The rolling hills, the rocks, the bogs, the woods lovely dark and deep, and monumental castles. These are just some of the amazing features of the national parks of Ireland. They only cover about one percent of this small island nation but they sure do pack a punch.
Nicknamed the Emerald Isle because of the shimmering green landscape, a trip to Ireland is not complete without visiting one of its hauntingly beautiful national parks. So throw on some comfortable gear (as the weather can change in a second!) and get out and explore.
What is a National Park?
National parks are areas of land in a country that are protected by its central government. These are usually due to extraordinary levels of beauty, unusual natural formations, wildlife conservation, or historical significance.
This designation protects it from being used for commercial purposes and cannot be owned privately. In this way the government protects the integrity of nature on the land, ensuring that things that could harm such as logging and deforestation. It also ensures that access to these breathtaking scenes is not restricted and is available for the public to enjoy.
There are other protection classifications such as national forests and nature reserves, in fact, Ireland has 26 nature reserves to go along with its six national parks. However, national parks are usually the creme de la creme of a nation’s landscape; thus, national parks usually come with more strict protections.
After you see the places below, you will have no doubt in your mind why they decided that these areas were worthy of Irish national parks’ status.
National Parks in Ireland
The hardest decision you will have to make when visiting Ireland is deciding which of these places to visit first! While it may be hard to choose, it’s impossible to choose wrong.
1. Killarney National Park
- Size: 102.89 km2
- Location: Killarney
We will start off with Killarney, just like the Republic of Ireland did. This stunning section of land was the first protected area and first national park in the country designated in 1932. And it is not just the Irish who think this park is important, as Unesco designated this a biosphere reserve in 1981.
There are so many reasons that make this place special. Home to the highest peaks in Ireland, McGillicuddy Reeks, the purple mountains, lakes, the largest forest area in the country, and diverse and rare wildlife. If you are planning to stay here for only a day, I want you to stop reading right now and go make your trip longer. Just to give you an idea, the largest of the three lakes has over 30 islands by itself, so if you are worried about running out of things to do, don’t be.
Hiking and taking in the scenery is how most people spend their time here, but I would also book a boating and fishing tour in the town before coming if that is your thing. This place is magical from the land but from the water, it gives a different but equally great feeling.
There are also great old buildings to wander around, some even with guided tours, at Muckrose House, Ross Castle, and Knockreer House.
This place is located right next to the town of Killarney which is great in and of itself so you can knock out two incredible birds with one stone.
Where to Stay – The Lake Hotel
Situated out of the town and right on the shores of Loch Lein, this is the perfect place to base your Killarney national park journey from. A heritage hotel constructed in 1820 with fabulous mountain views, this hotel even played host to Queen Victoria in 1861. If it’s good enough for the queen it is good enough for me too.
2. Wild Nephin Ballycroy National Park
- Size: 150 km2
- Location: County Mayo
If you came to Ireland’s national parks looking for bogs, well then look no further. Ballycroy National Park has some of the best blanket bogs in the world!
For all you city folk out there, bogs are essentially wetlands, that are covered with peat on top of the soft spongy ground. You may have heard about peat before as it is the material used to smoke some forms of mostly scotch whiskey.
This is the latest national park to gain that status in the country in 1998. This is because the blanket bog that is located here is some of the last undisturbed in the world. This is extremely important to protect as it is an important habitat for many different types of flora and fauna. For example, it is an essential stop for several species of migratory birds such as the Whooper Swan and the Peregrine Falcon. As you can imagine with such rare species flying several times a year, birds and bird watchers alike flock here.
It is also the perfect park to visit if you enjoy a nice walk. The trails that crisscross here are incredibly scenic, however, they are not very difficult and remain pretty level throughout.
Where to stay – Riverside House
You have the option to bring your own tent and camp inside the park, but if you would prefer a toilet with walls, you would be remiss if you didn’t consider the Riverside House. One of the nearest hotels to the park, with beautiful river and garden views with clean and spacious rooms, this place is a no-brainer.
3. Connemara National Park
- Size: 20 km2
- Location: Galway
One of the smaller Irish national parks on this list. The place is fantastic for a quiet day trip out into nature. Varied landscapes encompass this landscape with heather, bogs, mountains, woods, and grassland so you can choose whichever you like to see.
Animal lovers keep your eyes peeled for the renowned Connemara ponies. They roam around free and they truly are a joy to see. Bird watchers will again have to keep their heads on a swivel as this is probably the best park to see a wide variety of our feathered friends.
Experienced hikers can take on the challenging but rewarding Twelve Bens hike while those who enjoy a leisurely stroll will feel at home on the diamond hill walk.
For history buffs, feel free to explore the over 100-year-old Kylemore Abbey to get a taste of Benedictine life. There are even megalithic structures you can visit that are over 4000 years old!
