As school and office life return, short walks can be squeezed into busy weeks, says Pól Ó Conghaile
You don’t have to walk for hours to discover something new. You don’t even have to work up a sweat.
That struck me as I walked the 4km Deputy’s Pass Loop in Co Wicklow with my daughter. It took less than an hour, with lots of stops - to examine spiders in their webs, a bank of purple flowering heather, weird and wonderful autumn mushrooms, and a thrush watching from a darkened branch.
Lost in the moment, phone on silent, I got more out of it than I might have on a whole section of the Wicklow Way.
Deputy’s Pass is a tiny nature reserve near Glenealy, a clump of ancient oak woodlands and one of the few pockets of native forest that once covered the county (Tomnafinogue is another, further south). The name refers to a pass cut by the Lord Deputy in the 1500s. It was also the site of a bloody ambush in 1599, when local clansmen surprised English troops during the Nine Year’s War.
I learned several little things. Sharing a photo of early autumnal leaves on Twitter afterwards, they were identified as ‘Lughnasa growth’, a second spurt of growth named for the Celtic harvest festival. I spotted orange fungi that looked like flame emojis. That was yellow stagshorn, a jelly fungus that grows on decaying wood. The place was alive with insects, butterflies, saplings, ferns and moss. Signs told us to look out for frogs and newts too.
‘Micro hike’ is a term usually used for bug hunts or tiny explorations — in back gardens or the like — aimed at opening children’s eyes to nature. But I think it works just as well for short walks squeezed into busy weeks.
We all have our lockdown loops and local circuits. But we traipse those fairly blindly, getting our exercise and chats in, oblivious to the nature and history around us.
A micro hike is best if it’s a fresh or less-beaten route. With a little planning, it’s something you can do early, late or midweek. It doesn’t have to take a full or even a half day. You can do it with a buggy, a pet or a friend. You could squish it into a work schedule. It ekes out time to slow down, get some fresh air and a gentle shot of exercise and endorphins. For my daughter and I, Deputy’s Pass was some together time stolen before she went back to school.
Bonus point: with a few hundred calories burned, you’ve got the perfect excuse for a cuppa or treat. We stopped into Joly’s Garden Centre (jolysgardencentre.ie) in Glenealy, a small business with super-friendly service, a smattering of antiques and a pink ‘Potting Shed’ food trailer with a menu bursting with garden herbs, leaves and local ingredients like lamb, Wicklow blue cheese and Balleese honey. ‘Plants and café’ was the simple message on the sign, and it seemed rude to leave without a bit of both.
Other micro hikes? I’ve picked 10 here, all taking less than an hour.
I think this is one of the loveliest little walks in Ireland - immersing you in the brilliant universe of the Burren in an easy 1.5km trail. Download a trail brochure and follow the white arrows from the Burren National Park trailhead, leading through ash and hazel woodland, wildflower meadows and open limestone pavement riddled with grikes and fossils (you are walking on what was once a coral reef). Heathers, wild orchids and yellow ants can all be spotted, depending on the season, and you’ll also see the molten lump of Mullaghmore.
Details: 1.5km; burrennationalpark.ie
Several trails take in the lovely Torc Waterfall in Killarney, with the easiest being the 1.5km Yellow Trail. A steep enough 245m ascent is involved, but it can all but done within an hour. It's essential to choose an off-peak time here, or you'l be frustrated by a full car park and lots of visitors milling around the falls. From Torc Waterfall carpark, yellow arrows lead you up to the waterfall, further on to a bridge over the Owengarriff River, before turning back down towards the N71 (which you have to cross) and back to the start point. Other short waterfall walks to consider lead to Glencar in Co Leitrim, or Mahon Falls in Co Waterford.
Details: 1.5km; killarneynationalpark.ie
You needn't even rack up a kilometre on your walking app here. The looped walking trail out to Seal Point from gorgeous Glengarriff measures just 750m, linking you to the Blue Pool, several viewing points, lovely Scots pines and lots of nature along the way (seals are a highlight, and compass jellyfish were clearly visible in the water on our latest trip). You can lengthen it by continuing along the 1km shoreside trail. A collection of food trucks and stalls has been building in the car park at Quill's here, with everything from ice cream to paella available. Nearby, there are several short walks in the Nature Reserve, too.
