Walking the West Highland Way, Baby
A mere three weeks ago I completed my first multi-day, long-distance UK trail, the West Highland Way with my hiking spirit sister Julia. And oooooh it was GOOOOOOOD. Before I get into the sweaty details, here are a few fun facts about the walk: it's 96 miles long (that's around 160km) and goes from just north of Glasgow to Fort William. As far as long distance trails go it's pretty accessible (no bouldering or water crossing here, folks) and as there are quite a few towns along the way you can be flexible in your choice of place of pub for dinner or bedding for the night. Wild camping is also allowed in Scotland. However it's important to mention this is a pretty popular walk so if you do decide to skip camping make sure to book your hotel/B'n'B/hostel rooms well in advance. To make all this a hell of a lot easier, there are local travel companies that offer to book your rooms along the whole route (at a budget that suits you) and (this is the sexy bit) arrange to have your luggage TRANSFERRED FOR YOU, which means you walk with a day pack and meet your rucksack/suitcase/donkey at your planned destination for the evening. Neat, huh! Because this was my first multi-dayer and I wanted to focus on just the walking (plus arguably I wanted to have a GREAT TIME, YO) Julia and I opted for B'n'B accomodation and luggage transfer, walking the West Highland Way in 8 days. Booyah.
A small note: what follows is a totes personal account of walking the West Highland Way, and if you're looking for distances, metres of a- and descents or pub recommendations, you won't find too many here. HOWMSTEVER, if you want to know what it looks, feels and tastes like to walk the most beautiful long distance path in Scotland and complete your first multi-day hike: pull up a chair and grab some slippers, friend, you're in the right place.
Day 1: Milngavie to Drymen
After the first of many Scottish breakfasts we set off from Milngavie, which is about an hour bus ride from Glasgow airport. The first day's walk reminded us of southern England a fair bit: rolling hills, fields.... a little meh in terms of landscape. After 4 hours we stopped for lunch at Glengoyne Distillery feeling pretty chuffed. We can do this! It's sunny! We've got walking poles! How hard can this be!
In a classic display of instant karmic revenge by the afternoon we took a wrong turn and added another 3 miles to our already 12 mile day, and by the time we figured out that we'd landed in the wrong village had to walk along a busy road back to Drymen, ALL motivation having utterly left us at this point. The WHW is pretty well way marked but repeat after me kids: look at the map every once in a while and don't be a dumdum like us!
After 7 hours of walking we finally reached to the lovely little village of Drymen (which, note, is on a tiny hill we were less than thrilled to find out) and had our first pub dinner at 4pm and made our way to our first BnB of the walk... and fell asleep at 6.30pm. So far, so actually quite exhausting.
Day 2: Drymen to Rowandennan
After 11 hours of sleep in THE comfiest bed ever we were fed a hearty breakfast by our host to "get us up the hill", and limped off on our way around 9am, excited to see Loch Lomond, which we would then be walking along for the next two days. The Loch was actually the part of the walk I'd most been looking forward to: images of misty moody Scottish Lochs are such a huge part of the romanticism that's made me want to go to Scotland for years. And Braveheart, obvs.
We reached the bottom of Conic Hill around 11am and started the climb... and oh man it's a biggie! By the top I was HATING my heavy and HOT AS THE HINGES OF HADES boots and vowed to never ever wear boots in hot weather again. But as with most difficult peaks... the view really is worth it. We climbed down a steep and slippery rock side to get back down (Grand Canyon back flashes hello) and reached the day's halfway point around 12.30... shattered. And THEN walked another 5 hours along the positively beachy shores or Loch Lomond, with people bathing, barbecuing, and me contemplating, like, why I'm spending a holiday WALKING when I could just be SITTING.
Day 3: Rowandennan to Invoranan
The 12-mile section from Rowandennan to Invoranan is the hardest day of the walk as it goes directly along the banks of Loch Lomond with scrambly parts, walking on rocks, roots to trip over and (Jesus help us) NO LUNCH PUB. Thoroughly humbled by the first two days of aches, pains, sore muscles and being overtaken by 60-year old Swiss mountain goat retirees five times a day, Julia and I decided to make a GAME PLAN for day 3. We would POWER through this and each listen to headphones while we hammer out the miles. We also decided to structure our breaks: every 90 minutes we'd sit down for 15 minutes (30 for lunch) and take our shoes off, eat something and then get back to walking.
And... what a fantastic game plan it was! All whining forgotten, suddenly we were both completely in our own zones and FLYING along the path, skipping over roots, clambering up rocks, LOVING life on this incredible walk. I reached a magical point of daydreaming and yet being totally in the present moment and focussing on my steps and looking up at the fresh leaves, shores of the Loch, tiny mossy waterfalls next to the path. SWOON.
Day 4... Invoranan to Crianlarich
We'd now left the balmy banks of Loch Lomond behind us, and after PEAKING on day 3 physically, spiritually, and metaphysically, day 4 turned out to be... kind of the worst day of all. Surprise! Who'd have thought! This was going to be our shortest day with a wee lil 6 miles to Crianlairich (which I still have no idea how to pronounce let alone spell) so we indulged in some merriment at the epic (and supposedly haunted) Drover's Inn the night before, and by morning had lost all motivation to walk AT ALL. The weather had also gone from three days of sun to grey (but by no means unpleasant) which maybe pulled our moods down more, and by the time we reached Crianlarich by 2pm after 3 hours we were ready for bed. Which we went to at 4pm. LADS!
