Autumn leave: 10 great walks to experience the glory of the season around Ireland

Our mountains and hillsides are erupting in a riot of colour, offering sublime choices for those who wish to ramble or forage

The Irish outdoors is compelling at any time of year, but autumn is my favourite time. It’s the ochre-tinged light, the surreal mists, the rich, mutating colours and those mellow, leaf-kicking days that invariably have me reaching for my jacket. It’s the time of year when our mountains and hillsides erupt to a riot of colour, and offer sublime choices for those who wish to ramble or forage.

All this means there is no reason for an expensive New England flight to experience the glory of autumn, for Ireland has this on offer in abundance. Just head off on one of the great walking opportunities listed below, and enjoy Ireland’s autumnal paths at their finest.

Seven Woods Walk, Coole Park, Co Galway

I really had to start here, since Coole Park did so much to stimulate the poetic imaginings of WB Yeats. In his poem the Wild Swans at Coole, he opens with these memorable lines, “The trees are in their autumn/ The woodlands paths are dry”. Our national poet had it right; Coole Park is a wonderful place to observe the colours of autumn. Located 4km northwest of Gort, this easy 5km circuit follows walker-friendly terrain, through natural woods with trees from all parts of the world, including the famous autograph tree, that becomes a riot of colour in autumn.

There is also a pristine expanse of Coole Lough, where Yeats came upon the nine and 50 swans that he immortalised in verse. He was referring to the whooper swans that journey from Iceland to winter at Coole. October is the month they arrive, which means that, with luck, you may hear the bell-beat of their wings above your head, as memorably happened for Yeats more than a century ago.


Knockreer Estate, Killarney, Co Kerry

Sublimely located on the outskirts of Killarney, the Knockreer Estate is a car-free haven of beauty and tranquillity. Start this easy 5km stroll from opposite St Mary’s Cathedral and follow the gurgling waters of the Deenagh river to the shores of Lough Leane. Here, the path tags the lake shore while offering hypnotic views across the water to monastic Innisfallen Island and the great angular peaks of MacGillycuddy’s Reeks.

A right turn then takes you the short distance to the 15th-century stronghold of Ross Castle, which is an excellent example of the tower houses favoured by medieval chieftains in Ireland. Return to your starting point while listening for another reminder that autumn is upon us: bellowing red deer stags announcing their macho presence as the famous rutting season comes into full swing around Killarney.

Waterfall Loop, Glenbarrow, Co Laois

From the sylvan car park at Glenbarrow, which lies about 4km southwest of Rosenallis, follow an enclosed lane to gain the nascent River Barrow. Swing left along an atmospheric woodland path that is now resplendent with the colours of the fall. Soon, you will come upon an open area where the rushing waters have exposed great flat pavements. Upriver, and next to capture your attention, will be the spectacular three-drop Clamphole Waterfall. In a dry summer, such as we have had, these falling waters may be reduced to a virtual trickle, but autumn rains should now have transformed it into a spectacular foaming tumult.

Beyond, the path roughens a bit as it leads above a deep gorge, before continuing to a parting with the arrows for the Old Mill Loop. You follow the blue arrows (left) and steeply uphill. Then go left again on a forest road, from where a straight ahead at every junction will convey you back to Glenbarrow car park after a 5km outing.

Raven Point Loop, Curracloe, Co Wexford

The best wildlife habitats aren’t always natural, sometimes nature needs a nudge. For example, a sea wall was built in the 19th century to enclose the former salt marshes in Wexford Harbour and create fertile farmland. An unintended consequence has been that the new fields, known locally as the North Slob, have become home to many species of birdlife. Most notable are the white-fronted geese, who arrive annually at the beginning of October.

As you follow the fully waymarked 5km walk from the trailhead car park through the autumnal woodlands that were planted to prevent coastal erosion, listen for the musical call of the geese. Continue tagging blue waymarkers to reach the sandy beach at Raven Point, which offers superb views of Wexford Harbour. And, if you arrive just before dusk, you should also be rewarded with an occurrence you will never see in summer: great skeins of geese rising in unison to overnight safely on sandbanks in Wexford Harbour.

