Traveling Off The Beaten Path in Ireland’s Rugged Northwest

Off the Beaten Path in Northwest Ireland

Northwest Ireland is sadly passed over for its southern cousin.  Most people skip County Donegal, Mayo and Sligo and take a bee-line from Dublin to the Cliffs of Moher in Southern Ireland, bypassing this part of the country entirely.

I’m here to tell you that Northwest Ireland is a must-see.  Thanks to the expert vacation planning of my husband, I was able to discover a charming and grossly underappreciated corner of Ireland.  The rugged northwest may be known as Ireland’s no-man’s-land, but after setting foot in the region I soon realized this is one of Ireland’s best kept secrets.

And the best part?

No hordes of tourists.

So where is Northwest Ireland exactly?

Our road trip route! Red is our northwest Ireland stops

Northwest Ireland is literally off-the-beaten path.  It’s the farthest destination from Dublin and, unless you pass through Northern Ireland and do other sightseeing like we did, is quite a long drive from the capital.

Still, it was worth the journey and–believe it or not–I want to visit the north again, it was that great.  Plus, if you plan on doing Ireland’s famous ‘Wild Atlantic Way’ road-trip along the western coast, County Donegal is your starting point.

So if you find yourself in Northwest Ireland, just where should you go exactly?

Glenveagh National Park (County Donegal)

Glenveagh is like walking into a fairy tale.  I could just imagine a prince dashing across the misty moors on his trusty white steed, whizzing by pristine lakes and evergreen forests, his eyes set on his final destination:

The castle at the end of the trail, of course.

Glenveagh

Jurassic Irish Forest!

Green moors and Jurassic plants!

Glenveagh National Park

From the peak!

Glenveagh castle

What, a castle in a national park!?

Glenveagh Castle is not only beautiful inside and out, but also has a fantastic (and free!) garden for visitors.  Also, don’t miss the cute, cottage coffee shop inside the garden–the cake is to die for.

The outer castle

Into the secret garden…

Glenveagh castle garden

The garden is so well-maintained!

Glenveagh river

Picnic with this view? Priceless

Lake water so clean, it’s like a sheet of glass

All in all, Glenveagh is a stunning half-day hike that is enjoyable in rain or shine (and it’s free!). We visited with light showers and it was anything but a downer–actually, it made the trip even more mystical and magical.  We ate a packed lunch near the castle lake in blissful silence.  The soundtrack to our lunch was the gentle lap of the waves on the lakeshore.

Slieve League (County Donegal)

Slieve League Cliffs

Slieve League!!

We heard the Cliffs of Moher were overrated and crowded and that Slieve League was a good substitute.  Since it was only a short ride away from Glenveagh, we made the drive to the edge of County Donegal to take a peek.

Slieve League is famous for being the ‘tallest cliffs in Europe.’  Although it’s hard to tell from the photos, these cliffs were actually pretty damn tall (and epic!).   We parked at the entrance parking lot, took a really photogenic 30 minute hike up to the cliffs (you can bypass the hike and drive up to the second parking lot if you’re tired), and viola, we were greeted by this.

At the top!

You can actually hike all the way to the farthest point to the ocean by following the trail along the top, but we opted to only go halfway and enjoy some summit views instead.  The views were gorgeous, the scenery stunning and most of all—cute sheep!

Slieve League Entrance

The start of the 30 minute trail… our way ahead was blocked by sheep, no choice but to stop

Slieve League Hike

Simply stunning scenery on the way up

Sheep in Ireland

Sheepies!

Slieve League is also a half-day activity that combines gentle hikes and epic elevation.  Definitely worth visiting.

Downpatrick Head (County Mayo)

Downpatrick Head

County Mayo’s slogan is “a secret no longer.”

In other words: HOLY CRAP THIS PLACE IS WAY OUT THERE.

Due to time constraints, husband and I were hesitant about visiting Downpatrick Head (yet another must-see on the Wild Atlantic Way).  It was not only a 3 hour drive from Donegal, but it’s literally in one of the most remote parts of Ireland.

But oh man, I’m so glad we went because…  Downpatrick Head is SUPER EPIC!!

Downpatrick Head

Seems like this part is gonna split off soon…

This is another ‘photos don’t do the place justice’ kind of destination.  The sheer drop of these cliffs is dizzying (one wrong step and it’s over) and the geological foundations are dazzling. Legend has it that Saint Patrick chased the all the snakes out of Ireland onto that small ledge and then severed the cliff with his staff.

My guess is it probably had more to do with tectonic plates and other geological formations rather than a British guy with saintly powers–but hey, that’s just my hunch!

Gleniff Horseshoe (County Sligo)

This place is insanely remote and hardly mentioned in any guidebooks.  In fact, we were the only car driving around this area.

County Sligo

Anyone there..?

There’s no back story or history here.  It’s just a magical, green hideaway of peace and quiet.  We were the only people there.  Period.  Our only companions were the sheep grazing nearby.  The vastness of it all was extremely humbling.  I felt as if fairies were going to pop out at any moment.

Drive down this empty and slightly creepy road and…

Bam!  Enter mystical fairy land.  By the way, this photo does not do the real thing justice. This ‘horseshoe’ mountain towers over you.

Can’t get enough sheep

Yeats is said to be buried around here…

Gleniff Horseshoe also winds around the famous Yeats’ Country road.  The writer Yeats loved County Sligo so much, he lived out his final years here .

