Friday 23 February 2018

25 Best Winter Walks in Ireland: Get off the couch and into the great outdoors

Too much turkey and stuffing? Here's how you can blow off the cobwebs

Sunset on a winter walk. Photo: Adrian Hendroff
Sunset on a winter walk. Photo: Adrian Hendroff
looking towards Errigal, Co. Donegal. Photo: Fáilte Ireland
Map: Dublin's Winter Walks (Sunday Independent)
Map: Leinster's Winter Walks (Sunday Independent)
Map: Munster's Winter Walks (Sunday Independent)
Map: The West's Winter Walks (Sunday Independent)
Map: Ulster's Winter Walks (Sunday Independent)
Phoenix Park, Dublin. Photo: Tony Gavin
Lough Nafooey. Photo: Adrian Hendroff
David Flanagan
John G. O'Dwyer
Helen Fairbairn

Helen Fairbairn, Adrian Hendroff, John G O’Dwyer and David Flanagan

Looking to blow the cobwebs off this winter? Here's The Sunday Independent's ultimate winter walking guide for Ireland!

Winter can be the best time to step outdoors into nature — the countryside is empty, the light is beautiful, there is always the chance of snow and, if you’re lucky, the ground is firm and crisp.

Yes, you might have to choose your days with an eye to the weather, but wrap up well, pack a Thermos and you’ll find a long hike is the best antidote to the worst of the winter grims — and you’ll feel invigorated afterwards.

To lure you into the wild, we asked four of the country’s well-known walks authors — Helen Fairbairn, Adrian Hendroff, John G O’Dwyer and David Flanagan — to choose their favourite winter routes from all over Ireland.

The result is a huge variety of terrains and levels of walks that includes everything from peaceful forest strolls to the chilly heights of Lugnaquilla, from shorelines to the Burren moonscapes. Some routes are ideal for families with small children, others are suited only to experienced mountaineers who have map and compass skills.

We’ve included the length of each walk, its start and end point, and how to get there, as well as — and this is often the clincher when persuading kids into their hiking boots — where to refuel afterwards.

Dublin: Top 5 Winter Walks

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Map: Dublin's Winter Walks (Sunday Independent)
 

1. Best for Neolithic man

Where: Seahan, Seefingan and Seefin Mountains, Co Dublin/Wicklow.

What: Straddling the Dublin-Wicklow border, this hillwalk visits several fascinating archaeological sites. No less than five neolithic tombs lie scattered around the summits, and the area has been likened to an Irish Valley of the Kings. The massive cairns reach up to 24m in diameter, and the one at the top of Seahan features an entrance passage and collapsed roof, allowing you to peer inside. The surrounding hillsides are rather boggy however, so winter is one of the best times to head out. Wait for a cold spell — it’s a wonderful feeling to skip across frozen bog knowing you’d be squelching and sinking at any other time of the year.

Start/finish: Kilbride Rifle Range.

Getting there: The circuit is located a few kilometres northwest of the Sally Gap, just off the R759. Park in a lay-by at the southwestern corner of Kilbride Rifle Range

Level: Hard — open mountainside with a 560m ascent.

Length/time to walk: 10km/3.5-4 hours.

Pack: Your map (OSI Discovery Series 56) and compass, and Helen Fairbairn’s Dublin & Wicklow: A Walking Guide.

Refuel: With your own thermos flask. This remote area has few facilities – bring your own food or stop elsewhere on your journey home.

2. Best for City Walking

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Phoenix Park, Dublin. Photo: Tony Gavin

Where: Phoenix Park, Co Dublin.

What: If a long journey seems too daunting on a short winter’s day, why not take a walk in the heart of the city? Phoenix Park (under the care of the OPW) is a long-established favourite, and at over 1,750 acres in size, is the largest enclosed park of any capital city in Europe. There’s a wide range of walking trails, so you can choose the landmarks you want to see and devise a route to visit them. Highlights include Aras an Uachtarain, the People’s Flower Gardens, the ruins of an 18th-century Magazine Fort, and the meadow known as Fifteen Acres, which is home to a herd of up to 600 fallow deer.

Start/finish: Phoenix Park Visitor Centre.

Getting there: The visitor centre lies beside Ashtown Castle on the northwestern side of the park. Follow signs from Chesterfield Avenue, the road that runs across the middle of the park.

Level: Easy — flat terrain.

Length/Time to walk: Various routes possible.

Pack: Your Frisbee, plus a copy of the park’s walking map, which can be collected from the visitor centre.

Refuel: At the visitor centre cafe, or at Phoenix Park Tea Rooms, along Chesterfield Avenue at the eastern side of the park.

3. Best for Coastal Parks

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Ardgillan Demesne.
 

Where: Ardgillan Park, Balbriggan, North County Dublin.

What: Ardgillan Park consists of 200 acres of managed parkland surrounding the 18th-century pile of Ardgillan Castle. It offers 8km of walking trails, and its location beside the Irish Sea in north County Dublin ensures fabulous coastal views, while keeping it accessible even when upland areas are snowbound. The walkways cross a mixture of open meadow and woodland, with a host of extras including a children’s playground, an impressive walled garden, an old ice house and, of course, the mansion itself. A lovely way to spend a half-day outdoors with the family.

Start/Finish: Ardgillan Park.

Getting there: Access the area via the M1, and exit at Junction 5. Follow the R132 to Balrothery, then follow signs for Ardgillan Castle or Ardgillan Park.

