5 of the best hikes in Ireland

Aug 21, 2020

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You will be hard pushed to find a land more dramatic, challenging and convenient to get to than Ireland for hikes and long beautiful walks.

Many of its coastlines are like something out of “Game of Thrones” — indeed a lot of scenes were filmed there including at Ballintoy Harbour and Cushendun Caves, both in Antrim. Ireland also has some fairly manageable mountains, too, including the nation’s highest, Carrauntoohil in Kerry — more on the dreaded “Devil’s Ladder” to follow.

Also, hiking is a great way to get some fresh air and exercise while maintaining social distancing. Time it right on some of these routes and you might not see another soul.

So here’s a roundup of our favourite hikes — Ireland is small enough, too, that you might even be able to do them all in one trip if you’re fit enough!

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1. Charles Fort — Kinsale, Cork

(Photo by Hayley Coyle/The Points Guy)
The ruins of Charles Fort. (Photo by Hayley Coyle/The Points Guy)

This is one of my top hikes and one I try and do every time I go back home to Kinsale. It’s often voted one of the most scenic routes in Cork, and once you get to the headland, the views across the Atlantic are magical. You begin in the colourful fishing town and port of Kinsale — there’s plenty of decent delis to stock up on picnic supplies — and make your way along Scilly Walk, a winding path that follows the estuary with loads of photo opportunities.

The walk finishes at Charles Fort, one of two forts that protected the town from invasion in the 1600s. It’s a mythical-looking structure and while you can do paid guided tours, there are plenty of hidden corners in the grounds where you can set up camp for the day and have a swim for free. Some end the hike there — about 3 km from town — but if you’re feeling adventurous, carry on along the coastal path, gradually ascending, until you pass the boatyard then get to a dense copse.

This is the most difficult part of the hike as it’s quite overgrown — but do persevere. From there, you’ll be fairly elevated and pass lots of grassy verges overlooking the waves where you can stop for a rest.

Read more: 6 of the best golf courses in Ireland

The views from this headland are amazing. (Photo by Hayley Coyle/The Points Guy)

The headland you’re looking for has a pole marking it and opposite it is Sandycove Island — you’ll be able to see the famous Old Head of Kinsale lighthouse too as well as miles and miles of ocean. Note you can keep going if you like but this is a good spot to pause and the round-trip from town is about 15 km. On the way back, stop at the Bulman pub for a celebratory pint and some freshly caught mussels.

2. Carrauntoohil Mountain — Killarney, Kerry

Carrauntoohil is Ireland’s highest mountain at 3,704 feet high and close to the centre of Ireland’s highest mountain range, MacGillycuddy’s Reeks. Though there are several different routes up Carrauntoohil, the Devil’s Ladder is the most common route and is classed as “challenging”, so it’s recommended you are reasonably fit and it might be a good idea to hire a guide. Expert advice says to follow the loop closely, as if you veer off into the unknown, you may run into difficulty.

The summit of Carrauntoohil, Ireland's highest mountain. Co. Kerry. Ireland
The summit of Carrauntoohil. (Photo by Nigel Killeen/Getty Images)

The Devil’s Ladder (12 km return) is fairly easy to navigate and most people begin at Cronin’s Yard and follow the well-trodden path up through Hag’s Glen, crossing the Gaddagh River. There are big stepping stones to take you across, but be careful, as they can be slippy. The “ladder” itself is tough going and very steep and can be quite slick, so it’s advised not to tackle it in very wet weather (yes, that can be tricky in Ireland!) — but it’s worth it once you reach the summit — spine-tingling vistas await featuring glassy lakes, the Wild Atlantic Way and deep ridges.

An easier route is Brother O’Shea’s Gully, divided into three “levels”. You’ll see waterfalls, Hag’s Tooth Ridge and Ireland’s highest lake, Cummeenoughter. Grit your teeth and dip in for a spot of wild swimming. It’s very, very cold but imagine how delighted you’ll feel with yourself!

