West Highland Way – What to skip and what not to miss

West Highland Way – What to skip and what not to miss

The West Highland Way is a 96 mile (154km) scenic walk from Milngavie on the outskirts of Glasgow to Fort William at the base of Ben Nevis. It takes you from the relatively flat countryside full of sheep and highland cows, up and over Conic Hill, along the rocky paths by Loch Lomond, and then into the openness of Rannoch Moor, before tackling the Devil’s staircase and the final push in the moors to Fort William.

Overview

Difficulty – Moderate to challenging. I’m not an experienced hiker, I have average fitness for a 30 year old and was able to finish the walk. I did it solo so I went at my own pace but I found many people (who were more geared up) often overtook me.

Time – First week of September. If you go later than mid-September you risk the weather turning to constant rain. If you go earlier (May to July) the midges are out in force. The trail is extremely slippery and exposed in many places so it is not advised to walk it in the winter. 

Length – 7 days. But if I did it again I would do it in 8 days and add a stop in Inversnaid. Below are the distances I covered each day.

  1. Milngavie to Drymen – 12 miles
  2. Drymen to Rowardennan – 15 miles
  3. Rowardennan to Inverarnan – 14 miles
  4. Inverarnan to Tyndrum – 12 miles
  5. Tyndrum to Kingshouse – 19 miles 
  6. Kingshouse to Kinlochleven – 9 miles
  7. Kinlochleven to Fort William – 15 miles 

Comfort level – basic to moderate. 4 nights camping, 1 night hostel dorm, 1 night cabin, 1 night hotel. I enjoyed the mixture of camping along with a hostel and cabin, which both had power supplies and heating. On the final night in Fort William I treated myself to a hotel. Finding cheap accommodation in Fort William is difficult. It’s a popular destination due to its proximity to Ben Nevis which inflates hotel prices. There is a large campsite 2.2 miles before the town which is perfect if you want to climb Ben Nevis the next day. Where I stayed each night and the prices:

  1. Drymen Camping £8 (camping)
  2. Sallochy Campsite £7 (camping)
  3. Beinglas Farm £10 (camping)
  4. By the Way Hostel £20 (shared dorm)
  5. Glencoe Mountain Resort £8 (camping)
  6. MacDonald Hotel £45 (whole cabin which sleeps 4)
  7. Ossians Hotel £60 (hotel)

If you intend to stay at hotels or bunkhouses then you need to book at least a few months in advance. When I was looking one month before, I found most were booked up. The walk can be as basic or luxurious as you want it to be. From 4* hotels at each stop to wild camping. 

Note – While wild camping is allowed in Scotland, between March 1st and September 30th you need a permit to wild camp along Loch Lomond. You risk a £500 fine if you camp without one.

 

What to skip and what not to miss

Skip – carrying your luggage

I carried my 11kg bag for the first 3 days before using a luggage service to transport my bag from campsites (travel lite – £65 the whole route and £45 part route). Not carrying my bag made the whole experience so much more enjoyable! I walked faster, was able to climb to higher points and had no worries about it getting wet when it rained. If it’s not in your budget – make sure you’ve practised and know what carrying at least 12kg for 20 miles is like before attempting a week of it. 

 

Milngavie to Drymen – 12 miles

Don’t skip – The Highland Cows

The only part of the walk where I saw these iconic cows was in the area around Drymen. If you want to snap a photo of them, this is the place. I didn’t and regretted it later. 

Highland cattle calf - credit @chloemayirvine
Highland cattle calf – credit @chloemayirvine

Skip – Glengoyne Distillery (at least until Covid restrictions are lifted)

If you’ve been to a whisky distillery before then this doesn’t offer anything you wouldn’t have seen. The guide spoke very softly, and with masks on, and over the sound of the working distillery it was impossible to hear her. They also won’t store backpacks while you do the tour so be prepared to carry your bag. At £18 you only get two very small tasters. You’d be better off buying a bottle of whisky instead. 

Glengoyne Distillery
Glengoyne Distillery

If you choose to camp at Dryman Camping, the site is very clean with hot showers. But it’s also a mile from Drymen so if you don’t want to walk to town then you’ll have to cook your own food. 

Drymen West Highland Way
First day of the walk to Drymen – lots of sheep and relatively flat

 

Drymen to Rowardennan – 15 miles

Skip – Buchanan Castle

Google has fantastic reviews for this place where people claim there’s a hole in the fence where you can get in and explore this derelict castle. However, when I got there, I found no hole and there was a security guard. From outside the fence there’s not much to see. It also adds a 2 mile diversion from the West Highland Way on an already long walking day.

