9 Scenic Walking Trails Through Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands

There are many ways to experience everything that Ireland's Hidden Heartlands has to offer, but perhaps the most satisfying is to do so on foot. With each successive step, the bustling pace of urban life is replaced by the soothing tranquillity of the rural heart of Ireland.

It is in these quiet, timeless, ageless areas where you would be forgiven for thinking your footprint is the first to have made an impression. We've taken the work out of the planning your next walk with a list of nine unmissable areas to explore.

1. The Beara-Breifne Way

Field of heather along the Beara-Breifne Way
Field of heather along the Beara-Breifne Way

Immerse yourself in one of the jewels in the crown of Ireland's Hidden Heartlands. The Beara-Breifne Way begins in West Cork and weaves up through the Midlands ending in Blacklion in County Cavan. The walking trail is constantly being improved and expanded making it a simple route to navigate.

Walking along this world-class Irish trail, you’ll be following the 14-day march undertaken by O'Sullivan Beara. In the aftermath of the Battle of Kinsale of 1603, he is believed to have fought in numerous skirmishes and ambushes along the way.

The core ethos of the Beara-Breifne Way is collaboration. Sixty community groups orchestrated the walking trails making it one of the largest community projects ever undertaken in Ireland.

Make sure to order your passport from the Beara-Breifne Way’s website. You can then collect stamps with each completed track – a perfect memento of your own journey along this historic route or a reminder to return to finish off an unexplored section. It's particularly fun for families and groups of friends – get one for each member and compete to see who fills their passport first!

Along the Way, you are never far from a cultural stop-off or welcoming meal. The incomparable views and scenery speak to something ancient. Enjoy the untouched Irish landscape preserved in the face of centuries of subsequent modernisation.

You could visit the lively, mountain-flanked town of Keadue, Roscommon – translates in Irish as "low-lying green hill". Or Aughrim, Galway – the site of one of the most significant battles in Irish history: The Battle of Aughrim for those looking to get their fill of history.

Clonalis House, Roscommon is the home to the last High Kings of Ireland.

To get started on the Beara Breifine Way, you might like to follow this fantastic 2-day itinerary of the Miner’s Way part of the trail that includes the best attractions, views as well as places to stay and eat. Or start planning your adventure today with the Beara-Breifne map – showing all 12 stages – of this historical trail.

2. Lough Derg Way

Picnic on the shores of Lough Derg
Picnic on the shores of Lough Derg

Much like its Beara-Breifne cousin, the Lough Derg Way offers an opportunity to witness the unspoiled beauty of Ireland's Hidden Heartlands along a 64km trail.

Beginning at the tourist office in Limerick City – behind the Hunt Museum – the Way stretches the whole way along the winding, circuitous routes of the River Shannon up through to the lake port of Dromineer on Lough Derg.

The route is a walker's paradise. Climb the rolling hills of Clonlara, and onto the visit the village of O'Briensbridge. It winds up across the river in the ancient town of Killaloe – once the home of the 11th-century High King of Ireland, Brian Boru. You can rest up with coffee and pizza in the Italian deli, Ponte Vecchio, or discover its heritage at St Flannan's Cathedral, including its awe-inspiring early Christian oratory.

The southern section of the trail is made up of quaint canals and riverside passages, offering a glimpse into an often-unseen aspect of Ireland's beloved landscape. Traipse across the gentle, rolling tracks or just sit and watch fishermen patiently cast out on the canal banks.

The northern end – largely comprised of country roads – is a great place to relax in the ebb and flow of country life.

The trail winds up in the charming port town of Dromineer. Seize the opportunity to dip into the glistening waters of Lough Derg after a pleasant walk. There are plenty of water sports on offer to soothe tired feet. You can also savour a doorstop sandwich made with their famous locally-baked bread while watching the sun settle below the harbour at Lough Derg House and Lake Café.

Or maybe you’re looking to explore the town’s castle ruins and wind down with a dram in The Whiskey Still. Find out more about the Lough Derg Way, including how to get there, waymarking and what types of terrain to expect.

