One of the biggest worries I had before I headed north to do the West Highland Way, my first real long-distance hike, was around whether or not I would actually enjoy it. I mean, would it be so physically hard going and mentally stressful that I would end up hating every moment? I couldn’t imagine anything worse than being unable to take in the promised good views and make the most of the time in all that rugged scenery because the whole thing was just too difficult.
The Old Military Road towards Glencoe. Look – blue sky!
This was one of the reasons I chose to carry my journal with me. As heavy as it was, having it was my way of allowing myself to process my thoughts each day. I used the pages to note the mundane goings on, you know, what I ate and what the weather did, but also to document my thoughts and feelings. Most importantly, it was there for me to make a special note of the moments, views, weird goings on, that kind of thing, that I wanted to make sure I remembered.
And so, with my journal as my guide, here I offer my ten favourite West Highland Way moments, in the order that they occurred during the week-long adventure.
Ten Favourite West Highland Way Moments
01. The Beginning
The problem with going on an adventure like the West Highland Way is that all the preparation, including packing, training, route marking and the rest, takes over your whole being. Rightly or wrongly, I found the run-up incredibly stressful. And so the day we woke up in our B&B, had breakfast (which was amazing!), got kitted up, and took our first steps on the official route from the centre of Milngavie was a fantastic moment. It was just so good to get going, to leave our normal lives behind, and walk. Left foot, right foot, repeat. Done.
Starting our hike just out of Milngavie.
02. The View from Conic Hill
The first significant ascent of the hike, Conic Hill, can be seen from quite a distance. When you reach the top, the views across Loch Lomond and the surrounding moorland are just spectacular – assuming it’s not in cloud, of course. It’s not a particularly difficult climb, but it is a long old trudge that was my first test of fitness and strength carrying my hiking pack, and so the view was even more appreciated. The West Highland Way route can bypass the hill if you so choose (or if farmers require it at certain times of year), but for one of the best views of the whole hike, you really need to do it. And don’t bypass the actual summit, a slight detour from the main path; Jenni and I left our bags at the bottom of the final section and headed up just for kicks, and it was well worth it.
Looking down at Loch Lomond from Conic Hill.
03. Sunset and Sunrise from Sallochy on Loch Lomond Shore
By far one of the main highlights of our West Highland Way experience was camping at Sallochy, a semi-formal site run by Forestry Commission Scotland (because wild camping along Loch Lomond shore is illegal). We watched the sun set and rise again over the water, which was just the most beautiful and calm moment of the entire hike. I will be back at this campsite sometime, just to experience that peace and tranquillity again.
Sunset over Loch Lomond.
04. Path along Loch Lomond from Inversnaid
I imagine that if you have hiked the West Highland Way yourself, you may well raise an eyebrow or two to this particular moment. So let me say it; this section of the hike is, by far, the hardest few miles of the whole thing. No doubt. The path is hard to follow, undulating, uneven, rooty, there are boulders everywhere, it is wet, muddy, steep, and slow. It was a test for sure; climbing over boulders, squeezing between trees, jumping over water crossings, and avoiding tripping over on my way to the top of the Loch with my huge pack on my back was challenging. But, with all its difficulty, it was also the most interesting section of the whole hike. And I loved it! It would make a really fabulous day hike, I might go back and do it again some time.
Walking along Loch Lomond Shore.
05. A Cup of Tea at Inveronan Hotel
Tea had to feature, really, didn’t it?! Day five of our adventure was pretty special, and contains three of my ten favourite moments. The first is very simply “a cup of tea at the Inveronan Hotel”. It was a nearly-20 mile day for us, our longest of the trek, and so we had done the sensible thing and split it up into a couple of sections to help us manage it in our own minds. After passing through Bridge of Orchy and up through the woodland section onto the wild and rugged moorland, giving us a little taste of what was to come in the afternoon, we reached the summit that we’d marked as our lunch stop for the day. But we’d made great timing and it was cold and windy up there, so we continued down into the valley and to the Inveronan Hotel. It turned out to be a lovely little place with a warm welcome for hikers, and great tea. We sat and took in the atmosphere in the bar, drank our tea, and recharged ready for the afternoon. Sometimes, there is nothing better than a bar, a pot of tea, and a few minutes of quiet. Lovely.
