The Burren National Park is one of Ireland’s wildest spots. If it wasn’t for the spring wildflowers or the blue skies overhead, you might just think that you were looking at the Moon, or at least some exotic faraway place. And yet, the Burren National Park is only 20 or so kilometres off of the iconic Wild Atlantic Way, and just 30 kilometres from the Cliffs of Moher Visitor Centre.
Whether you love wildflowers, are an amateur photographer looking for exotic shots, a hiking and outdoor enthusiast, or simply looking for something a bit different, a visit to the Burren region or Ireland is sure to fascinate and inspire.
The Burren National Park is located in the centre of County Clare, on the western part of Ireland; it is fairly rural, approachable by a number of small, winding roads.
The national park is located an hour south of Galway City, an hour north of Limerick and Shannon Airport, and just under 3 hours from Dublin. Although there are some rural bus services that visit the region, you are better off renting a car or booking a guide/driver; this will offer you far more flexibility, make your trip more relaxing and if guided, provide an extra level of service.
Because of the wealth of things to do in the region, we recommend staying overnight in the Burren or elsewhere in County Clare.
Like most of Ireland’s national parks, the Burren is a relative national park newbie. It was established in 1991, making it Ireland’s 5th national park (though Wicklow, the 6th, was established the same year).
As Ireland’s smallest national park, the Burren covers 15km² or 5.7 mi². However the Burren uplands geological region is much larger than that, spanning between 350km² – 560 km². Although the official designation of the Burren National Park may be small, this much larger territory is listed as the “Burren and Cliffs of Moher Geopark.”
As you’ll see below, the Burren has been home to humans for thousands of years, and contains a number of Neolithic and other prehistoric-era monuments.
The term “Burren”, Boireann in Irish, means “great rock”. Although some of the park includes lakes and bogs, the Burren is generally characterised by the exposed limestone landscape that is often described as lunar-esque and otherworldly. Initially formed during the Lower carboniferous period, the Burren was once a sea bed roughly 350 million years ago made of compressed sediments. Hiking in the region, you can easily spot fossils embedded in the rock – such as fossil corals, ammonites and sea urchins and more.
However, the Burren as we see it today is largely a result of the last glacial period, during which it was covered in ice. The melting of this ice had a dramatic effect on the landscape – moving and depositing sediments and large boulders (Glacial Erratics) as well as chipping away and eroding at the limestone beds. The Burren is today recognised as one of the best Glacio-karst landscapes in the world.
If you are interested in learning more about the geology of the Burren, check out their website.
The Burren is Ireland’s most phenomenal wild garden. Every spring and early summer wildflowers sprout from every available crack in the rocky plateau. Plants from the sub-arctic regions all the way to the Mediterranean grow side-by-side in the Burren; flora found in open grassy plains blossom alongside those typically found in rich woodland areas.
Because of this, the Burren National Park is also regarded as one of the most significant regions for biodiversity and flora ecosystems in Europe.
The best time to appreciate this phenomenon is during spring in April through to June.
According to experts, over 75% of plant species in Ireland can be found here in the Burren, including 23 of Ireland’s 27 orchids.
For a full list of flora found in the Burren, view the Burren National Park’s webpage.
And it doesn’t stop there – all of these flowers support a thriving ecosystem that includes 30+ types of butterflies as well as pine martens, foxes, rabbits, bats, and many types of birds.
Another interesting thing about the Burren is what goes on beneath the surface of the limestone. Because of its tendency to dissolve in acidic water, the limestone has given way to a network of caves.
Formed over a million years ago, before the last great advance of ice, these caves were formed when rainwater seeped through ‘grikes’ – vertical fissures in the soft stone.
At present, about 50 km of caves in the greater Burren region have been mapped, with more to be unearthed. The most famous and accessible cave in the region is Aillwee Cave, in which prehistoric Irish brown bear skeletons have been found.
