Looking back on our West Highland Way adventure, day three came all too quickly. It surprised me how fast we became used to our morning routine, of squeezing the air out of our sleeping pads (the saddest sound ever), packing up the tent, folding all the corners the same way, tying our boots using the stump of a nearby tree. If we weren’t already, we felt like true wilderness women more than ever, who didn’t miss the beeps of our phones at all. In fact, it honestly felt a hassle to look at our phone screens. Although I always took great pride in texting my mum about how far we’d walked that day. That’s what a hike like the WHW does to you – it declutters your days and makes you stop and re-evaluate.
On day three, we woke up about 7:00 AM. We knew we could afford to sleep in for a bit that morning as we had walked two miles north of Rowardennan the previous night, in order that we could camp legally north of the permit zone. Surrounded by fern bushes with midgies, it wasn’t the prettiest of camp spots, but it had flat ground and gave us a good night’s sleep. We packed up and took a leisurely stroll to the lochside beach about 100 yards downhill on the path, where we boiled coffee and porridge and watched the rain make gentle droplets on the loch. Eventually, a few people we passed the day before walked by with their packs and waved at us with fresh hotel faces, and we knew we’d better get a move on – we had 14 miles to hike. By about 8:45 AM, we’d set off, excited for another day on the trail.
Off to a clambering start – Rowardennan to Inversnaid
The path from our camp spot, north of Rowardennan, almost immediately became twisty and turny and snaking uphill. We were toeing the path right on the edge of the loch, next to the rocky cliffside, brushing up against splattering waterfalls. There were many wooden bridges we had to walk across, some of which had fallen away in places, and the path required careful footing. When the bridge stopped, we had to clamber over rocks and duck under low tree branches, all the while glimpsing a never-ending Loch Lomond that stretched out to our left, with views of some distinctive Scottish mountains like the Cobbler.
We went into this day as we went into the rest of the days on the West Highland Way (except maybe day one), with no idea of what to expect. When other hikers around us had read about what was to come in guide books that they carried with them, we stepped blindly into the trail, with every corner, every hill, every bonnie view a fantastic surprise. Though I had read a couple of travel journals of the hike beforehand, I couldn’t remember any specific details about the route, and it all felt different when you were there, doing it yourself. Even with the beauty of hindsight we have no regrets about making this choice – we were well prepared for the terrain, the several hills it entailed, the long days of walking, and we had all the right gear we needed. Asides from that we didn’t need to know the specifics of what we were getting into, especially on a hiking day such as this. The Rowardennan to Inverarnan section was by far the hardest of the entire West Highland Way, and even experienced hikers agree on this. I think, sometimes, doing too much research on hikes can mentally hinder you, rather than help you, but that all depends on who you are as a person and as a hiker.
As the path continued to hug the rocky cliffs, we kept emerging out onto lochside beaches where people would shake off their packs and take a rest. We did this a couple of times, stopping to munch on snacks as we dipped our feet in the water. Throughout that morning we made good progress, crossing more bridges above trickling burns, and before long the path widened up. The tall pine trees greeted us shyly at first, then all of a sudden the landscape changed to a deeper green forest. This is when we stumbled upon Rowchoish Bothy which sat nestled into the trees to the left of the path. We had toyed with the idea of staying there, as we knew that is what our favourite YouTube hiker Athena Mellor had done, and we had long wanted to stay in a bothy. We didn’t venture inside but it felt great to put a face to the bothy we had heard about; I’m sure we will return one day to put our feet up by the fire.
After Rowchoish bothy the path came to a junction and we turned left. Shortly after we passed a gorgeous waterfall, with water spurting out from quite a height. It felt like the setting of a fantasy novel around this foresty area to the east of Loch Lomond. It had such a mystical and magicial aura about it that I was expecting to see fairies fluttering about a mushroom stump and tiny gnomes scattered about. Or maybe this was my hiker mind starting to imagine things. We stopped at the waterfall for a few minutes to fill our nalgene bottle with fresh water (using purifying tablets of course).
Gear tip: For people who are preparing to walk the WHW, I would definitely recommend you to bring water purifying tablets – they saved us several times when we were thirsty and feeling the heat, with no water tap for miles. And, honestly, as long as you get it from the highest possible water source you can reach – fresh natural water in Scotland is better than anywhere in my opinion, although I’m bias. 🙂
Deep in the Scottish bush
The trail onwards in this section began to have the look and feel of the Rainforest, especially as the day became hot and sweaty with sporadic rain showers. Thick bushes surrounded us either side of the path, which we had to frequently push through with our arms outstretched in front of us. They were so bushy and leafy that I couldn’t see Jillianne in front of me, and I couldn’t help but keep glancing nervously at the ground for snakes – my biggest phobia. It really seemed like the perfect habitat for the slithery fuckers.