3. The Cuilcagh Boardwalk Trail — Enniskillen, Fermanagh

Also nicknamed the Stairway to Heaven, the Cuilcagh Boardwalk Trail covers one of the largest expanses of blanket bog in Northern Ireland. There are tracks, boardwalks and staircases, making this hike a bit easier — be aware though that the final viewing platform requires a steep climb. It’s one of two routes to reach the summit of Cuilcagh Mountain and you begin near the world-famous Marble Arch Caves — a series of awesome natural limestone caves near the village of Florencecourt.

Ireland, County Fermanagh, Cuilcagh Mountain Park, Legnabrocky Trail. (Photo by: Eye Ubiquitous/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Cuilcagh Mountain Park. (Photo by Eye Ubiquitous/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

After walking about 4 km down an isolated trail that really shows off the epic wilderness of the area, you’ll start the mountain ascent via a wooden boardwalk where you will be able to take in boulder fields and expansive views. The boardwalk was created to protect the rare blanket bog beneath it from erosion caused by walkers as they made their journey across the entire 33 km Cuilcagh Way. Once you reach the summit, on a good day you’ll enjoy 360-degree views of the Sligo Mountains, Upper Lough Erne, the Atlantic Ocean as well as counties Cavan, Leitrim and Donegal. The boardwalk trail is about a 15km round trip.

4. Carrowteige Loop Walk — Carrowteige, Mayo

This one is a bit easier and around 11 km in total, so more suitable if you’re not an experienced hiker. It showcases the best of Irish backdrops including sheer cliffs, crags, caves, chasms, tiny islands and breathtaking clifftop views. You begin at the Gaeltacht (Irish speaking) village of Carrowteige before tackling roads, bogs, grassy tracks and paths. Be sure to stop for a picture at the Children of Lir sculpture before heading inland with a fairly demanding ascent over open ground.

Broadhaven Bay near Carrowteige. (Photo by Design Pics/The Irish Image Collection/Getty Images)
Broadhaven Bay near Carrowteige. (Photo by Design Pics/The Irish Image Collection/Getty Images)

Prepare to be windswept and enjoy the sea air on your skin. Lots of places in Ireland claim to have the “most dramatic coastal scenery in the country” but Mayo (also where “Normal People” is set) is a top contender. There are magnificent views of Broadhaven Bay and arches and stacks galore. The area is also part of the famed Wild Atlantic Way — read our full guide to this brilliant Irish road trip here.

5. The Wicklow Way — Wicklow

The beauty of this one is that is starts in Dublin, so you can have some city break shenanigans before embarking on your adventure. The Wicklow Way is said to be the oldest way-marked trail in Ireland and is very popular due to the range of itineraries you can do. Most get the bus from Dublin to Marlay Park and start there.

The walk in its entirety is 127 km long and finishes in the village of Clonegal in Carlow. It’s estimated this can take about 10 days. However, you can, of course, do as little or as much of this as you wish. It offers a varied array of things to see including mountains, upland lakes, steep-sided glacial valleys, fast-flowing mountain streams, forests and farmland.

Read more: 5 must-visit spots where ‘Game of Thrones’ was filmed

Majestic water cascade of Powerscourt Waterfall, the highest waterfall in Ireland. Famous tourist atractions in co. Wicklow, Ireland. (Photo by MNStudio/Getty Images)
Majestic water cascade of Powerscourt Waterfall, the highest waterfall in Ireland. (Photo by MNStudio/Getty Images)

If you’re stuck for time, you can sort of cheat and just do the “highlights” including Powerscourt waterfall — Ireland’s highest — and tranquil Lough Tay before ending up in the village of Tinahely, in Wicklow. You’ll pass plenty of secluded beaches, too, so get ready for some (cold) wild swimming to cool off.

Bottom line

While the weather is still clement why not take advantage of some of Ireland’s great outdoors? There are lots of lovely walking trails and hikes all over the country — these are just a few tried and tested few. The weather in Ireland is generally mild — although wet and cloudy — so you should be able to do these walk all year round. And with the Emerald Isle being about an hour away in the air, or a few hours by boat, now is a great time to explore all it has to offer.

Featured photo by Anna Gorin/Getty Images.

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