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A walk for the weekend: Donegal’s forests and hidden beaches

Ards Forest Park, Sheephaven Bay, Co Donegal

Start and finish Ards Friary, Donegal.
Grid reference 55.1569 -7.8648
Get there From Letterkenny, take the N56 and 2km after Creeslough turn right down the L1322. Go over a small bridge, turn right at a T-junction and continue to the friary carpark overlooking Sheephaven Bay.
Time: 5.5 hours. Distance: 10km
Ascent 100m Suitability Moderate

You’ve got the Blue Trail, you’ve got the Red Trail, and you’ve got the Sean Trail, ” says our all-singing, all-knowing forest guide.

Sean Mullen has guided generations of walkers along the northern seaboard, but today the Derry man is especially keen to show off Ards Forest Park, Co Donegal – a 1,200-acre mixture of forest and shoreline that is unique in Ireland.

As well as mixed woodlands and mudflats, there is sandy beach, rocky shoreline, fenland, and a saltmarsh, plus four ringforts and three megalithic tombs.

Mullen takes us off-piste, beginning at the Capuchin Friary overlooking Sheephaven Bay. Our hike marks this weekend’s release of A Walk In The Woods, the film adaptation of Bill Bryson’s classic account of hiking the forbidding Appalachian Trail (AT). Since 2014, the International AT has run through Donegal, much of which formed at the same time as the Appalachians on Pangea, 300 million years ago. So our walk is a sort of homage to Bill from across the pond. Following the wooded shoreline past the friary, we pass dark-brown sandy beaches overlooking Sheephaven Bay and join the Binngorm Trail at another beach.

Sean has christened it Lucky Shell Strand, although neither Coillte nor the Ordnance Survey have deigned to officially name it. We meet two more nameless beaches upon climbing over Binngorm Point. Both are beautifully sandy, sheltered – and completely empty, despite it being a balmy 17 degrees.

On this side of Ards, with the tide out, the Back Strand beckons southwest. We walk the wet sand before joining a wooden boardwalk that brings us over the fens to a fifth beach and another surprise – a wooden wigwam.

It’s around here, after three hours walking the trail on a warm Sunday, that we first see other people. After picnicking in the wigwam, we head inland past the Coillte carpark, and then southwest, up a 100-metre ascent. Even with a gravel path and perfect weather, it’s a moderately taxing slog.

Our reward is a look at Caiseal Lilly, the finest of the park’s ringforts, where oak, spruce, birch and bracken compete for the afternoon sunlight.

Mullen swings us through the forest onto the Heritage Trail, and then back to the Marine Trail overlooking the beaches, from whence we came.

Parts of Ards Forest Park are unfortunately given over to tree-felling, but there is a fair bit of native woodland – including sessile oak, birch, ash and rowan, with a smattering of yew, hawthorn and elm. There are also non-native broadleaf trees – chestnut, sycamore and beech – plus Sitka spruce, noble fir, pine, hemlock, and some ageing larch. Some are slowly being choked by that enemy of a healthy forest, the rhododendron. It’s a shame, because otherwise the park is unspoiled, almost too much so – it could do with a café in one of its old ruins. Instead, we fall gratefully into the Ards Friary coffeedock. See