Hiking Scotland’s West Highland Way
And you thought the AT was only a meager 2189.2 miles? Well, yes and no. There are actually thousands more miles of the Appalachian-Caledonian mountains throughout Canada, Greenland, the UK, and Scandinavia that make up the International Appalachian Trail. Personally, I want to talk about exactly 96 of them that can be found in the great wee nation of Scotland: The West Highland Way.
I imagine The Trek has a handful of different types of readers that might find this article useful (or at least a worth the 10 minutes of reading) and want the West Highland Way on their radar. Specifically, those who:
#1: Are interested in hiking the Appalachian Trail, but may not have 5 months to spare in the near future, or want to first test out this whole long distance hiking thing in style
#2: Have already hiked the Appalachian Trail and are jonesing for a fix
#3: Like pretty pictures of pretty landscapes
#4: Are my mother. Hi mom! I had a great time!
After spending the last year living in Scotland I walked the West Highland Way as a finale of sorts to my time in good old Caledonia. It had been on my to-do list since I first heard about it nearly 100 miles into the Appalachian Trail upon a brief meeting with KrispyKritter, an avid hiker who has written a book about his hiking history that features the West Highland Way.
The trail starts just outside of Glasgow in Milngavie (pronounced “Mull-Guy.” Scotland pro-tip: never expect Scotland to make sense) and weaves 96 miles through the Scottish Highlands skirting the bonnie bonnie banks of Loch Lomond, traipsing through majestic Glencoe, descending into Glen Nevis, and terminating at the end of the High Street in Fort William.
Two of my friends who had never been backpacking before did the trek with me. We found this trail is great for both experienced hikers and rookies alike. It’s well marked, relatively short, hits at least one town every day, and the terrain is predominantly flat. It rains most days but it’s also usually sunny for at least part of every day as well.
A note on the rain and why I think it could prepare one particularly well for the AT: It’s easy to like hiking when you’re dry all the time. When your feet have been wet for days causing blisters in places you didn’t know could blister and you’re walking by views that you know are *probably* beautiful but the fog gives you the visibility of 10 feet it’s easy to
hate like it a lot less. I set up and took down my tent in the rain more in my 8 days on the West Highland Way than during my entire 5 months on the Appalachian Trail–granted, that is largely because I was lucky on the AT, had shelter options at night, and planned town stops strategically. Still, setting up/breaking down camp in the rain and then continuing to walk in the rain for much of the day will absolutely give you a real sense of whether or not long distance hiking is your thing.
One of my favorite aspects of the West Highland Way is that it is extremely accessible. Anyone can do it and you can very easily adjust the overall difficulty level, assuming you have the budget for it. The trail can be done cheaply by wild camping almost every night (there’s one section that doesn’t allow wild camping), you can pay 5-8 pounds a night to stay at campgrounds with showers and other facilities, you can opt for hostels, or you can stay at quaint B&Bs or nice hotels. You can slog your pack the entire way or hire companies to drive your pack ahead for you each day. Of course, every combination of these things is possible throughout the trail as well and you can adjust accordingly as you go depending on morale.
The trail can be done in a more intense 4-5 days, or drawn out to a casual 8-9. My friends and I adopted an 8-day schedule and mostly wild camped or stayed at paid campsites. We stayed one night at a nice inn and one night in a hobbit house. Every town has a restaurant/pub which is convenient for waiting out Scotland’s frequent bursts of rain as well as trying Scotland’s finest ales and pub foods–exactly what the body wants after a long day of walking!
This makes the trail nice for both an active family vacation as well as a solo backpacking trip. It’s a very popular trail, so similar to the AT you meet people along the way and see the same faces day to day.
The trail for me was a bit like a thru-hiking booster shot; it reminded me of my old hiking routines and the feelings of satisfaction that come from completing something physically difficult. I found that the West Highland Way was like a very condensed AT with many of its best and worst aspects: The balds of North Carolina, the town accessibility of mid-Atlantic, the rain of Vermont, the hospitality of the south, the rugged beauty of Maine, the elevation profile of Pennsylvania, wildflowers of Virginia, and the bugs of Massachusetts.
Speaking of bugs, I cannot in good conscience recommend highland hiking without a mention of the dreaded “Midges.” They’re tiny little biting monsters that are present from June-September. They are found mostly near water, in lower elevations, at dawn/dusk, and when it’s not windy. They’re really not too big of a problem if prepared, which means just having bug nets and sleeves. I cannot stress this enough, if you are going during midge season, be prepared.
On the AT, if you wanted to figure out where the trail was going to go, you could reliably find the highest point in view and be assured you were going up and over the summit. On the West Highland Way, the trail skirts more through the valleys and around the sides of mountains. Don’t get me wrong, there are some trying climbs and good rock scrambles as well, but because there are very few trees in Scotland you don’t have to climb to the top of a tree-less summit to thoroughly enjoy the stunning landscape.
I could go on and on about this trail, but really the biggest draw to the West Highland Way should be that Scotland itself is a fantastic country well worth visiting. Accents, kilts, bagpipes, golf, scotch, and enough trails to keep a hiker occupied for years. Aye. What more could you want?
Of course, the U.S. has tons of short trails worth exploring too, but if you’ve ever considered a trip across the pond there nae a better way to see the highlands than to walk through them.
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I hiked the WHW in 2008, and I had a wonderful time. I was super lucky weather wise and didn’t once wear the expensive rain pants I had purchased specifically for my hike. This isn’t to say that I didn’t experience any wet weather; however, one awesome feature at the hostels, that I wished for many times on my AT thru-hike, was drying rooms, which are basically big sauna like rooms for drying out gear like tents, packs, shoes, and even clothes. The WHW is like a very condensed version of the AT, including the plethora of people I met from Germany. The midgies are AWFUL, but the scenery is fantastic; I even went swimming in Loch Lomond – yes it was freezing!!