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Scotland’s West Highland Way a thrill for experienced and novice walkers alike

GLASGOW, Scotland

Scotland has more than two dozen official long-distance trails through moors, peat bogs and forests. We chose one of the most popular, the West Highland Way.

As first-time walkers in Scotland, my companion and I used a travel company to plan our route, book accommodations and arrange baggage transfers. But we met others who used baggage services and booked their own lodging, along with folks who camped out.

Like the wildly variable Scotland landscape, there’s no end of ways to enjoy the walks.

Walkers we met were a disparate bunch: young Swiss backpackers; mountaineers from Virginia; a Swedish mother with teenage daughters; a Scottish couple, world travellers but out to see more of their own country; an extended family from England ages 16 to 50; and a Louisiana couple celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. We were mid-50s professionals out for adventure.

We took lots of walks at home to get ready. Knowing June could be rainy and cold, we tested gear beforehand.

Our essentials were good boots, breathable rain jackets, rain pants or shorts, and wool or suitable base layers (no cotton!).

A runner recently set a record walking the West Highland way in under 14 hours. We did the standard itinerary: 150 kilometres in seven days.

The daily itinerary

Day One: Milngavie to Drymen, 19 km

Our first, lovely day transitions from Milngavie, a small town north of Glasgow, into a pastoral landscape dotted with sheep and cows, mossy stone walls and livestock gates. The peaceful walking is on mostly well-worn trails and roads. We stop into Glengoyne distillery for a wee dram, then on to Drymen. We eat that night at the Clachan Inn, licensed in 1734, seated next to a couple who reappear on Day Three to save us in an uncertain moment. We’re soundly asleep by 8 p.m.

Day Two: Drymen to Rowardennan, 22.5 km

It’s pouring rain through moors and forests, then up and steeply down Conic Hill on the boundary fault separating lowland Scotland from the highlands. In good weather, it has glorious views of Loch Lomond (loch means lake). We lunch in Balmaha, a popular resort town, and continue on the rocky lakeshore path toward the Rowardennan Hotel, a rustic lodge.

The pub, with its corner fireplace, serves as both restaurant and meeting place for walkers. We exchange stories, and stumble off to bed.

Day Three: Rowardennan to Inverarnan, 22.5 km

It’s overcast but no rain. We’re now firmly in Rob Roy country (he’s an 18th century highlands folk hero). We’re still on the loch’s shore where the path is a challenging mix of roots and boulders. Guidebooks describe it as “torturous,” despite extraordinary ferns, waterfalls and forests. Six hours in, we convince ourselves a turn was missed and wearily head back. Then the Day One couple appears. The man pulls out his GPS to show we’re on track. I sheepishly pocket my map and we’re on our way. We share dinner with our new Scottish friends, Stephen and Jane McNaughton, at the Drovers Inn, established in 1705.

Day Four: Inverarnan to Tyndrum, 21.25 km

We hit old military trails as yesterday’s rigours are forgotten. The rain is back, as are the sheep. We move from farmlands to a thickly wooded conifer plantation, and happily eat lunch on a hillside, the mountaintops shrouded in mist. Nearing Tyndrum we walk through heather, bog myrtle and pinewoods. It’s a peaceful end to the day, despite having trekked in earshot of busy route A82.

Day Five: Tyndrum to Kings House, 29.75 km

Our longest, favourite day. The path starts on the glen floor, zigzags up through woods and descends through spectacular moorland toward Loch Tulla. A few more miles and we’re out on Rannoch Moor, a landscape of peat bogs and small lakes and sky, surrounded by heather and mountains. We’re smitten. The wind is fierce but rain holds off. For most of the day we see no one else, save our Scottish friends. Guidebooks say this point is as far from civilization as any place on the Way. It feels like it.

Day Six: Kings House to Kinlochleven, 14.5 km

We start in sunshine near Glencoe, feeling like tiny blips on the massive glen floor surrounded by towering peaks. Soon we’re cloaked in heavy mist on the Devil’s Staircase, a zigzag ascent to the Way’s highest point at 1,800 feet (550 metres). We again miss views of high peaks as clouds dip lower, but there’s a soggy beauty. We sense the enormous presence of the surrounding mountains.

Day Seven: Kinlochleven to Fort William, 24 km

Our last day brings excitement, along with torrential rain and wind. By the time we cross the gorgeous but unforgiving expanse of the valley Lairig Mor, we’re soaked. Walkers in ponchos and rain gear flutter in the distance as we splash through mud. The peak of Ben Nevis, the United Kingdom’s tallest mountain, is obscured by clouds as we make our final descent into Fort William. We feel elated nonetheless, and lucky to have experienced a week of such awesome beauty.

IF YOU GO

• Long-distance walks in Scotland:
walkhighlands.co.uk/long-distance-routes.shtml or west-highland-way.co.uk/home.asp
• Outfitters and baggage transport: wildernessscotland.com, contours.co.uk/index.php or
travel-lite-uk.com

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