So Long, West Highland Way: Kinlochleven to Fort William

Want to read about my whole journey on the West Highland Way? Start Here.

The feeling was bittersweet when I awoke on the final morning of my West Highland Way adventure. Not only was I leaving an accommodation I’d grown quite fond of, but this journey I’d waited so long for was coming to an end. Later that afternoon, I’d find myself in Fort William – the end point of the West Highland Way.

You’d think after walking so many miles every day, you’d be ready for rest. Nope. While my muscles were always aching these days, I’d grown used to the routine and the mental quiet of my long daily walks. I’m a chaotic thinker most of the time and these last six days were the most mental peace I’d felt in a while. I also loved the extra time spent outdoors. That’s something I don’t indulge in as much back home in my less-than-picturesque town. 

I decided I’d take it slow and enjoy the day. Tomorrow, I’d leave Fort William and reunite with Chris in Edinburgh where we would explore for a few days before our Skye elopement.

Goodbye, Kinlochleven

I’d grown attached to Kinlochleven and my small riverside accommodation at Highland Getaway. I could have sat by that window every afternoon listening to the river for another week and felt content. I enjoyed breakfast in the pub down the street one final time before gathering my belongings and heading on my way.

It was unclear to me where the trail picked back up in the town. However, it didn’t take long before I saw fellow WHW walkers and followed their lead. On the way through town, I ran into my West Highland Way companions from the early days. They were the group of east-coaster American friends who went on annual long-distance hikes together. The group greeted me cheerfully, as they always did, and invited me along to the Kinlochleven ice climbing gym before heading out. They were going to have a peek inside before hitting the trail for the day.

I declined, preferring to start the trail each day mostly on my own. I knew I was sure to see them again before the day was over. And after a quick walk to the other edge of town, I was back on the trail.

Fickle Temperature and Heavy Breathing

Almost immediately, I was climbing up again, and I felt winded early on. Kinlochleven was essentially a valley, so it made sense to be climbing up again after initially descending into the town, but I hadn’t expected it. As you know, I never thoroughly researched the trial as I didn’t want to mentally psyche myself out.

It didn’t help that my many layers were failing me today, as I was feeling warm under them very quickly. I had already paused a few times on the trail to remove layers, though I’d barely just begun.

I’d also pulled over several times to let others pass me during the steep climb. I didn’t want to hold anyone up who preferred to speed through their days. The solo female camper I’d seen a few days earlier passed, congratulating me on making it to the final day of the trail. I was still impressed at how she chugged along with a pack nearly half her size on her back.

As the climbing started to level out, we got a lovely view of Loch Leven below. I don’t think I once tired of Scotland’s scenery. It was still relatively warm out but also started to sprinkle at random intervals, further confusing me about what layers I should keep on or off. I struggle at physical activity when I’m hot, so decided I’d leave my heavy waterproof items off for now unless there was a downpour. Instead, I pulled on my lightweight waterproof pullover. I hoped it would keep me dry without making me feel so warm. Spoiler Alert: This day managed to be the hottest and the coldest I’d felt during the duration of the trail.

Valleys and Hills and Ruins, Oh My

With the steep climb behind me, the trail eventually dumped into the Lairigmor (or Great Pass) via another Old Military Road. Don’t worry, this one was much better than the parliamentary roads through Rannoch Moor.

I absolutely loved this stretch of the trail and feel it was one of the highlights of the whole thing. I certainly took my time enjoying the sight of streams, sheep, farmland, and later on, some ruins. The valley was guarded by the summits of Beinn na Caillich and Mam na Guilainn. I loved feeling like I was in the heart of it.

Still, in this stage of my journey, I talked to the sheep. I even had another waterfall to stop at, where I still kept my promise to stop and slow down to enjoy the moment. The fickle Scottish weather made an appearance as I reached the ruins in the middle of the valley.

Hello, There, Scottish Weather

The weather in Scotland was something I’d often been warned about. As a lover of cold, moody, rainy days, I’d never been much too concerned. I’d actually lucked out for much of my hike, only having one day where it rained a majority of the time. Most days, I didn’t even encounter any rain until after I’d made it to my accommodations in the evening.

For my final day, it simply had to make an appearance so I could have the full Scotland experience.

