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Walking the East Highland Way

© wee jamie

Autumn in Scotland is a magical time. If you're lucky it may be pretty dry, not something you can take for granted in the Highlands, but it can also treat the walker to some amazing light, that can turn everything into gold for a while. There's not a better time for a long distance hike.

Most people will be familiar with the West Highland Way, probably the most famous long distance trail in Scotland, but fewer would know that it's possible to continue in similar style for another 82 miles from Fort William to Aviemore following what is known as the East Highland Way. This route was originally put together by Kevin Langan, who also wrote a very good and detailed guidebook about it, in 2007. It's quite similar to the West Highland Way with regards to the terrain, but it's way less popular. This doesn't mean, though, that it's less spectacular. I was lucky enough to walk the East Highland Way with a group of clients on the last week of September this year, and here's how it went.

Ben Nevis in Autumn.  © JCameron
Ben Nevis in Autumn.
© JCameron, Oct 2012

The route

The East Highland Way starts right where the West Highland Way ends: on the Southern side of the Fort William High Street. From here it's just a matter of getting out of the town, but it's only a few miles before the busy roads are left behind, replaced by quiet forest tracks instead. The whole route then follows low level paths and tracks all the way to Aviemore, passing through Spean Bridge, Newtonmore and Kingussie. The highest point of the route is at 375 metres above sea level, and the whole itinerary includes around 1600 metres of ascent and 1400 metres of descent, covering a distance of 82 miles (132 kilometres). A whole variety of plants and wildlife can be seen along the way, together with historical buildings and views from the glens of some of the best mountain areas in Scotland. 

Long woodland sections make this a good option in iffy weather  © Cecilia Mariani
Long woodland sections make this a good option in iffy weather
© Cecilia Mariani

There's a lot to look at in autumn  © Cecilia Mariani
There's a lot to look at in autumn
© Cecilia Mariani

Fort William to Spean Bridge - 19km/12 miles

On the first day, the trek follows paths and forest tracks along the main road and railway line all the way from Fort William to Spean Bridge - an easy start to get the legs going. As you leave Fort William it's worth turning around to enjoy beautiful views of Ben Nevis, Aonach Mòr and Aonach Beag, that is if the clouds allow you to get a decent view of course. We weren't lucky enough and all we could see was the bottom half of these mountains, while we started the trek in the pouring rain: a typical Scottish welcome. Morale was high though and the whole day was filled with chat as the group started to get to know each other. We completed the first day in record time and spent the afternoon chilling with a cup of tea, looking at the rain out of the window and hoping it would clear.

Grey corries  © PPP
Grey corries
© PPP, Feb 2020

Spean Bridge to Fersit - 18.5km/11.5 miles

Day two was much better in terms of weather, and as we walked from Spean Bridge to Fersit we could enjoy some pretty warm sunshine. The terrain was pretty much the same underfoot, with plenty of forest tracks and old military roads running through fields and farmland. The only potential hazard of the day is a river crossing towards the end, which could prove complicated after a prolonged period of rain. Nothing impossible though, you might just have to get your feet wet, which is what we did, adding some excitement to the day.

One of the hardest things to plan on the East Highland Way is accommodation. There's not as much choice as on other better established long distance routes, and camping might be the best option. We had the luxury of a pick up at the end of every day, so we could go back to our B&B in Spean Bridge for another good night's sleep. For more accommodation options, however, it's possible to continue this stage to Tulloch station.

One of the few signs indicating the way  © Cecilia Mariani
One of the few signs indicating the way
© Cecilia Mariani

Low clouds over the moors at Fersit  © Cecilia Mariani
Low clouds over the moors at Fersit
© Cecilia Mariani

Fersit to Feagour - 32km/20 miles

Every long distance trek has "the long day", and that is day three on the East Highland Way. With its 20 miles, day three took us all the way to Fergour, walking through Laggan Woods, past Laggan Dam and all the way along Loch Laggan. It's not a hard day and, again, it mainly follows big forest tracks along the loch. My mistake on this day was to wear my boots, too rigid for the terrain, so I absolutely recommend trainers.

As we left Fersit the light was just spectacular, An Dubh Lochan was covered in morning mist and we had amazing views over the moors towards Corrour and Loch Treig. Every year there's one day when you realise summer is over and autumn has truly started - well, this day was it for me, the cool morning air and condensation as we spoke being the signs. We then spent the rest of the day in the forest, sheltered from the wind which was picking up quite quickly, and we managed to stay dry till the very end. There's no accommodation at the end of this stage, so we got picked up and dropped off in Newtonmore. An alternative is to keep going to Laggan village, another few miles down the road.

