The West Highland Way (WHW)was my introduction to long distance walking. It was an activity I had contemplated and researched, and the route was recommended by a friend. It is a total of 151 km that typically takes around 7-8 days to complete. Just in case I hated it, I chose to do only four days that first time, and a self-guided agency recommended the last four. So began an odyssey of planning, booking, walking and finally falling completely in love with this adventure. Therefore, this is my mother of all walk reports, from my perspective at least.
Day 0 – All the trail heads of the WHW are accessible by public transit, so it was easy to take a train from Glasgow Central Station to Ardlui (after stocking up for my first day of snacks etc.). Ardlui Hotel, Campground and Marina, where I landed and left from the next day, is on the shores of the infamous Loch Lomand. It is a lovely old hotel and these other ‘amenities’ have sprung up around it. There is a little ferry there that picks you up from and/or takes you to the trail itself. But I never took it – the captain told me his first run was at 9:00 am, and I was hell bent on starting that walk at the crack of dawn.
Day 1 – This was my first day of walking EVER. I was 10 different kinds of anxious and elated, and waiting until 8:00 a.m. for breakfast, let alone 9:00 a.m. for a ferry ride was out of the question. I needed to get up and out as early as possible. So take off I did, along a very busy stretch of highway for the first few klicks, until turning in at the Benglas Farms to join the official path. From there it was a lovely walk through Glenn Falloch, largely between the base of the easterly hills and the surrounding fields. It is a green, agricultural, landscape, with some light woods crossed with streams. I met my first herd of cows and slowed down at some point, long enough to snack on nuts and yogurt. After a sheep creep (tunnel) under the main highway, the path rose to follow the contours of the facing hills.
It was a drizzly day, and I put on my full rain gear in the first few minutes of my walk; an early lesson in bad weather walking (that and stuffing your boots with newspaper does dry them out). Although weather rarely makes my walking routes dangerous, staying comfortable and dry in the rain, particularly in the Scottish climate, is one of the key challenges. I walk on rainy days, particularly along a long distance trail, and especially when I have traveled thousands of miles to be there.
The end of the walk was relatively early, before the hostel in Tyndrum officially opened. But the manager was sympathetic to the wet folk who showed up that day, and let us hang out in the camping kitchen. It was me and two pairs of German travellers; a couple and a couple of friends.
We chatted, drank, and passed a happy afternoon. This easy camaraderie is the best kind of human exchange while walking, another reason I enjoy staying in lodges and hostels during long distance trips.
Day 2 – The next morning, I added a good 3 km to my 29 km day, missing the turn off for the trail and following a busy highway (oops!). When I corrected, the village quickly evaporated and I was soon surrounded by the first of those really fantastic highland hills.
Although I could see the roadway in the distance, the stunning, bare, Beinn Odhair and Beinn Dorain captivated me. This was meant to be a long but easy day of walking, but they forgot to mention absolutely breathtaking. The route alternated between views up the hills, views off them and down to various landmarks such as Loch Tullah and Inveroran.
This is also the day I crossed the Rannoch Moore, possibly one of Scotland’s last unaltered landscapes. Wide open, wild grasses and stunted shrubs, it is wet and uneven walking, not to mention endless. That said, the walk through is on an old abandoned road built by the famous civil engineer, Thomas Telford, who signed much of Scotland’s major 19th century infrastructure. The views disappear to the right, and are enclosed on the left by the mountains around the mythical Glencoe. It was a clear, blue-sky day, and I was gobsmacked to be in the centre of it. Descending toward Kingshouse, the gateway to Glencoe appeared; the mountain of Buchaille Etive Mor. It is a monument that hints at the beauty that’s to come. The WHW doesn’t actually go through this valley, although it may be a necessary detour to find accommodation depending on when you travel.
It was a long long day, and Kingshouse, which is the oldest inn in the country, was the end of this leg. I found my brother waiting for me there, as well as a cool stream I could soak my feet in and a lovely pint in the hotel pub.
Day 3 – David (brother, travelling companion) ran me back to Kingshouse to re-start my walk. I was experiencing lack-of-coffee, which was luckily cured by my two German friends from day 1, who were camping outside the hotel. The dining room wouldn’t sell me any, but the lads had just finished brewing a strong espresso and took pity on me. This was the day of the Devils Staircase, supposedly the biggest assent of the walk. While that might be true, it should be known for the stunning views into Glencoe during the first few kilometers. The path eventually turned up and left the road, and the famous climb began. Unless I have severe memory loss, this was not a particularly difficult climb and there were more excellent views of Glencoe from the summit. Beyond, I remember stopping for a snack, perched on a rock beside the route while looking out across the landscape towards the Blackwater Reservoir. Soon the path headed downward, through a sweeter, green landscape that is typical of the slopes around Kinlochleven. The descent felt much longer, but the town was full of distractions (meaning food) and people.
Day 4 was another marvel. This is a day almost entirely away from any roads as you make your way through Lairig Moire, eventually turning north and then slightly east to Glen Nevis. There is a climb away from Kinlochleven, through the green forested park until the intersection with a path that towards the right, will take you to the Mamores Lodge. But you go left, venturing into the valley, surrounded on both sides by impressive hills. The Mamores are on your right, and on your left, Beinn na Cail and Tom nan corp. The path is very clear, although quite worn, so there is much movement from centre to side and back again. But this didn’t diminish the joy of finally being cut off from most of civilisation. This coincided, not accidentally, with my first multi-sheep viewing. It was a mystery how they actually reached these out-of-the-way places, although I have since seen the amazing work of sheep dogs and their humans that make it possible (maybe another report…)
The hills are sometimes rounded, sometimes craggy and sharp. At a bit less than half-way, with views enclosed by three small peaks, you feel the path turn. Between two swaths of cleared forestry, I crossed some beautiful compact pasture and sheep pens before cutting through a slowly healing clear-cut bowl. Much of the rest of the walk is through the Nevis forest with switch backs down to the parking area. From here, the traditional route follows the road through Glen Nevis, and along the North Road into Fort William. My first time, I joined a pair of walkers along a trail that led to the Cow Hill Circuit. This trail and I became good friends on my longer stay in Fort William a few years later, but at the time, it allowed us to approach the town from above, skipping much traffic and busy roads.
The official ending of the WHW is at a charming sculpture of a relieved walker, rubbing their sore feet. You pass through Fort William High Street to get there, often receiving congratulations from sympathetic strangers. Come to think of it, maybe that’s why they moved it further into the town – because that is no small reward. While self satisfaction is a great motivation, no one minds basking in a little praise, especially after completing this excellent walk.
Follow the button below for the next report, First three.