The Dark Hedges, Co Antrim

Situated on the Bregagh Road near the village of Armoy, the dark hedges consist of a half-mile-long line of beech trees, made famous when used for scenes in the Game of Thrones television series. The trees were planted about 250 years ago by the Stuart family to frame the approach to their stately home, and now form a natural canopy above the road.

Attractive at any time of the year, autumn brings a sensational colour as the beeches turn captivating shades of russet and bronze. And don’t tarry about visiting, since the trees are now coming to the end of their natural lifespan. There are less than 90 remaining of the original 150, and most years winter storms claim further victims among these shallow-rooted trees.

Marl Bog, Co Tipperary

Unsurprisingly, the most spectacular autumn colours are found in woodlands with the greatest number of tree varieties, since each species loses its leaves at a different rate. In this sense, Marl Bog, which is located about 1km outside Dundrum Village, ticks all the right boxes. While beech is the predominant deciduous tree variety, there is also oak, alder, ash, sycamore, birch and willow. These all come together to create a symphony of colour as you explore the former demesne of the Hawarden family. Stroll for about 3km around the serene man-made lake on easy paths and continue through tunnels of autumn colours as branches fondly shake hands above your head.

Benbulben Forest Walk, Co Sligo

Known locally as Gortarowey Wood, this attractive but easy sylvan walk is located off the N15 north of Drumcliff village. At any time of the year, it offers stunning scenery and awe-inspiring views of the Sligo coastline, Donegal Bay and Benbulben, whose austere north face is a constant presence above the trail. But this time of the year is the most beautiful time to visit. It is then the woodlands mutate from green to hauntingly beautiful shades of yellow and red.

Seeing that it is Sligo at its most evocative, this 5.5km walk may well put you in mind of WB Yeats when he wrote evocatively of autumn, “yellow the leaves of the rowan above us/and yellow the wet wild strawberry leaves”.

Lough Key Forest Park, Co Roscommon

The ascendancy period of Irish history wasn’t pleasant for most, but it did bring benefits. In their mission to “civilise” Ireland, the newly arrived landlords competed with each other to create great landscaped estates. Many of the finest houses have disappeared, but the expansive parklands remain. One example is the Rockingham Estate, which is predominantly covered by great forests. Rebranded as Lough Key Forest Park, this is now one of Ireland’s finest centres for outdoor activities, with a virtual fishing net of walking and cycling trails meandering the woodlands and lakesides.

One of the most popular attractions is, however, the tree canopy walk. This 300m long walkway conveys you, not along the woodlands floor, but instead among and above treetops of ash, oak, beech and sycamore. It offers the perfect bird’s eye view of the mutating autumn colours as it meanders through the foliage, while also showing panoramic views to the many forested islands of Lough Key.

Grange Crag Loop, Co Tipperary

One advantage of steep, inaccessible ground is that it preserved some parts of our natural woodlands from agricultural exploitation. Such is the case with Grange Crag. Here, the steep but fertile ground has allowed a tiny piece of Ireland’s ancient woods to survive and prosper. This means a compelling mixture of oak, birch, ash and hazel along with non-native sycamore and beech. As with most deciduous woodlands, autumn is the best time to visit when the colours are most intense. This 6km outing is mostly steep ground, however, and it takes a bit of a puff to reach the Wellington Monument, a folly situated at the highest point of the crag. Here, expansive views open over the great autumnal woodlands of the Kilcooley Estate and across the colourful patchwork of the Tipperary countryside to the slopes of Devil’s Bit Mountain.

Carlow Walking Festival, September 30th to October 2nd

If you like your autumnal walks to come oven-ready and without the giggery pokery that comes with route finding, the Carlow Walking Festival is just for you. A total of 17 fully guided walks are on offer, including demanding outings along the spine of the Blackstairs Mountains. Here, you will hike among the autumn blooming heather with views over the rich lowlands of Carlow, Kilkenny and Wexford.

There are also less challenging rambles, including a night hike and a stroll along the banks of the River Barrow to St Mullins, at a time when the surrounding woodlands are at their most magnificent.

Finally, there are several history and heritage walks on offer, and a guided exploration of the natural world with broadcaster Éanna Ní Lamhna. The Carlow Walking Festival certainly offers a ramble to suit all tastes.