The West Highland Way - Part 1 - Thoughts before you go

It’s funny, say the words “West Highland Way” to folks and you get a range of different responses. You might well get “Oh I’ve been wanting to do that for years”, or “wow, the scenery will be fantastic”, or you may well get “what?”, or “tourist trap”, or “can you bike that?”, or “where can you stay?”, or even “midgy hell” amongst others. Well this set of articles and associated films are aimed at dispelling some of the myths, maybe confirming a few of the tall stories, and unashamedly championing the West Highland Way both as a potential big trip, but also and importantly as a key to some additional fantastic riding in the area. All this, importantly, while showcasing how this can be done responsibly.

Above The Mamore Lodge at Kinlochleven - Going North To South in the Spring           

The impetus behind the article is a long planned and much put-off attempt to ride the WHW by an ever dwindling group of us steadily whittled down by family pressures. It has also gone from the 24 hour pain marathon originally proposed by one group member, through the hard fought 2 day trip to the now ever manageable 3 day trip it became. The article itself came about through considering the factors affecting our decisions, and how those coming into the area from further afield might benefit from some of them. It’s also becoming a slow reality that more and more noises are being made in the popular press about riding the WHW, and recently there have even been commercial trips too.

This article is to inform prospective WHW riders as to the challenges ahead, to help plan responsibly, to help decide whether to ride it at all, and to grow an awareness of what’s around the route worth sticking about for; all while not making ourselves a nuisance to others while having a good ride. Inevitably, if this article is successful we may see more riders on the WHW in future, but they will hopefully be well informed responsible riders who don’t have a detrimental effect on others (the main worry of the walking fraternity) or the way itself (the main worry of the various way “authorities” and access officers), and importantly come well prepared and have a great ride.

So to begin with we’ll deal with some of the reactions above, then move on to look at the Way as it travels from the Northern reaches of arguably the Glasgow Suburbs (Milngavie) all the way to the Jewel of the highlands that is Fort William.

What?

The West Highland Way is a 93 mile long distance path on the West of Scotland from Milngavie (ok, pronounced ‘Mull Guy’ to not get looked at funny – you’ve still got Kirkcudbright though so don’t get smart) along East Loch Lomondside through the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, and along the Falloch to Crianlarich. From there along the railway through Tyndrum and Bridge of Orchy, and over the Blackmount to Glen Coe. From Glen Coe, famously up and over The Devils Staircase and down to Kinlochleven, before the last leg round the end of the Mamore mountains to Glen Nevis and Fort William. Commonly it will take walkers 5 to 7 days to complete, and it’s at its busiest June to September which funnily brings us on to some of the other responses…

Victoria Bridge in the Sun          

Tourist Trap

Ever driven up the A82 to Fort William in the summer and you will doubtless have noticed the steady stream of human traffic up the visible bits of the Way, especially north of Tyndrum where the railway, path and road share the same narrow space. The fact is the Way is very busy at times. Not only with Scots walking their way up their most well known (despite Cameron McNeish’s best efforts to date) long distance path; but also with those from further south because it’s basically beautiful up here; but also littered with folks from further afield too, based on the international reputation of the West Highland Way. There is no denying the popularity of the Way, and it attracts huge numbers at the height of the season, which is where I left off the last paragraph……funnily enough….

Riding North-South into Bridge of  Orchy

Can You Bike That?

Well the answer has to be twofold. Firstly there is a general right of responsible access so 1) Yes you can ride a bike on the way if you do so responsibly (we’ll come to that), and 2) Yes 90% plus (approximately) of the West Highland Way is rideable (maybe more). And what’s more the way has some classic rides within it. Conic hill is a great wee route for the winch and plummet brigade (responsible remember), and the descent of the Devil’s Staircase into Kinlochleven is an absolute belter to name but two. I’ll also touch on some of the great riding to be had in loops from the West Highland Way later too. There is some carrying on the northern shores of Loch Lomond, I’ve never cleaned (by any means) the ascent of the Devil’s staircase, but these form a minor part of 93 miles of great riding through great scenery. So yes, you can bike that.

Where Can You Stay?