3. Tountinna

Tountinna, meaning the hill of the waves, is the highest point on the Arra Mountains and forms part of the Lough Derg Way. A trip to the top by foot offers panoramic views of Lough Derg and the wide valleys below. Rumour has it that when the great floods came the only people who survived were up on this hill – which brings to life the height of this mighty summit.

It’s also possible to drive to the summit by taking a righthand turn just outside the historic town of Ballina on the Portroe Road. There’s a picnic area at the top to look out onto the four counties that meet at this convergence. Galway, Clare, Tipperary and Limerick are guaranteed to be seen on a clear day.

4. The Suck Valley Way

Clonalis House, County Roscommon
Clonalis House, County Roscommon

Bisecting Galway and Roscommon, The Suck Valley Way – one section of the Beara Breifne Way – is another tranquil, if lengthy trail which brings walkers along the banks of the River Suck.

Much like Miner's Way, this route is best explored over numerous days. The entire loop clocks in at around 105 kilometres, but you will be welcomed with open arms at the many lovely places to stay and bars and restaurants along the way.

This route offers a little taste of the breath-taking landscape on offer, not just in Ireland's Hidden Heartlands, but across the length and breadth of the island. You will pass bogs and wetlands, the iconic patchwork of Ireland’s countryside, farms and a hugely diverse ecosystem – with otters, herons and stoats – along the banks of the river.

The area's beauty is revealed further in what is known locally as the "nine friendly villages" of Ballygar, Creggs, Glinsk, Ballymoe, Ballintubber, Dunamon, Castlecoote, Athleague and Mount Talbot. Spark conversation with the locals to seek out their insiders’ knowledge of the trails and things to do nearby. Some B&Bs have also been known to pack picnics for their guests to tide them over until the next stop.

The scenery along this particular stretch is stunning. The landscape is punctuated by ringforts, castles, impossibly old churches, and the La Tené Stone. This beautifully carved granite boulder, dating back to the Iron Age, is nestled at Castlerange.

Not to mention Clonalis House, which we explored earlier on, this stately Victorian mansion and ancestral home of the O'Connors, the last High Kings of Ireland, is open to visitors throughout summer.

Each of the hiking routes scattered throughout Ireland's Hidden Heartland makes accessibility a priority. However, it’s definitely best to check that the particular path you’ve chosen meets the requirements of each member of your party before embarking on their adventure. Walks across various types of terrain are suitable for even the achiest of knees, while the length of practically any hike can be adjusted to suit your needs.

Bring comfy walking shoes, food, water and a fully charged mobile phone. And don’t forget to collect a stamp for your Beara-Breifne passport once you’ve completed the Suck Valley Way!

5. The Leitrim Way

The Leitrim Way
Standing at the edge of Glencar Lough, Co. Leitrim

Leitrim offers a medley of unique walking experiences. They range from the 3-kilometre Aghacashel Looped Walk to the 12-kilometre Crummy Loop Walk, taking travellers along the shimmering blue waters on the eastern edge of Lough Allen.

The minor roads and country lanes can be thoroughly explored in little over an hour, making them a perfect introduction for beginners to break in their new hiking boots! Along the way, travellers encounter everything from a famine graveyard to an ancient sweathouse built of moss-dusted stones.

The Drumhauver Bridge Loop, at 10 kilometres, is ideal for the less-experienced hiker who has a moderate level of fitness. Stops are plentiful with Leitrim village and Drumshanbo – once the centre of poitín production – being idyllic spots for a rest and a delicious meal to refuel a weary traveller.

Or perhaps you’d like to try this novel 10km walk – The Drumleague Lock Loop – which takes you towards Battlebridge Lock and extends to the now famous Acres Lake Floating Boardwalk. This section actually floats on top of Acres Lough which gives the walker dramatic views of the water. It’s the perfect route for a family of hikers or cyclists.

Discover even more about The Leitrim Way and see how the route links up with the Cavan Way at Dowra if you’re looking to extend your journey.

