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    Hidden Gems of Northwest Ireland

    Author: Dawn Rainbolt, PR Manager
    More by Dawn

    Best Kept Secrets

    The enchanting beauty of Northwest Ireland is full of hidden gems. 

    While it may be easy to rush to bucket-list locations like Dublin, Galway, Cork and Clare; there are many other wonderfully scenic spots in Ireland that are worth their weight in gold. From the most incredible beaches, to ancient archaeological sites and winding historical trails – hidden treasures abound in this salty, stunning landscape. With so much to discover and enjoy, we’ve collated a list of some of our favourite secret spots for you to explore.

    Where are Northwest Ireland's Best Places to Visit?

    The Pilgrim’s Path

    Hiking remote Donegal - Pilgrim's Path Slieve League cliffs

    Hiking the Pilgrim’s Path, up the back of Slieve League.

    Slieve League cliffs – vast, spectacular, and three times the height of the Cliffs of Moher, are a popular destination to visit when spending time in County Donegal. While most visitors either drive to the viewpoint or park up and walk from the Visitor Centre, there is another quieter and more secret way.

    Instead of driving, why not hike up the Pilgrim’s Path?

    This historic trail climbs steadily on the inland side of the cliffs. Along the way, it passes the remains of a mass rock: a secret place where Catholic priests once gave illicit mass back in the Penal Times when Irish Catholics were persecuted, and Catholicism was outlawed (along with speaking Irish and a number of other Irish traditions). The fact that the route winds this hidden location is enough to let you know that this is a beautiful and rewarding hike.

    After winding your way up the spine of the hillside, you emerge at the edge of the highest sea cliffs in all of Ireland. From here, the views are breathtaking, the land sheering away beneath your feet and the plunging Atlantic ocean rolling dark and heavy against the rocks below.

    After reaching the cliffs, the path then carries on along the evocatively-named “One Man’s Pass” (so named for its narrowness) and eventually descends to the Bunglass Viewpoint. There is also the option to return the way you came. Afterwards, make sure to warm up with a cup of tea and a bowl of steaming soup at the Teelin Cafe.

    Learn more about visiting Slieve League here. The Pilgrim’s Path is just one of the several remarkable places featured on our ever-popular trip, Causeway Coast & Donegal.

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    Assaranca Waterfall

    Man in green jacket in front of large cascade

    Assancra Waterfall in Donegal

    Discover one of Ireland’s most impressive waterfalls on the northern side of the Glencolumcille Peninsula. Despite being accessible by road, few visitors travel on Donegal’s narrow country lanes, which means you’ll likely have the place to yourself.

    The cascading water of Assaranca falls high from a rocky ravine and plunges into a dark pool below. There are also other hidden gems tucked away on these pretty back roads, such as the brilliant white sands of Maghera Beach and the dark invitation of tidal Maghera Caves.

    Only a 15-minute drive from the small village of Ardara, take the time to visit one of the few remaining traditional weavers and learn about the history of the stunning Donegal tweed.

    One of the best ways to see Assaranca Waterfall, Maghera Beach and the pretty village of Ardara is by bicycle. Not only are the quiet country lanes perfect to pedal, but moving more slowly through the landscape allows you to immerse yourself in the wonderful sights, sounds and smells of this beautiful region. Join us in the saddle to bike Donegal from cliffs to coast.

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    Grianan of Aileach

    Aerial view of a round stone fort on a hilltop

    Perched atop the heather-capped Greenan Hill and only 15 minutes from Derry, the Grianan of Aileach, a reconstructed Iron Age stone fort, deserves a place among Ireland’s most notable historical sites such as the iconic Rock of Cashel, Glendalough monastic site in Wicklow, and the impressive Neolithic tomb of Newgrange.

    A winding road fringed by thick hedgerows leads you up to its imposing circular walls. Thought to date back to 1700 BC, the fort was once the centre of the Kings of Ulster, though it was plundered and destroyed in 1101, and excavated in Victorian times.

    In 2001, the OPW (Office of Public Works) reconstructed the fort, returning it to its former glory. Read more about the Grianan of Aileach, an intriguing site of Irish heritage, in our guide here.

    As well as visiting engaging historical sites such as Grainan of Aileach, discover other hidden gems that pepper the sea, shore and land of Northern Ireland when you travel with us on our Causeway Coast and Donegal trip. 

