14 Damn Good Reasons To Thru Hike The IAT Ulster-Ireland
The following is a sponsored post brought to you by Outdoor Recreation Northern Ireland.
If you’re looking for a 2022 thru-hike that breaks the standard mold and escapes the crowds of US trails, then it may be time to add the Ulster-Ireland section of the International Appalachian Trail to your list.
This 279-mile trail runs from West Donegal in the Republic of Ireland to Larne, Co Antrim in Northern Ireland. It’s Ireland’s only coast-to-coast hike, traversing some of the most spectacular scenery the island has to offer. Hikers have the opportunity to discover historic monuments, dramatic coastlines, rugged mountains, and a World Heritage Site, all with geological links to the Appalachian Mountains.
Thinking of planning your own hike on this little slice of heaven? Here are 14 of the biggest reasons this trail should be at the top of your hiking bucket list.
14 Damn Good Reasons to Hike the IAT Ulster-Ireland
1. It’s the perfect length.
At 279 miles, this trail is perfect for those looking for a thru-hike that can be achieved within a few weeks. Although the route is considered difficult with rugged terrain and steep climbs, the average completion time for the trail is around 24 – 30 days. The trail also travels through many towns and could easily be set up for a section hike for those who can’t dedicate multiple weeks to thru-hiking.
2. Lack of Crowds.
If you’re looking to shake things up from the classic thru-hike routes across the US, this may be the trail for you. The IAT Ulster Ireland’s governing body was only established in 2011—the trail is relatively new and mostly unknown in the thru-hiking community. Therefore, hikers currently have a unique opportunity to travel a newer trail system with minimal crowds for a truly singular experience.
3. Go Coast to Coast.
As Ireland’s only coast to coast hike, the 279 mile route includes a great choice of long and short distance walks, taking in every terrain you could want crossing four counties Donegal, Tyrone, Derry/Londonderry and Antrim.
The trail travels through historic Irish towns as well as multiple historic sites along its 279-mile route. Sites like Lough Eske, The Ulster American Folk Park , and Dunluce Castle offer hikers the chance to learn about the rich history of Ireland, and the countless small, charming Irish villages allow chances for both resupplying and grabbing a traditional Irish meal.
5. It’s a different type of landscape than most other trails.
Being Ireland’s only coast-to-coast hike, the trail offers scenery unlike any other. From the epic cliff faces of Slieve League (one of the highest accessible cliffs in Europe) to the beautiful woodlands of the Sperrin Mountains. From the world-famous geological wonder of the Giant’s Causeway Coast to the Glens of Antrim. The trail crosses borders, brings you through historical sites, and gives you a real taste of both Ireland and Northern Ireland.
6. It’s perfect for those looking for a challenge.
Although the highest point on the trail is only around 1800 feet, the route’s constant climbs are sure to offer a challenge to even the most experienced hiker. With a total elevation gain of 36,291 feet over the trail’s 279 miles, hikers are almost always climbing or descending throughout the hike. Fortunately, it’s well worth the effort. Your hard work will be rewarded with sweeping views of Ireland and picturesque walks along coastal cliffs.
Our Favorite Sections of Trail
7. Slieve League
Arguably one of the most iconic sections along the trail, the climb up to Slieve League Mountain is home to one of Europe’s highest cliffs and offers insane views of the Atlantic Ocean and beyond. The hiking in this section is rugged and offers a genuine challenge, posing difficult cliff side walks that are not for the novice hiker. The views more than make up for the effort as you traverse towering sea cliffs covered in lush green vegetation.
8. Giant’s Causeway Coast
The Giant’s Causeway Coast is like something out of a sci-fi movie—the striking geometric rock formation lines the Atlantic Ocean, creating one of the most unique coastlines in the world. Forty thousand hexagonal basalt columns—which date back to the volcanic age nearly 60 million years ago—make up this World Heritage Site along the trail, but that’s not all this section has to offer. The entire Giant’s Causeway Coastline is lined with unique sea cliffs and rock formations carved by the rough ocean currents. As you continue traveling down the coastline, the cliffs break with enough room for multiple sand- and pebble-lined beaches, perfect for a midday break.
