The 20 Best Places to Go Wild in Ireland
Today ‘The Irish Times’ announces the longlist in its competition to find the best spots in the country to experience nature
The Irish Times has chosen its longlist of the Best Places to Go Wild in Ireland. The competition is a hunt for the best spots in the 32 counties to experience nature, from quiet paradises where you can go on mountain walks or take tranquil cruises to dramatic locations that offer intense sports such as surfing and coasteering.
We asked readers to suggest their personal favourites, and last month more than 3,800 people told us about locations around the country. These nominations were then put before the panel of judges, who chose the longlist. The judges’ criteria include natural beauty, of course, but also variety (places that offer a range of ways to experience nature) and novelty (places that were not well known).
Our team of researchers is now visiting them to meet local experts and find spots where you can rent bikes or kayaks, take surfing or paddleboard classes, or simply get away from it all.
Early next month we’ll name one destination as the Best Place to Go Wild in Ireland.
I enjoyed Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge by stand-up paddleboard, and the views, wildlife, water colour and sounds were the most amazing I’ve ever enjoyed. With Sheep Island and, off in the distance, Rathlin Island, you can imagine what it was like for Vikings coming ashore. A walk around the headland and back across White Park Bay to top the day off or a dander to perhaps the smallest church in Ireland, St Gobban’s, at Portbraddan. Sure what more would you want?
Submitted by John Bustard
BLACKSTAIRS AND BARROW VALLEY
Beneath the Blackstairs Mountains and in the valley of the River Barrow there is a wild silence. Nestled among it is the sound of nature: streams and rivers that gurgle and laugh as they dance through the landscape, the whispering of the leaves in the trees. The aromas of wild herbs and flowers infuse the air as the humming bees gather their nectar. The Barrow flows wild and free, chanting as it winds to the sea. You will return, enticed by the silence of the wild.
Submitted by Crea Nolan
LAKES OF CO CAVAN
There are at least 365 lakes in Cavan – 1,500km to kayak – and a good proportion of these are connected to Lough Oughter and the Erne river system. Fantastic canoeing and kayaking abound on the Erne. It is a grand and secret place, so near as to be overlooked yet timeless and enchanted in its solitude.
Submitted by Isabella Conway McHugh
The stunning scenery of the Burren is enhanced by its situation on the Atlantic coast. Old-style farming protects the rare species of flora – the eye-catching blue of the spring gentians, the carpets of pale yellow dryas and the later purples and pinks of the delicate orchids. The Burren provides an underground world of caves and chambers. The historical and archaeological remains that abound on the surface offer an insight into the lives of the generations who have lived in this sometimes harsh environment on the western edge of Europe.
Submitted by Christine O’Neill
Counties Clare, Galway and Tipperary
Spend two or three days this year around the majestic 130sq km of Lough Derg, Ireland’s second-largest lake, nestled between Clare, Tipperary and Galway, and you’ll experience a holiday full of fun and adventure that leaves you wanting to return again and again. On the western side of the lake are the lake-shore villages of Whitegate and Mountshannon, home of the majestic white-tailed eagles, successfully hatched in Ireland for the first time in more than a century. Lough Derg encompasses everything that’s great about Ireland.
Submitted by Áine Mc Carthy
Counties Cork, Limerick, Tipperary
If you’re a weekend warrior, then you’re going to be enthused by the range of tracks at Ballyhoura Mountain Bike Trails, near Ardpatrick. Still not wild enough? Challenge yourselves in the 40-hour Beast of Ballyhoura Adventure Race. How about some looped walks? The Canon Sheehan Loop is one of my favourites, a tranquil saunter where you will experience nature at its best.
Submitted by Frank Kelly
I have been blessed to have lived all my life in Adrigole, among its rugged beauty. With magnificent mountains on one side and Bantry Bay on the other, the scenery is stunning in all directions. Hungry Hill has what must be the highest waterfall in Ireland, and you can’t go home without a drive up the Healy Pass or a stroll along the O’Sullivan Mile. Whether you enjoy a peaceful kayak, a gentle hill walk, a testing mountain climb, a relaxing birdwatch, a heart-pumping cycle, a fishing trip or a swim, the best things in life – and in Beara – are free.
Submitted by Marie Goggin
KAYAKING ON LOUGH HYNE
Skibbereen, Co Cork
I’m in a small boat in the pitch dark late at night on Lough Hyne, looking up at a bright, clear Milky Way with just the sound of the odd movement in the water and my own breathing. And when I look down, any movement of my hand or paddle in the water produces a matching Milky Way among the phosphorescent plankton in the water under and around my boat. The most expensive spa in the world couldn’t re-create this experience – and it is completely real.
Submitted by Tom O’Herlihy
As I come from an urban, overcrowded and industrial area in Germany, northwestern Donegal back then was the most remote and solitary place on Earth for me. Donegal’s highlands are a gem among many precious places in Ireland. Sitting up on Muckish’s highest spot and looking down to the sea and over to Tory Island always will be one of the most sublime experiences of my lifetime: pure solitude you share with no one but the wind and the drizzle. Who could care up there?