This jungle-like landscape is bizarre to describe, and far more messy and stuffy than pretty. As we climbed higher and the sun beat down on our backs, it was easy to forget that we were in Scotland, until glistening Loch Lomond swept into view. If I haven’t already mentioned this, we probably had the most beautiful weather I’ve ever experienced in Scotland in a single week and we were so grateful for it.
The long and winding road (that leads to Inversnaid)
The thick bushes reappeared intermittently along this section of the path, as we weaved through the big old trees. The path eventually morphed into a large ancient oakland, Craigrostan Woods, where the tight undulating path of clambering up and down continued. We hardly stopped at all in this bit – we found that if you stopped even for a minute the midgies would find you and swarm. This is why we don’t have many pictures in this section! A guy from Glasgow we met realised this to his peril, and frantically put on his head net as he tried to eat his apple. The path felt like it went on and on, but it was never one you could describe as boring – it made your body move and twist a whole lot, which kept things interesting and it was pretty well maintained. We passed a young friendly guy on a bike and asked him how far we were from Inversnaid to which he replied, with that knowing grin, “you’re not far!”
After fifteen minutes, we were cursing the poor lad for fibbing to us (classic). It certainly felt really far, as it always does when your muscles are aching and your mental state is crumbling. But, sure enough, Inversnaid Hotel eventually came into sight and we were happy as larry that we could rest and eat at long last. It was around 1 PM and we’d been walking for 4 hours. We were a bit crestfallen when we saw a bunch of steep wooden stairs (not more?!) that we had to climb to reach the foot of the bridge, but we crossed it in no time and could finally admire the Inversnaid falls in all their lunch-time glory at a picnic table just outside the hotel.
Food tip: The Inversnaid Hotel is a popular option for lunch, but it was closed due to the pandemic. This affected a few campers, but none more so than Niko, a hiker from Poland, who we chatted to later that evening at Beinglas. He had skipped breakfast at Rowardennan, thinking he would eat a big lunch at the hotel. When he saw it was hsut, he had no option but to keep walking, desperately hungry and low on energy. A guy he met along the way, Stuart, had given him his half-eaten chocolate bar, but learn from Niko – check your lunch spot is OPEN before leaving, and if it isn’t, get another food option pronto.
The second half: Inversnaid to Inverarnan
After fuelling up on hot food we cooked using our MSR (Jillianne had noodles, I had pasta n’sauce spicy arabiatta) we were feeling ready as we ever would for the next 7 miles to Beinglas Farm. During our break, our trail friends Cat and Ben told us that the author of their guide book described the next part as “tortorous”. It was difficult to imagine what a tortorous hike could be like without imagining something slippery and steep, but I figured it would be similar to the Rowardennan to Inversnaid section. This warning didn’t dampen our spirits, though, and we set off onto the WHW path, entering Inversnaid Nature Reserve, laughing about an inside joke on the subject of tent poles.
About 15 minutes into the second half of the walk on the jagged cliff of Loch Lomond, it started to dawn on us why it was “tortorous”. The path became increasingly rocky, and we essentially began to rock climb over huge boulders in the middle of the path that had fallen from the cliffs above. We don’t have many pictures due rocks lying everywhere, big and small, and careful footing was needed to clamber over them. We were constantly going up and down as the path zig-zagged slowly through the trees, making us work hard to gain even a few metres of ground. About an hour or so into this section we passed Rob Roy’s Cave, which unfortunately we didn’t stop to investigate, but will return to explore one day.
On rocky terrain like this, it is difficult to walk at any real speed. The constant climbing over rocks as we weaved along the lochside acted as a barrier for momentum, and it seemed to go on for hours (I mean, it literally did). At times I watched my feet so carefully that I didn’t take in the gorgeous views of the loch; if I did this part again, I would tell myself to look up more. Be more at confident with the rocks and to take more pictures! We were so determined to tackle this section and conserve as much energy as possible that we neglected our camera a wee bit.
