Bigger isn’t always better. Throughout the world, there are various ways of classifying and distinguishing the peaks and prominences of mountain ranges and small hills. Ireland is no different. See below to learn about the differences between a Hewitt, Binnion or Carn.
Although you don’t need to know your Furths from your Arderins to bag some impressive peaks, understanding how mountains are classified can help to decide your next adventure. As well as this, it’s also helpful to know that you don’t need a mighty challenge, such as Carrauntoohil, to capture the most glorious views of Irish landscapes.
In fact, Ireland’s wild landscapes can be just as impressive when climbing small hills as when submitting the biggest peaks. Small hills can afford you the achievement of reaching a summit without taking a full day out of your itinerary. From the top, enjoy great views or perhaps even find some of the island’s unique heritage sites. Any of the hills on our list can be a welcome breather on a multi-day peak bagging trip or a perfect introduction for those new to hiking in Ireland.
In Ireland, there are 209 peaks known as Hewitts which breach the 2,000 ft mark and have a prominence of over 30m. Carrauntoohil in Kerry is the champion of these, as Ireland’s tallest mountain rises to 1,038m/3,407 ft.
The Carns are characterised as hills between 400m and 500m in height. At last measurement, there are around 387 of these across the country.
The more modest yet equally impressive hills, known as Binnions, range between 100m and 400m in height. There are 484 peaks qualifying as Binnions scattered throughout Ireland.
Distance: 3-6 km with options to lengthen
With one of Ireland’s largest Neolithic cairns crowning its peak, Knocknarea is a feature of the northwest Wild AtlanticWay landscape that’s hard to miss. It dominates the Sligo skyline and is visible from miles around, despite its humble height. There are multiple ways to make your ascent, but we recommend the 6km Queen Maeve trail which starts and ends in Strandhill village.
While at the top, explore the cairn and its surrounding passage tombs – but please do not climb the cairn. Lest you incur the wrath of the ancient Queen Maeve, who, legend has it, is buried inside. The legend also encourages all climbers bring a stone from the bottom to add to the cairn. Knocknarea, along with Sligo’s other Neolithic tombs, is on UNESCO’s tentative list of protected sites.
Views over Sligo, Strandhill, the Atlantic and other nearby peaks are utterly breathtaking. On clear days, you might even spot the huge headland of the Slieve League cliffs rising in the distance.
Once back down, Strandhill village is a tiny but bustling seafront village complete with cafes, ice cream parlours, pubs and even a seaweed bathing site. There’s the beach as well – add the Killasprugsbone loop out to the evocative church ruins where St Patrick is said to have lost his tooth. Try your hand at a surf lesson or simply watch the other surfers bobbing in the waves. Learn more about the walk here.
Stand atop Knocknarea hill and discover Ireland’s surf coast on this flexible self drive trip along the northwest Wild Atlantic Way.
Distance: 5 km
A ramble up Binnion Hill in Co. Donegal affords you 360-degree views of the surrounding Urris Hills and as far as Malin Head – the northernmost point in the country. From Binnion’s modest summit, you can also marvel at Five Finger Strand (pictured), home to the highest sand dunes in Ireland.
An easy-going 5km looped walk starting in Clonmany village takes around 2 hours to complete. The first 2km are a lovely warm-up before you begin to climb. Once you’ve taken in the gorgeous views of the Inishowen Peninsula, why not drop into Nancy’s Barn in Ballyliffin and treat yourself to the best seafood chowder in the country?
Or if you want to encounter Donegal’s ancient history, the impressive (reconstructed) Iron Age fort, the Grianan of Aileach, is just a short distance away, and the views from the top of its hilltop perch are also lovely. Learn more about the walk here.
Hike the epic wilds of Donegal (and the unusual geology of Northern Ireland’s coasts and islands) on our popular hiking trip through the lesser-visited corners of Donegal and the Causeway Coast.
Distance: 7km with options to shorten
Diamond Hill takes its name from its jewel-like shape jutting out of the earth. And its quartzite composition gives it a shimmering appearance when hit by the sun. Nestled in the surrounds of Connemara National Park, Co. Galway, Diamond Hill is a popular spot for walkers of all abilities.
The 7km route that takes you to the top is challenging but made a little easier with boardwalks and gravel tracks. Hikers will negotiate steeper sections over uneven terrain near the climb’s end. The effort is worth it though. When you reach the top, take a moment to savour the phenomenal views of the Connemara landscape from mountain to sea. Learn more about the walk here.
Learn more about Connemara National Park in our guide to the region.
You will experience this rugged national park on our Hiking Ireland Coast to Coast trip, alongside many other outdoor delights.
Distance: 6.2 km
Outside Roundstone village in Co. Galway, find the little-known Errisbeg Hill. A super popular route with the locals, Errisbeg is less visited by tourists. Depending on the time of day and season, it’s possible to make the journey out and back without meeting a soul.
From Roundstone village, it’s a pleasant 6 km linear route. The terrain is fairly boggy underfoot, and although there is a trail for most of it, the path peters out in places, so a good sense of direction is required.
