I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move. – Robert Louis Stevenson
On a not-so-special-or-particular day, we decided to watch a documentary on Netflix called, Mile, Mile and a Half. It follows a group of friends, all photographers and videographers, as they take a month-long journey along the John Muir Trail in California. Not only was the cinematography gorgeous, but the challenges they faced, their witty banter, and the sheer magnitude of doing a thru-hike had us completely smitten with the idea.
We started leisurely looking at different hikes we could do, and one fateful day, Brian sent me a link to this popular hike in Scotland. The pictures looked amazing, but the real driving factor for me was the end destination, Fort William. It is there, that the Jacobite Steam Train resides, which is the O.G. HOGWARTS EXPRESS! The famous scene of them going over the Glenfinnan Viaduct in the movies… that’s a real place. And we could walk to it! I was immediately sold and dove head first into researching how we could make this happen.
We decided on doing the hike at the very end of July and into early August 2016 to celebrate our 5 year anniversary. The time of year wasn’t necessarily ideal for the conditions along the hike- traditionally a lot of rain, biting midges and unpredictable weather, but we really wanted to spend our big day in the highlands of Scotland.
A little about the West Highland Way
The WHW is a 100(ish) mile hike that begins just outside of Glasgow, in a small town called Milgnavie (pronounced mull-guy), and ventures up through the Scottish highlands, ending in Fort William (pronounced Fort William). It was Scotland’s first long distance walk and is still considered the most popular. Along the way, you end up on old military roads from the 17th and 18th centuries, and through the countryside that looks like it’s straight out of [insert: Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Outlander…]
Planning and Preparation
After doing some research, we discovered that baggage transfer service is highly recommended along the way. With us travelling all the way from the States to Scotland, and having days in Glasgow on top of the walk, we had a lot of luggage. We also were interested in staying in the local farmhouses and B&Bs along the route, instead of camping. We stumbled across Macs Adventure, a group dedicated to walking and cycling vacations. They offered a baggage transfer service, along with accommodation bookings, and ended up taking care of all of the logistics for us. We chose the amount of days we wanted to do the hike in, got in contact with one of their adventure planners and were set from the beginning. Every day, our bags were waiting for us at the next destination, and all of our accommodations, shy of one, were absolutely memorable and fantastic.
We started out in Glasgow, explored the city, had some “Afternoon Tea” at the best little tea house I’ve ever been to (The Butterfly & The Pig… check it out,) and after being awake for a total of 36 hours, rested up for our adventure to begin the next morning.
Day 1: Milgnavie to Drymen- 12 Miles
We Ubered from Glasgow to Milgnavie (a short 20 minute ride,) and headed to the obelisk indicating the start of the WHW in the center of town. Packed with our day’s worth of supplies and hoping our bags would be at the next stop for us when we arrived, we excitedly hurried off to begin the day.
Day 1 was really leisurely and beautiful. We spent the morning walking through a series of parks, and then got our first glimpse of the highlands as we walked through open countryside with these mountains in the distance. Halfway through, we stopped at the Glengoyne Distillery and did a tour of the facilities (with Scotch tastings, obviously!) We ended our day in the small, but charming town of Drymen, at the Braeside B&B (with stellar hosts, Scott and Colin.) We also got to try our hand at Haggis, which turned out to be a nightly staple along our journey.
Day 2- Drymen to Rowardennan (and back to Balmaha)- 15 miles
We began our day with an amazingly HUGE breakfast at the Braeside B&B, cooked for us custom by our hosts. The Scots sure can eat. A typical Scottish breakfast consisted of an “appetizer” of Muesli or yogurt with granola and juice, followed by 2 eggs, toast, baked beans, black pudding, “bacon”, and sometimes fruit. The first few days, I was all about it, and by the end, I was more of a 2 eggs and some meat kinda gal.
