Let's get going!
From coastal routes to mountain climbs and child-friendly trails, here's the Sunday Independent's ultimate Irish walking guide
Ireland is a lovely place to take a walk. For such a small island, it offers a huge variety of landscapes to explore. And nowhere is too far from the start point of a good walking route.
“What you find is, when you do the Irish paths,” says writer and veteran walker John G O’Dwyer, “the walk across the Shehy Mountains inland is so different from the skeletal landscape that you get out in Dingle, so different again from the rolling hills of Wicklow — and then you go back up Croagh Patrick and see the lonesome West of Ireland. For such a small island, such a huge variety.”
“We have some of the most stunning, green, unspoilt environments waiting to be explored,” says Jason King, programme director of Get Ireland Walking, a Sports Ireland initiative aimed at encouraging people to boot up and step out. And, he adds, “The database of walking routes is expanding on a weekly basis.”
At the moment there are more than 900 developed trails threaded across the country (and guides to them all are available to download at irishtrails.ie) some of them long distance routes such as the 78km Sligo Way, some shorter looped walks perfect for an afternoon stroll.
There are 250 or so walks through Coillte forests, greenways and towpaths, and national parks to discover.
Even Dubliners are never too far from fresh air and a fine view.
Perhaps the trickiest part of walking in Ireland is deciding which route to choose. So we have asked four experienced hikers, walks writers and travel writers all, to share their five favourites routes to inspire you.
And you will find their 25 walks over the following pages covering all sorts of terrain and levels of difficulty, from buggy friendly to seriously strenuous, from loops to linear routes, from forest to coastal paths.
We’ve included links to downloadable maps, or details of the Ordnance Survey map number you’ll need to take with you, the length of each walk and where it starts and finishes to help you plan your day. Even where to carb up or reward yourself apres walk.
For those who like a dollop of culture and heritage with their views, O’Dwyer kicks off a week-long series of guided walks this weekend along some of our ancient pilgrim paths as part of Heritage Week and you can find details of routes — some of which feature here — and dates at pilgrimpath.ie.
By David Flanagan
Where: The Bog of Frogs Loop.
What: This route, the longest of the four signposted trails in Howth, links the coastal path with a climb over the Ben of Howth. Starting from Howth village, it isn’t long before you leave behind all signs of civilisation and it’s easy to forget you are only a stone’s throw from the city. It’s only as you make your way south that Dublin Bay is revealed, but the view is even better from the top of the Ben of Howth where you can see almost the entire east coast from the Mournes in the north to the Wicklow Mountains stretching southwards.
Start/finish: Howth Dart Station.
Getting there: From the junction of the M1 and M50 take the R139 then the R809 west before following the coast road into Howth. Alternatively take the Dart or cycle along the newly opened Dublin Bay Cycle Path.
Level: The rough path runs close to the cliff edge in places so this route is only suitable for those who are very steady on their feet.
Length/time to walk: 12km/3hr.
Pack: Wear boots or shoes with excellent grip. Download the route map from irishtrails.ie before you set off.
Refuel: With a bag of fish and chips from the legendary Beshoffs on Harbour Road, Howth.
Where: The Scalp Lookout Trail, Co Dublin.
What: This short loop around Barnaslingan Wood is a great place for the kids, particularly when the weather isn’t great as you are never too far from the car. If you tackle the loop in an anti-clockwise direction, you start by descending through a pine forest before climbing up a track lined with beautiful beech trees. You then emerge on to open ground and follow the path to the highlight of the walk, the viewing point overlooking the Scalp. Perched on the edge of the steep rocky slopes you have an almost bird’s eye view over the Enniskerry Road and, if you are lucky, you may even spot wild goats grazing on the opposite side. This walk can also be easily linked with a circuit around the Leadmines taking in the iconic chimney as well as the rocky dome known as Carrickgollogan.
Start/Finish: Barnaslingan Wood near Kilternan.
Get there: Follow the R117 south from Dundrum, shortly after Kilternan turn left on to Barnaslingan Lane and the car park is on the right at the top of the steep hill.
Level: Some rough tracks but should be suitable for all the family.
Length/Time to walk: 1.5km/45min.
Pack: Make sure to download the map from irishtrails.ie as even though the route is signposted it can be a little confusing.
Refuel: Head to Johnny Fox’s (jfp.ie) in Glencullen where you can order some good seafood or enjoy a pint by the fireside.
Where: Fairy Castle Loop, Co Dublin.
What: This route packs in plenty of height gain and rough mountain terrain into a relatively short distance all within a stone’s throw of the M50. From the car park in Ticknock Woods, follow the tarmac road steeply uphill through the forest to the granite tors and towering aerials that mark the top of Three Rock Mountain. The trail continues uphill, following the rocky track to the huge cairn at the summit of Fairy Castle. Here you have a 360 degree panoramic view with the city to the north and the Wicklow Mountains to the south. From Fairy Castle a muddy track heads west before you turn north and descend along the edge of the forest and back to the car.
Start/Finish: Ticknock Wood.
Get there: From the city head south to Marlay Park via Rathfarnham. After passing the main entrance to the Park take the next right turn. At Taylor’s Grange turn left on to the R113. After passing over the M50 turn right and follow the steep road up to the entrance to the forest.
