West Highland Way: A guide to the trek
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The West Highland Way is a walking trail running for 154km through the Southern and Western Highlands of Scotland, from Glasgow to Fort William.
The highest point reached by the standard route is 548m at the summit of the Devil's Staircase, between Kingshouse and Kinlochleven.
The terrain over the course of the route is varied and includes wide smooth tracks in forests, twisty paths over moorland, hillside paths, undulating paths in trees, and field paths.
Trekkers completing the whole West Highland Way typically take one week. The route is easily accessible for most of its length and it is suitable for walking in shorter sections. The wealth of Highland mountain scenery on all sides allows many side trips to be enjoyed.
Spectacular sights The West Highland Way has its fair share of awe-inspiring sights, but these in themselves are not the main attraction of the trek. Absorbing the constantly changing Highland scene is what it's about.
Your list of most scenic spots might include the view from Rowardennan down a long stretch of Loch Lomond, the sight of the conical mountain Beinn Dorain after leaving Tyndrum, walking under the gaze of Buachaille Etive Mor as you leave Rannoch Moor near Kingshouse, and the revelation of the Mamore mountains with Ben Nevis beyond at the top of the Devil's staircase.
The bulky form of Ben Nevis appears as you drop into Glen Nevis, just before finishing the trek - a special moment!
Most enjoyable stages Stages along Loch Lomond have a special charm. Each new section of the walk is a refreshing change and heralds the next exciting type of scenery to come. Between Balmaha and Rowardennan, and perhaps even more so between Rowardennan and Inverarnan, enjoy the glimpses and full views of the loch as you wind among trees.
The first stage truly to be in the company of mountains at close quarters, between Inverarnan and Tyndrum, has real charm. For overall excitement and scenic value perhaps the walking between Tyndrum and Bridge of Orchy, and between Kingshouse and Kinlochleven, is the best of a great week.
Alpine Exploratory offers the following holidays based on our West Highland Way research:
West Highland Way
Is it for me?
Long distance paths
The UK has a wealth of long distance paths: trails on which your multi-day walk becomes your personal mission for the duration. Enjoy the West Highland Way for its magnificent scenery but also enjoy letting this mission and challenge guide your feet forward, always pointing to Fort William!
Can I manage it?
The West Highland Way is manageable for normal fit hillwalkers who are happy to walk for between 5h and 7h per day along a long-distance trail. Taking standard stopping points, none of the days are exceptionally long. Villages and accommodation are spaced out such that the walk can be completed in many short days or few long days, as you see fit. There are no climbs to the top of the highest mountains - the photos of spectacular Munros that illustrate the West Highland Way wherever it is mentioned are just what you will see from the trail, not where you will be walking. Nevertheless there are some sections of steep and rocky ground and the trail would not necessarily suit complete beginners to walking.
Rest days are possible along the route. In general the route travels through sparsely populated areas - the only chance to visit a real town is to make a detour by train from Tyndrum to Oban. Oban has good shops and would support an interesting day out. Visit the Oban Distillery and McCaig's Folly or take the short ferry to the wild island of Kerrera with its ruined Gylen Castle.
Back on the West Highland Way route, the village of Glencoe can be reached from Kingshouse and Kinlochleven.
For those who find the idea of walking through the mountains off-putting when they could be walking over them, there are several ways to alter the route to take in some peaks. Munro baggers are spoilt for choice. For those uninitiated into UK or specifically Scottish walking, the peaks while low by international standards can be rocky, confusing and unforgiving, all in highly changeable weather.
Consider climbing Ben Lomond in an extra day from Rowardennan, or in the same day as a WHW stage if you are very keen. Ben Lui and its nearby peaks (Beinn a'Chleibh, Ben Oss and Beinn Dubhchraig) can be climbed from Tyndrum or on the way from Inverarnan to Tyndrum. The five Munros South of Glen Falloch (Beinn Chabhair, An Caisteal, Beinn a'Chroin, Cruach Ardrain and Beinn Tulaichean) could be considered as an alternative to the valley route here, and Crianlarich itself makes a good base for the ascent of Ben More and Stob Binnein, or Ben Challum.
From Tyndrum a group of five hills (Corbetts rather than Munros) are handily placed. Bridge of Orchy then arrives and gives access to Beinn Dorain and its four neighbours (Beinn an Dothaidh, Beinn Achaladair, Beinn a'Chreachain and Beinn Mhanach). Between Bridge of Orchy and Kingshouse the Black Mount is the massif containing four Munros in a classic but complicated chain (Stob a'Choire Odhair, Stob Ghabhar, Creise and Meall a'Bhuiridh).