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    Malin Head

    Jagged rocks in in a rugged harbour with wildflowers by the shore

    Malin Head, Ireland’s most northerly point, is a must-see when travelling in this wild corner of the country. Salt-stung and far from city lights, the jagged and rocky peninsula is a special and evocative place.

    A Napoleonic signal tower on the headland, constructed when Ireland was still under British rule, and England and France were at war, speaks of darker days. There was a fear that Napolean would invade, and although he never reached Irish shores, the war left its mark.

    Later, Ireland was a newly-independent nation when World War Two broke out and was determined to stay neutral. To mark their neutrality to any aerial visitors, huge whitewashed signs marked ‘EIRE’ (which means ‘Ireland’ in the Irish language) were caved into the ground. Malin Head is the site of EIRE 80, still starkly visible in large white letters amongst the rough yellow grass.

    Visit Malin Head, hike the Pilgrim’s Path and spend time on Rathlin Island on our Donegal and Causeway Coast trip. 

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    Neolithic passage tomb - a stone mound framed with huge lintels

    The stone tombs of Carrowkeel date back to the Neolithic era, making them about 5,000 years old. Framed by massive lintel stones to form passages and burial chambers and then covered by loose stones, these impressive hilltop mounds were built to be seen.

    The Carrowkeel tombs are protected National Monuments. From their lofty heights, you can spot nearby cairns, such as Kesh Cairn, the huge cairn atop Knocknarea, and the silhouette of the Dartry Hills beyond, each topped with their own monuments. Below across the valley, the remains of over 50 round huts are just visible in the craggy landscape.

    The hike also offers stunning panoramic views across the hills and pastures of Sligo and beyond. Look out for Knocknashee, known as the hill of the fairies, topped with its own cairns and even the remains of an ancient village, and learn about the stories of fairies and ancient people.

    As of 2021, Carrowkeel and 100 or so Neolithic monuments in Co. Sligo have joined UNESCO World Heritage’s tentative list. If accepted, the sites will join other ancient places like Newgrange, Skellig Michael, and England’s Stonehenge as legally protected sites.

    Read more about the mystical ancient site of Carrowkeel. Intrigued by this place from the faraway past? Take the opportunity to step back in history on a flexible Surf Coast Self-Drive tour, which allows you to explore Northwest Ireland at your own pace. 

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    Mullaghmore & Surf Spots

    Surfing waves

    There are plenty of awesome surf spots on Ireland’s northwest coast. However, there is something undoubtedly special about Mullaghmore, which has become known as one of the world’s prime big-wave surf destinations, with Conor Maguire surfing a 60-foot wave here in 2020.

    While surfing is perhaps best left to the professionals (at least in the winter), Mullaghmore is also a brilliant place to spectate the sport. With huge waves breaking only 100m off the headland and ample room to settle in with a flask of tea, there is no better place to enjoy the thrill from the shore. Other surf spots include Easkey, Rossknowlagh and Strandhill. Learn more about surfing in Ireland here.

    For those that wish to keep exploring, Mullaghmore also offers secret bathing spots (such as Bishop’s Pool or Trawalua Strand) as well as beautiful beaches and fantastic walking trails.

    Glenade Valley

    County Leitrim is a patchwork of rugged peaks and wild hills, quaint little towns and romantic castles, as well as magical glens and waterfalls.

    In the north of the county, you’ll find Glenade Valley – one of the best examples of a glacial valley in Europe. The valley’s lake, which reflects the changing moods of the sky, is also said to be home to the Dobhar Chú, which translates as ‘water dog’ or ‘hound of the deep’.

    It is said to be a cross between an otter and a dog, albeit 5 times the size and first appeared in Irish folklore as far back as 1684. In 1722 it is said to have killed a young woman, who was washing her clothes in the water. Her headstone, which can be found in a nearby graveyard, attributes her death to the monster.

    With many places to pull over and take in the beautiful views, as well as many instances of natural beauty and opportunities to explore the glen on foot, a trip to County Leitrim and Glenade Valley is sure to be both enjoyable and memorable.


    Green cliffs sloping into azure seas

    Cliffs near the start of the looped walk.

    Mayo is a wild and wonderful place. The roads are small and winding, many of which have a mohawk of grass running down their centre, and the pretty villages, which are few and far between, add to the county’s feeling of peaceful isolation.

    Carrowteige headland is perhaps one of the most remote corners of Ireland and is one of the country’s best-kept secrets. To get there, you must drive through blanket bogs and vast, wind-swept countryside for a number of miles. Over an hour from the nearest town, this is a place you cannot visit by accident. Rugged and remote, with cliffs that tumble into the sea, the headland offers brilliant hiking and spectacular views.

