Wilderness Express: Ireland’s six National Parks

Ireland's six national parks

Ireland is known for having varied and spectacular scenery. If you want to see stunning landscapes and diverse wildlife, just visit one of Ireland’s six national parks.

National parks are protected areas of natural beauty and habitat to numerous plant and animal species, even protected ones. For its size, Ireland has incredibly diverse nature, with deep forests, peat bogs and beautiful coastlines. Currently, there are six national parks in the Republic of Ireland. The first national park created was Killarney National Park in County Kerry in 1932 and since then, five more parks have sprung up across the country. These are Ireland’s six national parks.

Killarney National Park

View over Killarney National Park, Ireland's six national parks

The town Killarney in County Kerry is nestled next to the highest mountain range in Ireland, the McGillycuddy Reeks, which rise to a height of over 1000m. Carrauntoohil, Ireland’s highest mountain with 1,038m, can also be found in this mountain range. At the foot of these mountains you can find the world-famous Killarney Lakes, next to extensive woodlands. Here, with a distinctive combination of mountains, lakes, woodlands and waterfalls lies the 10,236 hectare wide Killarney National Park.

The park contains many things of national and international importance, such as the native oak woods and yew woods, together with an abundance of other fauna that thrives in the mild Killarney climate. The red deer native to the woodlands are unique in Ireland and have thrived here since the last Ice Age. UNESCO designated Killarney National Park as a Biosphere Reserve in 1981.

Killarney Lakes, Ireland's six national parks

Killarney Lakes

For visitors of the national park, visiting the Muckross Estate and Gardens is a must. Most of the 19th century estate has been preserved in its original form, together with furniture and artefacts from this period. The adjacent gardens, including the Arboretum are internationally recognised for their plant collections, including many species that only thrive in milder climates. The restored Killarney House and Gardens are also part of the national park and well worth a visit.

There are multiple hiking trails throughout the park of varying length and difficulty. Take the scenic route along one of the lakes or hike through the stunning mountain range of the McGillycuddy Reeks. You can find more information on the different hiking trails here, some are suitable for cyclists as well. If you have a canoeing or kayaking permit, you can even rent one and paddle across the lakes themselves!

Visitor Centre Opening Hours: Summer 8.30am-7.30pm; Winter 9am-5.30pm
Address: Muckross Road, Killarney, County Kerry
Phone: +353 (0)85 801 7973

Wild Nephin Ballycroy National Park

Ballycroy National Park, Ireland's six national parks

Wild Nephin Ballycroy National Park is located in Ballycroy, County Mayo, between the towns of Mulranny and Bangor. Established in 1981, the park comprises of 11,000 hectares made up of blanket bogs, alpine heath, grassland and mountainous terrain dominated by the Nephin Beg mountain range.

The national park possesses the Owenduff bog, one of the last intact active Atlantic blanket bog systems in Ireland and Western Europe. It is an important scientific and scenic feature of the national park and provides a habitat for numerous rare and protected plant and animal species. The Owenduff area is an important roosting and breeding place for a number of migratory birds, such as the Greenland white-fronted goose, which is a protected bird species.

Owenduff Bog, Ireland's six national parks

Owenduff Bog

The main route through the Ballycroy National Park is the Bangor Trail, though it is not a hiking route recommend for beginners. It is a 40km road which starts in Bangor and finishes in Newport, leading through the Nephin Beg mountains. For more casual hikers, the Letterkeen Loops are probably the better idea. The Loops are three different trails, ranging from 6km to 12km that wind through the national park.

Prior to their purchase by the State, the lands belonging to the national park were used for turbary, agriculture and recreational uses including fishing and hunting. There is evidence of former human habitation along the Bangor Trail and near the Owenduff and Tarsaghaun rivers. You can find the remains of old stone buildings and hunting lodges in different locations in the park.

Visitor Centre Opening Hours: 15 March-3 November 10am-17.30pm
Address: Ballycroy Village, Westport, County Mayo
Phone: +353 (0)98 49888

Burren National Park

Burren National Park, Ireland's six national parks

The Burren National Park is the smallest of Ireland’s six national parks and is located in the southeastern corner of the Burren. The word “Burren” comes from the Irish word “Boíreann” meaning rocky place. This name is quite fitting since most of the Burren is dominated by a rocky landscape and wild fauna. Major habitats within the burren are: limestone surfaces, grasslands, hazel scrub, ash/hazel woodland, lakes and cliffs. When visiting the Burren National Park you can experience Alpine plants existing alongside with Mediterranean plants and woodland plants growing without a tree nearby to provide cover. And what is most surprising is that they all survive in a landscape that appears to be composed entirely of rock.

Poulnabrone Dolman site Burren National Park, Ireland's six national parks

Poulnabrone Dolman site in Burren

Another interesting feature of the Burren National Park are several small lakes that can be found all over the park such as Lough Gealáin, Travaun Lough and Aughrim Lough, to name a few. Some of these lakes behave partly as Turloughs, so-called “disappearing lakes” that mostly dry up in the summer months. The speciality of the Burren Turloughs is that they can sometimes flood suddenly after heavy rainfall.

There are seven marked walking trails in the Burren National Park. They vary from a short 30-minute loop to a three hour trek over limestone hills. You can find more details for each walk on their website and a map of the Walking Trails is available for download as well. Please remember that most trails traverse a rocky limestone landscape which can be uneven and steep in places.

