A Dream Hike
The Cliffs of Moher are probably one of the most recognizable landmarks in Ireland. They grace postcards, tourism advertisements, and pretty much any novelty trinket you could ask for. I had first been to the Cliffs back in college when I was working at an archaeological dig in County Clare, but it was only ever a quick stop for a photo-op. I knew that before I was done living in Ireland, I needed to go back to fulfill my dream of hiking the Cliffs of Moher.
This endeavor was ambitious to say the least. I was traveling in February, and Ireland in late winter is not known for its accommodating weather. Most people I told my plan to had a quick laugh and wished me luck. But hey, miracles do happen, so I booked a few nights in the town of Doolin and hoped for the best.
Located a few miles up the coast from the cliffs, Doolin sees a lot of business during peak tourist season. Its iconic colored houses and convenient location make it a prime stop on many tours through the area. As I was there in the off-season, many of the shops and restaurants were closed until March, but the sleepy town still delivered in terms of charm and fun. I arrived in the afternoon at the Rainbow Hostel greeted by a friendly host and a rainbow framing the field across the street. I figured that was a good omen.
That evening the handful of us staying at the hostel braved the rain and headed out to see some of the best trad musicians I had seen my entire time in Ireland. It was just a group of six or seven guys ranging in age from late twenties to sixties with a few instruments in the local pub. Every now and then they’d call an old guy from the crowd to come up and do a song followed by a five-minute break as they all chatted and sipped their beers. After a while one of them would call out a song and a key and they’d start up all over again.
The rain from the previous day seemed to have gone by the morning, so I set out to conquer the trail. Walking through central Doolin there are two main roads. One heads right across a stone bridge and down to the harbor where ferries depart to the Aran Islands. The other goes left up towards Doonagore Castle and the cliff walk.
Taking the right road you can find a nice viewpoint of the cliffs in the distance, but I was keen to get on my way, so I headed left. Doonagore itself is beautiful and well worth checking out. Simply take another left once you reach the road that leads up to it. You can’t go inside, but if you walk just up past the entrance, you can take some amazing photos. The walk there is uphill, so if you are worried about getting tired before your hike, leave this for another day.
Walking the Cliffs
The path I was taking was actually only a small segment of a trail that stretches from Doolin along the coast to Liscannor. The main Cliffs of Moher Visitor Center is 8 km from Doolin.
If you want to take your hike to the next level, you can take the bus down to Malin Head, a lookout point down past the cliffs, and hike the path back towards Doolin. This would add an extra 5 km to your journey, but you see more of the coast. Plus if you’re staying in Doolin, you don’t have to worry about catching the bus home. Instead, I was feeling like an ambitious photographer, so I decided to try to walk to the Visitor Center, have lunch, then walk back to the hostel. What I’m willing to do for good lighting…
I was so lucky with the weather that day. The sky was bright blue and there was barely a cloud in the sky. Even better, I had the whole trail to myself. It was as if I had stumbled into a painting. The thin path I followed snaked along the coastline into the distance. Several small streams crossed my path making their way down the grassy hills to my left only to fall over the ever-growing cliffs on my right. Various ‘bridges’ constructed with a few large boulders provided a way across these small waterways. There was no sound but the sea and some seagulls calling to each other as they rode the air currents above the water. I almost didn’t want to make a sound for fear of breaking whatever spell was keeping me there.
An Unexpected Detour
As I made my way closer to the true cliffs, the drop into the sea grew and grew. The waves became bigger and more forceful, launching sea-foam into the air. These weird natural bubbles blew across the trail on the wind, forcing me to put my camera away in case it got wet. It was surreal. I felt like a kid navigating some fantasy world with a mind of its own. And like any good fantasy story, it had its share of obstacles to overcome. In this case there were no dragons or mountains or monsters to outwit. No. For me the foe was much less awe-inspiring. It was mud.
Yes, the rains over the previous few evenings had flooded part of the trail just before the cliffs. A small sign pointed out a diversion that supposedly went around a few fields and met back up with the trail later. I weighed my options – attempt the flooded trail and hope for the best or go around? I decided better safe than sorry, so I left the main trail and turned inland.
Follow the stone wall, turn, rejoin the trail. Simple enough, right? Hoo boy. Was I in for a surprise. You see, the diversion was less of a path and more of an idea. But the field I was crossing was muddy. No, it was mud with the occasional tuft of grass. Two and a half hours of walking, and there I was at risk of losing a shoe as tribute to the mud gods.
But I persevered. I slogged my way across that field and climbed up the final incline, greeted by the familiar cliffs I had been waiting all morning to see. And suddenly, I was surrounded by people. To be fair, it wasn’t as crowded as I had seen it before, but after the stillness of the morning, it suddenly felt like I was in a theme park. The main event was lovely, but after the dramatic views I had all to myself that morning, I wasn’t wowed. At this point my feet were wet so I snapped a single photo, admired the view, and wove my way through the tour groups towards the cafe.
As I made my way outside after lunch, I noticed a distinct change in the weather. Grey clouds began to roll in, and the wind picked up. Taking one last look around me, I decided that my hike was at an end. I wasn’t crazy about the idea of braving the flooded trail again in the first place, but the small hailstones that began to fall around me sealed the deal. I had my unforgettable hike. Now it was time for tea, a good book, and curling up by the wood fire in my hostel. I cast one last glance towards the cliffs before doing a quick about-face and heading to the bus.
Hiking the Cliffs of Moher was one of my favorite things I did while in Ireland. If you want to plan your own outdoor adventure, you can find more info at their website here. You can also get a guided tour of the trail for €10 per person by booking here.
The bus runs frequently along the coast from the Visitor Center to Doolin and other surrounding towns. Check up-to-date timetables at Bus Éirann’s website. Tickets were €2-3 one way (Feb 2018).
During my time in Doolin I stayed at the Rainbow Hostel. Dorm rooms start around $20-25 per night. The owners were absolutely lovely, and I would totally recommend staying there. They even have a wood stove! Perfect for those cold Irish nights.