    There are a number of lovely walks. Perhaps the best perhaps is the Children of Lir loop – named after an old Irish folk tale. Lir was a king, and father to four children. Upon remarriage, their stepmother, jealous of the king’s love for his kin, cursed them to spend 900 years as swans adrift on the lakes of Ireland. You can read more about the tragic Irish folktale of the Children of Lir.

    This 10km circular walk follows the contour of the headland, taking in the dramatic coastal views and crossing the mossy grass and sandy beaches. Curious sheep and calling gulls will keep you company as you explore one of the most lovely corners of Ireland.

    Discover Carrowtiege and County Mayo on our off-the-beaten-track self drive trip from Ireland’s Surf Coast to Westport.

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    Achill – The Deserted Village

    Ruined stone cottage in the mist with more visible beyond

    One of the many ruined cottages at Slievemore on Achill, shrouded under the mist.

    Achill Island is located off the country’s wild west coast and is the largest of the Irish isles. In the sunshine, the beaches glisten in porcelain white, and the sea glitters in emerald green. When the mist descends, the island becomes quiet, atmospheric and wild.

    There are ruins from different eras on the isle – the Pirate Queen’s Castle, islanders’ cottages, and forlorn churches, but none quite so evocative as the Deserted Village, Slievemore.

    Down a long and winding path and built into the hillside, rows of ruined stone cottages are being swallowed by bracken and fern. Their doors are empty mouths, their windows black holes in the stone and their roofs open to the stars.

    Slievemore is all that’s left of the now-forgotten tradition of booleying – a lost agricultural practice of seasonally grazing cattle in the hills. Villages would summer here, cultivating lazy beds of crops while their cows grew fat on soft summer grass.

    Once the villagers stopped migrating to Slievemore, the thatched roofs caved in, the stones tumbled inwards, and the lazy beds were eclipsed by brambles. Today, Slievemore exudes a haunting beauty, a homage to a lost era.

    The best way to visit is by foot, along the Old Bog Road or drive to the small Slievemore church near the ruins.

    Clare Island

    Clare Island Hiking

    The west coast of Ireland is peppered with islands of various sizes, with many of the smaller ones being uninhabited. Clare Island has a population of about 150 and is well known for its most infamous resident – Grace O’Malley, the Pirate Queen.

    Clare is a fascinating place for history lovers, outdoor enthusiasts and bird watchers. During the Middle Ages, it was part of the O’Malley clan, and during the 16th century, controlled by the formidable Pirate Queen. As one of her primary strongholds, Grace O’Malley was laid to rest in the island abbey.

    In 1806, a lighthouse was established on the Island. Fires, lightning strikes and the wreckage of time left their marks on the lighthouse, and in 1965, it was decommissioned. Today, it’s now a unique guesthouse – a stay that combines its colourful history with an amazing view.

    There are several hikes around the island for anyone wishing to explore. Join an island hopping trip along Ireland’s west coast to visit Clare Island, Inisbofin and many more. 

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    Downpatrick Head

    Downpatrick Head in Mayo – a giant sea stack off the coast

    The west coast of Ireland is made up of jagged inlets, hidden coves, stunning beaches and soaring cliffs. Sea stacks, rising from the water in lonely isolation, were once part of the mainland and now stand marooned and weather-beaten, battling the elements.

    The most famous is Downpatrick Head’s Dún Briste, a sea stack off Mayo’s northern coast. Resembling a giant layer cake made of rock, the stratifications in stone change layer by layer. Towering 50 meters high and eighty metres from the shore, the name “Dún Briste” translates to “broken fort” – appropriate for a place once connected to the mainland by a huge land bridge.

    A strange folk tale accompanies the sea stack – the odd tale of an ogre-turned-pirate called Deodruiśc, imprisoned on the rock for his dangerous misdeeds.

    Nearby, there is a huge blow hole, many beaches to explore and wonderful, engaging walking. There are also a number of abbeys, round towers and interesting archaeological sites to explore.

    Visit Downpatrick and the northern Mayo coastline on our Surf Coast self drive trip to travel northwest Ireland at your own pace. 

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    Mweelrea Mountain

    Mweelrea Mountain Mayo

    Clocking in at 814 metres (2,700 feet) high, Mweelrea is Connacht’s highest mountain. Though the terrain may be rugged, the views are breathtaking and hiking to the summit is wonderfully rewarding. On your ascent, enjoy traversing the rocky, grassy landscape below a forget-me-not sky.

