Ireland's Best Outdoor Activities

Mourne Mountains, Northern Ireland (one of Ireland's best outdoor venues)
First, let's discover
With plenty of open space in its interior, a long irregular and rugged coastline, a wide variety of terrain and a government that wholly supports and develops recreational areas, Ireland has a number of "outdoor playgrounds".
 
There are hundreds of sign-posted hiking trails, new mountain biking circuits being created, mountains and sea cliffs that are great for rock climbing, activities like golf and horse riding that are actively promoted and great natural resources for fishing and water sports such as kayaking, surfing and coasteering.
 
And one of the best things is that you get to look at stunningly beautiful scenery while you're enjoying these activities.

Ireland's
outdoor
playgrounds

National Parks

There are six national parks in Ireland - all with great hiking trails ranging from easy to challenging.
  1. Killarney NP - the highest mtns in Ireland, lakes, woods, waterfalls, Gap of Dunloe, Black Valley
  2. Wicklow Mountains NP (largest) - scenic trails overlooking gorgeous lakes, Glendalough
  3. Connemara NP - scenic mtns, expanses of bogs, heaths, grasslands, woodlands, the Twelve Bens
  4. The Burren NP (smallest) - Ireland's most unique landscape of kharst limestone creates rocky trails
  5. Glenveagh NP - remote, hauntingly beautiful wilderness of rugged mtns, pristine lakes, tumbling waterfalls & enchanted native oak woodland
  6. Ballycroy NP (newest) - Atlantic blanket bog & mountainous terrain

Geoparks

There are three UNESCO Global Geoparks in Ireland that offer opportunities for surfing, cycling, hiking, mounainous adventure & sea water activities.
  1. Copper Coast Geopark, along Ireland's southern coast, has surfing, hiking trails and cycling
  2. The Burren & Cliffs of Moher Geopark (Ireland's west coast) provides kayaking, surfing, cycling, abseiling, caving, hiking, fishing, rock climbing opportunities.
  3. Marble Arch Caves Geopark (straddles the two countries) has forests, mountain parks, caves, islands, loughs. Activities include: kayaking, canoeing, caving, walking, cycling, fishing

Forest Parks

There are twenty forest parks in Ireland - eleven in the Republic of Ireland and nine in Northern Ireland. These parks have a greater emphasis on recreational facilities and a lesser one on commercial timber production. Most of the forests have marked walking trails, cafes, campsites and extensive car parking areas. These forests provide beautiful areas for walking, mountain biking, recreational cycling, fishing and horse riding. These areas are great for families and outdoors people looking to get away.

The Coastline and Beaches

Ireland's 3,000 km long coastline offers a multitude of opportunities for land and water activities. The jagged coastline has secluded bays, breathtaking cliffs, hidden coves, long sandy beaches and sometimes pounding waves.
  • Land activities include coastal cliff walks, rock climbing , sea stack climbing
  • Water activities include sea kayaking, surfing, coasteering (you start on land and end up in the sea)

Mountains

Ireland's mountain ranges are mostly in the coastal counties creating an almost bowl-like shape for the island. Ireland's compact size means you can easily access mountains from the main cities. Popular areas include the Mourne Mountains (Northern Ireland), the MacGillycuddy's Reeks (County Kerry), Croagh Patrick (County Mayo), the Twelve Bens in the Connemara region, Ben Bulben and those in the national parks. Activities include hiking, cycling, bouldering and mountaineering. In addition, there are a number of smaller mountain ranges in the interior of the country that are great for hiking, mountain biking, cycling and horse riding.

The Loughs (lakes)

Ireland has thousands of natural lakes (aka loughs) which together account for about 2% of the country's surface. 18 lakes exceed 1,000 ha (hectares). The largest are Corrib (17,000 ha), Derg (11,600 ha) and Ree (10,500 ha). A hectare is about 2.5 acres. Ireland's lakes are as diverse as they are numerous. There are turloughs (seasonal lakes on limestone bedrock which disappear in summer), mountain tarns, deep lakes (Lough Mask is 60 meters at its deepest), shallow lakes & everything in between. Activities include: kayaking, canoeing, fishing (angling), boating, swimming.

The Rivers

Starting as fast-flowing rocky mountain brooks near upland sources in much of the country, currents gradually slow as rivers flow into the lowlands and meander lazily to the sea. This journey is shorter for rivers in Wicklow and the mountainous West, while in the Midlands, that journey is longer and more leisurely. The longest is the River Shannon which actually opens into lakes at several different locations. The River Blackwater in Munster, the second longest, is famous for its salmon and trout fishing. River activities in Ireland include: fishing (angling), kayaking, canoeing, boating.
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Ireland's primary loughs, Rivers & Mountains

The Blueways

Blueways are a network of stunning trails running on and alongside Ireland's most idyllic lakes (aka loughs), canals and rivers. Taking you into the heart of her most unspoiled landscapes - by kayak, canoe, bike or on foot. As you meander through inspiring, picturesque vistas, soak in the charming rural atmosphere and explore life at a different pace.

