What's it like?: John Muir Way, from Helensburgh to Balloch
The John Muir Way in Scotland is a long-distance route for walkers and cyclists. The route stretches 134 miles across the country from coast to coast. Read 14 things to know about the John Muir Way to find out more. Many people start the John Muir Way in Helensburgh and this article by Fiona Russell reveals what it’s like to walk the first section.
John Muir Way: Starting at Helensburgh
Official start of the John Muir Way. Credit: Lairich Rig / Creative Commons
I have walked, run and cycled the first section of the John Muir Way a number of times. The nine-mile route, with just over 1000ft of ascent, is a great way to ease yourself into the multi-day long-distance route.
Helensburgh is the official start of the John Muir Way. The start point is marked with a seat made of Scottish oak and a circular stone plinth with engraved footprints and a John Muir quote. (Did you know that John Muir was the so-called Father of America’s National Parks?
Setting out from this point feels significant because it is this west coast area of Scotland that Muir, who was born in Scotland, departed with his family as a boy destined for a new life in America.
Helensburgh is also a popular seaside holiday town and worth spending a bit of time in. It’s also really easy to get to the town, which is located on the Firth of Clyde, by public transport. There’s a train station right in the centre of the town.
Leafy streets of Helensburgh. Credit: Lairich Rig
Hill House. Credit: Lairich Rig
Helensburgh to Balloch
The first stage of the John Muir Way uses pavements, gravel tracks, grassy paths and quiet roads to reach Balloch, on the southern shores of Loch Lomond.
The route heads from Helensburgh pier and out of the town via lovely wide and leafy streets. You could take a detour to visit Hill House, designed by acclaimed Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and now owned by National Trust for Scotland.
The route is signposted the John Muir Way, so it’s easy to follow as it passes Hill House. Once at a main road – the A818 – on the edge of the town, you follow the route of a cycle path. It’s fine to use this whether on foot or on a bike.
After about a mile, the cycle path of the JMW continues straight on, while the walking route goes right. (Note: There are sections of the full JMW that are for cyclists/ walkers only while other parts are for both cyclists and walkers).
Walkers join a track that climbs gently and this is where you will first get a glimpse of glorious Loch Lomond. The loch is the largest area of inland freshwater in the UK and a fabulous sight on a fine day.
Loch Lomond is located in Loch Lomond & the Trossachs National Park, which brilliantly harks back to Muir’s fame as a conservationist and Father of America’s national parks.
Looking back towards Helensburgh and the Firth of Clyde. Credit: Fiona Outdoors
Look for signs for the John Muir Way, among other routes. Credit: Fiona Outdoors
Stoneymollan Muir. Credit: Lairich Rig
View over Loch Lomond and towards Ben Lomond. Credit: Fiona Outdoors
If you have time, it’s well worth walking a short return path to the summit of Ben Bowie. The views from here look over the Firth of Clyde.
You’ll then return back to the route of the JMW and into a large area of forestry. While I love wide open views, especially of the Scottish landscape, I do enjoy being surrounded by lots of trees. There is something so amazingly calming about a forest – and the woodlands at the start of the JMW are really lovely.
The route passes through the forest and then heads out on to more open moorland. Again, you can take another short detour (follow signs for the Three Lochs Way) for a great vista back over Helensburgh itself.
Back on the John Muir Way again – and still following the very helpful signs, the route heads into more woodland. There are more lovely views of Loch Lomond between the trees.
While the route is well sign-posted and never far from urban areas, it still feels wonderfully peaceful and remote.
Walkers on the John Muir Way. Credit: Fiona Outdoors
A path leads into woodland. Credit: Fiona Outdoors
A signpost for a viewpoint. Credit: Fiona Outdoors
Beautiful Loch Lomond. Credit Fiona Outdoors
Beautiful descent to Balloch
A gate further on takes walkers on to Stoneymollan Muir and more expansive views of the loch spreads out before you as the path descends towards the southern shore.
There is a quiet road section next as the route heads downhill towards the busy A82. A footbridge takes you over the traffic and signposts lead you towards a visitor attraction, Lomond Shores, where there are shops, a cafe and an aquarium.
If you like being on the water, there are opportunities for kayaking, paddle boarding or swimming on - and in – Loch Lomond.
The end of the stage is in Balloch at the railway station. If you are on a bike, you could easily cycle on to complete stage 2 towards Strathblane and Milngavie.
It's a lovely first day the full John Muir Way and a great way to ease into the route surrounded by lovely scenery.
For detailed route information see John Muir Way: Stage 1.