The West Highland Way is Scotland's most popular long distance hike. At 96 miles, most hikers do the walk in 5-9 days. There are charming village dotted along the trail, passing the gorgeous lochs (lakes) and moors of the Scottish Highlands as you walk from one medieval village to the next. You'll pass castle ruins and monuments, along with stunningly beautiful countryside with cattle and sheep peacefully grazing.
At the end of the day, grab a pint or a whiskey at the local pub and enjoy a traditional Scottish dish with the locals and the hikers you meet along the trail.
The mountains on this trail aren't very tall and much of the trail is mildly graded. Learn why this imminently doable hike (rated about 3 out of 5 for difficulty) should be considered for your next adventure travel bucket list.
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Welcome the the Active Travel Adventures podcast where we curate multi-day active travel vacations from around the world for people who have kept themselves reasonably fit. Subscribe here to the podcast so you don't miss an episode (click view in iTunes under the ATA logo and then click Subscribe under the ATA logo)
These adventures aren't crazy hard or dangerous like climbing Mount Everest… they are doable, uber fun vacations for those that are in decent physical shape. Just know that you'll have to MOVE: hike, bike, paddle, horseback ride (sometimes in combination) to get from one place to the next.
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Here is the time-stamped transcript for this episode:
Episode #003 : West Highland Way, Scotland’s Most Popular Long Distance Hike
00:00 Happy birthday dear Jamie, happy birthday to you!
00:12 I may not be able to sing, but I sure can walk. Last June, I flew over 3600 miles and then walked over a hundred miles to attend a new friend’s birthday party in Scotland. To get to the party, I hiked on Scotland’s most popular and imminently doable long distance trail through multiple medieval villages and the sheep studded countryside. The West Highland Way trail should definitely be a consideration on your adventure travel bucket list.
01:07 When Jamie, a Scot I met in Nicaragua invited our hiking group to a 40th birthday hike with he and his friends in Scotland, I jumped at the chance! How often do you get the opportunity to truly hang out like a local???
You met Jamie in the Nicaragua episode #001: He was the gent that danced with me in the town square. Jamie lives in Glasgow and his birthday hiking weekend was going to be in Fort Williams, about a hundred miles north.
However, I couldn’t rationalize flying across the pond for a three day weekend, so I figured that there must be something else cool I could do while I was over there.
I did a quick Google search and Viola! KISMET!
01:41 Scotland’s most popular long distance hike, the West Highland Way,
goes from just outside Glasgow, where Jamie lives, and ends in Fort William – PLUS there is another trail, the Kelvin Walkway which starts in Glasgow and ends at the beginning of the West Highland Way. So I was able to start hiking directly from my downtown Glasgow hotel all the way to the birthday party!
The West Highland Way is a stunningly beautiful, moderately difficult hike through the western Scottish highlands. About 85,000 people hike the 96 mile trail each year, taking anywhere from 4-10 days, depending on their pace. The trail is dotted with centuries old villages, livestock, lakes – called lochs in Scotland, castle ruins and gentle hills.
02:24 I love to backpack, but I have to say that I have a new appreciation for doing a long distance hike where you get to take a shower at the end of the day, have a cold brew, a hot dinner and a cozy bed. PLUS! I used a self-guided tour company so my main luggage was transported each day to the next stop, so all I needed was my daypack – SWEET! So at 56 years old, I’m kinda sold on this new luxuryJ
Leaving the city was more scenic than I expected. I had a little difficulty staying on the trail sometimes through the town, but found Charlie Loram’s West Highland Way guide helpful as the locals I asked in town didn’t realize that there was a trail.
Locals not knowing about a trail is not as uncommon as you might think: there have been two times when I was in a trail town on the Appalachian Trail and couldn’t find a local who even knew that the famous trail went straight through their town! I never got seriously lost, but want to give accolades to one of, if not the single best guide book I’ve ever bought. It not only tells you the nitty gritty about hiking this trail, but has color photos of the flora and fauna, and great hand drawn local ‘don’t miss this’ maps along with the ‘official’ maps. The guidebook is put out by a company called Trail Blazer, and they have a guidebook on dozens of long distance hiking and cycling trails. I think in retirement, I’m just going to go down their guide book list.
