Climbing to greatness
With hiking predicted to overtake yoga as the 'it' fitness trend by 2019, Julia Molony highlights Ireland's 10 best trails
It gets your heart-rate going, your glutes working and your spirits soaring. No wonder hiking is having a moment as the fitness trend is predicted to overtake yoga as the 'it' activity by 2019.
A-listers and keen hikers alike have cottoned on to the fact that there is no substitute for the feeling of well-being and achievement that comes from scaling a rocky hill path all the way to the top, and gazing down on the view below. Hiking is an aerobic workout, weight-bearing training and a meditation all rolled into one.
But Reese Witherspoon and Kate Hudson can keep their trails through the Hollywood Hills. In Ireland, we have some of the most stunning hiking routes in the world.
Hiking is cheap and accessible, but you'll need some decent all-weather gear before getting started. A range of various layers, including a good quality fleece and a decent waterproof jacket are essential. Avoid cotton which is slow to dry and gets heavy when wet, and don't forget that every hiker's best friend is a pair of good walking boots.
Never make the rookie mistake of wearing your trainers. Investing in good socks at the start can help prevent nasty blisters further on down the road. Be sure to check the weather forecast before you go, and always bring water and sunscreen with you. Plan your route in advance and don't forget to pack a compass and an appropriate map.
Here's our round-up of Ireland's best hiking routes for all abilities.
1. The Great Sugarloaf
"I think there is a great reward in getting to a mountain summit," says Helen Fairbairn, author of Ireland's Best Walks (Collins Press). She recommends Wicklow's Great Sugarloaf as a good beginner's hike, or one for families to tackle together. "I think even more so with children, it has to be an interesting walk, because they're not interested in walking for fitness' sake. It's more about rushing from one interesting thing to look at to the next. It's a short walk but it's a bit of a scramble up at the top and the kids absolutely love the challenge of going up the rock. You can be up and down in an hour and a half."
2. Croagh Patrick
For a truly meditative experience, hiking guide Eimear Quinn from Wilderness Ireland, who run walking and hiking tours across the country (wildernessireland.com), recommends tackling Ireland's famous pilgrimage route. She suggests starting from Donard Park, following the tarmac path to Footstack Bridge. "The trail itself is not incredibly difficult as it's well defined, but it does get steep as you're nearing the summit - again, this is made much more manageable by the stepped stone path," she says. "As you reach the 850m summit, you encounter the Mourne Wall - and some seriously breathtaking views if you're lucky enough to have a clear day."
3. Erris Head, Mayo
For beautiful seascapes, check out the loop walk on Erris Head which is a great walk for beginners, at about 5km long, or a couple of hours walking time maximum. "There's not a whole lot of height gain on it, but it's right out on the tip of a remote headland and there's just spectacular scenery," says Fairbairn.
Nestled in the middle of the MacGillycuddy Reeks, it's the highest peak in the country.
"Getting up Carrauntoohil is a great achievement for anybody. There are tricky ridges up there," says Fairbairn. "There are routes that go up that don't involve ridges, but the best ones, in my opinion, do have high, exposed, almost scrambly ridges on them, where your heart is beating fast and there is a big drop off on either side. If you choose those routes, that's a challenge for anybody, even if you are an experienced hill walker."
5. The North Antrim Cliff Path
If you want to focus on walking rather than worrying about navigating, this trail is the one for you, and will take you up past the Giant's Causeway. "You are following the coast so you can't get lost, there are marker posts all the way along, and it's a well trodden path," says Fairbairn. "It's a linear route, but there are regular shuttle buses that take hikers from the end back to the start, so you don't have to worry about how to get back to the start point."
6. The Cliffs of Moher Cliff Path
This route takes you from Doolin to Hag's Head, which is about 14km, passing by the most famous part of the cliffs. Fairbairn adds that you will see "much more of the cliffs than just the busy bit near the visitors' centre. It's very well signed, a lot of it has a bit of a gravel surface. It's a semi-maintained footpath and you can't go wrong, although it is worth mentioning that you are walking along the edge of a sheer drop. You do have to be careful not to get too close."
7. Torc Waterfall in Killarney
Killarney National Park is a well-known tourist hotspot, but you can choose the path less travelled by going beyond Torc Waterfall, just a few hundred metres off the road.
"After passing the beautiful cascade, take the steps up the side of the hill," says Dawn Rainbolt of Wilderness Ireland. "The path weaves through moss-covered forests, passes trickling streams and leaps over ancient stone bridges. There's also a nice ascent, taking up Torc Mountain. Though the hike is only 7.5km, you'll enjoy views over Killarney National Park, Purple Mountain, Muckross House and the lakes of Killarney."
8. Errisbeg Hill
The three progressive levels of difficulty mean that the Connemara landscapes are accessible to most visitors, says Rainbolt.
"But if you're looking for a wilder place to walk, head to the village of Roundstone instead to hike Errisbeg Hill. Climbing above the village, you'll head to the end of a country lane and past a cottage to the start of the hike, where the terrain becomes rough and boggy within minutes. There is no right way to the top, and there are plenty of false summits along the way.
"From the top, you'll get lovely views over Roundstone village and Dog's Bay, a picturesque crescent beach that will make for a perfect stop for a walk or swim on the way back! The route is about 6km long."
9. Pilgrim's Path at Sliabh Liag
This stunning route follows the ancient path up a horseshoe-shaped valley nestled between Leargadachtan Mountain and the sea cliffs at Shanbally, overlooking the small fishing village of Teelin, Co Donegal. Following the old green road from the car park at Ballymore, you round the corner where the wide green and impressive valley unfolds in front of you.
As you round the valley floor beneath you, you start climbing to reveal fantastic views over Teelin Harbour and the Wild Atlantic as well as Sligo and Mayo beyond. Rounding the next corner, you climb up to the viewing area at the waterfall.
10. The Leitrim Way
Discover Ireland's Hidden Heartlands via this 12km hike as the raw beauty of the surrounding landscape is revealed with each passing step. The Drumhauver Bridge Loop, tracked at around 10km, is ideal for the less-experienced hiker who has a moderate level of fitness, with plenty of places to stop along the way (such as Leitrim village and Drumshanbo).
The Drumleague Lock Loop, which takes you towards Battlebridge Lock and extends to the now famous Acres Lake Floating Boardwalk, is a perfect route for a family of hikers.