The Bluestacks Way is a linear trail that takes walkers from Donegal town out into the mountains. Not only that, it’s a trail that brings you from the doorstep of Donegal, in towards its heartland. Not the whole way there, but enough to show you just how much more there is to this remote, northerly county of Ireland.
My name is Ellie, I’m one half of Tough Soles. Tough Soles is a project between myself and my partner Carl that started off with the goal to hike all of Ireland’s National Waymarked Trails. Between 2017 – 2019 we did just that, quitting our jobs every summer to live on the trails and walk our way around the country. Today I’m sharing my experience of the Bluestacks Way, our 28th out of the 42 National Waymarked Trails of Ireland.
At around 57km long, we walked The Bluestacks Way over a leisurely three days. Staying in Donegal town the night before, we had a slow morning as we followed the maps out of the small streets and down to the River Eske, which the trail bounces along until it reaches Lough Eske itself. When we were walking, it was a humid June afternoon, no breeze to lift the steamy clouds, or move the sweat off our backs. Standing by the lakeside, the water looked like glass, reflecting the stones along its banks into mini worlds of their own. Skirting Ardnamona Woods, the trail leads up into the foothills of the Bluestacks. This is the first, and biggest climb of the trail, offering amazing views back over Lough Eske.
The heat continued to climb as we did, the clouds turning into a general heat haze. The road that the trail has been following becomes more “track-like” as we continue, and once we finish climbing it bends around a forest and opens up into a valley edged with some of the loftier heights of the Bluestack Mountains. The grassy bogland around is dappled with sunlight from the fast moving clouds, and the heat is doing that magical thing where things look bigger and closer than imaginable.
Passing through the end of that valley the trail turns right, crossing the River Eany, and some open bogland that is being hand cut as we pass. Reaching the Letterfad road, the trail turns right – and we turn left, walking maybe 4km down to the Bluestack Centre. The centre is a community hall on the ground floor, and a hostel upstairs. Being a weekday, we had the place to ourselves. There’s no shops in the area, so we sat in the empty kitchen and ate a fruit cake. The mattresses were comfy, and we went to bed early.
Back on trail the next morning, we slowly regret not being people who observe ‘alpine starts’; it’s another hot day. We set off along empty roads that criss-crossed the hills, climbing once more along small boreens and long forgotten tracks. As we sat on one specific hillside, enjoying the fresh breeze that had appeared, we slowly realised that this breeze was a curse in disguise – all the remaining cloud cover floated away. Beating down on us was a strong, stubborn sun. And this was only the start of the day.
Along this section of trail you will come to a junction offering two routes – one is a bad weather option along roads, for when the mountain bog is too wild and wet. The other route takes you up onto the shoulder of Cloghmeen Hill, and I would like to be able to write some pleasantly descriptive words of the small mountain we proceeded to cross. However, my strongest memories are of sweat and wobbly steps forward as we walked through the heat. We climbed up bog banks, slid down the other sides, and climbed up again, for several hours. Every now and again, when a whisper of a breeze passed by, we would look up and see the amazing mountains around us. Taking a break beside a stile, we laughed at each other as we looked at our baking skin – hiking was turning out to be much more of a goldilocks activity than we ever expected. Too much rain, and you get washed away. But too much sun, and anything more than an hour or two was a battle.
That morning, we’d thought we might be able to squeeze out a big day and finish the trail. A few kilometres after our mountain crossing, as we wandered along in the shade of a nearby forest, we decided to look for places to stay in the town of Glenties. One B&B booking later, we crest the top of a hill and see the small village nestled at the bottom of the valley in front of us. Relieved, we wearily walked the last few steps. As we crossed the main street of Glenties, the flashing sign outside a pharmacy caught my eye. It was flashing a bright red 28ºC across its scrolling screen. And this was in the evening. I wondered what the temperature had been like as we crossed that mini mountain, and promised myself that I’d put on so much suncream the next day.
The next morning, our walk from Glenties into Ardara was a very gentle and relaxed affair, with plenty of cloud cover. The route follows the winding course of the Owenea river, and we twisted and turned with it for a beautiful 10km grassy trail. We also regularly stopped to take photos, sit, eat, and nap, as we had all day to make it to the end. It was perfect walking, and most likely so well maintained because of all the local fishing. I don’t think we could have asked for a nicer finish to our first trail in Donegal. Reaching Ardara, we went in search of more coffee.
Following this trail, we walked another 300km around Donegal.
This is one of 42 trails that Carl and I have walked across Ireland. Thanks to Hiiker for sharing our adventure along this particular Way. If you want to hear us talk about our adventures, we’ve been on the Hiiker Podcast.