03:34 Lately, I’ve been experimenting with not doing much if any research on the places I’m traveling to to see if being surprised adds to the experience. This has been making it a bit more interesting! After booking this tour, with zero knowledge of the landscape of Scotland or frankly anything other than its starting and endpoint, I did ask my friend Jamie if I had inadvertently booked a technical hike. He assured me that they didn’t have dangerous or very high mountains in Scotland, and frankly, I was so busy with work, I did no further research before heading over. My tour company sent me the aforementioned guide along with a nice waterproof map, and God bless them for doing so, as it was nice to have a decent reference to use for my adventure.
04:14 I knew I wanted to start this podcast and had recently met Mike, from Mike’sRoadTrips.com, and got to see him make all these cool videos with a drone and GoPro with a gimbal – that’s one of those things that makes video steady. I was like: I gotta get one of those! I had such visions of bringing you cool video from Scotland. Sigh! It was heavy. It came in just before my trip and I didn’t have a chance to learn how to use it. SO I carried this VERY HEAVY equipment with me and messed up my knee, which troubled me for much of the trip. I should have known better. I usually train before any adventure vacation. Not only didn’t I train, I was carrying way too much weight in my pack without any training. Lesson learned!
04:53 Back to the hike: As there are many towns along the way, you can do this adventure in a short period time like my speedy new UK friend Simon, who blew through the trail in about five days and THEN went on to hike the Great Glen Way trail from Fort Williams to Inverness or take your time like I did. My average day was just under 13 miles per day, which is about how many miles I can do before my feet start to scream.
05:16 The trail starts in Milngavie – a name I never did learn how to pronounce. A granite obelisk denotes the start of the trail and you start by walking under a bronze West Highland Way overhead arch. The beginning of the trail is a relatively flat pathway through a beautiful woodland. It was a very meditative beginning to my first solo long distance hike. I found it pretty easy going the first day. Much of the trail uses old drovers paths, otherwise known as paths where herders move the cattle and sheep. Also the West Highland Way trail uses old military and rail paths for many sections, so this really is a doable hike for anyone modestly fit.
05:53 The first day’s end finds me in the little town of Drymen. This quaint village of less than a thousand people boasts Scotland’s oldest pub, the Clachan pub. While officially this pub’s license states it began operation in 1734, local lore says otherwise. The pub serves Fraoch, a heather based ale using a recipe over 4000 years old. Drymen is also the western terminus of another long distance hike in Scotland called the Rob Roy way. Rob Roy, who died in 1734, was part of the Jacobite uprising and who in his lifetime became a folk hero. Locals say that Rob Roy’s sister was once the landlady of the Clachan pub.
06:38 A recurring theme you will hear in the Active Travel Adventures podcast is that the exchanges with fellow travelers and locals that you meet in your travels become the bedrock of your favorite memories. After finishing my first day’s hike, I arrived in Drymen before the rooms were ready. Sitting in the comfy lobby and warming up in front of the fire (even though it was June), I met an Australian named Russell and an expat American living in Canada named Linda. You bond so quickly when you are an adventure traveler, and the three of us not only kept up for the duration of our hike, but also thereafter. We know that whenever we are in each other’s turf that we will reconnect.
07:12 Russell and I hiked ended up hiking together the next day to Rowardennan, before taxiing back to Balmaha to sleep: accommodations are very tight along the West Highland Way, so it’s best to book early or to plan on camping. Frankly, even though at first I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to get a room in the picturesque Rowardennan, when Russell and I encountered our first midges while enjoying a post hike beer outside, it turned out to be a good thing.
07:36 Midges are these super annoying teeny tiney nats that bite but mostly drive you batty. Where I live in NC, we have something similarly annoying called no see ums, because they are so hard to see. I did pack net head gear in case the midges drove me crazy, but never had need to put it on. In fact, the only time I had an issue with them was over that beer in Rowardennan. On reason June is a preferred month to hike the WHW is because the midges aren’t so bad then. Apparently they can be maddening later in the summer, but that’s what the inexpensive head net is for.
08:06 By now, Russell and I are hiking alongside the Loch Lomond, or Lake Lomond. The Queen Elizabeth Forest Park in the town of Balmaha has a spectacular overlook on Conic Hill. We were blessed with picture perfect weather for the summit. Less than a hundred people live in Balmaha, but it is a popular day trip from Glasgow due to its scenic beauty on Loch Lommond and the panoramic Conic Hill vista. While in Balmaha, you can take a ferry ride tour of the loch or over to Inch Cailloch. The pub at the Oak Tree Inn, the only place in town to sleep, has twice won Scotland’s best independent pub award. I thought the food was tasty, too. Kudos for them, too, since they are the only place in town, they could get away with being awful. PIC
08:44 Speaking of summits, Scotland’s mountains aren’t overly tall. In Scotland, they call it hill walking. Most mountains aren’t over 3000’ or 1000 meters. However, there are some 283 over 1000 meters, and many folks, like my Scottish friends Jamie and Julie count these climbs. They call it Munro Bagging, after the man who first counted them all.
