The health benefits of green spaces are well documented and thankfully we’ve got lots of them in Ireland. From small inner city parks, to larger forests and woodlands, mountains and meadows, there are plenty of options if you want to spend time in nature. There are also six National Parks in Ireland, which attract millions of visitors each year and provide plenty of opportunity for adventure.
Whether you’re enjoying an Irish staycation, visiting from overseas or just taking a day trip, Ireland’s national parks offer an abundance of walking & hiking trails, stunning scenery and plenty of space to relax and unwind in nature. The National Parks are managed by the National Parks and Wildlife Service and are open year round. However, information points or visitor centres are generally only open during peak season.
All of the National Parks in Ireland are free to enter. There may be charges for parking, exhibits or other attractions within individual parks.
Things to Know Before Visiting Ireland’s National Parks
Public Transport and Shuttle Buses
As the National Parks in Ireland are in more remote areas, there are not many public transport options that service them. Access to Ireland’s national parks is easiest by private transport. So if you plan on visiting some or all of them, your best bet is have your own car or hire a rental.
Where a National Park usually offers a shuttle bus service (generally in summer months only) I have mentioned this in the relevant section. However, due to the current need for social distancing it is unlikely that buses will be running at this time. Please contact the relevant visitor centre for up-to-date information.
Many of Ireland’s national parks lack the infrastructure to deal with large amounts of visitors. Many hikes and trails begin on narrow roads, with little opportunity for parking. If carparks or locations are already full, please visit another site or return at a later date. Congestion along the narrow roads continually causes problems during peak season. It not only causes chaos for visitors. It effects people living in the area too and prevents essential services from reaching locations in cases of emergencies.
There are many less popular or well known places within the parks, which are equally beautiful. Do some research before visiting so that you have some options to choose from. Alternatively, visit early before places get too busy.
Like many woodland and rural locations throughout Ireland, ticks are present in our National Parks. In some cases, ticks can carry Lyme disease. While confirmed cases of the disease remain relatively low in Ireland, the true incidence is not known due to the difficulty diagnosing Lyme disease.
Fortunately, once you are aware of the problem, you can limit any chance of tick bites or infection with a few precautions. Use repellent, wear long trousers and long sleeved clothing and check your body for ticks after spending time outdoors. Visit Tick Talk Ireland for further information on how to avoid tick bites and details of how to remove them safely, if you do find any on your body.
An Introduction to the Six National Parks in Ireland:
Ballycroy National Park
Established in 1988, Ballycroy National Park in Co. Mayo is the most recent addition to Ireland’s National Parks. It’s also probably the least well known but with over 11,000 hectares of Atlantic blanket bog and stunning mountainous terrain, it’s well worth a visit.
Within Ballycroy National Park there are walks and hiking trails of varying distances that you can enjoy. The visitor centre has some really interesting interactive exhibits and a great cafe. Just outside the centre there’s a 2km looped nature trail with views out to Achill Island and across to the Nephin Beg mountain range.
If you’re a fan of star gazing, you’ll want to hang around or return here after dark. The park is part of Mayo Dark Sky Park, boasting some of the darkest and pristine skies to be found anywhere in the world.
During the summer months, from June to August, a free shuttle bus operates, dropping people off at different points around the park.
Burren National Park
The Burren National Park was established in 1991 and is the smallest of Ireland’s National Parks, covering around 1,500 hectares. It is also the most unique, due to its unusual landscape. Burren, from the Irish Boíreann, means a rocky place and that’s exactly what you’ll find here.
Much of the park is covered in limestone pavement, giving it a lunar-like appearance. However, while this glaciated karst landscape may appear barren, it’s actually an extremely fertile region.
Covering 1% of the land surface of Ireland, much of the Burren is designated a Special Area of Conservation and is renowned for its flora and fauna. In summer there is an abundance of wildflowers on display and it’s just beautiful. Through the peak season there are free guided walks, covering topics like geology and the Burren fauna.
Within the Burren National Park there are 7 way-marked walking trails. There is something for everyone, with walks ranging from 30 minutes to three hours. You can download a map of the walking of the trails from the Burren National Park website.
Connemara National Park
Connemara National Park was opened to the public in 1980 and is located in the west of Ireland, in county Galway. The main entrance and visitor centre are located just a short distance from the town of Letterfrack.
Covering 2,000 hectares, Connemara National Park is the 2nd smallest of the six national parks. However it boasts a diverse range of landscapes including mountains, bogs, heaths, grasslands and forest.
Much of the land that makes up Connemara National Park was once part of the nearby Kylemore Abbey estate. Red deer used to be abundant in the area but unfortunately are no longer found here. It’s likely you’ll come across a lot of sheep as you ramble though and maybe even some Connemara ponies, if you’re lucky.
The park also has a large diversity of bird life. Common birds you can expect to see or hear include skylarks, robins, wrens and chaffinches. Native birds of prey include the kestrel and sparrowhawk.
Glenveagh National Park
Glenveagh National Park is Ireland’s 2nd largest national park, covering 16,000 hectares. It includes the Derryveagh Mountains, part of Mt Errigal and the Poisoned Glen. There are many beautiful trails within the park and Glenveagh is home to the largest herd of red deer in the country.
The park is also home to Glenveagh Castle, a beautiful 19th century castellated mansion. The castle hugs the shores of Lough Veagh and you can take a tour inside. It’s got one of the finest outdoor pools in the Ireland…if only you could get in for a dip! The castle gardens are open all year and are free to visit.
Killarney National Park
Of the 6 national parks in Ireland, Killarney National Park is probably the most well known and certainly one of the most popular with international visitors. In fairness though, it did have a big head start on all the others. Killarney National Park was the first national park established in Ireland when it opened in 1932. It remained Ireland’s only national park for almost 50 years.
If time allows, spend at least a day here as there is so much to see including spectacular landscapes, pristine lakes, historical attractions and more.
The park is serviced by two shuttle buses and there plenty of ways to explore once you get there. Hire a bike or walk one of the many trails. Or get out on the water to see the park from another perspective. You can take a boat ride from Ross Castle or the Old Boat House, close to Muckross House.
Killarney National Park is home to the last surviving herd of indigenous red deer in Ireland. There’s also a large herd of Japanese sika deer. Chances are you will spot some during your visit. Other wildlife includes bats, red squirrels, badgers, otters and pine martens.
Wicklow Mountains National Park
Wicklow Mountains National Park is the only national park located on the east coast of Ireland. It was established in 1991 and is the largest of Ireland’s national parks. The park covers over 20,000 hectares of mountainous land and offers amazing hill walking, biking trails and more. It’s also a popular destination
The most popular location within the park is Glendalough and its 6th century monastic site. Glendalough is a glaciated valley and the name Glendalough means ‘The glen of the two lakes’. The ancient monastic site is located next to Glendalough upper and lower lakes. It includes churches, a Celtic high cross and a round tower, which is a famous landmark in the area.
While Glendalough is a wonderful place to visit it tends to get very busy and overcrowded, particularly in summer months. They are many other equally beautiful and less busy places to explore or hike. Try nearby Glenmalure valley, just a 15 – 20 minute drive from Glendalough.
Unfortunately there are limited public transport options to the Wicklow Mountains national park. However there are lots of private tour companies, which offer day trips. There’s also a private bus service from Dublin city centre to Glendalough.