This morning is one of those “it might rain” weather forecasts, and a few sprinkles are falling already as Amy drives the kids to school and us a mile farther up the road to the trailhead for the hike to Ballyvaughan.
We’re all talking rapidly as if trying to squeeze a lifelong friendship into a five-minute ride. We really like Amy and her family.
She tells us of the difficulties of the universal lockdown in Ireland during Covid, how neighbors turned in neighbors if they violated the 5 or 10-kilometer perimeter set up for each home, how stir-crazy everyone became, and how hard it was to make a living on a short leash.
“You’re heading out on my favorite hike,” says Amy. “We all discovered the Burren and hiking during the lockdown. It was the only thing we could do. And now I love it.”
Amy tries to walk a section of this path at least once a week.
That comes as a relief because, to be honest, I’m starting off a bit worried this morning. It is seven hours of hiking to Ballyvaughan and that includes going over the top of a couple of the dome-shaped hills with their terraced, limestone fields.
The bald heads of the Burren.
Going AROUND the Burren, I can do that. Going OVER the rugged stone hillsides? Not so sure.
Amy is sure we’ll enjoy the hike.
The beginning of the path feels like it was the inspiration for Hobbit lands:
I can see why. The trail starts wide and carpeted in green grass and wildflowers. There are plenty of outcrops, stone fences, and breathtaking views of Galway Bay to keep us occupied. And it is flat, as we are circumnavigating one of the huge domes, Gleninagh Mountain, about midway up to the peak.
Above us, the limestone domes look foreboding. These domes are wiser for their experience, and less forgiving than, say, a verdant park that has had an easy life. It feels like they have been through some nasty stuff over the past million years. I try to imagine these hills covered in forest, as some claim, and find it hard.
In some parts, stone walls rise almost straight up the dome, demarcating these wildly serrated limestone fields from other limestone fields. Who would haggle over this real estate, I wonder. The sun rises up from behind Gleninagh. Loose-fitting stone walls at the top look like ribbons of lace, as light shines through the thousand small gaps.
Man and nature create great art in the Burren: Rocks, erosion, walls, and forts — what a landscape!:
We walk in wonderment. This is a geologic art gallery, like none we have seen before. These wandering walls, these exposed boulders and stones, the karst, the low vegetation, shockingly bright wildflowers, and green grasses still wet with the morning drizzle — it feels like such a fantasy.
The road around the Burren is wide, mostly flat, and feels like a Van Morrison song in the making.
Walking to Ballyvaughan on a cool Spring morn,
With my true love beside me,
Rock walls escort us around the Burren, a wilderness concierge,
The scent of wildflowers, heady in the air,
The sure-footedness of a grassy carpet beneath us,
A crisp icy wind lashes our cheeks till they turn pink,
A warm and benevolent sun clambers up and
Over the Gleninagh to spread comfort to all.
We walk on, and walk on, and walk on
Smiles slip from our hearts to our lips.
We never, never want it to stop, not today.
Can it get any better than this?
After Black Head Lighthouse, the mountain trail curves away from the ocean winds and the terrain changes dramatically:
We walk in a stony Eden. Above us, like a gray layer cake, stratifications of limestone layer up and up beyond the horizon. The earth feels frozen in time, bookmarked at millions of years ago. Below us, green fields, farm houses and barns, livestock, castle ruins, and a tiny white ribbon that is the serpentine coastal road, with tiny vehicles silently scurrying off like cockroaches to who knows where.
We hike the Atlantic side of the Burren for much of the morning. You can sense the difficult relationship this side of the hills has experienced with the fierce winds and rains that the ocean often throws their way. The limestone fields are scarred with rivulets by relentless rain, erosion, and wind.
The trail curves around the massive Burren at Black Head Lighthouse, and soon faces Black Head Bay and Galway Bay beyond. Once off the windward side of the dome, the trail narrows dramatically and becomes quite a slog through brambles, rocks, roots, and mud. On our right is a steep limestone and soil hillside, rich with undergrowth from recent rains reaching onto the path – and even some trees. On the left is an ancient row of stone that keeps us from tumbling down to the bay.
