trail Sign
West Highland Way Trail Sign

Map of the route below. Brown pins are recommended accommodations. Yellow pins are detours.

Since walkers often start at the same time as other walkers, you will most likely be encountering the same group of people your whole trip. Get to know them and trade some trail stories.  

Transporting Gear

Walkers can carry all their gear in a pack or pay a porter to transport their gear from accommodation to accommodation. The West Highland Way website has a list of bag transport companies. My suggestion is to carry a daypack with the day’s provisions and have a porter  transport the remaining gear to your accommodations for the night.  Walking with a light pack is significantly more enjoyable than carrying 50 pounds of gear on your back. Your back and feet will thank you.  Walkers should set up this service BEFORE the trip. Some transport companies may charge more on the later stages of the Way. I used AMS and paid approximately £45 total for the porter services.   I highly recommend AMS as they were professional and on time with their services. Call them or book online before you arrive to arrange the bag pickup.

Physical Conditioning

The Way is a fairly easy walk.  The highest elevation is about 1800ft around Glen Coe.  If you’re out of shape, you will feel sore the first two days, but by day four, your trail legs should start developing and you should no longer feel the soreness even after walking all day. My group consisted of two overweight Americans and a person with flat feet. We all felt great by day four or five. I suggest wearing comfortable trail runners with some toe socks.  The toe socks will reduce the chance of blisters, especially in wet conditions.

 

Trail Information

Conditions

Conditions on the Way can vary from paved to gravel. Scotland rains a lot, so be prepared to walk through muddy trails. Don’t forget the bug protection, as walkers frequently encounter midges. Midges are insects, similar to tiny flies, that bite.

Muddy Trails

Trailhead and Terminus

Trailhead is located in Milngavie town center on Douglas St.  Fort William terminus is at Gordon Square. A big “West Highland Way” sign with an obelisk will indicate the trailhead. At the terminus, walkers will be greeted with a statue of a walker rubbing his feet at Gordon Square. 

Milngavie Trailhead

 

Transportation to Milngavie Trailhead

Getting to the trailhead in Milngavie is not complicated at all.  

ScotRail is the easiest option if you are coming from the city of Glasgow. From Glasgow Central Station, take a 20-minute train ride to Milngavie Station. Once you arrive at the Milngavie train station, follow the signs for West Highland Way; it is only a 5-minute walk to the trailhead.

Be sure to check ScotRail’s website for the most up-to-date schedule.

If you’re coming from the Glasgow airport, the fastest way to the trailhead is with a 25-minute cab ride. If you plan to use public transit, take the 500 bus from the airport into Glasgow Central Station. Then take ScotRail to Milngavie. Public transit will take closer to 90 minutes from the airport to Milngavie.

Glasgow Central Station

See map below for walking directions from the train station to the trailhead.

Transportation from Fort William to Glasgow Once You Finish

The cost and duration of the ride between the bus and the train is fairly comparable.

ScotRail will be the easiest and the most scenic option. The Fort William station is only a 10 minute walk from the end of the West Highland Way. This ~3.5 hour train ride is pretty epic as you ride through the remote areas of the Highlands back into Glasgow Central Station.  Check the ScotRail site for the most up-to-date train schedule.

Citylink bus can take walkers from Fort William back to Glasgow in ~3.5 hours. Check the Citylink site for the latest bus schedule.

Once back in Glasgow, walkers can take the bus or a cab to the airport. Both will take roughly 30 minutes. We took the ScotRail back to Glasgow and then took a cab to the airport.

ScotRail Through the Highlands

See below for walking direction from the West Highland Way Terminus to the Fort William train station.

Lodging

Accommodations

A majority of the travelers we met stayed in B&Bs, hostels, and bunkhouses. These accommodations typically offer beds with generous breakfasts. Inns/hotels are not too common and often quite expensive on the West Highland Way.  

B&B along the Way

While we didn’t try all the accommodations on the West Highland Way, I can personally recommend the accommodations below. These B&Bs offered excellent breakfasts, clean rooms, and strong wifi. My group also stayed at a few of the inns along the Way, and none were worth the relatively high price we paid; frankly, cheap motels in the States were better than the inns we stayed at.

Recommended:

Campsites and Wild Camping

Camping is also popular on the West Highland Way. Campsites are usually located around towns.  Besides established campsites, wild camping is permitted along the Way.  A portion of the Way is along Loch Lomond.  Wild Camping in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park area may require a permit depending on the time of year <link>. I recommend the following camping/glamping sites as they offer a store, kitchen and laundry facilities:

Wigwams

A possible option is a combination of both camping and accommodations.  The benefit of this is that you can camp in areas where you are unable to book suitable accommodations.

How to Find Accommodations

Book Early

First, book early. I suggest 3-6 months in advance as the trail’s popularity continues to grow. As of May 2017, the official West Highland Way website estimates that approximately 50,000 walkers walk the Way each year.  In 2006, the estimate was only 15,000 walkers per year. Some villages will only have 2-3 accommodations, so plan ahead.

Search Around Towns and Villages

The easiest way I’ve found to look for accommodations is to determine which day you’ll be in a specific town based on your itinerary. Once you’ve figured out where you will be on which day, you can hop onto Google Maps and see what accommodations are available around a specific town. Also, you need to determine if the accommodation is too far off the trail when you’re reviewing Google Maps. This is key, as I’ve met some walkers who took a cab to their accommodations simply because they did not consider how far off the trail their accommodation was.

