Field Guide: County Donegal, Ireland

One of Ireland’s most unique, coastal counties, Donegal - or Dún na nGall - should be on every outdoor lover’s bucket list. Hiking, surfing, road-tripping and pub-tripping - Donegal has it all.

7th November 2022 | Words by Jazz Noble

Donegal (Dún na nGall in Irish Gaelic) is Ireland’s northernmost county. With over 1000km of stunning coastline and more than 100 beaches, its proximity to the Atlantic ocean gives it both a unique climate, and a landscape unlike the rest. The county’s slogan is, after all: ‘up here, it’s different’.

And that it is. As the most mountainous region in the north of the island, you get to experience the variety of scenery typical of an alpine environment, but with that all-enticing Irish twist. Think: deep and narrow glens, undulating stretches of blanket bogs, rock-strewn peninsulas, and peak-covered vistas - all in a day's work.

What’s also unique about Donegal is the fact that its coastline coincides entirely with the Wild Atlantic Way, one of the country’s most popular tourism trails covering the whole west coast of Ireland. Whilst many have been known to cycle (or bikepack) the route, it has also been called one of the most scenic drives in the world. You only have to visit the Donegal portion to see why.

A sunny, aerial view of a valley, a river, a loch and the Derryveagh mountains in Glenveagh National Park, County Donegal, Ireland.

Whether you’re into hiking, surfing, traditional Celtic music, roadtripping, or simply pub-tripping; there’s a whole wealth of activities to explore in County Donegal. And while it’s hard to pinpoint each and every sight you just can’t miss, we’ve gone for an overview of our favourites here, with both classics and hidden gems to choose from (and some more practical information to get you going).

How To Get There

Regardless of how far you’re travelling from, you’ll never find yourself short of flight options for visiting Ireland. More specifically, you’ll find Donegal’s own airport on the coast of Carrickfinn with a scenic landing strip right next to the sea. The next nearest working airports include the City of Derry airport, or the Belfast International and Belfast City airports.

If, however, you’re wanting to cut down on your carbon emissions, there are multiple ferry options from mainland Britain across the Irish sea, including ports from north Wales, Liverpool and the south west of Scotland. These ferries will arrive at the ports of Dublin, Belfast and Larne respectively, and you can travel on them via car, motorcycle, bicycle or on foot.

A coastline view of Murder Hole Beach, also called Boyeeghter Bay, on the Melmore Head Peninsula, County Donegal, Ireland.

It’s worth mentioning, however, that unless you’re embarking on a long-distance, all-weather backpacking or bikepacking adventure, the best way to travel around Donegal is by car. This way you’ll be able to experience some of the iconic driving routes including the Inishowen 100, the Glengesh Pass, or the Horn Head drive in Dunfanaghy. It also means you’ll be able to soak up as many sights as possible in the shortest amount of time. There are quite a few bus tours, however, if you’re after a more communal adventure.

When To Go

Donegal, and Ireland more generally, is known for championing all four seasons throughout the course of a single day. So if it’s an ‘ideal’ weather window you’re after, that one’s gonna be pretty hard to predict. That being said, to simply avoid the harsh chills of winter, and to explore the county in its prime tourist season, May through to September are probably the best months to visit.

By tourist season I simply mean that cool events, fun restaurants and historical sights of interest are likely to be open more frequently during this period. Whilst a popular holiday destination, compared to the likes of tourist towns on mainland Europe, it doesn’t actually get too crowded in Donegal, which is all part of the charm. If you’re after a bit of splendid isolation in nature, however, early May or September and October are probably your best bets.

An aerial view of the iconic road called Glengesh Pass by Ardara in County Donegal, Ireland.

While quieter in the snowy months, Donegal’s still a great option for keen winter mountaineers as long as you’ve got your crampons at the ready. Locals have actually been known to ski off Mount Errigal , though I can’t in good conscience recommend this unless you’re a real pro… In some places in the far north, like Malin Head for example, if the conditions are just right you might even be able to catch the northern lights.

The Hiking

As the most mountainous region in the north of Ireland, it’s no wonder hiking is such a popular activity in Donegal. The two main mountain ranges are the Derryveagh Mountains in the north, and the Blue Stack Mountains in the south. Regardless of where you are then, you’ll never be too far from some mighty alpine trails.

Two particular highlights from the Derryveagh range are Mount Errigal (751m), the highest peak in Donegal, and Muckish, translated as ‘Pig’s Back’ in Irish. If you’re tackling Errigal, it should only take you about two to three hours and you’ll take in some unbelievable views across the Glenveagh National Park, including Altan lough, Lough Nacung, and panoramas across to the Atlantic. There are some fairly steep sections, but overall, the path is well laid out and pretty straightforward.

A pink sunset falling on Mount Errigal (Derryveagh Mountains) in the Glenveagh National Park, County Donegal, Ireland.

Mountains aside, another popular hiking destination is the Slieve League Cliffs. At 601m - two times the height of the Eiffel Tower - they are some of the tallest sea cliffs in Europe. There are two car parks from which you can hike along the coastline whichever way you please, however, the main viewing platform is situated in the upper car park.

