Sunday 16 December 2018

Ireland's 20 best walks: Joe O'Shea's pick of family-friendly trails

Head outdoors for a ramble with this helpful guide to family-friendly walks all around the country.

Emo Court Gardens, Laois
Emo Court Gardens, Laois
Belleek Woods, Mayo
Marlay Park, Dublin
The Railway Walk, Wicklow
A mini-heatwave is forecast for the week ahead but make the most of it... it's not expected to last. Pic: Howth Cliff Walk, Dublin

In association with the Health Service Executive

Ireland's network of walks and trails has expanded greatly in recent years, with family-friendly routes in particular now laid out and accessible in virtually every corner of the country.

But where are the best walkways? And what resources are there online to push you off the couch, out the door and into our beautiful great outdoors? Follow our family-friendly guide to find out...

Dublin

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A mini-heatwave is forecast for the week ahead but make the most of it... it's not expected to last. Pic: Howth Cliff Walk, Dublin

1. Howth Cliff Walk

Sea air, great views and lots of wildlife, all accessible from the city. This popular cliff-path loop starts at the Dart station in Howth and all you have to do is follow the green arrows. It is pretty hilly terrain and follows the cliff edge over 3km so it's really for older children. But you can be sure they will love the views out over the harbour and the chance to spy a grey seal or nesting seabirds.

2. South Wall Walk

Just outside the city, you can park right by the South Wall and set off for a 4km, flat-gradient walk that will take about an hour or so with kids, and give you great views of the Poolbeg Chimneys plus panoramic views of the entire harbour. Go all the way out to the famous lighthouse and watch the ships come into the port of Dublin. Great for kids, but it can be a bit blowy on windy days so try to go there in good weather.

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Marlay Park, Dublin

3. Marlay Park, Rathfarnham

A firm favourite for generations of Dublin families, Marlay is great for young kids, with lots of easy-to-do trails, a model railway, playground and modern facilities. You can do many of the trails with a buggy.

Cork

4. Carrigaline-to-Crosshaven Greenway

This 5km trail runs along the old railway line and is now a popular riverside walkway, with plenty of picnic and seating areas, great views, varied wildlife and a very family-friendly vibe. The village of Crosshaven is a great finishing point for a rewarding ice-cream.

5. Ballycotton Cliff Walk

This 5km clifftop walk does have a fair few stiles and gates, so it's more suitable for older children, and not for toddlers or buggies. Starting in the quaint fishing village of Ballycotton, it hugs the coast and gives you great Atlantic views. A fabulous, wild walk, it will really blow away the cobwebs.

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Sheep's Head, Co. Cork

6. Sheep's Head Way to Kilcrohane

This waymarked national trail in West Cork - part of the very popular network of walks in the area - is 14km long and should take families (with older children who are ready for a good, long trek) about 4-5 hours of moderate walking. It's got amazing views over one of the most scenic parts of the Wild Atlantic Way. It's as wild as you can find and the memories will be super.

Sligo

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Hazelwood, Co. Sligo: The setting for Yeats's 'The Song of Wandering Aengus'
 

7. Hazelwood Forest Walk

Only 3km from Sligo town, Hazelwood is a real gem - a gorgeous forest walk along the shores of Lough Gill on a good, clearly marked 3km-long trail. It's looped, which is important when you want to start and finish where you left the car. It's buggy-friendly and there is lots to see along the route.

Wicklow

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The Railway Walk, Wicklow

8. Railway Walk, Tinahely

Another trail that follows an old railway line (the track from Woodenbridge to Shillelagh), which means the gradient is easy and fine for families. It's just 2km in length through woodland along the Derry River, with picnic tables dotted on the way. You can take a (sturdy) buggy or wheelchair and there is car parking at both ends. The Railway Walk ends at Tomnafinnoge Woods, and it really is a gorgeous part of Co Wicklow.

Waterford

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Joe O'Shea cycling the Waterford Greenway
 

9. Waterford Greenway

Officially open for less than a year, this fantastic addition to Ireland's network of Greenways has already attracted more than 400,000 visitors and is perfect for families who want to walk (or bike) through the splendour of the Copper Coast. It's 46km in length, but there are 11 car parks dotted along the route and you can do sections that can last from an hour up to most of a day. The Greenway is along the line of a long-closed coastal railway so the gradients are kind and the views spectacular. This one should be on the bucket list of every family who loves the great outdoors.

Mayo

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Belleek Woods, Mayo
 

10. Belleek Woods

Close to Ballina in some of the best countryside in Co Mayo, Belleek Woods are a great resource for families. The Belleek Woods Nature Trail is around 4km long and will take you a relaxed hour-and-a-half or so. It's very family-friendly, with lots of nature, historical sites and native woods. The trail begins at a roomy car park just 2km from Ballina on the road to Killala. Your family could spend a very memorable morning or afternoon at beautiful Belleek.

Galway

11. Rinville Park, Oranmore

Rinville Park's trails are some of the most family-friendly in the country, with much of the way paved over, making it suitable for buggies and bikes that are due their first big outing since Santa brought them. There are woodland walks and an inviting playground, safe and secure for kids inside the old walled garden. Rinville is right on the seashore at Oranmore, so the children can do a bit of beachcombing before having a picnic at one of the tables. Your kids will love it.

