For those who wish to explore the Wild Atlantic Way’s more far-flung corners, the Northern Headlands invites thrill-seekers to take the road less travelled. Hugging the serrated coastlines of South West Donegal, the region guards a cornucopia of hidden bays, secluded beaches and towering cliffs. This three-day itinerary will guide adventurers from surfer’s paradise Rossnowlagh through the rural hubs of Donegal Town and Killybegs, into the remote, yet beautiful, wonders of Sliabh Liag and Ardara. During your trip, you’ll conquer mighty waves, traverse glaciated valleys, indulge in the ocean’s finest seafood and relax to the hypnotic sound of the crashing ocean. Soak up the Wild Atlantic Way of life as you leave the hustle and bustle of modern living behind and reconnect with the raw tranquillity of Ireland’s north-west.
Stage 1: Rossnowlagh
Begin your three-day coastal adventure in the laidback seaside village of Rossnowlagh, nestled on the shores of wondrous Donegal Bay. The village is famed for its golden stretch of beach that, owing to its unique geographical situation, is the perfect location for an introduction to surfing. The funnel-like shape of the bay allows for an exhilarating (but not overly challenging!) opportunity to brave the swells of the mighty Atlantic. Owners of the renowned Fin McCool Surf School come from a family of Irish surfing pioneers and have been helping visitors tame the beach’s waves since 2006, so you know you’re in safe hands! After the thrills of your surfing excursion, you’re bound to be craving some nearby nourishment. The award-winning Smugglers Creek Inn, located just south of the surf school and giving stunning views of the bay, is over 150 years old and serves up delicious platters of seafood and shellfish.
Stage 2: Rossnowlagh to Donegal Town (18.2km via R267)
Hop in the car and head north, winding around the shore until you reach Donegal town (19mins). It’s situated at the mouth of the River Eske, overshadowed by the rugged peaks of the Blue Stack Mountains. Immerse yourself in the history of Irish nobility with a guided tour of splendid Donegal Castle, built in the 15th century by a descendent of one of Ireland’s most powerful families, the O’Donnell clan. Just five minutes away is the intriguing Donegal Craft Village, a collection of workshops showcasing the creative talents of local artists. It’s the perfect place to discover a unique gift for a loved one, or instead, treat yourself! The surrounding landscaped grounds make for a pleasant and peaceful afternoon, so grab a takeaway coffee from the restaurant and go for a wander. Take a trip on Ireland’s largest waterbus, Donegal Bay Waterbus. This spacious, fully equipped vessel offers daily 75 to 80 minute tours of Donegal Bay. Work up an appetite as you explore the town afterwards, before ambling to a nearby restaurant for dinner. Olde Castle Bar & Fish Dock Restaurant is a local favourite, run by the O’Toole family who consistently conjure up the finest seafood, steak, beers, wines and whiskies that Donegal has to offer.
The world’s longest hand-knotting loom in Killybegs, via We Love Donegal
Stage 1: Donegal to Killybegs (27.9km via N56 and R263)
With the batteries recharged, you’ll be heading onwards from Donegal and spending the day exploring the harbour town of Killybegs (29mins), regarded as Ireland’s maritime headquarters. Visitors can explore the area by embarking on any of the six self-guided looped walks around the town. Afterwards, take a tour of the Killybegs International Carpet Making and Fishing Centre. This unique experience allows visitors to step back in time to an era when this factory produced hand-knotted carpets for such prestigious places as the White House, Dublin Castle, Buckingham Palace and the Vatican. See the largest hand-knotted loom in the world, learn the craft through enthralling live demonstrations and, to finish, put those skills to the test at the loom! Also at the centre, become captain of the ship and manoeuvre a vessel into port with the state-of-the-art bridge simulator. Make sure you take in the sights, sounds and smells of the busy harbour before dropping into Mrs. B’s Coffee House nearby.
For the more adventurous, Killybegs Angling offers travellers the opportunity to fish the Atlantic Ocean and hopefully catch their own dinner! Sail out into the waters off Blackrock Pier, and search for cod, pollock, conger, turbot, blue shark and many more species of fish – weather permitting of course. Land lovers can enjoy local gardens on the Donegal Garden Trail. There are numerous dining options are dotted around the area, including the award-winning Kitty-Kellys in Largy. When you’re well fed and ready for rest, get back to your B&B or hotel to prepare for the busy day ahead!