Other hiking highlights include the Glen Loop walk, the Boyeeghter Bay trail, the Derrylahan nature trail, the Inishowen and Malin Head loops, or the Glenevin and Assaranca waterfall walks, to name a few. The Ards Forest Park is another (often overlooked) gem with trails across sand dunes, salt marshes and beaches, as well as forest trails that hug the region’s coastline. The beaches at Ards are actually a popular place for seal spotting so keep an eye out if you’re feeling lucky!

If you’re craving something a bit longer - a multi-day adventure perhaps - you could even try the Bluestack Way, a 45-mile hike from Donegal Town to Ardara via the Bluestack Mountains. With 1230m of elevation, it’s definitely enough to challenge you whilst also taking in some iconic scenes such as Lough Eske, Lough Belshade, Carnaween Mountain and much more…

A horizontal view of the stunning Assaranca Waterfall near the village of Ardara in County Donegal, Ireland.

The Surfing

Due to its enormous coastline, it would be near-impossible to talk about Donegal without mentioning its amazing surf culture. Rumour has it, it all began on the shores of Rossnowlagh when, after a trip to California, the matriarch of the Sandhouse Hotel decided to order some Malibu surfboards for the guests. Her five sons - including local artist and surfing legend Barry Britton - then claimed these boards, hit the waves, and the rest is history.

The Britton family’s influence on surfing still runs strong in the region, and includes a surf rental shop called Fin McCools just behind the Sandhouse hotel on Rossnowlagh. With in-depth lessons as well as board and wetsuit rentals, it’s the perfect destination for surfer’s of all levels, though the more experienced surfers tend to head to Tullan Strand in Bundoran, or Malin Head at the tip of the county.

A stunning aerial view of the green and blue Malin Head coastline on an overcast and moody day in County Donegal, Ireland.

Magheroarty Beach is another favourite spot in Donegal, as well as Culdaff, Ballyhiernan and Rosapenna. Prime surfing conditions tend to be throughout the autumn and winter months, though beginner’s will find suitable waves all throughout the year.

Traditional Pubs and Music

As the pub capital of the world - note: this is not technically true, though in terms of quality, I would beg to differ - you’d be missing out if you didn’t sample some of the local pub culture in Ireland. In Donegal specifically, it’s actually quite hard to keep track of all the good pubs. Just when you think you’ve seen them all, you’ll find yourself driving down an old bog road, passing a thatched inn that looks more like something out of Lord Of The Rings than a local boozer.

Having said that, a few - drunk and tested - favourites include: the Olde Castle Bar in Donegal Town, Smuggler’s Creek Inn by Rossnowlagh, The Olde Glen Bar in Carrickhart (Carraig Airt), Patsy Dan’s in Dunfanaghy and The Singing Pub (An Sibín Ceoil) in Downings. The latter two are recommended for traditional Irish music nights, Smuggler’s is well-loved for its great Guinness and unbeatable views, and the Olde Castle Bar is the best for fresh Donegal seafood. The Olde Glen Bar, on the other hand, is one of Donegal’s oldest pubs and dates back to 1768.

An Irish fiddle, a pint of Guinness and a pint of lager in a traditional Irish pub.

Donegal is famous for its world-renowned fiddle playing so expect some of the most unique music nights the island has to offer. It’s also worth mentioning that a lot of these places can often double-up as inns or B&Bs, so if you’re looking for some accommodation right in the thick of it, why not try a local pub?

Fanad Lighthouse is another bucket list accommodation option situated right on the edge of the Araheera peninsula. As one of Ireland's most well-loved lighthouses, it makes for a truly unforgettable experience, though is worth booking well in advance as it can get snapped up pretty quickly.

A stunning coastline view of the working Fanad Lighthouse near Lough Swilly and Mulroy Bay in County Donegal, Ireland.

The Scenery, Flora & Fauna

Home to Ireland’s second largest national park (Glenveagh), Donegal boasts some of the most unforgettable scenery this side of the Atlantic. While closer to the sea you’ll find exposed coastlines and cliffs for miles, further inland you’ll see masses of boglands, forests and isolated uplands as far as the eye can see.

Over half of the country’s plant and animal species can actually be found in the county including Irish hares, red squirrels, grey seals, Atlantic puffins, curlews, Irish bats, bottlenose dolphins, and orcas, to name a few. The Golden Eagle was recently reintroduced into the county and is now home to Ireland’s only current breeding population.

A young Irish Hare sitting in the sunlight near a field with its ears standing to attention.

Common trees you can spot include: Scots pine, Aspen, Poplar, Birch, Hazel and Sycamore, whilst if you’re really really lucky, on a good day you might be privy to Donegal’s two reptile species: the leatherback turtle and the viviparous lizard.

Historically, Ireland was known for its Brown Bears, Lynxes and Gray Wolves, though these were hunted to extinction and can now only be found at the Wild Ireland sanctuary in Burnfoot, Donegal; a great day out by all accounts.

A beautiful coastline view of the famous Slieve League Cliffs on a sunny day near Carrick, County Donegal, Ireland.

Suffice to say, there’s a hell of a lot to do here. And we’ve only just touched the surface. Ideally, you’d want at least a week or so to get a real taste for the place, though, in all honesty, you could spend a whole lot longer if you wanted. You’ll be on Irish time, after all, so sit back and enjoy the craic.

Jazz Noble is a London and Northern Ireland-based writer with a passion for hiking, cycling and the outdoor world.

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