Top image: On the summit of Sawel, Derry/Tyrone
This Summer I completed a challenge which took me almost eight years: getting to the highest point of each of Ireland’s 32 counties.
It’s been a fantastic journey all around the island, with new friends made along the way. Below are some musings and images for each of the County High Points (CHPs), in chronological order from my first to my last.
Armagh: Slieve Gullion
My very first CHP and one I’ll always have a soft spot for, first hiked back in 2008. Very recognisable and with a big presence, it dominates the surrounding hills of the Ring of Gullion. Views stretch from Antrim to Wicklow and you can crawl inside the ancient passage tomb on its summit.
Monaghan: Slieve Beagh East Top
Geographically my closest CHP (just about), this is a wet, boggy and mostly featureless landscape straddling Monaghan, Tyrone and Fermanagh. Most people don’t rate it but I’ve been there several times, from
three four sides, and always enjoy its remoteness and far-reaching views.
Being from Tyrone myself, this one will always hold a special place. The walk itself is a boggy affair along a fence line, but if you’re lucky you’ll get stunning views over the pretty Glenelly Valley, surrounding Sperrin Mountains and right across Ulster. I’ve combined it with nearby Dart Mountain for a longer route.
Louth: Slieve Foye
Another favourite, this rocky summit surely has one of the best views of any CHP: across Carlingford Lough to the Mournes and far down Ireland’s east coast. The steep ascent from Carlingford village is the most popular route but on my first visit I started inland from the Long Woman’s Grave.
Probably one of the consistently wettest CHPs, Trostan can be a slog but it’s worth it for the views over the Glens of Antrim and across to the Scottish coast and islands. I’ve been up it a few times, most recently as a short detour off a two-day hike on the Moyle Way.
Carlow/Wexford: Mount Leinster
Completed on a whim during a visit to Wexford in 2012, this shared summit can be bagged via a relatively easy stroll up a transmitter service road. The clouds lifted towards the top to reveal stunning views over patchwork fields. I’d like to do do this one again as part of a more challenging route.
One of the less exciting CHPs, the narrow, winding drive to the start point might take more out of you than the (short but boggy) walk itself. Still, it’s a good vantage point over the plains of central Ireland. The huge power station 35kms away at Shannonbridge is a prominent landmark.
This is the lowest of Ireland’s CHPs at just 258m. The forest walk is more enjoyable than that for some of the higher peaks though, and the summit provides a great view over the three-county-straddling Lough Sheelin to the north.
Meath: Carnbane East (also known as Slieve na Calliagh or Loughcrew)
Not far from the Westmeath high point and not much taller, this is probably Ireland’s most archaeologically intriguing CHP. It and the surrounding hilltops are littered with megalithic arrangements, including the large, equinox-aligned Cairn T here. An easy but enjoyable walk which I’d love to do again.
Like most people, I accessed Truskmore via the the long and often steep transmitter service road. A summit trig pillar marks the CHP of Sligo while Leitrim’s CHP is marked by a cairn down the slope a little. This mountain offers excellent coastal views but there are more enjoyable peaks in the Dartry range (e.g. crazily shaped Benwiskin).
Longford: Corn Hill
Ok, Longford will probably never be marketed as a hillwalking destination but I quite liked this one. The hardest part was finding the start point for the short ‘hike’ up the transmitter road. The hill is quite prominent despite its low height and offers pleasant views over Ireland’s north midlands.
A mountain I’d wanted to ‘do’ for a long time. I first climbed it during the 2013 Cavan Walking Festival… and hated it because of the horrific weather that day. I later tackled it on a better day from the Fermanagh side and came to love it for its rocky/holey summit plateau and impressive lakeland views. A newish boardwalk and steps make for a much easier walk from this side.
Roscommon: Seltannasaggart Southeast Slope
After a failed earlier attempt, I couldn’t let this tricky-to-locate CHP beat me again. Second time round, I found myself fearing for my life in the middle of the surrounding wind farm during thunder and lightning, before finally locating the tiny cairn. I vowed never to go back but probably will, some day (the view over Lough Allen looks good).
