A guide to Ireland’s six national parks

To celebrate St Patrick’s Day, what could be more green than exploring the Emerald Isle’s wonderfully wild national parks? Here’s everything you need to know…

Jessica Reid
17 March 2024

Burren National Park

Burren National Park is known for its lunar-like landscapes (Shutterstock)

Where: County Clare

Best for: Walking on the ‘moon’

Established as one of Ireland’s most recent national parks in 1991, Burren National Park takes up a tiny part of County Clare. Although its size is just 15 sq km, it’s part of the much larger Burren and Cliffs of Moher Geopark, known for its fossil-rich limestone. With the name ‘Burren’ (Boireann in Irish) meaning ‘great rock’, its exposed karst landscape is often described as ‘lunar-esque’, attracting many visitors to experience this otherworldly Irish landscape. Human history here also dates back thousands of years, with the 5,000 year old Poulnabrone Tomb being one of the country’s most famous Neolithic monuments. One of the Burren’s most popular hikes is up Mullaghmore, the park’s most iconic peaks, with options to take shorter or more challenging routes.

Connemara National Park

Kylemore Abbey is one of the main attractions in Connemara National Park (Shutterstock)

Where: County Galway

Best for: A small but mighty national park

A varied landscape of bogs, peaks and grasslands, Connemara National Park bundles in some of the best Irish scenery into one neat package. Designated a national park in 1980, this relatively small region at just 20 sq km is dominated by the Twelve Bens mountain range. A highlight in Connemara includes Kylemore Abbey: perching lakeside on the grounds of a castle, it was founded by Benedictine nuns who fled Belgium during WWI. There’s also Letterfrack village: a charming community home to the park’s visitor centre. However, it lives with a harrowing history of its former industrial school, where young boys suffered years of abuse. Many people now pay their respects to their memory at the village cemetery. Escaping into nature, those wanting to experience one of the most epic Irish vistas should climb the 442 metre-high Diamond Hill. The summit rewards you with panoramic views of Tully Mountain (or Letty Hill), Kylemore Abbey and the Twelve Bens.

Glenveagh National Park

Walk through ancient woodlands in Glenveagh National Park (Shutterstock)

Where: County Donegal

Best for: Lakeside wandering and wildlife encounters

The second largest national park in Ireland, Glenveagh National Park can be found nestled in the heart of County Donegal. Its landscape – made up of mountains, lakes, woodlands and valleys – is also home to rare flora and fauna. Some of its most exciting wildlife sightings include golden eagles, eregrine falcons, and red deer (in fact, Glenveagh is home the largest herd of red deer in the country). Most visitors often head to the north of the park first to visit the four-storey Glenveagh Castle and its gardens, built in the 19th-century by businessman John Adair, who was reportedly inspired by Balmoral Castle. The fortified mansion overlooks Lough Veagh, a 5km-long freshwater lake and the heart of the park. For those wanting a challenge, we suggest following the (fairly strenuous) 8 km Glen Walk through the Derryveagh mountains and alongside the Lough Veagh, admiring old settlements and ancient woodlands along the way.

Killarney National Park

Ross Castle overlooks Lough Leane in Killarney National Park (Shutterstock)

Where: County Kerry

Best for: Exploring Ireland’s oldest national park

With the highest peaks in Ireland and low-lying lakes sprinkled with tiny islands, Killarney National Park is one of the most sought-after natural regions in the country – and for good reason. It was Ireland’s first national park, given the status back in 1932. At its heart are the fantastically named McGillycuddy’s Reeks, a mountain range with its highest summit reaching 1,000-metres tall. But most visitors are particularly drawn in by its lakes named Leane, Muckross and the Upper Lake, all joining at a point named Meeting of the Waters. And with the last surviving herd of Indigenous red deer – said to have bred here since Neolithic times – and the largest yew woodland in Western Europe, it’s no wonder UNESCO also named it a Biosphere Reserve back in 1982. What’s more, there’s plenty of heritage wonders, such as Ross Castle, to scout out while walking the various trails around this enormous 102 sq km region.

Wicklow Mountains National Park

Wicklow Mountains is known as the ‘Garden of Ireland’ (Shutterstock)

Where: Country Wicklow

Best for: A nature day trip from Dublin

Most outdoor-loving visitors are often drawn to Ireland’s west coast for its raw, rugged beauty, but Wicklow Mountains National Park, the largest national park in Ireland and the only national park in the east, is a treasure trove of natural delights. Sitting an hour drive south of Dublin, it’s lovingly dubbed the ‘Garden of Ireland’, thanks to its vast open spaces, winding mountain roads, gushing streams and waterfalls, and oak woodlands. At its heart is the glacial-made Glendalough Valley, home to a lake (of the same name) divided in two – the Upper Lake being much vaster than its lower counterpart. Ancient buildings and remains can be found here, with some churches and monasteries dating back more than 1,000 years. But perhaps the most famous landmarks is the 30-metre high Round Tower, often admired for its historic engineering methods. There are nine waymarked trails around this national park for various walking abilities.

Wild Nephin National Park

The boardwalks at Wild Nephin National Park makes its bogs walkable (Shutterstock)

Where: County Mayo

Best for: Gazing into the galaxy

For those who enjoy a spot of stargazing, you’ll struggle to find anywhere better in Ireland than Wild Nephin National Park. This 150 sq km site was certified as the country’s first International Dark Sky Reserve in 2016, meaning its night skies are protected from experiencing excessive light pollution. For novice stargazers, the park’s guides provide educational programmes to help you make the most of the dark skies above: the Milkyway and even meteor showers have been spotted here. Of course, Wild Nephin also has plenty of natural topography to view during daylight hours. Sitting on the western seaboard, it’s dominated by the Nephin Beg mountain range, but well known for its Owenduff Bog, one of the largest active blanket bog systems in Western Europe that supports various wild species, from red grouse to otters. For a scenic yet difficult hike, follow the 40km Bangor Trail to experience the park’s ancient landscapes from an old road, once the main route connecting Bangor and Newport in the 16th century.

Learn more about each of Ireland’s national parks at nationalparks.ie

You may also like:

Explore More

More Articles