I was shocked to read in the news recently that the number of hillwalkers each year through Connemara has been dropping off. The region boasts one of the most scenic (and one of the longest) waymarked hiking trails in Ireland. The Western Way, also referred to as the West of Ireland/Connemara route, stretches all the way from the humble village of Oughterard in County Galway right through to Ballycastle in County Mayo. At 179 kilometres when completed in full, it takes you over some of the most spectacular inland and coastal sections of the country, past numerous places of interest such as the Maumturk and Twelve Bens mountain ranges, Killary Harbour, Ashleagh Falls, Croagh Partrick and the town of Westport. Connemara is one of my personal favourite parts of Ireland, and my own experience hiking through the region is one I’ll always remember.
As summer approaches, here’s a rundown of the highlights you can look forward to on your next hiking trip through Connemara.
This quaint and peaceful village located only 25 kilometres from Galway City is where you’ll find the starting point of the West of Ireland route. Oughterard also marks the border with Connemara, representing the inland gateway to Connemara heading northwest out of Galway. To the southwest the landscape begins to climb steadily in elevation, leading into the foothills of Connemara. The other side of Oughterard slopes northeast toward the shores of Lough Corrib, the largest lake in the Republic of Ireland and the second largest on the entire island of Ireland.
It is in this direction that your walk begins. Departing the village you’ll soon see why the area is famous for fishing and boating, with numerous rivers and streams running through the woods, feeding smaller ponds and lakes before emptying out into the great lake below. Before too long you’ll hit the edge of Lough Corrib and wheel to the northwest as your trace your way along its rocky shores.
Although a rather large body of water, Lough Corrib rarely vanishes into the distance. Due to its unique geology, the lake is littered with hundreds of small islands, most only a few acres in size. Historically reputed to have 365 islands (one for each day of the year, perhaps), more recent advancements in mapping technology have seen that figure jump to a staggering 1,327 isles.
Larger islands such as Inchagoil Island are large enough to have once supported small settlements or monastic sites. For example, Inchagoil boasts plenty of history, including the ruins of an early monastic site, plus two churches – one associated with St. Patrick himself. Should you have time and the inclination at the very beginning of your journey, you can purchase boat tickets back in Oughterard to take you out to visit this island. Wandering the paths of Inchagoil Island brings you back to the Ireland of yesteryear as you gaze upon the intricate rock carvings found in the ruins around you.
As you continue along the banks of Lough Corrib, passing old stone piers and colourfully-painted fishing boats, you’ll begin to see one of the very first peaks in Connemara: Lackavrea. Although it is technically a part of the greater Maumturks range, it’s at the very easternmost extremity of this range and is a standalone mountain in its own right. The peak is disconnected from the main section thanks to a prominent saddle feature dipping down between itself and the Maumturks proper. It is across this saddle that your journey continues on foot. Thanks to this separation, and its elevation of 396 metres, Lackavrea is classified as a ‘Marilyn.’ This designation is given to a hill or mountain found either on the Isle of Man, in the United Kingdom or in the Republic of Ireland which possesses a prominence of at least 150 metres.
There’s a term for enthusiastic mountaineers out there called ‘peak baggers,’ and if you’re one of them you can very easily add another Marilyn to your list by ascending Lackavrea. Just have a think about whether or not you want to attempt every Marilyn in Ireland first, as there’s more than 450 of them apparently! Start with every Marilyn on the Isle of Mann instead, perhaps, where there are only five of them. The ascent of Lackavrea is only a minor side trip from your main walking trail and should take less than one hour return, even quicker for those with a bit more spring in their step. Visitors to the top of the peak are treated with stunning views back eastward across Lough Corrib. You’ll be able to see the vast array of islands and archipelagos you just passed from a unique angle. Meanwhile to the west you’ll have panoramic views across the Maumturk Mountains with the Twelve Bens peaking up behind them. On a clear day you’ll be able to see the Atlantic Ocean to the south. To the north, however, you’ll continue your journey down into the Maum Valley.
As you descend into the picturesque Maum Valley (also spelt Maam), you’ll soon see why so many tourists choose to travel through this secluded region. Your hike brings you past the Quiet Man Cottage, one of many filming locations throughout Connemara from the famous 1952 film starring John Wayne. As you progress deeper into the heart of Connemara, you’ll be surrounded by beautiful rivers cascading down through rocky rivers before they meander out across the valley.
