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Forget driving the Wild Atlantic Way – walk it

A superb new guide of the best walks of the west coast offers up a rich variety of nature that will engage the senses, writes Dan MacCarthy.

A description of Achill Head and Croghaun Mountain in this superb new hillwalking guide to the fabled Wild Atlantic Way refers to the epic landscape crossed by the walker. Epic? Surely epic is a term that suits more dramatic far-flung landscapes like the Himalayas or Kilimanjaro, say?

No. The description is right. Cliffs rise up from the maw of the Atlantic 550m below with distant yachts like scraps of paper. The claim to be Ireland’s highest cliffs is disputed with Slieve League, but who cares? Both are magnificent. Northwards looking to Donegal, the Mayo coastline of Erris Head lies like a giant hook. Southwards, the mini archipelago of the Aran Islands are mightily impressive. Epic? Crystal clear views for over 100km in 360 degrees is surely epic in anyone’s book. Throw in the human footprint in the shape of huge ring-shaped cloghauns dotted around the foot of Croghaun like doughnuts and you have an immemorial majesty.

For this walk of five to six hours, drive west from Westport to Achill Island and then west again to Keem Strand. Cresting the sheep-packed road from Keel, the beach suddenly appears like a banana skin under the mountain. Park at the beach and climb straight up to a watchtower. Tear yourself away from the views, bite your lip if you have to. Curse the gods, but move on you must. Follow the clifftop which rises and falls like the teeth of a saw until near Achill Head where you about-turn and descend across a bog before a very difficult ascent of Croghaun Mountain. This is the toughest part of the walk but the views from the top make the earlier ones look like lame ducks. If you’re lucky enough to have the sun shine down on you this place is one of those places you never want to leave. Alas.

Continue north-east to Bunnafreva Lough West, where another about-turn directs you back to the car over a bog that gradually, then steeply declines.

The cable car. If for no other reason, go for the cable car. The only one in Ireland. But the walk is a treasure too. A peaceful meander on a country road followed by a gentle climb and a return across a heather and bog landscape through old country trackways.

A small iron bucket is winched along a cable stretched between the mainland and the tip of the island, carrying a maximum load of six people. You may have a sheep for company. Drive west from Castletownbere to Lamb’s Head and look for the signs to Dursey Island.

The island has a fascinating history: It was once a Viking slave depot and in the 17th century 300 followers of Donal Cam O’Sullivan were thrown to their deaths by Queen Elizabeth’s forces under the command of George Carew. Today, the island has a population of six.

Upon landing, bear west along the road for 6km, passing fields full of ferns and gorse. Pass the signal station and continue to the highest point. From here there is a great view of the Bull Rock lighthouse as well as two smaller rocks known as the Cow and the Calf.

For the return route, you walk along the top of the island till eventually descending to the cable car station.

The cable car runs daily from June to September and other times outside of this. Enquire at the Castletownbere tourist office.

The Magharee Peninsula is effectively a sandspit jutting out at a right angle from the Dingle Peninsula. Think Inch Beach on the southern part of this peninsula or Rossbeigh on the Iveragh Peninsula. At the end of the peninsula lies a small group of islands in a tombola — where the islands are connected to the mainland by a submerged strip of rock.

This walk starts at the carpark for Castlegregory Beach, veering left at Sandy Bay towards Fahamore. You pass Magherabeg Beach and on to Kilshannig and a turn south to base. With little ascent, this is a lovely 15km walk.

These walks are from a list of 30 on the west. The sheer variety of mountain, lake, river, marsh, beach, and bog landscapes is a joy to behold. The interplay of light, foliage, and sounds is almost too sensual. Helen Fairbairn has previously stated that her hillwalking books on Northern Ireland, Wicklow, and Dublin, and Ireland’s Best Walks are bestsellers. Trust her. If she includes a walk in this book it’s worth doing.

Checklist for traveling west:

1. Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way by Helen Fairbairn.

2. Transport.

3. Accommodation.

Source: Irish Examiner

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