After figuring out what accommodation is in the area, hop over to TripAdvisor check the recent reviews.  Accommodations can change drastically from season to season as we learned. We booked a B&B with great reviews months in advance, however; the business was sold before we arrived. The new owners were terrible.  I later checked real estate listings in the Highlands area, and this B&B was sold 2+ times since 2015.  So check recent reviews before booking. The official West Highland Way includes a list of accommodations, but it lacks reviews and distance from the trail.

Inveroran Hotel – 2 miles outside the village of Bridge of Orchy

Ask for Help

If all the accommodations are full in the area you want to stay, you may need to reconfigure your itinerary to stay overnight at a different village with availability.  An alternative option is to ask an accommodation owner if they know of availability near towns further away from the trail.  Those accommodations may not be full and may want your business enough to pick you up along the trail.  

 

Sights

Scenery

Lochs, Glens, and Bens.  

Loch Lomond, part of the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park

 

Top of Glen Coe’s Devil’s Staircase. Photo credit: Sid Patel

 

Near Ben More

Animals

From highland cattle to sheep, you will encounter a myriad array of highland fauna.  

Highland Cow

 

Sheep
Sheep

Distilleries and Pubs

If you’re a walker who needs a swig from time to time, don’t forget to take a tour of a distillery or have a taste of the local brew. “Highland” whiskey is a regionally protected whiskey.  The popular Glengoyne distillery is halfway between Milngavie and Drymen. Have you tried a Deuchars IPA or a Tennent’s? Celebrate completing the Way with one at the cheap bar Whetherspoons in Fort William.

Glengoyne Distillery

Towns and Historical Sites

Don’t simply power through the trail. Explore the local historical sites and villages as there is a lot of political history.

West Highland Way – Lairigmore Ruins

 

West Highland Way - King's House Wild Campers
West Highland Way – King’s House Wild Campers

 

Food and Services

Dining

Some of the villages you pass through will have restaurants.  Just be aware that some of these restaurants may not open late into the night. I won’t lie, the food can be pretty terrible. But not everything is bad. I enjoyed the grilled goat cheese at the Bridge of Orchy Hotel and had an excellent Scottish breakfast at the Real Food Cafe in Tyndrum. I’ve also had some delicious Indian food in Fort William and Milngavie.

Bridge of Orchy Hotel Grilled Goat Cheese

 

Typical Scottish Breakfast

Stores in Towns

I suggest that you stock up on provisions in Milngavie, as options are limited until Tyndrum and Kinlochleven. There are multiple supermarkets and gear shops in Milngavie.  Some stages of the walk are 10+ miles without water. Best to get a big bottle in Milngavie while it’s still cheap. While you’re in Milngavie, don’t forget to go the bank or ATM for some cash.  Check the chart below to see what services is available in each town.

Fuel

Equipment

We suggest using a smaller backpack to carry your day’s provisions. The rest of your gear can be given to your porter.  To keep your pack light, we suggest bringing fewer clothes and doing laundry half way.  We also recommend trail running shoes with synthetic socks over boots with wool socks. Trail running shoes are more comfortable than boots. Synthetic socks, especially toe socks will keep your feet dry and blister free. Since the West Highland Way can rain, your feet will stay wet if you have waterlogged boots with wool socks. 

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Besides normal travel gear, we suggest the following:

 

Mileage and Services Chart

Town NameMiles from StartAvailable ServicesNotes about the Village
Milngavie0Lodging, Dining, Supermarkets, Shops, Banks/ATMs, Train stationLodging, Dining, Supermarkets, Shops, Banks/ATMs, Train station Stock up on provisions and cash in Milngavie. There aren’t many options until Tyndrum. Dining options are excellent.
Drymen12Lodging, Dining, Groceries, ShopsPlenty of dining and lodging options for a village.
Balmaha19Lodging, Dining, Shops, ATMTourist town. Sightseeing boat trips available at the pier.
Rowardennan27LodgingLodging No restaurants in the area. Walkers can cook or eat in the lodgings if they are guests.
Inversnaid34Lodging, Dining within the Inversnaid HotelOnly public dining is at the Inversnaid Hotel Restaurant.
Inverarnan40Lodging, Dining
Crianlarich47Lodging, Dining, Convenience store, Train stationPlenty of lodging options. Only one restaurant in the village.
Tyndrum53Lodging, Restaurants, Groceries, Shops, ATM, Train stationA couple of shops for walkers to restock on provisions.
Bridge of Orchy 59LodgingOnly dining is in the Bridge of Orchy Hotel Restaurant.
Kings House71Lodging
*Note that the Kings House Hotel is closed for 18 months starting on November 1, 2016 for renovations. Check their website for current status: http://www.kingshousehotel.co.uk/
Only public dining is in the King’s House Hotel Restaurant.
Kinlochleven81Lodging, Dining, Groceries, Shops, Banks/ATMsBig village with plenty of options on everything.
Fort William96Lodging, Dining, Groceries, Shops, Banks, Train stationBig town. Dining options are excellent. We had some of the best Indian food here.

 

Still Not Enough?

So you’ve finished the West Highland Way, what else can you do around Fort William?  Walkers can walk up Ben Nevis. Love Harry Potter? Ride the Jacobite Train featured in the movies. Want to look for a monster? Loch Ness is less than an hour away by bus from Fort William.

 

UK and Scottish Terminology

Glen: a valley in the highlands
Walk: hike, trek
Way: trail
Wild camping: wilderness camping
Loch: lake or sea inlet
Ben: Gaelic term for mountains. Ben Nevis is the highest mountain in the British Isles

 

Additional Resources