The West Highland Way is Scotland’s first and most popular long-distance trail, a 95.5-mile (153.2-km) route tracing the country’s west coast from the suburbs of Glasgow to Fort William in the rugged Scottish highlands.
The trail was first conceived of by the Glaswegian Tom Hunter, a lifelong British Railway worker, avid walker, and lover of the Scottish outdoors. Tom’s fight to establish the West Highland Way, or WHW, is a lesson in polite tenacity. He first had the idea for the trail when hiking Ben Lomond in the years after World War II, and seeing the development on the western shores of Loch Lomond. “There’s enough walking country for our lifetime," he said, "but if we don’t do something now there will be none for future generations.” And so he did something.
To protect the eastern shores of Loch Lomond, Tom struck on the idea of a long-distance walking trail going directly through potential areas for development. He, his wife, and some members of their walking club set out to design a route that would preserve the countryside they so loved. A geographer spent over a year of her life and walked more than 1,000 miles to survey the trail. At one point, Tom and a group of walkers hiked the entire route in just three days to present a letter in Glasgow, calling for its recognition. But not everyone was as enthusiastic as Tom. It took until 1974 to convince local bureaucrats to approve the trail, and development didn’t start until 1980.
Where is it?
For most people, the West Highland Way starts in Milngavie (pronounced “mull-guy”), a suburb of Glasgow and a mere 30 minutes from the airport, and heads north to Fort William. Hiking from the lowlands to the highlands saves most of the hill climbing for the second half of the trek, but the tradeoff is that the views get better the farther you go. (The “high” in highlands is a bit of a misnomer here, because the trail ends 180 feet (60 meters) lower in elevation than it begins.)
Many of the paths and roads that the WHW follows are centuries old, formerly used by shepherds, soldiers, and stagecoaches.
When to go?
The walking season for the West Highland Way runs from April until mid-October, when the mountain passes in the highlands are (usually) clear of snow, and guesthouses are open for business. Unfortunately, July and August are high season for Scotland’s most-hated “wee beastie,” the biting midge, which has been known to ruin what would otherwise be an enjoyable time outdoors. Bring a head net, or maybe a flamethrower.
How long does it take?
The average length of a WHW trek is about seven to eight days, but some with higher fitness levels prefer to do it in five or six, and even fewer choose to match Tom Hunter’s breakneck three-day pace. Very few choose to complete the route in less than 14 hours. We’re sure Tom would encourage hikers to slow down and appreciate the beauty of the Scottish countryside that he wanted to preserve. Pygmy Elephant’s standard itinerary is a 10 night, 9 stage route with baggage transfers, allowing hikers maximum opportunity to soak in the beauty and tranquility of the Scottish countryside.
Stage 1. Milngavie to Drymen - 12.1 miles (19.4 km)
Start at the Douglas Street obelisk in the heart of Milngavie and pass through the arch that says (naturally) West Highland Way. The first stage is a good warm-up for days ahead. The path starts with a steady but mild climb before dropping down to flatter ground. You’ll pass by Dumgoyne mountain and, at its foot, the Glengoyne distillery. Stop here if you need some liquid encouragement.
Stage 2. Drymen to Balmaha - 7.1 miles (11.4 km)
The highlight of today’s hike is summiting Conic Hill, which stands at 1,174 feet (358 meters) over the surrounding countryside and allows a tantalizing glance at Loch Lomond ahead. At 7.1 miles, this stage is short, but the climb to the top of Conic Hill can be described as a “steady slog.” The descent is just as steep as the ascent, and you’ll soon find yourself in Balmaha, where you can reward yourself with a cold pint.
Stage 3. Balmaha to Rowardennan - 7.6 miles (12.3 km)
Shortly after leaving Balmaha you will encounter Loch Lomond, Great Britain’s largest lake. It’s a healthy 22.6 miles (36.4 km) long and up to 623 feet (190 meters) deep. (Who knows what Cretaceous creatures are swimming in the deeps?) It will be your constant companion today. Again, this stage is short, but it is undulating and can be challenging. Get used to it, because you’ll have a lot more tomorrow. But the lake views and forested countryside make the pain well worth it.
