West Highland Way
The West Highland Way runs 95 miles from the outskirts of Glasgow, Scotland's largest city, to the town of Fort William at the foot of Ben Nevis. Officially opened in 1980, it was the first of Scotland's long-distance footpaths and remains its most popular, attracting tens of thousands of visitors each year. The West Highland Way begins inauspiciously at its Southern terminus, winding out of the small town of Milngavie along dog-walking routes, roads and over farmland. The scenery soon improves though, with an attractive section along the Eastern shore of Loch Lomond. The second half of the West Highland Way sees it passing through increasingly rugged and dramatic scenery as it enters the Highlands proper. The hike across the moor of Rannoch is spent surrounded by stunning mountains and soon the impressive mass of Buachaille Etive Mor heaves into view. The gradual progression from city to wild mountains is the main reason the majority of people choose to hike Northbound. The route rarely strays too far from habitation and it's easy to make it to a hot meal and a hot shower every night if you so choose. Despite the proximity to civilisation, there is some interesting wildlife to view - keep your eyes peeled for feral goats, red deer and golden eagles. The West Highland Way follows a mix of old drovers' roads, rail routes and military roads, and, as a result, is generally smooth and easy under foot - only around the banks of Loch Lomond does the path take on a more rugged nature. The route is steeped in history and it's worth reading up on its various origins to get the most out of a hike on the West Highland Way. It can be busy, but travel on the fringes of peak season you needn't find yourself overwhelmed by people and if you're lucky with the weather, the West Highland Way can provide some truly memorable hiking.
West Highland Way Frequently Asked Questions
Q. How long will it take me to walk the Way?
A. Typically people walk the Way in 5-8 days, though it can be done in 3 or 4 without racing if you're in shape and inclined. Good trail and little elevation change make it easy to post big mileages. Endurance runners often complete the Way in less than 17 hours during the annual race.
Q. How do I get to the start of the Way?
A. Make your way to the city of Glasgow and take a train from Queen's Street station to Milngavie. The service is frequent and the journey takes less than half an hour. The start of the Way is signed from Milngavie station. Alternatively, one can follow the Clyde, Kelvin and Alexander walkways (totalling about 12 miles) from the centre of Glasgow to Milngavie.
Q. How do I get back to Glasgow from Fort William?
A. Citylink runs a bus service from Fort William bus station (outside Morrison's supermarket) to Glasgow's Buchanan Street station. There are several services a day; tickets cost about L15 (~$25) and are available to buy from the internet cafe on the high street. Be warned that it's not the smoothest ride and those prone to travel sickness are in danger of losing their breakfasts.
Q. How much will it cost me to walk the Way?
A. Depends how you want to do it. As a very rough guide, it will cost around L12-16 a night to stay in a hostel, L25 for a B&B, L30-50 for a hotel room. Pay campsites seem to be L5-10, but you can wild camp the whole Way for free. Eating out might cost L4 for fish and chips, L10 for a decent pub meal and L20 upwards for dinner in a restaurant. Transport to and from the trail, excluding getting to and from Glasgow, is likely to cost around L18. There are companies that will slack-pack you the length of the Way for ~L35. Check [ http://www.west-highland-way.co.uk ]
Q. When should I hike?
A. That depends on how you feel about crowds, weather and bugs. Peak season begins at Easter and continues through into September. It's a popular route and accommodation fills up fast in these months so it's necessary to book ahead if you want to use it. Weather on the West side of Scotland tends to be very changeable, but it is a brave man who bets against it being wet, especially out of peak season. I hiked in early April and experienced a lot of rain, sleet, and snow. Night time temperatures dropped to 19F and daytime temperatures didn't make it out of the 40s. You can hike all year round, but make sure you know what you're letting yourself in for before you go... Bugs become an issue, especially in high summer, when the infamous Scottish midges rule the Way - take repellent and netting if you're travelling between June and September.
Q. What are the camping regulations along the Way?
A. Good question. I never quite figured out that one myself. Access and camping rights have been a contentious issue in Scotland for a long time. The official website for the West Highland Way is rather ambiguous on the subject and refers readers to the following leaflet from the Mountaineering Council of Scotland, which rather suggests you can camp on the majority of the Way. I expect that whatever the legalities of the matter, the organisers are keen to encourage hikers into designated campsites wherever possible. There are a number of (largely good) reasons why they would do this, but keep your own council: know your rights and act responsibly.
Q. What is water availability like?
A. Countless stream crossings mean you're never going to be short. Even with the large amount of agriculture surrounding the Way, there is plenty of good quality water available. If you must, you can always get water in the many towns along the route.
Q. How do I pronounce these wacky Scottish place names?
A. Beats me! Though at least know that 'Milngavie' should be pronounced 'Mull-guy' if you want to experience anything other than contemptuous laughter from the ticket counter at Glasgow station.
Q. I've heard awful things about Scottish food - is it really as bad as it sounds?
A. Yes and No. The things that usually give people The Fear about Scottish cuisine are haggis, black pudding and the like. These are actually good hearty fare and can be enjoyed by anybody without an irrationally squeamish attitude to offal. However, it's not all good news - Scotland boasts some of the worst heart disease statistics in Europe for good reason and it doesn't pay to get too adventurous in the fish and chip shops: stick to the trusted cod and chips (possibly with a pickled egg on the side), but beware the Scottish passion for deep frying anything that fits in the basket. Deep fried Mars bars and pizza sound like the result of a lost bet, but are greasy realities. Sugar seems to be popular North of the border, vegetables less so. Scotch pies are for the brave, foolhardy or drunk.
Q. I'm thinking of thru-hiking one of the long trails in the US. Is this good preparation for me?
A. Yes with a 'but'. Any walking is good practice for long-distance trails and a multi-day trip like this is excellent preparation. However, the lack of hills is not representative of what you will experience on the long trails (especially the Appalachian) so do some additional training to get yourself into shape for the climbs. I'd recommend camping the majority of the way - getting used to living out of doors for a few days will be a good investment of your time and take the edge of off adapting to life on a thru-hike.
Q. Is there anything else for me to do while I'm in the area?
A. If you want to extend your hike, the recently completed Great Glen Way continues from Fort William on to Inverness for a further 73 miles. You also have the option to climb Ben Nevis, at 4409 feet Britain's highest mountain. Scotland has plenty to offer anyone who enjoys the outdoors - skiers, climbers, hill walkers and mountain bikers are all well catered for. Check [ good resource for would-be mountain-bikers ]