Good weather? Head to Connemara.
On one unsuspecting Sunday back in November, we were blessed with a rare occurrence – good weather. Many a joke are made at the expense of Ireland’s weather, but on that lovely morning the sun was shining and the sky was blue. Of course, this break from the grey Irish winter would not last long, so a few friends and I decided to make the most of it with a little road trip to Connemara National Park.
Galway is a great jumping off point for exploring many sites including this wild and fantastic landscape. And I mean fantastic literally. The park looks like something out of the Lord of the Rings. Turns out you don’t have to go all the way to New Zealand to get some Rohan vibes. While you might not think hiking around a park during an Irish winter sounds like a good idea, I can tell you that you are seriously missing out. If you are ever in Galway on a nice day, you have to take a day trip to Connemara National Park.
Renting A Car
In order to cover as much ground as possible, my three friends and I rented a car. There are buses that go to Letterfrack, the town where the park is located, but we wanted the freedom to explore without the worry of missing the last bus. Many of the bus routes to touristy sites are less frequent during the winter anyway, so if you do opt for public transport, make sure to check the schedule before you go!
We ended up getting a car from Budget Car Rentals. Their office was really conveniently located on Eyre Square, and you can return your car to the garage 24/7, so you don’t have to get back in a hurry. We showed up at the car rental office at 9 AM and were on our way to the car by 9:30. I may have accidentally gone into the wrong parking garage and made all of my friends walk up four flights of stairs before I realized my mistake, but hey, I warned them not to make me navigator first thing in the morning. Regardless, we found our chariot for the day and headed off in search of adventure.
The first stop on our day tour was Kylemore Abbey. Located a little over an hour from Galway, the abbey and Victorian walled garden are a staple on any Connemara day tour. We planned to stop for a quick photo-op before driving to the park since none of us were keen to pay the €13 entry fee. Some scaffolding on the abbey took a little away from the panorama, but the lake and surrounding forests were beautiful. I’d love to return in the summer when the gardens are in full bloom.
On your way to the Abbey make sure to stop at the Connemara Giant. This is the first real scenic viewpoint on the drive, but the thing that makes it special is its sense of humor. The statue itself bears a plaque that says ‘Built in 1999 by Joyce’s Craft Shop for no apparent reason”. Behind the statue itself is another plaque that says “On this site in 1897 nothing happened”. Who doesn’t love a dramatic view that doesn’t take itself too seriously?
Connemara National Park
A quick five-minute drive from Kylemore is the village of Letterfrack, home to the Connemara National Park Visitor Centre. Because it was November when we visited, the visitor center was closed (as were the toilets). Thankfully the park itself is open all year round, and it’s totally free. After a brief nostalgia stop at a small playground, we headed on our way up the Diamond Hill Trail.
There are three different trails you can take: yellow, blue, and red. The yellow and blue trails are both very easy to do. It is uneven terrain at times with a slight incline, but it is definitely more of a walk than a hike. The red trail up the mountain is much more intense. It follows a steep path up uneven stone steps. Towards the top the wind whips around like crazy, and even on a nice day it can still be very muddy. That being said, we saw more than one family doing the walk with two or three young kids in tow, so it isn’t impossible.
And let me tell you, it was breathtaking. Watching the mist pass over the bracken colored hills, I wholeheartedly believed that this is what heaven would look like. The lighting was magical and ethereal. I can completely understand why Ireland has such an extensive collection of fairy tales. It looks like the kind of place inhabited by magical creatures. We stopped for many photo breaks and had a picnic at the top of the mountain, so it took us about 3 hours to complete the hike.
The Connemara Loop
Even if you are tired from the walk, don’t head back to Galway the way you came! Take the Connemara Loop. This well-posted drive brings you along the coast and past some incredible scenic viewpoints. If you are photo obsessed like me, you will be asking to stop the car every ten minutes to snap a picture of some ridiculously pretty scenery. It’s hard to resist.
During one of our roadside pit stops, I met a British woman who was also driving the Loop. She suggested a few places for us to stop including a church in Tully Cross with some amazing stained glass windows and a beach near Glassillaun. Since we had embarked on this adventure with very little planning or research, the suggestions were much appreciated.
We headed for the church first as it was closest, though we ended up not going inside. At that point the sun was starting to set, and we wanted to get to the beach before it was dark. Despite our wish for speed, we managed to take every single wrong road out of Tully Cross – and there are literally only four roads out including the one we arrived on. Again, this was possibly my fault, but I warned them my sense of direction is entirely lost in cars.
We had to keep an eye out for signs on our way to Glassillaun as we didn’t have an exact location for the beach. It reminded me of the old road trips my family would take in the days before GPS. I’m glad we put in the effort because the beach was wonderful. It’s one of the few sandy beaches in Ireland, and we got there just as the sun was setting. We all wrote our names in the sand and took goofy selfies before piling back in the car to head home.
All in all we were probably driving for a little over three hours. The flexibility of choosing our own pace and destinations was well worth it. Usually I am all about that public transport, but in this case, a car was definitely a must. Between the four of us, renting the car was only 20 euros each including gas. A bus tour would have probably cost something similar (if not more), plus we wouldn’t have had the freedom of stopping every two seconds for pictures.
This was one of my favorite day trips I took in Ireland. The landscape is unreal. No matter when you are in Ireland, the trip is so worth it. We got back to Galway a little after 6:00pm. I don’t know about the other guys, but I was in bed real early that night. Turns out hiking up a giant rock is really tiring.
Budget Car Rental
Small Car 1 Day Rental: 67 euros – This was not the smallest car the company has, but it was what they had on hand when we arrived at the office last-minute. Book online if you want to ensure a particular model or price.
Petrol deposit: 107 euros – This is a security deposit to ensure you fill up the tank before you return the car. If you don’t fill the tank before you bring the car back, they keep it.
Petrol/Gas: 14 euros
All in all I would recommend these guys if you are looking to rent a car in Galway. This isn’t sponsored in any way. They were just very nice and helpful.
Connemara National Park & Loop
The visitor center at the National Park is open from March to October. It is free to enter, and there is also a tea room inside.
If you want to know more about the Connemara Loop route and find some useful info, check here!