With a vast range of Waymarked Ways, Looped Walks, Coastal Paths, Forest Parks and Island Loops, Ireland’s northwest corner has more to offer to walkers than almost anywhere in Ireland Away from the coast, the mountains offer unmatched views and challenges for every level of ability and experience. Conor O’Hagan guides you round its numerous attractions which make it a genuine mecca for walkers.
Here’s a small selection of the diversity:
Inishowen Head Loop
Estimated Time: 2hrs – 2.5hrs
Terrain: Bog roads, laneways, rough tracks and minor roads
The Inishowen Peninsula possesses such a range of sights and attractions that is often referred to as ‘Ireland in Miniature’ and this walk provides a stimulating but only modestly challenging sample. The loop starts at a car park area at a World War 2 lookout tower atop Inishowen Head. On this wild and remote loop you pass the point from where St Columba left Ireland on his way to Iona (Portkill) and a viewing point from where, on some fine days, the west of Scotland is visible.
Starting from the car park at Inishowen Head, follow the purple arrow downhill. Straight ahead of you is the prominent Stroove lighthouse. Pass a laneway on your right and reach a three-way junction with the R241 where you turn right.
Follow the R241 for approximately 500m (passing New Road on your right) to reach Carrowtrasna Road where you turn right and begin the ascent onto the shoulder of Crocknasmug via laneways and bog roads.
Follow the laneways and bog roads for over 1km to reach a T-junction where you turn right, continuing to ascend. After a further 1km, you reach the highest point of your walk on the shoulder of Crocknasmug.
Continue to follow the bog roads downhill and look ahead for the now disused farmstead of Johnny Glenanes perched on the side of Glenane Hill – it is the only sign of inhabitation on this most remote section of your walk. Pass two junctions with laneways – both on your left.
The loop now sweeps right (eastward) and takes you back towards the east coast of Inishowen Head. As you travel you are treated to wonderful coastal scenery and a view over Portkill (marked by a plaque on the left of the roadway).
Along the final 500m back to the trailhead, there is another opportunity to view the wonderful scenery from a viewing point atop the cliffs.
Ards Forest Park
Estimated Time: 5hrs
Ards Forest Park is probably the most beautiful and varied of Ireland’s forest parks. It is 480 hectares in extent and contains a large diversity of plant and wildlife forms.
The park has many features of historical and archaeological interest. The remains of four ring forts are to be seen in the park as well as a number of megalithic tombs. On the same walk there is a Mass Rock where mass was celebrated in deﬁance of the penal laws. There are numerous viewing points on the walks and trails with spectacular views of the surrounding countryside. The park covers approximately 480 hectares (1200 acres) and includes a variety of habitats, among them sand dunes, beaches, salt marshes, salt water lakes, rock face and, of course, coniferous and deciduous woodlands. There are a large number of trails in this park, giving the walker the opportunity to explore a variety of habitats from foreshore and sand dunes to semi natural oak woodlands on rock outcrops. By ‘stitching together’ a number of trails, it is possible to hike for 5/6 hours on forest tracks and trails, taking in the full circuit of the park.
There is a diverse range of ﬂora and fauna in the park ranging from blackberry and bramble in the oak forest to water lilies which thrive in a fen area near Lough Lilly to orchids on the sand dunes. The park is also home to a wide selection of animals and birds and the special hide at the end of the salt marsh trail allows the visitor to watch winter visitors feed on the salt marsh.
Arranmore Island Loop
Terrain: Quiet country roads, bog roads, hillside tracks
Estimated Time: 4hrs – 5hrs
Three miles off Burtonport, on Donegal’s west coast, Arranmore, Árainn Mhór is the second largest of Ireland’s inhabited islands, with a population of just over 500. The island is part of the Donegal Gaeltacht.
Arranmore is served by two ferry services, a conventional ferry and a fast ferry service taking just five minutes. Both services run daily all year. Stunning views across adjoining islands and Arranmore itself and the vast Atlantic reward a relatively easy walk of 14km; a fine outing for Easter Weekend!
The walk around Arainn Mhor (Arranmore) is signposted as Sli Arainn Mhor (part of Bealach na Gaeltachta which is a National Waymarked way) and begins and ends at the Ferry Port. The views in all directions along that walk are stunning and the western half of the route is particularly remote.
Terrain: minor roads, boreens, mountain paths and tracks
The stretch of coastline between Slieve League and Slieve Tooey in southwest Donegal is regarded by many as the finest for walking in Europe. Not only are the cliffs of Slieve League among Europe’s highest, but the entire 35km of coast bristles with jagged rock pinnacles, soaring cliffs and dramatic promontories. In the midst of all this fantastic scenery lies the village of Glencolmcille.
Glencolmcille feels wonderfully remote, a real outpost on the Atlantic, where Gaelic is still widely spoken as a first language, and traditional music and customs remain an integral part of everyday life. The village began as a settlement for Neolithic peoples, and evidence of their life can be seen in a number of fine Megalithic tombs. The area was also a stronghold of early Christianity in Ireland, with St Columba (Colmcille) founding a church here in the 6th century. Today the village and the surrounding area is littered with early-Christian and pre-Christian monuments, and these form the basis for the annual Turas or pilgrimage.
Heading west from the church walkers come almost immediately face to face with one of the best cross-inscribed early Christian pillars in Ireland. From here the route meanders towards the beach on a quiet lane, then heads north onto a steep mountain track with wide-ranging views back across the village and Skelpoonagh Bay. Nearby, a prominent mound of stone marks Colmcille’s Well, where you’ll find a small shrine and statue.
A short detour takes you out to the breathtaking edge of Glen Head, where the cliffs drop sheer for 200m into the heaving ocean. There’s a watchtower here, built in the early 19th century to guard against French invasion, and the coastal views north towards the promontory of Sturrall are particularly impressive.
Back on the main route, the track continues over the southern shoulder of Beefan and Gaveross Mountain and then descends to a lane. A left turn here takes you onto the Drum Loop, which climbs around the heather-covered eastern summit of Beefan and Gaveross Mountain. There are fine views north to the abandoned village of Port, before you descend back towards the village through the townland of Drum (Droim) on a steep track, and rejoin the Tower Loop at a junction.
These beautiful, peaceful lanes are lined with old stone walls and in summer and autumn come alive with the vibrant blooms of fuchsia. Both routes continue back into Glencolmcille via the 5,000-year old Mannernamortee megalithic tomb, the largest of its kind in Ireland. Walkers will also pass several more cross-inscribed pillars before arriving back at the starting point.