Buchanan Castle
Buchanan Castle

Don’t skip – Conic Hill

The walk over Conic Hill was a lot more of a challenge than I was prepared for (at this point I still had my bag). It’s a very steep climb up and full of tourists. The down part is nearly all steps which weren’t great for the knees. However, the view at the top is stunning and totally worth it. It’s a highlight of the West Highland Way. 

Conic Hill West Highland Way
Conic Hill

After passing down through the forest you reach the village of Balmaha, where I recommend getting food and filling up water bottles at the water station. The next few miles along Loch Lomond to Rowardennan are very pretty but also tough going with many ups and downs. 

Balmaha
Steps down from Conic Hill, forest walk and Balmaha

That evening I stayed at Sallochy Campsite, a mile before Rowardennan. While I was grateful I didn’t have to walk further, it did mean more walking the next day (including the long staircase taking you up to Rowardennan). Sallochy Campsite also has no food options so you will have to bring your own. If you choose to stay here, make sure you book a lochside camping pitch as the view from the tent is beautiful. 

Sallochy Campsite
Sallochy Campsite

 

Rowardennan to Inverarnan – 14 miles

This was by far the toughest part of the West Highland Way. There is no public transport or road this side of the Loch so you have to be prepared to walk. If it gets too tough or weather conditions are poor (making it dangerous) outside the Inversnaid Hotel is the ferry (Cruise Loch Lomond) which goes across the Loch to Tarbet for £8. Once in Tarbet you can take the train to Ardlui or 914 citylink bus to Inverarnan. 

Skip – the lower path

About half a mile on the trail after leaving Rowardennan, you will be presented with a lower or upper path to Inversnaid. 

Every hiker I met who took the lower path told me it was extremely tough, dangerous in parts and you spend so long with your head down worried about your footing you can’t enjoy the walk. Given you’ve spent half of yesterday walking along the Loch, there’s nothing you haven’t seen before. If you really enjoyed the challenge of Balmaha to Rowardennan then the lower path may be right for you, but if you’d rather spend time in a forest setting with less rocky paths, take the upper path. 

Path to Inversnaid
Path to Inversnaid

Don’t skip – considering an overnight stay in Inversnaid

I found this section of walk extremely challenging (in part due to still carrying my bag). Halfway between Rowardennan and Inverarnan is Inversnaid. On reaching the Inversnaid Hotel, I decided that if I re-did the West Highland Way I would choose to stop here for the night (or the much cheaper Inversnaid Bunkhouse) and add an extra day to the walk. 

Inversnaid Hotel and waterfall
Inversnaid Hotel and waterfall

The hotel wasn’t serving food, only drinks which made lunch here a no go. The hotel staff told me that they’d already had a walker come in that day, order a taxi, giving up on the walk completely, and it was common for tired walkers to book a room for the night (at £123 including breakfast). Outside I overheard two young guys desperately trying to get a luggage firm to transport their bags so they didn’t have to carry them the further 8 miles to Inverarnan. The rest of the walk to Inverarnan is all difficult rocky paths – this is the point where you consider quitting. 

But if you don’t quit and keep going…

Don’t skip – The Drovers Inn, Inverarnan

This pub opened in 1705 and is one of the oldest in Scotland. Famous for its reception hall with a stuffed bear. It also does great pub food and has a B&B if you’re not camping. After the last part of the walk, it’s a great place for a well deserved beer. 

The Drovers Inn
The Drovers Inn

 

Inverarnan to Tyndrum – 12 miles

Don’t skip – Midge hat and net

After leaving the Loch Lomond area, the number of midges seemed to increase exponentially. Tales of the terror these bring are not exaggerations. They bite and you must take a midge net and insect repellent with you on the West Highland Way. They love to strike when you’re packing up your tent in the morning, swarming all over you. Later in the day when walking they aren’t such a menace, but you’ll need a midge hat and net for the mornings. 

Midge net West Highland Way
Must have midge net

There are no stand out points along this way. At Tyndrum the Real Food Cafe and the small number of shops are a great place to get dinner and stock up on supplies.

