After London and Dundee & Edinburgh came The West Highland Way. This was the final portion of our UK vacation and it was spectacular! Imagine, four days of hiking in the highlands with lush valleys and impressive mountains finished by a fifth day up Ben Nevis. This was the most memorable part of the vacation and I would recommend hiking the West Highland Way if you are in Scotland.
The West Highland Way is a great way to see the Highlands of Scotland. The entire West Highland Way spans 154 km and starts in Glasgow and winds its way to Fort William. It can take anywhere from 5 to 8 days to walk the entire trail however you determine your pace and how much you want to walk. We only had 4 days so we started mid-way through and walked the northern part of the trail from Crianlarich to Fort William (we were told it was the most picturesque and challenging part of the trail). Additionally, we did not have much time to plan for this trip so we contacted Contours Holidays and they organized all our B&B reservations, provided us maps, travel information, packing checklists, and a luggage service that carried our heavy luggage forward from one B&B to the next. I have to admit this is a more luxurious way of walking the West Highland Way however many do it on their own and stop by the side of the way to sleep in tents.
If you are planning on staying in hostels, B&B or hotels, plan ahead. You don’t want to get to your destination in the evening and find out there is no room and have to walk another 10 or 15 km in the dark. Most of the stops along the way can be reached by train or bus if you are too tired to walk. Things I learned on this hike; have a good pair of hiking boots, many pairs of dry socks, and lots of layers. The weather changes from one minute to the next and you are constantly taking off or adding layers so good hiking clothes are important. Finally, bring enough water to stay well hydrated. Some of the sections along the trail have no water and drinking the water in the rivers and streams is not recommended; we used a backpack with an integrated CamelBack system. I would also recommend the West Highland Way guidebook from Rucksack Readers for additional information on the trail.
So, without further ado, I present to you our West Highland Way adventure!
Day 1 – Crianlarich to Bridge or Orchy (22 km)
Our first night was spent in the Glenardran House in Crianlarich. You can get to Crianlarich by train or bus from Edinburgh or Glasgow and the B&B is only a few minutes from the train station. The Glenardran is a three-star B&B with en-suite bathroom and a double bed. There is a delicious breakfast to get your day started and you can order a packed lunch for the hike.
We were up early the next day and left the B&B around 9 AM and started the first day of our adventure. The walk from Crianlarich to the Bridge of Orchy was 22 km with minimal difficulty. We had some difficulty finding the start of the West Highland Way however once we found the trail marking, we were on our way and the rest of the way was clearly marked by signposts. Most of the walk was in glens and passes and the view of the mountains was beautiful. There was only a section of the trail that was next to a highway however it was far enough away that it did not disrupt the beauty of the walk.
We really took our time to take in the view, stop for lunch and various breaks along the way, and arrived in late afternoon at the Bridge of Orchy Hotel. The hotel dates back to the 1700s and is a four-star accommodation. From the outside it looks like an old hotel but the inside is tastefully renovated to keep the charm of the old building while offering modern-day comforts. We had a room with a double bed and en-suite bathroom and a view of the Bridge of Orchy and the forest behind. We had a delicious dinner at the hotel restaurant and went to bed very early, tired from our first day of fresh highland air. What a great first day!
Day 2 – Bridge or Orchy to Kingshouse (22 km)
Our second day was more challenging mainly due to the changing weather. The trail was a little more difficult with climbing however the view was amazing. Now we were really getting away from the cars and the city.
The start of the day was rainy, foggy and cold. We had to bundle up to stay warm and dry and it was a little harder to leave the comfort of our B&B! As we progressed, the weather cleared and we got spectacular views of the glens and mountains. The landscape is so luscious…no wonder there are so many sheet hapilly grazing in the rolling hills! Be warned, do not stray from the path to go running after a sheep…you may end up in the peat bog and never be found. “Peat bogs remain a potent menace to all runners and walkers. To the unassuming eye they appear to be solid ground but are in fact little more than a veneer of soil floating on often ice-cold water. Survival experts recommend slow movements or a wide swimming action to get out, but panic can cause those that get stuck to sink deeper, eventually making it impossible to escape without help” (The Independent, UK). Not to worry, the West Highland Way is well marked and it is very difficult to stray from the path unknowingly.
As we rounded the final bend, we could see Kingshouse standing next to Glen Coe nested in-between tall pine trees. Kingshouse is one of the oldest licensed inns and was used as a barracks for King George III. We had a charming little room and shared facilities. Since we were not in high-season, we had the bathroom almost to ourselves.
We had a couple pints in “Kingy” bar and dinner in the inns restaurant. The food was delicious and I had my first Scottish Cranachan. Cranachan is a desert made of whipped cream, whisky, rasberries, and oatmeal. Just what the body and mind needs after a long day of hiking!
Day 3 – Kingshouse to Kinlochleven (14 km)
This was the shortest day of our hike with only 14 km to walk. As we left Kingshouse, the sun was slightly touching the peaks of the mountains around us which made for an epic departure. The view was spectacular as we walked in the valley on our way to the Devil’s staircase.