Submitted by Frank Patalong
Killybegs to Ardara
Cnoc na Mara is an iconic 100m-high shark’s-fin sea stack. It sits in one of the most remote and inaccessible locations in Ireland. Gaining the summit is like being reborn into a world where anything is possible, a surreal and magical place to be.
Submitted by IAIN MILLER
Maghera Beach Caves
It is not so much that the caves are particularly spectacular in themselves; it is that the chemistry of dark sea caves, the wide, dazzling silver beach that leads to them, and the wild, craggy hills above them gives you an astonishing sense of being transported to a magical wilderness. Man seems to have made very little impression on this strong, vibrant landscape.
Submitted by FIONA O’DONNELL
LAKELANDS OF CO FERMANAGH
A fabulous river system spanning the length of the county. From water sports to great hotels and bars to enjoy on the riverside, along with amazing walks that take in the breathtaking scenery. In a nutshell: caves, rivers, waterfalls, walks, geoparks, golf, castles and lots of craic.
Submitted by Matt Maguire
Counties Galway and Mayo
If you have never tried a sea sport, this is the year to don your wetsuit. Be captivated by exotic sea life on Ireland’s new Blueway, a marine trail in Co Mayo and Galway. Each of the canoe or kayak trails is 10-15km long; the snorkelling trails stretch to between one and three kilometres. All five areas – Killary, Mannin Bay, Inishbofin, Louisburgh and Achill – are noted for their sea life.
Submitted by Maura Lyons
The Twelve Bens, in Connemara, are a throwback to the days before people and buildings came to dominate the landscape in Ireland. Even in the height of midsummer, when every hill in Connemara is crowded, you are still in your own little wilderness.
Submitted by Shane Young
BLACK AND BRIDIA VALLEYS
We stepped out of modern, urban Ireland into the wild Black Valley landscape. Pheasants and falcons fleetingly glanced, trout darted from our shadows into dark pools, and a sound from my childhood, the thieving call of the cuckoo, carried through the valley. The Bridia Valley was unexpected wildness. We followed the beautifully clear and deep Caragh, then departed it as we hiked through forested hillside. In spite of blistered feet, dehydration and midges, it was heaven.
Submitted by Stephen O’Dowd
You can get to Pollardstown from the Curragh, but to see the real fen you must take a small boat up the Milltown Feeder and slip gently into this gem of a wild place. The fen is packed with wonderful and sometimes rare wildlife, be it of a minuscule nature (snails and beetles), somewhat more colourful and easier to find (orchids) or whizzing about above the water (dragonflies and birds). It is Kildare’s best-kept secret, and it seems almost a shame to share it.
Submitted by Declan Kenny
You won’t find a better location to be more in tune with Mother Nature and her elements. From windsurfing to hillwalking, coasteering to rockclimbing, the island itself has the perfect natural features for almost every outdoor activity.
Submitted by Tracie O’Leary
Co Mayo Coast
Belmullet is the west’s hidden gem, with a multitude of activities and adventures to choose from. With plummeting sea cliffs and imposing headlands sitting elegantly beside our white sandy beaches, it certainly is a “little piece of heaven”.
Submitted by DEBORAH REILLY
Ballycroy Natioonal Park
Inland Ballycroy National Park is my favourite place. It takes so long to get to the middle of the mountains that one has forgotten society, cars and telecom poles. Take a few minutes to check the spectrum of the undergrowth, the mosses that brew the bogs, or sundews, the sticky cousins of Venus flytraps that eke out an existence at your feet.
Submitted by PHELIM DORAN
LOUGH BOORA PARKLANDS
Lough Boora Parklands is where art and nature collide to create a unique serenity. There’s 20 hectares of outdoor sculptures created by artists both international and local. Encounter otters, badgers and hares if you’re lucky. Some of Ireland’s most endangered species are protected in the parklands, including the grey partridge. The most remarkable thing is the uninterrupted peace. It’s a place that locals gush about and visitors discover.
Submitted by Gillian Middleton
COASTAL CO SLIGO
Whether it’s mountains, rivers, lakes or beaches, Sligo has an abundance of history, heritage, stunning scenery and secret hideaways. Sligo is famous not only for its magnificent mountains but also – and probably more so – for its beautiful beaches and wild waves. So whether it’s galloping along the beach, surfing, boating, biking or hiking, watching eagles, walking a historic sea trail or being immersed in a seaweed bath, Sligo is the place to go wild.
Submitted by Lydia Rogers
That first glance from the summit above Coumshingaun Lake – the sweep of the cliffs, the stillness of the lake and the greens of the landscape beyond– does it every time. The Comeraghs shelter a host of lakes; they never disappoint, whether frozen solid in December or lush and full in July. These mountains rip me open and knit me up whole again. I’ve ached, I’ve endured, I’ve laughed and mostly I’ve lived so many Saturdays in these beloved hills.
Submitted by Peggy Mc Carthy