 

Tyndrum to Kingshouse – 19 miles

Skip – Tyndrum to Bridge of Orchy

So here I must confess, I skipped 7 miles of the West Highland Way and took a 15 minute bus ride from Tyndrum to Bridge of Orchy. The 916 bus leaves daily from Tyndrum public toilets at 8.41am and costs £4.50. There’s also a train running between the two places but doesn’t operate on a Sunday. Starting the walk at Bridge of Orchy reduced the day from 19 miles to a more manageable 12 miles. It also skips an awkward river crossing and long low tunnel which are in this part of the walk. 

Bridge of Orchy
Bridge of Orchy

Don’t skip – A rain coat for Rannoch Moor

After a slight incline from Bridge of Orchy you reach the open desolate Rannoch Moor. My favourite place along the West Highland Way – silent, open wilderness. However, this also means if rain strikes you have nowhere to go for cover so be prepared if rain is predicted. 

Rannoch Moor West Highland Way
Rannoch Moor

That evening I camped at Glencoe Mountain Resort but a mile further on is free wild camping, located behind the Kingshouse Hotel. Both Kingshouse Hotel and Glencoe Mountain Resort serve hot food. 

 

Kingshouse to Kinlochleven – 9 miles

Don’t skip – The Devil’s Staircase 

While this is a short 9 mile section, it includes the Devil’s Staircase. I personally found this easier to climb than Conic Hill. Many say it’s a highlight of the West Highland Way, unfortunately it was covered in fog when I went. But the descent to Kinlochleven is impressive and pays off for the hike up.

Descent to Kinlochleven West Highland Way
Descent from the Devil’s staircase to Kinlochleven

The last 2 miles into Kinlochleven on the Old Military Road drag but as it’s a short day you should make it to Kinlochleven for lunch. I had lunch at The Tailrace Inn and dinner at the Bothy Bar at the MacDonald Hotel, then stocked up on supplies for the last day at the local CoOp. 

Skip – Staying in a cabin if you’re on your own

At £45 with 4 beds I found it a bit excessive for one person. A camp spot with access to the same facilities (toilets, showers and cooking) was only £10. However, this one depends on your personal budget. 

Macdonald hotel in Kinlochleven
Macdonald hotel and cabins in Kinlochleven

 

Kinlochleven to Fort Williams – 15 miles

By the last day you’ll most likely have a blister or two – I sure did! I was kindly given some Compeed plasters which were a lifesaver and I recommend taking. 

The walk out of Kinlochleven is long and steep with the first 2 miles all uphill.

Walk out of Kinlochleven West Highland Way
The steep walk out of Kinlochleven

After the long climb you reach the open moorlands. As you get closer to Fort William the mountains begin to grow on either side. If you’re lucky and the sky is clear you can see Ben Nevis. Unfortunately this part is also full of areas of deforestation, a strikingly different view compared to the previous days of lush forests, especially by Loch Lomond. 

Fort Williams West Highland Way
Half way to Fort Williams West Highland Way

Don’t skip – music or walking buddy

This section includes miles of the same views and can be a little dull. And the final 2 miles to Fort William are along the pavement of a busy road. By now I’d lost a toe nail, had blisters the size of golf balls and was looking forward to the end. 

There are two ‘ends’ to the West Highland Way – the old end which is just outside Fort William town centre (the gift shop there sells £1 signed certificates to take home and show your friends) and the official end which is marked by a seated statue of a West Highland Way walker in Gordon Square in the town centre.

Fort Williams - both ends of the West Highland Way
Fort Williams – both ends of the West Highland Way and a well deserved pint!

I hope you found this blog post helpful and consider walking the West Highland Way. It’s a fabulous experience and well worth the pain. For more pictures I have a story highlight on my Instagram at frans_photos

2 Replies to “West Highland Way – What to skip and what not to miss”

  1. Great article, thanks for taking the time to put it together. I’m thinking of walking the West Highland Way solo this year, I’ve done part of it about 5 years ago but my friends gave up after one got a bad blister. I learned on that trip that baggage transfer is worth it, even if it does feel like cheating a bit! It is supporting a local business and means you can enjoy the views and not be hunched back! We really suffered with our bags and heavy gear!
    I feel like I must go to the castle and get in though, you’ve just teased us all even more by saying not to go!

    1. I hope you do it! The first part is tough but once you get past the Loch and to Inverarnan it’s a lot easier. A good reason to do it solo is that you don’t have to worry about other peoples feet and comfort, just your own. I really hope you get in the castle – I was probably just unlucky with the timing :/ oh! and remember your midge net…

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