I am growing to understand that we are nowhere near a finish line when it comes to exploring the northern part of Ireland, which offers a perfect setting for a family adventure. Especially as we started travelling in a campervan; it has opened up many doors and opportunities from visiting lesser know parts to meeting many amazing people.
I have to be honest, the adventures we had in Donegal last year are some of my favourites to this day. It’s where I love to watch landscapes move and change with each passing season, it’s where crashing ocean waves make our universe revived, and it’s where every corner tells a story.
One of the reasons why we love spending time in Donegal, apart from surfing and hiking, is to photograph the surrounding coast, persistently changing colours and moods of fast-moving natural elements.
In this place, changes in temperatures and winds can create an ever-evolving and appealing scenery. Sunsets and sunrises are well worth staying up for; it’s rather spectacular on the edge of darkness with vivacious flashes of ruby-red to perfect golden shades on constant display.
Last autumn we carved out some time for family fun in Donegal and o my, did the universe deliver! The wind was howling all night, and we didn’t know what to expect in the morning.
We were surprised to wake up to the quite light and low hanging moon. The morning mist was dancing around the Benbulben mountain as we drove by and crunchy frosting covered ground.
We loved going off the beaten track around the Southwest part of Donegal; it was one of those road trips we would replicate again without reluctance. It was one of those trips that gave my existence on this Planet more purpose; it was a beautiful thing.
If you decide to visit Donegal, a place where nature is both wild and gentle, you’ll be generously rewarded. You’ll encounter empty coastal roads resting under sunny skies, you’ll be able to dive into the sea of green ferns, you’ll be on the way to a never-ending learning experience, and you’ll see more sheep than people.
An epic 3-day road trip around southwest Donegal for you to steal
Everyone that visits Donegal – a county that’s nicknamed Irelands Forgotten County – is bound to fall in love with the vastness of the landscape and friendly people.
And after the trip, no matter how big or small, you won’t be able to stop dreaming about this part of Ireland that’s full of vast bogs, forlorn costs and incredible cliffs.
Road Trip Details & Essentials
This blog post covers a road trip where we drove around the southwest part of Donegal from Donegal town to Slieve League Cliffs, Glencomcille, Ardara and back to Donegal town.
And, as with any road trip, there is so much more to see and do than a one blog post can cover.
• Car Rental | Renting a car in Ireland is pretty straight forward, and you can pre-book one at any of Ireland’s airports for a reasonably affordable price. At Ireland West Airport you can arrange car hire with Avis, Budget, Hertz and Europcar Rentals. If you are arriving at Dublin Airport offer a great range of car hire companies too.
The best option is always to book directly with the chosen car hire company and to secure the keys of the rental, you’ll need to bring a valid drivers license, credit card and for ID purposes – your passport.
• Toll Roads | Even if you are not a resident, you still have to pay when travelling around the Republic of Ireland and passing through one of 11 Toll Points. Speak to your car rental company about their policy; you might be required to cover the costs yourself. Have a look at the Eflow website if you have specific questions.
• Road Map | A good road map or a guide book is essential to make sure you won’t miss any must-see sites and can come in handy if you don’t have internet coverage.
- Duration: Three days
- Route Length: 165 kilometres
- Driving Time: 4-5 hours
- Start: Donegal Town
- Stops: Donegal Town, St. Johns, Killybegs, Slieve League, Ardara, Maghera Beach
- Finish: Donegal Town
#1. Stroll through Donegal Town and visit its castle
Start your trip by visiting Donegal town and don’t skip historical sites like Donegal Castle, built by Red Hugh O’Donnell and his wife the Lady Nuala.
The entrance fee to the castle is Euro 5 for an adult, and you can take a self-guided tour to see the grounds and interior of the castle.
We have been visiting Donegal Town, situated in northwest Ireland for the past year and love everything about it. There are several things you can do in town.
You can go on one hour cruise with Donegal Bay Waterbus to see seal inhabited coves, visit The Railway Heritage Centre or wander around the ruins of Donegal Abbey.
