The Bank has no fortune of mine to invest
But there’s money enough for the ones I love best;
All the gold that I want I shall find on the whins
When I’m in Connemara among the Twelve Pins.William Percy French
The N59 from Galway to Clifden always fills me with expectancy and anticipation as I approach the crossroad of Maam Cross. Nestling in the shadow of Lackvarea and surrounded by beautiful lakes both large and small, Maam Cross leads to the four corners of Connemara, a part of Ireland where the wind and rain is cleansing, and where spirits are lifted through sunlight filtering through layers of cloud scudding through valleys, painting its skies with rainbows.
The Irish for Connemara is Conmhaicne Mara, meaning ‘people of the sea’. These people were a branch of the Conmhaicne, an ancient tribal grouping that had a number of clans located in different parts of Connacht. When traversing the rocky ridges and wild mountain tops in the wilderness of Connemara, perhaps like the Conmhaicne, the proximity of the sea and beauty of the landscape fills me with a spirit of wanderlust and peaceful contentment.
If you’re an avid hiker and want to explore some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in all of Ireland, then go no further than Connemara. In this blog, we’ll take a look at some of the finest hiking routes that this rugged mountain landscape has to offer.
The Maumturks is a complex mountain range and possibly one of the roughest in the country, so it should be treated with respect. The Maumturks Challenge is an annual marathon walk, which traditionally takes place in spring, taking in the entire length of the Maumturks from Maam Cross to Leenaun. It is a challenge of epic proportions, covering around 26km (16 miles) of mountainous terrain with a total ascent to approximately 2,384m (7,821 feet).
The Maumturks Challenge takes in eight peaks in total and while most hikers complete the route in one day, it is possible to spread it over two or three days. The crux of completing this challenge walk is most certainly the Col of Despondency, a low point of the route near the end, where hikers have to slog up a final slope of about 350m (1,148 feet) in order to descend to Leenaun.
It is best to reserve this route for a dry and clear day, to make navigation all that little bit easier, plus you’ll get to enjoy the spectacular vista of mountains, forest, lakes and the Atlantic. You’ll need a high level of fitness too as there’s a significant number of steep ascents and descents to negotiate. The first half of the walk to Letterbreckaun is mainly rocky whereas the next half is softer with grass and bog but on uneven ground.
If you feel you’ve had enough, there are escape route at two saddles along the route; the first at Maumeen and another at Maumahoge – for both, veer left to descend to the comfort of the mountain access road that runs along the Western Way. The gap at Maumeen has a small chapel attributed to St Patrick, who was said to have reached this spot around AD430.
Glencoaghan Horseshoe Loop – 18 km
The Glencoaghan Horseshoe is probably the finest hiking circuit in Ireland and a rite of passage if you consider yourself an experienced hillwalker. Encompassing a distance of 18km (11 miles) and around 1534m (5032 feet) of total ascent, it is a strenuous high-level ridge walk, taking in some of the most outstanding mountain scenery in Ireland, while traversing six tops: Derryclare, Bencorr, Bencollaghduff, Benbreen, Bengower and Benlettery.
The horseshoe loop can be done in either direction, but my preference is to do it anticlockwise in order to get the 4km road walk from Ben Lettery Youth Hostel to the foot of Derryclare Mountain out of the way early. If you have a second car, leave it in one of several small lay-bys near Derryclare Mountain at around L 807 493.
Doing it anticlockwise also means that you have the option of turning back to the safety of the road (and your car if parked there), if you find the terrain too difficult early during the walk, for example, along the section from Derryclare to Bencorr. Also, if you choose to continue, it also means that you will be scrambling up the very steep, slabby section to Bengower rather than down it.
The high-level views throughout the horseshoe are second-to-none from the rocky landscape of quartzite peaks along the route to the nearby Maumturks range, and from the sprawling waters of Lough Inagh and Derryclare Lough to the smaller Connemara lakes dotted along the green plains.
Glencorbet Horseshoe Loop – 13 km
This is another one of those classic Connemara walks, not as long as the Maumturks Challenge or Glencoaghan Horseshoe, but equally as scenic and rocky, plus you’ll get to summit Benbaun, the highest mountain in County Galway at 729m (2392 feet).
Benbaun or Binn Bhán in Irish means ‘white peak’ which relates to the white quartz rock that are found on its upper slopes. The summit sits in the very heart of the Twelve Bens, with all of its main ridges unfolded here, together with Roundstone Bog, islands, sea inlets and faraway hills.
In addition to Benbaun, the Glencorbet Horeshoe also visits three other summits – Benbrack, Muckanaght and Benfree. If you’re doing the horseshoe in an anticlockwise direction, the ascent of Muckanaght is very steep but you can bypass this altogether by following a faint path under its northeast slopes toward the col below Benfree.
Like any other walk in Connemara, reserve this route for a clear day as the views are outstanding. As soon as you gain high ground above Glencorbet, you’ll be treated to fine views of Kylemore Abbey and the Connemara coastline including Inishturk. As you get higher on the other summits, you’ll see more of the surrounding area including all the Twelve Bens and Maumturks, and as far as Killary Harbour and Mweelrea.
Diamond Hill Loop
This looped walk begins and ends at the Connemara National Park visitor centre, not far from Letterfrack village along the N59 Clifden to Leenaun road.
The high point of the loop is the modest, pyramidal summit of Diamond Hill (445m / 1460 feet) which stands in isolation to the Twelve Bens range to the southeast. For what this quartzite hill lacks in height, it makes up for it in character, with steep slopes that narrow to an appetising fin of rock around 500m in length along its summit ridge.
The loop is signposted throughout and when you get to the base of Diamond Hill, it’s best tackled in a clockwise direction. There’s a winding section of steep, flagstone steps to get you to the summit ridge, where you’ll get a fantastic view of the intricate Connemara coastline which includes a collection of bays, inlets, islands and lakes that are intricately interwoven. When you get to the summit you’ll enjoy a view of Kylemore Lough and spot the Gothic turrets of its abbey on the lakeshore, and also the mountain vista further northeast that stretches from Doughruagh to Mweelrea.
About The Blogger
Adrian Hendroff is a qualified Mountain Leader and a Mountaineering Ireland approved course provider. He is a fully-insured mountain guide and runs regular navigation and Mountain Skills courses. Adrian has written several Irish walking guidebooks for the Collins Press and is a regular contributor to newspaper/magazine features. He also runs outdoor photography workshops. More on Adrian see www.adrianhendroff.com or www.fabulousviewpoints.com