Information Point Opening Hours: April-September 9.30am-5pm
Address: Clare Heritage Centre, Church Street, Corofin, County Clare; 90 North King Street, Dublin 7 (Off-Season)
Phone: +353 (0)56 682 7693 or +353 (0)1 888 3242 (Off-Season)

Connemara National Park

Connemara National Park, Ireland's six national parks

Situated in the west of Ireland in County Galway, Connemara National Park offers 2,000 hectares of grass and woodland, bogs, heaths and scenic mountain views. Some of the park’s mountains are part of the famous Twelve Bens or Na Beanna Beola mountain range. Western blanket bog and heathland are the main vegetation in the Park.

Connemara National Park was established in 1980. Before that, most of the present park land was part of the Kylemore Abbey Estate and the Letterfrack Industrial School and owned by private individuals. Now, the lands are wholly owned and managed by the State. The rest of the land was used for agriculture, mainly for grazing cattle and sheep or growing vegetables in the more fertile areas. Today, you can easily recognise those areas by the old cultivation ridges and hollows. Several of the bogs were used as fuel sources, creating turf banks that you can still see today. 

The oldest remains of human civilisation in the park are ca.4,000-year-old megalithic court tombs. There is also an early 19th century graveyard about which little is known. In the northern sections of the park you may also find stretches of the old Galway road that was in use over a century ago. Ruined houses, old sheep pens, drainage systems and old walls in different parts of Connemara National Park show that the lands were used more extensively in the past.

Connemara National Park Tomb, Ireland's six national parks

Megalithic tomb in Connemara National Park

There are four hiking trails in the national park, each accessible from the Visitor Centre. You can also camp in the park, but only wild camping is allowed. If you want to camp with a van, use one of the specific camping van sites in the surrounding areas. If you camp in the wild, be aware of the rules for camping in wild areas.

Visitor Centre Opening Hours: March-November 9am-5.30pm; December-February 8am-5pm
Address: Letterfrack, Greenmount, County Galway
Phone: +353 (0)87 291 9721

Glenveagh National Park

Glenveagh National Park, Ireland's six national parks

North-west of Letterkenny in County Donegal you will find Glenveagh National Park, a remote and hauntingly beautiful wilderness of rugged mountains, shimmering lakes, stunning waterfalls and enchanting oak woodland. The second-biggest of Ireland’s six national parks spreads out over 16,546 hectares in the heart of the Derryveagh Mountains with Lough Veagh and Lough Dunlewey close by.

On the edge of Lough Veagh in the centre of the park is Glenveagh Castle, a late 19th century mansion that was built as a hunting lodge. The Castle Gardens are regarded as one of Ireland’s horticultural masterpieces, growing many rare plants unique to the island. Before becoming a national park in 1975, the park lands were managed as a private deer forest.

Lough Veagh and Glenveagh Castle, Ireland's six national parks

Lough Veagh and Glenveagh Castle

The red deer still live in the park and can sometimes be seen grazing on the grasses near the bogs that covers the greater part of Glenveagh nowadays. They may be enclosed by a deer fence but they remain completely wild and can be difficult to approach.

There are numerous opportunities to walk, cycle and explore the park. Or just wander a bit further and visit County Donegal’s famous coastline. Hiking in Glenveagh National Park can be a bit of a challenge for the novice but there are trails of different levels within the park. You can take the park’s popular ‘Trail Walker’ Bus to one of the trail starting points, so you don’t need to use your own car. 

Visitor Centre Opening Hours: November-March 9am-5pm; March-October 9.15am-5.30pm
Address: Skeagh, Church Hill, County Donegal
Phone: +353 (0)76 100 2537

Wicklow Mountains National Park

Wicklow Mountains National Park, Ireland's six national parks

Covering 20,483 hectares south of Dublin, Wicklow Mountains National Park is considered the largest of Ireland’s six national parks. It is also the only park located in the east of the island, extending over a big part of the Wicklow Mountains.

Upland blanket bog and heath cover the slopes of the mountains. The wide open land is only interrupted by small forests and winding mountain roads. Small, fast-flowing streams descend into the deep lakes of the valley and continue into the surrounding lowlands. The flora found in the park ranges from different types of fern to mosses, herbs and grasses. Most of the mammal species living in Ireland can be found in the national park as well, with some being easier to find than others. Many of the habitats within the park are important as areas of conservation of biodiversity and landscape and the park has been designated as a Special Area of Conservation as a result. 

Glendalough Valley, Ireland's six national parks

Glendalough Valley

The national park draws millions of visitors every year. The most visited area is the scenic Glendalough Valley with the ruins of the ancient monastic settlement of St Kevin. There are also the remnants of old mining sites and granite quarries to be found in the mountains. Mining for lead and other minerals such as zinc and silver had been a major industry in the Wicklow Mountains until the 19th century.

If you want to escape the world, why not take a hike through the uplands? There are nine way-marked walking trails in the valley of Glendalough. The walks vary from a short half hour stroll to a long four hour hillwalk and start at the national park Information Office.

Information Office Opening Hours: 10am-5.30pm
Address: Kilafin, Laragh, County Wicklow
Phone: +353 (0)404 45425

So if you are planning a trip around Ireland or just want to get out into the fresh air for a day out in nature, Ireland’s six national parks are a great way to sample some of the best history, scenery, wildlife and trails that the country has to offer. 

About the author

Jacqueline Russe

Jacqueline is a German journalist and editor for Babylon Radio who likes comics, manga and video games. She is a state-certified translator for both English and German, currently working on her Bachelor's in Technical Translation.

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