Hiking in Ireland is often, it must be said, a fairly soggy affair. Most of the time it's raining and even when it's not most of our mountains are covered with bog which will have you wet up to the ankles before you've gone ten paces from the road. Not so the Burren. The Burren's porous surface and exposed stone means that you are on dry (or at least well drained!) surfaces pretty much all the time, which makes the Burren great for hiking all year round. Add this to fantastic views, great diversity, lots of antiquities and the fact that you can have most of the hills entirely to yourself and you have a magical place to explore on foot.
I've been wandering around the Burren winter and summer for over 15 years now and I'm still finding new delights. In this article I want to outline some of my favourite walks in the Burren and some general tips for hiking here.
As it's dry, it's not essential to wear full-on waterproof hiking boots in the Burren - I often hike in light trainers for comfort. But as I'm sure you know, the Burren is *full* of cracks and holes and it's very easy to put your foot into one with potentially painful consequences. I've only done it once in style, but spent 6 weeks on crutches as a result. So - good boots with lots of ankle support and properly laced are recommended, unless you're familiar with the terrain. The Burren is criss-crossed with grykes pretty much everywhere so anything you can't see the actual surface bear in mind that the grass may be concealing a hole several metres deep! But, that said, one gets used to reading the surface and after a while you will start to know instinctively what is likely to prove solid or otherwise.
Ankle length trousers are a good plan if you're away from the northern or western sides of the Burren. You may find yourself pushing through scratchy hazel scrub or brambles. Sun protection in the summer (yes, it is sometimes sunny in Ireland) and cold protection all year round. It's almost always cold when you're anywhere high in Ireland. On top of the Burren there is nothing but 3000 miles of Atlantic Ocean to the west and it's usually windy and damp and that means cold in Ireland. If you intend to hike along the top of the Burren (equally highly recommended), you'll want to be warm and windproof. I find a light, long sleeved top, a fleece and a light waterproof shell will cover 99% of a normal year's weather.
A map of some description may add to your enjoyment, especially if you're looking to find dolmens or ring forts that are off the beaten track, but the Burren is pretty easy to navigate by sight. There are no forests to get lost in, and you're very rarely more than a mile from a road. If you're lost just go downhill and continue in a more or less straight line and you'll eventually find a road.
If you're only visiting the Burren briefly and want to make the most of your time, you might enjoy a guided walk with John Connolly (Burren Walking Tours) or Tony Kirby (Heart of Burren Walks), both of whom are extremely knowledgable about the region and will be able to enrich your experience with background information on the geology, botany and archaeology of the Burren.
Where to go
Most of the Burren is of similar height (never gets above 1000 feet and the hilltops are all pretty much between 800 and 900 foot) and the terrain is pretty similar throughout. In terms of difficulty (or ease) there's not much to choose betwixt one corner and another. Very roughly speaking the Burren tends to be more vegetated to the south and east and less so to the more seaward and exposed north and west. (That said, you will find small deep pockets of mossy woodland and little meadows of orchids and wildflowers throughout the Burren, wherever there is some shelter or moisture.) The three following hikes are probably between 2 and 4 hours in duration depending on how much you slow down and enjoy them.
Mullaghmore via Clonclouse green road
Mullaghmore is the archetypal Burren mountain and defines the southeastern corner of the Burren (Mullaghmore on Google Maps). If you park near the lake you will find a stile in the stone wall and a path that runs more or less along the right hand edge of the lake. The lake is worth a closer look as the lake bottom is lined with a pale mud (perhaps glacial marl or limestone that has been dissolved and re-deposited) and as a result the lake itself is often unusual colours, very pale blues, topaz or aquamarine.
Mullaghmore looks somewhat like a collapsed wedding cake, huge tiers of limestone rising in steps to the summit, with the whole arrangement sagging in the centre. Following the path will bring you right to the windswept top in about an hour, but take the time to explore as you go up. There are many deposits of fossils to be seen in the limestone. Halfway up there is a broad terrace with huge (for the Burren at least!) ash trees growing at the foot of the cliff and beautiful hawthorns polished and sculpted by the westerly winds.