Stage 1: Killybegs to Kilcar (12.8km via R263, Largydaughton and Muckros)
Bid farewell to Killybegs and continue on your voyage through the expansive Northern Headlands. Next on the list is the cultural village of Kilcar (20mins). On the way though, be sure to take in the unmissable scenery along this stunning route. Fintra Bay is certainly a hidden gem; its long sandy beach stretches into the bay and is sheltered by the large dunes surrounding it. After the clamour of the previous day, the beach provides the perfect spot for revellers to pause and reflect, to the soothing sounds of the rhythmic tides. With a clear head, continue westwards to Muckros Head to find awe-inspring views of Inishduff Island and further in the distance, Sligo and Mayo. Kilcar is only a short distance away and when you reach the town, stop by Studio Donegal; a workshop continuing a 100-year tradition of hand-weaving in the area. Rummage through the authentic handmade garments and add a little piece of Northern Headlands tradition to your wardrobe!
Stage 2: Kilcar to Sliabh Liag (11.6km via R263 & Teelin Road)
Passing through the town of Carrick, head south-west over the Owenwee River into the tiny Gaeltacht (Irish speaking) village of Teelin. It’s noted for fishing, scuba diving and traditional music; but it’s Teelin’s close proximity to the mighty Sliabh Liag cliffs that makes it a popular pit-stop for adventure-seekers. From Teelin, the cliffs can be seen by following the moderate and peaceful trail known as Pilgrim’s Path. This route allows spectacular sights of the surrounding villages, before presenting you with a clear view of breath-taking Sliabh Liag. It’s a great opportunity to capture some dramatic shots, so make sure to bring a good camera! If you’d like to get even closer, take a short drive to the nearby car-park and walk the short distance towards the mountain. Once you’ve descended from the headlands, travel back through Teelin to Carrick, and warm up with a delicious bowl of homemade soup at the Sliabh Liag Lodge.
The astounding Sliabh Liag cliffs
Stage 3: Sliabh Liag to Ardara (54.3km via R263 and R230)
For the final stretch of your trip through Donegal, you’ll be taking the scenic route around the most westerly headland of the county, finishing up in the heritage town of Ardara (1hr 28mins). From Carrick, make your way to Malinbeg on the L1025 a serene, secluded bay enclosed by high, horseshoe-shaped cliffs. Return via the R263 to Glencolmcille Folk Village where you can step back in time in 6 restored cottages perched on the edge of the Atlantic. From here join the R230 immediately after passing through the town of Glencolmcille. The route will take you through the astounding Malaidh Ghleann Gheis (Glengesh Pass), a meandering roadway cut through a glaciated valley, providing exquisite views of the barren moorland and pretty mountains. If you’re lucky enough to visit in autumn, the colourful foliage creates an even more striking and vivid spectacle. Like many towns in Donegal, Ardara has a deep affinity with traditional, handmade crafts. On arrival, try and stop by the Donegal Designer Makers, a pop-up shop exhibiting wares in ceramics, textiles, fashion, jewellery, paintings, printwork and metalwork. Or if you’re interested in knitting, at John Molloy’s Woolen Mills you’ll get the chance to see authentic Irish garments in production. When the evening draws near, sit down for dinner at Nancy’s Bar and indulge in the exquisite seafood on offer, including oysters, mussels and Atlantic prawns. If you’ve still got the energy, stick around for the traditional music session that will most likely be taking place!
- Continue approximately an hour north from Ardara to Leo's Tavern the family home of Clannad and Enya where a wealth of traditional music and the Irish language can be heard.
Northern Headlands Signature Points:
Rugged Malin Head in Donegal is the country’s most northerly point. Enjoy the region’s wildlife, geology and history as you explore the watchtower at Banba’s Crown, named after a mythical Irish queen.
Fanad Head in Donegal is home to numerous secluded sandy beaches, with vigorous waves and a majestic lighthouse waiting to welcome you. Nearby Ballymastocker Bay was voted the second most beautiful beach in the world by Observer magazine.
Home to some of the highest accessible sea cliffs in Europe, the Sliabh Liag range in Donegal is one of the most gorgeous places in Ireland to visit, providing one of the finest views from the Wild Atlantic Way out across the wide expanse of the ocean.
There are five more stunning regions along the Wild Atlantic Way, each with their own unique charm, character and landscape! Whether you’re looking for a rejuvenating break or a wild adventure, we’ve got the itinerary for you.