The West Highland Way is one of the world’s most popular long-distance walks and is approximately 154 kilometres (95 miles) long. It starts its journey in the town of Milngavie (Mul-guy) and winds its way north through the countryside, past lochs and over moorlands. Along with old rail-lines and through Scottish villages and past farmlands with the famous Highland cattle.
You will finish your way in the town of Fort William that sits in the shadows of UK’s highest mountain, the famous Ben Nevis. The end of the way isn’t necessarily the end of the walk as from here you can continue your journey north walking the Great Glen Way.
A view of the Buachaille Etive Mòr mountain on our trip.
History of the area
Many of these distance walks throughout the UK and Europe have evolved from pathways used before the time of the motor vehicle when the only way to get from one land to the next was by walking. Much of the West Highland Way (WHW) is made up of such pathways and it is steeped in history that goes right back to the 13th century of the McDougall Clan, as well as the Jacobite rebellion in the 17th and 18th centuries.
This was a time of major uprising and many of the old military roads were built for the British troops to quell the Jacobite rebellion. You will also be travelling along old drover’s roads the local farmers used to herd their livestock to town and there are also the old railway lines and coach roads.
The West Highland Way as a walking route is not so old, although its origins show it first being identified back in the 1930s and 40s. The official pathway did not open until October 1980.
You’ll likely pass herds of Highland cattle grazing along the walk.
Distance to hike the WHW
Walking the WHW takes around 7 days, but this depends on what you want to experience along the way as there are plenty of side trips to be explored. It is common to walk this trail from the south to north staying in the quaint country towns.
Although overall, the route isn’t one that is of any great difficulty, there are some sections of ups and downs and there is the element of weather that can add more of a challenge.
If you walk this route, it should take you around a week.
We chose to walk the WHW at the end of our hiking trip in Europe where we had walked 645km (400 miles) of the St. Olav Way in Norway. It was a great way to end our journey especially as we had some dear friends meet and walk with us in Scotland. We chose to take 7 days for this trip as we had very little time left on our holiday, but now in writing this I really wish we had more time to see what Scotland has to offer.
For this journey, we had pre-booked our accommodation before leaving Australia, so we knew that each night we had a place to stay. Though upon arriving, we realised that this wasn’t necessary but still a good idea if you go during peak season.
Us at the start of our Scottish Highland journey.
Maps and guidebooks
These can be easily obtained online or even from any of the tourist centres or outdoor stores once you arrive.
The terrain is not technically difficult, but you will be ascending and descending a fair bit in sections. Expect mud, rocky paths, as well as country laneways and valley walks.
You can expect some rocky paths on this walk – so trekking poles are worth taking.
There is a variety of accommodation types you can expect on this route from hotels/Inns, B&B’s to hostels. You can also book a package service with one of the many tour companies who arrange everything for you from the accommodation, luggage transfers and even packed lunches.
If you want to get the wild camping experience, it is possible, though it’s best to check the ‘bylaws’ throughout the National Park areas. There are also dotted campgrounds along the way. Remember to respect the land you are camping on and leave no trace.
Don’t camp within paddocks and crop fields and stay clear of buildings and historic sites. For more information, check the Scottish outdoor access code site here.
Rowardennan hostel is just one of the places we stayed in.
Choosing one of the many tour companies
There are many companies to choose from to help you with your journey. From organising the whole trip, including accommodation to luggage transfer and meals, to others that are happy just to carry your luggage. Do some research and read reviews about other people’s experiences, and pick one based on what is going to work best for you.
The best time to visit
This is a trail that can be walked at any time of the year, but the best time is during spring or autumn. Do be aware that May is the peak season of the WHW and accommodation can be difficult to get. Another tip to remember is to avoid starting on a Saturday, as this is the favourite day to start and the accommodation could be tight.
If you want to enjoy your time, then walk the WHW in the spring or autumn.
What conditions you can expect
On any hiking journey, you must be prepared for whatever nature throws out and Scotland is no exception. Even though you will not be climbing any great heights, you are at the mercy of the Scottish weather and believe me she can give it all to you. So, whether you are carrying a day bag (and having your luggage transported) or carrying all your gear, be prepared for all weather conditions.
