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Donegal: Top 6 hiking routes

From coastal walks to mountain hikes, the best way to discover Donegal’s most scenic side is by foot

Donegal: Top 6 hiking routes
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DISTANCE: 14 miles (7 miles each way)
DIFFICULTY: Beginner
Overlooked by the Derryveagh Mountains, this spectacular protected wilderness is every walker’s dream with its tumbling waterfalls and mossy woodlands that cast reflections in the shimmering Lough Veagh. From the visitor’s centre, follow a lakeside footpath to reach the turrets of Glenveagh Castle before joining a dirt track into rock-ruptured bogland enswathed in purple moor grass to the glen summit. Keep your eyes peeled for golden eagles and red deer, both elusive residents of the parkland. The return journey can be cut short by hopping on the shuttle bus between the castle and car park or extended by following signposts to an upper viewpoint.

Inishowen Head Walk

DISTANCE: 5 miles
DIFFICULTY: Intermediate
Expect sweeping panoramas across Causeway Coast. A looped walk starts from its wartime watchtower and passes Stroove Beach where bathers are often sprinkled across velvet sands. Cutting inland, bog roads skirt the shoulder of the Crocknasmug mountains before returning via a cliff path to Portkill.

Bluestack Way

DISTANCE: 40 miles
DIFFICULTY: Intermediate
It takes several days to skirt the foothills of the Bluestack Mountains. Beginning in Donegal Town, a trail passes the bewildering beauty of Banagher Hill and Eglish Valley. Expect high moorland terrain between Binbane and Cloghmeen Hill then a stretch along the Owenroe riverbanks before reaching Ardara.

Arranmore Way

DISTANCE: 9 miles
DIFFICULTY: Intermediate
Hop on the ferry to reach Arranmore, Donegal’s largest offshore island (only measuring 8sq miles) that’s been inhabited since the early Iron Age (800BC). A walking trail circles its ragged northerly coastline, indented by dramatic sea stacks, hollowed-out caves and sandy spits before it cuts through wild and uninhabited interiors. Keep watch as corncrakes, snipes and storm petrels soar overhead as you hike. Don’t miss remnants of a prehistoric fort that can be spied on the southeastern corner, while the sheltered eastern side brings an opportunity to interact with the friendly locals — many of them Irish-speaking — and there are overnight stays available for anyone keen to linger longer.

Bunglas to Glenties

DISTANCE: 42 miles
DIFFICULTY: Advanced
This waymarked route is the first leg of the International Appalachian Trail, which starts in the Ulster province of West Donegal and finishes in Antrim, Northern Ireland. From Bunglass Point, which packs a punch with its audacious vistas of the soaring Sliabh Liag cliffs, watch your footing along an exposed and tricky trail towards the crescent beach at Malin Beg and the impressive megaliths of Malinmore. Further on, the pretty Gaeltacht hamlet of Glencolmcille makes a good resting spot before striding onwards to Ardara where you can sample the craic in fire-warmed pubs alive with the melodious strains of bodhrán and fiddle. The finish is 7.5 miles away in Glenties set against a superb mountain backdrop.

Errigal Climb

DISTANCE: 3 miles
DIFFICULTY: Advanced
Looming 2,466ft over northwest Donegal, Errigal is the county’s highest mountain and renowned for its conical peak glittering in grey-pink quartzite. A strenuous ascent involves trudging over heathery bogland that’s superseded by a difficult stretch of loose and craggy scree leading to the rock-strewn pinnacle. From here, there’s a narrow trail to the lower of the twin summits and stupendous cloud-level panoramas of hills, forest and glistening lake below.

Image: Alecsandra Raluca Dragoi

Stops for weary feet

Nancy’s Barn, Ballyliffin
This converted cottage on the Inishowen Peninsula, run by local lad Kieran Duey, was proudly titled World Chowder Champion at 2017’s Chowder Cook Off. Slurp a bowl of the seafood showstopper or opt for a moreish sarnie. facebook.com/nancysbarn

Biddy’s O’Barnes, Barnesmore Gap
Tucked into the foothills of the Bluestack Mountains, this roadside pub has welcomed weary travellers for 200-odd years. Interiors are timeless: think wooden beams, flagstone floors and a flickering fire.

McGrory’s, Culdaff
A gastropub, music venue and guesthouse, McGrory’s is an all-around good craic. Crowd-pulling talents perform while the bar offers craft beer, hearty grub and space for local fiddlers.

Brennan’s Criterion Bar, Bundoran
Octogenarian sister act Patricia and Nan Brennan rule this legendary drinking hole that their grandfather opened in 1900. Peruse the shelves of old-world oddities before pulling up a stool at the wood-top bar.

Leo’s Tavern, Meenaleck
Framed gold discs cram the walls of this renowned music pub and family home of Enya, Moya Brennan and sibling folk group Clannad. Many of Ireland’s best talents perform here so expect pints served with toe-tapping balladry.

Published in the Donegal 2017 guide, distributed with the September 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)