Once at the top, you can take in views of two of Ireland’s finest beaches – Dogs Bay and Gurteen Bay. The beaches lie back-to-back, creating an unusual tombolo that is a must-explore location. Learn more about the walk here.
Errisbeg Hill is the first stop on our trip hiking the mountains of Connemara and Mayo. This hill is the perfect, gentle introduction to the wilds of Ireland.
Distance: 7-8 km
The rambling unique geology of the Burren National Park has a lot to offer with its vast limestone plateau and rare alpine wildflowers. Although just 180m high, Mullaghmore Hill is a standout feature on the landscape as it sports a vortex-like appearance created by the distorted and exposed limestone once sitting on the sea floor. You’d be forgiven for thinking that a giant had taken and twisted the landscape into shape.
The Mullaghmore walk is well signposted, and a route blending sections of the red and blue trails creates a fantastic, looped walk for you to explore. Doolin village is a perfect base nearby for delicious, locally-sourced food and incredible traditional music. Learn more about the walk here.
Read our guide to the Burren National Park here.
Hike through the unique Burren landscapes as well as some spectacular island and coastal-scapes while hiking and island hopping along Ireland’s west coast.
Distance: Relatively short “hiking” but includes 618 stone steps.
This is a special feature. Given that Skellig Michael is a UNESCO World Heritage Site status, Skellig Michael is notoriously difficult to land on for a visit. There are multiple boat tours that scout around the island, but very few gain access to land – making it a good idea to travel with a group trip.
The pyramidal crag rising from the sea 12km off the Co. Kerry coastline is well worth the 2-hour boat journey to get there. Although standing at an unassuming 218m, Skellig Michael’s 618 stone steps up are where the challenge comes in.
For wildlife lovers, you’re guaranteed to spot thousands of gannets hanging out on Little Skellig. You also might have dolphins and other marine wildlife breaching the water alongside the boat.
And if you travel in late spring, you’ll get up close and personal with puffins, adorable and slightly comical birds that descend on rugged, coastal spots each spring for the breeding season. Learn more about the walk here.
Check out our Hiking and Island Hopping Cork & Kerry trip, where we venture out to this magical rock pinnacle alongside other fantastic coastal and island wild places.
Distance: 4 km or 16 km depending on your chosen route
Ballyroon Mountain is located at the tip of Sheep’s Head Peninsula – a finger-like stretch of land jutting out into the sea from Co. Cork. It is perfect for those looking for somewhere off the beaten track.
There are a few options to explore this wild place. The Poet’s Way is a difficult 16 km walking loop that takes you along the ridge of Ballyroon mountain. An easier option is the 4.2km Lighthouse Loop, which you can take a short diversion from to the peak of Ballyroon. This region of Ireland is relatively undiscovered – but you better get there quick, as it won’t be for long! Learn more about the walk here.
Hike West Cork and the amazing Sheep’s Head Peninsula while hiking and island hopping along Ireland’s southwest regions of Cork and Kerry.
Distance: 2 km
An honourable mention for Ireland’s Ancient East is Little Sugar Loaf in Co. Wicklow. This triple-peaked wonder is a perfect extension for those taking on the Wicklow Way Or simply an ideal outdoors excursion south as a day trip from Dublin.
The terrain varies from sturdy earthen trails to uneven shards of gravel – taking you through luscious ferns and vibrant heather the whole way to the top. At the summit, you’ll be spoilt with views of the Wicklow coastline and Snowdonia in Wales, on a clear day. Glance behind you to drink in grand vistas overlooking Wicklow National Park – the largest of Ireland’s six parks. Learn more about the walk here.
Read more about the Wicklow Way.
Distance: 1.5 km
Located in northeast Ireland, this volcanic plug is not the longest nor the highest peak you can summit. But this short climb is deceiving and quite steep, requiring rock scrambling in places in order to conquer this notable feature in the Co. Antrim skyline.
Slemish Mountain is said to be where St. Patrick was held captive after being taken as an enslaved person from Wales. This saintly connection makes Slemish Mountain a local tradition to hike this hill on St. Patrick’s Day.
Slemish Mountain is an ideal stop for those cruising along the Causeway Coastal route and seeking some smashing views of the surrounding Glens of Antrim. Learn more about the walk here.
Why not stop here while touring Northern Ireland on a self drive from Belfast through the Glens and along the Causeway Coast? Flexibility on self drive itineraries allows you to travel at your own pace and visit additional sites that interest you.
Distance: 5 km
This outlying gem on the edges of the Western Mourne Mountains is easy to traverse on its well-defined sheep track from the road straight to the top. It’s a family favourite for those wanting to introduce their little ones to the world of hiking.
Once at the top, Hen Mountain’s granite tors provide an added challenge and exceptional viewing point from which to kick back and take in the surrounding views of the Mourne Mountains. It’s a popular place to watch the sunset, and the nearest small village of Hilltown has nine pubs for you to choose from for a celebratory pint after your hike. Learn more about the hike here.
Read our guide to the Mourne Mountains to explore other peaks in the region.
Want to explore the rugged ridges and slopes of the Mournes and the whimsical beauty of the Glens at your own pace? Partake in a private tour of Northern Ireland where you have the flexibility to make this trip your ideal hiking tour.
May 20, 2023
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