This loop is recommended for anyone seeking a long but lowland walk – it is about 9km in length. With a mixture of trails and countryside roads, the backdrop makes for a pretty picture. This loop also passes by one of the coolest cafés in the region, The Burren Perfumery, which uses local ingredients to make organic scents and cosmetics.
Mullaghmore is the name of the Burren’s most iconic peak. We recommend the Blue Route, which is about 8km/3hrs hours. Although this climb is modest, the rough terrain and wild scenery keeps it exciting. However, if you want more of a challenge, try the linear Red Route, which is slighter shorter but more difficult. At certain times of the year, there is a shuttle which will take you back to the car park.
Slieve Carran is another of the nearby hills with a couple of short looped walks around the summit of this craggy peak, where you might spot falcons and hen harriers if you’re lucky. There is a small heritage and a holy well tucked under the cliff. The trail to the summit offers dramatic views, cliff top walks, and huge cairns – and of course, plenty of wildflowers. Both trails are under 3km and shouldn’t take more than a half hour.
A little further away is Black Head. Within the Burren region but outside the National Park, this beautiful headland not too far from Ballyvaughan looks out over Galway Bay, and even off to Galway city. Starting from the pretty lighthouse, you’ll follow a green road through a valley of boulders, through an Iron Age fort, up the limestone “steps,” past Neolithic tombs, and along cliff edges until you reach the top, overlooking the entire region of the Burren, Galway and out to Connemara.
Poulnabrone is one of Ireland’s most famous and impressive Neolithic portal tombs. Portal is one of four main types found in Ireland – chamber, passage, wedge and court tombs can be found dotted around the country. A portal tomb is generally defined as having at least two upright stones balancing a third monolith called a capstone, forming a table.
Excavations in the 1980s show evidence of 21 remains buried at Poulnabrone, and using radiocarbon dating, archaeologists have discovered that Poulnabrone was in use from 3180 to 3780 BC. Unlike Stonehenge and some of the other “mysterious” contemporary structures, Poulnabrone Tomb was built using limestone blocks quarried from the limestone sheets of the Burren.
Interested in learning more about Neolithic Ireland? Visit here.
This fascinating little café/perfumery uses locally sourced & foraged ingredients for its organic scents and cosmetics. They are passionate about the Burren and sharing its magic with visitors. Learn more.
Set up in 1989, the Burren Smokehouse is part of a recent trend of producing local, high quality cuisine and culinary experiences. Visit the Smokehouse to taste some of the organic smoked salmon trout, mackerel as well as cheeses, jams and more goodies.
The bustling coastal town of Kinvarra is a lovely stop for an afternoon on the way to the Burren. They also have a beautiful castle rising out of a headland that resembles the famous Eilean Donan castle of Scotland.
Everyone has heard of the Cliffs of Moher. Probably Ireland’s most iconic landscape, the Cliffs are 30 minutes from the Burren National Park. We recommend you skip the main car park and instead start in Liscannor, walking along the less-busy southern cliff walk. Learn more here.
Whether you love surfing or have simply always wanted to give it a go, you might head along the Wild Atlantic Way to the surf village of Lahinch for a lesson on catching waves.
Quaint and lovely, this wee town along the sea is probably best known for its music scene – Doolin and traditional Irish music have long been synonymous.
Like many of Ireland’s wild places, the Burren has been known to inspire a story or two. As the story goes, JRR Tolkien had made several trips to the Burren when he was working on his famous trilogy – The Lord of the Rings. It’s not hard to imagine how this starkly desolate beautiful place may have inspired the worlds he created within Middle Earth.
As mentioned, the Burren is woven with caves and fissures. One such place is that of Pol na Gollum – the namesake of Tolkien’s most iconic creations, the character Gollum. Even more interestingly, the cave is known to make a strange gurgling noise suspiciously reminiscent of Gollum’s iconic cough.
Although there’s no proof confirming that the Burren was one of Tolkien’s Middle Earth inspirations, it certainly seems possible that the otherworldly landscape had a hand in shaping one of the most fantastical worlds ever created.