The hills (and cliffs) of Donegal

11 June 2023

Tues 6 May. Rosses Point to Donegal Town. 71km.

I woke up pretty excited today as this was the day we were going to cross into my home county of Donegal. No idea why I felt so excited but I guess seeing the familiar names on signposts made me feel like I was on a bit of a homecoming. And what a great day it was, starting with breakfast taking in this view…..

We set off on mostly backroads with fantastic views of Belbulben – a very interesting piece of rock on the side of the Dartry mountains. And by now the grey clouds had cleared and we were cycling in warm sunshine yet again.

County Sligo is known as Yeats Country, as it inspired many of the works of the famous Irish poet and there is trail that takes in many locations associated with him – one of which is his grave, which is beside a lovely little church in Drumcliffe. Unfortunately it is also along the worst 5km stretch of busy road that we encountered during the day, but we still stopped to visit. And it was definitely worth it. A very unassuming grave and headstone among many others but with a stunning backdrop of Benbulben.

The objective of the day was to stay off the main N15 road, so from there we took another great back road with Benbulben to our right and the hills of Donegal to our left and although I can’t say exactly where we crossed the county line, we arrived in Bundoran around midday. When having our lunch while taking in views of the North Atlantic …

..we were treated to a spectacular show of performing dolphins – at least 20 of them – jumping and splashing around having a whale of a time (pardon the pun!). I couldn’t have asked for a better welcome into Donegal! We had to drag ourselves away to get back on the road and from there we took the coastal route to Rossnowlagh beach, which is absolutely huge. Although there were quite a few people there, there was still lots of wide open space….

We then we headed into Donegal Town. Temperature was about 25 degrees at the stage and there was very little shade so it made for hot, sweaty riding. Donegal town is where we were staying with our first WarmShowers hosts of this trip – Dan from South Africa and his partner Jen – born in England but lived for a long time in South Africa. Unfortunately Dan had to work in the evening but we managed a speed catch-up and a photo before he left

The rest of the evening was spent chatting to Jen, cooking dinner and just chilling out in their lovely apartment, which also involved hatching plans for them to come to Buncrana to stay in our caravan to go walking together sometime in the future!

Wed 7 May. Donegal Town to Sliabh Liag. 60km.

We started our day with a huge plate of bubble and squeak and 2 fried eggs each for breakfast, before saying our goodbyes and heading off. At the time of eating little did we know how much we needed that big breakfast as it was definitely the hilliest and most energy-zapping day we have had yet. And because we were heading in areas without decent supermarkets we had stocked up a lot and were carrying 3 days of food, so our bikes were much heavier than normal. We have since discussed this and realise that we still have a bit of anxiety about not having enough food with us at all times – probably as a result of our world tour. And that means we have probably unnecessarily carried too much and weighed ourselves down more than we needed to. There are always small convenience stores along the route in Ireland and in most European locations, so we need to relax a bit more about it to make life a bit easier (and lighter!) for ourselves I think!

Day 6 since we left Westport and we were on our way to Sliabh Liag (pronounced Sleeve League), which has some of the highest sea cliffs in Europe so I’m not sure why we were so surprised by how hilly it was. Maybe it’s because Google said “moderate hills” which it definitely was not! I’m guessing the song “the hills of Donegal” was written by a cyclist…..!

Anyway, our aim today was to stay off the main road to Killybegs and we managed that successfully for the first part of the morning by sticking to Euro Velo route 1 as much as we could. There was about 8km where we had no choice but to join the main road but we had a hard shoulder for most of that so it wasn’t too bad. About 5km before Killybegs we wre back on the Euro Velo route again, and after gurning up a really tough hill that was part gravel with grass in the middle, the road seemed to stop and we ended up on a very overgrown grass path.

Thankfully it was mostly downhill so we could push until we got back onto gravel and then into Killybegs. The town of Killybegs is just one big fish factory – it smells of fish and is just full of
big concrete fish processing plants. It wasn’t the nicest spot for lunch, but we were already pretty tired so we needed the fuel.

Back on the bikes we headed towards Sliabh Liag and hit a snag when we came across a sign that said the road was closed and to follow a detour. Fortunately we spotted a pedestrian path through the roadworks so pushed our bikes through and then we were back on the normal route, which was “only” 22km of supposedly moderate hills on regional road, which we didn’t think would be too busy. That wasn’t the case and a few cars got a bit close to us so when we got the opportunity to get off that road and take the more coastal route, we took that. And although it was once monster hill after another we were rewarded with the most fantastic mountain and sea views….

…and we had the road almost to ourselves.

Hard hard work but it was definitely worth it. One hill did get the better of us towards the very end and we both had to get off and push, which felt even harder – but once off the bikes it was impossible to get back on again so we had to push to the next flat bit.

Got to our campsite and set up as usual. We briefly met another couple of touring cyclists at the campsite who had cycled from Cork and were also heading north so exchanged a few pleasantries in the kitchen and at the washing line as we all pounced at the chance to do some washing!

Thursday 8 June. Sliabh Liag cliffs. 4.5 hours hiking.