Level: This route crosses open mountainside on rough tracks so is only suitable for properly equipped and experienced walkers.
Length: Time to walk: 5.5km/1hr 45min.
Pack: Sturdy footwear and good waterproofs are essential. Bring a copy of EastWest Mapping’s Dublin & North Wicklow Mountains map or download the route map from dublinmountains.ie.
Refuel: The Blue Light on the eastern slopes of Three Rock Mountain is a great place for a post-walk pint.
Where: Bray to Greystones Cliff Walk, Co Wicklow.
What: The narrow coastal path linking Bray and Greystones travels through some spectacular terrain. From the Promenade in Bray, you climb around the side of Bray Head, quickly leaving behind the busy seaside town. For the next 3km the path winds its way along the edge of the hillside while below your feet the cliffs drop steeply to the Irish Sea. Eventually the path descends back to sea level and a final flat stretch leads to the recently refurbished harbour in Greystones. To return to Bray either jump on the Dart or, if you’re feeling energetic, retrace your steps.
Start/finish: Bray Seafront/ Greystones Harbour.
Get there: Either take the Dart to Bray and walk the short distance to the seafront and up to the foot of Bray Head, or drive south on the M11, taking the first exit for Bray and turning left off the Main Street on to Quinsborough Road which leads to the seafront. Or park at Raheen Park on Bray Head and join the walk there.
Level: Suitable for beginners.
Length/Time to Walk: 6km/2hr 30min
Pack: Don’t forget some cash for an ice cream or bag of chips in Greystones; download a map at irishtrails.ie.
Refuel: Enjoy a pint sitting out in front of The Beach House (beachhousepub.ie) which overlooks the harbour in Greystones or carb up at The Happy Pear (thehappypear.ie) on Church Road in Greystones.
Where: Saint Kevin’s Way, Glendalough, Co Wicklow.
What: This ancient route follows in the footsteps of the medieval pilgrims who walked through the Wicklow Mountains to visit Saint Kevin’s tomb in the monastic city of Glendalough. From the village of Hollywood, the route contours around Slievecorragh Hill, passing through a narrow pass known as the Scalp before following the meandering course of the King’s River upstream to the highest point of the route, the desolate pass known as Wicklow Gap. You then begin to descend passing Lough Nahanagan, the site of the Turlough Hill power station, before dropping down a steep stone path into the Glendasan valley where you follow the stream into Glendalough. If you fancy a guided walk, Irish Pilgrim Paths will walk this route on August 24, all welcome. For details, pilgrimpath.ie
Start/Finish: Hollywood village, Co Wicklow Glendalough, Co Wicklow.
Get there: Take the N81 south out of Dublin, pass through Blessington and 3km after Poulaphouca take the left for Hollywood.
Level: A long, hard walk crossing exposed mountainside with rough and boggy ground.
Length/Time to walk: 30km/one day.
Pack: Ordnance Survey Ireland OSI Discovery Series map 56 or you can download detailed route maps from irishtrails.ie.
Refuel: Treat yourself with a big feed in the excellent Wicklow Heather restaurant (wicklowheather.ie) in Laragh.
Where: Maulin Mountain Loop, Co Wicklow.
What: Seen from Crone Wood car park, Maulin seems to loom overhead in an intimidating fashion but don’t despair as the track weaves its way reasonably gently upwards and the climb isn’t as tough as it looks. Initially, you follow the Wicklow Way and pass Ride Rock where you have an excellent view over Powerscourt Waterfall, Ireland’s highest waterfall. A short while later you leave the Wicklow Way and climb a number of steep hairpin bends. Eventually the angle relents and the track levels out. While the signposted route doesn’t take in the summit, it’s possible, and very worthwhile, to make the short detour. The route then starts to descend, following a series of paths and tracks back to the car park.
Start/Finish: Crone Wood (the car park can fill up quickly on weekends so arrive early to be sure of getting a place).
Get there: From the N11 take the Kilmacanogue exit. Follow the R755 towards Glendalough but turn right on to the R760 after Rocky Valley. Take the second turn left (signposted for Powerscourt Waterfall). Crone Wood is on the left 2km past the entrance to the Waterfall.
Level: Moderate, this walk follows good gravel paths but has significant height gain.
Length/time to walk: 6km/2hr 30min.
Pack: K OSI Discovery Series map 56 or irishtrails.ie. You can also download a detailed route map from visitwicklow.ie.
Refuel: Enniskerry has some excellent coffee shops or you can visit Avoca Cafe at the Powerscourt Estate (powerscourt.com) on the outskirts of the town.
Where: The Barnavave Loop, Co Louth.
What: The Cooleys in Louth are a compact range of mountains overlooking the Mournes, their taller neighbours on the other side of Carlingford Lough. This loop follows a mix of boreens, forestry roads, grassy tracks and mountains paths in a loop across the grabbro-studded peaks of The Eagles Rock, Slieve Foyne and Barnavae. There is plenty of height gain, with some steep inclines near the start, but the hard work is more than justified by the stunning views from the summit of Barnavae across the Lough to the Mournes. On a clear day, you might even be able to make out the Isle of Man.
Start/Finish: Tourist Office in Carlingford.
Get there: Head north on the M1 exit on to the R173 just after Dundalk and follow the road into the village.