Dawn over Loch Laggan.  © JCameron
Dawn over Loch Laggan.
© JCameron, Apr 2007

Feagour to Newtonmore - 22.5km/14 miles

The wildest and wettest day on the trek and, in my opinion, the best. We started with an easy walk through the forest and along a minor road to get to Laggan village. Here we were hoping to get a much deserved cup of coffee, but the only coffee shop in town was closed, so we had to continue without our treat. After a short section on the main road, we veered north and left the path to cross the moors north of Toman Dubh. This was the wildest section of the route and definitely one of the most scenic. A short stop at the bothy to find some shelter from the rain and to get ready for what had been on our mind for the whole morning: not one but three river crossings, all in spate. Needless to say our feet were wet for the rest of the day. But as we walked back to our accommodation in Newtonmore we were welcomed by a hot cup of tea, cakes and a lovely fire to warm us up (and dry our boots!).

A sunrise over Newtonmore/Cairngorms  © PPP
A sunrise over Newtonmore/Cairngorms
© PPP, Oct 2017

Newtonmore to Kincraig - 30km/15.5 miles

Day five is the best in terms of history and wildlife. We spent the morning on the shores of Loch Gynach, walking through old birch woods, and then we made our way down into Kingussie. From here we walked past Ruthven Barracks, built after the Jacobite rising of 1715, and very well preserved. Then we started walking on the edge of the Insh Marshes Nature Reserve, an RSPB nature reserve that covers 10 square kilometres of the River Spey floodplain between Kingussie and Kincraig. It is one of the most important wetland areas in Europe, and plenty of birds can be seen here all year round, including hen harriers. The day ended in the sun by the shore of Loch Insh, just outside Kincraig (where there are plenty of accommodation options).

Kincraig to Aviemore - 17km/10.5 miles

The last day of the hike is yet again different from the others, going through thick native pine forests before making its way into Aviemore. Eyes peeled today, because it's red squirrel land, and it's highly likely you're going to see one of these little furry balls up on the branches, staring at you while eating. Highlight of the day is Loch an Eilein, or the loch of the island, called this because of the small island that can be found just off the north western shore, where the ruins of an old castle still stand. On the last stretch into Aviemore we quickly walked back into reality, reached the end point, took some pictures and stopped for a quick coffee before driving to the shores of Loch Morlich for a celebratory glass of wine in the rain. We couldn't ask for a better ending!

Pause for reflection, Loch an Eilean  © Dan Bailey
Pause for reflection, Loch an Eilean
© Dan Bailey

How to organise the walk

If you're new to long distance backpacking, fear not! Organising to walk the East Highland Way is easier than you might think. Throughout the years I've developed my own way of planning a trek - not the only one, but it works. Here are some tips on how to organise things, and I hope they can make your life easier:

The hardest part is deciding where to go. The East Highland Way is relatively easy, accessible and not too remote, making it a good choice for first time backpackers and experienced walkers alike. Each part of the route is never too far from a village or a road, allowing you to find accommodation more easily and change plans if something goes wrong. In terms of route finding, the East Highland Way is only partially waymarked, and in some sections it follows the signs of other trails, such as the Wildcat trail near Newtonmore. It's fundamental, then, to have some basic navigation and map reading skills in order to stay on track and not get lost. The maps needed to cover the whole of the Way are OS Landranger 1:50,000 35, 36, 41 and 42 or OS Explorer 1:25,000 392, 393, 402 and 403. Kevin Langan's guidebook is also handy to know more about the walk and each stage.

Where to stay?

Then you have to think about accommodation: are you going to camp or use B&Bs, guesthouses and hotels? The East Highland Way is perfect for wild campers, with plenty of suitable spots to choose from and villages to buy supplies along the way. Using B&Bs and other types of accommodation, on the other hand, is still completely doable but might prove a little harder in terms of logistics. In fact, you might need to add a few miles to a couple of days or arrange a pick up at the end of the day and a drop off in the morning. This is all doable with the help of local taxi companies or B&B and hotel owners, and it might even give you more flexibility on where to sleep in the high season.

If you do the trek as outlined above, the only stages that don't have accommodation at the end are days two and three. For day two it's possible to turn left as you get to the road at Inverlair instead of going right to Fersit, and to take a short detour to Tulloch train station where there is a hostel. For day three, on the other hand, a pick up would be the best option, as the day is long already and continuing all the way to Laggan could make it too long, although possible.

