FIRST APPEARED IN AUTUMN, 2009. EXPANDED
IN 2010 & UPDATED IN 2014.
Hikers nearing the top of the
Devil's Staircase: steepest and highest point on Scotland's
West Highland Way long-distance trail. In the background: Buachaille
Etive Mhor and Glen Coe.
Sie hierher?” I asked in my best German to no one in particular in the
middle of the Scotland’s Western Highlands. Several young
Germans — perhaps a dozen, all strangers to Scotland — were scattered before
me at the top of the pass, sprawled across boulders and standing in
small clusters, snacking while taking in the view of
Mòr, Scotland’s Matterhorn.
Three of the group of students of university age took an
interest in the American walkers who had asked them why they are here.
“We come to walk the
West Highland Way. Today is our seventh day. We
have still today and tomorrow,” came the reply in the starched English
of the most daring of the three Germans.
Young German hiking
group snacking at the pass above the Devil's Staircase with Stob Mhic
THE WEST HIGHLAND WAY
Ask a British walker to rate the greatest long-distance walks
in Britain and, chances are, Scotland’s West Highland Way will be near
the top of the list. Not the longest, not the highest, not the most
demanding, not the most remote, wildest, or loneliest of walking
challenges, the West Highland Way simply combines what walkers look for
most in a multi-day hike. The south-north path travels 95 miles from 226
feet above sea level at
Milngavie (“MILL-guy”) in
six miles north of
Glasgow to about 30 feet above sea level at
William deep in
Scotland’s Highlands. Along the way, the path climbs up
and over the West Highlands, achieving a top altitude of 1,800 feet atop
the Devil’s Staircase, a rugged pass amidst some of Scotland’s most
The West Highland Way
enters Glen Coe from the south
via a remote ramp that skirts Rannoch Moor and passes
Black Rock Cottage before reaching the King's House inn.
© HOME AT FIRST
frequently south-to-north over eight days, the scenic West Highland Way
attracts hikers from around the world to experience its cornucopia of
famous landscapes: the pristine eastern shore of
Loch Lomond with its
views of the impressive range of peaks called the
Arrochar Alps; the
ramp up lonely Glen Falloch to the village of
Crianlarich; the remote
day between Bridge of Orchy across
Rannoch Moor and into
Glen Coe; and
the approach to Ft. William with glimpses of the highest point in the
British Isles, the hulking 4,400 foot high summit of
STAGE 7: THE DEVIL'S STAIRCASE
The most anticipated stage of the West Highland Way occurs day
seven with a steep climb leading up and out of majestic Glen Coe
followed by a long descent almost to sea level at the town of
Kinlochleven (“Kin-lock-LEE-vin”). It’s the climb up the pass from route
A82 at a point on the map called
Altnafeadh that gets all the attention.
The trail switchbacks up the south face of the pass gaining 250m (820
feet) in the 25-50 minutes the climb requires, almost doubling the
elevation of the West Highland Way from 980 feet above sea level at the
road to 1,800 feet of altitude at the top. Known as the Devil’s
Staircase, this most-famous section of the West Highland Way represents
little more than 1% of the long distance trail’s length, but earns the
West Highland Way nearly all of its notoriety.
The day we walked Stage 7 we met people from all over Britain, as well
as the German university group and free walkers from America, Canada,
and South Africa, almost all walking the entire 95 miles of the West
Highland Way. And most of these walkers were surprised to learn that we
were doing the Devil’s Staircase as a day hike. We carried day packs
with fresh packed lunches instead of heavy packs with supplies for a
week on the trail. We had the luxury of choosing our day for the
Looking south down the
Devil's Staircase to the
A82 at Altnafeadh. Opposite is the landmark
mountain of Glen Coe, Buachaille Etive Mòr.
Photo © HOME
hike. (We prefer
during rain-free weather
with blue skies and mild breezes.) We
avoided the first not-very-interesting 70 minutes of the stage — three
King’s House to Altnafeadh
closely paralleling route A82 in Glen Coe — by arranging to be dropped off
at the parking lot at Altnafeadh at the bottom of the Devil’s Staircase.
We had the luxury of taking our time with the walk: we gave ourselves a
5-hour window to do the three-hour crossing, so we lingered over our
picnic lunch among some sheltered rocks with a great view of the western
end of the Rannoch Moor and the rugged south wall of 1,000m (3,300 feet)
high peaks of the
We took pictures. We talked with strangers. We travelled light: light
packs, light spirits, no hurry, no worry.
