March 30 – April 4, 2019
Spanning 96 miles from Milngavie (just North of Glasgow) to Fort William, the first time I encountered this long distance walking route was when I ran (jogged, let’s be real) the Highland Fling in 2014. Instantly, completing the entire route become something that had to be ticked off the list, but little did I know my endurance running hobby was soon to end (thanks, knee), and endurance cycling and swimming would temporarily take over my life (and expendable money supply). However with the resurgence of my passion for covering long distances by foot, albeit a lot slower and carrying a lot more, the West Highland Way was, once again, the itch that hadn’t been scratched.
Fast forward (or rewind, because I’m a busy lady and there are things other than this blog that I have been prioritizing in life) to March 2019, and the beginning of my two week long Spring Break. I found myself cheerfully boarding a train and alighting at Glasgow Queen Street station less than 3 hours later, with roughly 37 minutes of daylight remaining on a Saturday evening. I had originally set up a Hinge date in Glasgow, which negated the need to find accommodation because I am a presumptuous asshole, but that fell through because he derided my (pretty tame) date idea, and clearly wasn’t as open to recklessness as he made out in his profile. As a result, I decided to just go ahead and get a head start on Day 1; I had a tent, and I was willing to ham up the American accent and plead ignorance to the ‘no-camping-along-the-shores-of-Loch-Lomond’ rules that I am fairly sure are in place to deter drunk Glaswegians from de-gentrifying the place.
Much like the start of the Great Glen Way, the signposting is nestled rather unceremoniously within some chain shops, and in the dying light I was glad that my muscle memory from that zero-o’clock-in-the-morning race start 5 years prior kicked in and I was able to start walking on autopilot, because I always find the first half mile on a trail that starts in civilization to be the biggest navigational ball-ache.
My original plan had been to complete the walk in 4 days, but anyone who knows me will appreciate how infrequently things go to plan when I am in charge. As an aside, whilst plans go awry regularly, this should not be interpreted negatively – serendipity is a wonderful thing. Though I had not intended to start my journey at about 19:00 on a Saturday night, it did mean that technically I was ahead of schedule, albeit walking alone into the looming darkness, and whatever ground I could cover that evening would chip away at the planned 26 mile day I had mapped out for Sunday.
I will say that the West Highland Way further mirrors the Great Glen Way when it comes to the underwhelming opening miles of the trail. High volumes of litter, regular dog-walking traffic, and the sound of distance roads are not the heady mix of nature sounds people go long-distance hiking for. Over the next hour, with the light escaping, I realized that I’d likely be going to sleep in a tent with the soothing sounds of people racing motorcycles a mile or so away. A cursory glance at Google Maps indicated there was a campsite just after Carbeth Loch, about half a mile off the Way. A quick phone call confirmed, with a reasonable level of certainty, that I could camp there for a nominal fee, as they were still gearing up for the start of the walking season. Target acquired.
Upon arrival, I was offered instead a ‘bed’ in a shared room of a static caravan, and the idea of not having to pack up my tent the following morning and getting an early start was appealing, so I graciously accepted, despite being shown the room and realizing I’d be able to poke out my tongue and lick the face of whoever I was sharing with. My roommate turned out to be an American college student named Meredith who, as it turned out, went to high school in Houston close to where my parents live. She was travelling solo and, I think, glad to hear a familiar accent in a country that was alien to her. We were also sharing the caravan with a father and his two young kids, and we huddled by the electric heater and shared stories over a beer before turning in, wrapped up warm as the heating set up in the caravan was obviously an oversight, and the walls provided nominal protection from the bitter cold of night.
Day 1: ‘Milngavie’-ish to Rowardennan (26 miles, less what I had covered the previous evening)
The following morning, bright and early, I got some coffee going to thaw out, and over a very basic breakfast established that my destination for the day was the same as Meredith’s. It made sense to start off together and, pace dependent, keep each other company. I think she was also more than happy to relegate herself from navigator to accomplice.
The return to the path was entirely uphill, and her 30L daypack was clearly lighter work than my 65L thru-hiking pack, ready to stop and make shelter at any point. I decided not to book anywhere along the walk to grant myself the freedom to walk until I had had enough (and because it was cheaper), which meant I had to carry more, but Meredith had pre-booked all necessary accommodation in advance, so while her plan was not particularly malleable, her pack was a source of great envy.
