Is there anything better than a winter walk with a cosy pub at the finishing line?
ravelling the Sliabh Liag peninsula in Co Donegal recently, that’s exactly what I found. The Pilgrim Path is an out-and-back trail of around 8km, taking in ocean views from some of Europe’s tallest sea cliffs, before returning you to The Rusty Mackerel, with its glowing turf fire, in Teelin.
The trail takes its name from a pilgrim path leading to the ruins of Aodh Mac Bricne’s church, still crumbled about on the plateau. A sixth-century bishop, he spent his last years up here as a hermit, and an annual pilgrimage sees walkers add 45 decades of the rosary to their hike.
“It is believed any pilgrim who completes it will be cured of headaches,” I read on a local guide. On the way up, watch out for a carving of the saint holding his tortured brow.
Lord knows, we have no shortage of headaches. Covid variants, restrictions, fuel and energy bill shocks, Christmas kilos, you name it. But a few hours on this ancient trail drummed an old truth home. You may not always feel like a walk, but you always feel better for having done it.
The Pilgrim Path starts 2km outside Teelin. The trailhead is pinned on Google Maps but, coming from the R263, watch for a sign turning right after about 2.3km. It leads to a gate (drive through and close it behind you), and then a small car park. The route is marked by blue arrows.
Trailhead to plateau is around 4km (8km return), and you start out on a wide path skirting a U-shaped valley behind the cliffs. This stretch is straightforward, rising gently to superb views back over Teelin.
Once you come to the larger of two waterfalls, however, it gets steeper, rockier, and boggier, with yellow arrows and splotches of paint now guiding your way. You’ll need proper gear and provisions to push on, but the plateau views are mouth-watering — on a good day sweeping to Ben Bulben and beyond.
Although sunny at sea level, a low-slung cloud completely obscured my view from the top. The weather can turn on a penny here, quickly wiping visibility, so care is required. But the howling wind, cairns, chapel ruins and sense of solitude more than 500m above the Atlantic blew my headaches away.
I thought of the Dutch concept of uitwaaien, which literally translates as ‘blow-out’ or ‘out blowing’, but means ‘walking in the wind’, particularly in winter, to reinvigorate yourself. To clear your head.
From the plateau, experienced hikers can continue on a loop over One Man’s Pass to the viewing points at Bunglass, but be warned — the pass is aptly named, with knife-edge drops either side. Given the weather, I turned back.
You can also see the cliffs by boat (sliabhleagueboattrips.com), by driving up to Bunglass, or by taking a seasonal shuttle bus from the visitor centre (sliabhliag.com).
Afterwards I drove down to The Rusty Mackerel (therustymackerel.com) tucking into a hot bowl of chowder accompanied by soda bread, a chat and that turf fire. There are rooms here, an outdoor deck in good weather, and trad music, so you may well be tempted to stretch that pilgrimage overnight.
Need to know
Level: Moderate to hard, depending on how far you go. The Pilgrim Path walk on Sliabh Liag is a linear trail if you turn back at the plateau, or a much longer loop if you continue over One Man’s Pass.
Distance: 8km return. Allow two to three hours.
Tips: You can lengthen the walk by a few kilometres by parking at Teelin, or the pub. Go midweek or arrive early to beat the crowds and traffic. Pack binoculars for bird- and wildlife spotting. And remember to leave no trace!
Nearby: The Sliabh Liag peninsula is a stunning landscape in Co Donegal, and the cliffs are just the start. Leave time for beaches like Silver Strand (Malin Beg) and Fintra, the Gaeltacht area of Glencolmcille and restaurants like Anderson’s Boathouse in Killybegs (andersonsboathouserestaurant.com), or The Rusty Mackerel.
More info: govisitdonegal.com
Your walking checklist
- Safety comes first on a walk, no matter how easy. Check the weather, leave word of where you’re going and when you’ll be back, and pack smart. And remember, never leave valuables visible inside parked cars.
- A fully charged phone, water and snacks, layers of appropriate clothing and sturdy footwear are essential for most walks. Bring a bag for rubbish, and clean shoes and socks in the boot for afterwards.
- Covid-19 measures: Always follow lockdown travel restrictions and official government advice. Avoid peak times at busy spots (going early, late or midweek), don’t arrange to meet in large groups, observe social distancing, and park considerately — leave room for farmers, locals and emergency services to pass.
- Check websites before travelling for the latest opening hours for restaurants and pubs, most require booking ahead, and have a Plan B in case your car park is full.
- Responsible walkers always respect private property.
For more great walks in Ireland, visit our Irish walks hub.