Famous and iconic peak Buachaille Etive Mor sits above Lagangarbh at the start of the Devil's Staricase and would be a fantastic detour for a day or half-day. Any time spent in Glencoe could be used to climb the peaks of Bidean nam Bian or the Aonach Eagach.
In Kinlochleven the Mamores are spread out to the North - Kinlochleven is an ideal start point for walks in this chain of 10 Munros. Take a day out for the circuit of Coire na Ba (Am Bodach, Stob Coire a'Chairn and Na Gruagaichean) or visit the peaks at the far East of the range (Sgurr Eilde Mor, Binnean Beag and high-point of the massif Binnean Mor). As a hillwalking alternative to the final stage of the West Highland Way into Fort William, tackle Stob Ban and Mullach nan Coirean before dropping into Glen Nevis higher up.
Finally, when in Fort William it can be very tempting to climb Ben Nevis as a fitting end to your trek from Glasgow. At 1,344m 'the Ben' is the highest hill in the British Isles and the ascent involves climbing almost all of that height from the valley.
What's it like underfoot?
Underfoot you will generally find good, well-maintained paths on the Way. Some are purpose-built for the trail, others are solid old military roads as built by Generals Wade and Caulfield. Surfaces can be hard, making comfortable footwear essential - this is the side effect of a relative lack of mud!
On the ascent of Conic Hill, a small but significant climb before reaching Balmaha on Loch Lomond, paths are good but steep in places. The Devil's Staircase has an intimidating name but is really just a well-made footpath climbing the hillside in twists and turns to cross the ridge away from Rannoch Moor.
Is the route obvious?
The West Highland Way has mostly good waymarking but it is far from foolproof. As with all walking in the UK, unlike in the Alps and elsewhere in Europe, signposts do not give timings or even (usually) distances. Most of the markers on the WHW are just symbols. For proper navigation where waymarks are far apart or unclear, or where it is dark or you are exploring off the route, maps are essential. We recommend all groups on the Way take good maps and know how to navigate with a compass. For guaging distances walked and still to be walked, the maps really come into their own.
Is it technically difficult?
The West Highland Way is not technically difficult and is designed as a long distance path open to all normally fit walkers. Where the trail becomes rockier or steeper than normal, this is shortlived. For most of the distance gradients are gentle and the surface is reasonably smooth.
When to go?
Alpine Exploratory's West Highland Way season runs from the start of May to near the end of September.
We set this period to avoid the worst of the winter weather. Of course, it's possible to enjoy brilliant days along the Way in the heart of winter, whatever the weather is doing! The difficulty of predicting the winter season in advance means that we have to err on the side of caution.
From Easter to the Autumn you have a very good chance of decent walking weather. Rain is very likely to happen at some point during your trip! For the warmest temperatures choose the high summer months of June, July and August, but be prepared for heavy rain at times too. Earlier in the year, in the Spring, there can be spells of wonderfully warm and dry weather (no guarantees!) and May is the most popular month on the West Highland Way partly for this reason. Midges are a factor in the Highlands - tiny biting insects that can swarm around you and be quite frustrating - and these are most likely to be a problem during the high summer months. Midge headnets and insect repellant can save your sanity (as well as remembering that it's all part of the experience...)
Where to stay
Highland hospitality can be as friendly as it gets, from B&Bs to guesthouses, bunkbarns to luxurious hotels. For example, on Alpine Exploratory's self-guided holiday you might find yourself spending one night in a comfy hotel in the mountains and the next night in a friendly guesthouse on a village green.
The West Highland Way relative to other walks
At about one week the West Highland Way is short compared to the Pennine Way (about 3 weeks) and Coast to Coast (2 weeks). The terrain itself is also easier, for the most part.
The WHW sticks to the valley, with significant exceptions being the crossing of Conic Hill on the approach to Loch Lomond, the wild but straightforward walk over the edge of Rannoch Moor to Kingshouse, the crossing of the Devil's Staircase to Kinlochleven, and the high valley on the walk from Kinlochleven to Fort William.
Compared to the Pennine Way, the WHW does not require any very long stages due to sparsity of settlements, and sticks generally to lower ground. The WHW is perhaps closer in terms of challenge to week-long sections of Wainwright's Coast to Coast walk in England.
"We just finished the West Highland Way, our third self-guided trip with Alpine Exploratory. We find them incredibly responsive, very friendly and helpful... We love working with them and recommend them highly."
Glasgow city centre to Milngavie (optional)
The link path from Glasgow city centre to the official start of the WHW in Milngavie makes a fascinating half-day or short whole day's walk. Contrary to what you might think, the walking is not along main roads and through residential streets, but instead follows a riverside path for much of the way. Starting from Glasgow Central station the River Clyde is followed initially. Later reach Kelvingrove Park in the West End and follow the River Kelvin through the city to the outskirts. Now in open fields, switch to the Allander Water and follow this into the self-contained and prosperous suburb of Milngavie.
