Ireland is one of the best little walking destinations in the world - and exploring it needn't cost a cent, says Pól Ó Conghaile.
You can spend thousands on a hiking holiday, but you can't buy a great walk.
The gulps of fresh air, the squelch underfoot, the pong of wild garlic or the conversation that takes an unexpected turn - those are the makings of an experience, not a product. And Ireland, though lacking Alpine peaks and epic caminos, has a deceptive richness of trails that make it one of the best little walking destinations in the world.
I was reminded of this hauling my kids up the Sugar Loaf this January. I was reminded of it on Horn Head last summer, and filming Tracks and Trails in the Comeraghs before that. Ireland may not have a Disneyland or an Eiffel Tower. You can wait all summer for a summer, but there are all sorts of delicious trails on our doorstep, as our spread of amazing walks (below) attests.
We've always done landscape. The difference is that now, our waymarked trails have upped a gear. You'll notice this in Coillte forests, around OPW sites or along the Wild Atlantic Way. Litter and dog dirt remain issues, but 900 national trails are now listed by Sports Ireland (irishtrails.ie) and there are more looped and buggy-friendly strolls than ever.
Just recently, the 46km Waterford Greenway opened between Waterford city and Dungarvan. Locals are already marvelling at the take-up and early-season stream of visitors.
You could walk for days in Connemara or Kerry, or push a buggy along the cliff path at Kilkee. It doesn't matter. Taking the first step is key.
Dress for all seasons, open the door and start putting one foot in front of the other. Watch the devices get pocketed, the scenery unfold, the heart-to-hearts begin. Get out and get active - this natural high needn't cost a cent.
Ben Bulben, Co Sligo - by Nicola Brady
The first time I climbed Ben Bulben, it was pitch black and the rain fell so hard it felt like a personal attack. My boots filled with water, my socks were sodden, and each step I took was punctuated by a squishing sound. I knew it would be tough; but not this tough. Perhaps, in retrospect, the annual Night Hike wasn’t the best place to start… the event was eventually called off for safety reasons, with conditions worsening as we neared the peak.
My second attempt was far more fruitful. Though the weather (again) wasn’t in our favour, a splash of rain isn’t as detrimental as a deluge, so we trudged on, past the glacial tracks Ben Bulben is renowned for. It really is the most gorgeous mountain — those wide, ambling gullies meander down from the tabletop peak, punctuated with little streams and ancient stone ruins.
The views are, quite literally, breathtaking. And this isn’t travel writer hyperbole — the attempt to reach these viewpoints will physically take your breath away, as you clutch your heart and gasp for oxygen. But when you reach the peak, you have a long, flat(ish) stretch of the summit to enjoy. On my second attempt, we experienced this moment from within the clouds. But, as we neared the end of the point to sit with a picnic, the skies cleared for just a few moments, and Sligo Bay was awash with sunlight.
Nicola and friend on Ben Bulben
It is, of course, a challenging climb. Walking sticks are essential (thankfully, my friend’s father gave me one of his, as I was ill-prepared in this regard) and don’t tackle it alone — there’s no official trail, access is a contentious issue, and there are plenty of spots to lose your way. Go with someone who knows it well - take a guided hike with High Hopes Hiking (highhopesmountaintreks.com), for example - and consider a quick visit to WB Yeats’ grave. It’s in Drumcliff Cemetery, almost directly Under Ben Bulben.
Length/time: 12km; 4 hours
Start/finish point: Park up at Luke’s Bridge, off the N15 linking Sligo and Bundoran.
Refuel: Call into Rathcormac’s Vintage Lane Café for tea and lemon drizzle cake, or Langs of Grange (langs.ie) for local bangers and mash.
If you like that, try this: Croagh Patrick isn’t just for Reek Sunday — tackle this gorgeous mountain whenever the sun shines for magical Mayo views.
Rindoon & Warren Point Loops, Co Roscommon
By Pól Ó Conghaile
Great Irish walks don’t need hills or mountains. They don’t need to hug the Wild Atlantic Way, to snake through the Wicklow Mountains. All they need are lungfuls of fresh air and a story.
