UK’s Best Walks & Hikes Part 1: The West Highland Way
Written By: SportsShoes
In part 1 of our new series featuring the UK’s best walks and hikes, outdoor enthusiast Mel Sykes describes her adventures on the West Highland Way in Scotland.
I started walking more in 2020 after ending up with a persistent knee injury that was preventing me from running. After numerous visits to the Lake District, ticking off my list of Wainwrights, I came across the West Highland Way (WHW) whilst researching multi-day hikes in the UK. The scenery looked amazing and I’d heard a lot about the route from fellow runners who had completed The Highland Fling race.
After a couple of months of planning, I booked a week off work and drove to Milngavie, solo, to complete the walk. My itinerary gave me 5 days walking the way, a day to climb Ben Nevis on day 6 and 2 days either side for travel. Perfect!
The start of the WHW is quite uninspiring as you leave Milngavie and day 1 was mostly flat until the just before Balmaha when you head up and over Conic Hill. It was 22 miles to my first campsite and because this was September (between Covid lockdowns) the route was mainly quiet, apart from the approach to Balmaha and its surrounding area, which seemed to be a tourist hotspot. I arrived at a great little campsite on the shore of Loch Lomond and got my tent set up for what was one of the worst night’s sleep I’ve ever had in my life. I’m such a light sleeper so I’ve no idea why I thought 4 nights in a tent would be a good idea. Ear plugs, plus eye mask and hope for the best.
Day 2 was when I really felt like I was in absolute isolation. The reason I wanted to do the walk in the first place was for a week just wandering, alone, to enjoy the scenery. This was when I got what I came for. The route takes you along the whole edge of Loch Lomond and that thing is HUGE. I left the campsite by the Loch in the morning and 19 miles later I was still hugging its shore. Don’t let that fool you though. It’s a tough old section of walking. 20 miles in total and over 3100ft of elevation, but with no actual recognised climbs. It mostly involved scrambling down rocky sections then stepping back up for 8 hours or so, especially along the latter section. It was definitely the most challenging day, but in 20 miles I came across less than 10 people all day. Day 2 finished at Beinglas campsite which has an onsite pub, shop and great facilities. Chips with extra chips for tea.
I was up and off early on day 3. My tent was packed up and back in its bag before most of the campsite was awake. I’ve always been an early bird. I like to train in the morning as it sets you up for the day, so it’s normal for me to start walking early. Starting at this time meant that I didn’t see another person for the first 4 hours of day 3. The weather was wonderful and day 3 is when you really start to get a taste for the mountains. As you leave the campsite and head along the valley floor, there are huge peaks on either side of the track and when there’s nobody else around it makes you feel so small. It’s quite the experience. I had a few people ask me if I walked listening to music or podcasts, but I didn’t have anything. I just listened to the sound of, well, not much really. I was just happy to walk in peace whilst I soaked up my beautiful surroundings. Day 3 passes through Tyndrum, a busy little town around 11 miles in (day 3 was 21.5 miles), so this was perfect for a lunch stop and to refuel. I knew I had to stock up here as my supplies had to last until halfway through the next day. There was nowhere else to stop after here and day 3 was the night I was wild camping, although I wasn’t sure exactly where at this point. 21.5 miles in, I reached a little wooded area where I set up my tent. It was absolutely hammering it down at this point, which made things interesting, but after a bit of faffing around I was in bed with a hot chocolate and a squished, soggy sandwich for tea. Lovely.
Day 4, despite dropping -1 in temperature and chucking it down overnight, had the best start to any morning of my walk. The rain had stopped, and I left the tent to a stunning sunrise down the valley as low mist settled in the valley. Again, I was up, packed away and off before 7:30am.
Day 4 was simply amazing. The route takes you across Rannoch Moor which, in the peak months, can just be a constant stream of people and a busy part of the route. Me? I’d nailed it. 4 hours across open moorland, in September, with the sun shining and I saw NOBODY. Not one other person came into sight until I reached the Kingshouse Hotel at Glencoe. It was perfectly silent and still, apart from the odd deer running around in the distance. If I could relive any day of the walk, then this would be it. I doubt this will ever happen again but, on this day, I was alone in the middle of nowhere and having the best time. Exactly what I had hoped for when I’d first started to plan this adventure. The final part of day 4 is up and over Devils Staircase (which isn’t as bad as the name suggests) and as you reach the cairn and start the descent into Kinlochleven, you get the first glimpse of Ben Nevis in the distance. In total, day 4 was 19 miles and 2600ft of elevation, with the descent into Kinlochleven proving to be a total quad killer. Blackwater campsite was home for the night.
Day 5 was the final day. I had 16 miles to get to Fort William and a nice comfy bed at the Travelodge right at the end of the route. The final day starts with a steep, sneaky climb out of Kinlochleven before you head along the moor on an unforgiving stony track that was a bit brutal on tired feet. I tried to walk on the verges as much as possible along here to give my poor feet a bit of respite. I’d nipped into the shop in town and bought 3 bags of sweets for the final day as there is nothing between Kinlochleven and Fort William. Once you reach the top of the first climb out of town it’s a pretty steady, undulating path all the way until you reach the forest before Fort William and you drop down to the finish in the town. For some of this section I was chatting to a bloke who was walking the way for the 46th time. He must know where every stone is by now. He was saying that every single time he’s walked it he’s had completely different conditions, and still wants to come back for more. Around 4 miles before the finish you reach what would have been a lovely forest area at some point, but most of the trees have been chopped down so it looks a bit brutal - like a tree graveyard.
Over the final hill, Ben Nevis lies in front of you. Then down to Fort William and the finish statue in the town centre. Weird. It’s a bit of an anti-climax to be honest. Especially when you’re alone. Almost 100 miles walked and you trudge through people going about their daily business, after spending the last 5 days not seeing anyone else for hours on end. I just wanted to do it all again.
I did the usual tourist thing of getting someone to take a picture of me with the statue, checked into the Travelodge, had a bath then went to get fish and chips.
Would I do it again? Absolutely. Although I’ve a feeling I’d never see the route as quiet as this again. I did have a wonderful week and got exactly what I wanted out of the experience.
Now time to plan the next adventure…
You can follow Mel and all her outdoor adventures here.
Photos: Mel Sykes