The end of the rocks AT LAST
There were more wooden bridges on this section, more waterfalls and a memorable stack of steep stairs that hit hard on the legs. We stopped a few times along the loch to gauge on snacks, put our feet in the water and allow Jillianne to reapply KT tape on her ankle. After what felt, in all honestly like FOREVER, we eventually came to the end of the rocky cliffs of the lochside and into green woodland which punished us uphill for a while. I vividly remember the sun spilling between the oak trees as we hiked, these huge rocks giving way to tall grass and endless fields. It was a great feeling.
By this point, it would’ve been around 4:45 PM, and it felt like the end of the walk was approaching. People were tired, were looking forward to a hearty meal and a drink, and a sense of winding down was in the atmosphere. But, in hindsight, this was a red herring. We weren’t all close to the end, really. We spoke to two French guys about the tough day’s hike and where we were headed to. They told us they hadn’t booked anywhere in advance and so were planning to get the ferry across to Ardlui. Ardlui was still a couple miles away and the path kept going on and on.
We passed Doune byre bothy, which was closed, and the path dropped lazily back down to the loch and we caught our first glimpse of the ferry to Ardlui as we stood across the water at Ardleish. I won’t ever forget the view. It was that type of bright afternoon where the sun was making the waves flicker and sparkle. We could see the colourful huts and boats and happy sounds coming from Ardlui. I’d never seen Loch Lomond look more perfect. We’d gotten used to walking beside it for the past two days, so when the path rose unsympathetically up into the trees and we looked down from the top of the hill, we could see the French boys sat waiting at the dock for the ferry and I felt a heavy sadness come over me. It was goodbye for now, Loch Lomond. Tomorrow the landscape will be different.
The lowest point so far, and one of the highest
By this point my energy was low, my muscles were done and it was an effort to keep putting one foot in front of the other. This probably seems quite dramatic, but I was mentally and physically exhausted – we both were. Nearing the end of a hiking day like this, you can’t bear to stop. You realise how much everything hurts. So we kept going, in silence, because we were too tired to speak. Jillianne led the way and pushed us on, and she was brilliant. She always is in situations like this.
Two older men passed us in their 40s, and I remember asking them bluntly “how far is Inverarnan?” the younger of the two told us it was only a couple of miles. I could tell they were sympathic to how we were feeling, I can only imagine how miserable or pained I must have looked! They told us they had come from Sallochy Campsite and decided to get their bags carried – Sallochy, where we were meant to have stayed, which was an extremely long walk and were immediately relieved that we hadn’t done it. They headed past us, with a cheery “we’ll see you back at the campsite!” as they were staying at Beinglas Farm too. We ended up chatting to these two for the remainder of our trip, and they were so nice, though we only got one of them’s name – Ray.
The next two miles were perhaps the longest I’ve walked in my life. I am not ashamed to admit I was close to crying. Everything hurt and it was a real low point. But, as always with these things, this hiking day made the others easy in comparison. And every walk we’ve been on since we finished the West Highland Way, including climbing our second munro, Ben Hope, have still not been anywhere near as painful or as challenging as this section of the WHW. When we saw the sign for Beinglas Farm at the end of the route we were both overwhelmed with relief. It felt even better to know that for that evening, for the first time on our hike, we wouldn’t have to put up our tent. All we had to do was hobble to check in and collapse in our very own wig-wam.
Route-planning tip: This hiking day was the topic of a lot of convos amongst hikers during our trip. We spoke to one young female hiker, about the same age as us, who had walked from Balmaha to Inverarnan in one day. She told us the map had said it was just over 20 miles, but according to her steps she had done nearly 25 miles. She cried for the last 3 miles, and would never attempt it again. We saw her walk into the Bar later as we were tucking into our dinner, she got a pint of water and then left to pitch her tent in the dark. DON’T ATTEMPT THIS ROUTE IN ONE DAY.
A night to remember at Beinglas Farm
Even though we were utterly exhausted, that evening at Beinglas Farm was full of atmosphere and amazing memories. We ate hearty food (mac and cheese, it was so good), drank beer and chatted animatedly to the hikers around us, all of whom were from different parts of the UK and Europe. It felt amazing to be there, in this wooden hub with eccentric decorations on the walls and delicious smells wafting through the air, and we were all so proud of getting this far. The waitress kept telling us, “that’s the hardest part done girls”, and Ray gave me a warm wink at the bar and said, “you made it!”
Needlessly to say, Jillianne and I slept well that evening, in the warm shelter of our little wig-wam.
I will link to day 4, Inverarnan to Tyndrum once it’s up.