Level: Easy — largely flat, hard-surfaced paths.

Length/Time to walk: 3.5km/1.5 hours.

Pack: A copy of the demesne map, which can be downloaded from ardgillancastle.ie.

Refuel: At Paws, a dog-friendly cafe in the castle buildings.

4. Best for winter birds

Where: North Bull Island, Co Dublin.

What: This island in Dublin Bay has existed for only 200 years — before the building of the North Bull Wall on the recommendation of Captain William Bligh it was a mere sandbank, covered by the tides. It was Ireland’s first official bird sanctuary, and welcomes many species that can be only seen in winter. By January up to 5,000 ducks, 3,000 Brent geese and 30,000 waders all roost here nightly. The island is 5km long by 1km wide, and features a wide, sandy beach backed by dunes, grassland and salt marsh. Begin by heading to the visitor centre, then make a circuit as large or small as you like; the loop around the southern half of the island to North Bull Wall is 7km long.

Start/Finish: Near St Anne’s Golf Club.

Getting there: Head to Clontarf on the R807, then cross the Causeway Road to the island. Park along the road just before the island’s roundabout, not far from the golf club entrance. Or take bus 130 from the city centre.

Level: Easy — flat terrain throughout.

Length/Time to walk: 7km/2-2.5 hours

Pack: Your binoculars, and a copy of Adrian Hendroff’s Family Walks Around Dublin, OSI Discovery Series 50 or download a route map from walkingroutes.ie; northbullisland.com for more info on the heritage and natural history of the island.

Refuel: At Happy Out Cafe – the perfect place for warm drinks and snacks along the North Bull Wall (happyout.ie)

5. Best for winter views

Where: Carrickgollogan, Co Dublin.

What: There are plenty of winter days when the high peaks are shrouded in cloud, yet expansive views are still possible from the more modest, south-Dublin hill of Carrickgollogan. This surprisingly scenic, 276m-high summit is located within the Coillte-maintained Carrickgollogan Forest. The best trail for exploring the area is the Lead Mines Way, which is fully signed with orange footprint symbols. It follows a series of forest trails to the lookout point, passing several relics from the 19th-century lead mining industry on the way. The most interesting ruin is the old mine chimney, a tapered stone tower with a stairway spiralling up its outside wall.

Start/Finish: Carrickgollogan Forest car park.

Getting there: Exit the M50 at Junction 15 and follow signs to Kilternan village. At the southern end of Kilternan, turn left off the R117 on to Barnaslingan Lane. Follow this to the top of the hill, then turn left to the car park.

Level: Easy to moderate — signed forest trails and a short climb.

Length/Time to Walk:  2.5km/1 hour.

Pack: A trails map printed out from coillte.ie/site/carrickgollogan.

Refuel: At the Golden Ball gastro pub in Kilternan (thegoldenball.ie).

Leinster: Top 5 Winter Walks

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Map: Leinster's Winter Walks (Sunday Independent)
 

6. Best for the Valleys

Where: Old Mill Loop, Co Laois.

What: This Coillte circuit extends up a wooded valley and on to a mountain ridge on the northern side of the Slieve Blooms. The first half of the trail traces the banks of the nascent River Barrow, taking you past the triple tiers of Clamp Hole Waterfall to an old water mill. You then climb above the forest and follow a section of boardwalk across open hillside to a fine viewpoint along the Ridge of Capard. The route is fully signed by red arrows, and particularly impressive after winter rains have swollen the stream to a rushing torrent.

Start/Finish: Glenbarrow car park.

Getting there: Head to Rosenallis, on the R422 between Mountmellick and Clonaslee. Now follow the signs for Glenbarrow trailhead, passing through several junctions to reach the car park some 4km later.

Level: Moderate — a signed trail with rough paths and 130m ascent.

Length/Time to walk: 10km/2.5-3.5 hours.

Pack: A print-out of the Old Mill Loop map from the walking section of slievebloom.ie.

Refuel: At Davitt Shopping Centre in Mountmellick, where The Coffee Pot offers a tempting range of home-baked cakes..

7. Best for Riversides

Where: Boyne Ramparts, Co Meath.

What: River and canal paths are also good options for winter, when upland terrain is snowbound. This route along the banks of the Boyne explores an area cloaked in history and myth; the Salmon of Knowledge that gave Fionn MacCumhaill the wisdom of the world was caught from these waters. From Navan town, follow the towpath downstream to Stackallen, passing several locks, weirs and bridges, as well as the ruins of 14th-century Dunmoe Castle. From Stackallen you can either return the way you came, or divert to the nearby N51 and hail the Slane-Navan bus back to the start.

Start/Finish: Navan/Stackallen.

Getting there: From Navan town centre, take the R153 Ashbourne road and cross the Boyne. The starting car park is 250m beyond the bridge on the left. The walk finishes at Broadboyne Bridge in Stackallen, 700m south of the N51 Navan-Slane road.

Level: Easy — flat, riverside trail.

Length/Time to walk: 6.5km/1.5-2 hours one-way.

Pack: A book of Irish legends, Lenny Antonelli’s East of Ireland Walks on River and Canal or OSI Discovery Series 42.

Refuel: At Bakealicious in Navan (bakealicious.ie).

8. Best for Snowy Hills

Where: Lugnaquilla, Co Wicklow.