Level: Some boggy ground and open mountainside make this walk more suitable for experienced walkers.
Length/time to Walk: 14km/4hr
Pack: OSI Discovery Series map 36 or download a map from irishtrails.ie.
Refuel: Ruby Ellen’s Tea Rooms (rubyellens.com) on Newry Street in Carlingford is renowned for home-made cakes and scones.
Where: The Jean Kennedy Smith Walk, Co Wexford.
What: There is a number of interesting sights along the 5km loop, including the Tree of Liberty which was planted by Jean Kennedy Smith on her visit in 1995, Father Murphy’s Grave and the Bygone Days storytelling house. However, the highpoint of the walk, literally and figuratively, is Oulart Hill. The hill was the scene of a stunning United Irishmen victory in 1798, and in 1999 a monument was erected to commemorate the battle. Tulach a’t Solais consists of a grassy burial mound cleaved in half by a narrow passage that leads into a stark, modern chamber.
Start/Finish: Oulart village, Co Wexford.
Get there: From Enniscorthy follow the R744 west. After a few kilometres, the R744 turns right but continue straight ahead for another 10km to Oulart village. Turn left in the village and park opposite the church.
Length/Time to walk: 4.8km/1hr 15 mins
Pack: OSI Discovery Series map 69. You can also download the route map and find plenty more information about the area and its history on oularthill.ie.
Refuel: A short drive south is the Unyoke Country Kitchen at Blackwater, Enniscorthy. The beautiful thatched cottage is home to a cafe, restaurant and pub which has been there since shortly after the 1798 rebellion.
Where: The Mesolithic Loop, Lough Boora Discovery Park, Co Offaly
What: Lough Boora park is located on a former commercial bog but nowadays the 2,000 hectare site is home to a sculpture park and over 50km of paths. The Mesolithic Loop, just one of the park’s five walks, passes by the site where the remains of ancient camp fires and 1,500 artefacts dating from the Middle Stone Age were discovered. The route also passes through the Leabeg Wetland, a site of national importance for whooper swans. During the summer the rich grassland provides cover for ground nesting birds such as the skylark, meadow pipit and smaller mammals, including hares and foxes.
Start/Finish: Lough Boora Visitor Centre
Get there: From Tullamore head southwest along the N52. At Blueball turn right on to the R357. After 8km turn left into the park.
Level: Flat, well signposted, suitable for all.
Length/Time to walk: 9km/2hr 30min.
Pack: Over 130 bird species have been recorded in the park so don’t forget your binoculars. Check out the walk route on loughboora.com.
Refuel: There is a coffee shop in the visitor centre (CaToCafinefood.com) with a timber deck where you can sit and look over Loch an Dochas and Boora Lake.
Where: Dunmore Woods Loop, Durrow, Co Laois
What: This delightful lowland walk follows a network of country lanes, river bank, forestry paths and woodland tracks through the Laois countryside. The route sets off through the Castle Durrow Estate before a quiet road bring you to the Dunmore Demense. After looping through woodland, the trail heads south along the banks of the River Nore. Leaving the river at Knockatrina Wood, where during early summer the forest floor is a carpet of bluebells and wild garlic, a series of leafy lane ways and back roads lead back into Durrow. If you have more time there is a very worthwhile longer variation (23km), known as the Leafy Loop, that extends the southern part of the route.
Start/Finish: In Durrow village opposite the entrance to Castle Durrow.
Get there: Durrow lies on the N77 halfway between Portlaoise and Kilkenny City.
Level: The trail is flat and well-marked so suited to those without much hiking experience.
Length/Time to walk: 15.6km/2hr 30min.
Pack: OSI Discovery Series map 60. You can also download the route map from irishtrails.ie.
Refuel: Bowe’s Foodhall & Cafe (bowescafe.ie) in the main square in Durrow serves breakfast, lunch and sweet treats. Sit out in the old walled garden if the sun is shining.
What: The River Barrow towpath
It’s like walking into a Constable painting, said one commentator. It’s the path of dreams, said another. The River Barrow towpath is a green heaven, soft grass underfoot and the green trees and banks reflected all the way in the water. You won’t hear a car for miles. You won’t even hear your own footfall.
The towpath runs for 114km from Monasterevin to St Mullins — but why not start at Ballytiglea Bridge near Borris in Co Carlow. From here you can walk past weirs and locks on your right side, with the magnificent trees of Borris House demense on your left.
Choose how far you want to walk. It’s about 6.4km to Clashganny, another 4.8km to Graignamanagh with its 13th century abbey, another 6.4km or so to the seventh century monastic settlement of St Mullins. You’ll see herons and dippers and kingfishers on the way. You might even spot an otter.
You can park at all these places. You can eat well at the Step House in Borris; at Clashganny House; at the Waterside, Boats, and the Duiske Inn in Graignamanagh; and at Cafe Muilleachain in St Mullins. It’s flat all the way but boots and walking gear are most comfortable.
For route maps, see irishtrails.ie. Olivia O’Leary is a journalist, author and campaigner.
By Adrian Hendroff
Where: Galtymore, Co Tipperary.
