- Walking Ireland’s Iconic Mountains – Number 1: Errigal
- Walking Ireland’s Iconic Mountains – Number 2: Muckish
- Walking Ireland’s Iconic Mountains – Number 3: Slieve Binnian
- Walking Ireland’s Iconic Mountains – Number 4: Slievemore
- Walking Ireland’s Iconic Mountains – Number 5: Croaghaun
- Walking Ireland’s Iconic Mountains – Number 6: Croagh Patrick
Our tour of the Iconic Mountains of Ireland has already taken us to wonderful Achill Island. On that occasion, we enjoyed a walk up Slievemore from the pretty and serene blue-flag Silver Strand beach at Dugort. Once you have spent any amount of time on the island and fallen in love with its rugged and dramatic landscape, it is nigh on impossible to leave behind. The island’s awe inspiring coastline has been carefully crafted by the sheer power of the Atlantic waves that start some five thousand miles away on the shores of North America. All around the island, the shoreline is continuously being recreated right in front of your eyes.
It is perhaps on Croaghaun that this process is most evident, it’s enormous sea-cliffs testament to the steady and resolute power of the Atlantic. Indeed, such is the raw power of the sea that it has sculpted from the rock a two kilometre stretch of cliffs. It might surprise many to hear that the cliffs are three times higher than the Cliffs of Moher and can lay claim to be the highest cliffs in Ireland and Great Britain and amongst Europe’s highest sea cliffs.
And so it is to Croaghaun that we turn for the next entry in our ‘Iconic Mountain’ series. The mountain may appear like something of a sleeping giant but it is certainly not one to be taken lightly.
This is something of a hard one to quantify for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that Croaghaun is a mountain that very rarely reveals itself to the public. Its position on the western extremities of County Mayo stretching out into the Atlantic gives Croaghaun something of a micro-climate. The incoming damp sea air is suddenly forced upwards by the mountain resulting in a seemingly continuous cover of cloud on its upper reaches. It’s not unusual for the rest of the island to be enjoying unbroken blue skies and vibrant sunshine whilst Croaghaun remains hidden under a thick veil of cloud.
It should be noted that this can be a wild, wet and windy spot on which the weather can change very rapidly. This really is a mountain that is best saved for a spell of fine weather as much to avoid the potential dangers as to enjoy the amazing views. When Croaghaun is visible, its whale-backed bulk forms an impressive sight as you approach the western end of Achill Island. It dominates the view west from the village of Dooagh, its domed summit sitting over the cliffs which surround serene Lough Accorymore, a small corrie lake which has been dammed to provide water for the islanders.
It’s fair to say that the view from Dooagh gives little indication of the epic nature of the opposite side of Croaghaun, something that can only really be appreciated either by boat trip or by hiking to the summit of Achill’s highest mountain.
As we outlined in our piece on Slievemore, Achill Island is linked to the mainland by the Michael Davitt Bridge. Once across the bridge, continue on the R319 passing through the villages of Keel and Dooagh. A couple of kilometres outside of Dooagh as the road starts to climb the lower slopes of Croaghaun, watch out for a right turn marked with a signpost for the water treatment plant. Follow this road to the small car park beside Lough Acorrymore.
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From the parking point, walk back in the direction you came from for a couple of hundred metres before leaving the road and climbing along the southern side of Lough Acorrymore. Follow the obvious shoulder in a westerly direction and aim for spot height 474 at which point the ground levels out somewhat. This is a good point to turn around and take in the already panoramic views across the whole island. From here, cross a broad rock-strewn plateau before facing into a final short but steep climb up rocky slopes to the summit of Croaghaun.
It is not until you are nearly upon it that the summit cairn suddenly reveals itself and Croaghaun finally reveals its truly epic grandeur. Standing at the very highest point of the mountain, it would appear that the rest has been cut away leaving a vast precipice falling over two thousand feet into the water below. Whilst there are other more notable routes to the summit of Croaghaun, the walk from Lough Acorrymore is certainly worthy in that it saves this splendid surprise right until you reach the summit of the mountain.
The views from the rather modest cairn are also on an epic scale. Lying to the northeast is the arm of Saddle head with its intricate facing of cliffs pointing towards the Belmullet peninsula. To the east lies the spectacular mile long promontory of Achill Head, the most westerly point on Achill which tails off with two sea stacks called Gaoí Saggart and Carrickakin.