Milngavie to Drymen
The official start point of the West Highland Way is in the central street of Milngavie near shops, bakeries and banks. Within 100 metres' walk you are on a path heading into Mugdock Country Park where gentle walking among trees takes you to more open country. Pass Craigallian Loch on a wide track, then Carbeth Loch, coming to a sudden wide panorama of your route ahead. Drop down into the valley in the shadow of Dumgoyne in the Campsie Fells. On a long flat section along the old railway line pass Glengoyne Distillery and later reach the road at the hamlet of Gartness. Along lanes come to the pretty and practical village of Drymen with its neat central green.
Drymen to Rowardennan
Set off from Drymen for Conic Hill, at 361m the highest point in the Southern half of the Way. After easy tracks through Garadhban Forest arrive at the foot of Conic Hill and ascend to its summit for great views. Loch Lomond is now well seen. The route drops down steeply to the small village of Balmaha on the shores of Loch Lomond. The second half of today's stage follows the shoreline of the loch, diverting a few times and climbing up and down over small rises. Views are excellent. Reach the hamlet of Rowardennan and enjoy the view North down the loch from the striking war memorial, a circle of stone containing a pyramid.
Rowardennan to Inverarnan
Forest tracks continue the route North from Rowardennan and rise gently high above the loch shore. Later the track ends and a winding, undulating footpath in trees brings you back to the water and to Inversnaid. See across the loch at this point to the group of mountains known as the Arrochar Alps. Carry on from Inversnaid, past Rob Roy's Cave. More lochside walking leads to an ascent past the small hill of Cnap Mor at the head of the loch. Finally reach Inverarnan beyond fields and across the River Falloch.
Inverarnan to Tyndrum
Today's stage is out in the open for large stretches and takes at last to the high mountain scenery. Inverarnan is the gateway to Glen Falloch. Follow the glen on easy tracks with the West Highland Line's trains passing by occasionally. The village of Crianlarich is reached through woods slightly off the main route before taking again to the woods in Strathfillan. Tyndrum is ahead and has lots of facilities for the walker. More beautiful villages are yet to come but here is a great place to relax and restock. You might well have time to walk the easy section to Bridge of Orchy this afternoon.
Tyndrum to Kingshouse
The majestic sight of Beinn Dorain, a cone in appearance from the South, is a highlight of this stage. Leaving the staging post of Tyndrum there is a sense of setting off into new mountainous country. Bridge of Orchy is reached along tracks before the Way takes to the woods again for the short crossing to Inveroran. After this last bit of civilisation it's time to tackle Rannoch Moor. Your route skirts the edge of this massive tract of moor, studded with lochans and bogs. At points there is no civilisation to be seen. End the day by dropping down to Kingshouse, an isolated spot on the edge of the Moor.
Kingshouse to Kinlochleven
From Kingshouse set off for what will be the West Highland Way's highest stage. First pass along the valley floor and under the huge cliffs of Buachaille Etive Mor, a mountain familiar from countless postcards. Climb up the Devil's Staircase, actually quite a simple path, to a surprising view of the country ahead. See down to Blackwater Reservoir and across to the Mamores and Ben Nevis. Now it's time to descend on a long twisting track to Kinlochleven, the village at the head of Loch Leven which makes an ideal stop for the night.
Kinlochleven to Fort William
The final stage leaves the shelter of Kinlochleven to climb through woods to reach a high valley. Follow the valley on a track with the Mamores to your right. Drop down to Glen Nevis through forest, arriving near the foot of Ben Nevis having seen the huge bulk of its Western slopes from your trail. Easy valley walking then brings you to the centre of Fort William and the end of your quest. Well done!
Hike the West Highland Way with Alpine Exploratory
Alpine Exploratory offers a self-guided walking holiday along the whole West Highland Way.
Our self-guided holidays set you up for a successful trek under your own steam. We book and pay for your accommodation along the whole route; and we send you our well-received info packs including routecards for all the walking, the maps, emergency cards with essential info for accidents, and detailed notes about the local transport. We specialise in tailor-made arrangements, so if you fancy doing the Way in a super-fast time or over a leisurely fortnight, or if you'd like to add on the link path from the centre of Glasgow to Milngavie, let us know and we'll fit your trip to suit you.
Please ask us any time for more details. Please feel free to describe your walking experience and preferences, and we'll suggest which trek you might enjoy most.
West Highland Way enquiry form