Looking down at the Inveronan Hotel.
06. Walking across Rannoch Moor
It’s a good job this one made it into my top ten West Highland Way moments really, as I cited it as one of the reasons I wanted to do the hike in the first place… it definitely lived up to expectations. The sheer rugged charm of this part of Scotland is just phenomenal; brown and orange moorland as far as the eye can see. No other people, no cars, no noise. Yes, it rained, and it was very windy by the end of the day, but the experience of walking along that old road right across the top of Rannoch Moor was just wonderful. A hiking highlight that will stay with me for years to come.
Walking across Rannoch Moor.
07. A Cosy Evening at Glencoe Mountain Centre
We booked one of the little huts at Glencoe Mountain Centre in advance, knowing that this would be our stopping point at the end of the longest day of our hike, and that the moorland would likely be quite wild for camping. This was definitely a good call; the weather as we came off the moor was SO wild – wet, windy, and very cold. The forecast was for storms that night, and so the shelter of our cute little hut was more than just a nice-to-have, it was rather important! That evening we spent time in the mountain centre café eating simple but great food, drinking hot chocolate, and chatting away to other people who were staying there. At one point the wind came down the chimney and put the fire out… we were so glad we weren’t in our tents! I had such a nice evening relaxing in the ski centre, knowing that I would stay warm and dry that night, I didn’t have a care in the world and that made me feel really rather wonderful.
Hot Chocolate and wood fire at Glencoe Mountain Centre.
08. Hiking at Buachaille Etive Mor and up Devil’s Staircase
Is this the most iconic part of the West Highland Way route? I think it probably is. I even captioned my photo from that day “the photo you’ve seen on everyone else’s instagram”. But that doesn’t take away from how simply stunning Glencoe, Buachaille Etive Mor and the Devil’s Staircase is. In fact, this short section of around three or four miles in total probably contained my favourite scenery of the entire week; I know I could have seen it from the car as a relatively easy day hike, but crossing over Rannoch Moor down to Glencoe and then back up onto the moorland again just seemed to make it even more spectacular. Not to mention that we were joined for this section by a film crew of course… more on that in a moment. For now, I’ll just leave you with the must-take snap.
Lagangarbh Hut at the base of Buachaille Etive Mor.
09. Singing in the Grog and Gruel
You might wonder why finishing the hike isn’t on my list of ten favourite moments. Well it is; we finished the last stretch of the West Highland Way on a Thursday afternoon, trudging the final two miles from the base of Ben Nevis along the path by the road and then right through the centre of Fort William. Like most people, I think the end is a bit of an anti climax. I know why the end point is in the middle of town rather than being at the base (or summit) of Ben Nevis, I mean, that way we all head into town and spend our money. But I do think it’s a bit of a grey and urban end to what is otherwise an incredibly wild and rugged hike. However, with being in the middle of town we did indeed choose to find a suitable establishment to celebrate our achievement that evening, plumping for the Grog and Gruel on the Main Street. We ate (pie, naturally), and then headed to the bar… A Danish Folk Band and Choir came in and asked if they could perform. I’m not sure what the actual conversation was, but they did indeed sing. I was anticipating some unique and traditional folk music, but what they actually performed were hits from the Beach Boys, Spice Girls and Take That. Wow. Just wow. They were good, really good actually, all in harmony and everything. And they had us all joining in. It was rather odd but a splendid way to celebrate hiking nearly 100 miles from Milngavie. Fabulous!
Obligatory photo with the Weary Walker in Fort William.
10. The People I Walked With
I had been warned that the West Highland Way is a busy route, crowded even. I was told that I would be one of a line of people hiking it, which would be good because it would mean I would make some friends along the way, but that I would likely get frustrated having to overtake (or be overtaken by) others. But the second week in October must have been an excellent choice as we didn’t meet many people at all. When we did meet hikers along the way it was lovely; people were friendly, everyone had a different story or reason for being on the trail, and everyone was doing it slightly differently. I am truly terrible with names, but to Nick, Kirsten, the ladies from Bulgaria and Canada, the guy who was doing it for the fourth time after suffering with cancer, Cody (woof!), and all the others; thanks. And an even bigger thank you to Chelsea and Jenni for being my hiking buddies. You are all amazing, I loved walking and chatting with you.