Driving around the Roscommon side of Lough Ree one autumn, I found the latter just outside Lecarrow. A sign pointed to ‘Rindoon: Deserted Medieval Village’, so I followed it, parked up near a green farmhouse gate and headed off on an easy adventure that transported me back to 1227AD.
The walk crossed a sheep-strewn field before quickly emerging on the shore of Lough Ree, taking me along a tree-shaded route towards the first of several surprising husks. A ruined Norman castle teetered on its hummock, swaddled in ivy. A town wall stretched 500m in length. There were the remains of a medieval church and windmill mound.
What happened here? Who lived on this pin-sized peninsula? Similar to Kilkenny’s Jerpoint Park, it blossomed into a brilliantly Irish Lost World, the relics of a once-thriving medieval town, whistling in the wind.
Dodging cowpats, dragonflies and bees, I continued into the woods at the end of the route (you can skip these for a shorter, less muddy walk). Here, I met a walker coming the opposite way, a middle-aged man with belly wobbling atop of tight, black leggings. We stopped to wonder who was following the arrows correctly.
“Sure, it’s a free country,” he said. “You can go whichever way you like.”
Length/time: 3–4.5km; 1–2 hours
Start/finish point: St John’s House, Lecarrow — the trailhead is located here.
Refuel: Head to Gleesons in Roscommon town (gleesonstownhouse.com) or The Fatted Calf (thefattedcalf.ie), depending on your onward journey. Both offer yummy takes on local lamb and pork.
If you like that, try this: The Cavan Burren (cavanburren.ie; thisiscavan.ie) has four easy-ish walking trails (one of them multi-access).
Carrauntoohil, Co Kerry
By Pat Falvey
Carrauntoohil is Ireland’s highest mountain, and there are about eight different routes to the summit. The one I love is the Upper Coombs — it mixes hill-walking, amazing scenery and a little scrambling. It brings you up through a rugged landscape to Cummeenoughter, the highest lake in Ireland. From there, you continue up a wide gulley, coming onto the ridge between Ireland’s two tallest peaks, Beenkeragh and Carrauntoohil.
My favourite part is the ridgeline approaching the summit itself. As you rise to the summit, you have great vistas — you can see nearly as far as the Aran Islands, and as far out as the Skelligs. North, south, east and west... it’s the greatest panorama in Ireland.
I’ve climbed Carrauntoohil more than 2,500 times myself over the years. I have used it as a training ground for all of my major expeditions, for the likes of Everest and the Seven Summits Challenge. But I get great satisfaction in bringing people there, as for most it would be the challenge of a lifetime.
The first time I climbed there, it was my Mount Everest. When I got to the top, I was so excited that I turned to the guy alongside me and shook his hand, and he asked me what was wrong. I told him I was going to climb Mount Everest. And a few years later, he said: “You know the time that you said you were going to climb Everest after you’d climbed Carrauntoohil? We all thought you were bonkers.” And then not only did I do it once, I did it twice. But it all started with that first climb.
That was only my second time on the hills, by the way. It inspired me so much. It was after the period when I tried to take my own life, when I was in my 30s. Standing on Carrauntoohil took me on a journey all around the world to climb the highest, most remote and most dangerous mountains in the world. It took me eight years after that to get to Everest.
Pat Falvey (patfalvey.com) is an adventurer who leads treks and expeditions around the world
Length/time: 11km; 6–7 hours
Start/finish point: Start at Cronin’s Yard (croninsyard.com), where there’s a big car park, café and showers.
Refuel: Be sure to head to Kate Kearney’s Cottage (katekearneyscottage.com) and dig into the braised shank of Kerry lamb because, boy, have you earned it (and a pint, too).
If you like that, try this: Fancy a challenge? Give Lugnaquilla in Wicklow a bash.
Carran Looped Walk, The Burren, Co clare
By Tony Kirby
This 9km loop begins in Carran — the only village in the Burren hills. The cultural highlight of the walk is Temple Cronan, a remarkable Early Christian monastic site set in a green valley, in stark contrast to the bare limestone massif of Termon you ascend afterwards.
Even though the peak is a mere 243 metres, it is never inundated with walkers. You may even have Termon’s generous plateau to yourself. Termon, coming from the Gaelic tearmann (sanctuary), is true to its name!