Day 2 started out just as Day 1 had- lovely, mostly easy, and very pretty. About 5 miles in, we saw a mountain-ish figure looming in the distance. I told Brian that I thought I had read in the guide book that there was an infamous hill- Conic Hill- on Day 2, and that could be it, but we both hoped that wasn’t the case. Turns out… it was. And that hill? Try a mountain. Our trail took us all the way up and over this thing, and it.was.tough. I will say, the view from the top was worth the climb. We got our first glimpse of Loch Lomond (where we’d be spending the majority of the next 2 days) and it was really stunning.
What we didn’t realize, is that uphill is nothing compared to downhill. My poor knees! After Conic Hill, we stopped for lunch in a little town called Balmaha, where we were actually staying that night. However, our hike took us past Balmaha, another 7-8 miles to Rowardennan where we then got onto a shuttle to take us back to Balmaha for the evening.
Balmaha to Rowardennan was awful. Beautiful, yes, but insanely difficult. After the first half of the day consisting of a huge up-hill and treacherous downhill, we hiked what felt like an old wooden roller coaster that lasted 7 miles. Up and down and up and down. And just when you’re heading up and think you’re going to get to go down, you glance around the corner to see that you’re just going further upward.
We were absolutely BEAT by the time we made it to Rowardennan. But our shuttle to Balmaha promptly arrived and we made it to the Oak Tree Inn for the evening, in a little cottage that overlooked Loch Lomond. We also picked up a set of hiking poles at the camp store which ended up saving our knees for the remainder of the days.
Day 3- Rowardennan to Inverarnnen- 14 miles
We celebrated our official 5 years of being married on this day, and it turned out to be our favorite day on the trail (though, Brian’s ankle was about to break in half, he still enjoyed it.) We caught a shuttle back to Rowardennan from Balmaha after breakfast, and started the hike there. Walking along the lake for the majority of the morning, we ended up in what looked like The Forbidden Forest from Harry Potter, where we saw feral goats! About half way, we stopped at a little place in the town of Inversnaid to eat a hearty lunch and switch up our shoes to give our feet a little bit of a break.
Shortly after, it was back to boots, as the rest of the day ended up being a rock scramble along the lake. We were climbing up and over boulders and through narrow rocky pathways, and it was all around a blast. Tough, for sure, but it kept the day interesting and made it easier to stomach the mileage.
At the end of the day, we finally said our goodbyes to Loch Lomond, and made our way to our stopover for the night, Beinglass Farm. This place was freaking awesome. There was a huge lawn for campers, a bar and restaurant, a camp store, and individual cabins (where we stayed.)
Day 4- Inverrarnan to Tyndrum- 13 miles
Day 4 ended up being, for the most part, fairly easy on us, but it was one of the most beautiful days. We started the day through fields and fields of sheep (they outnumber people in this part of Scotland) and ended up on the side of a mountain on old military roads that date back to the 17th and 18th centuries.
We had every intention of heading down to the town of Crianlarich to grab lunch, when a kilted Scotsman warned us against the decision. He told us that it was a 15 minute walk downhill into town, which meant we had to march back up hill to return to this spot. And from where we were at that moment, we were going to have to head uphill anyway.
We decided to heed his advice, and hung out for a break and to eat some of our emergency snacks we had brought with us. (This act led to hangry Callie by the end of the day…)
Once we made it upward past our little stopping point, we made it to a forest filled with Christmas trees. Literally everywhere we looked, it was as if elves were going to spring up out of no where and hand us a freshly made toy. After the Christmas forest, we passed over the River Fillan and into a beautiful farm and conservation area overlooking the hills and mountains. We passed a grave site where apparently some stones date back to the Bronze Age.
Toward the end of the hike, we met a young solo hiker that had just graduated high school and was sent by his father to do the West Highland Way on his own for 2 weeks. We said our goodbyes to our new friend once we made it to our destination for the evening, the town of Tyndrum.
It had just started to rain on us by the time we made it to Tyndrum, and at this point, I was a little irritated from the long mileage and lack of food. We hiked down to find our farmhouse for the evening, Dalkell Cottages, only to find out that the owner, Chris, didn’t open until 4pm, which was an hour from when we arrived.
