[an introduction to setting your sights on the West Highland Way and the Great Glen Way]
Zach and I got married in Edinburgh, Scotland and for our honeymoon we decided to hike from Glasgow to Inverness. The 169 mile (272 km) path we followed is a combination of two trails: The West Highland Way and the Great Glen Way.
This venture was our second long hike and it was just as full of exciting adventures, magnificent places, fresh air and freedom. Every day brought us somewhere new and different. We learned so much about the country, the people, and the landscape traveling on foot through the heart of it all. The mountains, the glens, the moors, the friendly locals, and the magic of it all has left an indelible sense of longing in my heart for Scotland.
How long is the trail?
How much time will it take?
Where exactly is it?
How intense is the walking?
The 96 miles (154 km) of the West Highland Way starts in Milngavie, meanders through Lowland valleys, skirts the shores of Loch Lomond, traverses Rannoch Moor, and places you right at the doorstep of Great Britain’s highest peak, Ben Nevis, before terminating in Fort William.
From there, 73 miles (117 km) of the Great Glen Way picks up on the banks of Loch Eil, following the Caledonian Canal, entering the forests above Loch Ness, and ending at Moray Firth in Inverness.
Walkers estimate the WHW taking 9 days of walking and the GGW 6 days.
For all the normal reasons (weather, fatigue, a brief illness, found something really cool and decided not to walk any more that day), Zach and I took 18 days to complete both trails. Some people can do it faster than others, and some people want to prolong their experience. It’s up to you, but you should always leave a little flexibility in your schedule for unforeseen circumstances.
Most of the trail follows old drover roads which are graded and purposefully avoid going up and over the hills. You can find hikers of all ages walking or bicycling the path. Some climbs along the way (like the climb up Conic Hill) can be strenuous, but overall, it is easy walking through fantastic scenery.
But don’t worry! If you’re looking for intensity, you can find it on one of many side trails that lead you up to the Munros (Scottish classification for mountains above 3000 ft) along the way. These are often rugged trails with steep inclines.
The Great Glen Way also offers an option of a high route and a low route in places for those who want more drama in their hike. The amount of side trails you are attempting to do in addition to the main path will increase the amount of time your hike will take.
Getting Started/Gathering Resources:
The first thing I do to prepare for a hike is find reading material. You never truly know a trail until you are on it, but guide books, blogs, and official websites are a great way to get an idea of what you’re getting into.
Two guide books:
The West Highland Way: Official Guide (Long Distance Guides) by Bob Aitken and Roger Smith
The Great Glen Way: Walk or Cycle the Great Glen Way by Jacquetta Megarry and Sandra Bardwell
All I look for in a useful guide is accurate distances, a brief description of the terrain, an elevation profile, and information on how to access the nearest civilized services (food, lodging, and emergency medical).
I was disappointed to find out that Bob and Roger can write for days about how ancient volcanic activity shaped the land. This book was full of interesting history, tips for understanding Scottish culture (like the right way to pronounce Milngavie: ‘Mul-guy’), and Tolkien-esque descriptions of the terrain. But let’s get real: Read it over, rip out the map, and the first page of each chapter which lists distances and a brief terrain description. The rest is extra weight.
Jacquetta and Sandra are not so verbose and weighty. Besides a few extra pages on local wildlife and an obligatory section detailing the Caledonian Canal, the ladies cut straight to the point.
There are of course other books available for you to choose from as well, these are just the ones I used.
Helpful Websites include:
-Walkhighlands is a great site for any hiking you want to do in Scotland. They break the hikes down into manageable sections, giving details about the land and the towns around the trail. And BONUS! They have a ‘User’s Walk Report’ for each trail where people can report current conditions or changes along the trail. You know you are getting up to date information from people who are literally on the scene.
-The official site for the WHW has jam packed with advice, information about the trail, and surrounding communities. The West Highland way is more populated and widely known than the GGW so there are loads of different options for how you can approach it. With this site, you can set it up so that you sleep in a bed every night and only eat a minimum of trail food. Or if you want the approach Zach and I took, there is a section that tells you how you can take advantage of Scotland’s wild camping laws.
^For when you realize how mind-blowingly stunning and incredible Scotland is and you want to learn about more hikes to take around the country.
We were able to find plane tickets from Atlanta, GA to Edinburgh for under $300 (US), and with the UK’s impressive public transportation system, it’s not hard to get anywhere on the island wherever you fly in. Then finding the trail terminus in Milngavie is easy: just look for the big obelisk with the thistle symbol in the middle of town. The thistle will continue to guide you as you follow the track.
This amazing hike is easy to access and stunning in its reality.
So get out there.
More stories of our Scottish hike to come.