Beautiful autumn light on the way to Loch an Eilean  © Cecilia Mariani
Beautiful autumn light on the way to Loch an Eilean
© Cecilia Mariani

What to carry

Once you've sorted the logistics you'll have to start thinking about kit. This will of course depend on the type of accommodation you've chosen and on the time of the year, but let's start with the fundamental stuff.

Rucksack: Big enough to carry all your kit, between 35 and 50 litres depending on accommodation. Make sure it has good support, such as padded straps and a good hip belt. Also make sure it fits you properly and it's not too long or short for your back.

Footwear: Together with the rucksack, footwear is the most important consideration. Most sections of the East Highland Way are on good forest tracks, so you don't need anything too rigid. Go for a soft pair of boots or even trainers, if you're not too worried about getting wet feet. Make sure you "break them in" before your trek though, there's nothing worse than finding out your boots don't fit when you're miles away from an outdoor shop.

Socks: To go with your boots. It's very important that your feet stay dry as much as possible. Your feet, as well as the rest of your body, sweat, and this will facilitate the formation of blisters.

Water bottle: I normally take a 1l bottle, or sometimes a bladder. Since the route is at a low level in the glens you can't rely on using water from the burns without treating or filtering it. It's important to take a filter or sterilizing tablets, so that you can collect water on the way.

Clothes: I would normally have my waterproofs and a warm jacket at the bottom of my bag, if I don't need to wear them. Then I would wear a pair of walking trousers (zip-off ones are a good option), a t-shirt and fleece or thin jacket. As extras I would bring one t-shirt, a spare thin jacket and maybe another pair of trousers, depending on the length of the trek, plus a set of base layers to sleep in and emergencies. Obviously if you use a luggage transfer service you might not need to be as strict with what you can bring.

Toiletries: A toothbrush, toothpaste, maybe moisturizer. That's it. Forget about the deodorant, you'll smell anyway, or any other fancy stuff. But remember sunscreen if the forecast is good (it can happen even in Scotland!). A small towel is also handy to dry up after a shower or a swim.

First aid kit: A small one will do. Just take any personal medications you may have, some bandages and other bits and pieces to deal with minor injuries and blisters.

Headtorch: Fundamental for the late night toilet stop or the early morning start. Bring spare batteries too, or if it's a rechargeable one make sure you have a portable power bank or charger.

Miscellaneous. Things like a woolly hat and gloves for cold weather, or a sun hat for sunny weather. Also bug spray, especially if you plan to walk in Scotland in the summer!

Then, if you're camping, you'll also need a tent, sleeping bag, mat, camping stove, fuel, cooking gear, and something to cook in it for dinner. The weight soon adds up!

Frosty Ben Nevis from Tomacharich  © wee jamie
Frosty Ben Nevis from Tomacharich
© wee jamie, Nov 2016

When to go and how to get there

The East Highland Way can be walked all year round, but of course conditions might be different throughout the year. The driest months are likely to be April, May and June, but sometimes September and October are also good. Since it follows clear tracks at a relatively low altitude, it's also possible in less clement conditions in late autumn and winter. However one thing to consider is that the rivers might be in spate in exceptionally rainy conditions, making the river crossings harder. Also, some sections of the walk might be covered in snow for periods of time in the winter. The Way would of course still be walkable in winter conditions, but good knowledge of winter walking is essential.

In terms of logistics and how to get there, it's relatively easy. Both Fort William and Aviemore have a train station, and although they're not connected very well to each other, they are both connected to the main cities in Scotland (Glasgow, Edinburgh and Inverness). Another option, if train times don't suit, is to use the CityLink bus service, which runs plenty of buses at good prices.

Once you've done all this, planned and put together all the kit you need, there's nothing else left to do than walk!

If you're looking for a lesser known, low level-long distance walk for your next holiday, I couldn't recommend this route enough. It's not too tough but yet beautiful in all its stages, and it will take you to some pretty remote places in the Scottish Highlands. I love that about Scotland, you can walk only a few hundred metres outside of a town and feel like you're miles away from everywhere. So get planning, and start walking east...


Cecilia Mariani  © Cecilia Mariani

About Cecilia Mariani 

Cecilia is an International Mountain Leader based in the Italian Alps. She works as a freelance leader in the Alps for both Italian and international groups, as well as leading trips in Scotland. You can read her blog on www.ceciliamariani.com and follow her on Instagram at @ceciliamariani.mountainleader.

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