What: The queen of the Galtee Mountains bears the accolade of being Ireland’s highest inland peak (919m). It rises proudly above the lush valley of the Glen of Aherlow in Co Tipperary. Standing regal like an overturned ark above the blue waters of Lough Curra — it begs to be climbed! This connoisseur’s route takes in three other tops, from clockwise: Cush (639m), Galtybeg (799m) and Slievecushnabinnia (766m). Look out for impressive corries housing Borheen Lough, Lough Diheen and Lough Curra en-route. The top of Galtymore is crowned by a white Celtic cross near its summit cairn.
Get there: From Lisvarrinane village, head east along the R663 for 1km, then turn right. Next, turn left at a T-junction around another 1km later. Drive for yet another 1km to a junction east of Clydagh Bridge, then turn right into a lane to reach the forest entrance around 300m further.
Start/Finish: Forest entrance near Clydagh Bridge in the Glen of Aherlow.
Level: Suits experienced hillwalkers.
Length/Time to walk: 12km/ 5-6 hours.
Pack: A compass, spare clothes, waterproofs; a copy of Helen Fairbairn’s guidebook Ireland’s Best Walks; OSI Discovery Series Sheet 74.
Refuel: At Ballinacourty House Restaurant (ballinacourtyhse.com) or dine at the Treetop Restaurant at Aherlow House Hotel (aherlowhouse.ie).
Where: Reenconnell, Dingle, Co Kerry.
What: A gem of a hill offering the loveliest of vistas. Follow a waymarked trail from Kilmalkedar church. The trail is part of Cosan na Naomh (Road of the Saints), an 18km pilgrim’s route linking ancient Christian sites on the Dingle Peninsula. Cherish spectacular views from its modest 274m summit of the entire Brandon mountain group — a majestic range from Masatiompan to Ballysitteragh; the green, rolling countryside; the blue arm of Smerwick Harbour; and the lesser hills, of Mount Eagle and Cruach Mhárthain. For those wishing to do the entire route, Irish Pilgrim Paths will lead a walk here on August 22, all welcome (pilgrimpath.ie).
Start/Finish: At a lane by Kilmalkedar church and graveyard.
Get there: From Dingle town, head northwest along the R559 toward Murreagh. After around 7.5km, arrive at Kilmalkedar church and park there.
Level: Easy, suitable for families with young children.
Length/Time to Walk: 3.5km/ 1-2 hours.
Pack: A headtorch (pre-sunrise, post-sunset); a copy of Adrian Hendroff’s guidebook The Dingle Peninsula; OSI Discovery Series Sheet 70. Don’t forget an extra layer or two of clothing, snacks and drinks for the kids.
Refuel: You’re spoilt for choice when it comes to pubs and restaurants — but seafood lovers will enjoy Out of the Blue (outoftheblue.ie) in Dingle.
Where: Cnoc na dTobar, Co Kerry.
What: Cnoc na dTobar — also known as Knocknadobar — is a site devoted to St Fursey, a 7th century saint who was said to have been cured of blindness here. This exhilarating climb to the broad 690m summit is along an old pilgrim’s path. It’s fully waymarked along 14 Stations placed at intervals. Savour a panorama of Coonanna Harbour and Killelan Mountain, then traverse an airy crest. Vast green-brown plains unfold and a hilly backdrop extends west, hugging the blue waters of Portmagee Channel. This is Co Kerry at its scenic best. Pass a concrete cross/stone altar erected by Canon Brosnan in 1885. Finally reach a trig pillar/stone shelter on the summit. The view is full of superlatives and includes nearly all the mountains of Iveragh and Dingle. Interesting point of note: the two other sacred sites of Brandon Mountain and Skellig Michael, both within sight, form a perfect triangle with the summit – coincidence?
Start/Finish: Lay-by opposite the signposted start (see below).
Get there: Drive across Cahersiveen bridge from the town. Turn right around 800m after crossroads. Continue on a narrow road, the ‘Ring of Kerry Cycle Route’, for around 1.5km to reach a fork. Veer left and drive another 1.25km to a T-junction. Turn left, pass a grotto, then park at a lay-by slightly further away.
Level: Best for novice hillwalkers.
Length/Time to walk: 7 km/ 3-4 hrs.
Pack: A compass and a set of waterproofs; a copy of Adrian Hendroff’s guidebook Killarney to Valentia Island; OSI Discovery Series Sheet 83.
Refuel: At Petit Delice for desserts or Camo’s (camos.ie), Cahersiveen.
Where: Coomloughra Horseshoe, Co Kerry.
What: Soar as high as eagles in this super route! The MacGillycuddy’s Reeks is home to Ireland’s highest summits: Carrauntoohil (1,040m), Beenkeragh (1,010m) and Caher (1,001m). A concrete path known as the Hydro Road leads uphill to Lough Eighter. The location is jaw-dropping: a stunning natural amphitheatre surrounded by peaks. Now head clockwise. First up, the airy summit of Beenkeragh, then gingerly tiptoe across its narrow ridge. Bypass a rocky pinnacle (The Bone) at its end and drop to the col above O’Shea’s Gully. Next, ascend a steep treadmill of rock decorated by St Patrick’s Cabbage and pink Sea Thrift to reach the cross/stone shelter on Carrauntoohil. Here, you are above it all. Enjoy views of the Kingdom, back toward Beenkeragh and along the Reeks’ dramatic eastern ridge. Next descend toward Caher and gaze across Coomloughra again. After Caher West Top (975m), descend a slope and over 1km further, come off it back to Lough Eighter.