#2. Visit St. John’s point lighthouse
Leave Donegal, catch the last look of beautiful Blue Stack mountains and head towards St John’s lighthouse, that still provides an essential service to southwest Donegal’s fisherman, via an open coastal road.
St. Johns lighthouse was one of the locations we were most excited to visit and to photograph when we left for the trip. As this beautiful lighthouse, whose tower was designed by George Halpin, is located on the longest peninsula in Ireland, driving 11 kilometres to the tip of it was quite exciting.
After finding a tiny spot between two motorhomes with English registration numbers for our campervan and setting up camp on a small sandy beach overlooking little bay, we went for a walk to St. Johns lighthouse. We were greeted with remarkable views, abundant plant and birdlife as well as much needed tranquillity.
*Tip: If you love lighthouses, check out Great Lighthouses of Ireland webpage for more valuable information.
#3. Stop at Killybegs Town and sample fresh fish
Located north of Donegal, Killybegs is the largest fishing port in Ireland with the Killybegs harbour full of trawlers. This little town makes for a great and convenient stop as it is located on the Donegal Wild Atlantic Way.
You can visit the Killybegs Information Centre situated on the Shore Road and chat with knowledgeable staff about available outdoor activities.
If you are interested – take on Killybegs Heritage trail and visit Coastguard Station, The Corn Store, Heritage centre and more.
#4. Marvel at the sheer size of Slieve League Cliffs
Some places just feel much bigger than the space they take up. Wild, rugged and miles from everywhere, Slieve League cliffs – 601 metres at their highest point – is a remote place that’s usually battered by the harsh weather.
Whenever we visit this part of the Donegal and are looking for an adventure, Slieve League cliffs come to mind. Just to name a few reasons that makes this place special – there are fantastic photo opportunities, rewarding hiking trails like Pilgrims Path with the infamous One Man’s Pass. And on a clear day, you’ll get a great view of County Sligo and Benbulben mountain.
Slieve League Cliffs are located about an hours drive from Donegal town towards the southwest and this is the place where you can have a full Irish weather experience.
Because we have seen this place with gusty winds and sideways rains, that made it impossible to stand still or take a decent photo, it was nice to see it glowing under the golden autumn light.
#5. Visit Deserted Village of Port
Far away from maddening tourist crowds, surrounded by steep cliffs, sits remote and abandoned village. The last residents are long gone, leaving behind crumbling cottages and a life where making a living from the land and the sea, while bracing the elements, was the only way to survive.
While driving around Glencomcille area, we took the wrong turn and stumbled upon The Deserted Village of Port. If you are comfortable to wander down the little dirt road for a few miles(single lane, of course), put on hiking boots, grab a sandwich, water and make your way across the little bridge. It’s a gateway to hikers paradise with views of soaring cliff faces surging from the ocean floor.
The little village, situated 15 km from Glencomcille, is worth a visit, and it took us a half an hour to get there. One of the cottages are renovated and is up for rent if you fancy getting away from it all! See more here.
#6. Explore Maghera Strand & Caves
I loved how we could jump out of the campervan right into this beautiful out-of-the-way wilderness location. We have seen different versions of Maghera Caves of all shapes and sizes trough other travellers photos but climbing all the way to the expansive beach and seeing them in person, was something we wanted to do for a very long time.
We were delighted to find a truly stunning white sand beach with towering dunes and impressive rock formations; great for the whole family to experience. Due to the fast tides, the caves aren’t always accessible and keep in mind that despite the beautiful setting, the currents are powerful.
Maghera Strand is located around 8 kilometres from Ardara Village and on your way to the beach, you’ll pass by a waterfall which makes for a great photo stop.
#7. Take in the views at Glengesh Pass
Situated between the lovely town of Ardara and Glencomcille, Glengesh Pass meaning “Glen of the Swans” waves through a beautiful setting and is often used by travellers heading to Slieve League cliffs.
The travel distance between the two towns is 15 km, and the twisty road makes for a great drive with pick nick tables and stunning views waiting at the top of it.
Glengesh Pass doesn’t receive a great deal of traffic; take your time navigating through the curves and enjoy the beautiful setting and Mulmosog Mountains.