What: Nothing can beat the experience of standing on Leinster’s highest peak in clear winter conditions, with the snow crunching beneath your feet and an endless succession of white-clad mountains stretching off to the horizon. The easiest winter ascent is an out-and-back trip from Glen of Imaal — you have to negotiate fewer mountain roads to get here, and it’s a fairly straightforward snow plod over Camarahill to the summit. Take care near the top though, as cornices can obscure the rims of the corries holding the North and South Prisons. Wait for a good forecast too — clear views quickly become blizzards at this altitude!

Start/Finish: Fenton’s pub, The Glen of Imaal. Note that access to this route is forbidden during live firing practice in the adjacent military range. Call the Warden Service on (045) 404 653 to check the firing schedule before travelling.

Getting there: Approach the area via the N81. Around 21km south of Blessington, turn east towards Glen of Imaal. Continue straight for 7km to reach Fenton’s pub.

Level: Hard — with 720m ascent, previous hillwalking experience is required.

Length/Time to walk: 13km/5-6 hours.

Pack: Full mountain safety gear, including OSI Discovery Series 56 map, compass, warm clothing, spare food and head torch.

Refuel: At Fenton’s pub, an institution among hillwalkers, or Toomey’s Bar in nearby Donard, for a tasty bite to eat.

9. Best for wild deer

Where: Camaderry Loop Walk, Co Wicklow

What: Mountain deer congregate in wild glens during autumn and winter, and sightings of sika deer are almost guaranteed on this circuit of the upper Glendalough Valley. Feral goats are also regularly spotted. Begin following the miner’s track along the side of Upper Lake, then continue along the banks of Glenealo river. Turlough Hill, the route’s first peak, is home to Ireland’s only summit reservoir. The fabulous mountain panorama from Camaderry, the second summit, is even more impressive if the tops are dusted with snow.

Start/Finish: Upper Lake, Glendalough.

Getting there: The Upper Lake car park is located at the end of the R757 road, some 4km west of Laragh. Bring €4 in coins to operate the entrance barrier.

Level: Hard — the Coillte-run hillwalk has a 630m ascent with open mountain terrain.

Length/Time to walk: 13km/4-5 hours.

Pack: Dublin & Wicklow: A Walking Guide by Helen Fairbairn, plus one of the hiking maps produced by the Ordinance Survey of Ireland (OSI Discovery Series 56), EastWest Mapping, or Harvey (harveymaps.co.uk).

Refuel: The Glendalough Hotel’s massive fireplace in the bar is perfect for warming cold bones (glendaloughhotel.com)

10. Best quiet shoreline

Where: Kilcoole Coastal Path, Co Wicklow.

What: Even when inland roads and hills are snowbound, this route remains accessible. It explores a stretch of low, gentle shoreline, and is generally accessed by train. The walk follows a sandy track above a shingle beach, with the protected habitat of the Murrough Wetlands on one side, and the expanse of the Irish Sea on the other. The railway is never far away, and you pass the old station at Killoughter, which operated for just 12 years after it was built in 1855. It’s a peaceful and unspoilt coastline, and can be visited only on foot.

Start/Finish: Wicklow train station/Kilcoole train station.

Getting there: This linear route relies on having two vehicles, or using the train to get back to the start. Check train times carefully because Kilcoole has only limited services.

Level: Easy, flat terrain. Simple navigation.

Length/Time to walk: 14km/3-4 hours.

Pack: Binoculars to see geese, swans, egrets and lapwings that spend the winter on the Murrough Wetlands.

Refuel: Bring a change of clothes and treat yourself at the Bridge Tavern in Wicklow town centre (bridgetavern.ie).

Munster: Top 5 Winter WALKS

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Map: Munster's Winter Walks (Sunday Independent)
 

11. Best for Landscapes of Legends 

Where: Cosan na Naomh, Co Kerry.

What: Beginning from Ventry beach, follow the footsteps of pilgrims past by heading along the ancient Cosan na Naomh. Completing this 18km path is one of the best ways to experience the elemental, skeletal topography of West Kerry. The walk passes Gallarus Oratory and Kilmalkedar monastic site before concluding in the shadow of Mount Brandon, which has long been associated with St Brendan. Crossing Reenconnell Hill, your gaze will be drawn north towards the slit-like outline of Brandon Creek. This is a reminder that here St Brendan set out on a voyage and thereby posed the question: was he the first European to reach the new world? Certainly, an ancient text describes, with credible detail, his seven-year journey to the “Isle of the Blessed”, which some scholars believe was North America.

Start/finish: Ventry Beach/Ballybrack car park

Getting there: Follow the R559 west from Dingle. At Ventry, swing left for Ventry strand. The Cosan na Naomh is signposted here.

Level: Unchallenging — but reasonable fitness for an ascent of 275m.

Length/Time to walk: 18km/ 4.5 hours.

Pack: Some high protein snacks to keep you going, waterproof clothing, the OSI Discovery Series 70 map; a copy of Pilgrim Paths in Ireland — A Guide, by John G O’Dwyer.

Refuel: Tigh TP in nearby Murreagh for bia blasta by the waterside.

12. Best for Exhilarating Views

Where: Torc Mountain, Co Kerry.