9. Glens of Antrim
Along the Emerald Isle, hikers will pass through the Nine Glens of Antrim, which are deep narrow valleys carved by receding glaciers during the last Ice Age. The glens are lush with vibrant green vegetation and flowing waterfalls tucked into the forest. Each glen is uniquely different both in the landscape and in the people and towns that call each area home. The nine famous Glens, and the meaning behind their names, are as follows:
- Glenarm – Glen of the Army
- Glencloy – Glen of the Dykes
- Glenariff – Glen of the Plough
- Glenballyeamon – Edwardstown Glen
- Glanaan – Glen of the Little Fords
- Glencorp – Glen of the Dead
- Glendun – Brown Glen
- Glenshesk – Glen of the Sedges (Reeds)
- Glentaisie – Named for Princess Taisie of Rathlin Island
Hidden Gems on the IAT Ulster-Ireland
10. Assaranca Waterfall and Maghera Caves & Beach
Located near the western terminus of the trail, the Maghera Beach and Assaranca Waterfall area are regarded as some of the most beautiful places in Ireland. The Assaranca Waterfall is around 300 feet high and is surrounded by lush green vegetation covering the rocks. About one kilometer further down the trail is the stunning Maghera caves and beach, which boasts white sand, crystal clear water, and countless caves hidden within the sea cliffs. Hikers could easily spend an entire zero day in this area exploring the caves and relaxing on the picturesque beach.
11. Goles Stone Row
Hidden in the heart of Ulster lies the Glenelly Valley and the Sperrins – which is a landscape millions of years in the making by ancient glacier activity. The Mysterious Goles Stone Alignment is an arrangement of 11 large stones that were placed in an upright position along a 16-meter line. The stones are believed to have been moved by ancient humans during the Bronze Age. They are thought to have been part of a ritual that took place during the rising moon. The area is located near the picturesque village of Plumbridge.
12. Gortin Lakes
Situated high in the Sperrins Mountains—which are the largest and least explored mountains in Ireland—Gortin Lakes are a tranquil set of two lakes that overlook the valley below. The region’s 40-miles of towering peaks, lush forests, moors, valleys, and lakes are rated among the best places for hiking in all of Ireland.
13. Gortmore Viewpoint
Located along the Giant’s Causeway Coast, Gortmore Viewpoint overlooks Magilligan Point, Benone Beach, and Binevenagh mountain. On a clear day, the sweeping views extend across to Donegal and the islands of Islay and Jura off the west coast of Scotland. The top of the viewpoint is also home to a statue of Gortmore, a metaphorical figure who serves as a representation of Manannan Mac Lir—a Celtic god of the sea in Irish mythology.
14. Madman’s Window
Located in Glenarm—one of the nine Glens of Antrim—Madman’s Window is a natural arch in the cliff which looks out towards the Irish Sea. The story goes that a beautiful young woman drowned whilst swimming in Glenarm Bay and her sweetheart was so distraught that he lost his sanity. Every day for the rest of his life he would gaze through the gap in the rock awaiting her return (hence the name Madman’s Window). Seabirds, seals, and dolphins are all common in the bay, and the window is the perfect viewing spot.
If you’re looking for a shorter thru-hike that’s bursting with natural beauty paired with a unique international hiking experience, the IAT Ulster-Ireland checks all the boxes (and then some). With the trail receiving only a fraction of the foot traffic of the US triple crown trails, hikers are able to enjoy a more serene thru-hiking experience and take in the historic monuments, dramatic coastlines, and rugged mountains that make up the trail.
Since it’s short enough to comfortably complete in under a month, the IAT Ulster-Ireland is the perfect hike for those looking to add another notch to their thru-hiking belt without dedicating multiple months to a single hike.
All photos, including featured image, courtesy of Outdoor Recreation Northern Ireland.
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