Did you know that our coastline is some 7,000km long? Here, the author of Wild Shores shares his favourite walking routes
With winter storms behind us, spring and summer are the best times to explore Ireland’s 7,000km-long coastline, with its wide beaches, sand dunes, towering cliffs, and numerous accessible islands.
Nature is all around on the fringes of our island, including wildflowers, nesting seabirds, and marine life on the shoreline. Rock pools also offer fascinating places for children to explore the life below high tide, and looking off shore, you will see seals, whales and dolphins if you are lucky. Walks are most enjoyable if you take your time and stop often to look at the view.
Here is a selection of the best coastal walks in Ireland.
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Route details: One-way (16km). Take the B62 from Ballymoney and follow signs to the Giant’s Causeway. Park at the visitor centre. This is part of a long-distance walking route that could be extended to three days.
Why: Following the cliff path from the famous basalt columns, you’ll pass close to the site of a shipwreck of Spanish Armada vessel La Girona off Lacada Point (the treasures from this wreck are now on display in the Ulster Museum in Belfast). Look out for eider ducks in the surf and wonderful, clear views of Rathlin Island and the Scottish coast. At Port Moon, there is a remote fisherman’s cottage that was once used as a base to net salmon, and the ruins of Dunseverick Castle are on a promontory at an ancient royal site of Dál Riada. End at the small, sheltered harbour of Ballintoy.
Route details: Loop (10km). Park at the National Trust car park just off the A2 near Dundrum Village. Cross the sand dunes to the beach. Turn east and follow the beach.
Why: This walk brings stunning views of the Mourne Mountains ‘sweeping down to the sea’ and beautiful, wild sand dunes with colourful displays of wildflowers in summer. Take a short detour into the dunes, where 10 archaeological sites have been recorded, showing extensive prehistoric occupation covering the Neolithic, Bronze Age and early Christian periods. Pause for a while near the channel and watch harbour seals as they haul out on the sand bars (watch out for extra-soft sand on the channel edge). The Norman castle in Dundrum village is visible as you walk into the inner bay. Wading birds, cormorants and ducks can also be seen in the estuary. Follow the coastal path back to the car park.
Route details: One-way (5km). The Dart from Dublin city takes about 45 minutes. Start at Howth Harbour near the station. Pass the busy fishing harbour and yacht club and head east past the Martello Tower.
Why: There are great views to the north over the islands of Ireland’s Eye and Lambay, occasionally stretching as far as the Mourne Mountains. The path turns south, giving views across Dublin Bay to the Wicklow Mountains. Walk through heathland vegetation of yellow gorse and purple heather, where stonechats make their nests. There is a noisy seabird colony of mainly kittiwakes on the cliffs below — this is a good vantage point from which to spot porpoises. End at the Baily Lighthouse, or do an optional loop around the south side of Howth Head and back to the harbour.
Route details: One-way (12km). The Dart from Dublin to Greystones takes about 50 minutes. Start at the harbour here and walk along the South Beach. Follow the railway line, walking on the seaward side.
Why: From Kilcoole station to the west, there are clear views inland to the Great Sugarloaf and the Wicklow Mountains. Reedbeds and wetlands at The Breaches hold flocks of geese, ducks and waders, but you will need binoculars to see them well. There is a large colony of little terns on the beach here, with wardens to explain about conservation. From the old station at Newcastle, make a short detour to the East Coast Nature Reserve, which has birdwatching hides and information panels. Another short detour gives views over Broadlough, the estuary of the River Vartry. Finish at Wicklow town, where a train trip can return you to Greystones or Dublin.
Route details: Loop (8km). From Wexford, follow the R741 towards Castlebridge. After 3.5km, turn right onto the R742. Park at Raven Nature Reserve, by the woods’ entrance.
Why: Cross the dunes and turn right onto the beach. Follow the shoreline to the end of the forest, until you can see the lagoons and sand bars at the end of Raven Point. There is a colony of little terns here in summer, and grey seals bask on the sandbars. The view to the south includes Rosslare Point, and you can look out for wading birds like oystercatchers and curlews along the way. Return to the car park by following the forest roads. Corsican pines were planted here in the 1930s — in winter, watch out for wild geese grazing in the North Slob, in the fields to the west of the forest.