What: Where is Kerry’s most spectacular mountain view? You might suggest Carrauntoohil, and Ireland’s highest mountain certainly offers intoxicating vistas — but suffers from the fact that, as from an aeroplane, you look down on everything. My favourite viewing point in the Killarney outback is instead the wonderfully accessible summit of Torc Mountain, which comes under the wing of the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS). To appreciate this magnificent outlook, follow the Kerry Way south along a sylvan track to open moorland. Cross a stream and take a track going right. This leads to a boardwalk and upwards without further incident, to the summit. Your reward is a stunning panorama over Killarney’s world-famous lakes and fells with the angular Macgillycuddy’s Reeks as a stunning backdrop.

Start/finish: Upper car park for Torc Waterfall.

Getting there: From the N71 Killarney/Kenmare Road, take a minor road left beyond the Muckross gates to gain the upper car park for Torc Waterfall.

Level: Suitable for reasonably fit, novice walkers. Ascent is 480m.

Length/Time to walk: 7km/3hours.

Pack: Map OSI Discovery Series 59, copy of The Iveragh Peninsula: A Walking Guide by Adrian Hendroff; dry, spare clothing and waterproofs. Make sure any young ones are well wrapped up.

Refuel: The ‘olde worlde’ atmosphere and waterside setting of the Lake Hotel, Killarney (lakehotelkillarney.ie).

13. Best for gentle exploration

Where: Ballyvaughan Wood Loop, Co Clare.

What: The Burren is undoubtedly Ireland’s most surreal and captivating landscape. Exploring it can be challenging, however, with its clints, grykes and tottering boulders proving the downfall of many. If you want to get close and personal with this enigmatic landscape without actually treading on it, begin by following the arrows for the Ballyvaughan Wood Loop — a Coillte creation. A hazel wood immediately acts as a reminder of the Burren paradox: hazel is the natural vegetation of the Burren that could, again, completely obscure the limestone if agricultural overuse is not maintained. Small fields and woodland paths then convey you to the Aillwee Caves and, perhaps, a welcome coffee. Beyond Aillwee, the ageless appeal of the Burren becomes inescapable, for the history of every era is here written in stone. Return to Ballyvaughan and try picking out as many as possible of the mesmerising array of prehistoric enclosures, stone forts and cairns alongside this ancient route.

Start/finish: The harbour, Ballyvaughan.

Getting there: Trailhead lies beside the N67 between Lisdoonvarna and Kinvarra.

Level: Suitable for strollers; almost level throughout.

Length/Time to walk: 8km/2hrs.

Pack: Download the trail map from irishtrails.ie — or beg, borrow or steal a copy of Tim Robinson’s wonderful The Burren (a two-inch map of Northwest Clare which is currently out of print). Also bring a good walking stick and waterproof clothing. Note that no dogs are allowed on this loop.

Refuel: Try to sidle in beside the open fire before sampling delicious seafood on the pier at Monks of Ballyvaughan (monks.ie).

13. Best for families

Where: Devil’s Bit Mountain, Co Tipperary.

What: Generations of children have gazed in fascination at the remarkable gash in this plateau and by way of explanation were told the story of a fleeing demon, being pursued by St Patrick. Taking an angry bite from its summit, the fiend did a service for Irish tourism by dropping it to form the Rock of Cashel. Recount this tale as you ascend to gain an improbably located tower. Here, you explain that such buildings are called follies — but they actually served a purpose by drawing people to the highest point of an estate where they would be impressed by the great house and parklands below.

Onwards and upwards now to the Devil’s Bit proper where you might explain to any young ears that, in a cave nearby, the priceless Book of Dimma was discovered. This beautifully illuminated gospel, created at nearby St Cronan’s Abbey, now resides in the National Museum.

Before everyone races off to find the cave, you point out that it was later blocked off as a safety precaution and its location is lost in the mists of time. As compensation, kids will love the final rocky scramble to the 15m-high summit cross. Once again, the looped walk is a Coillte-run property.

Start/finish: Devil’s Bit car park, Killea, Co Tipperary.

Getting there: Leave Templemore along the R501 for Borrisoleigh. Take the second right and then go right again at a T-junction. Now take the second left and continue to a large parking place.

Level: Suitable for families and novice walkers on the 240m ascent.

Length/Time to walk: 3km/1.5 hours.

Pack: OSI Discovery Series 59; Tipperary and Waterford — A Walking Guide by John G O’Dwyer; spare clothing and waterproofs.

Refuel: In the lovely Murphys, a pub on Main Street, Templemore (murphyspubtemplemore.ie).

15. Best for Dramatic mountain views

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Coumshingaun Co Waterford

Where: Coumshingaun, Co Waterford.

What: Begin by taking a woodland track from Kilclooney car park to join a forestry road. Follow this right and cross a fence to open mountainside. Now it runs upwards towards a prominent skyline boulder, where you will clearly see your objective: the ridgeline left of Coumshingaun. You will rise quickly to gain a levelling of the route with the lake to your right. From here, in describing the glory of Coumshingaun, one of Europe’s finest glaciated corries, it’s hard to avoid cliches. Rather than risk adding more, suffice to say, you will likely be transfixed for a time by the grandeur of it all. Next comes a pleasantly elevated walk above great gullies that dive abruptly to the brooding waters below — until one final steepening leads to the summit plateau. Now follow (to your right) the edge of the precipice before swinging east and descending by the north side of the corrie. Afterwards, cross the mouth of Coumshingaun to return to Kilclooney. While the car park is Coillte property, it’s Lord Waterford’s lands to the top of Coum.

Start/finish: Kilclooney Wood car park.

Getting there: Follow the R676 from either Carrick-on-Suir or Dungarvan. The trailhead is near the midpoint between these towns.

