It’s 2,200 miles long, and growing. It’s roughly 300 million years old and it’s the only trail in the world to span an ocean. It’s safe to say that the Appalachian Trail isn’t your average walking route.
Separated by tectonic shifts millions of years ago the once-shared mountain ranges of North America and Europe are again linked for walkers and hikers by the International Appalachian Trail.
It was 2010 when Donegal on Ireland’s north west coast was officially added to Appalachian Trail maps. On that map, the trail features a watery gap we know as the Atlantic Ocean. From its origins in Georgia, USA, and up north through Canada, the trail eventually reaches land again in the most spectacular way: Donegal’s Slieve League Cliffs.
Starting the Irish leg of the trail there’s no escaping the Slieve Leagues. But why would you want to? Some of the highest cliffs in Europe, the Leagues path leads up to nearly 2,000 feet. That’s almost three times the height of Clare’s Cliffs of Moher.
Awesome and imposing, the cliffs include a heart-stopping stretch of trail, the aptly named One Man’s Pass. Of course novice hikers needn’t be worried, the trail is nothing if not varied. Routes such as Pilgrim’s Path offer the vistas without the vertigo.
Close to the summit of Slieve League is the Eagle’s Nest, boasting the type of birds-eye views the name would suggest. To the south lies counties Sligo and Mayo and the Wild Atlantic Way while to the north sits Mount Errigal and the ‘Seven Sister’ mountains.
Local man Sean Mullan brings walking tours all around the north of Ireland and relishes the reaction from visitors when they reach Donegal’s Appalachian Trail.
“Normally when we get to south-west Donegal and the Wild Atlantic Way we've spent three days in beautiful Antrim with its green fields and wooded valleys,” Sean explains. “The contrast is stark; here it's primordial, next stop America; rock, heather, stone walls, fishing boats, yellow sanded beaches.”
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Saints and surf
From Slieve League cliffs the trail crosses the homeland of an Irish saint: Columba. This isolated area is close to where St Columba was born in the sixth century. Columba is remembered along the Slí Cholmcille path which brings travellers down from the cliffs to the sandy beaches of Silver Strand and Maghera.
That same path takes in a chunk of the gaeltacht (Irish speaking) region of Donegal. Almost all locals are bi-lingual and can be relied on to teach visitors cúpla focal (a few words).
Moving inland, the salmon-rich Owenea river stands between you and the market town of Glenties. Expect warmth, hospitality and pubs. A welcome end to your 119 kilometer trek.
But to simply label Donegal’s Appalachian route a ‘trek’ doesn’t really do it justice. Sean Murray believes the route to be almost mystical:
“Even when it's misty the atmosphere is magic – more so perhaps – you expect to see some ancient being approaching as you come over a hill,” Sean says. “Naturally I’m prejudiced but I'd say it's the best coastal/hill walk in Ireland.”
Mystical mists and happy hikers. Trust Donegal to bring the magic.