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Top 5 Long Walks on the Wild Atlantic Way

Posted on Mar 24, 2014 by Michelle Hughes

Local hiking guide Michelle Hughes shares her favourite places in western Ireland: Top 5 Long Walks.

The western Irish hills (or should I say mountains) offer two special qualities seldom found elsewhere in Europe. Firstly, they are empty. The walker can spend a day crossing them in solitude, without meeting another person with many ways still unmarked with trails. Secondly, they offer a wonderfully integrated scenery of peaks, lakes and seashore unequalled in most of Europe (excepting perhaps the spectacular landscapes found in Norway and Scotland). As a hiking guide, I’ve collated my five favourite walks in the west of Ireland between Kerry and Donegal on the Wild Atlantic Way.

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I have to admit it was difficult to keep it short and just choose five because there are so many. So my criteria was based on the walks I personally like when out for a good days walk, but the truth be told I could easily pick 5 others if I was walking with family and friends who were not perhaps as fit. So I guess I will have to do another five at some stage which are equally as beautiful but not as long. So here goes, four of the walks are not for the faint hearted as they are long and committing walks which require guides for no track markers are to be seen on these mountains.

One is well marked and shorter but spectacular. I have given each place three names… To be sure, to be sure, to be sure. No, not really. The first is what they are called on the maps. The second is the Irish name and it’s meaning.

1). The Glencoaghan Horseshoe – Connemara

Connemara Twelve Bens

Hiking in Connemara overlooking the Twelve Bens.

Of course my first pick has to be in Connemara. The classic Glencoaghan Horseshoe is just one of the many on offer in the Twelve Bens mountain range. Not for the faint-hearted, 10 miles of walking and 5,000 feet of ascent will ensure tired muscles at the end of the day, but it is so worth it. Incredible views of Connemara’s peaks, bogs, ocean and lakes will accompany you along the way. A great bonus is that it’s dry underfoot!

The six peaks of the Glencoaghan Horseshoe are called: Beann Leitirigh (Mountain of the wet hillside), Beann Gabhair (Peak of the goat), Beann Bruighin (Peak of the hostel), Beann Coileach dubh (Peak of the black grouse), Beann Corr (Peak of the conical hill) and Doirin clar (Wood of the plain).

Hike amongst the 12 Bens on our fantastic hiking trip, hiking the mountains of Connemara & Mayo.


2) The Mweelrea Horseshoe – Connemara

Mweelrea

A close second is the Mweelrea Horseshoe. Connemara is famed for its Gaeltacht communities, and so Mweelrea in Irish is written as Maol Riabhach, translating either to the bald grey mountain, or the bald king. The highest mountain in the western region of Connaught, Mweelrea offers some of the best scenery in the west of Ireland.

To the west, the long grassy slopes sweep down to magical white sandy beaches. To the east, the summit plunges nearly 2,000 feet below. To the south, we look over all the mountains of Connemara including the Twelve Bens mentioned above. To the north is the rocky cone of Croagh Patrick, nicknamed Ireland’s Holy Mountain for its connection to St Patrick. The hiking distance is between 7½ and 9½ miles, depending on the start, with a height of 4,000 feet.

Summit the mountain of Mweelrea while hiking the mountains of Connemara & Mayo.

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3) The Coumlouighra Horseshoe – Kerry

Carrauntoohil - hiking Wildernes Ireland

Hiking Carrauntoohil, Ireland’s highest mountain.

Number 3 on my list is in County Kerry in the southwest of Ireland. Perhaps Ireland’s most popular place to visit outside of Dublin, Kerry contains iconic sites like the Ring of Kerry, the Gap of Dunloe, Killarney National Park, and the Skellig Ring, from which you can see the famous islands. But it also has some of the island’s highest mountains and loveliest backcountry, most of which gets overlooked by the casual tourist.

Ireland’s highest summit, Carrauntoohil is part of the brilliantly named MacGillycuddy Reeks. This range of mountains contain 11 of Ireland’s 14 mountains over 3,000 feet. The scenery is wildly dramatic and beautifully extreme. When it comes to hiking in this region, the Coumlouighra Horseshoe is my choice here. The walk is 8 miles long with 3,800 feet of ascent, and includes three of Ireland highest summits. Fantastic views and sheer drops include the spectacular arête crossing between Beenkeragh and Carrauntoohil. However, it’s important to note that it is a very popular route so don’t expect too much solitude here.