Level: As you need map reading and compass skills, this is suitable only for experienced walkers — and it includes an ascent of 620m.

Length/Time to walk: 7km/4hours

Pack: OSI Discovery Sheet 75; Tipperary and Waterford Walking Guide by John G O’Dwyer; spare clothing, waterproofs, compass, thermos of soup and good snacks to sustain you.

Refuel: Kierseys Bar and Tearooms in nearby Kilmacthomas (kierseysbarandtearooms.ie).

West: Top 5 Winter Walks

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Map: The West's Winter Walks (Sunday Independent)
 

16. Best history buffs

Where: The Marconi Loop, Connemara.

What: The northwest corner of Roundstone Bog has loomed large in the history of the early 20th century as the finishing point of the first transatlantic flight and the site of the world’s first permanent transatlantic radio station. Now a discovery point on the Wild Atlantic Way, it has been developed to give visitors an insight into its past. The Marconi Loop is a gentle circuit following gravel paths and wooden boardwalk past extensive bog cuttings and tiny lakes. En route there are good views across the bog to Errisbeg mountain as well as a number of installations which shed some light on the history of this barren stretch of bog.

Start/finish: Derrigimlagh Discovery Point.

Getting there: Head south from Clifden on the R341 towards Ballyconnelly, after 4km look out for the car park on your right.

Level: Suitable for the entire family.

Length/time to walk: 5km/1hr 45min.

Pack: This walk is very exposed to the elements, so pack plenty of warm layers. And download a map from irishtrails.ie or OSI Discovery Series Sheet 44.

Refuel: There no shortage of great places to eat and drink in nearby Clifden. If you’ve a sweet tooth, Walsh’s Bakery (walshsbakery.ie) is a great place for tea and a sticky bun.

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A 'historioscope' at the Wild Atlantic Way Signature Discovery Point of Derrigimlagh. Photo: Pat Moore

17. Best for wilderness

Where: The Bothy Loop, Co Mayo.

What: Thanks to a collaboration between Coillte and the National Parks and Wildlife Service over 11,000 hectares of bog and forest in the Nephin Beg Mountain have been designated as Ireland’s first official wilderness area. The plan is to allow nature to take over while also providing basic facilities so that walkers can explore this vast area. Currently, three signposted trails start from the stone cottage known as the Brogan Carroll Bothy. The Bothy Loop is marked with the blue arrows and follows the course of the Altaconey River upstream before cutting across the hillside to meet a forestry road which leads back to the bothy.

Start/finish: The Brogan Carroll Bothy in Letterkeen Woods.

Getting there: From Newport head north on the N59 towards Achill Island. After 1km turn right (signposted ‘Bangor Trail’). Continue for another 12km, passing Lough Feeagh, turn left on to a gravel track and follow it for a few hundred metres and park beside the small stone cottage.

Level: This route crosses rough, remote ground and a has fair bit of height gain so is better suited to more experienced walkers.

Length/time to walk: 6km.

Pack: Good boots are essential as there are muddy sections along the river. The Wild Nephin Map by EastWest Mapping covers the area in impressive detail or download a map of the route from irishTrails.ie.

Refuel: Thanks to the Greenway, nearby Newport is thriving - try the Blue Bicycle Tearooms (bluebicycletearooms.com).

18. Best for nature fans

Where: The Union Rock Trail, Sligo.

What: A short distance south of Sligo Town is the idyllic Union Wood. Home to one of the largest native oak woodlands in the area where you may spot pine marten, red squirrel, badger, fox, bats and fallow deer lurking among the trees. Union Rock Trail heads south from the car park passing the shore of Ballygawley Lough before looping around the summit of Union Rock. It’s well worth diverting from the route to climb the wood boardwalk on this Coillte property to the top of the rock. From the summit there are extensive views over Ballysadare Bay, the Ox Mountains and Knocknarea — the burial place of Queen Maeve of Connacht.

Start/finish: A circular walk, starting and ending at the Coillte-run Union Wood.

Getting there: From Sligo Town follow the N4 south to Carraroe. Take the first exit off the roundabout and turn left at the church on to the R287. Immediately turn right on to the R284, (signposted Keadue). Continue for about 4km and look out for Union Wood which is signposted on the right. 

Level: This walk is suitable for all levels, with just some gentle height gain.

Length/time to walk: 4km.

Pack: Download a map of the trail from  Coillte on coillte.ie/site/union-wood

Refuel: A short drive from Union Wood in the village of Collooney is the wonderful Nook Cafe & Restaurant (facebook.com/NookCafeRestaurant). Be warned, it can get busy, so it might be an idea to book a table.

19. Best peaceful stroll

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The new Shannon Blueway Boardwalk
 

Where: The Shannon Blueway, Leitrim.

What: The Battlebridge Lock-Drumhauver Bridge Walking Trail is part of Waterways Ireland’s Shannon Blueway, following the Lough Allen canal through tranquil Leitrim countryside. From Battlebridge Lock, the purple arrows lead you north along the tow path to Drumhauver Bridge, you then cross the canal and return along the other side. It’s also possible to do a shorter version by crossing earlier at Drumleague Lock, this variation is marked with red arrows.

Start/finish: Battlebridge Lock near Leitrim Village.

Getting there: From Carrick-on-Shannon take the R280 north to Leitrim Village where you turn left on to the R284. Just before the river turn left (signposted ‘Battlebridge Lock’) and park at the car park at the end of the road.

