We just returned from a 10 day road trip that had us exploring Ireland and Northern Ireland. We seemed to do a little bit of everything – sang on a musical pub tour in Dublin; explored the Titanic Museum in Belfast; skipped along the rocks at Giant’s Causeway; took a horse drawn carriage ride on the Aran Islands; and explored Kilkenny Castle (and so much more). However, a highlight for me was the day we spent exploring Malin Beg and Slieve League in Donegal Ireland.
Before we arrived, whenever I envisioned Ireland, I saw land dominated by beautiful greens and the waters surrounding it made of the deepest blues. It would be rugged, with dramatic drops down to the sea. Cool winds would sweep along the coast making you bundle up, even in the middle of the summer. I imagined stumbling upon little villages in the unlikeliest places and the local pub alive with music, story tellers, and of course, pints and pints of beer. Our day at Malin Beg and Slieve League in Donegal Ireland was all of this and more. The only way it could have been better is If I had found a four leaf clover or spotted a leprechaun.
Slieve League in Donegal Ireland
The best Slieve League Hotel
We decided to spoil our family (15, 16 and 22 year old kids) and stay at Lough Eske Castle. What a spectacularly beautiful place! This castle hotel has been meticulously restored to recreate the glamour, style and elegance it had once known back in the 19th century, combined with all the modern amenities expected of a luxury hotel.
Our hotel room was exceptionally large with an oversized canopy bed, living room, and an exquisite bathroom that would be larger than most studio apartments. The grounds were scrupulously maintained, with pretty garden beds filled with flowers, and bushes and trees pruned with barely a leaf out of place. Beyond the gardens, were trees, farms and lovely country roads. I felt myself relaxing as soon as we arrived. A highlight of mine was taking a 1 1 /2 hour walk outside the castle grounds around Lough Eske Lake and the surrounding area.
Why we booked a Slieve League tour in Donegal Ireland
Notwithstanding we rented our own car for our 10 day Ireland itinerary, we decided to book a Slieve League tour for a number of reasons.
- We only had one day to explore this region in Donegal Ireland and we wanted to see and do as much as we could.
- We had to drive 1 1/2 hours each way to Malin Beg and the Slieve League cliffs from Lough Eske Castle. After that, we had a 3 hour drive to Galway to reach our hotel that night. I wanted to give my husband a break so that he would be ready to drive the 3 hours to Galway later that afternoon.
- I wanted to hike the Slieve League cliffs and I was a little confused about where we should park or how best to approach the hiking with our time limitations and everyone’s different physical fitness levels.
- We knew that the scenery was going to be breathtaking. I wanted everyone in our family to enjoy it and not be distracted by driving or figuring out directions.
Thankfully, our Slieve League hotel recommended John McGroary, a former police officer who now conducts his own private tours. For 150 euros, John picked us up from Lough Eske in his large SUV and escorted us on a Slieve League tour, including Malin Beg and other areas of Donegal Ireland. He was absolutely lovely. He was easy going, gave us loads of history, told us hilarious stories (many of which involved his time as a police officer in Donegal Ireland) and created a perfect itinerary for us.
Do you need to book a Slieve League Tour in Donegal Ireland?
The short answer is “no”. The roads were no more narrower or windier than anywhere else in Ireland, much less Donegal Ireland. Everything was easy to find and parking was not an issue. However, there is no way we could have seen or done what we did in the time that we had. In addition, we learnt a lot about the region. More significantly, we saw and experienced a couple of things that we would not have, had we been guiding ourselves around Slieve League.
Malin Beg in Donegal Ireland
Our first stop was Malin Beg and Silver Strand Beach, a 1 1/2 hour drive from Lough Eske. This was the farthest point to which we went on the Slieve League tour. Malin Beg is a beautiful village scattered along farm land on the cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Its population is around 400 but with at least 2000 sheep absolutely everywhere (including grazing precariously on the side of mountains), it seemed a little bigger!!!
Upon arrival, we headed through Malin Beg to Silver Strand Beach. This was an absolutely beautiful stretch of beach in a large bay approximately 150 feet below the road. We parked easily in the large parking lot above the beach. Then, we walked down 170 steps to the beach below and spent around 20 minutes exploring the shore. We were almost completely alone. I think there were only another 10 people there when we arrived. In addition, except for sheep grazing on the mountainside, there wasn’t any other sign of civilization nearby. With the enormous size of the beach and the spectacular cliffs surrounding us, I felt like we had been shipwrecked on a deserted island.
Malin Beg and Sheepdogs
After we left Silver Strand Beach, our guide drove us about five minutes back towards Malin Beg to the home of his friends, MJ and Megan (Rice) Cunningham. They breed and train sheep dogs to not only manage their own sheep, but also others in Malin Beg and the surrounding villages. In addition, they offer sheepdog trial demonstrations. That is what we stopped to see.
This was an unexpected treat and my kids LOVED this. When we arrived, MJ and around 10 sheepdogs greeted us. Most of them were in their large outdoor kennels, but they were beyond excited to have visitors. Past the kennels, about 130 ft or 40m away, I spotted ginormous tracts of green pastures as far as the eye could see. They were fenced off, with hundreds of sheep inside.