The Greenways

A Greenway is a predominantly traffic-free path designated for use by pedestrians (walking, running), cyclists and other non-motorized users such as wheelchair users, families with strollers. The longest Greenways are old railway lines converted into traffic-free paths. The main ones are:
  • Waterford Greenway at 46 km
  • Great Western Greenway at 42km
  • Great Southern Trail at 39 km
Next, let's identify

Mountain Biking
cycling
Hiking/hillwalking
Rock climbing & other
Coasteering
kayaking/canoeing/SUP
boating/sailing
horse riding
golfing
surfing
fishing/angling

Ireland's
outdoor
activities

Mountain biking

If you're interested in mountain biking, you've come to the right place. Ireland has some of the best mountain bike trails in the world. The landscape is perfect for this outdoor activity - hills, mountains, forests, bogs. There are expert runs along with novice trails. If you're looking for a major rush - this might be it for you.

Within the last couple years, the Irish Government has allocated over €13M to fund over 300 km of new mountain bike trails across Ireland. The new trails are being designed by mountain bikers and built by expert builders who know what trails should look like.

At the major bike trail centres, there are bike rentals and in some cases lift capabilities. 

Blessingbourne

Blessingbourne is located on a private estate in the picturesque Clogher Valley. This unique trail centre caters to mountain bikers of all ages and abilities with a range of wide-flowing blue trails and more technical red trails packed full of exciting trail features such as berms, log rides and rock drops. With a range of luxury accommodation on site, everyone from families to experienced mountain bikers will love Blessingbourne's welcoming atmosphere. Trails cost as little as 3 GBP to ride.

Ballyhoura Mountains

The largest trail network of its kind in Ireland - 98 km of trails including forest road climbs, tight twisty single track with loads of ups and downs, board walk, tight turns and technical rocky bits are guaranteed to leave you smiling. The Ballyhoura Mountain Bike Trail is a trail system starting/finishing at a trail head near the village of Ardpatrick in East Limerick. Bike rental, trail advice by expert riders and even a mechanic for your bike are available.

Northern Ireland

Rostrevor Mountain Bike Trails and Castlewellan Mountain Bike Trails are in the Mourne Mountains area. The trails offer challenging mountain biking with incredible coastal views. Rostrevor is believed by many to be the top spot for mountain biking in Northern Ireland. Davagh Forest Trails, near the Sperrin Mountains, lies in an untouched rural landscape of rolling hills and sweeping forests.

Cycling

Ireland's varied landscape makes the island an ideal cycling destination with some of the most spectacular cycling routes to suit any pace or ability. Some are relatively short (the Rostrevor Route is 27 km) while some are much longer (the Kingfisher Trail is almost 300 km). You can find plenty of loop trails which bring you right back to your starting point. The back roads (those usually beginning with the letter R or the letter L) have less traffic generally and better scenery. Cycling is probably the best way to get around the many islands. Blueways have traffic-free cycling roads/paths that run alongside. Greenways, like the Waterford one, are long, traffic-free and great for family rides. Bikes can be hired for under €15 per day. Fully-equipped E-bikes can be hired for about €35 per day. Road safety rules can be found at the Road Safety Authority website.

Hiking & Hillwalking

Around much of the world, it's known as hiking. In Ireland, it's pretty much called hillwalking. One of the best ways to enjoy Ireland is to put on your walking shoes. Ireland has always been a nation of walkers, which means the trails are always fresh and clearly way marked. Trails are on all types of surfaces - sand, dirt, gravel roads, across rocks and even on wooden walkways raised above the bog. Whatever type of walk you're into (family, cliff top, beach or ones that just make your quads ache), you don't have to go far to find it. Many of the popular trails are sign-posted (aka way-marked trails). For those interested in multi-day walks, tour operators will transport your luggage from trail start to trail end each day.

Coastal Cliff Walks

Some of the most enjoyable hillwalking in Ireland takes place along the top of a cliff such as the Cliffs of Moher Coastal Walk - a 13 km path that hugs the edge of the cliffs offering stunning views of the rocks and sea 700 feet below. Other popular cliff walks include: Causeway Coast from Ballintoy to Portbalintrae, Ballycotton cliff walk and those near Dublin (Howth and Bray to Greystones).

Family-friendly Walks

Throughout the island, you can find trails that are great for families especially those with young children. These trails are short (1 to 3 km long) stroller-friendly, offer multiple length loops and are usually in an area with great scenery. Killarney NP has a great selection along with Ards Forest Park (Donegal), Belleek Woods (Mayo), Portumna Forest Park (Galway), Waterford Greenway (and the other greenways) and Dublin's Grand & Royal Canals. 

Walks on
Different Terrains

You'll find trails are comprised of different surfaces. Because much of the landscape in Ireland is bog and other types of unwalkable terrain, Ireland created above ground wooden walkways (like the Stairway to Heaven at Cuilcagh Mtn in Northern Ireland) which allow you to enjoy many areas that would be otherwise inaccessible. Other types include the Wicklow Mtn trails near Glendalough which are comprised of double railroad ties.