There was no where to find shelter at his place, so we walked back (uphill, might I add) to the little shops in Tyndrum, and putzed around until we knew Chris would be there to let us in.
Unfortunately, Dalkell Cottages was not worth the wait. We got our luggage out of a back shed, pulled the bags over gravel, and made it to the main house, down a tiny hallway with rooms shooting off in every direction. Our room was near the TV room, meaning there was no entertainment in our own room. Now- I have to digress- Normally, no TV on a 7 day hike in nature is a wonderful, welcome moment to tune out. However, when you’ve been hiking for 5-8 hours, all you want to do is lay down, and turn your brain off for just a bit. Too tired to move, but not tired enough to sleep, TV would be the perfect way to wind down. Oh well.
Our room consisted of 2 twin beds that were shoved together in the center of the room with a thin quilt pulled over the top. We did have a private bathroom, but it was once a closet, that had been converted into a bathroom. Thankfully, Brian and I are small people. Anyone larger would have had to have used the guest bathroom that was attached to the dining area.
We walked back to the main part of town for dinner, and had a very early night at Dalkell. Good thing, too, because we had to mentally prepare ourselves for the day to come…
Day 5- Tyndrum to Kings House- THE 20 MILE DAY
We had breakfast at Dalkell Cottages, and got ourselves prepped for the impending miles. We hiked up to the town one last time to stock up on lunch supplies and headed on the trail in great spirits, despite our first real day of rain. Of course, the longest day is the one we were going to get soaked during.
Our first 7 miles were really pleasant. We started to see the mountains get larger and larger, and walked through fields and past the train to the Bridge of Orchy- the last possible chance for us to abort the mission and get a ride to our destination. As soon as we started to descend into their little town, the sky opened up and it began to POOR. We stopped at the little bar along the trail to hide out from the rain and warm up a bit with a pot of tea and a “bacon roll” which was back bacon on a freshly baked roll with mayonnaise. I still fantasize about this mini-meal.
After we ate, the rain let up to a steady drizzle, so we decided to trudge along for the next 13 miles. The hardest part wasn’t the rain, or even the distance. It was at this point, we ended up walking along the Parliamentary roads that were designed for the horses to ride along from town to town. What this means is that there are rocks impacted into dirt that stick up every which was and totally annihilate your feet.
The views this day were incredible. We were completely out of civilization after we left Bridge of Orchy and had the entire trail to ourselves. We saw almost no hikers in the 8 hours were were out there. Seems as though everyone else decided to wait out the weather.
By mile 15, we were achey, but we knew we only had 5 miles to go to get to our stop, the Kings House Hotel. We could see it in the distance, but the miles seemed to stretch out longer and longer the closer we got. At this point, we were soaked to the bone (boots included,) tired, hungry, and ready to sit down.
When we finally made it, it felt like we literally crawled to our rooms. I dropped my pack, and looked in the bathroom and began to cry. Why? There was a BATHTUB right there waiting for me. As if it knew that I had just walked 20 effing miles in the rain and just wanted to soak my legs and feet, it was there.
Now, the water that came out of those pipes was a putrid yellow, but I didn’t even care. I soaked and soaked and soaked and was the happiest hiker that Scotland had ever seen.
Quick fact about Kings House: It is thought to be one of Scotland’s oldest licensed Inns, built in the early 17th century. In the mid 1700s, it was used as military barracks for Crown forces under the command of the Duke of Cumberland against the Jacobites.
Day 6- Kings House to Kinlochleven- 9 miles
Being so tired when we first hobbled into Kings House, we didn’t really take a look at the view. It wasn’t until the next morning, looking our our room window that we truly saw the magnitude of the Scottish highlands. We were in the Glen Coe region of the highlands, overlooking the most gorgeous mountains.
We headed out of Kings House after breakfast, knowing we had a shorter day in mileage, but that it consisted of Devil’s Staircase, which if you can imagine from the name, was tough. Devil’s Staircase crosses over the ridge between Kings House and Kinlochleven and reaches the highest point along the way.