It may have been tricky to find accommodationin the past, in as far as your itinerary was largely controlled by the few places to stay on the way, or the need to camp, but these days there is quite a lot of choice from bunkhouse to B&B along the way affording choice of itinerary for the well planned biker. It’s worth noting that following a great deal of not responsible accessing of camping on the eastern shore of Loch Lomond, there is now a ban on camping (a bye-law allowed in Scottish Law), so wild camping does have its issues on the route, but going a little more up-market gives you a plethora of choices as you travel, but do book ahead! If you are fully intent on camping there are official campsites on eastern Loch Lomond, so it’s still available, just not wild camping. There are also two bothies in the area, so plenty to choose from. Further north you have everything from campsites, through wooden wig-wams to 3 & 4 star Hotels – there are WHW companion guides and freebies from the National Park all laying out your options.

The Head of Glen Coe from Rannoch Moor

It goes through the Western Highlands, what about midges?

It’s the West of Scotland, of course it can be midgy hell from time to time. It’s hard to explain to someone that’s never experienced it how bad midges can get. The best way I’ve found is to stand a few feet away and throw handfuls of sand at the questioning person and ask them to imagine that each grain of sand is a tiny blood sucking itchy insect. However; midges are seasonal, so when most people are on the West Highland Way in peak season, funnily enough its peak midge season, and so funnily enough people come back with apocalyptic stories of being eaten alive or trying to scratch their own skin off. Out of season; hardly a midge, the occasional bumble bee …. Birds cheeping etc etc… get the picture?

Loch Lomond from Conic Hill

The Season – or part 1 of biking the West Highland Way Responsibly

So we’ve talked about the crowds, and the insects during mid-season being heavy going. So the first, and arguably biggest way to access the West Highland Way responsibly is to do so out of season. Riding on a sunny long weekend in March and you’ll have the place to yourself, and it’s still 8 weeks until people even think of turning up to walk the path or the midge start to stretch its wings. You get an un-interrupted ride on classic trails, and at the same time don’t affect others by razzing past. October (not the October holiday so much) will see a drastic reduction in numbers of walkers and midges, a dramatic increase in the colours of the birch trees and grasses, and lovely sunsets too. Why would you choose mid-summer? You mad?? As a consequence any increased numbers at these ends of the season increase incomes for local businesses, and as bikers become a larger part of the income of the area, then development for bikes will steadily increase too – we’re all winners.

Prepping yourself and your bike

There are a few considerations we made while planning for the trip that are worth mentioning. Firstly, there will be the occasional walker be they day walker or Full on West Highland Wayer, so it’s good responsible practice to consider a bell to let them know you’re coming. Nothing else communicates “Hello fellow traveller, I’d just like to warn you that I’m coming past” than a bell – everything else seems to communicate “coming through sucker – out of my way!!!!” with the obvious difference in effect on the person in question.

If you’re just setting out on the Way with no deviations, then there are ‘corridor’ maps available providing thin slivers of map covering the whole route but saving you from carrying a load of paper en route. Of course you have the trusty GPS as an option, and lastly if you are considering some of the additional loops or alternative routes, then you may well wish to bring with you the full OS map experience. Most of the tracks are well marked so a 1:50,000 will do you fine for both planning and riding, and to be fair the Way is well waymarked too.

Prepping your bike is well worth the effort as you’ll be in the saddle for some time. The West Highland Way has been known in certain circles as the Wet Highland Way and sometimes for good reason. At the very least a front mudguard is well worth fitting, and arguably the more comfort will be maintained by a rear mudguard of some kind (see the reviews section of the website for recommendations). If you’re riding a hard-tail I can recommend a big rear tyre and/or a suspension seatpost as there are some significant sections that are almost cobbled (the blackmount ascent from Victoria Bridge to name the most significant). A full suss is often the weapon of choice if available giving comfort on long rough sections, but often at a weight price. Cross country tyres will do you fine, but be aware that the descent of the Devil’s Staircase toward Kinlochleven is very rough and rocky indeed so some level of puncture resistance is required. Indeed the rougher parts of the Way seem to be only populated by square edged rocks and even on a full-suss with big tyres you need to keep the tyre pressures up if you’re going full whack on any of the descents.

which one to take ? - light hardtail or heavier full suss...........(if you're lucky enoughto have the choice)

Obviously this is a long distance route, and notably apart from the hubs of Crianlarich Tyndrum and Kinlochleven, a pretty out of the way route too in terms of facilities. Certainly bike repairs will pretty much have to be made with what you carry unless you’re in the vicinity of Tyndrum which has a small shop and a garage, but no bike shop. Bring some tools and spares and make sure you know how to use them imaginatively too.