Where to stay in Donegal
On our first road trip around Glencomkille region, we decided to stay in Malinbeg Hostel, located in untouched South-West Donegal. We chose this place because it is situated only a few minutes from beautiful horseshoe-shaped Silver Strand beach and because it offered excellent value for money and free parking. Our privet room was clean, comfortable and the hostel had a fantastic view of the Rathlin O’Byrne Island.
You’ll find plenty of accommodation options throughout southwest Donegal to suit any budget and travel style. Always make sure it offers free or nearby parking for your car.
Donegal town is a great place to stay for a couple of days, and you can even use it as a base to explore nearby sights like Slieve League cliffs, Ardara and Killybegs but if you decide to drive out to the very tip of peninsula its best to find an overnight stay near Glemcolmcille region.
- The Abbey Hotel is located on the main square in Donegal town and The hotel restaurant – The Market House – uses fresh Irish produce.
- Harvey’s Point | The luxury hotel located just 6km from Donegal town is sitting pretty on the shores of beautiful Lough Eske. Harvey’s Point restaurant offers elegant dining, and you’ll be spoiled with stunning views.
- Lough Eske Castle | Treat yourself to a memorable night at the castle, enjoy a world-class treatment, traditional dishes and relax at the Solis Spa.
- Gort Na Mona B&B | Located 3km from Adara Village, this B&B offers clean and spaces rooms, homemade jams and mountain views.
When booking hostels or hotels for more than one night, always ask if there are any discounts available, especially when travelling offseason. On a good few occasions, we managed to get an upgrade at no extra cost and had been able to choose a room.
Where to go for a meal in Donegal
While now we have an option to cook a fresh meal in our campervan, once in a while we find a lovely traditional pub with a great atmosphere and settle in for a dinner or lunch.
Make sure to stop at one of Donegal Good Food Taverns (there are 9 in total), well known for serving fantastic food made from locally produced ingredients. Leo’s Tavern, located in the village of Meenaleck, is our firm favourite, but there is also one in Ardara Village called Nancy’s Bar, famous for its oysters.
To save money while eating out, look for restaurants with an early bird menu. Usually served Monday through Friday, they offer good food at affordable prices. Keep in mind that eating out on a Sunday is popular in Ireland and many places are bustling during the lunchtime.
How to get to around Donegal
The best way to visit every place mentioned in this blog post and learn about a thousand years of history is to rent a car as the local transport system won’t take you to most places.
We drove from Sligo to Donegal town, continued along N56 and then R263 towards Glencomcille. That’s the same road that will bring you to St. Johns Point, Killybegs, and Slieve League cliffs. From Glencomcille we headed for Adare village and then back to Donegal Town.
Even though the total length of this little loop drive was just 165 km, we could have easily spend a week or even more stopping at every village, viewpoint and hiking trail.
- From Knock Airport | You can fly into Ireland West Airport situated just 117 km from Donegal’s Town, rent a car or Donegal Abbey Hotel using Bus Éireann services.
- From Dublin | Driving distance from Dublin to Donegal town is 224 km via N3 and it takes well over 3 hours to get there.
- From Dublin Busáras | You can travel from Dublin’s Busáras Bus Station to Donegal and back with Express Route 30 that goes through Dublin Airport and Ballyshannon before it comes at a full stop at the Abbey Hotel in Donegal Town.
- From Donegal Airport | Located at Carrickfinn, Kincasslagh, Donegal Airport is only an hours drive away from Donegal town and offer twice-daily flights to Dublin Airport.
You can also go on organised day trips with knowledgeable tour guides from Donegal Town by using one of many tour operators:
- Donegal Tours | Offer group and customised private tours to Glenveagh National Park, Inishowen, Slieve League and more.
- Sliabh Liag Tours | A family-run tour operator who runs a guided shuttle service to the Slieve league viewing point.
- GoVisitDonegal | Is a brilliant site packed with loads of useful info and additional links to various tour operators in Donegal.
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Now, over to you!
Have you been to Donegal? Let us know in the comments below!
Let us know if you are plotting a visit to Donegal and have travel-related questions.