The West Highland Way: Drymen to Rowardennan [Day 2]

This is a continuation of our journey through the West Highland Way. If you want to start reading from day 1, click here.

Our West Highland Way:

  • Day 1: Milngavie to Drymen 13.51 miles (419m elevation; 307m descent)
  • Day 2: Drymen to Rowardennan 15.28 miles (665m elevation; 815m descent)
  • Day 3: Rowardennan to Crianlarich 21.75 miles (1305m elevation; 844m descent)
  • Day 4: Crianlarich to Tyndrum 7.62 miles (431m elevation; 571m descent)
  • Day 5: Tyndrum to Kingshouse 18.85 miles (511m elevation; 434m descent)
  • Day 6: Kingshouse to Kinlochleven 8.70 miles (423m elevation; 659m descent)
  • Day 7: Kinlochleven to Fort William 15.76 miles (735m elevation; 737m descent)


Day 2: Drymen (Listen drih-men) to Rowardennan (Listen row-ahr-DEN-an)
Unrelenting rain swept through Drymen our first night on the West Highland Way. We stared at the ceiling, unable to sleep, hoping beyond all hope that the paths would not be flooded and that the rain would eventually stop. But at 7am, when we finally rolled out of bed, it did not look promising. We prepared to have our rain gear out and had a lovely breakfast (complete with dance moves and scaring off outdoor cats) when suddenly, the rain stopped, and the skies beckoned us to begin.

2016-05-02 10.01.10
Old Gartmore Road out of Drymen.

Because of that, we started a little later than we had wanted to, but the dry skies at 9:41a made the delay worth it. Through Drymen, there is a sort of “short cut” to the trail. From our B&B, you can go the “long way around” on Stirling Avenue, heading east meeting up with the West Highland Way. But our hostess, Frances, recommended we head due north on Old Gartmore Road meeting the WHW on the other side.

WHW Drymen
From the B&B, you can go east to get to the trail or north saving some time.

The slight incline and humidity got to us before we even hit the proper trail. I pulled over quickly to take a layer of clothing off making the trek much easier. We definitely over-packed our bags, but it meant that we could throw things (like hideous long underwear) away from town to town.

I pulled over behind this sign to de-layer with the sun finally coming out.
I pulled over behind this sign to de-layer with the sun finally coming out.

We eventually met up with the West Highland Way Trail on the north side of Drymen and finally saw some other hikers. We had barely seen a soul the day before, so it was strangely reassuring to see other humans besides ourselves on this hike.

About five miles into the day, we came to our first hill: Conic Hill. This lovely mountain looks deceiving from its base. About a mile before, I thought, it doesn’t look too challenging, but then, as we started to 360 meter climb, we realized it was definitely a hill. We made it to the top and looked over the edge in complete awe. Loch Lohmond was at our feet and was a stunning blue. Dots of green islands littered the loch and the air could not have been cleaner.

We took a couple steps on the descent and looked back up to the sky and saw a black cloud racing toward us. We hadn’t seen it minutes before, and it was dangerously close to where we stood. While completely romantic-looking over the landscape, we were a bit worried about being caught in rain while coming down from a steep climb. I held onto my walking poles with white knuckles and continued on, step-by-step, as quickly as possible.

But our speed was no match for the clouds, and we got pummeled. But it wasn’t just rain that came down. Tiny pebbles of hail came sideways at crazy force. My hands froze over to where I couldn’t feel my poles anymore, and all I could concentrate on was seeing my next step in front of me. I held my hat tight against the wind, and finally, once we made it to the bottom, the rain stopped…naturally.

Jeff coming down from Conic Hill. The blue skies laughing at us.

I gripped my walking poles with hand-warmers and entered the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park toward Balmaha, our mid-way stop. Balmaha is a popular rest-stop for walkers but also a day 1 stop for those doing the WHW in 5 days. Jeff and I managed, somehow, to grab a table in the Oak Tree Restaurant for a quick lunch out of the sporadic rain, and were able to rest for a few moments. We were 8 miles into the 15.28 mile day, and the blue skies beckoned us again to continue on to Rowardennan.

2016-05-02 13.00.11
The Oak Tree Inn in Balmaha.

This part of our trek was the beginning of our tour of Loch Lomond. Along the loch is definitely the most difficult parts of the whole trail, but what we had in these first 7 miles was nothing compared to what we would face the next day (more on that to follow). As we walked this trail, we saw our first official Highland “Cew” and watched the waves roll up on the pebbled shores. In between the bouts of rain, it truly was beautiful and peaceful, and we still were not crowded by tons of walkers. We took our time over the numerous tree roots and jagged rocks making sure we didn’t take a wrong step.

