[Miles 0-26 (42 km)]
The beginning of a hiking expedition is marked by the magic of the escape ahead. You’re still light in your step, full of energy and anticipation.
The West Highland way begins as the last traces of urban Milngavie and Glasgow are silenced by the lush forest of Mugduck Woods. Concrete is replaced by the loam of the trees and the highway noise becomes birds and flowing water.
[Something to note about hiking in Scotland is that there is almost always a water source nearby. The place is absolutely teaming with springs, burns, and lochs. So, there’s no great need to carry large amounts of water at any point in time on this walk. One or two liters per person is perfectly fine.]
Cruising in cool mid-September temperatures, a fairly level trail didn’t cause us to break much of a sweat for the first twelve miles. Although, there were plenty of opportunities to take breaks as we roamed through the Lowland valleys and towards the Campsie Fells.
Like for this random rope swing on the side of the path.
But as the distinctive peak of Dumgoyne approaches to the east of the trail, so does its offer to shake things up. If you leave the trail and cross the road, you will find a distinctive side trail behind Glengoyne Distillery leading up. It is a steep and craggy ascent, dotted with sheep and the occasional mountaineer from Glasgow sweating off his hangover (true story), but a 360 view over the valley, and our first view of Loch Lomond in the distance…
There aren’t words for that.
Glengoyne Distellery has been “Unhurried since 1833” and I can’t imagine any circumstance in which it would be acceptable not to go inside and have a taste or two of some of their fine Scottish whiskies. Especially after hiking that enormous hill behind it. I deserved it. I even decided that true Scottish whisky falls under the necessary gear list for this hike and bought some to bring along.
One of the major aspects of hiking in Scotland that appealed to me is that you can ‘wild camp’ for free out on the land wherever you aren’t trespassing or in Ben Lomond National Memorial Park. It is entirely possible to plan your hike from B&B to B&B (lots of people do), and not have to carry a substantial pack at all.
For me though, some of the most inspiring and beautiful moments of trail walking happen when you get up to pee in the middle of the night and find yourself under the star-studded velvety cape of the universe. With so little light pollution in the Scottish hills, it’s worth it to get out of your warm sleeping bag for a few minutes.
The majority of the areas around the trail are treeless and completely open to the sky as well. Just remember to make sure you aren’t sleeping in someone’s cow pasture.
Dryden is the first small village you come across on the trail. It is located 2 km off and is clearly signed on the north side of the road A811. There’s a grocery store with a decent selection, options for accommodation, and a few other basic services.
The route enters Garadhaban Forest for a short time before opening up to the first moor. This area is closed to dogs during lambing season, but is an elevated and beautiful lead in to the climb up Conic Hill.
Tackle the greatest elevation change on the trail…
At 1,175 ft (358 m) Conic Hill offers a complete view of how Loch Lomond‘s islands form a straight line along the fault. From above they look like a series of tiny inhabitable mini-Scotlands, though they are protected and pristine. This same fault line marks the beginning of the Highlands. This landscape is, forgive me, iconic for Scotland.
The tiny tourist hub of Balhama is at the bottom of the hill and is the source of the droves of day hikers on the Hill. There are restaurants and accommodation choices here, but no real chance for resupply if you are planning to move on. There is, however, fresh water from the restroom tap.
The next part is some of the most technical walking we encountered in Scotland. The route follows the shore of the loch and is much less graded than any previous stretch, undulating through the forest. It’s a long stretch from one end of Ben Lomond National Memorial Park to the other and there is no wild camping in between. There are however, two options for paid camping. There are two campsites along the way that are run by the Forestry Commission. The first one is more expensive, but if you walk to Sallochy Bay, it’s only ten pounds for basic camping. It’s right on the loch shore and there are pit privies provided.
You’re in for a kick ass sunset.
My only regret in this section is not taking the side trail to Ben Lomond. At 3,195 ft (974 m), it is the most southerly of the Munros in the Scottish Highlands, and the West Highland Way skirts the western base. Don’t make our mistakes and talk yourself out of this legendary (the mountain is mentioned in The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond for crying out loud) side trail.
Rowardennan is essentially a very swanky hotel a short distance down trail from the Forestry campsite. The track crosses through the car park as it continues to follow Loch Lomond. You can find a meal and accommodation there. But our hike took us past it.
More on that later.