When that wind and rain rips through the moorlands you will feel it, so be sure to have good waterproof and warm clothes like thermals. Always check your guidebook for towns along the way to refuel with food and water, as there will be times you might need to carry a packed lunch and snacks.
You should also carry at least 2 litres of water per day. Be sure to also have your map and guidebook in your day bag rather than left in your luggage – it is no use to you there!
Don’t underestimate how cold it can get in Scotland, even in the warmer season.
Packing for the West Highland Way
To pack for the WHW, just remember it is Scotland and can be wetter and windier, with the average temperature lower than the rest of the UK. May, June and July are their sunniest months with the days being the longest of the year with the lowest rainfall.
In the Highlands, they have an average of 250 days of rain per year. The average maximum temperature during these 3 months is 15-17C (59-63F), remembering wind chill factor is a lot colder. Keep this in mind when packing for this walk and ensure that your clothes are going to be warm enough for the trip.
Also, If you have chosen a company to transport your luggage, then be sure to check with them the maximum weight allowance as well.
Factor in the weather when packing for this trip.
Packing list for the WHW
- A backpack to the size you need.
- Sturdy boots or shoes you plan to trek in. Don’t forget spare ones for the evenings.
- Gaiters as they help keep the mud out of your shoes.
- Hiking poles (if preferred)
- Water bottles or a hydration pack.
- First aid kit
- Up-to-date map and guidebooks.
- 3 pairs of underwear. Choose underwear with fabric that is quick drying and wicks away moisture. Cotton is not recommended as it takes a long time to dry.
- 2 sets of socks
- 2 quick drying shirts. Remember, Scotland is a wet country so anything that isn’t quick drying will make your life difficult.
- 2 zip-off hiking pants. Hiking pants are always quick drying and with the bonus of zip-offs, you will also have 2 pairs of shorts, though I don’t think you will need shorts in Scotland.
- Rain jacket and rain pants, (highly recommend these items).
- A lightweight windproof jacket, great for when it isn’t raining but the wind is blowing.
- 1 thermal top (this is optional, not necessary).
- 2 hats. One for the sun (if it shows) and one for the cold.
- Gloves for when it gets cold and that wind blows.
- A Buff. This is a great item to protect you from the wind and cold.
- Sarong or Shemagh. This is my must-have item and it has many uses including – a scarf, a towel and a wrap for after a shower or can be used as a picnic blanket. You can also create many outfits to wear in the evenings like a top, a jacket, a skirt or even a bag, just to name a few.
- Something to sleep in.
A windproof jacket, hiking poles and a day pack are just some of the essentials you’ll need.
Extras if camping
- A tent (4-season preferred)
- Cooker and fuel for the cooker (just be aware that fuel and matches are not allowed on planes but quite easily purchased when you arrive).
- Food utensils
- Sleeping bag
- Sleeping mat
Where to store your excess luggage
Over the years of travel, I have found that the hotels where you start and end your journey are always more than happy to store your excess luggage. We left gear we did not need for the WHW at our hotel in Glasgow and retrieved it on our return.
Your hostel or hotel will likely be happy to store your excess baggage for you.
The route and towns on the West Highland Way
Milngavie to Dryman – 19km (12 miles)
This day is a relatively easy one and starts in the centre of town at the large granite obelisk, which marks the official start of the Way. As you leave the urban landscape you head into the Lowlands, through farmlands, pass Lochs and enter the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park.
Dryman to Rowardennan – 22.5km (14 miles)
Today you will be walking along the famous Loch Lomond, but not before climbing up over ‘Conic Hill’. Hope for a clear day, as the views looking down over the Loch and its many islands are simply stunning when it is.
If there are clear skies, the views from Conic Hill are incredible.
Rowardennan to Inverarnan – 22.5km (14 miles)
Today you will work for your walk a wee bit harder, you’ll also have a choice of taking the high route or the low route. Hint: The low way is not the easy way but well worth the scrabbling along the stones beside the Loch. To end the day, you might want to stay in the allegedly haunted 310-year-old Drover’s Inn. We experienced no ghosts, but we ate a great meal and stayed in the room named ‘Rob Roy’.