Level: The walk is very flat and very well surfaced — but due to the proximity of deep water, it isn’t suitable for very young children.

Length/time to walk: 10km.

Pack: Download a route map from bluewaysireland.org.

Refuel: Beirnes of Battlebridge is just a stone’s throw from the start of the walk (battlebridgecaravanandcamping.ie). The award-winning pub serves excellent bar food between Thursdays and Sundays.

20. Best for kids

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A tree-canopy walk in Lough Key Forest

Where: Lough Key Forest Park, Co Roscommon.

What: Lough Key Forest Park is home to over 350 hectares of mixed woodland in a beautiful lake-side setting. Formerly the Rockingham Estate, it has since been reimagined as one of Coillte’s flagship forest parks. The 4km Bog Garden Trail winds its way gently through the woods and parkland taking in the bog garden, a magnificent grove of red cedars and the curious stonework of the fairy bridge. If the kids still have energy to burn, there are plenty of options, including an outdoor playground, a 300m-long tree canopy walk and Boda Borg, an indoor team challenge. 

Start/finish: Lough Key Forest Park.

Getting there: Heading west from Carrick on Shannon on the N4, Lough Key Forest park is on the right before the turn for Boyle. Follow the long driveway to the car park (€4 per vehicle) at the lake shore.

Level: The trail is flat and suitable for all.

Length/time to walk: 4km.

Pack: Download a map of the park from loughkey.ie.

Refuel: The Lakeside Cafe in the Visitor Centre has great views over the water with a good selection of freshly baked cakes, buns and pizzas.

Ulster: Top 5 Winter Walks

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Map: Ulster's Winter Walks (Sunday Independent)
 

21. Best for mountain air

Where: Errigal, Co Donegal.

What: Climb the highest mountain in County Donegal. In winter snows, Errigal (751m) rises majestically to the sky as a solitary white pyramid of quartzite. Its Irish equivalent An Earagail means ‘oratory’, referring to a 7th century saint, St Adamnan. The most straightforward route is an out-and-back ascent from the start via a steep scree slope. Its twin summits are joined by a narrow ridge. The summit view is a classic: glittering lakes, an indented coastline, the stark beauty of the Poisoned Glen, drumlin-studded screes and a suite of crenelated peaks that dance like waves to the horizon.

Start/finish: At a car park along the R251 toward Dunlewy, at the foot of Errigal.

Getting there: Take the R251 toward Dunlewy from Letterkenny to reach the car park at the start.

Level: Demanding, and technically challenging under snow and ice conditions with an ascent of 530m; a hike for experienced mountaineers only.

Length/Time to walk: 14km/ 3.5-4 hours.

Pack: A headtorch, compass, waterproofs, winter boots; also, crampons and an ice-axe if necessary; a copy of Adrian Hendroff’s guidebook Donegal, Sligo & Leitrim; OSI Discovery Series Sheet 1.

Refuel: At Leo’s Tavern in Meenaleck just after Crolly, 2km from Gweedore (leostavern.com).

22. Best for winter sunset

Where: Urris Hills, Inishowen, Co Donegal.

What: These hills rise as a narrow switchback ridge from the golden sands of Crummie’s Bay. The summit overlooks the sea and the mighty arm of Lough Swilly, making it a perfect place to enjoy spectacular winter sunsets. While you’re there, keep a wary eye out for the Suileach, a sea-monster with 200 eyes on each side that legend claims roams these waters! A path to the sandy beach crosses a wide outflow, then snakes uphill on a spur towards Crockfadda. Continue ascending northeast to reach a cairn, then pass above Lough Fad before reaching a large cairn on the 417m summit.

Start/finish: At a lay-by on a minor road above Crummie’s Bay.

Getting there: Drive toward Drumfree/Clonmany from Buncrana. Leave the R238 after about 1.5km on a minor road towards Dunree Head. Veer right at a fork just over 2km, then veer left at the next fork 1.5km further. Continue for around 4.7km, then turn right to reach the lay-by.

Level: Moderate to hard with an ascent of 440m.

Length/Time to walk: 16.5km/3-3.5 hours.

Pack: A headtorch, compass, waterproofs, good boots; a copy of Adrian Hendroff’s guidebook Donegal, Sligo & Leitrim; OSI Discovery Series Sheet 3.

Refuel: Carb up at Ubiquitous Restaurant or The Drift Inn, both in Buncrana; (ubiquitousrestaurant.com; thedriftinn.ie).

23. Best for fans of Game of Thrones

Where: Binevenagh Cliffs, Co Derry.

What: A basalt escarpment lying on the edge of the Antrim plateau, this is one of Ulster’s most fascinating landscapes. The cliff-top offers panoramic views of the largest coastal plain in Ireland. This is also the location used in the TV series Game of Thrones (where Daenerys is brought to her dragon Drogon’s lair after being rescued from the city of Meereen). A path leads anti-clockwise along the cliff-top, down into a forest, along the base of the escarpment and back up to the cliff-top.

Start/finish: At the car park beside Binevenagh Lake.

Getting there: From Limavaddy, take the A2/B201 to Artikelly. Turn left 2km northeast of Artikelly, then left again after around 5km following signs for Binevenagh Forest. Enter the forest 1km further and follow a track uphill to reach the car-park.

Level: Easy to moderate. Easy navigation, stiles, informal footpaths. Take care near the cliff edge which, at its highest point, drops 200m.