The German school group — pressing to get to their
accommodations at the next stop — passed us while we picnicked in the
wilderness. Almost three hours later we saw several of them erecting
tents, eating snacks, and wandering aimlessly on the edge of
Kinlochleven. They spent most of their day pushing to get someplace, and
scant few minutes enjoying the famous environment they had come so far
We lingered over our
picnic lunch among some sheltered rocks with a
great view of the western end of Rannoch Moor and the Blackwater
Photo © HOME AT FIRST
On the way up the Devil’s Staircase we passed two heavy,
middle-aged women in white tennis shoes — a Scot and a Louisiana Cajun — who
were new to the mountains and were giggling their way up the trail,
stopping every few yards to catch the breath they had lost laughing
while climbing. They had no packs, and wore flimsy windbreakers as their
only defense against any sudden weather that might surprise us. Freddie
and I wondered whether they would make it to the top of the pass, and
decided they had parked their car at Altnafeadh and would return to it
once they ran out of steam. These two — among the three dozen or more
hikers we saw along the West Highland Way during our 3.5 hours on the
trail that fine day in September — were the only other day-walkers we
The Devil’s Staircase was short, steep, and first. After the
half-hour climb, the rest of the walk was a 3-hour descent, mostly in
glorious scenery, and mostly not very steep down. The Devil’s Staircase
looks south across Glen Coe, one of Scotland’s iconic Highlands valleys,
walled with bald sentinel mountains like a chain of enormous bell curves
of rock, earth, bracken, and heather, lined with tendrils of
watercourses. The dominant round-top opposite the Devil’s Staircase,
Buachaille Etive Mòr, may be the most photographed mountain in Scotland.
However, viewed from the top of the pass on a sunny day at noon the
mountain suffers from poor lighting: the “great shepherd of Etive” is
best seen at lower altitudes from the northeast in the low light and
stark shadows of dawn.
A lochan at the pass
with the Mamores
range coming into view to the north.
No midges in early September.
© HOME AT FIRST
If the scenery of Glen Coe is less than expected, surprising
vistas across unpopulated miles of Highland wilderness reward hikers the
moment they cross the pass. At the pass — between the high shoulders of
Beinn Bheag (east) and
Stob Mhic Mhartuin (west) — the ground away from
the trail is boggy: high moorland with lochans (ponds), ideal country
for midges, the biting flies that can make wetter areas along the trail
no place to linger, especially during June-August. (We saw no midges in
our early September visit at this, the high point of the West Highland
Way.) As the trail begins to slope downhill to the north and west, the
valley of the River Leven opens up in front of you. To the northeast a
large body of water extends east from the river into the western reaches
of the unpopulated wilderness of Rannoch Moor.
lake is not a natural loch, but
Blackwater Reservoir, built a century ago to
produce the electricity needed to power an aluminum smelter on the
riverside in Kinlochleven. A curtain wall of mountains, the
Mamores, serrates the horizon, so high as to hide four of Scotland’s nine highest
Ben Nevis, immediately behind them.
For almost an hour the West Highland Way twists its way to the
northwest, tracing a mildly descending path well below the rim of this
gloriously open bowl, working ever closer to the defile of the River
Leven. The trail becomes steep as it nears tree line, makes a sharp
reverse S-curve, and joins a service road at a small power station. From
here the West Highland Way follows the unpaved service road downhill
through birch and pine woods until emerging at the east end of the town
of Kinlochleven by the former aluminum smelter.
Along this road we were treated to
eating the dust and exhaust of an old Land Rover charging up the hill on
Beginning the descent
from the pass
northwest across heather-covered
moorland toward the Mamores Range.
Photo © HOME AT FIRST
mission. Then we were overtaken by a lone
runner in shorts and sneaks. The West Highland Way holds an
annual race along its 95-mile length over the summer solstice. Runners
have 35 hours to complete the course — including nearly 15,000 feet of
climbing — from Milngavie to Ft. William. The men’s record: 15¾ hours; the
fastest women require an additional 1½ hours.
Along the wooded switchbacks about 30 minutes before reaching
Kinlochleven we encountered a middle-aged woman walking alone south
toward the pass. She wore a white T-shirt with a large
SCOTLAND in flag
blue emblazoned across her ample chest. She wore a big smile, too, but
carried no pack and wore sneakers instead of hiking boots. When she
asked us if we had seen two women of her age and build along the way, we
immediately knew whom she sought. We explained that we could not promise
her friends would be very far along the trail, and that they might still
be stopping and giggling every few yards. The hour was approaching
3:30PM, but five hours of daylight remained: the ladies would surely
find each other. Miss Scotland went on her way, sure to see more of the
West Highland Way than she expected.
Freddie at the Tailrace
a pleasant place to wait
for the ride
back to Central Scotland.
