Hiking Western Ireland
More and more, travelers are discovering that Ireland's western regions are hiking heaven. In fact, hikes or guided walks through Connemara or County Mayo are the best ways to explore these territories at first hand, or rather, foot.
Why hike the West? It has some of the finest rugged scenery and dramatic indented coastline in all Ireland. In Connemara serried ranks of heather-clad mountains, interspersed with bright blue lakes, beckon to the walker as dramatic cloud formations scud across huge Atlantic skies. In County Mayo, the huge conical bulk of Croagh Patrick spectacularly looms above Clew Bay. Or what about earning some blisters among the free-range sheep of the Doolough Valley, set in the shadow of Mweelrea Mountain? The attraction lies in the terrific views nearly everywhere you look. Coastal views alternate with mountain vistas, often topped by a perfect rainbow. A daily highlight is the spectacular sunset over the Atlantic, at its biggest and best in late August.
Pack to Hike
You can’t hike Connemara and Mayo in sneakers, due to the combination of bog, rocky terrain, and frequent showers. Wear waterproof hiking boots, quick-drying trousers rather than denim, and carry lightweight, waterproof rainwear (preferably breathable). Because of the wind, most Irish walkers wear knitted or fleece hats, so pack accordingly.
Hiking buffs are glad to know that the last decade has seen the completion of various "way-marked" (signposted) walking routes, which can be sampled in easy one- or two-hour "loops," or, for more serious walkers, made the focus of a visit.
Know Where You're Going
Walkers on way-marked trails are advised to buy an Ordnance Survey map of the area, which is sold locally. Most tourist offices also have free maps of less ambitious walks on roads and local footpaths.
Top Hiking Destinations
The Western Way's County Galway section extends from Oughterard on Lough Corrib through the mountains of Connemara to Leenane on Killary Harbour, a distance of 50 km (30 miles). Its 177-km (110-mile) County Mayo section, known as the Western Way (Mayo), continues past Killary Harbour to Westport on Clew Bay to the Ox Mountains east of Ballina. This trail should be the first choice of serious walkers, as it includes some of the finest mountain and coastal scenery in Ireland. The Great Western Greenway is a traffic-free 42-km (26-mile) cycling and walking trail that follows the line of Mayo’s Westport–Mulranny Railway (closed since 1937) along the northern shore of Clew Bay and has scenic walking and cycling with very few inclines, suitable for moderately fit people. Another perfect hiking destination is Connemara National Park, which consists of some 5,000 acres of untamed mountain wilderness in and around the Twelve Bens peaks. Allow an hour or two to hike the Diamond Hill Loop, along 7 km (4 miles) of gravel tracks and paved mountain paths, to a 1,493-foot peak, with a 360-degree vista taking in the distant sea, the turrets of Kylemore Abbey, and the higher peaks in the south. The nearby visitor center (March–October, free) has displays on the flora, fauna, and geology of Connemara.
Walking in Company
Walking festivals are highly popular. Achill Island in County Mayo hosts the Achill Walks Festival (www.achilltourism.com) in early April, to tempt people out again after the long dark winter, while the Four Seasons Walking Festival features excursions from Clifden guided by an archaeologist four times a year.