Hiking is an increasingly popular activity in Ireland. Since 1982, the network of long-distance, marked trails has grown from 1 to 25, and now stretches across more than 2,414km (1,500 miles). The first to open was the Wicklow Way, which begins just outside Dublin and proceeds through rugged hills and serene pastures on its 132km (82-mile) course. Others include the Beara Peninsula, the Kerry Way, the Dingle Way, and the Ulster Way. Most trails are routed so that meals and accommodations -- B&Bs, hostels, or hotels -- are never more than a day's walk apart. Routes are generally uncrowded, and lots of people tend to walk just part of the trails' lengths.
Though long-distance routes are the best-marked trails in Ireland, the signposting is surprisingly random and inadequate, and a good terrain map is an absolute necessity. Don't expect the kind of close management you'd find on trails in national parks in the U.S., however; the countryside here may be awe-inspiring, but it can get to feel very wild indeed once you're a few miles off the beaten path.
Markers are frequently miles apart and often seem to be lacking at crucial crossroads. Look for a post or cairn on each summit, which usually indicates the way between two peaks. Trees on Irish hillsides rarely impede visibility but a compass becomes crucial when a fog blows in and all landmarks quickly disappear. Be warned: This can happen quite unexpectedly, and the safest strategy when you can't see your way is to stay exactly where you are until the fog clears.
The walks listed in this guide are on clearly marked trails whenever possible, and otherwise indicated if sections are without markings. We can't give you all the information you need for the walks, so you should consult the local tourist office for advice before setting out. Visitors from Britain -- or those who are familiar with their fiercely upheld "rambling" laws -- should note that the laws are not the same in Ireland. In parts of the U.K. (not including Northern Ireland), walkers have the right of way across most private property when the land is rural and uncultivated, and fences that cross public paths must have places for walkers to pass through. By contrast, in Ireland the laws favor property owners, and farmers are passionate about the privacy of their land. Basically, stay on marked paths, or face the unmitigated wrath of a territorial Irish sheep farmer.
Luckily, there are some lovely, well-marked paths you can follow without upsetting anybody. For inland hillwalking, try the Wicklow Way, the Galtee Mountains, or Glenveagh National Park. For coastal walks, the best-known kind in this island country, try the Beara Peninsula, the Inishowen Peninsula, the Dingle Peninsula, the Western Way in Connemara, and the Donegal Bay Coast.
Start your research on the Web. Two excellent online resources with plenty of recommended walks are www.gowalkingireland.com and www.walkni.com. The Mountaineering Council of Ireland, which oversees hillwalking on the island, can be visited at www.mountaineering.ie.
Before leaving home, you can order maps and guidebooks, including details of available accommodations en route, from EastWest Mapping, Clonegal, Enniscorthy, County Wexford (tel. 053/937-7835; www.eastwestmapping.ie). You can buy maps and guidebooks in local bookshops and outdoor-gear shops across Ireland. Guides can also be obtained from AnÓige, the Irish Youth Hostel Association, 61 Mountjoy St., Dublin 1 (tel. 01/830-4555; www.anoige.ie), or in the North from Hostelling International Northern Ireland, 22-32 Donegall Rd., Belfast BT12 5JN (tel. 028/9032-4733; www.hini.org.uk).
Ordnance Survey maps are available in several scales; the most helpful to the walker is the 1:50,000, or 1 1/4-inches-to-1-mile, scale. This series is currently available for all of Northern Ireland and a limited number of locations in the Republic. A half-inch-to-1-mile series covers the whole country in 25 maps, available in most shops. These indicate roads, major trails, and historic monuments in exceptional detail. For Ordnance Survey maps, contact Ordnance Survey Ireland, Phoenix Park, Dublin 8 (tel. 01/802-5300; www.osi.ie), or Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland, Colby House, Stranmillis Court, Belfast BT9 5BJ (tel. 028/9025-5774; maps.osni.gov.uk). Tourism Ireland's booklet Walking Ireland and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board's An Information Guide to Walking are both very helpful. Other excellent resources include Best Irish Walks, edited by Joss Lynam (Passport Books, 1995); the similarly named Best Walks in Ireland by David Marshall (Frances Lincoln, 2006); West of Ireland Walks by Kevin Corcoran (O'Brien Press, 2008); and Irish Long Distance Walks: A Guide to All the Way-Marked Trails, by Michael Fewer (Gill and Macmillan, 1993).
In the west of Ireland, there's a wide selection of guided walks in the Burren, from 1 day to a week or more. Contact Guided Walks and Hikes (tel. 065/707-6100; www.burrenguidedwalks.com) for a wide selection of guided walks and hikes of varying lengths. In the southwest, contact SouthWestWalks Ireland, 28 The Anchorage, Tralee, County Kerry (tel. 066/712-8733; www.southwestwalksireland.com). For a full walking holiday package to County Kerry or County Clare and Connemara, consult Backroads, 801 Cedar St., Berkeley, CA, 94710 (tel. 800/462-2848; www.backroads.com).
On the Northern Ireland Tourist Board's website (www.discovernorthernireland.com/walking), a walking and hiking page lists self-guided tours, short hikes along the Ulster Way, and names and addresses of organizations offering guided walks throughout the North.
A Walk on the Wild Side
One hazard you won't encounter in the Irish countryside is meeting dangerous animals. Fearsome beasts once common around these parts -- including brown bears, wolves, and wildcats -- are long since extinct, and we all know the story about St. Patrick banishing the snakes. You may, however, meet European foxes (more the size of large dogs than their American cousins) or badgers, but both are notoriously timid creatures; leave them alone and they'll quite happily follow suit. In fact, if the experience of your authors is anything to go by, the worst you have to fear is an attack of the heebie-jeebies from encountering large spiders (up to 5 or 8cm/2 or 3 inches in length); although these, too, are entirely harmless.
Nope, nothing to fear in the countryside -- that is, unless you believe in monsters. Doyar-Chú are creatures said to live in the lakes of County Galway. Half-dog, half-fish, and about the size of a crocodile, they supposedly lie in wait for unsuspecting hikers and dog walkers, ready to drag them underwater with their terrifying jaws. Meanwhile, Muckie is a Loch Ness monster-type beastie (allegedly) spotted in the Lakes of Killarney. Descriptions range from your average terrifying sea monster to, well, a scary giant black aquatic hog that rises out of the depths of Lough Leane. (That's right. Hog.) Muckie was given an unexpected boost a few years ago when a sonar survey of the lakes showed a large unidentified object that could conceivably have been a living creature, although it vanished instantly. A Japanese TV crew went searching for the beast in 2004, but failed to find anything.
Our advice? Bring a camera. That seems to ensure the monsters will leave you alone given that nobody's ever managed to photograph anything.