It’s definitely tough, but consists of plenty of switch backs, making the uphill less drastic. The further we headed up, the more spectacular the views got. The downhill wasn’t as bad as on Day 2, and along our trail, we stopped to eat our lunch overlooking the mountains. It was breezy and freezing, but we could have stayed there in that moment forever.
After lunch, we headed down…down…down into Kinlochleven, a really cool town that sits right on the river. We got the help of a local in finding our B&B for the night, which turned out to be the most luxurious place we would stay in the entire trip, Edincoille. Our bed was huge, and plush, and our bathroom looked like it was out of a magazine. We even got a little welcome gift of soaps, and they had foot spas in every room.
Day 7- Kinlochleven to Fort William- 17 miles- OUR LAST DAY
We were filled with emotion, waking up on that last day. On one hand, we were excited and couldn’t believe we had already come this far and that we weren’t dead. On the other hand, we didn’t want it to end.
We woke up with an amazing breakfast, and headed outside to drop our bags and get situated. As soon as we opened the door, we were immediately SWARMED with biting midges. It was so bad, we had to hide out in the luggage shed to put bug lotion on to at least try to keep them away.
Everyone who warned us about these tiny biting nasties wasn’t joking. These things will find any opportunity to attack- whether it’s your eyes, nose, mouth, or exposed piece of flesh you forgot to hit with bug spray.
Even worse, Kinlochleven sits in a sort of valley along the river. So no matter which way you’re heading, you have to go up to get out. This meant that even though I was huffing and puffing my way up through the forest, I couldn’t stop to catch my breath without being completely swarmed by minuscule biting ass-holes. This was the first and only time I hit my breaking point. I was in tears because I was so tired, and couldn’t handle these unrelenting bugs attacking me from every angle.
Thankfully, once we got about halfway (yes that means we had to walk 8 miles through midges before this stopped,) it got windy and chilly enough for the midges to stay grounded. The rest of the day was enjoyable and we finally saw, in the distance, Ben Nevis, the big mountain we were heading toward that signified the end of our journey.
We started to see cars and civilization, and hit the “Original End of the West Highland Way” which is actually 2 miles shy of the “Official” end. We got our certificates and marched through Fort William to the infamous “sore feet” statue that signified our completion. Thrilled and exhausted, with tears in our eyes, we celebrated the fact that we had just walked 100 miles up and down hill through the Scottish highlands.
Our accommodation that final night was the best yet- The Lime Tree Inn was built in the 1800s as a Church Manse, which was the home of the Church Minister and his family. After it had fallen to disrepair throughout the years, it was restored and opened as an Inn in 2005. The restaurant in this Inn was out-of-this-world with literally one of the best meals I’ve ever had. The next morning, we had breakfast in that same restaurant where they had a loaf of freshly baked bread that I would like to live in.
After the Hike
You might be asking yourself, “Well, where is this Harry Potter train she spoke of?” Oh, it’s here. We ventured to the train station 2 hours before our departure so we could see the Jacobite Steam Train before it departed for its daily journey. It.was.awesome. Brian stayed with our bags, while I ran ahead on the platform to see the train in it’s entirety. I went inside to get a glimpse of the cabins, and cried when it took off, as if it were the real Hogwarts Express headed to the school.
This was the perfect punctuation to the most perfect adventure.
Hiking 100 miles with the love of your life further solidifies your gratitude and appreciation for them.
Throughout the way, when one of us was feeling tired or like we couldn’t make it another step, the other would be there as the rock, holding steady and strong. I am so thankful to have this guy by my side to enterain my obsessions with Harry Potter, and listen to me talk for 20 miles a day.
As I write this, it’s been exactly 1 year since we stepped foot on the trail, and every day I look back and would jump right back on to do it again. If you’ve ever toyed with the idea of a long-distance hike, or just want to see the Scottish countryside, I will tell you that the WHW is the “way” (hah! Get it?) to go.