Kildare: Cupidstown Hill
Possibly the easiest CHP to complete, via a short, gentle walk along a forest track. The hardest part may have been climbing through a hole in a fence to reach the trig pillar. It offers pleasing views over low-lying Kildare countryside.
I ticked off Galtymore as part of the 31km Galtee Crossing in June 2013. This was physically the most gruelling thing I’d ever done at the time and I didn’t linger at the summit, where the views had also disappeared. I’ve since recovered and would definitely do this mountain again via one of the more direct routes.
For me the highlight of this long and at times steep walk is the stunning vantage point over the snaking expanse of Lough Derg. I returned for a second visit recently as I didn’t quite make it to the twin peaks first time. A new boardwalk helps out near the top, from where it seemed like we could see half of Ireland.
Down: Slieve Donard
I’m not sure why I left it so long to take on Ulster’s highest peak. My first visit, along the popular Glen River route, took in neighbouring Slieve Commedagh and we were lucky to enjoy the beautiful view over Dundrum Bay. Definitely an iconic mountain, though not a personal favourite (in the Mournes, I much prefer Slieve Binnian).
This turned out to be my final Ulster CHP, though I’d often gazed over at it from the distant Sperrins. It’s one of Ireland’s most recognisable and shapely mountains with views among the best. The stony hike is enjoyable (on my first visit I also took in nearby Mackoght) but I have to say Muckish is my favourite Donegal peak to date.
Kilkenny: Brandon Hill
This relatively low yet prominent peak caused me a lot of bother: first in finding a start point and then in getting away again after my car got stuck in muck. The walk was enjoyable though and offered some fantastic views of the Blackstairs Mountains, the River Barrow and south to the sea. Another I’d do again.
Two fellow CHPers and myself did this as part of a loop walk taking in the two Lough Brays then back via the transmitter road. We got some good views, especially out to sea, but it wasn’t one of my more memorable CHPs (though one friend did narrowly avoid a sheet of ice falling from the transmitter).
I bagged Connacht’s highest mountain on a hike with Concern in 2014. The walk wasn’t the most enjoyable, especially the boggy stretch to the foot of the mountain, but we got some incredible coastal and island views on the way down. I’d like to do this one again but from the other (inland) side.
Summit group shot courtesy of Steven Forde
Myself and three other Concern stragglers did this one the day after Mweelrea. For me, Benbaun probably had the best overall package for a CHP: a long, challenging hike on varied terrain (Including crossing the Kylemore River barefoot) and possibly the best views I’ve ever seen in Ireland. Visibility was also exceptional on the day.
This one has possibly the most stressful drive of any CHP (and I wasn’t even doing the driving), to the start point at scenic Priest’s Leap. It’s another boggy, fence line trek but the views were mesmerising when they were there: over Bantry Bay and Ireland’s southernmost peninsulas. I’d do it again for these (but would still rather someone else drove).
I recall not being in the best frame of mind while taking on the daddy of them all; two late nights out in Killarney probably didn’t help. I found the walk long and tiring but it was amazing to ascend the infamous Devil’s Ladder (it helped that there was no one behind me) and to finally touch the metal cross at the top of Ireland, even if we saw nothing from it.
My only new CHP of 2015, we approached the top of Leinster via the less common zig-zag route at Glenmalure. An enjoyable hike but once again there was no view to be had from the summit. The best part was the outdoor pint at Glenmalure Lodge at the end. I’d like to do this one again from the more popular Glen of Imaal side. Definitely a county I’d like to hike more in.
I was actually a little sad and reluctant before taking on my final CHP, but ‘all good things’ and all that. We did it as part of a loop, visiting nearby Sugarloaf Hill first, and got some excellent views throughout. It was a brilliant feeling approaching Knockmealdown’s summit trig, and a worthy mountain to finish my challenge with. Another range I’d happily return to and explore more of.
(Too tired to smile: at the summit of Knockmealdown)
Thanks to all my companions who shared this journey with me. Also a special mention to Kieron Gribbon and his excellent book ‘Ireland’s County High Points A Walking Guide’, which was an invaluable resource for many of the walks.