6. The Miner’s Way and Historical Trail

McDermott's Castle, Lough Key, County Roscommon
McDermott's Castle, Lough Key, County Roscommon

Back to the Beara-Breifne Way, we have the Miner's Way and Historical Trail. This winding 118k route – taking five days in total – skims Lough Allen, Lough Arrow and Lough Key.

You’ll come along the Arigna Mining Experience which tells of the mines that were once the lifeblood of Ireland’s north midlands for over four hundred years. Its deposits of coal and iron sustaining not only the town but other cities. Iron mined from here was even used in the Ha'penny Bridge in Dublin.

The walk itself is incredibly accessible – you can make it as long or short as you wish. And the views of Kilronan Mountain Bog and Lough Allen are highlights to include in your trip.

The nearby Cistercian Boyle Abbey dates back to the 12th Century – a relative newcomer to the locale when compared to the fourteen passage graves at Carrowkeel Neolithic cemetery, which are estimated to be more than 5,000 years old.

There are also three mountain ranges to explore – Corry Mountain, the Curlew Mountains and the Bricklieve Mountains. The views from the summits remind you just how far you are from fast-paced living.

You can discover more of the history along The Miner's Way here as well as detailed maps and alternative routes.

7. The Cavan Way

Cavan Burren
Cavan Burren

At 26km, this walking route emerges from the western part of the county – the Cavan Way is a quiet finale to the Beara-Breifne Way. Give yourself about five hours to take in the sites on this final leg of the hike.

This trail almost exclusively consists of rural country roads paths in the shadow of the Shannon, allowing travellers to reflect on how far they've come and ponder how many more routes they might wish to walk.

The gentle trail begins in Dowra and ascends into the heavenly limestone landscapes of the Cuilcagh Mountains, passing through the expanse of the Burren Park before descending once more into the town of Blacklion.

The views along the route – Lough Macnean to the north and Cuilcagh Mountains to the south – are tremendous. And the paths here are typically quiet – the ultimate draw of this enchanting region. In this way, it's a perfect end to the diverse and beautiful experiences on offer in Ireland's Hidden Heartlands.

As the way ends in Blacklion, County Cavan, you can reward yourself for your efforts with a sumptuous dining experience at MacNean House and Restaurant, Nevin Maguire's award-winning restaurant. A luxurious meal of scallops with pork cheek, or halibut with basil risotto, is a mouth-watering end to an unforgettable adventure on the Beara Breifne Way.

Those considering the route can read about The Cavan Way's topography to understand how its post-glacial past shaped its limestone present.

Walking trail at Cavan Burren Park
Take to the wooden pathways of Cavan Burren Park, Co. Cavan

Across the Emerald Isle, you won't find any sights quite as unique, alluring or relaxing as on the walking trails in Ireland's Hidden Heartlands. So, if you’re looking for a hassle-free getaway, then journeying to the heart of this majestic country is a must.

8. Killashandra-Killykeen

This beautiful walk begins in the quaint town of County Cavan, and you can take the R201 northwards into the countryside. Enjoy the views from the shores of Lough Toon, Tullyguide Lough and Lough Oughter. 6km of twisting roads hemmed in with verdant hedgerows will lead you into Killykeen Forest Park. Here, a 10km network of trails acts as an inter-weaving lattice of waterways around Lough Oughter.

Pack a picnic to enjoy under the forest’s leafy shade and take the afternoon to enjoy the walk, cycle or canoe in the park. Clogh Oughter Castle, part of the historic Kingdom of Breifne, stands alone in Lough Oughter and can be reached and explored through a guided boat trip.

9. Rinn Duin

On a peninsula jutting out into Lough Ree lies the magnificent medieval town of Rindoon, County Roscommon. Built in the early 13th century, this town is a remarkable preservation of our past that has no equal in either Ireland or the UK.

The Rinn Dúin Castle loop walk takes you through the deserted Norman town that hasn’t been inhabited for centuries. The town wall, towers and gatehouse, windmill, Norman parish church and even a hospital are all available for you to explore. This 3km walk takes roughly an hour beginning and ending at St. John’s House, Lecarrow, county Roscommon and it’s an easy hike back in time.

Parts of this article appear courtesy of RTE.ie.

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