We walked and chatted away the morning miles in very unseasonable sunshine, and I was, in Scotland, at the beginning on April, quite comfortable in shorts and a single layer on top, even busting out a hat with a visor and – wait for it – sunglasses! I enjoyed assaulting my companion’s ears with tales of the Highland Fling and what I could remember, and as we made our approach to Conic Hill, it became very apparent that on this warm, sunny Sunday, it was going to be swarming with people. Still, the view of Loch Lomond near the summit was outstanding, and it was nice to appreciate it without the crushing realization that you still had a solid 33 miles or so to run (again, jog, calm down Rachel) before your day was over.
After the knee-crushing descent, we stopped to reward ourselves with some ice-cream and coffee (and ginger beer) in Balmaha, and, against all societal expectations, remove our hiking boots to allow our feet to air out before the final stretch. I had decided, after sweating much more than I thought I would, I would inquire about a bunk at the hostel to allow myself the opportunity to shower and cook something substantial. If they had room: perfect. If not? I had the tent.
I guess hiking slightly outwith peak season has its benefits.
Day 2: Rowardennan to Crianlarich (20 miles)
The original Day 2 plan had been to get to Tyndrum, but Meredith and I had snowballed and picked up another couple of walkers who had lost one of their party after a day due to catastrophic blisters. These ladies had also pre-booked all of their accommodation, and now I had a dilemma: lone wolf as per the plan and sleep rough, or re-calibrate and take advantage of a spare bed along the way at a slightly more relaxed pace with good company. I decided to leave my options open and decide later in the day, as if I were to go with the crowd, I’d have a punishing 15 mile solo walk on my final morning, likely beginning before sunrise (when I had planned to be relaxing in Fort William with a coffee and my book) before my midday bus to Inverness, and successive train to Aberdeen, where I had dinner plans that I was told would warrant murder upon cancellation.
Sometimes it’s great to spend a few days in the wilderness by yourself, but as you may have guessed from the Day 2 subheading, I was feeling like a social butterfly and the camaraderie our little group had built up was more than enough to convince me that relaxing in the evening with new friends trumped shivering alone in a tent with rationed reading light.
We set off as a merry band of hikers, and at times Meredith and I pulled ahead, and were caught up when we stopped for food breaks. It seems like the sun had made it’s big appearance for our trip, and we were back to the kind of weather Scotland does best: bleak, atmospheric, and overcast.
All three girls had booked to stay at the Crianlarich Youth Hostel, slightly short of my daily goal, but it did mean we had plenty of time to enjoy a well earned lunch along the way. It also meant another warm night, warm meal (probably not Michelin standard), and – rather importantly – a cold beer in clean pyjamas. It did not take much to convince me to leave the tent in the pack.
Day 3: Crianlarich to Inveroran Hotel (15 miles)
As I had planned to make up the miles the following day and part company with my crew, it become highly imperative that I convince them to wake up at dawn and arrive in Tyndrum for the opening of The Green Welly, and essentially a hot, filling breakfast treat. The idea was that I would have the benefit of some company, and they would have the luxury of a warm restaurant for as long as they wanted to hang around, as nothing seemed to open early enough in Crianlarich. They agreed, so the next morning we set off in the crisp morning air, opting to take a cheeky shortcut along the A82 to shave off a mile or so, despite the warnings of the man working at the hostel that it was a dangerous road.
Spoiler: none of us died. However, about half an hour into the trek, one of our party realized she had left behind her waterproof jacket, and as the forecast for the next couple of days included definite precipitation, likely of a frozen nature, it was only sensible for her to return for it. We realized that she could catch a train from Crianlarich to Tyndrum that would allow her to arrive roughly an hour after we expected to reach breakfast, and so we assured her there would be people waiting for her.
With the forecast looking increasingly hostile, and my plan to camp in Rannoch Moor scuppered by a local at The Green Welly assuring me everything but the trail is essentially a bog (kind of true – however I noticed a few usable campsites the following day so for future reference, it would be manageable), I resigned myself [edit: this sounds like they were terrible company – they absolutely were not, I was just wanting to avoid my morning death march on the final day before my bus and train home!] to rejoining the leisurely plan of the other girls with the promise of a bed (and very nice, but cripplingly expensive dinner) in a hotel at Inveroran.