The word that comes to mind is not one I was expecting: lush. The trail is almost obscured by the foliage. And it feels like we’re the first to travel this route in some time. Were it not for the small signposts, I’d be thinking that we’d perhaps once again gotten lost, except that there are no wrong turns on this trail. It’s like, if you go straight down or straight up, you’re off the trail.
We break out the hiking sticks for the first time. And they prove incredibly handy.
This section of the trail feels like we’re skiing moguls, with all the obstructions to clamber over. Exhausting but a fun challenge. It is not long, but it slows the pace and it is exhausting to navigate.
Two men with small backpacks walk by, hardly breaking a sweat, so there is that. Encouraging.
At a fork in the trail, we pause for some hard-boiled eggs, biscuits, and water. The left fork heads down toward the coastal road. The other fork promises more of the same.
Almost as if from a Broadway play, a woman in hiking togs materializes, on her way to Fanore. She knows these trails well.
“If you head down the lower trail, you can cut off a couple of hours to Ballyvaughan,” she offers. “But the road is narrow and curvey and you’ll be dodging traffic for the next two hours.”
“If you stay on this one, it will take you over the Burren and through the valley — it’s very pretty — and you’ll end up close to Ballyvaughan.”
She lingers no more than that. Say the lines. Exit stage right. (To our applause.)
Stay the course, it is
The “jungle trail” gives way to steep and lazy switchbacks, leading to the rocky, windswept, hilltops of the Burren. The wind picks up as we rise and grow more exposed to the elements. The jackets and vests go back on.
The final uphill leg of the hiking trail to Ballyvaughan. After this it is all, literally, downhill — and flat:
Huffing to the top, like soldiers clambering out of the trenches, on the attack, we spot our quarry: acres and acres of variegated limestone karst. It is indeed as if we’ve stepped onto another planet.
There are 130-square-kilometers of this cold and desolate moonscape, and we are crossing only a few. Standing on top and surveying the horizons, it is staggering to think this area was once as heavily wooded as the Pacific Northwest, or maybe Sherwood Forest.
The winds are powerful and unforgiving, and the rain can be relentless. Once these hills were denuded — for ships, fuel, and homes — it was easy for the elements to strip away the soil to the raw carboniferous limestone. More centuries of rain have scarified the limestone and created rivulets into which seeds and dust and dirt fall and compost.
Nature is resilient if anything. These channels are teeming with life – hardy grasses, small wildflowers, brush, and brambles.
A wise man named Bud Murphy once told me, “To appreciate the desert, you need to get down on your hands and knees. There is colorful life to be found in the shade of every rock, in the sheltered seams of every canyon. It is tiny and beautiful, but you won’t see it if you don’t stop and look deeply.”
It is the same in The Burren. There is life everywhere if you are willing to look for it. And it is beautiful.
Once we hit the leeward side of the burrens, inside a protected valley, pastures of green spread out before us. Neat stone fences demarcate the grazing fields and the ruins of an ancient ringed fort draw our attention from high above. We cross running brooks and walk down shaded lanes.
The last few kilometers into Ballyvaughan are challenging as evening rush hour traffic, such as it is, pops up around every curve.
An intriguing ring-fort, nosey cows, narrow roads and sharp turns, cool running water — plenty to see as you climb down from the Burren:
The Wild Atlantic Lodge proves to be a welcoming respite for the night with its own little pub, called the Snug Bar, and a decent enough restaurant for two hungry hikers.
Later, buzzing on batter-fried cod and Guinness we walk about the town and inspect the only other restaurant open for business, Monks. But they are at the end of a busy evening and clearly closing down. Despite the pointed indifference, we order a nightcap, a whiskey and a Guinness.
A plan is already formulated in our heads for tomorrow. Rain is called for. All day. And can a hike get any better than today’s?
We’ll see if ibuprofen can turn back the hands of time on these old aches and pains in time to walk to Carron.
If not, there may be a bus to Carron. It might be worth taking in the rain.
Ireland and The Burren Way Series: