By Cameron Macpherson
The West Highland Way is one of the world’s most famous hiking trips. Stretching for 96 miles from Milngavie to Fort William, the walk treats hikers to some of the most breathtaking and vibrant scenery Scotland has to offer.
As the flat, gentle lowland hills give way to the rugged, towering highlands. This feature offers insights into the storied hike. What you can expect, where you can stay, what you should pack and when you can do it.
With international travel returning to business as usual, it seems the age of staycations could be on decline. Since many people are looking to make up for lost time, with covid having taken foreign holidays off the table for two years. According to Travel Weekly, around 68% of people are planning trips abroad this summer. Whilst many feel starved of foreign holidays, it is important to remember the environmental impact of air travel.
According to the BBC, a domestic flight in the UK can generate the equivalent of 254 g of CO2 for every kilometre they travel. Therefore, instead of looking abroad for things to do this summer; why not treat yourselves to some of the best views you can have in the UK. All without impacting your carbon footprint.
It is important to build your prep list based on whether you want to camp or stay in hostels. This prep list is based on staying in hostels, with the exception of the first night where I camped in a rented tent.
- Base Layers x 3
- T-Shirts x 3
- Hiking Socks x 5
- Underwear x 5
- Fleece x 1
- Waterproof Trousers x 1
- Waterproof Jacket x 1
- Hat x 1
- Buff x 1
- Hiking Boots (Well worn in!)
- Blister Pads x 3 (To say these saved my life would be an understatement)
- Midge Repellent
Food & Drink
- Sandwiches (For first few days)
- Chocolate Bars
- Refillable Water Bottle
Day 1 – Milngavie to Cashel Campsite
The West Highland Way starts at Milngavie, a suburb just north of Glasgow. The start of the hike is a five-minute walk from the Milngavie train station. There are some shops, including a pharmacy in the town centre, if you need to grab some last-minute supplies. But, if not, you can embark on the 96-mile jaunt to Fort William. Starting the walk is relatively calm, with the undulating farmlands and well-kept path making for easy walking.
As Glasgow recedes in your rearview mirror, you can almost feel a weight being lifted. I felt my mind switch off and drift away from thinking and worrying about any tasks I had going on. For the next five days, your only goal is putting one foot in front of the other and watching the views go by.
After a few hours of strolling through farmlands, you will approach Drymen. If you plan on doing the hike over six or seven days, you can find accommodation. However, as we were doing the hike over five, we pushed on to Cashel campsite, just outside of Balmaha.
In Balmaha, you can find a place to get a nice lunch or dinner. We dined at The Oak Tree Inn, where you can also find lodging if you fancy staying in Balmaha. However, a stay here is a bit more pricey than a hostel.
As we were staying in Cashel Campsite, we walked another two miles from Balmaha to arrive at Cashel. The timing was on our side, as just as we settled down to turn in for the night, the rain began to fall. That light, drizzly rain that seems entirely bearable but gets you completely saturated.
Day 2 – Cashel to Crianlarich
I woke up to the sound of rain popping on the roof of our tent. Immediately, I wanted to turn over and go back to sleep. However, the friend I was walking with was quick to motivate us to get up and out. Which is the benefit of doing it with another person: It is easy to convince yourself to be lazy, but another person there helps motivate you. This comes in handy later on, when fatigue kicks in and morale drops.
On the second day you walk the length of Loch Lomond. Along the rugged coastline and through lush woodlands with more shades of green, brown, and purple than a Dulux wall chart. Starting off, you follow the gentle banks of Loch Lomond before the path takes you up and down through dense woodland. You definitely get your steps in on day two, let me tell you that. The coastline of Loch Lomond seems to stretch on forever.
The weather was the worst of the whole trip on day two. The rain pelted down relentlessly on our heads, which was nice at first; but after five hours, the feet began to ache and the heads started to drop. I don’t think me and my friends said anything to each other for about four hours on the walk. The weather was that bad we just wanted to trudge on till we got to the Drovers Inn.
However, no matter how harsh the weather is on you, there are moments of shelter or moments where you catch the perfect view that make all the hardship worth it.
Having driven along the A82 (the road that runs parallel to the West Highland Way on day two) many times, we expected to arrive at the Drovers Inn between 1pm and 2pm. We could not have been more wrong. We arrived at 5pm, after trudging on blistered feet through relentless showers of rain. I remember needing to change every article of clothing on my torso, as they were all soaked through. Which is an important lesson – no matter how waterproof your jacket claims to be, nothing is waterproof through twelve hours of Scottish rain.
