Emerald heart: a guide to Ireland’s six national parks

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The Burren, County Clare

The Burren is a park within a park, part of the Burren and Cliffs of Moher Unesco global geopark. But this lunar landscape on Ireland’s Atlantic coast is also a living geological and cultural museum. The park’s most significant landmark is Mullaghmore, a time-sculpted barren hill that lures visitors in search of a spiritual reboot. Its shades of pewter and pearl are whipped with smooth ringed contours that never fail to reflect the day’s mood. In the sunshine, it’s near brilliant; as the sun sets over Loch Gealain and ricochets off its still, crystal-clear surface, it flares up in hues of copper and coral.

Mullaghmore attracts experienced hikers, but other trails in this stark landscape, shaped millions of years earlier, are equally rewarding. The mild climate means that plant life, from hardy gorse and hazel to rare species such as eyebright, bloody crane’s-bill and wild orchids – flora typical of diverse regions from the Mediterranean to the Alps – thrives here, much of it in the crevices in the vast limestone pavements.

Entry to the park is at the 16th-century Kilnaboy church, which has a rare Sheela-na-Gig, a lewd stone figure that stands like a pouting gargoyle over the ruin’s south wall entrance. Beyond the park’s main trailhead is the more comedic setting of the house from Channel 4’s Father Ted series.

Polnabrone Dolmen is about 5,000 years old.
Polnabrone Dolmen is about 5,000 years old. Photograph: Patryk Kosmider/Getty Images

The ancient surface of the geopark is scarred with traces of millennia of human endeavour. The 5,000-year-old Poulnabrone dolmen portal tomb is one of Ireland’s most iconic landmarks and further north, beyond a fascinating network of caves and turloughs (seasonal lakes) is the 13th-century Corcomroe Abbey ruin, known as Saint Mary of the Fertile Rock.

The monks who farmed this land discovered that, despite its rocky surface, they could produce abundant vegetables, herbs and beans with unique flavours from the soil that nurtured it. Their legacy lives on in the Burren Slow Food movement, a gastronomic trail that includes a farm visit to St Tola Farmhouse for fresh goat’s cheese, local fish at Burren Smokehouse and dairy-to-cornet gelato at Linnalla, Europe’s most westerly ice-cream parlour.

Seafood chowder at Monk’s Pub in Ballyvaughan.
Seafood chowder at Monk’s Pub in Ballyvaughan. Photograph: Tarmo Tulit

Experience From Doolin Pier, the ferry sails beneath the giant Cliffs of Moher offering a wilder view of the geopark, a powerful backdrop used in the film of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (€25 return,
Stay Ballyvaughan thatched cottages overlook Galway Bay and sleep six (from €430 a week)
Eat Monk’s Pub in Ballyvaughan is famous for its seafood chowder
More information The Burren Centre in Kilfenora is next to the cathedral, with its huge collection of high crosses

Connemara, County Galway

Roundstone harbour, County Galway.
Roundstone harbour, County Galway. Photograph: Lynne Nieman/Alamy

Just like the Burren, this park is merely a taster for the greater Connemara region, yet its modest 2,000 hectares still packs in a lot of stark beauty. Diamond Hill, a cone-shaped peak of graphitic rock, is its crown jewel, offering commanding views of the Twelve Bens mountain range to the south-east, the Atlantic island of Inishbofin to the west, and the shimmering lakes and forest shades in the valley below.

Diamond Hill has two trails, one running into the other, both well signposted and maintained. The lower trail leads to the four-mile upper trail, across a narrow pathway, where hikers ascend sharply towards the peak. A stone cairn marks the 445-metre summit, where a 360-degree view of the north-west Galway skyline awaits.

hill with rocks and blue sky
Diamond Hill, near Letterfrack village.
Photograph: Getty Images

Flanking the west side of the park’s northern region is Letterfrack village, home of the park’s visitor centre, while on the other side the ethereal lakeside Kylemore Abbey (admission €15) is a romantic, gothic castle with an elaborate Victorian garden that has been home to Benedictine monks since 1920. Mitchell and Margaret Henry, the couple who built Kylemore as a family home, are buried in a small mausoleum on the grounds.

