Tuesday 17 September 2019

Five of the best winter walks in Ireland - blow off the Christmas cobwebs!

Tracks and trails

The Comeragh Mountains, Munster Vales. Photo: Jakub Walutek / MunsterVales.com
The Comeragh Mountains, Munster Vales. Photo: Jakub Walutek / MunsterVales.com
The Sheep's Head Way. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile
Sheep's Head, Co. Cork
The Cavan Burren, Ireland's ancient East. Photo: Tony Pleavin/Fáilte Ireland
Glenbarrow Waterfall Loop
Walking in the Wicklow Mountains. Photo: Fáilte Ireland
Coach House Coffee, Kilmacthomas, Co. Waterford. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile
Pol with Séamus Ó hUltacháin in the Cavan Burren
Pól Ó Conghaile

Pól Ó Conghaile

Crisp ground, family time and fresh air for every fitness level… blow off the pre and post Christmas cobwebs with Pól Ó Conghaile’s picks of the best walks in Ireland.

1. Coumshingaun, Co. Waterford

Best for: A wild workout (and a great Facebook post)

Coumshingaun is a cover shot, a sensational corrie lake stashed away in the Comeragh Mountains, and first sight of it will bring a smile to your face no matter how many mince pies are weighing you down. Its inky black depths are cupped by three surrounding ridges that would do any volcano justice, and tales of buried treasure (the legendary highwayman, William Crotty, is said to have stashed his loot in the Comeraghs) only add to its mystery.

Start your hike at Kilclooney Wood, about 8.5km along the R676 linking Lemybrien with Carrick-on-Suir. After a short forest trail, you’ll need to scale the grassy, boulder-strewn slopes (the path isn’t very obvious here), taking about 45 minutes to get level with the lake. To circuit the ridges above, where the best views reveal themselves, requires some legwork and scrambling, so be prepared to use your hands… don’t underestimate the workout.

Coumshingaun Co Waterford

To the conquerors, the spoils. Legend says the basin of Coumshingaun is bottomless, and the views – as this epic photograph by Jakub Walutek (above, top) attests, would do National Geographic proud. It’s a stunning showcase for Ireland’s newest tourism region, the Munster Vales.

Level: Medium/Hard.

Length/Time: 7.5km; 4 hours (looped walk).

Start/Finish Point: Kilclooney Wood. See munstervales.com

Refuel: Coach House Coffee (coachhousecoffee.ie) is a 15-minute drive away in Kilmacthomas, right on the new Waterford Greenway.

2. Maulin Mountain Loop, Co. Wicklow

Walking in the Wicklow Mountains. Photo: Fáilte Ireland

Best for: Active families

A trail with a little bit of everything. Kicking off from Crone Wood car park (arrive early, as it gets crowded at peak times), the ascent begins on wide forest tracks before emerging to stonking views of the Sugar Loaf and, as you turn a particularly picturesque corner onto Ride Rock, Powerscourt Waterfall. From this height, the falls seem like silver strands of hair.

Ride Rock is where decisions need to be made. You can turn back towards Crone (the short option, of about 1.5 hours in total) or continue on by taking the right fork in the path, following red disc markers onto the Maulin Mountain Trail. This requires a bit of energy and motivation, as despite the glorious views over Glencree, a short, zig-zagging section requires huffing and puffing to haul the gang about 200m up the side of the mountain.

It’s worth it, though. Views extend over neighbouring valleys and hills, and you can break for that all-important flask of hot chocolate at the right turn where the descent begins on a sandy woodland road. Keep a sharp watch for markers on tree trunks as you go – one missed turn added 30 minutes to our walk.

Level: Medium.

Length/Time: 3 hours; 6.5km approx. (looped walk).

Start/Finish Point: Crone Wood car park is about two kilometres from the gates to Powerscourt Waterfall, and easy to locate on Google Maps.

Refuel: A great big lump of a cake (and some post-Christmas sales) await in Avoca, a 15-minute drive away in Kilmacanogue (avoca.com).

3. The Cavan Burren

The Cavan Burren, Ireland's ancient East. Photo: Tony Pleavin/Fáilte Ireland

Best for: Buggies and history buffs

Clare isn’t the only county with a Burren, you know. Cavan’s ‘godforsaken’ landscape, as it was described to me recently by historian Séamus Ó hUltacháin, is a remarkable patchwork of karstic limestone, glacial erratics, Neolithic tombs and 19th century farm remains squirrelled away near Cuilcagh Mountain.

