Walk for the Weekend: Blue Stack Mountains, Co Donegal

A real treat awaits those who are brave enough to venture into these tough hills

Looking down at Lough Belshade in the Blue Stack Mountains, Co Donegal. Photograph: Francis Bradley

Looking down at Lough Belshade in the Blue Stack Mountains, Co Donegal. Photograph: Francis Bradley

 

I think I have a love-hate relationship with the Blue Stacks, and my fourth visit there last November didn’t spare either emotion. Underfoot conditions are tough and unrelenting in these hills, the terrain is trackless and confusing, and navigation requires constant attention. All that said, however, these hills have a unique beauty, and a real treat awaits those who are brave enough to venture into them.

Our own hiking plan that day was for a loop walk through the heart of the mountains, taking in both the highest point, Croaghgorm at 674m, and the shores of remote and beautiful Lough Belshade, the jewel of the Bluestacks.

The CP near the northwest corner of Lough Eske was our parking and starting point. A 1km road-walk west brought us to the Bluestack Way, a walking trail that traverses the western flank of the mountains. After about 2kms, we broke off along a turf access track trending northeast into the wild heart of the mountains, with Croaghgorm firmly in our sights.

I’ve walked in many mountain granite landscapes but have never encountered one so wonderfully chaotic, and one so unlike our smooth-rounded Wicklow and Mourne Mountains. Its scraped pavements and perched boulders suggest instead the immediate aftermath of a titanic battle.

Indeed such a battle had occurred in these mountains – not one of legend or folklore, but one long fought-out between massive grinding ice sheets spilling southwards into Donegal Bay and the hard granite basement of an ancient mountain range. Though the granite ultimately saw off the ice, the “freshness” of its wounds, exposed now to sky and sun for only about 12,000 years, told us how violent and recent this deadly contest of snow and rock had been.

It was over this landscape that we carefully picked our way from Croaghgorm towards an unnamed summit 626m in increasingly sunny but still hazy weather – though a front somewhere near Kerry was squeezing the isobars, bringing us a touch of windchill out of the east. The lowering sun drew out a beautiful light pink tinge from the granite but also reminded us not to dilly dally; we still had to find a safe descent to Lough Belshade!

We steered clear of the very steep, ice-smoothed ground above the northwest corner of the lough, picking our way carefully down to the beautiful lough-shore along the west side of a stream entering the lough from the north-northwest. A calming fair weather winter evening was now upon us, with its always enchanting diffused light, as we progressed south along the eastern shore of beautiful Lough Belshade. Careful footwork got us down the rough west bank of the Corabber river and to the 2.5kms track and road to Greenan CP and our car.

They say that the toughest Donegal people were the men and women of the old, now gone, Bluestacks Gaeltacht community. And if anyone doubts that, try a walk into and around these unforgiving but rewarding and beautiful hills.

Map: OS Discovery Series sheet 11 Start/Finish: CP on minor road northwest of Lough Eske, about 7kms from Donegal town Time: 5/6 hours (15kms; 650m of climbing) Suitability: High level of fitness; tough ground, knowledge of mountain navigation.

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