© HOME AT FIRST
The trail and road follow the rushing waters piped down from
the Blackwater Reservoir past the old smelter—defunct since 2000—where
they empty into a sluiceway and race to join the River Leven at a
roaring waterfall. Just past the falls the road and trail enter the
Kinlochleven town (population approx. 1,000) where the valley’s main
road, the B863, bridges the River Leven. Kinlochleven, constructed as
one-employer town for the aluminum works in 1907, continues to exist
today as a way station along the West Highland Way. In the late
afternoon hours the town becomes crowded with hikers descending the
trail to find their night’s lodging. Turn right here
to reach the town’s principal pub
Tailrace Inn, across
route B863 two hundred yards from the bridge. The
Tailrace Inn makes a convenient refreshment stop where the time passes
enjoyably while waiting for your ride home. Freddie and I had time for a
pint in the pub’s beer garden. The ale was made more welcome by the
conversation with other walkers who had just come off the trail and
gravitated to the pub.
We had spent a leisurely hour at the Tailrace Inn when my wife
and our friends arrived with the rental car to collect us. They had
enjoyed the afternoon in at the small museum in
Glencoe village — with its
gruesome clan massacre history — and shopping in Ft. William. We had an
hour’s ride back to Killin in
Central Scotland where our
Home At First
cottage and dinner at the
Falls of Dochart Inn awaited us. Around the
dinner table Freddie and I ate well but didn’t talk too much about our
day on the trail. I doubt either of us wished to appear smug about how
well our day had gone. I certainly didn’t want my wife to know that
crossing the Devil’s Staircase was the kind of challenge that made
overweight, middle-aged, holiday makers giggle like schoolgirls.
YOU GO –
TO HIKE THE DEVIL'S
OPEN: The West Highland
Way is open year round. Conditions vary from season to season
and day to day. The Devil’s Staircase segment is high, remote,
and requires several hours walking in an exposed, subalpine
environment with no quick access to villages or escape routes.
Walking the West Highland Way is free.
LONG DISTANCE WALKERS:
Although camping is permitted along the West Highland Way
(within limitations), many walkers prefer staying in hotel or
bed and breakfast accommodations at the end of each stage of the
route. During the busy summer months lodging reservations should
be made in advance.
Home At First
can walk individual segments of the West Highland Way as one-way
or round-trip day hikes.
• One-Way Hiking: Arrange
to be dropped at the trailhead of any particular segment and to
be picked up at the end of trail at a specified
• Round-Trip Hiking: Leave your car at the trailhead,
walk in as far as time and stamina permit, then retrace your steps back to the
trailhead and car.
LOCATION OF THE DEVIL’S STAIRCASE:
Despite being among some of Scotland’s highest mountains, this
section of the West Highland Way is just a few miles inland from
the west coast of Scotland. The segment starts in Glen Coe and
ends 6 miles north at the small town of Kinlochleven. The
trailhead is found at Altnafeadh, a map point along the A82
about three miles west of King’s House in Glen Coe.
West Highland Way
GETTING TO THE DEVIL'S STAIRCASE
Home At First
lodging locations in
From Callander: drive the A84 N to Lochearnhead, then the A85 N and W to Crianlarich.
• From Balquhidder: drive
east on the Balquhidder road to the A84 at Kingshouse. Take the A84 N to Lochearnhead.
• From Lochearnhead:
drive the A85 N and W to Crianlarich.
• From Killin: drive W on
the A827 to Lix Toll, then drive the A85 W to Crianlarich.
• From Crianlarich: drive
N and W 26 miles on the A82 via Tyndrum and King’s House to the Altnafeadh trailhead at the
base of the Devil’s Staircase. Altnafeadh trailhead is 3 miles west of King’s House (a mountain hotel visible ¼ mile north of the A82 in Glen Coe) along the A82. Off-road parking is available at Altnafeadh on both sides of the road. (Note: there are no signs for Altnafeadh, only
indicating the upcoming parking places along the A82.)
WALKING THE WALK: Walking
from Altnafeadh to Kinlochleven takes reasonably fit hikers
3.5-5 hours in good weather. If being dropped off and picked up
at the end of the hike is not a possibility, day hikers can park
at the trailhead and walk the best parts of this segment (from
Altnafeadh across the Devil’s Staircase, across the pass and
down to the powerhouse by the road) and return to their car in
WHAT TO BRING: Even on
the best of days, walking in remote Scotland requires
preparation for sudden changes in weather and trail conditions.
Even day hikers should bring the following equipment with them:
• Stout, broken-in,
waterproof hiking boots
• Rain gear: pants and
• Compass and detailed
topographic map and rescue whistle
• Enough food and water
for 24 hours
• Fire starter
• Cold weather clothing,
including hat and gloves
• Hooded knapsack with
plastic liner bag for waterproofing
• Sunscreen and hat
• Hiking poles: helpful
but not necessary
If you find après hiking conviviality appealing, you will find
lots of other scruffy hikers to share tales of the trail with at
the King’s House Inn in Glen Coe and at the Tailrace Inn in
Kinlochleven. Both inns serve snacks, meals, and alcohol.