Challenging Hikes -
Carrauntoohil

Ireland's Highest Mtn

And yes, there are definitely many challenging trails to navigate. The MacGillycuddy's Reeks (Kerry) with Ireland's highest mtns, the Mourne Mtns (Northern Ireland) and the Twelve Bens (Connemara) are three of the most popular hiking regions because there are multiple trails to choose from. Single mountains that provide a challenge include: Croagh Patrick (in Mayo is named after the saint), Errigal Mtn (Donegal) and Benbulben have challenging trails also.

Rock Climbing

Per UK Climbing, "Donegal, in the northwest of Ireland, contains more climbable rock than the rest of Ireland combined, with two major mountain ranges, eight hundred miles of coastline, one hundred sea stacks and as many climbing mediums as you'll find in the rest of the country combined. There are currently just under 3,000 routes recorded throughout the county."  In addition to Donegal, in Ireland's Northwest, you'll find rock climbing opportunities along the Wild Atlantic Way (Ireland's west coast), in Northern Ireland's Mourne Mountains and Fair Head and Wicklow's inland mountain valleys  near Glendalough.

In addition to rock climbing, other adventure activities in Ireland include: bouldering (no safety equipment like ropes or harnesses), abseiling (aka rappelling), mountaineering and survival courses, and orienteering (a timed race in which individual participants use a specially created, highly-detailed map to select routes and navigate through diverse terrain and visit control points in sequence).
According to Outsider (Ireland's Adventure Magazine), "Coasteering is one of the fastest growing extreme sports that Ireland has to offer. A combination of jumping, climbing, swimming and exploring, coasteering is an adventurous thrill-ride that allows you to explore Ireland's magnificent coast in an up close and personal way. This extreme sport can be dangerous, so it is crucial that any novice looking for a thrill has an experienced guide that has knowledge of the coast, tides and safety protocols."

Coasteering

Kayaking, Canoeing, SUP

There are great opportunities for kayaking, canoeing and SUP (stand up paddle boarding) in Ireland. These activities can be enjoyed in the many loughs (lakes), on the various rivers and out in the sea. Fermanagh's Upper Lough Erne is a paddler's paradise with its hidden nooks and crannies. Through kayaking and canoeing, you can access many coves and caves, along Ireland's rugged coastline that are virtually inaccessible by any other means. In Dublin, you can even learn to SUP and windsurf on the Grand Canal and wakeboard in Dublin's Docklands.

Horse Riding

Ride along the rolling hills, through dense forests, down into the fertile valleys and across miles of white sand beaches taking in stunning scenery the whole time. There are many horse stables throughout the country offering rides across all the various landscapes. Many have classes for the novice riders, pony camps for the kids and equestrian centers for those looking for show jumps and trails for cross country rides.

Golfing

Ireland is a golfer's paradise. Some of the best golf courses in the world are located here such as Royal County Down in Northern Ireland - consistently rated one of the top five courses in the world. There are fewer than 200 links golf courses (a course that's along the sea consisting of sandy soil and little vegetation other than tall sea grasses and gorse) in the world and Ireland has 50 of them. With summer's long days (stays light until after 10 pm), you've got plenty of time to play.

Surfing

When you think about the best surfing spots in the world, I don't imagine that Ireland is on your list, but it does have some really good surfing areas - probably due to its exposed location on the turbulent Atlantic seaboard. Ireland's northwest beaches (Easkey, Mullaghmore, Strandhill, Rossnowlagh, Bundoran) are the best. Further south (Ballybunion, Inch, Inchydoney, Lahinch) are good also. There are many surf schools for those looking to learn.

Fishing / Angling

Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way offers some of the country's best fishing. Long recognized as a world-class destination for both pleasure and competitive angling, its combination of coastline, rivers and lakes means the sheer range of unspoiled habitats is quite exceptional for finding all types of fish in Ireland.
Ireland’s position on the North Atlantic Drift, an offshoot of the Gulf Stream, also means the water here is a little warmer, and is therefore suited to a wide diversity of aquatic life. In fact, Ireland’s coastline is home to over 80 different species, ensuring that the angler can look forward to some great variety from one location to the next.
See the display on the right for fishing along the Wild Atlantic Way (runs from Kinsale, County Cork in the south to Malin Head, County Donegal in the northwest).
Elsewhere in Ireland:
  • Salmon can be found in the River Blackwater (Cork), RiverBann (Northern Ireland), River Corrib (Galway) and River Shannon (multiple)
  • Bass fishing is good around Waterford's Copper Coast, Kilkee (Clare), southern Galway and County Kerry.
  • For Pike, fly fishing has become a popular method in Ireland's big lakes.
Note that salmon and sea trout fishing require licenses. Check with the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland for regulations in their respective countries. They're slightly different.
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