Route details: Loop (7km). Take the R595 from Skibbereen to Baltimore, where a daily ferry goes to the island. Start at the North Harbour and walk east along narrow roads.
Why: This is the most southerly island in Ireland. Residents include an Irish-speaking community, farming in traditional ways. Cross the island to get good views to the south of the famous Fastnet Lighthouse, and return along the clifftop to reach the South Harbour, where there is a glamping site. This is a good location to stop and watch seabirds flying past and maybe dolphins or large whales surfacing. While waiting for the return ferry, visit the longest running bird observatory in Ireland at the North Harbour — which holds more than 60 years’ worth of records on migratory birds.
Route details: One-way (19km). Take the N86 from Tralee and the R560 past Castlegregory. Start at Fermoyle and walk back to the east. The walk is level.
Why: This is part of the long-distance Dingle Way. Follow one of Ireland’s longest beaches to the east for 11km. Look out for interesting shells and jellyfish along the strandline (there are great views back west to Brandon Mountain, too). Take a small detour through the sand dunes to Lough Gill, which is the main stronghold in Ireland for the rare natterjack toad. From the end of the peninsula, there are good views of the Magharee Islands to the north and Banna Strand to the east, site of the gunrunning attempt by Roger Casement before the Easter Rising in 1916. Return by local roads to Castlegregory.
Difficulty: Moderate, with rough clifftop grassland and rocks
Route details: Westquarter loop (8km). Take the N59 north from Clifden in Connemara and follow signs to Cleggan. Catch the daily ferry from the harbour.
Why: Walking west along the road from the pier gives good views of Bosco’s castle across the harbour. This was once occupied by a pirate and was later a garrison for Cromwell’s soldiers. The footpath passes a lake, blowholes, a sea arch, and cliffs, where grey seals can be seen. Listen out for the call of the rare corncrake bird on summer evenings. There are ruins of an Iron-Age promontory fort at Dún Mór, a picturesque beach at Trá Gheal, and a famine road. Enjoy views of the uninhabited Inishark Island to the west and Twelve Bens mountains to the east, and return by local road to the harbour, where refreshments are available.
Difficulty: Easy, partly on quiet roads
Route details: Loop (8km). From Mulranny, take the R319 to Achill Sound, where a road bridge gives easy access. Alternatively, arrive on the greenway from Westport.
Why: From Keel, turn north and stop on the way for a walk around the pre-famine deserted village on the side of Slievemore. The north-east of the island near Doogort is a beautiful, quiet place. Park at Golden Strand Beach. Walk north-east on two sandy beaches separated by Corraun Point. The flat, sandy area behind the beaches is a unique machair habitat, rich in wildflowers. There is a good chance of seeing basking sharks or dolphins off shore and great views of the Mullet Peninsula and Inishkea Islands to the north. Return past Lough Doo across the bog to the starting point.
Route details: Loop (5km). From Ardara, take the R261 to the north and turn off at signs for Rosbeg. After about 4km, turn left at the sign for Trá Mór. Park at the entrance to the caravan park.
Why: Walk to the beach through low sand dunes that have all formed in the last 30 years. There are long views across the bay to Slieve Tuaidh cliffs and Inishbarnog island. The beach often has a flock of sanderlings — small white shorebirds that run along near the waves. At the far end, turn east through the high dunes passing by several pools filled with aquatic plants, including stoneworts. There are flat, grassy areas rich in wildflowers, including orchids, and the dunes are used by flocks of choughs (red-legged members of the crow family). The lake at Sheskinmore is surrounded by marshes with nesting lapwings in summer. Leave the nature reserve via a gate opposite Kiltooris Lough and return by a quiet road to the car park.
Richard Nairn is an ecologist and author. ‘Wild Shores’, his book on Ireland’s coastline and inshore waters, is published by Gill Books (€14.99) and is also available as an audio book from audible.co.uk. This is his selection of some of the best coastal walks in Ireland.