Our terrain changed after we got out of the official park area to a road where we made friends with a “husband and wife” duck couple. But the asphalt wouldn’t last long before we went right back into the woods. It stayed that way until we saw our first bits of civilization in the form of a chalet park. Just beyond the summer chalets was the Rowardennan Hotel, which we had the displeasure of finding out too late it was full, so we had to book a dormitory at the youth hostel another mile down the road.

Jeff feeding a female duck along the way with her faithful companion looking on.
Jeff feeding a female duck along the way with her faithful companion looking on.

Now, I have nothing against travelers who use hostels. They are a great place for young people to go and spend very little for a bed, sheets, and a roof. I honestly think they are brilliant. But for a woman who is nearing thirty years old, a hostel is hell on earth.

2016-05-02 17.25.53
The turn off path to the hostel another mile down the way.

We arrived close to 6p to the Rowardennan Youth Hostel right on the water. From the outside, the place looks like a fairy tale castle complete with a “Rapunzel tower,” but then you walk in and you see a foyer full of students and backpackers in every level of emotion and cleanliness. I put down my bag, which somehow got heavier over the last couple of miles, and stood in the queue behind a belligerent man asking the receptionist why a certain camp site was not where it should be…as if she had moved it herself in spite.

2016-05-02 17.34.41
The Rowardennan Youth Hostel.

I got to the front and received our separate keys. Jeff would be in the men’s dormitory, and I would be in room 2 in the girl’s dormitory. “Dinner and breakfast are provided, and please strip your sheets in the morning.” When I walked down the hall toward my room, I had an instant flashback to my college days when I spent a full two semesters in the all-girls dorm at UT Austin before getting my own place. The narrow hallways and the questionable carpet made me dizzy. But I made it to my room and claimed my bunk closest to the door so I could bolt first thing in the morning. Jeff and I had decided to get an early start since our next day was covering 21 miles of terrain.

2016-05-02 18.00.17
“Come play with us, Danny.”

It was after dinner when fatigue really hit us. The previous night under the Scottish rain left us sleepless, so it was imperative to get a good rest. But that was not to be.

I was showered and packed by 830p. My things were in neat stacks so I knew exactly where to find my pants, shoes, and jacket, and I had even started to strip my bed so I wouldn’t disturb my fellow roommates come morning. I had planned on waking up early to get ready in private.

2016-05-02 20.28.37
My bunk.

I curled up in a tight ball against the wall with my iPod playing relaxing music against the yelling and stomping in the hallway when this older woman barreled into our room. The four other young girls in the room were doing their own thing, and so she interrupted us in a very thick Scottish brogue that had a hint of slurs. Apparently, the hostel kitchen had closed by the time she arrived forcing her to walk the mile back down the long driveway to the only pub in the area. She had no problem announcing this tidbit to the whole floor.

I rolled my eyes and tried to shut out the world around me to be rudely, again, interrupted by this woman sitting on my bed. For the record, yes, there was a chair in the room, but she had decided it was best to sit on my bed. When I aggressively turned to face her, all she said was, “I’m puttin’ cream on me feet.” I’m pretty sure my face was full shock and bewilderment as I said something she undoubtedly heard under my breath before she climbed up to the bunk above mine.

2016-05-02 18.01.01
Despite the awful experience inside the hostel, the views were gorgeous.

Once again, I closed my eyes tight hoping beyond all hope I would be asleep before 10p, and just as my wish was being fulfilled, this same woman had the audacity to snore.

Minutes ticked by at a glacial pace as I patiently waited to make my escape, and at 4a, I decided enough was enough. I quietly grabbed my belongings and sheets and dressed in the hallway before going to the deserted lounge. I didn’t see another soul until I saw Jeff at 630a when he came to tell me he didn’t have one “freight train” in his room; he had two. And also, his roommates thought it was important that everyone wake up at 6a regardless of when alarms were set and turned on all the lights.

We did not stay around for breakfast to get the hell out of dodge, but that did mean we had set ourselves up for a tough and challenging day. Stay tuned for day 3 full of relentless rivers of mud, blurring tears, and dozens of cows.

Drymen to Rowardennan
A map of Drymen to Rowardennan.

Helpful Links for the West Highland Way:

WHW Elevation Chart
An elevation chart for the West Highland Way.

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