Length/Time to walk: 6.5km/ 2-2.5 hours

Pack: A headtorch, compass, waterproofs, good boots; a copy of Helen Fairbairn’s guidebook Best of Ireland’s Walks; OSI Discovery Series Sheet 4.

Refuel: Nearby at Magilligan or Limavaddy; or further away in Coleraine at Elliot’s Bistro or The Newbridge Restaurant (thelodgehotel.com; thenewbridgecoleraine.com).

24. Best for 360° Views

Where: Slieve Gullion,Co Armagh.

What: At 574m, Slieve Gullion is the highest point in County Armagh. From the Courtyard follow the forest drive for just over 4km to reach the upper car park. From here follow a switchback path uphill to reach a cairn, burial chamber and trig point at the summit. Views from here include the surrounding countryside and hills of the Ring of Gullion, Armagh drumlins, and as far as the Mourne Mountains and the Cooley Peninsula.

Start/finish: Slieve Gullion Forest Park car-park at the Courtyard. Note the upper car park may be icy in winter so it is better to park lower down.

Getting there: Coming from Dublin or Belfast, leave the M1/A1 and take the B113 exit towards Forkhill at the roundabout. Continue for around 6.5km before turning right into the Forest Park, then follow signs to the Courtyard. 

Level: Moderate, mostly on road. Final ascent to 440m on a good but moderately steep path.

Length/Time to walk: 10km/3-4 hours.

Pack: Headtorch, spare clothes, waterproofs; OSNI Discoverer Series Sheet 29.

Refuel: At Synge and Byrne Cafe (syngeandbyrne.com) or Clanrye Tuck Shop in the Courtyard buildings.

25. Best for coastline

Where: Cloghmore Stone, Co Down.

What: An easy walk to reach a 50-tonne boulder that is thought to have provided CS Lewis with the inspiration for Aslan’s table in his The Chronicles of Narnia. Legend suggests that the boulder was thrown by the mythical warrior Fionn MacCumhaill — but it is really just an erratic — a massive boulder dislodged during glacial times. Turn left out of the car park, then right at a junction. After a switchback, follow a forest road uphill for around 400m. Then head up a track signposted ‘Cloghmore Trail’ on the right. At a T-junction above, turn right, then right again. The track passes under a mast to reach a viewing area. Veer left and head up another path to a T-junction. The fabled Cloghmore Stone lies to the right. Views of Carlingford Lough and the Cooley Peninsula are outstanding from here.

Start/finish: Main car-park at Kilbroney Forest Park.

Getting there: Kilbroney Forest Park is around 1km after the Kilkeel junction at Rostrevor. Leave the A2, turn left into the Forest Park and follow signs to the car park.

Level: Easy, suitable for families with kids.

Length/Time to walk: 4km/ 1.5-2 hours.

Pack: Your camera, headtorch, waterproofs, spare clothes, food and drink for kids; Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland (OSNI) The Mournes Activity Map.

Refuel: Take your pick from the Kilbroney Park Cafe or The Old School House Cafe in Rostrevor.

The joys of a winter walk

Most of our writers prefer to walk in winter.

“Nothing in summer can compare with the atmosphere that exists in winter. That’s why my favourite time for going out walking is a nice, crisp day in winter around Christmas time,” says veteran hillwalker and writer John G O’Dwyer.

“The first time I went up Carrauntoohil,” he says, “it was a beautiful, scorching summer day, probably 25 or 27 degrees, and it was murder in those kind of conditions. A crisp, cold day is a lot better for walking and there’s something very bracing about going out well wrapped up against the cold when there’s frost and snow on the ground.”

Mountain climber, guide and walks writer Adrian Hendroff agrees: “Winter is the best season of the year. It definitely gives a bit of an Alpine feeling to the hills — they don’t look as bare as in the summer, and it makes Carrauntoohil look almost like K2. Walking then is so much more intense and so much more beautiful at the same time.”

As a photographer Adrian is well used to rising before sunset and heading for the hills, or staying out after dark to get the right light. “The sunsets are best at this time of year. You get these really strong colours in the sky, deep pinks and deep orange. Sunrises are good as well, with nice lingering icy mists over the hills. It’s wonderful to be out.”

However, before you set off, steal the Boy Scouts’ motto and ‘be prepared’.

“Always have a plan for where you’re going,” says John Kavanagh of Dublin & Wicklow Mountain Rescue Team, “and how you’re going to get back. Please bring a paper map [plastic coated is best] and compass and learn how to use them.” Leave word with someone who can sound the alarm if needed about where you’re going and when you expect to be back. Check the weather forecast on a website such as met.ie, as conditions can change very fast in Ireland.

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Sunset on a winter walk. Photo: Adrian Hendroff

Then, tog up with layer upon layer of clothing. Wear a long-sleeved top in either merino or a non-cotton fabric as a base layer, followed by a T-shirt, and a fleece or goose down jacket.

Top it off with a waterproof jacket which doubles as a windbreak since the chill factor is the real danger to hikers in Ireland. Gore-Tex or quick-drying trousers will be enough to keep your legs dry as long as your feet are well waterproofed.

Investing in a robust pair of winter boots is important too. They will give you support over rough terrain, and keep your feet toasty and dry. If you’re climbing one of Ireland’s big summits, check your boots take crampons — you’ll need them in winter. And finally, gloves and a hat are musts.