To extend this walk you can continue over the summit and walk up along the hills that form the eastern edge of the Burren. To your left you can look across the interior of the Burren and to the right the land falls and runs flat for many miles til it starts to rise again east of Gort. Walking all the way to the northeast end of the Burren along this line of hills is magnificent and you are very likely to have the whole place to yourself. It's a good walk though, most of a winter's day, so it might be worth leaving a car near Slieve Carran for the return trip.
Another option, equally scenic but less strenuous, is to park on the North Commons and walk to Mullaghmore through the beautiful alley of Clonclouse. This makes a nice sheltered walk for a winter day and the valley itself has a magical, hidden-away feel to it. There is a small turlough in the valley so if it's been raining very heavily the path may be flooded. It can also be pretty muddy in places.
Parking at the entrance to the National Park, you'll find a well-defined path that leads you in to the church at the foot of Slieve Carran, an area known as Eagle's Rock (Slieve Carran on Google Maps). No eagles living there at present, but you may see peregrines which nest in the cliffs above, or hen harriers. The church/hermitage is nestled into the woodland at the base of the cliff, with a spring well close by where you will see little offerings placed within the well or in the branches of the trees around it. This is a short easy walk, ideal for young kids or a picnic. Lots of exploring opportunities in the shady, moss-covered woodland around the church.
For a more strenuous option, you can hike up to the summit of Slieve Carran by the ridge to the left of the big cliff. As you follow the path from the car park towards the church you'll be facing the eastern side of Slieve Carran which is a huge cliff face. To the left, as you face it, there is a ridge leading down from the mountain towards the road. Leave the path and head towards the foot of the ridge. You might have to cross a few stone walls as you make your way up but you should come upon a narrow track (a goat or cattle path) and this will lead you up onto the mountain proper. The top of the mountain is a large plateau, very good for primroses and alpine gentians in the spring. Head northwards across the plateau and you will come to a large cairn, probably a neolithic burial, though I don't think it has yet been excavated.
Slieve Carran is the second highest part of the Burren (I think!). Anyway, the views are great. If it's clear you can see all the way north to Galway city and the Connemara mountains beyond. For a long but really fantastic hike, you can continue on from Slieve Carran along the northern edge of the Burren all the way to the main road between Bell Harbour and Kinvara at Corker Hill. It's a long walk but well, well worth it.
When friends are visiting the Burren for the first time my favourite walk is to bring them up Black Head. Drive from Ballyvaghan in the direction of Fanore and look for a little parking area on the left, just beside the lighthouse at the tup of Black Head (Black Head on Google Maps). From there just go up. The first little bit can be a bit of a scramble but pretty soon the slope starts to ease and then it's a fairly steady climb up to about a third of the way up. There you'll cross an ancient green road that runs around the mountain, bordered by massive stones set on edge. It looks like something by giants. (If you follow this road to the right, in the direction of Fanore, it will eventually bring you back down to the main road. If you follow it left, it brings you round the mountain and down but peters out in scrubby woodland before reaching the road.)
Continuing up you will come to a broad plateau with the iron age ring fort of Cathair Dun Fhirgis. If it's windy you can shelter there inside its massive stone walls (there is an entrance on the landward side), and admire the view over Galway Bay and wonder about how tough the people who lived there must have been. Catch your breath, have some chocolate, and then continue on upwards. Now the land climbs in a series of steps and ledges, so sometimes you have to scout a bit to find a way up, but it's pretty straightforward on the way up. This is not true on the way down however, when you may find your route blocked by 20 or 30 foot cliffs if you stray to the left of your route, but just take your time and scout left or right and you'll find an easy way down.
You can't see the top but you can tell any footsore friends that it's just beyond the next ridge and eventually this will be true. After the last little step up you suddenly find yourself on top of the mountain with a large cairn not far in front of you. If it's any way clear you'll be able to see Galway city to the north of you, the Connemara coastline, with the Twelve Bens and the Maamturk mountains looming behind. The Aran Islands are to the northwest. If it's really clear, dry, wintery weather you can see the individual houses on the islands and they look close enough to touch.
This has always been one of my favourite parts of the Burren. There's just something special about Black Head. And once you're familiar with the terrain it is an excellent place for night hiking. Last February I climbed up there at around midnight on a moonless night to watch shooting stars. It was great but bitterly, bitterly cold. Bring hot chocolate, extra windproofing, spare torches, and batteries. Don't say I didn't warn you about the holes.