Beyond prepping the bike for a big trip, then you will need to prep yourself for a big trip too. A 30 mile day might not seem like much, but follow it with another one and the third might look a lot more daunting as you go to bed at the end of day 2. There are no guarantees of weather either and three days (or more) of lashing rain are no way short of a possibility at any time of the year. Riding out of peak season (which we’re obviously trying to convince you to do) can also bring with it low temperatures and the inherent suffering of cold hands and feet, and prospects of deeply uncomfortable mechanical repairs en-route and even incipient hypothermia setting in for poorly prepared riders in the middle of nowhere – so physically and mentally prepare yourself, as well as your kit, both in choice and waterproofness. Consider a small bothy bag for repairs in the rain, and co-ordinate kit with those you’re travelling with so you don’t double up on too much.

I would also recommend perfecting your choice of carrying method. There will be some carrying and it’s worth spending a little time sorting yours. I even chose the rucksack for the trip based on its comfort when carrying – the Camelback I used has a square top which supports the frame between my shoulder blades more than my teardrop pack and makes it much easier to carry for any distance.

Sounds a bit dark doesn’t it? – well it is only three days at heart so be aware of the ways it can not be so nice, but don’t let them stop you: we’d never get anything done if we only went out on dry pleasant days, and the scenery is still amazing whatever the weather, in fact stormy days have some of the most amazing skies on the West Coast, so please don’t be put off, just be prepared.

South to North - Heading into the forestry plantation above Bridge of Orchy

Our Choices

The trip we planned didn’t take in any of the loops in the article, they were done at different times. We did plan to use the nicer accommodation where available as we decided this was the best way to recover each day and therefore the best way for us to enjoy the riding. We planned to buy food on the way to cut the weight, but did carry some spare lightweight clothing for evenings and the return journey so we could be dry and not ming 24 hours a day. You may make different decisions, certainly we didn’t rough it, and weren’t particularly hardcore, but we went to enjoy the riding. This agreement over why we were riding was crucial.

I would ride a 160mm full suss, because it was that or my hard-tail, so went deliberately way over-biked for the trip, but the pay-off would be the comfort on the rougher sections, and the ability to razz big-style on some of the descents. The biggest bite in the bum though was the prospect of thecarrying sections and hike a bike where I would happily have swapped it for a carbon XC hardtail. We chose to carry little water, as the water in the burns on the way is all fresh and drinkable, and we prepared to pool emergency equipment and repair kits as much as possible.

The Plan (or Plan A)

Our journey split the three days so that day 1 had us arriving in Milngavie independently and then riding to Inversnaid to the bunkhouse up the hill from the Hotel. Slightly shorter, this day meant that a missed train on the way to town wouldn’t be a disaster, and it also prepped us for the start of day 2 and a bit of psychology.

Day 2 was set to begin with a descent onto the route, and then hit the less rideable section and the hike a bike section almost first thing. The psychology behind this was that we would begin with the least pleasant part of the Way and then ride for the rest of the day. By the time we’d finished the longest day we’d have forgotten all about the carrying and only remember the riding – giving a better memory of the day ready for day 3. Day 2 was set to end at the Hobbit huts at the Glen Coe ski area.

Day 3 as any last day tends to be, is the day with the pressure to finish on time. An early start sees a warm-up over to Lagangarbh and then the ride/push to the top of the Devils Staircase, possibly the best riding over and down to Kinlochleven, the killer ascent to Mamore Lodge and then the traverse, drop and final climb to drop into Glen Nevis. Finishing in Fort William in time to get the last train of the day back to Glasgow.... Simple....

looking down towards the head of Glen Coe (from way above the WHW!)

Reality

Winston Churchill is quoted as saying “no plan, no matter how good, survives first contact with the enemy” – I’m not thinking of the Way as an enemy, in no way, but there is a point in there… Having walked it several times and biked a number of sections I feel reasonably familiar with much of the route and its challenges, but despite this, I am ready to be surprised…..

 

In part 2 – some of the riding to be done on the way if you want to turn the journey into a 5, 6, 7 day route to take in some fantastic riding en-route.

Keep an eye on Facebook (you could always like and share the page!) and we'll announce when the next articles come on-line.