Details: 1km; glengarriff.ie; purecork.ie
The 4.5km Cahore Point Trail was newly waymarked during the pandemic, and takes you along the coast from the village towards the sandy sweep of Old Bawn Beach, with points of interest including a folly-style tower, bird-life flitting about the cliffs, and landmarks like Cahore Castle, before returning on country roads to the start point. The loop begins and ends at The Strand Cahore, one of Ireland’s tastiest gastro-pubs, with sumptuous local grub (from Kilmore Quay prawns to wood-fired pizzas). You'll need to move at pace to finish within the hour, but can shorten the walk by not descending onto the beach along the way. The cliff walk in Ardmore, Co Waterford, is a similar walk containing multiple wow moments within its 4km loop.
Details: 4-5km; visitwexford.ie; thestrandcahore.ie
There's little effort involved in reaching The Scalp (a rocky pass named from the Irish for chasm or crevice) from Barnaslingan Woods - though arrive early or off-peak for parking. Carved by an Ice Age glacier, and today the route of the R117, the boulder-strewn west face of the pass was a favourite of Victorian photographers, and is reached following the red trail signage. If you wish, you can extend your visit to include the nearby Lead Mines and Carrickgollagan trails. Views are stunning there, too.
Details: 2km (approx); dublinmountains.ie
There's a walk for everyone in Co Sligo, and this easy, 1.2km nature trail is a peach. Located along the shores of Lough Gill, it takes you up to the summit of Dooney Rock (don't worry, there's no dramatic climbs involved), as well as lovely views of the lake and its islands. And yep, there's a Yeats connection... the family spent a lot of time in Sligo, and he took inspiration from the area for 'The Fiddler of Dooney' among many other poems. There are short, similarly sweet walks in Slish Wood (3km) and Hazelwood (3km).
Details: 1.2km; sligowalks.ie
You've got several short options here, depending on the ages and attention spans. The Ellis Wood Nature Trail (green arrows) is just 500m long; the Sruffaunboy Trail (yellow arrows) is 1.5km and the Lower Diamond Trail (blue) is a 3km loop that should still come in under the hour. Diamond Hill itself is tempting, with stunning views, but don't underestimate the calf-stretching climb. Oh, and a quick word on the midges: "They are most active during early mornings and evenings between May and September, on cloudy days when it is calm, moist and overcast," the National Park says. There are similar options in Donegal's Glenveagh National Park.
Details: 1.5km; connemara.ie
Did you know red kites have been reintroduced to Co Wicklow? These brilliant birds of prey are coloured in shades of brickish red and bright white, with a wingspan stretching up to two metres. Several pairs nest around Avoca (location of the original Avoca Handweavers, and the BBC's Ballykissangel series), and a short walking trail around Kilmagig forest is named for them. We saw several soaring over the church steeple on our last visit, and heard their shrill “peee-ooow”... I'd go so far as to say a sighting is pretty much guaranteed. Bring binoculars, follow the white arrows, and watch out for a cemetery dating back to the 1800s, too. The 2km nature trail through Knocksink Woods in Enniskerry is another magical micro hike in Wicklow.
Details: 2.5km; visitwicklow.ie
Just 25 minutes from Dundalk, the storied, volcanic landscape of Slieve Gullion is a real off-radar find (particularly for people south of the border). As well as classic mountain walks and a 10km scenic driving loop, you’ll find the Giant’s Lair — a children’s story trail threaded through the woodland. Pitched as ‘a living storybook’, it includes a wicker tunnel, giant’s table and dozens of fairy doors… all on a short, buggy-friendly circuit. There’s an adventure playground and café to hand, too. If you like this, take a look at the Gruffalo Trail at Belfast’s Colin Glen Forest Park, and the super sculpture trail in Rossmore, Co Monaghan.
Details: 1.6km; ringofgullion.org
Here's another forest park with a world of trails to explore (don't forget coins for the parking barrier, and time your visit to avoid crowds). The Sand Dune Trail a short, scenic stroll - with a boardwalk section for buggies and little legs - leading to views over Clonmass Bay and the Back Strand. Nine trails range from the 500m Salt Marsh Trail to a 13km Red Trail (strenuous, allow 3-4 hours) and lots in between. A 2.5km Marine Trail should also be doable in less than an hour, and there's a decent picnic area and playpark beside the main carpark.
Details: 1 km; coillte.ie
For more great walks in Ireland, visit our Irish walks hub.