‘Tis the season when the sun sympathizes with the national mood and rises late. It’s also a time when many of us imagine curling up by the fire with the elements beyond the window panes. Sure, you’ll be crazy about going for a walk on those cold cut days. Wrong! Our cold season is the most profitable time among the hills.
Whether you wander moodily in the half-light of a December afternoon, bleary-eyed on a frosty dawn, or the hills stand like white-veiled nurses of old, the winter landscape rewards the intrepid. So, resolve to ditch the claustrophobic option of hibernating indoors for Christmas and take the family out for a breezy outdoor walk. Wrap up and embrace the alluring gloom of winter outdoors on one of the excursions listed below. The whole family returns enriched and relaxed, with a much-improved appetite for Christmas turkey or leftovers in the coming days.
Buggy and wheelchair-friendly walks
Templemore Park, Co Tipperary
The ascendant period of Irish history was a difficult time for many, but this era also gave us many of Ireland’s finest parklands. A good example is Templemore Park, built in the 19th century by the wealthy Carden family around an artificial lake. A forest path, recently completely landscaped, is the perfect place to introduce little ones to the outdoors with a buggy walk. It won’t take you long to complete the 1.5km circuit, but it’s so atmospheric that you might be tempted to do it twice.
The Lake Loop, Castlewellan, Co Down
Winner of the 2022 Walk Northern Ireland “Best Family Walk in Northern Ireland”, this 2.5-mile (4km) circular walk is designed for families with toddlers in buggies or small children on bikes. Follow the green waymarkers around the lake, offering a panoramic view over the surrounding hills and the Morne Mountains, with stunning views of the impressive Scottish baronial-style castle built in 1856. The park also has a natural playground and a peace maze. , so you can spend more time interacting with the outdoors.
Sculpture Park Loop, Lough Boora, Co Offaly
Lough Boora Discovery Park, 20km west of Tullamore, is a gently restored bog and nature reserve. From the visitor centre, follow the yellow arrows on a 3.5km loop past a small lake, then continue into the innovative Sculpture Park. Here, artists have created impressive sculptures inspired by the local natural and industrial heritage. Eileen McDonagh’s Boora Pyramid proves to be a highlight and instantly lifts the older kids. Continue past a series of other fine exhibits, including the Secret Garden and the Raised Circle. Then, follow the signs over the bridge and back to the visitor center, stopping along the way to investigate the old peat train, high on the embankment.
Imo Court, Portarlington Co Laois
Venetian architecture isn’t something you’d expect in rural Ireland, but our grand Palladian mansion is somewhat out of place in rural Laois. Once the seat of the Earls of Portarlington, the estate remains the second largest walled park in Europe and is now the property of the Irish people. To explore this monument to past opulence, follow the yellow arrows from the car park on Sylvan Lane, then cross a field to reach an artificial lake. Now tag along the seashore, occasional glimpses of a grand neoclassical house appear and still disappear into the wintry waters. Cross a footbridge, then past a walled garden and continue along a tree-canopied path, regaining Emo Court after an hour’s ramble of wonderful variety. Note: In winter, Emo Estate closes at 4.30 pm.
Easy walk for little legs
Bay Lough, Co Tipperary
From Clogheen village take the footpath south to the parking area on the right, then follow the walking arrows for the East Munster Way. When these arrows point left, continue straight ahead to reach Bay Lough’s sublime Corrie Lake, which tradition holds to be the watery grave of a local witch named Petticoat Luce. Return by following the arrows for the Tipperary Heritage Way through Loughlenbridge’s lovely mixed woodland. When you rejoin the Munster Way, bear left and continue over the pretty footbridge, then return to Cloughheen after about two hours of ramble.
Ardmore Cliff Path, Co Waterford
This idyllic 4.5 km hike is one for the whole family. It offers stunning coastal views, a genuine feeling of reconnecting with history and interesting things around almost every corner. From the trailhead at Ardmore Church, walk uphill past the Cliff House Hotel and past St. Declan’s ancient church and well. Beyond, the cliff-top path curves spectacularly around Ardmore Head until the skeleton of the Sampson Crane Ship, wrecked in 1988, comes into view. Next, it’s inland to explore St. Declan’s Monastery. Occupying a spectacular hilltop setting, the most prominent landmark is the 30m-high round tower and now roofless cathedral. Then, it’s a short ramble down to the trailhead.