09:03 And speaking of Scots, going to back to my first night in Scotland, I thought that something I learned from Jamie was an interesting insight into Scottish humour. When I flew into Glasgow, Jamie and I met for drinks and dinner. We had drinks at a new American bar that featured Pabst Blue Ribbon as the preferred American beer. I thought it was funny that this bar was using one of our cheapest beers to highlight American beer – and also profitably shrewd on the owner’s part.
09:24 On the way to dinner, we walked past the Gallery of Modern Art in the Royal Exchange Square. In front of the museum is a bronze statue of the 1st Duke of Wellington on a horse. On top of his head is a plastic orange traffic cone. Several decades ago, a prankster put a cone on his head. The locals decided that it was art so the cone remains and gets replaced when necessary. In 2011, Lonely Planet listed this tribute as one of the ten most bizarre monuments on earth. I did sense that Jamie was proud of his countrymen’s in your face art. He said the locals consider it modern art in front of the modern art museum. The local government spends over 10,000 pounds a year to continuously remove the cones, but the locals are quite fond of it, and are just as persistent in replacing it. A Facebook “Keep the Cone” petition garnered over 72,000 likes in 24 hours, after the City Council planned to raise the statue to inhibit the cone people. Not bad for a city with a population under 600,000! The photo is a hoot: be sure to check it out at activetraveladventures.com.
10:33 Now back to the hike, while walking along the Loch Lomand, Russell and I were fortunate to witness a young couple getting ready to get married. We watched the wedding party – the handsome groomsmen in their cute kilts – make preparations for the ceremony along the waterfront. We were tempted to stay for the ceremony.
10:49 Gratefully, I had booked a rest day in Balmaha, which gave my knee a bit of a respite. Not enough, I’m afraid as the next day I had a fourteen mile hike that was challenging, but not killer, yet it still took me nine hours to hike the fourteen miles to the Drymen Inn in Inveraman. This happened to also be the most difficult day’s hike of the whole trail, yet I would still just rank this trail a 3.5 out of 5 for difficulty. There were some rock steps, so definitely more up and down stepping than the other days, but an eminently doable hike. It was just really hard for me because of my knee. Overall, I would rate the whole West Highland Way hike a 3 out of five.
11:28 Now let’s talk about the historic Drymen Inn, located at the northern end of the gorgeous Loch Lommnand. OK. I get that I was tired. And thirsty. But the inn, which has its own charm, AND has been around for CENTURIES, doesn’t look like it’s dusted the stuffed animal taxidermied trophies in a while – and they are everywhere. Nonetheless, I was so glad to get off my feet and was honored that Jamie and his mom drove up from Glasgow to join me for dinner and to see how I was doing. Our meals were pretty good and the service decent, and the ambience very festive. I just wanted to break out the feather duster. AND my room was a bit shall we say retro? I was put up in the newer building across the street. Based on the furnishings, I’d say last updated in the 1950’s, although the bath looked newer. Still, I slept like an angel.
12:11 The next day’s hike seemed to be mostly level or uphill. Happily my knee now only troubled me going downhill for some reason. Early in the hike, I met a really funny and charming man named Simon from England. He and I hiked together to my day’s endpoint of Tyndrum, where were Simon treated me to a lovely lunch. Afterwards, speedy Simon hiked another seven miles to Bridge of Orchy. As a side note, after hiking the West Highland Way, Simon proceeded to also hike yet another 73 more miles on the Great Glen Way to Inverness immediately after – which is an option for you overly ambitious hikers. There are loads of long distance hikes in Scotland, many of them intersecting, so if you wanted to, you can hike for as long as you wish.
12:50 Decision Day: My knee was still troubling me and I was scheduled to hike twenty miles today. Mind you, I had only hiked twenty miles once in my life, on the Appalachian Trail. Knowing that I was in for some unpleasant Scottish cold rain this day, I planned to start my hike at 5am. The weather was that nasty forty degree, rain shooting darts sideways piercing into your eyeballs kind of rain.