Letterfrack is now a tourist honeypot, but it harbours a much darker past, where clerical abuse of boys in its “Industrial School” continued for a century, and young lives lost are remembered in a sombre village cemetery.

Further south, Connemara’s mournful beauty weaves through mineral-rich grassy valleys, high glens and scorched moors dotted with young rivers all the way to the coast. Clifden, Connemara’s unofficial capital, is the launchpad for one of Ireland’s greatest drives: the Sky Road is a heavenly 12 miles on a knife-edge of the Atlantic, with views of County Clare to the south and Mayo to the north.

To the south – past Cleggan Pier, for ferries to Inishbofin – is Roundstone, the prettiest village in Connemara. Its simple, vibrant, vernacular streetscape overlooks the ocean and is framed by the Twelve Bens mountain range. Roundstone is crammed with craft shops and art galleries and O’Dowd’s seafood pub is a stalwart of Irish hospitality.

The Misunderstood Heron food truck at Killary Fjord.
The Misunderstood Heron food truck at Killary Fjord.

Experience Killary Harbour Cruise (€25.50) explores a deep fjord in the shadow of the epic Mweelrea Ben Gorm range
Eat The Misunderstood Heron food truck serves up gourmet takeaway with a backdrop of Killary fjord. It offers the best of local produce, such as Connemara pasties and open smoked-salmon sandwiches on homemade brown bread
Stay Delphi adventure resort in Leenane has well-appointed rooms with plenty of activities on site (from €119 B&B.)
More Information Visitor Centre, Letterfrack

Glenveagh, County Donegal

Glenveagh Castle, overlooking Lough Beagh.
Glenveagh Castle, overlooking Lough Beagh. Photograph: Alamy

Glenveagh national park’s vast lakes, mountains and deep glens, in virtually uninhabited west Donegal are home to an unrivalled collection of indigenous and exotic flora and fauna. Ireland’s largest herd of red deer graze here and golden eagles wheel and swoop overhead.

Visitors usually head first to the north and Glenveagh Castle (admission €7), a baronial mansion attached to a solid four-storey granite keep, designed with Scottish architectural leanings, which includes antlers and tartan decor.

The gardens are a myriad of colour and completely at odds with the barren moors and mountains outside. Japanese wheel trees, hidden rose gardens, Swiss and Belgian walks, a Himalayan garden and an orangery are just part of the unlikely tapestry of this floral wonderland. However, even they pale beside the personalities who have owned the castle over the years.

red deer in woods
Ireland’s largest herd of red deer graze Glenveagh national park. Photograph: David Collins/Alamy

Wealthy businessman John Adair bought the land and built the castle in the middle of the 19th century. He had acquired aristocratic tastes and a sense of grandeur during a diplomatic posting to Florence, but showed no courtly benevolence to the local community. In 1861, in order to create an aesthetically pleasing space for his castle on the lake, he cleared all 224 tenants from the estate, condemning them to a life of destitution.

After Adair died, Harvard professor Arthur Kingsley Porter bought it for £5,000 as a love nest for his wife, Lucy, and his occasional Californian lover, Alan Campbell. The talented Mr Porter disappeared one night mysteriously from nearby Inishbofin, never to be seen again. This led to the Irish state’s first inquest without a body, but rumours persist that he had made a new life for himself in France.

Enter the final occupant, Henry Plumer McIlhenny, a former student of Porter’s at Harvard, who held flamboyant parties at the castle, attended by Greta Garbo, Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable and other silver screen legends. The castle and gardens passed to the Irish state in 1979.