    At the top, marvel at Killary Fjord, one of just three fjords in Ireland. To the east, the silhouette of the Sheffry Hills can be seen, and out west, the glittering blue expanse of the Atlantic Ocean.

    Would you like to summit Connacht’s highest peak and other notorious mountains of Ireland’s west coast? Join a small group trip exploring the mountains of Connemara and Mayo.


    Woman strolling on a white sand beach with a mountain behind

    Located only seven kilometres off northern Galway, Inishbofin is a small island, full of hidden gems. Tranquil beaches, the ruins of castles, sea arches and blowholes, an old famine road and the crumbling foundations of Iron Age promontory forts, Inishbofin offers so much to explore.

    There are a number of circular walks on the island, perfect for those looking to marvel at the isle’s beauty on foot. The crystal clear waters are perfect for swimming, snorkelling and diving, and the quiet beaches are lovely to wander along at your own pace.

    Cultural enthusiasts will be intrigued by the 16th-century ruins of Cromwell’s Barracks, a sombre reminder of past turbulence. Bird watchers should keep binoculars at the ready as a number of seabirds flock to Inishbofin for nesting and breeding.

    After your day’s activities, settle in for a hearty chowder or fresh fish and maybe a pint or two at one of the island’s five restaurants and four bars. Love wild islands? Check out some of Ireland’s other isles here.

    Visit Inisbofin as well as several other stunning isles and coastlines while island hopping along the west coast on our small group tour. 

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    Leenane Hill

    Hikers on path through rugged terrain

    The little-known Leenane Hill – sometimes spelt ‘Leenaun Hill’ – is hiked almost exclusively by locals. A winding, narrow trail takes walkers up this gem of a hill, which offers fantastic views of Killary Fjord and the vast blanket bogs of Mayo.

    The summit of Leenane offers great views over the beauty of the Maam Turks Mountains, Mweelrea Mountain and Killary Fjord.

    Summit Leenane Hill on our small group trip to hike the mountains of Connemara and Mayo. This spectacular trip is ideal for anyone who loves mountains, hiking, and remote, wild beauty. 


    Mam Ean

    Statue in front of a small stone chapel on a wild hillside

    Mám Éan is an ancient pilgrimage route with connections to Ireland’s patron saint, St Patrick. Translating to the “pass of the birds,” Mám Éan is dotted with the stations of the cross, reminders of the path’s religious origins.

    Mám Éan is a pilgrimage walk that weaves through the rough and rock-strewn Mayo landscape, culminating at a tiny stone chapel. After 16km, hikers are greeted by a statue bearing the likeness of St Patrick.

    In the running for Ireland’s smallest chapel (indeed, this is an ongoing debate), the cave-like recess in the stone wall is known locally as St Patrick’s Bed. Enjoy views of Connemara and appreciate the craggy, boggy wilds of western Ireland while walking this ancient path.

    Learn more about this hike and other Irish caminos and pilgrimages here.

    Killary Famine Path

    Group of hikers alongside a fjord in a stony field and mountains behind

    Nestled alongside the southern shores of Killary Fjord, the Famine Walk follows the remains of an old famine road. The road was commissioned as famine relief work during the terrible times of the Great Hunger in the mid-19th century.

    From Rosroe pier, the walk includes a mixture of cultural heritage and natural beauty. The history is haunting and the beauty overwhelming. The walk weaves past tumbledown cottages and overgrown fields of potato ridges. The mountains of Connemara and Mayo rise in every direction, offering plenty of photo opportunities and picnic stops.

    The fjord is stunning, made even more beautiful from the far side where few other travellers venture. An area dotted with shellfish farms, you may want to reward your efforts with a fresh shellfish dinner after you finish your lovely walk.

    Hike the Killary Famine Path on our island hopping small group trip through Ireland’s west coast. This gentle trip is perfect for those looking for coastlines and culture. 

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    Visit Northwest Ireland

    Meet the Author: Dawn Rainbolt

    American by birth but European in spirit, Dawn has called the US, Costa Rica, Spain, England, Poland, France and now Ireland home over the years. While she has travelled to more than 30 countries, she has fallen in love with the rich Irish culture and sweeping landscapes of Ireland. Armed with a Masters Degree in Tourism Marketing and a love of writing and photography, she is Wilderness Ireland's Marketing Executive since 2017.

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