The ‘relict landscape’ stacks up millions of years of geology, myth and human settlement, and the recent addition of a small visitor centre and well-marked paths makes for an easy amble between sites. Trails start at just 1.3km (the multi-access calf-house dolmen route, taking you to an old cattle shelter improvised from a collapsed tomb), and the park is also crossed by the Cavan Way, the 26km trail stretching from Dowra to nearby Blacklion.

Pol with Séamus Ó hUltacháin in the Cavan Burren

A giant’s tomb here, fading rock art there and caves opening into the earth like portals… the more you look, the more there is to see. There are toilets and picnic facilities, so get the turkey and ham sambos wrapped up, and off you go.

Level: Easy.

Length/Time: 1.2 to 10km; 1-2 hours (looped trails).

Start/Finish Point: Cavan Burren Visitor Centre, around 6km from Blacklion (cavanburrenpark.ie; thisiscavan.ie). It’s marked on Google Maps.

Refuel: Forward-planners could twin this with an overnight stay and a spot of destination dining at Neven Maguire’s MacNean House & Restaurant in Blacklion (nevenmaguire.com). Alternatively, cross the border to the Customs House Country Inn in Belcoo, Co. Fermanagh (customshouseinn.com).

4. Glenbarrow Waterfall Loop, Co. Laois

Glenbarrow Waterfall Loop

Best for:  Easy Midlands meandering

This short woodland trail strikes out towards the source of the River Barrow, and is as gentle and scenic as the waterfall at its heart.

Setting out from the centre of Ireland in the Slieve Blooms (near Rosenallis), follow the wee wooden ‘waterfall’ sign nailed to a tree. It directs you onto a trail that dips into an atmospheric tunnel of old hedgerows, before emerging into a shadowy forest made springy by pine needles underfoot.

There are no serious elevations or ascents to contend with, just a gentle traipse along the riverbank, before you arrive at the three-tiered waterfall, trickling down a series of flat rocky platforms that can be walked on when water levels are low (though obviously, take care with slippiness and children here).

The Glenbarrow Waterfall Loop

You can turn back to the car park at this point, or continue on the loop. Winter is chilly and crisp. Spring brings an explosion of bluebells. 

Level: Easy.

Length/Time: 7km; 2 hours (you can do shorter).

Start/Finish Point: Glenbarrow Car Park (the trailhead is easy to find on Google Maps, though pin it before you lose coverage).

Refuel: Portlaoise is a 25-minute drive, where you’ll find Kelly Lou Cakes (kellylou.com) and antiques labyrinth The Store Yard (thestoreyard.ie) stashed away in the unlikely setting of Kea-Lew Business Park. 

5. Cahergal Loop, West Cork

sheep's head.png
Sheep's Head, Co. Cork

Best for: Serious winter walkers

The Sheep’s Head Way is a network of some 150km of old fishermen’s, school, mass and funeral trails on the Wild Atlantic Way. You can only really bite off a chunk, and the Cahergal Loop is perfect for that.

Start at Black Gate trailhead near Kilcrohane, following the waymarkers leading you across the peninsula (be sure to identify the colour and trail you want to follow, and watch out for diverging paths). Highlights of the loop include a 3km section of the Sheep’s Head Way by Gortavallig on the north coast, where you’ll pass the remains of old copper mines, a famine village known as the ‘Crimea’ and jaw-dropping views over the Beara Peninsula. On my last visit, I didn’t meet another soul. It was just me, and a gazillion squawking gannets.

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The Sheep's Head Way. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile

If you fancy a tougher stretch, along the mountainous spine of the peninsula, follow the markers for the Peakeen Ridge walk.

Level: Medium/Hard

Length/Time: 8.5km; 3-4 hours (find detailed directions on discoverireland.ie or livingthesheepsheadway.com/cahergal-loop-walk/).

Start/Finish Point: Black Gate trailhead is at the Alice West Centre, about 4km SW of Kilcrohane (51°33’52.9”N 9°45’24.7”W).

Refuel: Grab a cuppa and a scone or hunk of apple tart at Bernie’s Cupán Tae café “at the end of the world” at Tooreen (027 67136). If it’s closed, double back to Ahakista or Durrus. Blair’s Cove (blairscove.ie) is a plush stay nearby.

NB: Your Walking Checklist

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.

A fully charged phone, water and snacks, layers of appropriate clothing and sturdy footwear are essential for all winter walks. Bring a bag for rubbish, and pop a pair of clean shoes and socks in the boot for afterwards. You can thank us later!

See irishtrails.ie for more great walks.

Read more:

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

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