Pack a day bag with fruit and nuts, water, a hot drink and an extra layer of clothing. If you’re setting out on a more challenging walk, such as Lugnaquilla, add two head torches and batteries as backup, your maps — there are references in our walks to OSI, irishtrails.ie and others for you to download or buy — your compass, and make sure your phone is charged.

“Being adequately fed and hydrated will help avoid hypothermia,” says John Kavanagh, “one of the biggest avoidable risks when hill-walking in Ireland.”

“If you’re bringing kids,” adds Adrian, “you definitely need an extra layer of clothes — they get cold easily. So bring a layer or two and bring extra food for the kids, treats or a hot drink.”

Don’t attempt any of the mountain summits in snowy weather unless you have the appropriate crampon and ice axe skills and can use a compass and map, warns Adrian, who is also the first person to have ascended all 273 of Ireland’s Vandeleur-Lynam summits over 600m.“If you’re going to climb Lugnaquilla, or Carrauntoohil or Mount Brandon, put the crampons in your bag. If conditions are too icy and you don’t have crampons, then I can only say two words. Turn. Back.”

Perhaps the most common problem for winter walkers is shorter daylight hours. “Most of the time when people get lost,” says Adrian, “it’s because it’s dark and they have become disoriented. Be aware of the daylight hours and when it gets dark.

“That’s very important. If you set off in December, remember that daylight hours end at 3pm.”

Don’t let all these safety precautions keep you indoors, though — winter is a wonderful time to explore nature, so choose a walk and lace up those boots.

NB: For mountain rescue, dial 999 or 112; mountainrescue.ie

Meet our guides

Ulster: Adrian Hendroff

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Adrian Hendroff

Winter is one of Adrian’s favourite seasons in the mountains, when the ‘white stuff’ adds character to the Irish hills, giving them a distinctive Alpine feel. A keen landscape photographer, he also feels winter is a season for unique lighting conditions, especially at sunrise and sunset.

One of his most memorable days out was a winter’s day on Carrauntoohil, topping out on the summit after a climb up a snow-filled O’Shea’s Gully. He also recalls a foray earlier this year up the northeast spur of Slieve Donard, where snow and ice laced its rocky slopes. On the other hand, Adrian had the summit all to himself!

When not hitting the hills or running Mountain Skills courses, Adrian is busy writing — he is currently working on his next book which will join his six other guidebooks already published by Collins Press. These include Donegal, Sligo and Leitrim; The Beara and Sheep’s Head Peninsulas; The Dingle Peninsula; The Dingle, Iveragh and Beara Peninsulas; Killarney to Valentia Island; and the more recent Family Walks Around Dublin. Adrian’s first book, From High Places: A Journey Through Ireland’s Great Mountains, also won the best outdoor book in the Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild (OWPG) Awards for Excellence.

Dublin and Leinster: Helen Fairbairn

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Helen Fairbairn

Hiking-guide author Helen Fairbairn says winter is one of her favourite times for Irish walking. Ignore the grey, wet days, and head out whenever the sun shines. Nothing can beat standing on a snowy summit in clear, crisp conditions, when the polar air makes the views extend forever.

Cold weather excursions are more invigorating than warm ones, she claims, and the post-trip treat of hearty food and cosy fire is one life’s great pleasures.

Helen’s skills extend to basic mountaineering, and she has tackled some of Ireland’s most renowned mountain ridges in winter conditions. She says not all outings have to be epic mountain challenges however; winter can bring just as much beauty to a woodland stream, when frost crystallises along the veins of leaves and forms mini icicles along the edge of a waterfall.

If you need any extra encouragement to keep active this winter, Helen’s walking guides — which include Dublin & Wicklow: A Walking Guide and Ireland’s Best Walks — are a great place to start.

The West: David Flanagan

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David Flanagan

David Flanagan is a keen hiker, climber and cyclist who is lucky enough to be able to combine his passion for the outdoors with his work as a writer and publisher.

Ever since his introduction to hiking as a cub scout he has enjoyed getting out in the hills particularly during the cold, crisp winter days. One of his most memorable winter walks was tackling the legendary Bangor Trail in late November. The trail, which runs through the heart of the Nephin Wilderness in Co Mayo, is one of the remotest walks in the country and doing it over two short days in cold weather made a tough challenge all the more memorable. Flanagan, co-author of the first guidebook to the Wild Atlantic Way, Exploring Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way, is currently working on a guide to the best of Irish cycling, due out in spring 2018.

Munster: John G O’Dwyer

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John G. O'Dwyer

For decades, John G O’Dwyer has been a keen hillwalker, rock-climber and supporter of all that is rural in Ireland. 

In 1991, he founded the Mid-Tipp Hillwalkers Club and has 30 years’ experience of leading hillwalking and mountain climbing groups in Ireland, the UK, Europe and Africa.

More recently, he has been writing guides to some of his favourite routes in counties Tipperary and Waterford, while his 2013 book, Pilgrim Paths in Ireland, was the first comprehensive guidebook to the Irish pilgrim paths. It is now in its third reprint and has done much to build awareness of, and return footfall to, the ancient spiritual trails of Ireland.

His next book, A Guide to Walking Ireland’s Midlands and South, is due to be published by the Collins Press in the New Year. Currently, he is national chairman of Pilgrim Paths Ireland.

More info: Find weather-friendly routes at irishtrails.ie; coillte.ie; discoverireland.ie/walks; npws.ie and walksni.com

Read more:

25 Best Walks in Ireland: No matter what your fitness level!

Sunday Independent

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