The ruins of the cottage tigh-na-sleubhaich are a well-photographed highlight along the West Highland Way. I think part of its allure is that it’s in the middle of nowhere in this great valley, completely isolated.

Today, however, many were huddled next to it for shelter as the rain came down and a cold wind whipped through the valley. I hadn’t realized so many others were not far ahead of me on the trail until I reached this point. Those who weren’t resting were roaming around the ruins, having a look for themselves.

I stopped to get out my camera and take a picture of the cottage. My hands were frozen— one of the only moments I’d really wished I’d packed a pair of gloves for this adventure. The wind was cold and I was freezing. After being too hot earlier in the day, my under fleece (rolled up and strapped to the side of my pack), was now too wet to do much good.

I wandered through the ruins for a bit before continuing on against the wind. I decided stopping now would only make me feel more chilled, and it was too early on to lose steam.

The Goodest Boy (or Girl?)

Luckily, as is often the case, the weather didn’t last long. Things returned to a comfortable temperature with no more rain. As this stretch of the trail is a long valley, it was easy to see all of the other people making their final journey on the West Highland Way. Though there were only a few groups I knew and regularly spoke to, it was amazing seeing all the people who set out to accomplish the same thing as me.

One of my favorite parts of this stretch of trail was a group that walked behind me for around five or six miles. Why, you ask? They had a pup with them. The pup was wearing a vest and carrying his/her own water and food bowls, like a true WHW walker! I’m a sucker for animals and this pup brought some added joy to my day. I loved watching it run ahead on the trail, but, when stopping and realizing it was too far from its owners, looking back and waiting for them to catch up. I need some training tips because my dog would never.

Another joyful moment with the dog was at some point along the trail, he/she found a very large stick. It was longer than the pup and pretty thick around. Still, the pup carried it without a care in the world. When it came time to try and pass me up, the stick hit me squarely in the back of the legs. The pup looked surprised at the hold-up. I laughed as I moved out of the way and he/she proudly trotted on with the prize stick.

Plant More Trees

As the trail started to curve, presumably taking us out of the valley soon, I noticed little white bags lying around. They looked like tiny body body bags, but were actually baby trees! The forestry service had dropped them at various intervals as they worked their way around planting them in the valley.

Eventually, we ran into them around the bend, planting trees and chatting amongst themselves. There was only a group of three. I wondered how they got way out there, as they had no vehicle and the trail was at least a few miles away from the road.

Still, I was happy to see people making an effort to add back to the wildlife and environment. As an American, we so often see it being razed for subdivisions or plazas at an alarming rate. This was another little added joy in my day.

Back to my Solitude

Before long, as the trail wove more into the forest and grew closer to Fort William, I found myself back on my own. Early on in my days of the hike, I’d be worried about all the people passing me up. Now I knew that everyone experienced it in their own way. Some enjoyed the views, some sped along wanting to meet goals or make time, some looked around for birds, some enjoyed the physicality of it, and others enjoyed the companionship of friends. Me? I loved the scenery, solitude, and much-needed mental peace it brought me.

When it was time to find a spot for lunch, I was disappointed to find someone already lounging by a tree next to a beautiful babbling stream alongside the trail. At this stage, I wanted to be along to finish out the trail on my own. A little further down the trail, I found a big rock in some grass, overlooking the beautiful landscape around me. I figured that was as good of a spot for lunch as any. I still was a bit envious of the girl at the stream.

In fact, as I enjoyed my lunch, she walked past. “And I thought my lunch spot was nice!” she said, reminding me that we might always think the grass is greener. I had a lovely rest of my lunch with that healthy dose of perspective passing by.

Detour or No Detour?

At this stage of the walk Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Scotland, is now in view. Initially, before I decided to combine this adventure with my wedding, I had plans to stay an extra day in Fort William and climb it, as many did after conquering the West Highland Way. That would have to wait for another adventure.

After a while, I was starting to lose some steam. I could tell I was nearing closer to Fort William, while still being quite a ways off. My biggest mental terrorism struggle for several points along my WHW adventure.