Day 5: Crianlarich to Bridge of Orchy
Rested, pampered and fed by yet another amazing couple of B'n'B hosts we set off for day 5 feeling refreshed and in much better spirits. The weather picked up again and we were now approaching the hum dinger of reasons to walk in Scotland: the HIGHLANDS. And man oh man, what a sight. From day 5 the landscape of the walk changed to nothing I'd ever quite seen in England: biiiiiig open landscapes with long straight paths, and a whole lot of SKY and mountains. Frankly this part of the walk felt a lot more like the northern Rocky Mountains than anything else. Empty, ancient, but still changing as we walked through it. To make matters even more delicious Julia and I were both still in music-daydream-land and by now in a total groove of walking easily with no pains, taking scheduled breaks and having sussed out the perfect sock/shoe combos (more on this later). By the time we arrived at Bridge of Orchy we were actually a bit sad to stop walking.
Day 6: Bridge of Orchy to Kingshouse
Thanks to Sir Isaac Newton we should all be pretty clear on the concept that what goes up must come down... and as with apples, so it appears to be with my moods on multi-day hikes. After another glorious day 5, day 6 was... long, hard and above all, BORING. Having now spent three solid days listening to TWO Spotify playlists I have downloaded on my phone (and trust me, they were not great) and acclimatised to the awesome beauty that is the open landscapes of the Scottish Highlands, somehow I lost all my juju on day 6 and schlepped myself along this otherwise completely gorgeous day's walk.
The thought occurred to me here that I much prefer walking in woods to fields. Being exposed to sun and wind and staring ahead at the same view for hours at a time (depending on the size of the field of course), well, it just ain't quite my cup of tea. And speaking of tea, I just love leaves! I could stare at light flickering through leaves for hours on end and love the depth of shadow and light that woods create... which might make open fields seem flat to me in comparison. But the really interesting about being annoyed and bored on a walk is... you can't escape it. You're by yourself with your grumpy thoughts and can't distract yourself with screens or people around you – you've just got to deal with it, and move on. Thankfully you're already covering the moving part.
So, with only two days of walking to go I'd gone from never wanting the West Highland Way to end to accepting that 8 days is probably just about enough for me at this stage in my hiking life, and put future plans of reeeeeally long distance trails to the side for now. And funnily, that decision made me all the more grateful for the walk I was on in that moment, doing the thing I love for the sake of it, and not as a testing ground for future plans. Be in the present.
Day 7: Kingshouse to Kinglochleven
After yesterday's deep zen-like thoughts of acceptance and gratitude I did what any sane person in my hiking shoes would. I sought out a higher spirit and downloaded 5 podcast episodes of Oprah's Super Soul Conversations (if you don't know it OMG you're in for a treat) and a selection of other podcasts, and boldly strode on. YAS! I can do this! We made it over the Devil's Staircase, a steep hairpin climb at the beginning of the day's walk, pretty swiftly. The view of the valley beneath us was INCREDIBLE, and once we were over the top (harhar) we were rewarded by an even more beautiful meandering path through now pretty much lunar landscapes. Plus, exciting update: walking up hills is fun! The more athletic parts of the West Highland Way are actually some of the most exhilarating and memorable to me, and there's nothing like a little adrenaline to make you snap out of a mood funk. And listening to interviews with inspiring people and learning new things in between sections of walking in silence was exactly what I needed, too. Praise be Oprah!
Day 8: Kinglochleven to Fort Willam
The last day of our adventure was bittersweet for Julia and me. We'd had our worst night's sleep as thoughts of real-life to-do lists were sneaking back into our minds, but we wanted to make the most out of our last day of this gorgeous trail and soak up every moment. The walk led through burned woods, along long gravelly paths and up and down a few short but sweet climbs. And finally just before the end, a very last section steeply down a forest path where I got to feast my eyes on some moss and twigs once more. And after 14 miles in 6.5 hours of walking (very speed!) we'd made it to Fort William! Our last section was the longest we walked, so we were both grateful to arrive and shower and know we don't have to get back into our hiking shoes the next day... and so proud of ourselves for having completed the walk.
I can safely say the West Highland Way is a STUNNING long distance trail, that most people of a healthy fitness level could complete. But I was surprised at the mental ups and downs walking for 8 days can bring, and how incredibly valuable it is to really BE with those feelings of joy as well as those of discomfort, rather than numbing them out, downplaying them, or distracting yourself. And I've found a hiking pal for LIFE! It's absolutely incredible to have a great friend to share the experience with: from plotting out peeing spots to laughing and grumbling together, as well as being able to each have your individual journey and time to reflect, even though you're together literally 24/7. JUJU YOU RULE!! So now the only question is... what walk are we going to do next! :)
If you enjoyed this post or have any questions about the West Highland Way, Oprah's other podcasts or finding peeing spots I'd love to hear from you! Leave me a comment below or drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org