Malin Beg and sheep dog demonstration
MJ gave us background about the dogs, their uses, and answered the dozens of questions we had. Then, Mj and Megan’s pet sheep showed up and the sheepdogs, of course, went bonkers. They were desperate to get to work and corral the cute little guy. Megan brought out a bottle of milk and each of us had a turn feeding it. Boy, could that sheep drink milk! I’d say within 30 seconds the milk was gone! Finally, MJ directed two of his sheepdogs into one of the pastures with around 100 sheep and we had the sheepdog trial demonstration.
This was amazing!!! With only a word or two, or a hand gesture, these two dogs followed their own unique set of instructions and went left, then right, fast, then slow, and nudged this huge flock of sheep into a pen. All of us loved our time with the sheepdogs in Malin Beg and did not want our time there to end.
For more information about having your own sheep dog trial demonstration in Malin Beg in Donegal Ireland, please refer to Away To Me.
Slieve League in Donegal Ireland
Lunch at the Rusty Mackerel
We left Malin Beg and headed back towards Slieve League cliffs. Just before Slieve League cliffs, we stopped and had a delicious lunch at the Rusty Mackerel pub. As you can imagine, we had a delicious lunch of typical pub food, such as fish and chips, clam chowder, hamburgers and stews. It was a beautiful sunny day. We sat in the sun outside enjoying the weather and the cosy atmosphere of our surroundings.
Slieve League Cliffs
From the Rusty Mackerel, we drove around 10 minutes to Slieve League cliffs. I didn’t think it would be possible, but Slieve League cliffs were even more beautiful than Malin Beg. Everywhere I looked, I saw dramatic craggy mountains and cliffs with sheer drops to the Atlantic Ocean below. The mountainside was mostly green, covered in lush grass, and the ocean was a deep blue, promising deep and cold water.
Parking and other details for Slieve League Cliffs
We arrived at the first parking lot and our guide dropped us off there. In front of us, we saw a winding paved road. There was a movable barrier at the start of the entrance to prevent vehicles from entering. However, without any issue, someone lifted it and our guide drove ahead to another parking area out of sight, right next to the Slieve League Viewing Platform. His plan was to park the car and wait, allowing us to enjoy the beautiful and easy 20 minute walk there. This decision saved us time by not having to return on foot to the lower parking lot.
We had even more spectacular views of Slieve League and the Atlantic ocean once we reached the Slieve League Viewing Platform. There was a small parking lot with lots of cars coming and going, a few food trucks and stands selling crafts. It wasn’t crowded. I spotted only a handful people here and there. John, our guide, said Slieve League was getting more and more popular every year. However, at the moment, I only saw small groups of people, mostly couples and families, enjoying the beautiful surroundings.
At this point, we had to decide whether we wanted to go further – to climb up the stairs to the top of Slieve League and continue to hike along the mountaintop, or walk down. We decided to go for it.
Hiking Slieve League Cliffs
The stairs were makeshift and uneven. There weren’t many handrails or guardrails, and what did exist seemed wobbly and tenuous. Most of the climb was steep and there were lots of places where the ground underneath our feet was loose and slippery. However, for the most part, we were a reasonable distance from the edge of the cliff and I did not fear falling. Once we reached the top, we sat and enjoyed the views.
We decided against hiking further along the mountaintop. It was a one way path which I could easily see from our vantage point. I was concerned about time and it did not seem to offer different views than what we were already enjoying. We headed back to the car and continued our drive.
Tips For Slieve League
- Unless you have mobility issues (or short on time), I would park in the lower parking lot and enjoy the windy paved road up to the Slieve League Viewing Platform.
- However, there is limited parking next to the Slieve League Viewing Platform. You are allowed to lift the barrier and drive slowly up. You are sharing the road with pedestrians, so be cautious.
- The road is paved and level and has a gentle slope up and down. With a moderate fitness level, most people would find this path fairly easy.
- I would wear flat comfortable walking shoes for the road. If you plan to hike up Slieve League further, you should wear running or hiking shoes.
- Like everywhere in Ireland, the weather is unpredictable. I’d recommend wearing layers with a waterproof jacket on the outside for rain and/or wind.
- The road is relatively safe for children provided they are mature enough to stay on it. In may places, within steps from the road, there are drops, sometimes small ones to a field or massive ones to the Atlantic Ocean. I would be very cautious about bringing young children who are incapable of following direction unless you have them firmly in hand.
- The climb up the stairs from the Slieve League Viewing Platform to the top of Slieve League is challenging because it is steep, without handrails, and the ground is loose in many places. If you have mobility issues, I would not recommend it. I would also be extremely cautious about bringing young children, even those who are mature and take direction well. There are too many spots where a small lack of judgement could mean a deadly drop to the ocean below.
Driving Back From Slieve League to Donegal Ireland
We drove back to Donegal to pick up our own car and start our drive to Galway. We drove through lots of little villages and continued to see beautiful rugged scenery. One final highlight was stopping at Muckros Head to enjoy the view of the beach and the mountain climbers.
We loved our day trip to Malin Beg and Slieve League in Donegal Ireland. We saw pretty villages and absolutely jaw dropping scenery. Our guide John, and the itinerary that he put together for us, were amazing. We would not have gone to Malin Beg, to Silver Strand beach, or experienced the sheepdog trial demonstration without his guidance. I would highly recommend the Rusty Mackerel for a drink or a meal, if you find yourself in that neck of the woods. Most importantly, don’t forget your walking shoes! You will be itching to get out of the car and explore some of the most breathtaking landscape in all of Ireland.
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