The otherworldly landscape of the Burren National Park spreads across 1,653 hectares (4,083 acres) carved by nature from bare carboniferous limestone, both desolate and beautiful. Sheets of rock jut and undulate in a kind of moonscape as far as you can see. Amid the rocks, delicate wildflowers somehow find enough dirt to thrive; ferns curl gently around boulders, moss softens hard edges, orchids flower exotically, and violets brighten the landscape. With the flowers come butterflies that thrive on the rare flora. Even the Burren’s animals are unusual: The pine marten (small weasels), stoat (ermine), and badger, all rare in the rest of Ireland, are common here.
The Burren began to develop 300 million years ago when layers of shells and sediment were deposited under a tropical sea. Many millions of years later, those layers were exposed by erosion and poor prehistoric farming methods, and since then, it’s all been battered by the Irish rain and winds, producing the haunting landscape you see today.
Humans first began to leave their mark here about 7,000 years ago. The park is particularly rich in archaeological remains from the Neolithic through the medieval periods—dolmens and wedge tombs (approximately 120 of them), ring forts (500 of those), round towers, ancient churches, high crosses, monasteries, and holy wells, as well as Stone Age burial monuments, such as the famed Poulnabrone Dolmen and Gleninsheen wedge tomb.
Though there’s no official entrance, the park is centered at Mullaghmore Mountain—and like all National Parks in Ireland, it’s completely free to enter. The Burren Centre (www.theburrencentre.ie; 065/708-8030), on R476 to Kilfenora, provides an informative overview with films, landscape models, and interpretive displays. Admission to the center costs €6 adults, €5 seniors and students, €4 children age 6 to 16, and €20 families (free for children 5 and under). It’s open from June to August daily from 9:30am to 5:30pm; from mid-March to May and from September to October, it’s open daily from 10am to 5pm. A craft shop and tearoom are also on site. In June, July and August, local guide Tony Kirby (www.heartofburrenwalks.com; 065/682-7707) leads 2 1/2-hour guided walks from outside the center at 2:15pm, Tuesday and Wednesday, and 10:30am on Thursday to Sunday. The cost is €20, including entry to the exhibition. The center is next to the ruins of Kilfenora Cathedral, which contains some interesting wall carvings—look for the heads above what’s left of the doors and windows.
Take Green Roads Through the Burren -- "Green roads" are former highways that crisscross the Burren landscape in inaccessible areas. Most of these unpaved roads were created during the Great Famine as make-work projects for starving locals, although some are ancient roads of indeterminate origin. These old, unused roads are now popular with hikers, and some are signposted. They're also famous for harboring rare and beautiful wildflowers, such as orchids and deep blue gentians.The Burren Way -- With its unique terrain and meandering walking paths, the Burren lends itself beautifully to walking. The Burren Way is a 42km (26-mile) signposted route stretching from Ballyvaughan to Liscannor, incorporating old “green roads”—unpaved former highways that crisscross the Burren landscape in inaccessible areas. (Most were created during the Great Famine as work projects for starving locals.) An information sheet outlining the route is available from any tourist office. You can also contact Guided Walks and Hikes (www.burrenguidedwalks.com; 065/707-6100) for guided walks and hikes of varying lengths.