Glenveagh is the second largest national park in Ireland, covering 66 square miles of ground. Of the six 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.
History of Glenveagh Castle
Prior to becoming the estate of a minor gentry, 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, Captain John Adair of County Laois, purchased the land and began building the Castle. His dream was to outdo the Queen’s royal Balmoral retreat in the Scottish Highlands.
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.
The Derryveagh Evictions
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, and 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 region of Glenveagh National Park.
The whole area has an underlying granite geology, with a band of quartzite and schists in the northeast. There are many areas of exposed rock on higher grounds, such as the quartzite, scree-covered Mount Errigal, Donegal’s highest point.
Although not as high as the mountains of Kerry, Glenveagh and Derryveagh are wild and peaceful, with few other visitors. Those who do make the trek into the mountains are like-minded travellers in search of rugged peaks, eerie landscapes, and quiet bogs.
Interested in geology? Ireland has quite a few odd geological formations. Read more about it here.
Glenveagh is home to a resident herd of red deer. Protected and maintained by the park services, the deer roam wild through Glenveagh’s woods.
The best time to spot the red deer is during fall, such as in October or November, for the “rutting” season. This is when male deer are more active, “bugling” (crying out) to prospective mates and fighting with other males.
Another impressive type of Glenveagh wildlife is Ireland’s oldest pair of golden eagles. After a decline and eventual extinction, these birds of prey were re-released into the park following a decline as part of a re-wilding campaign.
Though their numbers are still small, the experiment has been a success in bringing golden eagles back to Donegal. Patient birdwatchers might even catch a glimpse of these beautiful birds of prey. (Read more about birdwatching in Ireland here).
If you love 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 seasoned gardeners, the castle grounds will be a delight. Home of many exotic species of plants, due to Cornelia Adair’s 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 yet fascinating Victorian era. Despite only being built from 1867-73, the castle is complete with a keep, towers, castellations, parapets, stone walls and arrow slits.
A simple granite structure and well-maintained features of times gone by, Gleanveagh Castle was modelled on the elegant retreats popular with wealthy landowners in the Scottish Highlands. Set in the idyllic Valley of the Birches overlooking hauntingly beautiful mountain and bog, the quiet lake waters lap at its foundations.
The main path leading to the castle from the entrance is just over three kilometres but Glenveagh Park also offers a shuttle service from the car park to the castle several times a day.
Glenveagh Castle Gardens
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 1880s 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.
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 or by bike. Read on to explore the great outdoors of Gleanveagh National Park.
Distance: 3.5 km
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. Or you instead choose to take the shuttle bus to the castle, allowing more time to wander the old forests, boggy glens and majestic mountains.
The Bridle Path Walk
Distance: 8 km
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.
Distance: 4.5 km or 7 km loop
Donegal’s tallest mountain, Mount Errigal, looms over Glenveagh National Park. Though the way-marked path only covers part of the route, Errigal is a popular hike 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. (Not sure what to wear? Read our outdoor clothing guide here).
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 add 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 to the Poisoned Glen for walkers is along the R524 road. It is almost always very wet and boggy, so once again good footwear and waterproof hiking gear are a must. (Not sure what shoes to choose? Read our hiking footwear article here).
Glenveagh is also a beautiful place for cyclists. Donegal in general is spectacular, offering varied terrain, stunning views, winding mountain passes, majestic mountains, and tiny villages. In fact, Donegal is home to three of our favourite climbs and descents – more than any other county: Glengesh Pass, Mamore Gap, and Ballymastocker Beach.
Read more about cycling Ireland’s best climbs and descents.
Cyclists can pedal many of the same routes as hikers in Glenveagh National Park, enjoying lakeside paths and remote mountain terrain.
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. Hike the headland, check out the WWII-era EIRE sign, keep an eye out for marine wildlife in the waters below, and learn the folklore about the Irish goddess Banba.
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. Cyclists can enjoy some great cycling around its shores too, including some challenging climbs.
A massive and well-preserved ringfort from the Iron Age, 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 and a dive into Ireland’s ancient past. Read our guide to the Grianan of Aileach here.
Tied for the highest sea cliffs in Ireland, the Slieve League Cliffs are actually three times the height of the Cliffs of Moher, though admittedly less sheer. They are also said to be the highest accessible sea cliffs in Europe! There is a network of interconnecting paths around its edges, mass rock dating from the Penal Times, and absolutely stunning views. Read our Slieve League guide here.
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 the Irish comedy series, Derry Girls, this city is slowly becoming a cultural hotspot, home to galleries, theatres, cafes, and festivals.