Lough Eske Castle (County Donegal)

Lough Eske Castle

Fairy tale castle or what?

Finally, if you’re going to Ireland then you have to stay in a castle.  Period.  I don’t want to hear any excuses.  Just do it.

I am not being paid to write this, but Lough Eske Castle was such a phenomenal place I just have to give it a shout out.  Lough Eske Castle was our favorite castle stay in Ireland.  Staff are unbelievably friendly and welcoming, the room amenities went above and beyond a typical brand-name five-star hotel, and the renovations to the castle were unbelievable.  I truly felt like a princess in a fairy tale.

Into the castle…!!

Oh, it was even comfier than it looks

Lough Eske Rooms

Bathtub of my dreams

Hubby excited to eat our fellow sheep friends

Plus, Lough Eske is one of the more affordable castles in Ireland.  We won’t name names, but it was a way better stay than a more expensive castle we stayed at down south.  This castle alone is worth the drive up north.

In the end, Northwest Ireland charmed me more than anywhere else.

Northwest Ireland is cozy, rustic, calm, quiet, peaceful.  My husband called it the “Montana of Ireland” and, oddly, the description fits in the best way possible.  Originally I had no desire to see Northern Ireland because my ancestors are from the South, but I’m so grateful my husband introduced me to the beauty that is Donegal, Mayo and Sligo.

It’s the perfect place to go to just get away from it all–and really, isn’t that why we travel in the first place?

Have you ever gone off the beaten path and been pleasantly surprised? 

11 thoughts on “Traveling Off The Beaten Path in Ireland’s Rugged Northwest

  1. Christina Reid says:

    It looks like you had an amazing trip! The places you went are all beautiful and I love them, but I’m just sorry that you missed out my neck of the woods – I live right on the North West corner of Northern Ireland where Donegal and Derry bump into each other and it’s really lovely too! Maybe next time…?

    • rubymary says:

      Oh it was wonderful! You have a beautiful country!!! We actually drove past where Donegal meets Derry but didn’t have time to make stops. Will definitely go back! Any sights up there you can recommend?

      • Christina Reid says:

        It really depends on what you like but it is a beautiful area – 7 mile long beach with white sand, Mussenden Temple, Grianan of Aileach, Derry/Londonderry City etc. Hope you make it back!

  2. Marta says:

    So pretty! How long did you stay?

    I’ve been wanting to go on a road trip some place in China for ages. But C. must be the person with less holidays in the whole universe. Even when he takes days off (from his annual leave) he is checking emails… like if the company would collapse without him. I am now thinking where to go for Chinese New Year and I’d like to go somewhere in China, but… is it going to be super crowded? Will we be stuck in traffic for days? If we go somewhere remote, will there be anything open so we can eat?
    Sometimes I hate this country with its completely stupid regulations regarding holidays. Hello, let’s have 1300 million people vacationing at the same time. What could go wrong…

    • rubymary says:

      Awwww Marta!! I REMEMBER THAT FEELING!! I remember spending so many holidays in Shanghai and being super grumpy, haha. I was usually 1. too broke to afford the overpriced holiday tickets 2. didn’t want to travel in-country because of the crowds. It suuuucked. And yeah Chinese people need more paid leave, doesn’t the average Chinese worker only get 5 days or something? CRAZY!

      Actually, the year before I left Shanghai I went to Moganshan and a hot spring place for Chinese New Years and it wasn’t crowded (gasp!!!!). I was truly blown away. I thought it was going to be 人山人海 but it was pretty empty! Back then I stayed at a hostel, but now that I have a little more money I would stay in one of the nicer resorts. The hot springs place might be crowded but it was really nice (super clean and beautiful facility). Just an idea!

      Hope you have a good holiday!!

      • Marta says:

        Yes, 5 days within their first 10 years working, and 10 days after 10 years. C. should get 10 days starting next year but I guess he will be not too willing to take them because WORK. Argh. He likes his job so for him it’s fine, but I want to travel NOW, not when I am 70 years old (well, then too. But it will be different).

        Yes, I have to go to Moganshan. It’s relatively close so it always gets pushed to “some other moment”. If I can find plane tickets to anywhere in South East Asia that are not 5x the usual price I’d prefer to use the “long” holidays to go to some other country. If not… let’s see what we can do.

  3. TonyJ2 says:

    Wow, after following you around Japan, here comes Ireland! My partner and I are heading there for a month in April, and I am at the early stages of overplanning!

    The Northwest was on the overall plan, doing the Wild Atlantic Way Circuit, and up to Portstewart and the Giants Causeway where our son worked for a number of months.

    Thank you for these spectacular hidden places. Well done to your partner!

    • rubymary says:

      Haha I know, I can’t stay in one place! I’M SO EXCITED FOR YOU TO GO TO IRELAND! Please don’t hesitate to let me know if you have any Ireland questions! Ireland ties with Japan for my favorite country to visit 🙂

      We didn’t have time to do the Wild Atlantic Way (it is LOOOOOOONG and has so, so much to see… you could easily spend a month doing it, so pick your desitnaitons on the path wisely!). Ending at Giants Causeway sounds like a good plan 🙂 I’m jealous of your son working there, it’s a really nice place! I’m hoping you get good weather!

  4. Lani says:

    You are so so good at finding those ‘off the beaten track’ places. How do you do it? Tons of research? Lack of research? Inquiring minds want to know. Those sheep are toooo cute. And then you ate ’em! Noo, noo, nooooo.

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