When is the best time to hike the West Highland Way?
Scotland’s most famous long-distance walking route can be hiked throughout most of the year. Thanks to the mild spring and fall Highland climate, walking season tends to start early and push late into the fall. Though the “best” season is inevitably going to be the exact time period that you’re free to do the trek, there are a few times that would be great to steer toward if your calendar is wide open. And, while it can be walked in the winter, we do not recommend it due to services being closed and weather has the potential to be dangerous.
Avoid the midges
There are a few major factors that travelers generally take into account for going to the Highlands. Besides the obvious impact of rain and temperature on the hiking experience, the most important driver tends to revolve around the midges – small gnat-like bugs that can come in swarms in the warmer months in the Scottish Highlands. Needless to say, it is always ideal to avoid the high midge seasons, though their reputation admittedly often surpasses their actual impact on a hiking trip. They will not be as much a nuisance if you are walking, if there is wind or rain, or if you have the right insect repellent (or a combination of all the above!).
Avoid the crowds
Additionally, crowds & the busy season can be important in deciding when to hike. However, “crowds” on the West Highland Way are really only noticed at certain points, mainly at the end of the hike in the popular outdoor town of Fort William. Along the trail itself, hikers tend to not notice the popularity of the hike for a few reasons.
First, there are only so many accommodations along the trail. When they fill up, it puts a cap on the total walkers (minus campers). Furthermore, with the exception of a few towns, the accommodations tend to be spread out along the trail, meaning there aren’t large groups all leaving simultaneously. Secondly, the trail is uni-directional – almost every hiker is going south to north – meaning you tend to only see those around you and not the stream of hikers coming from the opposite direction. Though as a hiker, you tend to forget about this until your next hiking trip, when you find yourself constantly passing by others!
Though the weather can be unpredictable in April, many like this month due to the cooler weather, quieter trails, and lack of midges. As May rolls around, the weather warms up slightly and the historical rainfall drops – though never a guarantee. This month does provide great chances for clear, beautiful walking days. The weather trends continue into June with warmer temps and slightly more rainfall. As the midge season looms ahead, the crowds will be slightly less towards the end of the month. Accommodations can fill up quickly for departures in late April and late June – it is important to begin making arrangements in the fall before if you want the best access to first-choice options. Come winter, it is usually possible to book, though itineraries might need adjusting based on what is available.
Late June ushers in the beginnings of both midges and tourists arriving in large numbers. Though the weather is warm and can be pleasant, the slightly higher temperatures and higher rainfall make for better midges season, so it can be difficult to enjoy the outdoors in the evenings. At this time of year, the trail itself feels removed from the large amounts of tourists, but a weekend in the towns along the way and especially in Fort William can feel very crowded. This stark contrast from the peaceful trail can sometimes be jarring.
Come September and October, the crowds and the midges begin to subside again, making for a lovely walking experience. As the temperatures slowly drop from the summer’s high, lovely autumn colors play throughout the countryside. However, as with April, the weather can be unpredictable, and hikers may experience high winds and rain. It is also important to consider daylight – as Fort William almost the same latitude as Juneau, Alaska, the days become rapidly shorter throughout late October.
Though it is possible to complete the walk in the winter, we find that the cold weather, variable temperatures, sparse services along the way, and lighter trail traffic make for both an unsafe trip and a below standards experience. Thus, Macs Adventure does not offer the walk between, the end of October and the beginning of March.
To conclude: each season has its benefits...
Whether you are looking for the crisp early spring air, the pleasant summer warmth, or the lovely colors of the autumn countryside, you cannot go wrong. As always, the best time is often the timing that fits your schedule the best! To note, the accommodation is so small that certain towns or hamlets do face the potential of filling up early – we recommend beginning the booking process as soon as you are sure of your dates & travel group to ensure the best access to your ideal trip.