Today was a day off the bikes – supposedly for a rest – but when you are in the vicinity of some of the biggest sea cliffs in Europe and the sun is shining it is impossible not to want to see them. So we were up and out with a packed lunch ready to explore at 9am. I had been here once before but in rainy conditions and a long time ago so was excited to see how different it would all look in the sunshine. And I was definitely not disappointed. The ascent from the campsite to the coffee van at the first viewing platform was about 5km, it once there it was just one spectacular view after another. It’s a circular walk that takes in the sea cliffs on one side.

From there it’s a steep ascent to another level – all on a fairly accessible path and do-able in normal trainers. But we certainly didn’t do our leg muscles any favours by opting for this on a day “off”.

There is one part that is a along a sheer cliff edge and because we didn’t have proper walking shoes and I’m not brilliant with heights we avoided that and took the lower route and reached the first summit where we stopped for our first sandwich of the day.

From there us was downhill taking in the coastal views..

…and back to base at the campsite in time for an afternoon snooze in the tent before it got too hot. (I never thought I would write a sentence like that about cycling in Ireland!). We even managed a couple of drinks in the pub before dinner, a bit of TV/iPad watching and our usual early night.

PS Midgie bites have finally calmed down so all is well on that front.

Fri 10 May. Sliabh Liag to Tramore beach near Portnoo. 50 km.

We both woke up today with sore glutes from yesterday’s walk…we really don’t do ourselves any favours on our days off!! We had a late-ish start and our route took us on lovely quiet remote roads at the back of Sliabh Liag. Miraculously the wind was also in our favour for the first 12km towards Glen Colmcille so we whizzed along nicely. First stop of the day was to visit a 5000 year old burial chamber along the route …

From there we started to meet lots of other individual cyclists coming in the opposite direction (poor sods were battling the headwind!), which continued for the rest of the day. Turns out they were cycling the North Atlantic Way in the opposite direction from Derry to Kinsale. We think it was a time trial but not too sure.

More stunning coastal scenery along this route …the Donegal coast and the sunshine that keeps on giving!

We stopped in the traditional folk village of Glencolmcille, which is just full of traditional little thatched cottages like this…..

We started with tea and scones and when Nigel was still hungry afterwards he went for the full cooked breakfast as well! Fuelled for the next stage of the journey we set off towards Ardara with absolutely no idea what lay in store for us….”moderate hills” according to Mr. Google and what a lie that was! The hills were pretty relentless and although we have no accurate idea of their gradients there were definitely not MODERATE and seemed to go on for a very long time!!
To make it worse, our direction of travel changed because we went around a headland so we were also battling either a full-on head wind or a nasty cross wind. One of our toughest days yet we think.

Saying that, we were treated to some fantastic remote and rural landscape before reaching the summit of Glenesh Pass.

I am so glad I didn’t know that we were heading through a pass when we set off this morning as I would have dreaded it all day and probably got myself worked up about it.. I am definitely better at not knowing too much about a route and then just dealing with what’s in front of me. So although it was tough we just plodded on and on and on and eventually we reached the top to be treated to an amazing view.

The descent was a heart-stopping for me to say the least and I had to cross to the wrong side of the sharpest hairpin as I didn’t trust myself/my brakes/my bike….basically I got spooked and didn’t want to get killed, but I did manage to get myself back on the correct side of the road and made it safely to the bottom. Can you spot me in the photo?

Thankfully we reached our lovely little town of Ardara, where we stopped for lunch at a bench in the middle of town for some great people watching.

Along the route we let a group of tractors overtake us…they were doing a charity drive to raise awareness of suicide and when stopped in the centre of Ardara, I got chatting to one of the tractor drivers who had also stopped there to find out they were heading for Inishowen and he was married to a woman from my home town of Buncrana. A small world!

Even getting out of Ardara was no mean feat as it involved a steep climb, which meant holding up all the traffic behind us. But a few miles out we came off the main road and the last 10km to Tramore beach was on a nice quiet (but still hilly!) road.

Got to our campsite, which was right on a lovely beach and set up camp before heading down to the beach. Checking in, Nigel made a comment to the lady at reception about the hills. She looked at him and asked “where are you from?” to which Nigel replied “Devon”, she said (completely dead pain) “don’t you have hills there too or do you just go round them?” You gotta love the Donegal attitude!

We changed into our swimming gear and although the stunning beach was almost deserted I was in no way tempted to take a dip in the North Atlantic – unlike Nigel who plunged right in. But there was enough action in the rock pools to keep me occupied ….

It was soon back to the tent for dinner and the usual evening chill-out activities. Our tent was pitched beside a lovely friendly family from Enniskillen who offered us chairs to sit and have our tea, wine to drink and just lots of lovely conversation from both the parents and kids. A lovely way to end what had been a really tough day. Not our longest day on bikes but certainly a tough one!

A final note from me on the journey…cycling around Ireland has meant that I have discovered more and visited places in my native country and county for the very first time – highly recommended as a way to discover somewhere! When we were in the Burren in Co Clare and Connemara in Co. Galway I was blown away by the scenery and wondered if I would feel the same about Donegal. Would it impress me as much? I am very glad to say that it has – Donegal you have done me proud and you are definitely up there with the best!

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