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HOME AT FIRST's

ADVENTURE

CENTRAL SCOTLAND

Photos © Home At First

 

THIS ARTICLE 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.

          “Wieso kommen 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 Buachaille Etive 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 Mhartuin background. Photo © Home At First.
Young German hiking group snacking at the pass above the Devil's Staircase with Stob Mhic Mhartuin background. 

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 Scotland’s Lowlands six miles north of Glasgow to about 30 feet above sea level at Ft. 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 spectacular mountains.

 
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. Photo © Home At First.
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.

Photo © HOME AT FIRST
 

          Walked most 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 Ben Nevis.

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 At First.
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 AT FIRST

hike. (We prefer  mountain walking

 

during rain-free weather with blue skies and mild breezes.) We avoided the first not-very-interesting 70 minutes of the stage — three miles from 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 Mamores Range. 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 to experience.

We lingered over our picnic lunch among some sheltered rocks with a great view of the western end of Rannoch Moor and the Blackwater Reservoir. Photo © Home At First.
We lingered over our picnic lunch among some sheltered rocks with a
great view of the western end of Rannoch Moor and the Blackwater Reservoir.

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 encountered.
          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.

NORTH OF THE PASS

A lochan at the pass with the Mamores range coming into view to the north. No midges in early September. Photo © HOME AT FIRST.
A lochan at the pass with the Mamores
range coming into view to the north.
No midges in early September.

Photo © 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.

 

This large lake is not a natural loch, but

the 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 peaks, including 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 some urgent

Beginning the descent from the pass northwest across heather-covered moorland toward the Mamores Range. Photo © HOME AT FIRST.
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.

KINLOCHLEVEN

Freddie at the Tailrace Inn, Kinlochleven, a pleasant place to wait for the ride back to Central Scotland. Photo © HOME AT FIRST.
Freddie at the Tailrace Inn,
Kinlochleven, a pleasant place to wait
for the ride back to Central Scotland.

Photo © 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 and restaurant,

the 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.

 

 

IF YOU GO –

TO HIKE THE DEVIL'S STAIRCASE

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.

ADMISSION: 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.

Decrepit trail sign near Kinlochleven. "Pulbic Footpath to Glencoe via Devil's Staircase and Altnafeadh." Along side the old sign is a new marker post with the Scottish thistle symbol indicating the West Highland Way. Photo © HOME AT FIRST.

DAY HIKERS: Home At First guests in CENTRAL SCOTLAND 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 time.

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.

 THE

West Highland Way

GETTING TO THE DEVIL'S STAIRCASE
from
Home At First lodging locations in
CENTRAL SCOTLAND:

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  P  signs 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 4-6 hours.
 
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 jacket
     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

 
ENHANCEMENTS:
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.


LEARN ABOUT HOME AT FIRST TRAVEL TO SCOTLAND.
 

Day-hiking the best portions of the West Highland Way is
possible from HOME AT FIRST’s lodgings in
CENTRAL SCOTLAND.

This day trip is one of dozens of activities suggested in
HOME AT FIRST’s "SCOTLAND ACTIVITY GUIDE
Provided exclusively to HOME AT FIRST guests to Scotland.


FOR MORE HIKING & BIKING ADVENTURES IN CENTRAL SCOTLAND, SEE:
CLIMBING BEN LAWERS
WALKS IN ROB ROY COUNTRY 1
WALKS IN ROB ROY COUNTRY 2
RAMBLING ROB ROY'S RUSTLING ROUTE
HIKING ACROSS THE BRAES o' BALQUHIDDER
CYCLING IN THE CENTRAL HIGHLANDS — CALLANDER TO KILLIN.

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