Ancient castles, breathtaking landscapes, intimate settings, rare wildlife and thrilling activities are all par for the course inside Ireland's national parks, but the splendour of those found on the west coast takes the cake.
Five out of six of Ireland’s national parks are found on the Wild Atlantic Way; Glenveagh, Ballycroy, Connemara, the Burren and Killarney. Between them, these specially designated and environmentally protected areas act as rich ecological and cultural landscapes, where a wide range of plant and wildlife flourishes. The parks are also an education unto themselves, as visitors get the chance to directly interact with the elements and learn about the unique settings within.
Glenveagh National Park
A pleasant stroll by the water in Glenveagh National Park, County Donegal
Glenveagh National Park sits in the heart of the Derryveagh Mountains in County Donegal. This remote setting previously served as a private deer forest before officially being designated a national park in 1975. Opened to the public nine years later in 1984, Glenveagh National Park encompasses over 16,000 hectares of County Donegal mountains, lakes, glens and woods, not to mention the gorgeous Glenveagh Gardens. An area rich in wilderness, the park is the haunt of much plant, animal and bird life, including a herd of striking red deer, ravens, and peregrine falcons. There have even been rare sightings of golden eagles.
Specially-arranged walking trails are available too, taking in the park’s hilltops, woodland, blanket bogland and freshwater lakes. Guided tours (approximately 45 minutes in length) of the 19th century Glenveagh Castle provide a great opportunity to get acquainted with the history of the surroundings and the Victorian aesthetic that inspired designers John George Adair and John Townsend Trench – a cousin of the castle’s builder and first owner.
Tours are limited, so it’s advised to arrive early to avoid disappointment. General admission to the National Park and Visitor Centre is free. Click here for a full list of opening times and available tours.
DID YOU KNOW? The park’s final owner, Philadelphia native Henry McIlhenny, bequeathed the estate to the Irish government in 1975, thus paving the way for it to become a national park.
Unique Experience: Fishing enthusiasts can cast off on the waters of Lough Veagh as fishing season takes place from July to September.
Ballycroy National Park
Ballycroy National Park, County Mayo, image via Ireland's Eden
11,000 hectares of glorious unspoiled wilderness, Ballycroy National Park in County Mayo is surrounded by the majestic Nephin Beg mountain range. Between Nephin Beg and Slieve Carr – which stands as the highest mountain in the range at 721 metres above sea level – lie the Scardaun Loughs, a great spot for game angling when the season is open (May to September). Established in late 1998, Ballycroy National Park is the site of one of the last intact active blanket bog systems in Western Europe; the Owenduff Bog. Many rare plants are found within the bog habitat including spaghnum mosses, black bog rush – which is a notable component of Atlantic blanket bog – purple-moor grass, orchids, lichens, sundew and butterwort.
The park also protects and conserves a variety of important habitats, including alpine heath, upland grassland, lakes and river catchments. Mammal species such as the fox, badger, mountain hare, otter, feral American mink, pygmy shrew, bat species including the pipestrelle and non-native red deer all call the place home, while the Owenduff and Tarsaghaun rivers are known for their salmon and sea trout. Bird life in the park includes dippers, common sandpipers, woodcock, skylarks, kestrels, peregrine falcon and whooper swans. The vast majority of the park’s birds are year-long residents, while some, like the cuckoo, willow warbler and chiffchaff are summer migrants. The park’s Visitor Centre is located in Ballycroy village between Mulranny and Bangor Erris.
DID YOU KNOW? Glacial activity over the past two-and-a-half million years has created some of the park’s most scenic features including Corryloughaphuill Lough. Further evidence of glacial activity’s impact on the park is found in glacial boulder clay at the southern edge of the Nephin Beg mountain range.
Unique Experience: Ballycroy National Park can be experienced as part of the refreshing Bangor Trail while superb views of Achill Island and the Nephin Beg mountains can be seen from the summit of the park’s short nature trail.
Connemara National Park
An invigorating cycle in Connemara National Park, County Galway
Connemara National Park in County Galway is easily one of the most beautiful national parks anywhere. Covering some 2,957 hectares of picturesque bog, heath, grass and woodland in addition to spectacular mountain scenery, it also boasts four mountains that help make up the famous Twelve Bens/Beanna Beola range, namely Benbaun, Bencullagh, Benbrack and Muckanaght. Established and opened to the public in 1980, the park offers a range of activities including special events such as art exhibitions and seasonal-themed film screenings, natural trails and a multi-lingual audio-visual show in the park’s Visitor Centre. If you’re up for a bit of exploring, take a looped walk around Diamond Hill which offers stunning views of the Inishturk, Inishbofin and Inishshark islands.
