The Quieter, Cheaper Way to See Ireland's Iconic Cliffs
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
There’s a 5-mile section of coast where you might be the only one on the trail.
By Fiona Gaze
The Cliffs of Moher are one of Ireland’s most iconic sites. In 2018 almost 2 million people came to marvel at their natural beauty. But there’s danger here too. In the past few decades, 66 people have fallen to their deaths at the rocks, including a university student this year who was said to be posing for a photo. The narrow path that leads along the clifftop gets so congested at the height of summer that it becomes more of a teetering theme park — dodge the fanny packs and selfie sticks! — than a place to peacefully contemplate the wonders of nature.
But the UNESCO World Heritage Site that includes the famous cliffs is actually a sprawling geopark covering more than 200 square miles of windswept coast and the wild, rugged Burren, a region of bedrock formations, caves and archaeological wonders. Hiking the peaceful trails here yields stretches of unadulterated solitude and the same showstopping views over Galway Bay — without the crowds or the entrance fee ($6.75).
Start your journey on the sandy shores of the surfer (yes, surfer) town of Lahinch. Look for signs for the 76-mile Burren Way, which winds through some of County Clare’s best scenery in Ireland’s wild west. The first two legs of the trail (about 14 miles) make for a rewarding day hike — and you’ll end up in the lively ferry port of Doolin, popular for well-poured pints and traditional music. You might even have the trail to yourself. On a recent summery Saturday, the hike’s highlight — a stunning 5-mile walk along the coastal path — was practically empty except for a few other intrepid ramblers in the know about one of Ireland’s formerly best-kept secrets. This stretch is “one of the best ways to experience the Cliffs of Moher,” says Niall Hughes, who heads Doolin Tourism. “You won’t see anywhere like it.”
Irish people like to say that there’ll be all four seasons in a single day, and it’s true here. No matter the forecast, pack waterproof layers for an inevitable shower. There is also zero shade along this route — just dense, low shrubbery — which means delightfully unobstructed views but also full exposure to the sun. Bring sunglasses and sunscreen. Still, when the sun’s out, Lahinch’s beaches are among the country’s best — and if you hike the trail in reverse from Doolin you can cool your heels in the surf.
Tired feet will be quickly forgotten with these views, stretching on a clear day to the nearby Aran Islands.
The Burren Way is marked with brown placards at major turnoffs and a simple post at other turns. About a mile in — shortly after stepping off Lahinch’s beach into the village of Liscannor — there’s a junction where the “old” Burren Way stretches ahead, hugging the coastline for the entire 11 miles to Doolin past Hag’s Head and through the Cliffs of Moher. Like many of Ireland’s unofficial rambling paths, it initially cut through various personal properties without the locals’ permission, and landowners resented the walkers traipsing over their land.
There’s an alternate route at Liscannor, which heads inland on quiet country lanes and dirt tracks ambling past fields and ramshackle stone houses. This is the trek that conveniently bypasses the tourist mayhem at the cliffs — ending up beyond them, farther down the coast. At about the 9-mile mark, the trail hops across the main road full of tour buses and then reaches the cliff’s edge. Tired feet will be quickly forgotten with these spectacular views, which, on a clear day, stretch to the nearby Aran Islands. The stone slab called Pat’s View makes for a perfect picnic spot or breather, and an almost obscene array of wildflowers scents the sea air: pink drift, the tiny yellow tormentil, red campions, ragged robin and the early purple orchid, as well as daisies, buttercups and field thistles.
The trail slopes down toward Doolin, steep in parts. This is where sturdy boots with ankle support are your friend. Eoin Hogan, rural recreation officer for County Clare, advises this footwear, as well as the obligatory water, snacks and rain gear. “Stay on the official path away from the cliff’s edge,” he says, adding that the best time to have the trail to yourself is early in the morning or after 4 pm.
If your boots are still itching for more, the rest of the Burren Way awaits: After an overnight in Doolin, the remaining trailheads of Lisdoonvarna, Ballyvaughan, Carran, Corrofin and Tubber can be walked in four days.
GO THERE: THE BURREN WAY
- Directions: The 76-mile trail through the Burren and Cliffs of Moher Geopark and Burren National Park starts in the seaside town of Lahinch in County Clare. Maps available on Irishtrails.ie.
- When to go: Accessible year-round, but the best weather is in April to September.
- Where to unwind: Grab a well-deserved pint of Guinness and live traditional music at Gus O’Connor’s Pub in Doolin.
- What you’ll need: Bring rain gear, sun protection, provisions — and common sense.
- Fiona Gaze, OZY Author Contact Fiona Gaze