Stage 4. Rowardennan to Inverarnan - 14.1 miles (22.8 km)
This stage of the WHW is considered by many hikers to be the most challenging. It is the second longest stage and an almost constant cycle of ascents and descents that test crural (i.e., leg) and mental fortitude. The path follows Loch Lomond all the way to its final tip, and the forested views will eventually give way to views of the mountains to the north. The Drover’s Inn in Inverarnan is an excellent place for some refreshment.
Stage 5. Inverarnan to Tyndrum - 12.2 miles (19.6 km)
Stage 5 will get you into the high elevations of the WHW, but total elevation change is less than on stage 4. The trail is well-maintained, being a former military path, and passes by forests, rivers, and farmland. Crainlarich marks the halfway point of the WHW and is a good place to relax and recharge, if needed. You’ll know you’re close to Tyndrum when the vegetation dwindles away to nothing, an unfortunate and lasting effect of the city’s historical lead mining.
Stage 6. Tyndrum to Inveroran - 9 miles (14.4 km)
Tyndrum to Inveroran is another of the shorter and easier stages, but it begins three days of extremely rustic hiking. The next general store will be in Kinlochleven, so stocking up on supplies in Tyndrum is not a bad idea. The stage starts with a climb and then descends to relatively flat terrain with good views of Beinn Odhar and Beinn Dorain, and a crossing at the Bridge of Orchy. Another climb ends the day, and offers views of Loch Tulla and the Black Mount.
Stage 7. Inveroran to Kingshouse - 9.7 miles (15.6 km)
This stage is one of the wildest and, if the weather is good, one of the most beautiful on the WHW. The trail follows the incline of Telford’s Parliamentary Road out of Inveroran and through forested area before emptying out onto Rannoch Moor. Rannoch Moor is a collection of peat bogs that cover 50 square miles and are ringed by some of Scotland’s finest mountains. A lack of shelter on this section, other than the ruins of Ba cottage, means that trekkers are very exposed to the Scottish weather. But when skies are clear, the moonscape beauty of the countryside is breathtaking.
Stage 8. Kingshouse to Kinlochleven - 8.9 miles (14.3 km)
Like the previous stage, the trail from Kingshouse to Kinlochleven is exposed to the elements, but promises some of the best elevated views on the WHW. The stage starts off mild, but after Glencoe, hikers encounter a steep climb up the the reassuringly named Devil’s Staircase. The climb ends at the top of Aonach Eagach, 1,804 feet (550 meters) high, and the highest point of the WHW. The summit offers incomparable views of the Glencoe mountains, and of the steep, 500-meter descent to Kinlochleven.
Stage 9. Kinlochleven to Fort William - 15.5 miles (24.9 km)
The last segment of the WHW is the longest and has the greatest elevation change. The trail starts with a climb from Kinlochleven through a birch forest and comes out onto a high plateau with unobstructed views of Loch Leven, and back to Kinlochleven. Lairigmor, the “great pass,” allows easy passage between steep mountains to a planted forest, and to Glen Nevis. The glen is at the foot of Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain at 4,413 feet (1,345 meters), which some adventurous hikers climb before the final descent to Fort William. The hike ends in the town center in Gordon Square, where a bronze statue of a fellow hiker is resting his feet on a bench.
Ben Nevis crowned with clouds
THE WHW LEGACY
The West Highland Way has come a long way (pun intended) since its conception as a conservation measure. In June 2010, it was incorporated as part of the larger International Appalachian Trail, a collection of trails following the ancient Appalachian/Caledonian mountain range, which runs from Florida to Newfoundland, and through parts of Morocco, Iberia, the UK, Scandinavia, Iceland, and Greenland. Tom Hunter must have been proud. He passed away in 2016 at the age of 90 after a long life of hiking, enjoying the outdoors, and climbing some 287 mountains with his wife, some of them multiple times.
No matter how you plan on hiking the WHW, or how many mountains you plan on climbing in the process, we’re dedicated to making sure you have the best trek possible. We can help you design the perfect trek for you based on your fitness level, time constraints, or whatever else comes up. Give us a call at 1-414-377-3555 or send us an e-mail for a free consultation. We look forward to hearing from you.