The West Highland Way is a 95 mile / 152 km long-distance path from Milngavie near Glasgow to Fort William in the Scottish Highlands. The WHW is one of four officially-designated "Long-Distance Routes" in Scotland, so local authorities support its maintenance.
The route was planned in the 1970s and opened in 1980 as Scotland's first designated Long Distance Path. It is at low to medium altitude, with the highest point at 550 m, way-marked and with the trail well beaten, downright eroded in places. Much of it is on cattle-drovers' trails and disused Georgian military and stagecoach routes. Some sections are suitable for mountain bikes or horse riding, some definitely not. It demands no mountaineering or rock-climbing skills. The section north of Inversnaid springs a nasty surprise upon anyone who takes a cursory glance at the map and expects a level stroll along the bonnie banks of Loch Lomond: those banks are a steep jumble of boulders. Rannoch Moor is the most exposed section, where lives have been lost. The main challenge is the day-after-day grind of 10-15 mile sections, when you're already weary from yesterday, the weather forecast is poor and your hiking companion is mutinous - what's not to like?
The West Highland Way proved popular and several other trails have been designated, but the most surprising was the 2010 badging of WHW as an international extension of the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine in the US. True, that trail was already extended through the Maritime Provinces to Newfoundland, and the arc of mountains continues into Europe. But the planning meeting maybe overlooked the opening up of the Atlantic between, and it feels like a branding or marketing ploy. Don't expect to see moose on the WHW as a result.
The route can be walked any time of year but is pleasanter in summer, with milder weather, longer days and less boggy terrain underfoot. That's the peak tourist season so everything's open, but accommodation and transport may fill up. So you need to book your overnight stops, which commits you to travelling a fixed distance each day come wind or weather.
Two pinch points for accommodation are Inveroran Hotel beyond Bridge of Orchy, and Kingshouse Hotel at the top of Glencoe. These are likely to book solid even off-peak, and have no nearby alternative shelter except wild camping. So the timing of your entire itinerary could turn on their availability.
Those living in central Scotland can do the route as a series of day trips from home, driving to a convenient spot, doing a half-stage out and back, then home to resume the trip another time.
Devil o' The Highlands is an ultramarathon over the northern 42 miles of the route, from Tyndrum to Fort William. The next is probably 10 Aug 2024, tbc.
Standard advice is to walk from south to north, using the more gentle terrain in the south as a warm-up to the harder going further north, plus you have the sun and wind behind you.
Milngavie is easily reached by train or bus from Glasgow, and Fort William is a longer but regular journey from there.
It takes 6 to 9 days to complete the WHW, as you can double-up some of the shorter sections. The record for completing it is 13 hours 41 min 8 sec, set in 2017.
- 1 Milngavie (mile 0) (pronounced "Mill-GUY") is a commuter town for Glasgow six miles southwest, linked by frequent trains and slower buses. Other hiking trails here are the Kelvinside Way from Glasgow, and the John Muir Way coast-to-coast from Dunbar via Edinburgh to Helensburgh. The town has a couple of Premier Inns aimed at business travellers, or it's realistic to stay in Glasgow then travel out to complete the first easy stage. WHW starts from the granite obelisk in town centre: plod north across the golf course and Mugdock woods, on into the fields and by small lochs. Zag west on B821 then on north by Dumgoyach Standing Stones, Dumgoyne village, west at Gartness to cross the river then bear north into Drymen. This section is 12 miles / 19 km, 5-6 hours and brings you into Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park.
- 2 Drymen (mile 12) is a small village on the Glasgow-Stirling main road. It can be reached by bus from Balloch, which has frequent trains from Glasgow. Drymen is also the start of Rob Roy Way to Aberfeldy and Pitlochry. It has campsites, B&Bs and a couple of hotels. The WHW goes through the commercial pines of Garadhban Forest and you catch your first glimpse of Loch Lomond. Now ascend Conic Hill, which marks the transition into the Highlands. It's worth a short detour to the summit at 358 m, where you see how the loch islands lie along the same fault line. Descend steeply into Balmaha - there's a low-level route here from Drymen if the weather's too foul to cross the hill. This section is only 6 miles / 10 km, and many walkers combine it with the next to Rowardennan.
- 3 Balmaha (mile 18) is a small village by Loch Lomond, end of the line for buses from Balloch via Drymen. In summer water buses cross the loch four times a day from Luss. The village has a bunkhouse and B&B. The WHW simply follows the loch shore, but up and down over the crags and bluffs. This section is touristy as it's the approach to Ben Lomond, but in May and June all the woods along the east bank are a riot of bluebells. There are four designated campsites along the route, and wild camping is not permitted here March-Oct. The narrow lane alongside has no parking until you reach the edge of Rowardennan. From Drymen this section is 14 miles / 23 km, 6-7 hours.
- 4 Rowardennan (mile 25) is the end of the road along the east loch shore. In summer a water bus sails once a day from Tarbet on the west shore. Rowardennan is the start of the easiest trail up Ben Lomond so on fine summer days the car park fills up early - the overflow is half a mile further out. There's a hostel and a hotel here. The WHW follows an undulating course along the loch, passing a bothy halfway at Rowchoish. It's 7 miles / 11 km to Inversnaid, and some walkers press on to Inverarnan.
- 5 Inversnaid (mile 33) can be reached by road from Aberfoyle through The Trossachs. There's a hostel and a hotel (which is often full with coach tours). The next section is surprisingly tough, up and down the boulder-strewn banks falling steeply to the loch. "Rob Roy's Cave" is not worth a detour. You reach easier grassy going at Creag a' Mhadaidh, and there's a bothy at Doune. Ardleish has a jetty for the water bus to Ardlui, hoist an orange ball to call it, but check ahead that's it's sailing.