Where to Stay – Rosleague Manor Hotel
Rosleague Manor Hotel is an oasis of peace and tranquillity when you visit Connemara National Park. Complete with tennis courts, a restaurant, and a conservatory, you might not even want to leave this 19th-century manor.
4. Burren National Park
- Size: 15 km2
- Location: Corofin
No, this is not the moon, even though it might feel like it, this is Burren National Park. The smallest of Ireland’s national parks, it is jam-packed with things to do and see.
This place gets its name from the Irish word “Boireann” which means rocky place, and when you see it you will probably agree that the name makes sense. Karst rock formations form gorgeous walking routes and caves that are just begging to be explored. The Aillwee Caves in particular are stunning.
This park is not only a good visit now but was a hotbed in the ancient world. More than 2500 historical sites dot the park, from the 5000-year-old Poulnabrone Dolmen to the Iron Age stone fort of Cahercommaun. Early Christian sites and cathedrals also can be found in the immediate area.
Where to Stay – Luxury Garden Glamping in the heart of the Burren
While not located within the national park itself, this property gives you access to a glamping experience in the greater Burren area. Lake and mountain views complete with a patio for sunset views, grab your own slice of paradise here.
5. Glenveagh National Park
- Size: 170 km2
- Location: Letterkenny
There is a lot to see and do at Glenveagh National Park, but we can’t start talking about it until we mention its crown jewel, the Glenveagh Castle and gardens. The castle itself is a sight to behold, four stories, with a jaw-dropping backdrop, and a modern audiovisual centre to educate visitors. Then after all that, we reach the gardens, which by consensus is one of, if not the horticultural destinations in all of Ireland, and is chock full of exotic plants.
After you have been suitably impressed by the complex, take a walk out to Astellen Falls, the highest falls in the country. If you are lucky enough to go after a big rain you can see it really roar.
If you haven’t had your fill of adventure yet, you can take on the mighty Mount Errigal, the highest peak in Donegal. Or you can get lost (but not too lost!) in the native oak woodlands. The second largest national park in Ireland, it definitely deserves a visit.
Where to stay – Bridgeburnhouse Bed and Breakfast
This quaint B&B is the perfect place to lay your head and recharge for a day in the park. Located just outside the town of Letterkenny for some peace and quiet, each room also comes with soft beds and a hearty Irish breakfast to give you the strength to get out and explore.
6. Wicklow Mountains National Park
- Size: 170 km2
- Location: Letterkenny
Last but certainly not least, Wicklow Mountains National Park deserves to be right near the top of any list. The only park located on the east coast of the country, not only does it have mind-blowing scenery, but it is also an adventure junkies’ paradise. Diving, fishing, rock climbing, rowing, cycling, and paragliding. These are just some of the activities offered in this incredible place. If you are a doer, this place is for you.
Scenic drives are also one of the top things to do here. The R756 road which passes through the Wicklow Gap, as well as R115 which drives straight through the heart of the mountains, are dazzling, to say the least.
In addition to the unique flora and fauna of the area, the park also houses the monastic complex of Glendalough. Established by Saint Kevin in the 6th century, it includes many churches, hermitages, and other holy sites. There is a namesake distillery just outside the park that I highly recommend for a celebratory drink after spending the day discovering the park.
Where to Stay – Wicklow Way Lodge
Located smack dab in the Wicklow Mountains, the Wicklow Way Lodge is your guide to adventure. Offering advice and tips on booking activities in the park as well as providing a relaxing place to rest when you return, you will not regret leaving your trip in the hands of these fine hosts.
7. Burren and Cliffs of Moher Geopark (Not a National Park)
It is not an actual Irish national park, and it shouldn’t technically be on this list, but I just had to include it! This Geopark is one of the most visited places in Ireland and is as impressive as the other parks on this list. The Cliffs of Moher and Alladie Cliffs are simply natural wonders. Stretching eight kilometres, and rising 120 meters over the sea, they’re physically monstrous. Staring at them in awe is one of my favourite ways to spend an afternoon.
Where to Stay – Vaughans Anchor Inn
Staying next to the coast, you want to feel like you are near the ocean right? Well, Vaughans Anchor Inn makes sure you don’t forget. From an award-winning seafood restaurant to quirky but tasteful nautical-themed decor, you will feel yourself blissfully floating into relaxation.
Ireland has been blessed with such amazing nature, landscapes, and history, that it would be an absolute shame not to take advantage of it. So when you’re planning your trip to the Emerald Isle, please consider putting a couple of these in your itinerary. I can promise you won’t regret it.
I love each and every park on this list, but if I had to just spend time at one it would be Wicklow Mountain. There is just so much to do and so much to see!
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