County Clare, Ireland
Distance: 114 km
Time: 7 days
Surface: Mountain Paths, Rock Surfaces
‘Burren’ comes from the Gaelic word Boireann which means a rocky place. And so it is. The Burren in Ireland’s northern County Clare is a vast area of exposed carboniferous limestone pavements cut by thousands of parallel ‘grikes’ – vertical fissures up to 0.5 m wide. Ancient travelers used to call them ‘fertile rocks’ – channels cut by acidic waters that went to work along the lines of greatest weakness and which now grow limestone-loving plants such as foxgloves and rock roses and lichens such as lugwort and Parmeliella, all in a region formed from the sediments of an ancient inland sea. One of the largest karst systems – dissolved limestone – in Europe, the Burren pavement covers a 130-square-km region near the famous Cliffs of Moher with views out to the Alan Islands and over Galway Bay. It is also home to a unique concentration of Neolithic and early Christian ruins and monuments including more than 400 ring forts, 60 Stone Age wedge tombs and dolmens, and a variety of churches and monasteries. It is an ancient landscape, chiseled out by the retreating glaciers of the Ice Age, added to by man and not left alone by nature which has clung on here to produce a varied and hardy landscape through which passes one of Ireland’s most fascinating trails – the Burren Way.
The Burren Way is a National Waymarked Trail in County Clare that begins in the town of Lahinch on Liscannor Bay and ends in Coffin, a small village on the River Fergus. The trail takes in the best of what this surreal landscape has to offer and is best done over seven days – days that will be spent on a variety of near-empty tarmac roads, old cattle trails, forestry roads and green trails that will take you through a unique habitat. A designated Special Area of Conservation, the limestone plateau of the Burien is, indeed, surprisingly fertile, helped along by a temperate climate, and is a meeting place for Arctic and alpine plants that thrive side by side with Mediterranean woodland plants that grow here despite the absence of large trees to provide them with shade.
There are several trail options you can take when you come here but the most popular route that will take you through the Burren’s limestone heart is a seven-day hike that departs from Liscannor and follows coastal tracks around Liscannor Bay to the southernmost point of the famous Cliffs of Moher at the start of the 13-km-long Cliffs of Moher Coastal Walk. This is one of the most majestic coastal paths in Europe and will take you into the town of Doolin where you can have a look inside Doolin Cave at one of Ireland’s most unique natural attractions – the ‘Great Stalactite’ – at 23 ft long, the Northern Hemisphere’s longest free-standing stalactite.
From Doolin you head off on a gentle climb along the flank of 344-m, shale-capped Slieve Elva past Ballynalacken Castle, which provides lovely views over the Burren and the mountains of Connemara, before ending the day on the wonderfully wide sandy beach at Fanore on the Ballyvaughan-Doolin road. For a nice half-day’s diversion you can do an 18-km loop walk out of Fanore up to lonely Black Head with its lighthouse and more views, this time over GalwayBay, and then on down an ancient path into the Gleninagh Valley past a Celtic stone fort near the Caher River before returning to Fanore.
Then it’s along more cliff tops to Ballyvaughan via the 16th-century Newton Castle,and from Ballyvaughan you enter the Burren’s limestone landscape, following dry-stone walls past time-worn Celtic ruins. On the last day, the most secluded, you’ll walk a trail above Castletown River past ancient tombs and ringforts skirting the boundary of Inchiquin Lough, a limestone lake famous for its resident brown trout, pike and perch, before ending your walk in Coroiin, situated on the very edge of the expanse of limestone pavements, the so-called ‘Gateway to the Burren’.
Spring is the preferred season to walk the trail thanks to a profusion of wildflowers and orchids, but you’ll need an eye for detail here if you’re to get the most out of this outwardly lunar-like landscape. If you put in the research, however, you’ll discover the Burren is a wonderland of underground drainage caves such as Aillwee Cave near Ballyvaughan, with its kilometer of passageways, underground river and waterfall and the remains of bears which have led some to guess it may have been the last bear den in Ireland. It may also be Ireland’s oldest cave, with calcite samples dating back more than 350,000 years.
To come to the Burren in County Clare is to walk through a region that was once a forest and is now a fissured world of limestone, lakes that long ago ceased to be, underground caves and rivers, wild orchids, terraced hillsides, springs, hidden wells – and a trail that helps bring it all to life.