After refuelling and drying off, we left the Drovers Inn with our spirits amply lifted and continued onto Crianlarich, where our accommodation was for the night.
We stayed at the Crianlarich Youth Hostel, where a bed costs you £18.
However, if you plan to do this over summer, be sure to check availability well in advance. As goes for all the hostels and accommodation along the West Highland Way.
Day 3 – Crianlarich to Bridge of Orchy
After leaving Crianlarich, you are taken on a lovely path over the nearby hills. This is the stage of the hike where the highlands start to make themselves known.
With the five day itinerary, our day three was easier – clocking in at 13 miles. However, this somewhat gentler day was very needed and the reason for which brings me onto my biggest piece of advice. Be vigilant of blisters.
So, midway through the second day, I began to feel hot spots flare up on both of my heels. However, given the horrible weather and resulting low mood, I did what you should never do and soldiered on. This resulted in me having two massive and insanely uncomfortable blisters develop on my heels.
I should have stopped as soon as I felt the hot spots, applied some blister pads, and then moved on. This would have saved me so much unnecessary pain, as the blisters were with me until Fort William.
Anyway, back to the walk. We paused for lunch in Tyndrum, as there are loads of options for food here, we chose the Real Food Cafe. After lunch, the walk takes you up through the valley of Beinn Dorain.
In this valley, the path straddles the trainline for stretches and the A82. As the path weaves through the valley, you are gifted with the stunning slopes of Beinn Dorain and neighbouring hills that form the gentle gulley.
We stayed the night at the West Highland Way Sleeper. It is by far the most interesting hostel, as it is on the railway station and located inside the old railway booking office. A bed in a 10-bed mixed dorm was £32.
However, there is also the Bridge of Orchy hotel for a pricier option, where we decided to have dinner, as it is just across the road from the West Highland Way Sleeper.
Day 4 – Bridge of Orchy to Kinlochleven
Leaving Bridge of Orchy, we were greeted by light snowfall, but thankfully it did not lie heavily. However, I was considering whether it would ease my blister pain. We headed on towards Inveroran. After stopping for an obligatory morning roll at the Inveroran Hotel, we pushed along the old cobbled military road towards Rannoch Moor. A helpful piece of advice: you are walking on an old cobbled military road from Rannoch Moor onwards, which is very tough on your feet. So try to be proactive in avoiding blisters.
Passing along Rannoch Moor, there are stunning views of Loch Tulla. The whole moor itself has character. It feels bold and storied. It looks that way as well. As you approach Kingshouse, the moor reaches its end, not before offering you a view of the foreboding Munro Buachaille Etive Mor.
Arriving at Kingshouse, there is the option for lunch and accommodation if you want to split your hike up into more days. After lunch, we pushed onto the somewhat hyperbolically titled Devils Staircase. After climbing the steps you can get some truly lovely landscape scenes of Glencoe.
After summiting the staircase, the path winds down and curls around a selection of hills before a long path descends into Kinlochleven.
We stayed at the West Highland Lodge, part of the Blackwater Hostel in Kinlochleven, which cost us £80 for 2 people.
Day 5 – Kinlochleven to Fort William
Leaving Kinlochleven, there is a gradual climb up into the valley leading to Mullach nan Coirean. Afterwards, the cobbled military road then winds down into a thick forest area, where the cap of Ben Nevis can be seen.
As its true scale is felt, the path descends down into Glen Nevis, where the commanding munro can be marvelled upon even further. Once in Glen Nevis, you are on a simple flat road for about fifty minutes into Fort William – where the hike ends. So, you can treat this as a victory lap.
There are few options for accommodation in Fort William. However we stayed in Glen Nevis Youth Hostel for £29 per bed.
So, I hope this article has helped provide some insight into the West Highland Way. Despite being one of the most gruelling things I have ever done; I can honestly say it is one of the best things I have ever done. I feel it fostered a more profound sense of connection to Scotland, from an ecological and national perspective. I have more respect and a sense of duty towards the ecosystems that make up Scotland. This also bleeds into a stronger sense of pride for this country and its wildlife, which is something that you don’t get from a regular summer holiday. And yes, you may have to swap the sliders for hiking boots and the suntan lotion for midge repellent. But trust me, every blister is worth it.