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Hiking the West Highland Way: Milngavie to Rowardennan

This blog is about a fantastic hike though Scotland known as the West Highland Way.

It's 155 km (96 miles) long. Since completing The West Highland Way trail we've had many conversations (both in-person and virtual) with people about our experience and offered more than a few tips to people as they planned their own trip. So we've decided to do a series of blogs for those who want to try it for themselves! To see the other posts related to this visit this page: Hiking The West Highland Way

Day One: Milngavie to Drymen

Those first few steps

We'll assume that you'll spend a bit of time in Milngavie (how do you pronounce that, again?) and will find the town square with the plinth that marks the start of the Way.

The WHW Start Point Plinth - Milngavie Town Square

From there you simply head down a set of stairs, through a car park (yes, a car park - don't worry, you're going the right way), then head out of town bearing north.

The scenic car park means you're going the right way!

Oddly enough, the first few kilometers are the most likely to get you a wee bit confused as to which path to follow. This is a time when we found our Trailblazer West Highland Way guide reassuring. The way finding here is not overly daunting, but be aware that for this first bit of the journey there are more options in terms of pathways so you have to keep tabs a bit more closely than in ensuing days when there will be simply no other path to take than the one you're on.

Most people make Drymen their first stage target, for good reason. It's a lovely town with some very nice accommodations and restaurants. And at just over 19 km (just shy of 12 miles) over gentle terrain this first stage is an excellent way to warm up for the rest of the Way. In all honesty this is really just a nice, gentle stroll through beautiful countryside, with lots and lots of cows, sheep and the occasional pony for company.

A Shetland Pony with not a care in the world

Take the time to soak in the views, make sure your pack is balanced and riding on your hips correctly, and that your boots are laced well. (not too loose, not too tight) Your body will thank you for these checks in the coming days - like the second stage, a little something . . .

. . . Fondly Remembered As: Rowardennan Hell

Drymen to Rowardennan

So, to be clear, Rowardennan is a lovely small hamlet that is most definitely not "hell on earth". The "hell" was the dousing of cold water that this second stage threw in our faces. Listed in all the guidebooks as a 24 km (just under 15 miles) tramp, in reality this stage was 32 km (just under 20 miles) from our B&B in Drymen to the SYHA hostel a couple of kilometers north of Rowardennan itself. (*inclusive of a pop up to the top of Conic Hill along the way)

This is the one time the guidebooks gave dubious guidance. The 24 km from Drymen to Rowardennan listed in the guidebooks assumes that you stay on the Way the entire time, failing to take into account the stretch one has to take to get back onto the trail after the two+ kilometer detour into Drymen. It also doesn't account for the distance up and down Conic Hill, or the extra two kilometers past Rowardennan proper to get to the hostel.

An extra eight kilometers may not seem like much but trust us it was a slog, in part because along the way we chose to hike to the top on Conic Hill to take in the astonishing views. *Note: you can bypass the Hill on your way to Balmaha, but we don't recommend that route. Climbing to the top of Conic Hill, which was much more challenging with full packs than it looked, was totally worth it. We had a lovely clear day and we were treated to breathtaking views of the rolling countryside from whence we had come, of Loch Lomond below us, and of the far-off ruggedness of The Trossachs and Loch Lomond National Park to the north.

Many people stop in Balmaha (just past Conic Hill on the shores of Loch Lomond) at this point, but because we thought we only had a 24 kilometer day to manage we wanted to get to Rowardennan the second night and enjoy two shorter days on the east shore of Loch Lomond to take in the scenery and do some serious photography. The plan sounded good on paper, a perspective not at all disabused by the guidebook's description of the Balmaha - Rowardennan stretch: "There are no major climbs though the well-maintained path does rise and fall many times as it meanders . . . tiny beaches." We should have written to the publisher and asked for a definition of "many times" as there are a lot of rises and falls along that stretch - a lot! There were times as this stage wore on when we were getting quite discouraged. We had not planned our meals properly for the unexpectedly high calorie burn and distance we were experiencing, making the last few kilometres were extremely challenging. During one memorable moment on of us declared if there was even on more hill "I'll lose it." Promise kept. We crested the hill to see another, and a solid minute was spent yelling some choice words that shall not be repeated here, before continuing on. We encountered a younger German couple along the same path who were struggling mightily as well.

By the time we arrived at the very nice SYHA Hostel north of Rowardennan (we highly recommend a stay at this hostel) we were well and truly exhausted.

SYHA Rowardennan on the shores of Loch Lomond

Anyes' vision had begun to get foggy and the moment she sat down both hands and legs shook from exhaustion - further proof we hadn't planned our meals well. Thankfully we got to the hostel just in time to purchase the last of their pre-prepared meals for supper. Those steaming bowls of chicken curry and plain white rice, along with a couple of icy cold ciders, were like manna from heaven. The phrase "hoovered their food" was created to describe how we ate that night. Afterwards we both took long, very hot showers and sank exhausted into bed, both of us worried a wee bit that we might be be too crippled to continue in the morning.

Much to our surprise - and delight - we awoke the next day well rested and none the worse for wear. Feeling refreshed we crushed a big breakfast and set off on the next, much less arduous stage. Oh, and about that German couple we mentioned in a previous blog. They arrived at the hostel after us that night, missed the supper service (we think they ate some crisps and chocolate bars), and bailed out on the hike the next morning. We felt badly for them, and were suddenly keenly aware that all that training we did really did make a big difference.

In Retrospect

Were we walk The Way again, we'd add a day to our journey and stay at Balmaha. The two days along Loch Lomond were so beautiful, taking the time to linger along its shores is absolutely necessary.

Coming Soon: two days along the eastern shore of the legendary Loch Lomond.


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