Maumeen Pass Pilgrimage Trail
As you ascend through Maumeen Pass, you’ll follow in the footsteps of St. Patrick, arriving at a tiny pilgrimage church hidden between the rocks right in the middle of the Maumturk Mountains. This represents the furthest point he reached in the west of Ireland. This is one of the steeper sections you’ll face on your entire trip. However, the whole route is very accessible for walkers of all ages and experience levels, for even this segment is very manageable and only rises at a very gradual gradient. Take a quick rest at the pilgrimage church where your elevation provides views down toward the Inagh Valley.
Lough Inagh Valley
Once you’ve crested the Maumeen Pass, the beautiful Inagh Valley will begin to reveal itself to you as you descend. To your left and right you’ll be flanked by the towering Maumturks, while directly in front of you lies Lough Inagh, backed by the numerous peaks of the Twelve Bens. Avid climbers can take a side trip here, or come back at a later date to explore sights such as Lough Maumahoge high up in the Maumturks. There are also various rock climbing and hiking routes nestled within the peaks and ridges of the Twelve Bens.
Progressing northwards along the edge of Lough Inagh, you’ll enter a large pine forest. Although this can be one of the muddiest and boggiest sections of your entire journey, it wouldn’t be a hike if there wasn’t at least a bit of a hard slog somewhere! And it’s often these more challenging sections that provide the best reward – after a few kilometres you’ll exit the peaceful solitude of the forests to be swept off your feet by the spectacular Killary Harbour. The long, narrow stretch of water is actually a proper fjord, the likes of which I’ve only ever seen before on the South Island of New Zealand. The mountains here plunge straight down into the ocean from either side, with County Galway ending on your edge of the fjord and County Mayo beginning on the northern side.
After a full day of hiking it’ll be time to put your feet up for the evening, and Leenane is an ideal spot. Situated at the head of Killary Harbour, guests at the local B&Bs and guesthouses will have their pick of freshly caught, local seafood. The village also has a few traditional Irish pubs with a relaxed and welcoming atmosphere. Boat tours are available for those wishing to head right out into the harbour.
Not long after departing Leenane to continue on your trek, you’ll pass by the famed Aasleagh Falls. Water billows down the wide expanse of the Erriff River only a few hundred metres before it meets Killary Harbour. While not a traditionally impressive thin curtain of water plunging from a point many stories in height, it is instead a very wide waterfall, more like a long curtain of water unravelling. Allow time for any photographers in your group to spend some extra time here, especially if they wish to snap some long exposures.
Once you’ve headed deeper into County Mayo you’ll rise up into the Sheefry Hills. More like small mountains than hills, this stretch is one of the most remote sections of your hike, offering brilliant views towards peaks such as Mweelrea – the highest point in Mayo at 814 metres. However, the best view will be of the pyramid-like Croagh Patrick as you approach from the south. Most photographs of the mountain are taken from the north instead, across Clew Bay, making this is a more unique way to see the peak.
Your waymarked path will take you along the southeastern edge of Croagh Patrick, one of the most famous peaks in Ireland, thanks again to St. Patrick. Here one finds another side trip option, with the chance to summit ‘the Reek’ as it is known locally. Just check your calendar to see if it’s one of the pilgrimage dates each year. At such times many walkers pack onto the trail, making their way to St. Patrick’s Oratory at the top. Although your journey along the West of Ireland route will give you some fairly stunning views out across Clew Bay, the extra elevation up on Croagh Patrick is well worth it. This is especially true for taking photos on a clear day.
What a perfect Irish seaside town to finish your walk in. Much larger than Leenane, this is where most hikers finish their trip and put their feet up for the night. For any of you die-hard walkers out there, feel free to continue to the northern coast of County Mayo and finish the full Western Way up in Ballycastle. Westport offers plenty to see and do, as well as posh eateries such as Cupán Tae (Irish for “Cup of Tea”), a beautiful tea house which will transport you back in time at least one hundred years or more as you sip from fine china.
Finally, for those of you still thirsting for more great sights in Ireland, Westport is the ideal location to rent a bike and head off along the famous Westport to Achill Island Greenway. Following the path of a former rail line, the paved cycling and walking path makes great use of otherwise dormant land. And it’s paying off already. Over the past years the greenway has surged in popularity among both locals and visitors alike.
|West of Ireland/Connemara|
|Self-guided tours from €619! Accommodation and bag transfer included.|