The views are lavish — to the south is Slieve Callan in mid-Clare; east is the wild, boggy terrain of Slieve Aughty; west is the dissident shale uplands of Slieve Elva in the heart of the Burren limestones. Most exhilarating of all are the views north — beyond Clare, into Galway Bay and chunks of Connemara.
Trek during the blooming season in May and June, and you’ll find patches of soil occupied by wild flowers with origins in different corners of the world. The most northerly point of the Termon plateau affords a stunning vista, too: a football stadium-sized depression known as the Glen of Clab. It’s a “darkly picturesque glen”, as described by the Irish antiquarian Westropp.
On the home stretch, there’s another sacred site — an eye-well dedicated to St Fachtna with a very impressive suite of dry stone penitential stations. It’s a vivid testimony to Ireland’s rich pilgrim past.
The Termon hill accounts for 5km of the 9km walk. So just over half of the walk features the region’s renowned craggy terrain. However, the biggest challenge in this rocky landscape may be the trees! Hazel is steadily advancing across some Burren hills due to the decline of the out-wintering of cattle. The hazel tends to obscure the way markers… so detective work may be required!
Tony Kirby offers guided hikes with Heart of Burren Walks (heartofburrenwalks.com)
Length/time: 9km; 3–4 hours
Start/finish point: Park at Cassidy’s Pub in Carran — the trailhead is here.
Refuel: Grab some pizza at Cassidy’s (cassidyspub.com) — they have gluten-free bases too.
If you like that, try this: Zip up your wind-cheater and hit the Erris Head Loop in northwest Mayo.
Tory Island, Co Donegal
By Helen Fairbairn
Tory is Ireland’s most remote inhabited island, with a spectacular coastline and unique island atmosphere. It rates among the country’s most evocative and intriguing locations and is a truly memorable place for a walk.
This route almost circumnavigates the island in a figure-of-eight loop. Begin by catching The Tory Island Ferry from Magheraroarty pier (toryislandferry.com; €26 return). There are daily services taking about 35 minutes, all year round, weather permitting — most allow at least four hours on the island, so it’s quite doable as a day trip.
Once on the island, head up from the harbour to the island’s main settlement. Above the slipway is a rare, 12th-century Tau Cross and the ruin of a round tower. Begin by turning left along the road and following signs for the Tory Island Loop Walk. This marked circuit explores the western half of the island, taking you past the lighthouse — which was built in the 1820s — and Loch O Thuaidh, before returning to the harbour.
It would be a shame not to visit the eastern side of the island, where the best scenery can be found. Continue southeast along the road out of the village. After 1km, turn left and walk the short distance to the cliff edge. Now turn right and follow the cliffs southeast towards Dún Balair, the highest point on the island at 83 metres. The coastline here is simply spectacular, with sheer cliffs and razor-sharp arêtes providing the indisputable highlight of the route.
When you’re ready, make your way back to the road and turn right to return to the harbour.
Helen Fairbairn is the author of ‘Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way — A Walking Guide’, (collinspress.ie) as well as several other guides
Length/time: 11.5km (allow 3.5 hours)
Start/finish point: Tory Island ferry pier
Refuel: The Harbour View Hotel (Óstán Radharc Na Céibhe, hoteltory.com), above the slipway on Tory.
If you like that, try this: Great Blasket Island at the tip of Kerry’s Dingle Peninsula.
Walk into daylight, Co Wicklow
by Christopher Stacey
We’ve been doing the Sunrise Walk for the last seven years. Personally, I don’t like New Year’s Eve. I think it’s sort of a sad evening… it’s when you’re thinking of ones that are gone, and so forth. We never really went out, so I said, “Let’s try a sunrise walk.” I thought that nobody would come, but we ended up with 53 people!
There’s an absolutely fantastic spirit on the day. We start at around 5.30am — the sun rises at 8.20am or thereabouts, so you’re walking a good little section of it in the dark. You walk into the daylight, which is great.
The people make it. Everybody’s in good spirits, because it’s a new day, a new year, there’s a new sunrise. Then we all share a good breakfast at the end of it. That in itself goes on for a long while because people are reluctant to go home. They sit around and chat, and continue the journey, if you will.