Start/Finish: A large car park at the base of the Hydro Road (V771 871).
Get there: Via a cobweb of minor roads from Killorglin or Beaufort — best to use the map or GPS.
Level: Suits very experienced hillwalkers with a head for heights!
Length/Time to walk: 13.5km/6-7hrs.
Pack: A compass, headtorch, spare clothes, waterproofs; a copy of Adrian Hendroff’s guidebook Killarney to Valentia Island — which charts the Iveragh Peninsula; and MacGillycuddy’s Reeks & Killarney National Park from the the OSI Adventure Series.
Refuel: Carb up at Kate Kearney’s Cottage (katekearneyscottage.com) and stay at Lough Acoose House B&B (acoose-house-glencar.com) in Glencar.
Where: Cliffs of Moher Coastal Path, Co Clare.
What: The quintessential sensory experience! The jewel in the crown of Co Clare, the timeless cliffs span 8km of coastline and tower 214m above the Atlantic. In the spring and summer, thousands of nesting sea birds and puffins can also be seen. Follow a clifftop footpath southwest from O’Brien’s Tower to Moher’s Tower (a Napoleonic signal tower built in the 1800s) at Hag’s Head. At the end, a path heads inland from Moher’s Tower to the Sports Field.
Start/Finish: Cliffs of Moher Visitor Centre Car Park/Moher Sports Field.
Get there: From Lahinch, turn right onto the R478 (signposted ‘Cliffs of Moher’) just after Santa Maria Hotel. Follow the road for around 4km to reach Liscannor village. Go through the village and follow the R478 as it twists and turns. Pass Murphy’s and Considine’s pub to soon arrive at the Cliffs of Moher Visitor Centre.
Level: Suits beginners.
Length/Time to walk: 6.5km/ 1-3hrs.
Pack: Your camera; a copy of Helen Fairbairn’s guidebook Ireland’s Best Walks (Collins Press); OSI Discovery Series Sheet 51 and 57.
Refuel: At the restaurant at the visitor centre (cliffsofmoher.ie). Don’t miss the cliff exhibition.
Old Head, Co. Mayo
Travel to Westport in Co Mayo and there’s one thing that’s not easy to ignore — Croagh Patrick.
Humans have been visiting this beast of a mountain for more than 3,000 years and it has a majestic presence that dominates the area.
If you want to revel in its beauty from afar, travel towards Louisburgh and visit Old Head beach. It’s a charming, sheltered place to swim, relax and admire the view. But if you’re like me, your attention will quickly switch away from the big mountain towards a tantalising spot above Old Head where a nature reserve conceals one of the most glorious walks in Ireland.
To the left of Old Head pier, climb upwards. The wood is a special area of conservation and it’s replete with oak, birch, rowan, beech and sycamore.
If the ocean is your thing, then stick to the coast where you may soon see otters and bottlenose dolphins.
It’s steep and dramatic. Keep walking until you turn your back on the coast and face a small country road which will bring you to Louisburgh.
By this stage you’ll be thirsty, and if local beer is your tipple then drop into An Bhun Abhainn for some thirst-quenching Mescan beer which is produced by two local vets on a nearby working farm.
Old Head woodland will entrance and for a moment or two you may even forget the soaring cone-shaped sacred mountain behind you. The story goes that Mescan was St Patrick’s personal brewer. Raise your glass to the Reek for forgiveness!
Irish food and farming journalist Ella McSweeney presents ‘Ear to the Ground’ on RTE 1 television.
By Nicola Brady
Where: Diamond Hill, Connemara National Park, Co Galway.
What: There are two options for this hike — the accessible Lower Diamond Hill and the more challenging Upper Diamond Hill. Both are well signposted with maintained trails, making them the perfect starter hike for newbies or families. The Upper trail takes you to the peak of Diamond Hill, where you’ll be met with stunning views of Connemara, the Twelve Bens and beyond. While the Lower trail mightn’t reach the same heights, the views are just as impressive.
Start/Finish: The Visitor Centre in Connemara National Park, right by Letterfrack. This is a loop walk so the route takes you back to the start point.
Get there: From Clifden, follow the N59 for 15km. If you’re coming from Letterfrack, the turning is just off the Connemara Loop.
Level: Best for beginners and families.
Length/Time to walk: 3-7km/2hr.
Pack: Good solid hiking boots and waterproofs. Download the map from irishtrails.ie.
Refuel: At Veldons Seafarer (veldons.ie) in Letterfrack, where bar food is available every day from 12noon — 9pm. For café food, stay around in the Visitor Centre.
Where: Keem Valley, Achill, Co Mayo.
What: Surely a contender for one of the prettiest beaches in Ireland, Keem Bay is a gorgeous spot on the island of Achill. This walk kicks off with a steep climb from the car park, following the sod trail to the top of the cliffs, where you’ll get amazing views of the bay (keep an eye out for the basking sharks which sometimes swim in these waters). After an initial strenuous climb to the top of the cliff, the walk levels out, taking you past old coastguard watch houses, the Deserted Village and look-out points jutting out into the Atlantic. On a clear day, the view of the island and beyond is unbeatable.
