The West Highland Way is Scotland’s best known long-distance hike and features in many ‘must-do’ hiking lists on the internet and in guidebooks. It stretches 96 miles from Milngavie (a suburb of Glasgow) to Fort William, taking in some of the most famous features of the Scottish Highlands including Loch Lomond and the head of Glencoe.
My experience of the WHW was mixed. I was very excited to see the famed Scottish scenery for the first time and tried to put the thoughts of rain and midges to the back of my mind. The scenery was indeed beautiful. The midges were indeed bothersome. And despite some great weather for the majority of the trip the rain did inevitably arrive, and when it did it was horizontal, relentless and spirit-crushing.
But rain and midges were to be expected and that's what I had signed up for. There were other aspects to the WHW, however, that I hadn’t anticipated. The first is that for much of its length the path is within view or earshot of main roads. The photos that you see in the guide books of Buachaille Etive Mor with hikers in the foreground (and my own version of that photo, below) fail to reveal the A82 just a few hundred metres away. As a result, I never had that feeling of 'getting away from it'. In fact, it was only the occasions when I left the path that I began to feel more isloated and connected to the landscape.
The second issue I had was that much of the walking is fairly flat and at times it can be a bit dull. The WHW often uses old military roads, which may be easy underfoot but are not designed to take the most picturesque route, and as you generally pass peaks rather than going up them there are not that many expansive viewpoints on the route. The entire first section until Drymen, in fact, is fairly dull and could easily be missed out if you are short of time or simply looking for a more condensed trip. The third aspect is the amount of rubbish left by other walkers and campers, in particular along the shore of Loch Lomond: I was appalled and disgusted.
This is not to say I did not enjoy the WHW. It offers a great introduction to the Highlands and long-distance walking, the scenery is often stirring and the sense of accomplishment from walking the entire distance from Glasgow to Fort William is tangible. And because wild camping is legal in Scotland, there are plenty of great spots to set up camp in true solitude.
To get to the trailhead at Milngavie there are regular trains from Glasgow station, taking around 20 minutes. The starting point is clearly marked at a sculpture erected in the middle of the pedestrianised high street in the town, and the rest of the route is sign posted and easy to follow. It would almost be possible to walk the entire WHW without a map. From the endpoint at Fort William you can take a bus back to Glasgow or to other destinations in Scotland. There is a sleeper train from Fort William to London but it is often cheaper and more convenient to return to Glasgow by bus for onward travel.
Wild camping is legal in Scotland and there are plenty of good spots along the route. If you prefer to sleep indoors - and given the high likelihood of rain this would be a fairly sensible idea - there are plenty of places to stay. Booking ahead would be recommended in summer as the route can be fairly busy. The route passes through many towns so there are ample opportunities to restock with food. And being Scotland, there is also no problem with finding water.
Speaking of the weather, while I was lucky enough to have some uncharacteristic sunshine for the first 4 days, the rain did arrive by day 5. On the last day I walked in some of the worst conditions I have experienced: the rain did not let up after a night of solid downpour, the path was regularly intersected by ankle-high torrents of water pouring from the hillsides and the wind at times threatened to blow me off the track entirely. I did not actually pass anyone else hiking on the route that day, which was unsurprising given the conditions, but I had to reach Fort William for my pre-booked return journey and could not afford to wait for the weather to abate. It was tough going. I think at least some bad weather is to be expected in this part of the world. The most important thing is have a dry-bag in your sack so that you have a dry (and warm) set of clothes to change into once the rain does finally stop. A rain jacket of course helps, but after a couple hours of heavy downpour no rainjacket will keep the water off: you are going to get wet.
The other much-publicised feature of hiking in Scotland during the summer - midges - are also a real annoyance. I found my netted hat (bought especially for this trip) invaluable in the evenings once the sun had gone down.
A very useful resource, including a description of the route, can be found here: http://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/west-highland-way.shtml
The WHW is generally split into 7 or 8 stages. I completed the route in 6 days, including a couple of detours. This meant some very long days walking, but as I was alone I was happy to keep going as long as possible. I tackled the WHW from south to north, as is the norm. I would highly recommend doing the same as the scenery becomes more interesting the further from Glasgow you go. It's possible to add on an ascent of Ben Nevis at Fort William, which I was unable to do due to time contraints, or continue on from Fort William either to Inverness on the Great Glen Way or Aviemore on the East Highland Way. It's technically possible to split the journey up and tackle just some sections, although that would require walking there-and-back routes or planning some carefully-timed use of buses. If you are looking to shorten the trip, starting at Drymen (before Conic Hill) would be the obvious choice and one taken by a number of hikers.
Day 1: Milngavie to Conic Hill (18 miles, 6 hours)
Day 2: Conic Hill to Ptarmigan (16 miles, 11.5 hours)
Day 3: Ptarmigan to Crianlarich (19 miles, 11.5 hours)
Day 4: Crianlarich to Inveroran (14 miles, 8 hours)
Day 5: Inveroran to Kinlochleven (21 miles, 10 hours)
Day 6: Kinlochleven to Fort William (14 miles, 5 hours)
I did make a couple of detours from the main route. On day 2 I climbed Ben Lomond from the Loch. It was a little ambitious to incorporate a fairly tough hike in itself into what was already a long day, and I was completely exhausted by the time I pitched my tent. But given the perfect weather conditions and the oportunity to bag my first munro, I could not resist the temptation and it was not a decision I regretted. On day 5 I left the path on Rannoch Mor (between Inveroran and Kingshouse) to explore the boggy land to the west and east of the path. To the west of Ba Bridge there is a beautiful valley overlooked by a few gentle peaks (Clach Leathad, Creise and Meall a'Bhuiridh). This valley is not visible from the WHW and you have to walk up to higher ground to see it. Past Ba Bridge, the WHW climbs and at the highest point you can take a detour to the east to reach even higher ground, from where there are fantastic views across the Mor. This section, as explained in guide books, is very exposed to bad weather, the ground off-path is boggy and there are plenty of midges around. But it's a section well worth exploring.
The best scenery on the route includes the stretch by Loch Lomond between Rowardennan and Inverarnan, Rannoch Mor (between Inveroran and Kingshouse) and between Kinlochleven and Fort William on the old military road.
I camped wild the first three nights: the first night I found a flat spot on the south side of Conic Hill just before Balmaha; on the second night I camped on the shores of Loch Lomond just past Ptarmigan Lodge (wild camping next to the lake is prohibited between Balmaha and Ptarmigan); and on the third night I eventually found a spot in the forest past Crianlarich (beware the midges). On day 4 I pitched in the designated camping area near the hotel in Inveroran and as the weather turned sour on day 5 I relented and opted for a hostel campsite in Kinlochleven (MacDonald Hotel and Cabins). As a place to camp, there was not much to recommend it but the warm showers were very welcome. The burger was pretty good too.