13:11 Dutifully I set out for Bridge or Orchy, seven miles away promptly at five. It wasn’t a difficult hike, but man was it cold. I had all of the right gear except my gloves were thermal but not waterproof, so I didn’t bother to wear them. Simon had told me about waterproof gloves, but I hadn’t yet found a store to buy a pair. By the time I reached Bridge or Orchy my hands were like frozen claws from clutching my hiking poles. I had all the right other gear, so the rest of my body was toasty but I couldn’t move the fingers of my hands that were seemingly permanently hooked like they were holding the grip of my hiking sticks. When I made it to the town and found an inn to get coffee and a warm breakfast, I went in to wash up and couldn’t even grip the toilet paper my hands were so frozen! In the restaurant, I was embarrassed about making such a puddle with all of my wet clothes but the innkeepers were non-plussed – they smiled and said were used to it.
13:58 Now toasty and reading my trusty guide, the next thirteen miles were across the most barren land of the hike. Not a house or road for fifty square miles. In this awful weather, if I had a mishap and got lost or injured, I would be in serious trouble. Plus, I was still having knee issues. I used my grey hairs and made the executive decision to use the backup plan provided by my tour company and took the local bus to the net destination. Best 4 pound fifty I ever spent. The rest of the day was spent leisurely looking out from the ski lodge while eating delicious hot soup and enjoying hot chocolate looking out a massive picture window overlooking a ski trail, which in June, was now commandeered as a mountain bike trail. The smiles on the two young boys faces who were biking down were priceless. They entertained me for hours while I awaited my shuttle.
14:48 My right knee appreciated the time off so the hike to Kinlochleven wasn’t so bad, despite climbing the Devil’s Staircase. I found the view from the top of the Devil’s Staircase a highlight, and gratefully the weather was once again cooperating. Yes it is straight up and it’s a bit hard, but I’m inclined to believe the story that it got it’s name from the BUILDERS of the stone steps up the Devil’s Staircase rather than from the CLIMBERS. It’s a bit difficult but not killer. The view is killer though! You can check out my video at ATA.com.
15:17 Heading into the town of Kinlochloven, you’ll see some massive hydro electric tubes to your right, built as I understand for an aluminum smelting business . Kinlochloven, a modest town of just over a thousand residents, can boast that it was the first town IN THE WORLD where every home had electricity.
15:33 When you make it to Kinlochloven, you’ll find it’s a cute town at the head of Loch Leven, and is surrounded fyord-like by mountains. When there, don’t miss a stop at the famous Bothy Bar in the MacDonald Hotel. Coming from the US where we think something is old when it’s a hundred years old, I find it amazing that these inns and pubs which are CENTURIES old don’t even bother mentioning it on their websites. I did try to look it up for you.
15:56 When hiking this trail, you will hear and read a lot about the MacDonalds, a large and proud Scottish clan. When you’ve made it to Kinlochloven, you’ve just past the Glencoe area (which is stunning beautiful!), the site of the Glencoe Massacre of 1692– infamous because 38 unarmed MacDonalds were murdered by the Earl of Argyll’s regiment led by Robert Campbell, and worse yet, this massacre was authorized by the government. What makes the crime some heinous is that this regiment had been the guests of the MacDonalds for a couple of weeks before they turned around and killed their hosts. Here it is three hundred years later, and I saw signs on some businesses saying no Campbells welcome.
16:33 After Kinlochloven, we are into the home stretch of the hike into Fort William, a decent sized town of about 10,000 residents that has all of the amenities and a cute downtown on the water. Fort William is an adventure traveler’s mecca. Not only is the hiking good in this area, but the mountain biking is a big attraction as well. That Great Glen Way trail that Simon continued on can also be biked.
16:56 While in town, it’s a worthy stop to visit the West Highland Museum to learn about the history of Scotland and the clans. The original fort at Fort Williams was built in 1654, and you see remnants of a fort on the hike into town.
17:08 The trail ends in the heart of town on the pedestrian main road at the Sore Feet bronze statue by David A Annand – yet another tip off of Scottish sensibilities and humor. You can see my smiling face sitting next to Mr. Sore Feet at ATA.com.
17:24 Many hikers add to their hike a climb of Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest peak at over 4400’, which is in Fort William.