Start/Finish: The lower car park at Keem Bay beach.
Get there: Achill is around 50km from Westport, and Keem Bay is a good 30-minute drive from Achill Sound.
Level: Best for fit beginners.
Pack: Good warm layers, as weather can change rapidly on Achill, and you’ll be at the mercy of the elements. Download a map from achilltourism.com
Refuel: At the Achill Sound Hotel (achillsoundhotel.com), on the way off the island, for a hearty lunch and a pint, open daily. In summer months, a van parks up in Keem Bay where you can get a bag of (well-deserved) chips.
Where: The Benwee Loop, Co Mayo.
What: Following a dramatic coastline over open bogland and stunning cliff tops, this loop is a tough one, but the views are so worth it. You’ll be covering a fair ascent, but the bogland underfoot gives you a bit of a bounce, making life easier (in dry weather, that is). This section of coastline will enthral birdwatchers — look out for the gannets swooping down into the sea. The area is a living Gaeltacht, so throw in a cupla focal if you pass a fellow walker.
Start/Finish: The loop walk starts and finishes at Carrowteigue Village, a 30-minute drive from Belmullet.
Get there: From Belmullet, take the R313 and R314 to Glenamoy, where you’ll turn left onto the L1023.
Length/Time to walk:12.4km/5hrs.
Pack: A windbreaker and enough water and food to keep you going. Download a detailed map from irishtrails.ie or pick up OSI Discovery Series 22 and 23
Refuel: At The Talbot Hotel (thetalbothotel.ie) in Belmullet, with excellent seafood and hearty portions, food served daily until 9pm.
Where: The Sligo Way’s final section: Sligo to Leitrim.
What: In its entirety, the Sligo Way stretches for 78km, from Lough Talt to Dromahair, over the Ox Mountain range. A great section to tackle is the final, more sheltered 10km from Slish Wood out to Dromahair. You’ll enjoy stunning views of Lough Gill on an easy trail with lakeside paths, woodland and open fields. A very short (and signposted) detour will take you down to the jetty for a view of the Lake Isle of Innisfree, just a short distance from Dromahair.
Start/Finish: Slish Wood, about 9km from Sligo town /finish at Dromahair village, Co Leitrim, 19km from Sligo.
Get there: From Sligo, take the N4 towards Carraroe, then follow the signs for Ballintogher on the R287 — Slish Wood is about 5km away.
Level: Good for beginners.
Pack: Your favourite Yeats verses — Slish Wood features frequently in his poetry, and don’t forget to recite ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’. Download the detailed map from irishtrails.ie; OSI Discovery Series 25.
Refuel: At the Village Tea Rooms in Dromahair make for a pretty pitstop – grab a cup of coffee and some homemade cake (or slip into Stanford’s pub for a well-earned pint).
Where: The Miner’s Way, Ballaghboy to Castlebaldwin section, Co Sligo.
What: A 118km trail that encompasses both the Miner’s Way and the Historical Trail, this route makes up a figure of eight through the counties of Sligo, Roscommon and Leitrim. The route passes through areas of significant historical interest, from the Arigna Mines to the Boyle Abbey. On the section from Ballaghboy to Castlebaldwin you’ll pass Bricklieve Mountains and Carrowkeel Megalithic Cemetery, where you’ll find 14 passage graves and cairns dating back to 3,000BC. Go off route slightly to explore in more detail. Waymarkers can be a little hidden, particularly when growth is wild.
Start/Finish: Ballaghboy, around 30-minutes from Sligo town/finish at Castlebaldwin, on N4.
Get there: From Sligo, head down the N4 for around 33km, then turn right. You’ll need to arrange two cars or a pick up, as the route is linear.
Level: Best for country walkers.
Pack: A copy of The Miner’s Way & Historical Trail Map Guide, to help weave your way; download a map from irishtrails.ie or pick up OSI Discovery Series 25
Refuel: At McDermott’s Restaurant (mcdermottsrestaurant.com), Castlebaldwin, is a cosy spot serving food all day, every day.
By Helen Fairbairn
Where: Slieve League, Co Donegal.
What: Prepare to be awed — home to some of the highest and most impressive sea cliffs in Europe, Slieve League is one of the signature discovery points of the Wild Atlantic Way. It doesn’t take long to appreciate why; from Bunglass it’s impossible not to be dazzled by the sheer scale and drama of the cliffs before you. The standard approach to the 595m summit makes an out-and-back ascent along the cliffline. It’s a spectacular outing, but you’ll need to be fully prepared for a hillwalk, following an informal trail up sometimes steep slopes.
Start/Finish: At Bunglass car park, at the southern end of the cliffs
Get there: From Killybegs, head west along the R263. Pass through Carrick and Teelin, then turn right onto a steep road signed for Bunglass. Continue through a gate and park at the end of the road.
Level: Demanding — there’s 500m of ascent and precipitous, unprotected drops to the ocean.
Pack: OSI Discovery Series 10, a copy of Helen Fairbairn’s Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way: A Walking Guide, plus good boots, a compass, food and extra clothing.
Refuel: At the ice-cream van in Bunglass car park, or the atmospheric Rusty Mackerel pub, in Teelin, along the road back to Carrick.
Where: The Causeway Coast Path, Co Antrim.
