Sunday, January 12, 2014

A gentle walk on the West Highland Way

Looking across Loch Lomond to its western bank.
We took advantage of yesterday's bright sunshine -- there aren't very many such days during the winter months -- to take a short walk on the West Highland Way. I won't say we took a hike. This part of the trail is so gentle that you're merely walking along it, not hiking. As a rule of thumb, if Kate and I could comfortably bring our mothers along, it doesn't qualify as a hike. {Ed.'s note: Not that Grammar and Nana can't go on hikes. They can. It just takes more effort and attention.} So gentle, in fact, that this stretch of the trail begins with a few hundred yards of sidewalks and a paved road.

Watch out for those dangerous potholes.
The West Highland Way is a 96 mile hiking route from the lowlands outside Glasgow into the western highlands, with a terminus at Fort William. Around 30,000 people each year hike the entire route, usually in about seven days time. Tens of thousands more hike stretches of the trail each year. Along the way, hikers follow the wooded eastern shore of Loch Lomond and pass through isolated glens and moors. They finish near the base of Ben Nevis, the tallest mountain in Britain, which many of the hikers take an extra day to summit.

Hikers generally start at the south end and head north, to take advantage of the increasingly dramatic and beautiful scenery. (Map courtesy of
Our walk began in Balmaha, a little village on the eastern shore of Loch Lomond. It's a quick 20-30 minute drive from our house in Glasgow, and during the summer I'm told it's a popular starting point for Glaswegians to do day hikes, picnics, and beach excursions. Balmaha sits near the edge of the Highland boundary fault, which divides Scotland from the lowlands into the highlands; some sharp hills look over the village. A small harbor provides shelter for sailboats, and a passenger ferry makes minute-long crossings to the island of Inchcailloch.

The island of Inchcailloch guards the overflowing harbor at Balmaha. The islands gets around 20,000 visitors per year.
The winter rains make Loch Lomond flood its banks, leaving these trees in the water. In the background, the island of Inchcailloch, which means the "Isle of the old woman" or "Isle of the Cowled Woman," is the site of an old saint and was a burial ground for the MacGregor clan.
Hikers on the West Highland Way climb over Conic Hill and descend into Balmaha.
Taking the West Highland Way north out of Balmaha, we quickly left the paved road onto a rocky path that hugs the coastline of Loch Lomond. The path zigs and curves and zags along the waterline, hemmed in by trees and rocky outcroppings.

The trail of the West Highland Way clings to Loch Lomond.
Despite the path's undulations, it never rises or falls more than a few feet at a time.
Mattie wasn't keen on the bridge's metal grate floor.
The swollen level of Loch Lomond brought the water line up a few feet higher than normal.
Loch Lomond is a freshwater lake. By surface area it is the largest lake in all of Great Britain, with a length of 24 miles and a maximum width of about 5 miles, though it is often much narrower. By volume, Loch Lomond is the second largest in Great Britain, after Loch Ness. More than 30 islands dot the lake. The entire lake lies within the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, created in 2002 as Scotland's first national park.

Looking west across Loch Lomond. The small village of Luss is barely visible on the shore. The hills rising behind the village range from 1,900 to 2,400 feet in height.
This small section of the West Highland Way is scenic but quite gentle. Parts were smooth enough to let our toddler take a stroll. The high water level covered several sandy beaches that are summer attractions for picnics and barbecues. In some places, the trail retreats from the water to take small jogs into the woods.

This part of the trail passes a few farms.
The trail occasionally breaks away from the coastline and dips into the woods.
We spent a couple of hours on the trail. Jackson will tolerate only 60 to 90 minutes in the backpack before he gets restless and wants to walk. So we walked only a few of the 96 miles.

But I'm hooked. I'd like to hike at least some of the stretches of the trail, particularly further north. Hiking the entire trail over a week probably isn't realistic for us, given the constraints of having a toddler who will slow us down and needs to spend time out of the backpack. Half day or full day excursions, however, might be possible. Last fall our next door neighbor hiked the entire route in smaller chunks over successive weekends. We might not be able to devote that much concentrated time, but perhaps we can knock off a few stretches later this year.


  1. Can't wait to hike some of this with you guys! (This is Rachel.)

    1. Me, too! We'll have to find a more challenging leg for you experienced hikers!