Glenveagh is the second largest National park in Ireland, covering 66 square miles of ground. Of the 6 National Parks, Glenveagh National Park was the third to be founded, in 1984.
In Irish, the name of the park is Gleann Bheatha, meaning “glen of the birches”. Read our brief guide to Glenveagh National Park and learn about the park’s history, flora, fauna, hiking trails, castle and gardens.
Glenveagh National Park is tucked away in the Derryveagh Mountains of County Donegal, in the North West of Ireland. Donegal is known as, “the Forgotten County” because it is geographically isolated from the rest of the Republic of Ireland.
Sharing a border with Northern Ireland, Donegal is a large, remote and sparsely-populated region; full of mountain peaks, rugged coasts, lush woodlands and desolate bogs.
Although remote, Glenveagh National Park is ideally located a 30 minute drive from Letterkenny and 1 hour from Donegal Town – the largest town of the county. It is also a 1 hour drive from Derry and 2 hours from Sligo.
Prior to becoming the estate of a minor gentry-man, this outlying area was sparsely populated home to hardy families. It was filled with Irish speaking communities living in townlands such as Altnadogue, Bingorms and Claggan.
A wealthy man of minor gentry, named Captain John Adair of County Laois, purchased the land and began building the Castle. His dream was to outdo the Queens royal Balmoral retreat in the Scottish Highlands. And he did so with very little regard for the local people.
This was a time in which the landed gentry and their Irish tenants were already on shaky grounds. Tenants had every reason to complain; tiny tracts of land, poor soil conditions, high rent, high taxes, bad weather, failed crops, mistreatment by the authorities, extremely poor living conditions, not to mention isolation from essential services.
In April 1861, the notoriously cruel Adair evicted over 200 tenants – for no other reason than to improve the aesthetic of his Estate. Needless to say, his name is not remembered fondly in local lore, which has travelled far with those forced to leave the country because of his evictions.
This event became known as the Derryveagh Evictions and the names of all the families who were left homeless can be seen here.
Following the clearances, work continued until the Castle was finished in 1873. Ironically, “Black Jack” Adair didn’t live much longer to enjoy it, dying in 1885.
After he died, his wife Cornelia, an American from upstate New York, turned the remote Glenveagh Castle from a rustic hunting lodge to a cosy socialite’s retreat in the great wilds of northwestern Ireland. Cornelia Adair left her mark on Glenveagh by expanding the gardens, improving the castle and lake shore, even bringing in exotic plants to further develop her new gardens.
Upon her passing, Glenveagh was purchased by a Harvard professor Arthur Kingsley Porter who was studying Irish archeology and culture. He brought many Irish cultural figures to the castle but didn’t stay long at Glenveagh – he disappeared in 1933 while visiting Inishbofin island off the coast of Connemara.
Another American then took up the castle – Henry McIlhenny, whose ancestry traced back to Donegal. He further developed the gardens and castle interior. After his retirement, he passed Glenveagh Castle & Estate to the Office of Public Works, who made this stretch of mountain wilderness into a national park.
The Derryveagh Mountains are an impressive mountain range which commands the north of Donegal, dominating the area of Glenveagh National Park.
The whole area has and underlying granite geology, with a band of quartzite and schists in the north east. There are many areas of exposed rock on higher grounds, one great example being the quartzite, scree covered Mount Errigal. This is Donegals highest point!
Although not as high as the mountains of Kerry, you are guaranteed more peace here where the peaks are rugged, eerie, quiet, and ideal for hiking off the beaten path.
The largest and most famous wildlife in the area are the herd of red deer living in the park. Protected and maintained by the park services, the deer roam wild through Glenveagh’s woods.
Want to see the deer? The best time is during October & November, the “rutting” season. This is when the male deer “bugle” (or cry out) to prospective mates, fight with other males and are generally more active.
Other impressive inhabitants are Ireland’s oldest pair of golden eagles. These stunning birds of prey were re-released into to park following a decline and eventual extinction of the breed. Similar to the wolves of Yellowstone National Park!
Though their numbers are still small, the experiment has been a success at bringing golden eagles back to Donegal. Patient birdwatchers might even catch a glimpse of these beautiful birds of prey.
If you love to a good wander in the woods, the woodlands of Glenveagh offer a rare woodland ecosystem. In the uplands, you will find hardier plants like mosses and some arctic-alpines. All through the 100 hectares of woods, expect beautiful old Oaks as well as the Birch, for which the valley is named. There are also other native Irish trees like Holly, Hazel, Yew and Scot’s Pine.
As well as the trees, there’s considerable bogland. Evidence of an even more lush woodland that existed before, it is now a gorgeous blanket of heather and bog cotton.
For seasons gardeners, the castle grounds will be a delight. Home of many exotic species of plants, due to Cornelia Adairs carefully curated global gardens. Tucked into the Valley of the Birches, the gardens offer a sheltered home to dozens of species, and include a small glasshouse with several exotic species, and Victorian Walled Gardens with a variety of vibrant flowers.
On the shores of Lough Veagh, Glenveagh Castle is a window into the strange but fascinating Victorian era. The castle is complete with a donjon, towers, castellations, parapets, stone walls and arrow slits.