What: This magnificent linear route explores the celebrated Causeway Coast, taking you past a host of famous sites. Features include Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, Ballintoy Harbour, the golden sands of White Park Bay, and Northern Ireland’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site at the Giant’s Causeway. The best option route-wise is to complete the central section of the Causeway Coast Way, which passes along cliff tops and through natural arches, and is fully signed throughout.
Start/Finish: At Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, located off the B12 just east of Ballintoy in Antrim/finish at The Giant’s Causeway car park, off the B146 around 3km north of Bushmills.
Get there: Between June and September, the Ulsterbus 404 Causeway Rambler service runs along this coast seven times daily, offering a great option for the shuttle and saving yourself the parking fee at the Giant’s Causeway.
Level: Moderate — it’s quite long, with an undulating, unsurfaced trail.
Pack: A copy of the free booklet Walker’s Guide to the Causeway Coast (see activitybrochuresni.com) and a note of tide times; the section around White Park Bay is impassable at high tide.
Refuel: At Roarks Kitchen, a lovely waterside cafe at Ballintoy harbour.
Where: The trails of Glenariff Forest Park, Co Antrim.
What: Located at the heart of Glenariff, the queen of Antrim’s famous glacial glens, this forest park offers far more than just trees. There are four signed walking trails, varying in distance from 1km to 9km long. The best option is to combine the red Waterfall Trail and black Scenic Trail, taking in some 22 waterfalls, rocky river gorges, and fabulous views along the towering rock escarpment that encloses the northern side of the glen.
Start/Finish: At Laragh Lodge car park, on the eastern side of Glenariff Forest Park.
Get there: The forest park is on the A43 Ballymena-Cushendall road. To get to Laragh Lodge, turn south off the A43 about 2.5km east of the main forest entrance.
Level: Easy — signed trails and constructed walkways.
Pack: Your camera for the waterfall viewpoints. Collect a trail map on arrival or refer to Helen Fairbairn’s Northern Ireland: A Walking Guide.
Refuel: At Laragh Lodge (laraghlodge.co.uk), at the start and finish, a waterside pub offering a full range of food and drinks. The park teahouse, beside the main forest car park, is another option for a break during the walk.
Where: Cave Hill, Belfast, Co Down.
What: For a wider perspective over Northern Ireland’s capital city, there’s no better vantage point than the summit of Cave Hill. Like Cape Town’s Table Mountain, this sheer escarpment erupts from the suburbs of Belfast and boasts an unparalleled viewpoint over the city. The route is fully signed, following green waymarks throughout. It’s a steep climb past the hollow of The Devil’s Punchbowl to reach McArt’s Fort or Nelson’s Nose, as the summit lookout is variously known. Vertigo sufferers will be particularly impressed by the gaping chasm beneath the cliff edge.
Start/Finish: At a car park just before Belfast Castle in Cave Hill Country Park.
Get there: Follow signs for Belfast Castle and Cave Hill Country Park from Antrim Road, in the north-western suburbs of Belfast.
Level: Moderate — the circuit may be short but it’s steep.
Pack: Hiking boots to help negotiate the steep and sometimes unsurfaced trail.
Refuel: At the Cellar Restaurant, deep in the vaults of Belfast Castle. Treat yourself to a full meal after your climb, or settle for an atmospheric drink in the bar.
Where: Summit of Slieve Donard, Co Down.
What: Northern Ireland has many fabulous mountains but its most famous peak is Slieve Donard, the highest point in Ulster at 850m. With slopes rising directly from the sea and a summit that provides panoramic views over the entire Mourne Mountain range, it’s no wonder this is the most popular hillwalk in the province. The most straightforward route is an out-and-back ascent from Newcastle, following the Glen River Track through beautiful Donard Wood.
Start/Finish: At Donard Park car park at the southern end of Newcastle town.
Get there: Newcastle lies along the A2 in Co Down.
Level: Demanding — 850m of ascent means previous hill-walking experience is required.
Pack: All the gear you need to stay safe on a mountain, including good hiking boots, OSNI 1:50,000 map No 29, a compass, food, and warm and waterproof clothing.
Refuel: At Newcastle town, where you’ll find a wide range of tempting cafes, bars and restaurants. Get down from the hill and choose any reward that calls your name!
You could call walking the perfect exercise — it’s easy, it’s free and you don’t need to be coached in how to put your best foot forward.
As for the benefits, they’re huge at any age. Walking regularly, ideally 30 minutes five times a week, strengthens your bones, slashes your risk of chronic disease and some cancers, increases metabolism and improves your response to insulin (which may also whittle your waistline), decreases the risk of dementia, and is a zero-calorie way to improve your mood.
Green exercise — as it’s called — also reduces stress levels, while walking with others is a great way to catch up with friends and family and, if you opt for a walking group, to build a new community for yourself.
“Walking,” says Jason King, of Get Ireland Walking, “is the first thing we want to do after we crawl as babies and the last thing we want to give up as we age.
"We should embrace this notion and become more aware of our walking behaviours, promote walking by engaging with the activity for the physical, social and well-being benefits and advocate for more safe and accessible local walking routes for our families, friends and ourselves to enjoy into old age.”