Hike the MacGillcuddy Reeks, Carrauntoohil and more on our deluxe Hiking adventure in the Kerry Mountains. 


4) Slieve League – Donegal

Slieve League

Number four on my list is Slieve League, located up in County Donegal. Slieve League takes you along the highest sea cliffs in Europe, calling in at 900ft (300m). Good head for heights is a must! My favourite route is Bunglas to Malinbeg near Glencolmcille. An interesting section, described by writer and singer Mike Harding in his ‘Footloose in the West of Ireland,’ is One Man’s Pass: “A yard wide at its narrowest point and about forty foot long, I would like suckers on my feet before I crossed it on anything but the stillest day.” Nothing can take away from the views, which are simply breath-taking. The route’s distance is about 6 miles and 2,000 feet in elevation.

Hike these amazing cliffs on our trip hiking on the Causeway Coast & Donegal.


5) Mt Brandon – Dingle

Mt Brandon

Views from the foothills of Mt Brandon

The crowning jewel of the Dingle Peninsula is surely Mt Brandon. Though one of Ireland’s busiest regions, the rough and rugged terrain of Mt Brandon is enough to keep most people out, leaving the mountain to outdoor lovers and hiking and walking enthusiasts. At about 3,100 feet (953 metres), Mt Brandon is one of Ireland’s highest. The mountain is named after St. Brendan the Navigator, who is said to have seen “The Promised Land” from Mt Brandon’s summit – a vision that inspired his legendary seven year long “Voyage of St Brendan.” One way to hike around Mt Brandon is along the Saints Road, which (which can then join with a trail up the mountain). The Saint’s Road is an ancient pilgrimage route that has been in use since medieval times, but it presents no major challenge until it joins with the mountain trail, making it perfect for amateur hikers.  

There are several routes for summiting Mt Brandon. Most tourits hike it from the west from Ballybrack, as this is the safest and most gentle way. The most difficult route is from the north walking along the Piaras Mor ridge (748m). 

However, my favourite route to summit the Mt Brandon starts from the Faha Grotto (An Fhaiche) near the village of Cloghane. Not for the faint-hearted, this is a steep and dramatic route, involving scrambling to reach the summit. The end of the walk is along a  knife-edge ridge that affords quite impressive views on each side, but also nerve-wracking drops aways! The whole walk is 8.5km and is strenuous but rewarding.

Explore the whole of the magical Dingle Peninsula on our popular trip, Hiking the Dingle Way. 


BONUS: The Maumturk Walk – Connemara

I’ve thrown in one more simply because I can’t complete this list without including the Maumturk Mountains. The Maumturks are located in the centre of Connemara’s mountainous region, and are some of the region’s most beautiful but little-visited high points.

There is an annual event on the Irish walking calendar called the Maumturk Walk which covers 15 miles over tough, mountainous terrain and with a total ascent of 7,664 feet. A mighty challenge indeed, but there’s no need to do it all as there is a beautiful section from the Central Maumturks from Mám Éan (Mau Mean), marked by a path up to St. Patrick’s well (a place of pilgrimage to this day) to Letterbreckaun, Leitir Brecan, Brecan’s wet hillside. This section is 11 miles long with 3,600ft of ascent.

Hike Mám Éan on our challenging Connemara trip,  hiking the mountains of Connemara & Mayo.


So here are my Places in Ireland: Top 5 Long Walks. Ensure you are well fit as here in Ireland the hills may not be high in comparison to our European or American neighbours, however they start from sea level and there can be few tracks so you are in fact walking over rough terrain. So as they say here, ‘Go N eiri an bothair leat’. May the road rise to meet you.

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About the author

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Michelle Hughes

Michelle has been working in the outdoors for decades, from being a trekking guide to managing an adventure centre. She's had her fair share of adventure - sailing a boat from Australia to Singapore and sea kayaking off the coast of Guinea Bissau, to name a few. She has since returned to her native Ireland, keen on bringing visitors out to Ireland's great outdoors.

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