Ballyvaughan Wood Loop, Co Clare
The Burren is arguably Ireland’s most surreal landscape. It can be challenging to explore with its clints, grikes and many fall-proof boulders. If you want to get up close and personal with this enigmatic landscape, without actually venturing to walk on it, start by following the arrows for the 8km wood loop that starts from the harbor at Ballyvaughan. Hazelwood immediately serves as a reminder of the Burren Paradox: Hazel is the natural vegetation of the Burren, which will completely obscure the limestone if agricultural overuse is not managed. Small farms and woodland paths will take you to the center of the Ailvie Caves and perhaps a warm coffee. Beyond the Aylwy, the ageless charm of the Burren becomes inescapable, for the history of every age is here written in stone. Returning to Ballyvaughan, try to pick up as much as possible of the mesmerizing array of prehistoric enclosures, stone forts and cairns along this ancient route.
Lough Derg, Co Donegal
Far removed from the roads, houses and other symbols of modern life, this timeless pilgrim’s route resonates with many echoes of its Christian past. From the trailhead at Station Island Pier, follow hiker’s trail markers on well-maintained and relatively level forest tracks. It was the last leg of one of Europe’s great penitential routes, which led, in medieval times, to Lough Derg. After 6km along the pristine lakeshore, your destination is a cross for the historic Augustinian Friary at Saints Island. After an easy ramble of about two and a half hours, enjoy the tranquility of this timeless setting before returning to your destination on the Arrows.
Runs for older families
Cave Hill, Co Antrim
Overlooking Belfast, Cave Hill somewhat resembles the Sleeping Giant and is said to be the inspiration for Jonathan Swift’s novel Gulliver’s Travels. To explore this magnificence, start by following the green arrows from Belfast Castle through natural woodland. Further up, brooding cliffs and ancient caves before heading right on the north shoulder of Cave Hill. Then it’s south along the clifftop path that leads to the high point of McArt’s Fort. After a modest 2.5km walk, you’ll find that all of Belfast is now laid out below. MacArthur’s Castle made history in 1795 when Thomas Russell, Henry McCracken and Wolfe Tone of the United Irishmen came here and agreed “to cease our efforts until the power of England over our country is suppressed”. They did not succeed, but when you go down the same path you can reflect that you have visited the birthplace of the idea for an Irish republic.
Tork Mountain, Co Kerry
Where is Kerry’s most spectacular mountain scenery? Carrauntoohil, you may suggest. Ireland’s highest mountain certainly offers intoxicating vistas, but from an airplane you see less of everything. My favorite viewpoint in the Killarney outback is actually the magnificently accessible summit of Mount Tork, which is only half the height of Carountoohill. To appreciate this wonderful outlook, follow the Kerry Way from the upper car park for Tork Falls, following the sylvan track that leads south to open moorland. Cross the stream and take the track to the right. This leads to a boardwalk and alternating track that rises steadily, but without further incident, to the summit. Your reward is a spectacular view over Killarney’s world-famous lakes and waterfalls, with the angular MacGillicuddy’s Reeks a stunning backdrop. Return from the summit by retracing your steps.
Glencolmkille, Co Donegal
If “a place apart” can survive a globalized world, Glencolmkille is a true story. To explore this sequestered valley, set off from Glencolmkille fire station, tagging along an ancient path of megalithic tombs and standing stones leading to Columbkille Chapel. Beyond, a switchback track climbs to the signal tower, which offers awe-inspiring views over the deceptively beautiful but dangerous Donegal coastline.
Continue through the cliffs to the north before descending to the postcard-pretty Harbor of Port, a backdrop to the stark ruins of a deserted village which, like many, was abandoned to escape famine starvation. Now it’s a place in the hazy future of the 21st century, and a perfect place for manipulation.
Next, head up to the communication mast, where a service road heads south with a spectacular vista over Glencomkille. Arrows for Tower Loop will take you back to the starting point after about 14km of walking. Note: Encountering high, exposed terrain requires sturdy footwear, protective clothing and navigational skills.