Experience Discover Glenveagh Park independently by following any of several trails passing lakes, mountains and derelict settlements
Stay Arnold’s Hotel in Dunfanaghy is a coastal property with links to lots of outdoor activity providers on this northern tip of Ireland (from €135 B&B.)
Eat Leo’s Tavern, Crolly, is a famous pub where artists such as Enya, Clannad and Moya Brennan cut their musical teeth. Traditional music and mains such as fish and chips are on the menu from €13
More information Visitor’s centre, Church Hill, Letterkenny

Killarney, County Kerry

Ladies View, in the Ring of Kerry.
Ladies View, in the Ring of Kerry. Photograph: Stefano Valeri/Alamy

Killarney’s mountains, lakes, forests and waterfalls have been among Ireland’s most-visited destinations for over a century, as the summer crowds filter through it to the Ring of Kerry, a scenic drive around Iveragh, southwest Ireland’s largest peninsula.

But by avoiding peak times and visiting in late spring or early autumn, visitors can enjoy the park while it’s ablaze with heathers, gorse, Kerry violets and bilberries, or the turning colours of oaks, alder and ash, without having to queue behind tour buses.

Killarney is home to Ireland’s highest peak, Carrauntoohil, but the park’s star attraction is the lakes in the valley at the foot of the mountains: Leane, Muckross and the Upper Lake are each peppered with small islands. They join at a single point called the Meeting of the Waters, and on a high ridge overlooking this splendid setting is Ladies View – a vantage point that offers the perfect panorama. It earned its nickname by being the favourite viewing platform of Queen Victoria’s ladies in waiting.

The park’s geology gave rise to a copper mining industry during the 18th century, and an overexuberance of oak tree felling followed, but these days yew trees thrive in the rocky limestone soil while alder grows in the moist lake lands. Towering sessile oaks define the lowland’s forest growth – this is the largest woodland in Ireland – and the higher bog lands are roamed by the country’s last remaining herd of wild deer.

Ross Castle, on the edge of Lough Leane.
Ross Castle, on the edge of Lough Leane. Photograph: Henk Meijer/Alamy

As with most of Ireland, from the 17th century much of the land fell –violently or gradually– to new ownership. Refurbished Ross Castle (admission €5) on the shore of Lough Leane was built by one of the O’Donoghue chieftains in the 15th century. The Herbert family, originally from Wales and grown rich from copper mining, also left their mark, with rambling neo-Tudor Muckross House (admission €7). The estate, with its network of sunken gardens, streams and rockeries, attracts horticultural enthusiasts.

Experience Killarney stables offers horseback trails through the park from €50pp
Eat Bricín in Killarney offers traditional staples such as chowder, boxty (potato pancakes) and hake for €24 for a two-course early bird menu
Stay Killarney Glamping at the Grove in Ballycasheen (on the north of the park) offers the great outdoors without discomfort (from €99 a night, two-night minimum)
More information Visitor centre, Killarney House and Gardens

Wicklow Mountains

The monastery at Glendalough with a rainbow
The monastery at Glendalough. Photograph: Peter Zelei/Getty Images

At 20,000 hectares, Wicklow Mountains is Ireland’s largest national park. It’s also the only one that isn’t on the west coast; it’s in the “Garden of Ireland”, just south of Dublin.

In the southern part of the park is Glendalough and Saint Kevin’s monastery, in a glacially formed valley under thickly forested mountains. Even when busloads of visitors descend into the narrow passageways of this early medieval dwelling place of saints and scholars, the site’s natural acoustics appear to temper the noise.

Glendalough (or the glen of two lakes) has an upper lake and a smaller, lower one, by which sits Saint Kevin’s church and several others, some over 1,000 years old. The monastery is reached through a granite arch, which formed part of the original boundary wall; it is the last remaining one of its kind in the country.

sunny lakeside with trees
The upper lake in Glendalough. Photograph: Evgeni Fabisuk/Alamy

The round tower, the most eye-catching landmark in this ancient, ecclesiastical settlement, is more than 30 metres tall and, although not the tallest in Ireland, it’s still an impressive feat of engineering. A simple doorway, two metres up, made for an easy retreat by ladder when unwelcome guests arrived. The ruins of St Peter and Paul cathedral and other churches lie within the monastery grounds, a short walk from the upper lake and a forest that is covered in bluebells in late spring. Here, the small but perfectly formed Poulanass waterfall is the trailhead for a steep hike along Derrybawn mountain, which offers rewarding views of the entire valley.