The park is peppered with links to the past, from megalithic court tombs estimated to be some 4,000 years old to a mysterious, early 19th century graveyard. You’ll also find Tobar Mweelin; a well which was once used to supply water to Kylemore Abbey. The park also features rare plant species from colder climates of Europe and the Arctic. Birds found in the park include meadow pipits, skylarks, stonechats, chaffinches, robins and wrens; while rabbits, foxes, stoats, shrews and bats are observed at night. Throughout the rugged landscape you’ll spot the hardy Connemara Pony, a breed native to the area and Ireland. There are a variety of ways to access the park, click here for information.
DID YOU KNOW? The southern area of the park was once owned by Richard ‘Humanity Dick’ Martin who helped form the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals during the early 19th century.
Unique Experience: Up for a bit of exploring? Take a looped walk around Diamond Hill which offers stunning views of the Inishturk, Inishbofin and Inishshark islands.
The Burren National Park
The Karst landscape found within The Burren, County Clare
A karstic plateau, the Burren in County Clare is arguably Ireland’s most extraordinary landscape. A treasured part of the county, guided walks and hikes are available – all are free but booking is required. Established in 1991, the park is rich in flora and fauna and home to 1,100 species of the 1,400 plants in Ireland. One of the world’s finest examples of a glacio-karst landscape, the majority of the 1,500-hectare area has been designated as a Special Area of Conservation under the EU Habitats Directive, while the annual Burren Rocks Festival combines adventure with geology and the landscape. Meanwhile, the Burren in Bloom Festival takes place in the spring giving visitors a fun understanding and appreciation of the region.
The Burren is home to colourful and varied wildlife, including a range of bat species, badgers, feral goats and red foxes in addition to lively amphibians and reptiles. You’ll find birds like hawks, falcons, swans, cuckoos, owls and much more. From a botanical point of view, the Burren is regarded as one of the most fascinating regions in Western Europe thanks to a range of plants normally found in separate parts of the continent growing alongside one another. Remember to follow the Burren Code when visiting and follow the Leave No Trace guidelines to help keep this landscape thriving and unique! The park is open all year round and easy to access. Click here for the best way to get there.
DID YOU KNOW? Despite the unique nature of the land, farming in the Burren is a dedicated practice. The rock acts as a giant storage heater, absorbing heat from the sun in the summer and releasing it in the winter. This provides enough heat to extend the growing season thus providing enough grazing for the livestock throughout the winter.
Unique Experience: The Burren in Bloom Festival takes place in the spring giving visitors a fun understanding and appreciation of the Burren.
Killarney National Park
Taking a cheeky bite out of Killarney National Park, County Kerry
Renowned for its scenic beauty and scientific interest, Killarney National Park in County Kerry is set in an expanse of rugged mountainous country best encapsulated by the magnificent Macgillicuddy’s Reeks, the highest mountain range in all of Ireland at over 1,000 metres high. Beneath this towering wonder lies 10,236 hectares of picturesque woodland, thrashing waterfalls and unspoilt nature. Killarney National Park was officially designated as a Biosphere Reserve in 1981 by UNESCO. Chief among the park’s attractions is Muckross House, Gardens and Farms, a 19th century Victorian mansion close to the shores of Muckross Lake.
Ross Castle is a fine example of an Irish Chieftain’s stronghold during the Middle Ages, with Inishfallen Island visible from its grounds. An abundance of wild and plant life is present in the area, including the only herd of native Red Deer remaining in the country. The park is also home to the Lakes of Killarney Marathon, a fun and refreshing way to take it all in. If marathons aren’t your thing, you can enjoy a leisurely stroll through the park’s stunning environs. All of the park’s attractions are easily accessed, including the stunningly rugged Gap of Dunloe mountain pass. Click here for directions.
DID YOU KNOW? 15 white-tailed eagles were reintroduced to the park in 2007. By 2015, at least four nesting pairs were established in County Kerry, with one pair successfully breeding inside the park.
Unique Experience: A key area in the park is the Gap of Dunloe, a mountain pass carved out over two million years ago by slow-moving glacial ice. The name ‘Dunloe’ comes from the Gaelic Dún Loich, meaning ‘Loich’s stronghold’, a reference to the first leader of the Fir Bolg, a group of ancient settlers.
For more of the most beautiful national parks along the Wild Atlantic Way, consult our handy directory. The west coast of Ireland boasts a rich variety of flora and fauna. Click here for a comprehensive guide.