It is hauntingly beautifully, due to its simple granite build and well maintained features of times gone by; modelled on the elegant retreats popular with wealthy landowners in the Scottish Highlands. Ideally set in the Valley of the Birches, with the quiet lake waters lapping at its feet, makes Glenveagh Castle all the more stunning.
The main path leading to the castle from the entrance is just over 3 kilometres – it is a gentle walk. However, Glenveagh Park also offers a shuttle service from the car park to the castle several times a day.
Around the castle are the Walled Garden, Pleasure Grounds and Woodland Gardens, all appearing as carefully crafted order amongst a wild and free mountainous backdrop. The Victorian Gardens were started 1880’s by Cornelia Adair, with gardens cultivated by a Kew-trained gardener.
Sheltered by strategically planted Pines and tall Native Broadleaf trees. The man-made microclimate within has been home to exotic plants and shrubs of many kinds for decades.
Want the best view? Climb the path up the hill behind the castle to the viewpoint. Though steep, the loop is short – just about a kilometre – and views over the castle, lake and valley are breathtaking.
Today, the gardens are well worth a visit. If you’re looking for refreshment or simply a break from the outdoor weather, there is a charming cafe in the gardens behind the castle, where you can find teas, coffee, soup, sandwiches and more.
Glenveagh Park has a few trails for outdoor enthusiasts who want to explore the park the way it was made to be explored – on foot. So pull on your sturdy hiking boots and your warm waterproofs, and get outside!
From the Visitor Centre, there is the well-maintained Lakeshore Trail following the shores of Lough Veah. From the Centre to Glenveagh Castle, it’s about a 3.5 km walk with options to extend your walk beyond the castle following the lake shore.
While many visitors walk to the Castle, few venture beyond its walls. Here, the landscape grows quieter and wilder, full of tranquil forests and the stunning Astelleen Burn Waterfall. You instead choose to the take the Visitor Centre bus to the castle, allowing more time to wander the old forests, boggy glens and majestic mountains.
For those looking to explore a lesser-visited stretch of the park, the Bridle Path Walk is another option. This non-looped walk can be up to 8km one way, though you’ll need to arrange collection at the trail’s end. Here, visit the birthplace of St Colmcille, one of Ireland’s three patron saints.
Donegal’s tallest mountain, Mount Errigal, looms over Glenveagh National Park. Though not way-marked, the route to the top is a popular one and not difficult to navigate.
Starting from the small roadside car park, make for the summit through the bog. After about half an hour you’ll come to a rocky stretch. From here, you’ll pick your way up until you’re on the ridge. There’s a lot of loose scree, so be careful.
Follow the ridge-line to the top, where you’ll marvel at a panoramic view of the vast Glenveagh valley, the Derryveagh Mountains and out to the wide blue expanse of ocean. The out and back trail is about 4.5 km, with options to extend the walk to up to a 7 km loop.
Please keep in mind this is a very wet, boggy walk, and having dry feet is the best way to enjoy your hike! Wear good, waterproof boots, trousers and jacket, as well as gaiters if you have them.
At the foot of Mount Errigal is the Poisoned Glen. A place of sweeping valleys and must-see views. Rugged peaks tower above, creating a peaceful backdrop far from bustling towns.
Sheer rock faces offer climbers many challenges, and shimmering lakes invoke images of fairy lore. The ruins of an old 19th century church in the glen adds to the enchanting vibe of the glen.
Various stories try to account for its name. A mistranslation of the “heavenly glen”? (‘neamh’ [heaven] vs. ‘neimhe’ [poison]). Is it from Irish mythology – the location of the giant Balor’s ‘poisoned’ eye, dropped in the glen following a fight with his daughter’s kidnapper?
Access the Poisoned Glen for walkers is found on the R524 road. It is almost always very wet and boggy, so once again good footwear and waterproof hiking gear are a must.
Ireland’s northernmost point, Malin Head is remote, wild and at the mercy of the savage Atlantic winds and rains. It is also where many scenes of the 2017 Star Wars were filmed.
One of Ireland’s three fjords, Lough Swilly is a beautiful sea lough that divides the Inishowen Peninsula from Fanad Head, and can either be driven around or crossed by boat. There’s some great cycling around its shores too!
A massive and well-preserved ringfort, the Grianan of Aileach is one of the most impressive of its kind. From here, you can get 360 degree views of the surrounding countryside.
Tied for the highest sea cliffs in Ireland, the Slieve League Cliffs are actually three times the height of the Cliffs of Moher, though less sheer. They are also said to be the highest accessible sea cliffs in Europe! There are a network of interconnecting paths around its edges.
Ireland has many adorable towns, and Donegal Town certainly deserves a mention. At its centre is the gorgeous Donegal Castle, a medieval keep with a 17th century manor house attached to it. The town has many cafes and shops, including Magee’s of Donegal, a high-end homage to the region’s tweed and textile producing heritage.
Derry is Ireland’s only walled city. It is undeniably one of Ireland’s most interesting and vibrant places, despite its troubled history. Made famous recently by comedy series, Derry Girls, this City is slowly becoming a cultural hotspot, home to galleries, theatres, cafes, and festivals.
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