Kilkenny

12. Jenkinstown Wood

The big attractions for families at Jenkinstown are the two clearly marked and easy-to-navigate woodland walks - both on a loop so you will start and finish near the car park. The Walled Garden Loop is just 2km long and perfect for younger kids while the Wood Loop is a more challenging 4km and will get you all the exercise you need for the week. There are good toilet facilities, picnic areas and wide grassy spaces for the kids to play on. It's well set up to cater for young families, and the grounds and woods are very well maintained.

13. Mountain Grove, Piltown

Pretty woodlands, wildflowers and wildlife are all on display at Mountain Grove, with well-marked, accessible trails over a distance of around 4km. The going can be pretty muddy, with plenty of little streams, so it's definitely one for wellies and waterproofs - just let the kids jump in the puddles. A very enjoyable walk, but leave the buggy in the boot in the car park.

Laois

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Emo Court, Co. Laois. Photo: Fáilte Ireland
 

14. Emo Court Gardens

Laois can claim to have the second-largest park in Ireland (after Phoenix Park) and Emo Court has a great variety of short and long walks that are graded for all abilities and will cater for toddlers right up to teens. There is a tarmac path through parts of the park, which is great for buggies, or you can go a little deeper and get your boots muddy. Bring something to feed the ducks in the big lake and let the kids run around on the large lawn in front of the house. Emo Court is particularly gorgeous in the spring when a carpet of snowdrops, bluebells and daffodils covers much of the grounds.

Wexford

15. JFK Arboretum, New Ross

The arboretum has 252 hectares of woods, parks and gardens, with planned walks that are easy to tackle for families. But the real joy for kids, and one of the main attractions for the large numbers who visit every year, is the giant labyrinth, which is great for getting lost in. There is a mini railway, playground and lots of space to burn off excess energy.

Westmeath

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Cycling the Old Rail Trail, between Athlone and Mullingar. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile
 

16. Royal Canal Greenway

This 32km-long Greenway, along the banks of the Royal Canal in Co Westmeath, extends from the Meath/Westmeath county border to Abbeyshrule in southern Co Longford and can be accessed at a number of points along the canal. It's completely flat (obviously, being a canal) and known for being peaceful and totally tranquil. It can be walked but is also popular as a cycleway - so you can bring the family bikes. However, it is along the route of an unprotected canal so you will have to make sure your kids are old enough to exercise care so near to open water. For walking, one of the best places to access the Greenway is at Kilpatrick Bridge near Mullingar.

17. Westmeath Way

The entire way is over 33km in length - but for families looking to do a shorter walk, start at Kilbeggan and head towards Mullingar. You can stop at the Lilliput Adventure Centre on the shores of Lough Ennell for some fun on the water, and make sure to take a picnic as there are plenty of scenic spots along the way.

Clare

18. Mooghaun Hill Fort, Newmarket-on-Fergus

Away from the beaches in Co Clare, you will find places like Mooghaun Hill Fort - a very well-preserved Bronze Age hill fort in a wild woodland setting that will fire the imaginations of your kids (while they get plenty of fresh air and exercise). There's a very attractive woodland walk through a forested area leading up a slight incline to Mooghaun Hill Fort, where one of the largest and most spectacular hoards of prehistoric gold in Western Europe was uncovered. Mooghaun is also a stop on the larger Mid-Clare Way trail.

Leitrim

19. Fowley's Falls, Rossinver

One of Leitrim's best-kept secret - a series of cascades or waterfalls in a deep, forested valley - Fowley's Falls feel like a secret place of ancient enchantment. There is a 3km walking trail up to and around the falls, which is very accessible for younger walkers and a delight to find. (While in Rossinver, look out for the nearby Organic Centre, which runs regular events and courses, and has a café serving delicious homemade cakes and fresh produce.) It's 100 yards from the start of the trail up to one of the least-known but most enchanting beauty spots in the Northwest.

Roscommon

20. Lough Key Forest Park, Boyle

If you are in or around Roscommon, Lough Key Forest Park has got to be on your must-see list. It's got great facilities for families, a full restaurant, public toilets and a changing area, an adventure play kingdom in the grounds of the old Rockingham Estate, spooky hidden tunnels, forest trails and Ireland's only Boda Borg - a Swedish adventure maze. The lake and parkland are very scenic and there are endless trails to navigate, most of them buggy- or at least toddler-friendly.

Useful links...

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!

Irish trails: A great place to start is the Irish Trails site (irishtrails.ie), with 43 national waymarked trails in 25 counties across Ireland. These are graded for difficulty and accessibility, and the reviews and feedback from walkers who have done the routes are very handy if you are unfamiliar with the trails.

Coillte: Another wonderful resource for forest walks is coillte.ie - which contains very comprehensive sections for forest walks and

Get Ireland walking: For information on all kinds of walking activities and groups near you, go to getirelandwalking.ie.

Read more:

Top 20 family walks in Ireland: Get kids of all ages into the outdoors!

Irish Independent

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