The three of us at Gartness on day one.
…And the Worst
For some reason I don’t feel that I can harp on about the best bits of my first long distance hike without mentioning a couple of the worst. This is real life after all, and it would be wrong to suggest that it was all plain sailing. There are four things that spring to mind, but only one that made a real difference to the trip. “Worst” moments are funny things; they are the challenges that provide us with stories to tell – if it was all easy peasy would it just be like a day in the office?!
The Old Military Road from Kinlochleven to Fort William.
I think day one lulled me into a false sense of security. The weather was great, the terrain was good, the walking was relatively easy, the mileage was short, the bag was annoying but seemed to be lighter than it might have been, and the lunch time food stop was awesome (soup and a sandwich, my favourite!). Day two, however, not so much. First of all I slept through my alarm, and so didn’t wake up until about half an hour before we said we were going to leave. It was raining so I had to break camp with a wet tent. Then I had to refold my tent as it wouldn’t fit in my bag, despite practising loads of times at home. The route was easy to follow but I found the walking hard going, like my legs did not want to move. My bag felt heavy and cumbersome. It rained some more. I was out of breath and wondered if I was actually fit enough. I cried. And I messaged home to say I was miserable. Good, huh?! You’ll be pleased to know it didn’t last long; by the time we were half way up Conic Hill I remembered that I did like walking, had adjusted my pack so it was more comfortable, had eaten some Percy Pigs, and was enjoying the promised views. Before I went the amazing adventurer that is Sean Conway gave me some advice that in summary said I would hate it to start with, but then things would click into place without warning and I’d realise it was great. It was a bit of a delayed reaction, but he was definitely right. I’m so pleased.
Looking ahead at Conic Hill on day two.
The “big” worst moment is that Chelsea got glass in her foot when we camped alongside Loch Lomond at Sallochy and it put an end to her hike. We were all so sad! But glass in her foot?! Ouch! I have so much respect for Chelsea; she hiked several miles before she realised the pain was glass, pulled (what turned out to be just some of) it out and hiked the rest of the day along the hardest path of the whole trek – 17 miles in total. She initially decided to take one day off to let her foot heal, but in the end jumped on a train and went home. It was such a shame that she wasn’t able to carry on, but it was definitely the right call for her, and she’ll be back very soon to give the hike another go.
Chelsea, er, doing something.
The final worst moment has to be the weather that absolutely ruined our descent from the top of Devil’s Staircase down into Kinlochleven. At the top we’d met a couple of guys on the trail, one of whom had done it several times before. I remember him saying “if it rains on this section it is truly horrible”. Yea, he was right about that! It rained and rained and rained. The water just kept falling, the path, which was already slippery from the type of stone it was, turned into a river. There was no shelter around to take a break so we just had to keep walking. And we arrived at Kinlochleven dripping wet and in silence. The campsite we’d picked out ahead of time was utterly waterlogged – I’d say it resembled a swamp – so we headed into the hostel and I asked the guy there what he could do for us inside. We ended up with a (warm and dry) bunk room to ourselves, an en suite power shower with great water pressure, and had a lovely evening at the local pub with some other hikers eating chilli and lasagne and chatting the evening away.
Just a little water crossing.
The Most Surreal?
And finally, the most surreal and strange experience of the West Highland Way for me, was being joined by Julia Bradbury and her ITV film crew for day six of our hike. It was by something of a happy coincidence of being prevalent on twitter, being one of the Ordnance Survey GetOutside Champions, and just happening to be walking in this particular area of Scotland on the dates they wanted to film there, that meant Jenni and I were interviewed and filmed for a forthcoming television programme. And if you want to see whether or not we made the cut, Britain’s 100 Favourite Walks is airing on ITV on Tuesday 30th January at 7.30pm; a whole evening of walking on prime time telly – nice!
With Julia Bradbury.