Just before making the descent towards Fort William, there is a marker for a detour touting an old Iron Age fort. I stood there for a moment, wondering if I really wanted to add time to my hike at this stage. A couple coming down crossed my path, stating that while it wasn’t much of a fort, the scenery was beautiful. That was all the push I needed. I was taking the detour.

What I didn’t expect was a lot of climbing, and I was once more out of breath. I climbed and climbed, becoming more exhausted with every step, wondering when I’d reach “the fort”. Unfortunately, as the couple had said, there wasn’t much fort to see and it was more of the location.

At such a tall vantage point, you could see so much below from all different angles. It was a bit nerve-wracking being up so high. The view, however, was unbeatable, and I was glad I’d made the trek.

The Final Chapter: Almost to Fort William

I was grateful for my detour as I embarked on the final stretch into Fort William. It was one of the most painful points of the hike thus far. After descending and cutting through a forest park, you ended up on a paved road on the outskirts of town. (I think the paved roads at the end of long days were always my downfall). You knew you were close, but it felt like an eternity walking along that un-exciting road before you got into town. I walked and walked, having an internal battle because I wanted to enjoy the final moments of the hike, but this part was simply not doing it for me.

After what felt like ages, just before a busy intersection at Fort William and outside the Ben Nevis Highland Center, I passed the original ending point of the West Highland Way. Note that I said, “original”. In 2010, they extended the ending of the Way to the Fort William town centre, at the Weary Traveler statue. While I could have stopped here and still confidently say I completed the hike, it was my goal all along to make it all the way to the statue.

So on I went, feeling the bittersweet taste of the end being near, but still having to will my own weary body to get there. It didn’t help that on my way, I passed my accommodations for the night, and I knew I’d have to turn around and walk back in this direction once I’d made it there.

Crossing the Finish Line

After passing the Fort William train station, I finally knew I was in the town center and that much closer. A man standing outside of a shop loudly said, “Well done, girl” as I walked by, giving me the boost I needed. When I finally reached the opening where the statue rested and the finish line was etched in the stone, I was greeted with cheers from my West Highland Way Companions from this morning, who had just completed the walk shortly before me.

I was happy I made the final stretch alone, but it was nice to celebrate with familiar faces. I was beaming as I sat next to the statue for my own photo. I’d done it, my first ever solo trip, in a different country, hiking 96 miles, was complete.

Rest Now, Weary Traveler

My final day on the trail had a wonderful ending. I trekked back to my accommodation, showered, changed, and headed out for a celebratory meal. I enjoyed fish and chips at the restaurant in the Alexandra hotel, where fun pictures hung on the walls. I felt accomplished, and a bit sad it was all over.

When I arrived back at my bed and breakfast, it was the most beautiful evening. I had the perfect view of the sunset out my window, above the hill. I was even able to see the Jacobite Steam train (the famous Harry Potter train) leaving from the same spot the following morning. After watching the sunset, I had an introductory call with my hair and makeup extraordinaire for my wedding in just a short few days! Though one chapter was ending, I still had more excitement to come.

It was the perfect end to my evening and adventure along the Way.

What I Learned

Hiking the West Highland Way was a humbling and wonderful experience. To this day, I’m so glad I took the leap and decided to do it. Some things I learned from the experience:

  • Don’t wait around for someone to do something with you—you might wait your whole life.
  • If something is persistent in your thoughts, listen to it —it’s there for a reason.
  • The town is not as close as it appears.
  • Physically, your body can do most things, it’s your mind that will try to hold you back.
  • Americans should prioritize being outside and simply walking places more
  • Nature is the perfect cure for a bad mood
  • Talk to people with different life experiences from your own. You learn a lot more.
  • Moody weather is still my favorite
  • A warm shower, a book, and an open window by a river are some of life’s greatest luxuries.
  • It’s good to find activities that quiet a loud mind.
  • You can get through hard things.
  • You can do the things you’ve dreamed of.

What started off as the spark of an idea, grew into one of my most memorable adventures. I’m almost sad to be finishing up my retelling (more than a year later, yikes).

Would I Do It Again?

I’m sure I would. Although it could be a new kind of mental terrorism now that I know what to expect along the way. I’d love to do another long-distance hike or two (or more) in the future. Any recommendations??

Has anyone else hiked the West Highland Way? What did you think? When did you last take a leap on something in life?

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