County Donegal is the wild child of Ireland and home to some of its most ravishingly sublime scenery and beautiful beaches. This is a county of extremes: at times desolate and battered by brutal weather, yet also a land of unspoilt splendour where stark peaks and sweeping beaches bask in glorious sunshine, and port-side restaurants serve majestic food.
Donegal's rugged interior, with its remote mountain passes and shimmering lakes, is only marginally outdone by the long and labyrinthine coastline with windswept peninsulas and isolated pubs. In recent years the local food scene has been flourishing, and delicious fresh seafood is never far away. Proudly independent, one-third of Donegal is official Gaeltacht territory, with Irish the lingua franca.
After its northern start in Derry, the Wild Atlantic Way really begins to strut its stuff here as the county's untamed craggy coastline truly puts the wild into the way.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout County Donegal.
The Cliffs of Moher get more publicity, but the cliffs of Sliabh Liag are higher. In fact, these spectacular sea cliffs are among the highest in Europe, plunging some 600m to the ceaselessly churning sea. From Teelin, a road through the stark landscape leads to the lower car park (with hiking signs) beside a gate in the road; drive another 1.5km to the upper car park (often full in summer) right beside the viewpoint (close the gate though). From the upper car park, a rough footpath leads up and along the top of the near-vertical cliffs to the aptly named One Man's Pass, a narrow ridge that reaches the summit of Sliabh Liag (595m, 10km round-trip). Be aware that mist and rain can roll in unexpectedly and rapidly, making conditions slippery and treacherous. Be especially careful near the edge of the cliffs. Walking just the first 500m will give you spectacular views. It's also possible to hike to the summit of Sliabh Liag from Carrick via the Pilgrim Path (signposted along the minor road on the right before the Sliabh Liag cliffs road), returning via One Man's Pass and the viewpoint road (12km, allow four to six hours). The cliffs are particularly scenic at sunset when the waves crash dramatically far below and the ocean reflects the last rays of the day. Looking down, you'll see two rocks nicknamed the 'giant's desk and chair' for reasons that are immediately obvious.
This astonishing beach is a dream come true, especially if you are rewarded with a gorgeous sunset. Get here during lowish tide to explore the caves in the south end, where some spectacular geology awaits. If you get clear skies, the sun dipping into the Atlantic is one of Ireland's most treasured and priceless experiences. During Cromwell's 17th-century destruction, 100 villagers sought refuge here but all except one were discovered and massacred.
On a narrow road from Glencolumbcille to Ardara, past remote mountain bogland, magnificent Glengesh Pass (Glean Géis; meaning 'Glen of the Swans'), scoured out aeons ago by implacably vast glacial forces, is approached down several switchbacks that lead towards thatched cottages and a swath of pastoral beauty. There are spots and visitor viewpoints where you can pull over and take in the whole epic scenario before you.
On the northernmost tip of Malin Head, called Banba's Crown, stands a cumbersome 1805 clifftop tower that was built by the British admiralty and later used as a Lloyds signal station. Around it are concrete huts that were used by the Irish army in WWII as lookout posts. To the west from the fort-side car park, a path leads 700m to Hell's Hole, a chasm where the incoming waters crash against the rock forms.
This castle was modelled on Scotland's Balmoral Castle. Henry McIlhenny made it a characterful home with liberal reminders of his passion for deer-stalking. In fact, few rooms lack a representation – or the taxidermied remains – of a stag. Access is by guided tour only. Cars are not allowed beyond the Glenveagh Visitor Centre; you can walk or cycle the lovely lakeside 3.6km route to the castle, or take the shuttle bus (every 15 minutes).
Guarding a picturesque bend of the River Eske, well-preserved 15th-century Donegal Castle is an imperious monument to Irish and English might. The castle was rebuilt in 1623 by Sir Basil Brooke, along with the adjacent three-storey Jacobean house. Further restoration in the 1990s kicked things into shape; don't miss the magnificent upstairs Great Hall with its vast and ornate fireplace, French tapestries and Persian rugs. Afterwards corkscrew down the spiral staircase to the storeroom. There are guided tours hourly.
With a name like this – misnomer that it is – how can you resist its allure? Follow a rough walking path into the rocky fastness of the glen (4km round-trip) and watch out for the green lady – the resident ghost. Some 2km east of the Dunlewey Centre turnoff on the R251, look for a minor road down through the hamlet of Dunlewey, past the magnificently ruined Dunlewey Church, to roadside parking at a hairpin bend where you'll find the walking path.
This amphitheatre-like stone fort encircles the top of Grianán Hill like a halo with eye-popping views of surrounding loughs. On clear days you can see as far as Derry. The fort may have existed at least 2000 years ago, but it's thought that the site itself goes back to pre-Celtic times as a temple to the god Dagda. Between the 5th and 12th centuries it was the seat of the O'Neills, before being demolished by Murtogh O'Brien, king of Munster.
The pinkish-grey quartzite peak of Errigal Mountain (752m) dominates the landscape of northwestern Donegal, appearing conical from some angles, but from others like a ragged shark's fin ripping through the heather bogs. Its name comes from the Gaelic earagail, meaning 'oratory', as its shape brings to mind a preacher's pulpit. Its looming presence seems to dare walkers to attempt the strenuous but satisfying climb to its pyramid-shaped summit.