It is claimed that Tyndrum is the last opportunity to hit up a shop before Kinlochleven, and though there are a couple of remote hotels, the trail became noticeably more barren, assisted in no small part by the worsening weather. I was very glad for a hot shower and warm bed!
Day 4: Inveroran Hotel to Kinlochleven (19 miles)
Day 4 was another early start, and the staff at the Inveroran kindly made us each a small pack lunch as a substitute for breakfast, as we were leaving before they started serving food. We had a 10 mile walk through Rannoch Moor to the Kingshouse Hotel, where we planned to stop for coffee. The wind picked up to around 50mph at times, and we were experiencing horizontal snow and low lying cloud, so were afforded no magnificent views initially. We ended up just ploughing on at our own pace with the communal goal of reaching the Kingshouse for a hot drink and shelter to eat our lunch.
The hotel was disappointingly undergoing some renovations, and (likely due to still being so early in the year) not seemingly running at full capacity, but we did treat ourselves to some coffees, and admired the view of Buachaille Etive Mor. For reference, this is the mountain that adorns the front page of the West Highland Way guide book, and is hailed as being a real showstopper. I’m sure you can all agree that we were afforded breathtaking views as we prepared to leave the warmth and serenity of the hotel to start our second leg of the day: 9 miles to Kinlochleven over the Devil’s Staircase.
There is a fairly main road (the A82) with parking that enables people to conquer the Devil’s Staircase as a short day hike, and going from seeing no other soul on Rannoch Moor, it was a bit of a shock to be surrounded by dots of rainbow waterproof shells dancing around us on the trail. And when, upon overtaking a group of college boys in daypacks while I carried the equivalent of a refrigerator on my back, they turned to me, smiled, and grunted, “this is tough!” – was there any other way to interpret that other than as the universal code for: this is now a competition? There really was no valid reason for me to self-induce a stroke by not only reaching the summit first, but intentionally smoking them so badly that I expected them to feel shame for years, but if you thought I was a better person than that, you’re wrong.
The descent from the Devil’s Staircase into Kinlochleven is a seemingly never-ending slog, and I think the mixture of having no real views to admire and the weather being so disgusting that you had to stay too wrapped up to have a conversation made it seem even more interminable. With hours of constant exposure, I could feel my socks getting damp, and I have never been more glad to hear that there was an available bed in the hostel, despite knowing that accepting this bed meant that I hauled completely redundant camping equipment for 96 miles when I could have taken a daypack.
Day 5: Kinlochleven to Fort William (15 miles)
After a hearty pub dinner and a hostel treat of cookie dough ice-cream, Day 5 saw me awake, packed, and lacing up my not-quite-dry hiking boots before sunrise. I said goodbye to Meredith, hauled my pack on, and began the final 15 miles of the West Highland Way by myself. I was greeted by a small stag as I set off to rejoin the trail, and the initial climb out of Kinlochleven.
Although it remained overcast, the wind wasn’t treacherous, and any precipitation came in the form of a short burst of misty rain that was possible to ignore without any major repercussions. I took this opportunity to enjoy silence for a couple of hours, before relenting and plugging into my music. This last stretch, once you’re up, is a meandering walk through increasingly impressive hills, until eventually Ben Nevis looms ahead.
After coming off the Devil’s Staircase, the descent into Fort William was similarly arduous, with the added bonus of a clear view over to the trail leading to the summit of Ben Nevis that I had climbed a few months before. But no matter how long I walked, I seemed no closer to the valley floor, eventually joining a logging road and navigating muddy undulations caused by heavy machinery.
It was once I started encountering dog walkers I knew I was nearing the end of the Way, but one particularly dick move was leaving signpost for the original endpoint in situ, and clearly visible as you make your way to the updated endpoint having to add on a final mile through Fort William’s high street.
I had just enough time in Fort William to have a quick bowl of soup and a coffee before jumping on the bus to Inverness (I napped), and then the train to Aberdeen (I napped), and finally a walk home for a shower before my dinner plans (I ate ravenously).