The walk was short in comparison to the other days however we had a steep climb ahead of us. The name “Devil’s staircase” takes you to the highest point on the West Highland Way and though the name sounds threatening, the hike up is not that difficult. As you arrive at the summit, take the time to look back onto Glencoe before continuing North. As you cross the summit, a beautiful plateau unfolds in front of you and you can see the Blackwater reservoir in the distance. It is an impressive mass of water and looks amazing against the dark greens and browns of the plateau.
My favourite part of the West Highland way is seeing the trail twist and turn in the distance, not knowing what will appear ahead. This part of the trail was spectacular and since it was a shorter distance, we were able to stop more often and take it all in.
As the sun pushed away the clouds, we started our descent towards Kinlochleven and what was to come next completely surprised us.
Kinlochlelen is a very special town in the history of mankind. It is said to be the “first first village in the world to have every house connected to electricity” (Wikipedia). The Blackwater reservoir was originally built to power the aluminium smelter that was located in the village below. In 1907, the 914m long dam was completed and almost 13km of pipeline had been laid down to power the aluminium smelter.
The West Highland Way follows the pipeline all the way down to the village. As we walked along the steel pipes, I could not help but feel like I was in some strange futuristic movie where all society had disappeared and the only traces of civilization left were these steel pipes. I was almost expecting zombies… As you near the village, keep looking back up and see the pipes going on and on for ages. I also recommend taking a small detour and walking around the smelter. Even though the landscape has been completely disfigured by this construction, it makes for some dramatic photography.
Kinlochleven is not a huge town however it is very charming and has a couple pubs. Because we arrived so early, our luggage had not arrived at the B&B so we went for a small walk around town. There is a great walk along the water and provides a great view of the Loch Leven and the village. We stopped for a pint after our walk and went back to the B&B to relax, shower, and get ready for dinner. We stayed at the Edencoille B&B which was very cozy and the service was excellent.
It was not a late night for us since we had another big day ahead and wanted to be rested for your last day on the West Highland Way.
Day 4 – Kinlochleven to Fort William (24 km)
This was one of the most epic days of the walk. A combination of forest, valleys, and an iron age fort dating back 2,500 years. All-in-all, it was a great day!
The walk started off steep through a forest and opened up again in to a valley and you could see for miles ahead. As we descended into the first valley, we crossed old houses in ruins previously owned by hill farmers. At this point we were already half-way to Fort William however we were already starting to feel tired. The weather was not helpful either, it rained almost the entire way and we had to add and remove layers many times.
To add to the depressing climate, we suddenly arrived in what I would call a tree cemetery. The entire landscape was devastated…miles and miles of trees cut down. Little sheep were wandering between the tree stumps and looked like they did not know where to go or what had happened to their home. As we stopped for lunch, I could not help but think of the devastation and wondered why people would deface such a beautiful landscape. As as I sat there feeling sorry for the human race…a little bird appeared and lifted my spirits. Perhaps it was a sign that life goes on, perhaps it was my tired delusional mind talking…whatever, I was happy to have this little bird around to entertain us.
The final leg of our journey was amazing and emotional. The path twisted and turned through a luscious green forest and suddenly Ben Nevis appeared before us. It’s summit was hidden by heavy clouds however I was still impressed by its size. Ben Nevis is the highest peak in Britain at 1344m. Our objective was to climb Ben Nevis the following day so I was very excited to finally see it. Before continuing to Fort William, we took a small detour and visited an Iron Age fort dating back about 2500 years. It was a steep climb to the fort however well worth it as it gave another great view of Ben Nevis. The only thing left up there are some old walls covered in grass, almost impossible to know a fort was there unless you read the sign. It is worth the small detour!
I was surprised at how emotional I felt as we arrived in Fort William. It had been a wonderful journey and I felt so happy however, I felt sad it was over. I don’t think I got enough of the Scottish highlands and felt I could have kept going for days…after a short break of course!
We slowly made our way back to our B&B to shower and change before dinner. We stayed at the Rhu Mhor Guest House only five minutes away from the town centre. The entrance to the B&B is a little creepy however once you get past the garden, you arrive at a beautiful old stone home and the rooms are spacious and comfortable. That night, we had dinner at the Crannog restaurant located on the Town Pier and we stuffed ourselves with seafood and wine! Just what we needed after an epic walk!
Day 5 – Ben Nevis (1344m)
It was a rough morning after four days on the West Highland Way however, Jonathan and I decided we could not get all the way to Fort William and not climb Ben Nevis. After a hearty English Breakfast, we set off on our final adventure.
It was a beautiful sunny day however the peak was in clouds. We were hoping the clouds would part however they did not and we arrived at the summit and never got a view. The climb was challenging and I would recommend a minimum level of fitness if you are thinking of going to the summit. It is not a high mountain but the climb can be steep at times and dangerous. There are cliffs on the North East face that drop 611m and in bad conditions, it is easy to walk over the edge.
They say the walk takes 6-8 hours to complete so give yourself time…leave early in the morning. It took us 2.5 hours to go up and about 3 hours to descend.
So, that’s it! The West Highland Way adventure in a nutshell. Definitely something you must do if traveling to Scotland.