After arriving in Doolin, a charming town on the western coast of Ireland, I learned an important travel lesson from my host. He put it to me straight, noting that there are two ways to set out on any great travel adventure:
- the way the guidebook recommends
- the secret map hand-drawn for you by a local
I mean really, is there even a choice?!
My new friend Laura and I were ready to tackle the famed Cliffs of Moher and Carl—the owner of the truly lovely Aille River Hostel in Doolin, Ireland—let us in on a little secret. As long as you don’t park your car on the main road leading to the Cliffs, they won’t ticket you and you don’t have to pay the €8 fee or use of the parking lot and facilities.
That sounded pretty great to us budget backpackers, but to further sweeten the deal, in addition to this parking tidbit he recommended a two-hour hiking path from the tiny little town of Doolin. The path hugs the cliffs and drop-offs leading up the main site of the Cliffs of Moher.
Many travelers visit the Cliffs of Moher as a day-trip from Galway, but there are two reasons to dedicate an overnight here: the town of Doolin has phenomenal Irish music at the local pubs each evening, and the dangerous and cow-filled hike to the Cliffs is a worthy memory for those up for the adventure.
Carl instructed us to park on a small road a couple of kilometers before the car park for the Cliffs of Moher Visitor Center. I marooned my tiny European rental car (that wouldn’t even be road-worthy and legal in the U.S.) on a grassy bank off the side of the road. Then Laura and I set off to follow Carl’s lightly detailed map—just enough details to get us there, but not enough that it was a cake-walk!
Now, there is a newer Coastal Walk that leaves from Doolin and includes the route to the Cliffs. But for the 2009 version, this is what it looks like to take an off-the-path hike to the Cliffs of Moher.
How to Hike to the Cliffs of Moher from Doolin
Step 1: Jump a Gate to Leave the Road Far Behind
Both Scotland and Ireland are tolerant to tourists (and locals for that matter) wandering through sheep and cow pastures. At first, Laura and I felt a little weird jumping the first fence since the owner was right there. He was just finishing up with his bull and gave us an encouraging smile when he saw our plan.
He really didn’t mind! He even pointed out the easiest spot for us to jump the fence to avoid mud, cow dung, and wires.
Step 2: Walk Parallel the Fence Until You Reach the Cliff’s Edge
Once inside of the cow pasture, it’s pretty messy. We hiked along the fence, occasionally venturing away from the fence if it looked like the grass was less of a muddy, gooshy, sopping mess of churned earth and sludge. It never was.
At one point, we spotted salvation on the other side of a pass-fence—it looked so dry and firm on that side. Well, let me tell you: The grass isn’t always greener on the side. After sinking ankle deep into thick mud, we decided to make a messy break for it and we sprinted to the Cliff’s edge.
Step 3: Avoid the Cows
One key problem with tromping through active cow pastures is the cows. Seems logical, but we didn’t consider that facet of our hike until we were already en route to the Cliffs of Moher!
One friendly farmer was a bit snippy with us as we carefully picked our way across his field because he was herding his cattle through the fence and we were messing up his rhythm. He wasn’t mad, just firm that we needed to get on with ourselves and get out of his way.
Step 4: Tread Lightly and DON’T SLIP
The cow pasture portion of our hike to the Cliffs of Moher was all about mud. That was short-lived though, and we eventually made it into the county-owned land that led to sloped upward a bit toward the Visitor Center and the lookout points.
Once at that point though, it’s a grassy, overgrown path that sits about three feet from a 500 foot drop. At that point, you need to slow down and all I thought about was keeping perfect balance as we made our way through the field.
The caution sign might deter less adventurous hikers, but Carl’s adamant insistence that this route offered the best views of the Cliffs encouraged us to walk right past the sign and continue hiking up the steep path.
Step 5: Enjoy the Spoils of Your Off-the Path Hike
By the time we reached the grassy pasture at the top, Laura and I took a few minutes to merely sit in the near-silence, listen to the waves crash, and look into the distance at the rugged Cliffs of Moher. This was why we had taken the more adventurous route.
The soft tread of our feet on the grass disturbed birds resting under the cliff face and every few minutes, a startled flock of gleaming white birds flew out from below us and fanned out across the blue ocean. Their frantic wings beat a rhythm that competed with the rushing waves slowly wearing at cliffs, together creating a beautiful soundtrack for our hike.
Step 6: Jump the Fence & Gloat
About two hours after leaving on our adventure hike to the Cliffs of Moher, our small path abruptly ended at a wire fence intended to keep the paying tourists from heading off on the very hiking path we had just used. We ignored the few curious looks from others as we dodged a glance around before catapulting over the fence. Then we were just one of the many tourists enjoying the gorgeous vistas.
On a sunny day, it’s a striking site to behold as the sheer size of the Cliffs contrasts beautifully with the vibrant green Irish countryside and deep blue ocean. There is no denying that the Cliffs are one of Ireland’s most prominent attractions and I’d go back all over again given the opportunity. Of course, if I did it again, I’d still take the adventurous path all over again!
Quick Tips: Hiking to the Cliffs of Moher
Where to Stay
Budget travelers should look no further than Aille River Hostel in Doolin. Doolin is the best town from which to organize a trip to the cliffs since it’s close, it has a range of accommodation options, and the local pubs jam out with traditional Irish music in the evenings. Mid-range travelers couldn’t go wrong with a night or two at Fairwinds B&B, which is walkable to the pubs.
Best Doolin Pubs for Irish Music
McGann’s Pub Doolin and Gus O’Connor’s Pub should both be on your list and although I recommend checking out both pubs. Doolin was once a quaint fishing village and it still holds onto its traditional roots. Music sessions start around 9 pm every evening at Gus’.
And while both locations serve food, McGann’s gets top marks for a selection of vegetarian and gluten-free options for travelers with dietary restrictions. Once you arrive, to truly be sure you find the best music in town, ask your guesthouse for recommendations as some pubs might offer alternating music nights if you’re visiting in shoulder or off-season.
Other Things to Do in Doolin
There’s more to Doolin than just a launching point to the Cliffs of Moher. If you’re in the area, you should explore more.
- Visit the Doolin Cave. Measuring 23 feet (7.3 m), this cave offers the longest free-hanging stalactite in the northern hemisphere. It’s a mere 4 km outside of town and is easily the second most popular local activity after the cliffs visit.
- Venture along the 18 km Coastal Walk from Doolin to Liscannor. If you want something a bit more adventurous than the mere two hour hike to the Cliffs, this is a quiet route that includes the Cliffs portion, and then continues further along the coastline. It’s long though, so be sure to pick a day with good weather and start early!
- Sip microbrews at The Burren Brewery. I can’t resist the microbrewery trend and you can’t go wrong with stopping for a pint or two in Lisdoonvarna village, which is a mere 10 minutes from Doolin.
- Drive the Burren. Burren National Park is worthy of a day trip all of its own. This rugged, rocky limestone landscape is unlike anywhere else in the country and is an easy drive from Doolin.
- Day trip to the Aran Islands. I actually stayed in the Aran Islands for a couple of nights, but many travelers leave from Doolin just for the day and explore.