Ireland’s stretch of Atlantic coast is one of Europe’s greatest natural treasures. Spectacularly fractured and indented, the coast has been hammered into a number of unique formations by the relentless force of the ocean. Bold headlands and dramatic cliffs tower over golden beaches dotted with hidden coves.
If you’re looking to explore this magnificent region, take to the Wild Atlantic Way. The longest coastal touring route in the world, it stretches more than 1,500 miles from Co Donegal in the north to Co Cork in the south.
Ireland’s history and culture is as varied as its landscape, with ancient sites and deserted villages scattered throughout the countryside. This is a barely populated region, with many of the most beautiful viewpoints and most captivating landmarks laying off its beaten track. You’ll need to bring your walking boots for this one.
There are walking routes of all lengths and levels, with options to suit everyone from casual walkers to experienced hillwalkers and hikers. Often the routes are just a couple of miles and enough to transport you to a wild and memorable location. Without rambling on any more, here are our top 3.
Queen Maeve Trail
A Walk And Prehistoric Tomb
Rising in isolation from Co Sligo’s Coolera Peninsula, 1,072ft-high Knocknarea is one of the areas favourite short walks in northwest Ireland. It’s a fantastic viewpoint over Donegal Bay, yet what makes this space truly unique is the enormous prehistoric cairn atop its summit. Even in a country rich in historic features, this one stands out. Built around 3400 BC, it confirms Knocknarea as a site of ritual importance since neolithic times. The main cairn is 180ft wide, and though it has never been excavated, it’s believed to be a chambered tomb, associated with several smaller passage tombs scattered around the mountain. Irish mythology also claims this as the final resting place of Queen Maeve, the legendary warrior queen of Connacht. The story has it that she is buried upright within the cairn, spear in hand, still facing her enemies to the north.
The only way to visit is on foot, following a signed, circular trail. Begin either from Strandhill, a vibrant seaside village at the northwest foot of the mountain, or Glen Road car park to the southeast. Gravel paths loop around the eastern slopes, passing in and out of woodland. You then join a flight of timber steps, which carry you through the forest and then up and out on to open moorland. The summit plateau holds a view that will take your breath away, and it’s worth lingering to savour the 360 degree panoramic views of mountain and coastline. Descend a steep, rocky trail down the opposite side of the mountain to complete the loop.
To round off your day, head to Strandhill to join the surfers on the beach and relax with a meal in the village’s gastropubs.
Level: Moderate. Largely firm trails and 1,000ft ascent.
Length: 2.1 miles/2 hours.
Bring: Hiking or walking boots for tackling short sections of bog and rock, and a coat at all times of the year.
Walking In A Mountain Wilderness
The rural west of Ireland is characterised by tiny scattered villages. But where do you go if you want to experience real wilderness and immerse yourself entirely in nature?
Seek a point farthest away from any public road in Ireland and you might well end up in the middle of Wild Nephin Ballycroy National Park, in Co Mayo. Encompassing 15,000 hectares of untamed terrain, this is the Irish landscape at its most primeval. Eighty years ago, the influential Irish naturalist Robert Lloyd Praeger described this as “the very loneliest place in the country”, and it’s every bit as quiet and peaceful today.
The vast, uninhabited wilderness, just over two hours’ drive from Galway city, is dominated by the Nephin Beg mountain range, a cluster of summits over 1,600ft high. To their north lies Owenduff Bog, one of the last intact and active blanket bog systems in all of western Europe, and a place of key scientific importance. Much of the area is kept deliberately wild and untracked, accessible only to experienced hikers. Yet at the park’s eastern edge, a series of signed trails invite more casual walkers to get a feel for the wilderness. These trails are known collectively as the Letterkeen Loops, with the longest route (signed by purple arrows) providing the best views of all. Begin from the trailhead at Brogan Carroll Bothy. Cross a footbridge over Altaconey River, then follow a trickling stream into a shallow ravine flanked by pine trees.
Be prepared for the occasional stretch of bog hopping – an authentic part of Irish off-road walking. This brings you to Lough Avoher mountain shelter, a lean-to where those of your brave enough can camp overnight.
Begin a gradual ascent to the highest point, the 1,000ft summit of Correen Beg. This is the metaphorical as well as physical high point of the route; the precipitous flanks of Nephin Beg mountain rise nearby, while fabulous long-distance views stretch to the coast both north and south. A steep descent takes you back into the trees, then an easy gravel track returns you to your starting point. To explore the area further, hire a bike and cycle the scenic Great Western Greenway, which passes between the Nephin Beg mountains and the island-studded waters of Clew Bay. This carries you out towards the village of Ballycroy, home to the National Park Visitor Centre and its excellent Ginger & Wild cafe.
Level: Hard. Rough, unpaved trails and 1,000ft ascent.
Length: 7.5 miles/3.5 hours.
Bring: Waterproof boots to keep your feet dry across the boggy sections.
There’s a sort of a romanticism about lighthouses, perched so dramatically on storm-swept headlands. Currently there are 70 in operation around the Irish coast, the majority are in striking locations, sentinels marking those places where the land erupts most spectacularly from the sea. Sheep’s Head Lighthouse in Co Cork occupies a particularly impressive setting, on a peninsula so remote no road extends to its tip. Fortunately, where the tarmac finishes, a signed trail continues – allowing walkers to access a remarkable landmark that vehicles can’t reach.
When the lighthouse was built in 1968, 250 helicopter trips were needed to transport the materials from Kilcrohane, six miles away. Guarding the southern entrance of Bantry Bay, the beacon itself is just 23ft tall, and is unusual in that you have to descend a flight of steps to reach it. For height it relies on its clifftop position, with the rocks below elevating the lantern to 272ft above sea level. Even if the lighthouse wasn’t here, this would be a great place for a walk. Sheep’s Head is the most isolated peninsula in southwest Ireland – its wild atmosphere and untamed scenery draw me back time and again.
Three signed walks make their way to the lighthouse from the car park at the end of the road, two hours’ drive from Cork city. Our route is signed by blue arrows, and circumnavigates the western tip of the peninsula. Begin along a gravel footpath, which leads across a rugged expanse of upland to the shore of beautiful Lough Akeen. At the end of this remote lake, climb to a helicopter pad encircled by white stones. This is a great place to appreciate the massive tapering fin of craggy rock as the headland finally concedes to the sea.
The lighthouse itself remains hidden from sight, and lies part-way down the slope to the right of a helipad. Look for a flight of concrete steps, which descend to the tower. Perched in a high rocky nest, it commands a fine view across Bantry Bay. Having approached the lighthouse along the southern side of the headland, you now return via the north coast. Pass along the top of dramatic cliffs more than 300ft high, then climb gradually to a junction. Our circuit turns right here, and weaves across rock-studded ground back to the start.
Level: Moderate. Signed but sometimes rough mountain paths, with 492ft ascent.
Length: 2.5 miles /1-2 hours.
Bring: Good boots for negotiating the rugged terrain, which varies from moorland to outcrops of rock.