Inverarnan to Tyndrum – 19.5km (12 miles)
Today you will pass by ruins of St. Fillan’s Chapel. This is the battleground of Daligh where Robert the Bruce, King of Scots, was defeated by Clan MacDougalls back in 1306. Tip: the whole way along there is some amazing history worth researching about the West Highland Way.
Look out for the ruins of Fillan’s chapel, the site where Robert the Bruce was defeated in the 1300s.
Tyndrum to Kingshouse – 30.5km (19 miles)
This was our longest walk but my favourite day. Along the way, you will walk through some beautiful moorlands as well as on some old military roads. You are now at the gateway to the Highlands! Tip: Kingshouse is one of the most remote places along the way, so if you’re not staying there, you can bus or cab back to your accommodation.
Kingshouse to Kinlochleven – 14.5km (9 miles)
This one is a short day but there are a few hills, including ‘The Devils Staircase’. The name says it all, taking you up to the highest point on the Way which is 550m above sea level. If the weather treats you well the views you receive on the Glencoe mountains is just outstanding. Tip: Beware of midges in the area.
The view of the walk to Kinlochleven.
Kinlochleven to Fort William – 24km (16 miles)
More steep hills today and very open areas, as well as some protection from the elements in the woodlands of the Nevis Forest before descending into Fort William. This is a historical town that has the mountains surrounding it, including the famous Ben Nevis.
Getting to and from the WHW
To start your way, it is easy enough to get to Milngavie as it is only 13km (8 miles) northwest of the Glasgow city centre. You can quite easily catch a taxi that will take around 15 mins and cost approximately $45 AUD or by train which on weekdays runs every 15 mins and every 20 mins on weekends. This option takes approximately 20 mins and will set you back around $5.50 AUD. There are also buses that travel there and take up to 40 mins travel time.
To return from Fort William there are a few train routes available. The rides will take between 3.5 – 6 hrs, so do check with ScotRail to get the one you want. Prices vary as well. There are buses available which take around 3.5 hrs.
If you are needing to get to Edinburgh from Fort William this is possible by train with the average time taking 5 hrs. There are also bus services too taking around 4.5hrs.
Getting to and from this walk is fairly easy from Glasgow.
Extra activities to do in Scotland
Within the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, there are many things to explore including the ‘Scenic Route Artworks’. This gives you unique artwork structures throughout the park for you to discover and in turn, they give you the most stunning viewpoints to see of the nature around you.
When you arrive in Fort William do try to have a few days exploring as there is so much to see. If you are wanting to keep walking, there is Ben Nevis to climb or just continue walking from here heading northward on the ‘Great Glen Way’ adding another 127km (79 miles) to take you all the way to Inverness.
Perhaps instead of walking, why not catch the ‘Jacobite Steam Train’. This is a great way to experience more of Scotland by very different means. This impressive steam train starts in Fort William and heads out to Loch Nevis before returning. On this 135km (84 miles) round trip, you will see more of the incredible countryside from a different perspective.
While you’re in Scotland, make the most of it by exploring what the nearby cities have to offer.
If you’re flying in and out
In Edinburgh, you must explore the ‘Edinburgh Castle’ and ‘Arthurs Seat’ among other great attractions.
If you have some extra time in Glasgow, then you should perhaps book one of the many walking tours of the city. This is such a great way to discover some of the hidden beauties of a city, just like the ‘Glasgow’s Secret Ghost Station’. This is a hidden station of the Old Victorian Platform under the city.
There are also many day tours you can experience like the Whiskey and Distilleries tours if you’re a fan of Scottish spirits.
Final thoughts on Scotland and the WHW
I feel there might be another journey to experience in those Scottish Highlands for me as there is so much more I can discover than what I did in just the one week.
Is the West Highland Way calling your name? What do you think of hiking in the UK?
About the writer...
Travelling by the slow pace of walking to experience the world is what she loves most. Having hiked many places in the world and Australia she shares her journeys and experience through her writing and new-found love of documentary making. You can follow more on Michelle through her website walkingtwobytwo.com or you can check out her YouTube channel – Walkingtwobytwo.