The views seaward are, of course, limitless with the nearest land mass being America. Far out to sea is Blackrock lighthouse, one of Ireland’s most remote lighthouses. Built in 1884, the lighthouse is now only accessed by helicopter due to the dangerous nature of the waves and swells around it. In 1999 its light was converted to solar powered.
To the North lie the islands of Duvillaun and the two islands of the Iniskeas. Further north, a scattering of small islands lie off the Mullet peninsula. The best know of these is probably Inishglora, considered the holiest of the islands and one steeped in myth and folklore. Legend has it that this is the island that the Children of Lir flew to at the end of their 900 year spell in exile having been turned into swans by their jealous stepmother. It was on the island that the children were baptised by Saint Brendan but upon regaining their former human shapes, they immediately crumbled to dust due to their mighty age. Legend also has it that on Inishglora, the dead do not corrupt because it is believed that its air and soil has a magical power which preserves the bodies from decay. Indeed, such are the extraordinary preserving influences on the dead that their nails and hair grow as if alive ‘so that their descendants to the tenth generation can come and with pious care pare the one and clip the other’.
This really is a stunning vantage point providing a vista across the whole of the island and you are well advised to dwell some time to take it all in. Nearby Slievemore looks simply majestic sweeping down to the sea and is back-dropped by the scattered and intricate line of the Nephin Begs and Ballycroy Hills. Lying behind Minuan is the mainland and the shapely peak of Croagh Patrick and the mountains around Clew Bay. To the south-east is Achillbeg whilst further out to sea is Clare Island, seemingly floating somewhere between sea and sky, with the unmistakable outline of Knockmore visible through the haze. Beyond Clare Island lie Inishturk, Inishbofin, and Inishshark.
From Croaghaun’s main summit, it is well worth making the short crossing to the South-West top. The walk offers further chance to take in the sheer fissured rock faces under the summit of Croaghaun but care must be taken not to wander too close to the edge. The South-West top appears fin-shaped when viewed from the island itself whilst from the summit of Croaghaun, it takes on a very elegant pyramid shape. Up close, it is an interesting bulbous outcrop with more frightening drops to the sea below. It also offers further magnificent views down to the jagged edge of Achill Head and over to beautiful Keem Bay, a perfect horseshoe bay containing a magnificent Blue Flag beach which sits nestled between the lower reaches of Croaghaun and Benmore to the west.
The bay has a strong connection with fishing and it is thought that it was the location captured by Paul Henry in his famous painting ‘Launching the Currach’ which is on display in the National Gallery of Ireland. The bay was also the location from which the basking shark, the world’s second-largest mammal, was hunted in the 40s and 50s. Local fisherman used traditional canvas covered currachs and would launch on direction from spotters situated on nearby Moyteoge Head. The sharks were towed for processing by larger boats to Purteen Harbour where oil was extracted from the sharks and exported as a fine grade lubricant for use in the aerospace industry.
From this point in the walk, there are a number of options open to you. It is possible to drop down to Keem Valley and incorporate a walk along the cliffs at Benmore to finish at stunning Keem Beach. Such a route would however require an additional car or a scenic walk by road back to the starting point.
You could also choose to return to the summit cairn and continue carefully in a north-easterly direction to take in a view of the infamous Lough Bunnafreva, a corrie lake perched precariously at over 300 metres above sea level and yet another highlight of a walk on Croaghaun. Great care is needed on the cliffs above Bunnafreva as well as on the descent making sure to keep a safe distance north of the cliffs above Lough Acorrymore.
The other option is simply to return to the cairn and spend some more time at the top of Achill Island allowing the amazing views to become etched into your mind before returning back the way you came.
“Croaghaun is very much a hidden gem that doesn’t easily give up its stunning secret. This is a magnificent mountain in an equally magnificent and untamed setting”
Croaghaun is very much a hidden gem that doesn’t easily give up its stunning secret. This is a magnificent mountain in an equally magnificent and untamed setting. The views from Croaghaun across Achill Island and back to the mainland are worth the effort alone. However the highlight is undoubtedly that exhilarating and awe-inspiring first view down along the dramatic and vertiginous cliffs. There can be fewer better ways to spend a day on Achill than to hike to its highest point and follow that with a swim at Keem, perhaps Ireland’s most beautiful beach, which sits snugly at the foot of this sleeping giant.
Height: 688 metres
Distance covered: 7km (Note that this is for the ‘out and back’ route, this can be lengthened as required)
Height Gain: 533 metres