That first morning was okay… the sun didn’t really shine for us. It wasn’t that lovely, beautiful, crisp frosty morning that we all dream about. But it wasn’t terribly cold either. Now, we change the route every year, and we change the venue for the breakfast too. This year, we started at Lynham’s Hotel in Laragh, went up through the village, followed part of the Wicklow Way, went up through Brockagh Forest and up onto the summit of Brockagh Mountain for the sunrise.
It’s a great way to start the New Year.
Christopher and Teresa Stacey founded Footfalls Walking Holidays (walkinghikingireland.com) in 1994; they lead the annual Sunrise Walk in Co Wicklow
Length/time: Around 11km; 3–4 hours
Start/finish point: Varies
Refuel: Finish up at Lynham’s Hotel in Laragh for a full fry — you’ve earned it (lynhamsoflaragh.ie).
If you like that, try this: Join the fun with group walks at Castlebar International 4 Days’ Walks Festival (castlebar4dayswalks.com).
Raheendarragh Loop, Co Carlow
By Mary White
The Raheendarragh Loop is a wonderful walk, set in the foothills of the Blackstairs Mountains. But its real secret is the incredible dry-stone walls that are filled with amazing wild flowers, wild herbs and delicious things to forage and nibble on.
The lane has never been tarred, which is lovely. It’s got a lovely grass central reservation — it gets a bit mucky in the winter but it’s an absolutely splendid walk all year round. Ninety percent of it is completely off road, and there’s a small section of a very quiet rural road, which will bring you back onto the starting position.
For myself, leading Blackstairs Eco Trails and bringing along walkers and people interested in biodiversity, the walk holds an amazing number of little insects, beetles and spiders. The wildflowers attract amazing flies, bees, wasps and butterflies. They’re lovely in the mountain meadows, and you can see a great number of our Irish butterflies on a gorgeous sunny day.
There’s plenty to look at, with the beautiful panoramic view of the Blackstairs. It is one of the secret green lanes of Carlow. We get people who live in busy cities like New York and London and Paris, and when I bring them up this lane they can’t believe the tranquillity and the peace. Also, it’s not a hard climb — it’s a gentle eco-trail that anybody with a minimum level of fitness can do.
If you’re foraging, you go very slowly because you’re nibbling and sampling. At the moment, you could expect to find wild garlic, pennywort and the lovely wild herb bennet, with roots that taste like clove.
We can also pick primroses, and crystallise them with caster sugar and egg. People get a great sense of joy out of doing this, because primroses go back to our childhood, where we all ran home to our mothers with a fistful of them and stuck them in a jam jar. They ring a childhood bell for most of us.
Mary White is the co-founder of Blackstairs Eco Trails (blackstairsecotrails.ie), and leads guided walks and foraging workshops in Carlow
Length/time: 5km; 1 hour
Start/finish point: Raheendarragh (52° 37’ 21” N, 6° 48’ 2” W)
Refuel: Head to the nearby Step House Hotel (stephousehotel.ie) for a warming bowl of chowder.
If you like that, try this: Stroll along the towpath of the River Barrow, in Kildare or Carlow.
Ireland has an ancient tradition of pilgrimage routes, from Lough Derg in Donegal to St Declan’s Way in Waterford — a heritage celebrated in the week-long Pilgrim Paths Festival (April 11–17; pilgrimpath.ie).
A National Pilgrim Passport is also available — complete 120km of penitential paths, and you can collect a certificate from Ballintubber Abbey.
Safety comes first on a walk, no matter how easy. Check the weather, leave word of where you’re going and when you’ll be back, and pack smart!
As above, plus…
As above, but also consider…
Waterford’s Comeragh Mountains stretch from Dungarvan to Clonmel, with a host of walking options, corrie lakes and valleys in between. Keep an eye out for treasure… notorious highwayman William Crotty is said to have used the terrain as his hideout. The annual Comeraghs Wild Festival takes place in September (visitwaterford.com).
The place to go for info on Ireland’s official trails. It’s not just for serious walks — there are plenty of kid/buggy-friendly routes too.
A handy spot for walks of all lengths, this site has clear, thought-out instructions and directions, including GPS points for trailheads.
As well as route info, there’s plenty of advice for walkers on this site from outdoor author Kieron Gribbon.