Most independent visitors follow the Military Road (the R115) which was constructed with the intention of flushing out and quelling rebel forces at the turn of the 19th century. Today, the road runs from Glencree to Sally Gap for epic views across the glens, lakes and mountains (it was a location for the films Braveheart and PS I Love You), then to Glenmacnass valley and waterfall, before descending into Laragh and Glendalough.

Experience Biking.ie has packages for novices and pros in arguably Ireland’s best mountain-biking terrain from €30
Stay Glendalough Glamping offers comfy pods close to the monastery (from €130 a night, unsuitable for children.)
Eat Byrne & Woods, a gastro pub in pretty Roundwood, a few miles from Glendalough, has specials from €14
More information Wicklow Mountains national park visitor centre, Kilafin, Laragh

Wild Nephin, County Mayo

Walking by bog pools on Slieve Carr, in the Nephin Beg mountains.
Walking by bog pools on Slieve Carr, in the Nephin Beg mountains. Photograph: Gareth McCormack/Alamy

Along with the Grand Canyon and Joshua Tree national parks in the US, County Mayo’s Wild Nephin Ballycroy is a member of International Dark Sky places – select areas across the globe with magnificent landscapes, where natural light is not obscured by artificial light pollution.

Visitors who want to explore the heavenly views over the north-west Atlantic coastline can stay in the park’s bothy, a simple sandstone hut at one of the darkest corners of Wild Nephin. It’s also the trail head for three looped walks in Letterkeen Woods that meander past forests, sandy lakes and mountains. Each hike is coded in blue, red and purple, ranging from moderate to difficult.

Head five miles south of the visitor centre for a gentle coastal walk along timber decking in a valley below Claggan mountain. More experienced hikers might enjoy the 24-mile Bangor Trail. It starts amid the heath-cloaked foothills of remote Slieve Carr and continues across soggy terrain, with only North Mayo’s ever-changing skies or occasional otters for company. It’s a 16th-century farm trail that veers miles away from any modern road through Ballycroy park and finishes at handsome town of Newport – with its landmark viaduct – on the shores of Clew Bay.

The 15,000 hectares of wilderness – Ireland’s most remote, off-grid location – includes one of Europe’s finest examples of blanket bog, a vast plain of soggy, brown and green peatland sandwiched between the Atlantic coast and the Nephin Beg mountain range.

For hardy souls who wish to spend the night gazing up at the dark sky – and it is magnificent when cloudless, illuminated by the full cast of stars, Milky Way and occasional meteor shower – the park permits camping. Camp fires and groups of 10 or more require a permit, which can be downloaded online.

Further to the north-west is the Mullet peninsula, which has miles of deserted beaches and views to remote islands such as the Inishkeas and Inishglora (home of the Children of Lir in Irish mythology). The gneiss and schist rockformations shimmer in shades of green and silver against the ocean backdrop.

chop with fancy veg and glass of wine
Fine dining at An Port Mór in Westport.

Experience Terra Firma in Newport offers guided walks through Wild Nephin Ballycroy park from €40, tailored to guests’ fitness. During the longer nights from shoulder season, it also runs Dark Sky safari tours (€35)
Stay Belmullet Coast Guard’s ocean-fronted luxury pods sit on the sparsely populated Erris peninsula (from €120 a night, two-night minimum.). History enthusiasts can venture further along the peninsula to discover Blacksod Lighthouse’s role in the 1944 Normandy landings
Eat An Port Mór, in the pretty village of Westport, the access point to Achill Island, is at the helm of Ireland’s new food movement, with mains such as seared scallops, black pudding, cauliflower purée and beurre noisette starting at €28

More information Wild Nephin Ballycroy visitor centre