John Kavanagh of Dublin & Wicklow Mountain Rescue Team, a volunteer force on call 24 hours a day, has sound advice for all would-be hillwalkers:
“Before you head out on the hills, there are some things that will help you to enjoy our beautiful countryside safely. If you’re new to hillwalking, don’t overreach, start off on a marked trail.
“Always have a plan for where you’re going, and how you are going to get back. Please bring a paper map [the Sunday Independent’s ‘25 Best Walks in Ireland’ includes OSI, irishtrails.ie or other references for its walks] and compass and learn how to use them.
“Using a phone for navigation is far from ideal, and should be avoided. Mountaineering Ireland’s Mountain Skills programme (mountaineering.ie) offers an excellent way to develop your knowledge and skills a little further.
“Weather conditions in the hills can change quickly, so it’s important to prepare. When you head into the hills, always pack a waterproof jacket and trousers. A warm layer, like a fleece jacket, and a hat and gloves are also essentials.
“A few thin layers, instead of one thick one, is an ideal way to regulate temperature. You can add or remove layers as the terrain, and the effort required, changes.
“Ideally, you should wear hiking boots — and avoid wearing runners. Wearing two pairs of socks, a thin pair inside a thicker pair, will help to avoid blisters. Remember, dry feet are happy feet; happy hikers have happy feet.
“You’ll be working, so you need fuel; a four-hour hike can burn well over 1,000 calories. Nuts and dried fruit are a good option for snacking.
“You’ll need something more substantial if you’re going to be out for more than a few hours.
Foods that are high in healthy fats and protein will keep you going for longer.
“Don’t forget to bring enough water. Being adequately fed and hydrated will help avoid hypothermia — one of the biggest avoidable risks when hillwalking in Ireland. Please remember to respect the outdoors, look up Leave No Trace (leavenotraceireland.org) for some great advice.”
For mountain rescue, dial 999 or 112; mountaineering.ie.
Dublin & Leinster - David Flanagan
Ever since he was introduced to the outdoors as a boy scout, David Flanagan has been a keen hiker, climber and cyclist. These days, he’s lucky enough to be able to combine his passion for the outdoors with his work as a writer and publisher.
He stumbled into his career after he was made redundant from his job as a software engineer in 2009. He took the chance to write and self-publish his first book, Bouldering in Ireland.
Reluctant to return to a real job, he divides his time between being a stay-at-home dad and writing and has written two more rock climbing books. Last year he co-wrote and published the first guidebook to the Wild Atlantic Way, Exploring Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way. He is currently working on a guide to the best of Irish cycling, out in spring 2018.
Munster - Adrian Hendroff
A qualified mountain guide, Adrian adores the mountains of Ireland. Adrian has climbed all 273 Vandeleur-Lynams (Irish summits over 600m) and all 407 Arderins (Irish summits over 500m). He has also hiked and climbed all over the British Isles and further abroad such as Iceland, Romania, the Alps, Picos, Dolomites and Tenerife.
Picking a favourite is tricky for him but his top five Irish peaks, in no particular order, are: Carrauntoohil, Devilsmother, Errigal, Slieve Binnian and Brandon Mountain.
His most memorable moment was a wild camp in the Middle Earth-esque landscape of Coomalougha Lough, Co Kerry — experiencing contrasting weather elements from banshee winds to a starlit night-sky (read all about it in his book From High Places).
Adrian has penned six guidebooks for The Collins Press, including The Dingle Peninsula, The Dingle, Iveragh and Beara Peninsulas, The Beara and Sheep’s Head Peninsulas, Killarney to Valentia Island, Donegal, Sligo and Leitrim and Family Walks Around Dublin. They are available in all good bookshops and online from collinspress.ie.
Adrian is a member of the Outdoor Writers and Photographers’ Guild and never sets out without his Canon EOS camera kit.
The West - Nicola Brady
Nicola is a travel writer who has lived in Leitrim for 10 years. With a huge array of gorgeous trails on her doorstep, she enjoys heading out into the hills for a stomp around whenever the conditions allow.
One of her favourite walks in the area is up O’Rourke’s Table, a short climb just outside the village of Dromahair, where 300 steep steps lead to the peak of the mountain and views of Lough Gill and Sligo Bay. She also loves the Gleniff Horseshoe, and has climbed Benbulbin twice (once at night, in the driving rain).
Outside of Ireland, her most challenging hike was in the impenetrable forest in Uganda, where she hiked at altitude for six hours, to see gorillas in the wild (it was most definitely worth it). She never sets out without her phone, water and as many tissues as her pockets can carry.
Ulster - Helen Fairbairn
Helen’s love of the mountains began when she was 18, and joined the mountaineering club at Queen’s University in Belfast. Since then all her adventures have had a mountainous theme.
A keen traveller, she has explored many of the greatest ranges on earth, including the Himalayas, European Alps, Patagonia, New Zealand and The Rocky Mountains.
Helen’s publishing career began with a perfect combination of walking and travel, when she started producing hiking guidebooks for Lonely Planet. Since then she has authored 13 walking guides, covering a variety of international destinations.
In recent years her focus has been closer to home, and she has written a series of four books for The Collins Press, including Ireland’s Best Walks and Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way: A Walking Guide.
She lives in Co Sligo with her two children and husband, the acclaimed landscape photographer Gareth McCormack.
Sunday Indo Living