13:37 Still a bit concerned about my knee, I choose a different path. I met up again with my hiking friend Simon for dinner the night I arrived in Fort William, and then we met for coffee the next day. Afterwards, I took the famous scenic train ride to Maillag. This is a postcard picture perfect ride! You take this extraordinarily beautiful train ride to Maillag, have lunch, visit the museum to learn about the town’s history and its importance as western Scotlands most important commercial fishing port, walk around a bit and then take a train back. And YAY! I found an outfitter store where I was able to buy a pair of waterproof gloves. You can also take a a historic steam train ride there, but it’s the same view with the regular train, so I took that one instead.
It’s almost time for the birthday party!
18:16 Jamie and his friends arrived the next day. It was really cool to hang out with his friends. Granted they’re young enough to be my kids, but they seemed cool having me around. Plus Jamie’s mom, Carol came too, so I wasn’t the only one of a certain age.
18:28 We were a large party and it was hard to find a restaurant to take us for dinner without reservations, so we ended up at a Chinese restaurant with zero customers which made us nervous as all of the other restaurants were packed. Gratefully all went well and happily they had many customers before we left. I had been worried about food turnover and/or sanitation issues. I’m happy to report that no one got sick and we all enjoyed our meal.
18:49 The next day was the big hike for Jamie’s birthday. We took a train to the mountain for our climb. The weather that day was as pleasant as my clawed hand day: bitter raw cold awful piercing rain with about 10’ visibility. I was SO GRATEFUL for my new waterproof gloves as I was fine, so while most folks were miserable, I was toasty. My mom always told me that if you have the right clothes it doesn’t make a difference what the weather is. She is right, folks!
19:12 The funny thing about adventure travel is that when you look back, it’s the things that didn’t go well that you remember most fondly. I think about how I couldn’t even hold toilet paper that morning my hands were like frozen claws. But I notice that I am smiling when I think about it or tell the story. I think about climbing that Munro for Jamie’s birthday, when we were pretty much in white out conditions, unable to see a few feet in front of ourselves in a bitter cold piercing rain, where we only paused briefly for the summit photo op before racing back down the hill to get out of the rain and get warm, yet the hike this day was one of the highlights of my adventure. I was blessed with pretty good weather on my trip except for the two days I just mentioned. But I find that it’s overcoming the obstacles and perservering that I remember most, and remember most fondly. Overcoming obstacles makes me proud of myself and I enjoy pushing myself.
19:56 When we were back down the mountain, now safely warm with soup in our bellies while we waited for the train back to Fort Williams, we laughed at the cold and the rain. We cheered our endurance. We relished reliving the misery. Why is that? I don’t know, but I see it time and again on any adventure trip I take. When I look back, it’s the things that went wrong or the most difficult challenges that set the adventure apart from others and where the best stories come from.
20:18 When I look back on this adventure, I smile more about that clawed hand than I do about the perfect view on the top of Conic Hill. I think it must do with our pushing ourselves, enduring the challenges, and then triumphing.
20:29 People who choose to do adventure travel for their vacations are different than most people. We seem to have this odd pat ourselves on the back for overcoming the challenges mentality. We actually a little bit thrive on it. We get dirty and sweaty and are often uncomfortable and sometimes in a little pain. My family doesn’t understand why I do it. Some friends seem envious, but they wouldn’t do something like this. If you are listening to this, I’m betting that you are one of my people – and you get it. I’m so glad you do.
20:52 My takeaway of hiking the West highland Way in Scotland is that this is a doable hike for almost anyone in decent shape. You can do it self-guided like I did, you can plan your own adventure and even backpack the trip like my new friend Simon did (although when he heard about how I had the luggage transfer, he wished he had done that). It is a VERY popular hike and accommodations in these small villages are limited so you need to plan well in advance. Be sure to download the FREE West Highland Way Cheat sheet. If you subscribe to the newsletter you’ll get it automatically in the next issue so you can file it in your computer or print it out and put it in your dream book.
21:34 If you haven’t done so already, please subscribe to the podcast. If you don’t know how to, visit any of the ATA.com webpages to find a link that will show you how. If you have subscribed, you are part of the elite: most people still don’t even know what a podcast is. How about doing me the honor of grabbing a friend’s phone this week and subscribing them to ATA so you can enlighten them on this cool new tool called a podcast? Thanks so much!
At any time, I hope you’ll email me at kit@ATA.com to tell me about your adventures. I’d love to hear from you. Adventure on!