- 6 Ardlui (mile 37) is an overnight stop on the opposite shore of the loch, so consider your bail-out options if you can't reach it. It's on the busy main road, with buses and trains from Glasgow to Crianlarich, Oban and Fort William. It's an activity centre for the north end of the loch, and accommodation is mostly pricy. Next morning you return on the water bus to Ardleish and continue the trek north. You ascend Cnap Mòr, take a last look at Loch Lomond, then the mountains of the north come into view. Descend through woods to Beinglas, which has camping and other accommodation, or turn west for half a mile to Inverarnan which has more. From Rowardennan this section is 14 miles / 22.5 km, 7 hours.
- 7 Inverarnan (mile 40) is on the main road and bus route from Glasgow, but the trains don't stop here. There is the Drover's Inn and Beinglas Campsite. Return to Beinglas for WHW, which now is easier going along the riverside of Glen Falloch, through grazing land and woodland. A side trail leads to Crianlarich (a one mile detour) but most walkers continue to Tyndrum.
- 8 Crianlarich (mile 46) is a large village with accommodation and transport. Trains from Glasgow divide here for Oban or Fort William and Mallaig. Retrace your detour to rejoin WHW on the hill. The route comes into the valley of the River Fillan, draining east into the Tay. At the bridge crossing the river is an ancient priory and graveyard. Continue up the glen to Auchertyre, which has camping, then three miles further is Tyndrum. From Inverarnan this section is 12 miles / 19 km, 5-6 hours, leaving the National Park.
- 9 Tyndrum (mile 52) is a village at the junction of the roads to Oban or Glencoe and Fort William. The railway from Glasgow has already divided, so the west station has trains to Oban and the east to Fort William and Mallaig; they're both about a mile from village centre. The WHW continues north through easy valley terrain to Bridge of Orchy.
- 10 Bridge of Orchy (mile 59) is on the main road north, with buses and trains to Fort William, and accommodation. Most walkers push on to Inveroran, three miles further over a low ridge. You're on the line of the 18th century military road, built to march troops towards rebellious Highlanders; 1745 was when it dawned on the government that it equally helped rebels march south. From Tyndrum this section is 9 miles / 14 km, 4-5 hours.
- 11 Inveroran (mile 62) can be reached by a narrow dead-end lane from Bridge of Orchy. It has one historic hotel, otherwise you have to wild camp. The route north is the military road across Rannoch Moor, abandoned as a highway when the A82 was built further east. This means firm going and easy navigation across a notoriously boggy, hazardous heath. The scenery is sublime in good weather and desolate in bad. This section is 10 miles / 15.5 km, 4-5 hours to Kingshouse Hotel, where some walkers continue to Kinlochleven.
- 12 Kingshouse Hotel (mile 72) is at the top of Glencoe near the ski lifts, with views of louring Buachaille Etive Mor. It's a historic inn which quartered troops during the Jacobite troubles; Dorothy Wordsworth in 1803 was aghast at how dirty it was. Several renovations later, it's the main accommodation, often booked up far in advance, astride the busy main road and bus route. The descent through Glencoe to the village is dramatic but a ten mile diversion. WHW however continues on the military road, with the sharp ascent of the "Devil's Staircase", a well-marked zigzag to the highest point on the entire route at 550 m. It's now a long but straightforward descent to Kinlochleven at sea level. From Inveroran this section is 9 miles / 14 km, 4-5 hours.
- 13 Kinlochleven (mile 80) is the village at the head of Loch Leven (just as its name says) with buses from the larger villages of Ballachulish and Glencoe. There's camping and small hotels, and a short walk north is Grey Mare's Tail waterfall. The last section of WHW is a steady climb into Lairigmoor, a glacial valley, on the military road over the Mamores. Ben Nevis comes into view. Finally descend via forestry trails into Glen Nevis and Fort William. Trudge through town to the ceremonial end point "Sair Feet", a bench with a sculpture of a weary walker. This section is 15 miles / 24.5 km, 6-7 hours.
- 14 Fort William (mile 95) is the unattractive but substantial town at journey's end. It has buses from Glasgow heading to Skye, and from Inverness via Loch Ness. The Caledonian Highland Sleeper from London Euston terminates here, while trains from Glasgow continue to Mallaig, for ferries to Skye and the Small Isles. Lots of accommodation and other facilities, and a couple of bashed-up castles.
You never know, the weather might be glorious. But you must plan on the assumption that at some point bad weather will set in, with stiff cold winds and driving rain. You need waterproof outer clothing and stout boots that are well worn-in. Several sections of WHW are remote, with no bail-out option or mobile signal. Carry enough water, as anything along the way has already been used by livestock.
Conic Hill is the geological boundary of the Highlands, but for hikers the true marker is the arrival of the Great West Highland Midge. They generally clock you on their radar north of Rowardennan, and scramble to intercept in hungry clouds. Don't camp in summer if you react badly to bites.
- The West Highland Line is a scenic railway from Glasgow running close to WHW in its central section between Ardlui, Crianlarich and Bridge of Orchy. The south section is away west via Helensburgh to avoid the "Arrochar Alps", the north sweeps east across Rannoch Moor to avoid the steep descent of Glencoe. From Fort William it continues to Glenfinnan and Mallaig, with a steam-hauled heritage train in summer.
- Ben Nevis, the UK's highest mountain, rises near Fort William.
- Great Glen Way continues the northward slog, a 73 mile walking and cycling route from Fort William to Inverness.
- The Speyside Way is a walking and cycling route from Newtonmore down the valley through Aviemore and Grantown to the Moray coast near Elgin. There isn't a link trail from Fort William, pick your own route.