A bustling market town with a population of about 2,500, Skibbereen is the ideal base from which to explore rambling, hiking and hill-walking in beautiful West Cork.
Skibb is renowned for its community spirit, thriving small business culture, friendliness, and laidback yet vibrant pace. While traditional buildings and shop fronts give the sense that little has changed in the last hundred years, the town is home to a diverse and cosmopolitan population, including many artists, craftspeople and artisan food producers.
Numerous family-friendly annual festivals, a weekly Saturday Farmers’ Market, and high-quality cafés and restaurants create a great social buzz and extend a warm welcome to visitors.
Plentiful accommodation – from hostels and B&Bs to hotels – provide walkers with a wide choice of places to stay. Well-deserved post-hike pints and chats with colourful locals can be savoured in the town’s many pubs.
Our West Cork aficionado, ADRIENNE MURPHY, chose five of the best hikes within an hour’s drive of Skibbereen.
NOTE: Be sure to wear footwear and clothing appropriate for the walk and for the weather.
5. SKIBBEREEN TOWN & ABBEYSTROWRY
6km/2hrs; level is easy, with two short climbs.
Starting at the Town Hall, head down Main Street until you reach the Square. Keep going down Bridge Street, enjoying its old-world charm, then take a sharp left onto Rossa Road. This leads to ‘The Cutting’, a man-made gorge, richly-foliaged with ferns and succulents.
Keep left to reach the main Skibb-Baltimore R595 road. Here turn right and after a few hundred metres, take another right, up to a steep road signposted ‘Marguerite’s B&B’.
At the top of this hill, you’ll drop down into the valley of the River Ilen, which winds through Skibb town.
Take a right at the river bank. Cross the New Bridge and the main N71 road to Ballydehob, and walk up the lane opposite for about 200 metres, until you come across the graveyard and ruined church of Abbeystrowry.
Skibbereen was one of the worst-affected areas during the Great Famine of 1845 – some 9,000 famine victims lie in the burial pits of Abbeystrowry Cemetery.
After casting a thought back to this sad time, return to the junction above the bridge and turn left, uphill. From here there is a great view of Skibb.
Turn right at the next two T-junctions, and cross Kennedy Bridge over the River Ilen, which leads you back into the town.
4. LOUGH HYNE
Hill-walk, approx 2km/1 hour; steep climb in places, can be muddy
Before heading out of Skibb to visit the stunningly beautiful serene sea-water lake and environs of Lough Hyne – Ireland’s first Marine Nature Reserve – it’s worth spending time at the Lough Hyne Exhibition in the Skibbereen Heritage Centre in the town.
Here you can discover how the 1km-long, ¾ km-wide lake was formed, and why it’s one of the most important marine habitats in Europe.
A narrow tidal channel called Barloge Creek (known as ‘the Rapids’) is the only connection between Lough Hyne and the Atlantic Ocean. Twice a day the tide flows through this channel from the ocean to the lake, running over the Rapids at up to 16km an hour.
Over millennia, the lake has become a genuinely unique eco-system of warm, oxygenated sea-water with an extraordinarily high level of marine biodiversity, including 72 species of fish.
People have lived around Lough Hyne for over 4,000 years. The area is dotted with dolmens and other pagan sites. Above the Rapids are the ruins of an 8th Century church to St Brigid, built alongside an ancient holy well.
On the island in the centre of the lake are the ruins of Cloghan Castle, once a stronghold of the O’Driscoll clan.
There are several beautiful walks around Lough Hyne and the surrounding hills – visit https://glandorevillage.ie/walks/loch-hyne/ for info – but a great first hike is through the Knockomagh Wood Nature Reserve. The trail zig-zags from the shore of Lough Hyne through deciduous woodland to the top of Knockomagh Hill (197m) and back down again.
If the climb doesn’t leave you breathless, the view from the summit most certainly will. Download a free guide to the trail here: skibbheritage.com
3. FASTNET TRAILS
A system of mapped and signposted long and short scenic nature walks in the area of Roaring Water Bay, covering a total distance of 80km
The various graded walks on the Lisheen, Ballydehob, Butter Road and Schull Trail Loops will bring the hiker through panoramic vistas of mountain and sea, and habitats rich in birdlife.
Walkers have led through peaceful West Cork villages to ancient megaliths and castles; old churches and graveyards; a forge and a Harry Clarke stained glass window.
The wealth of culture, history and nature is staggering. For a map of the trails, visit ballydehob.ie.
2. THREE CASTLES HEAD
4km/2-3 hours; some rough terrain
Three Castles Head tends to be overshadowed by its much more famous neighbour, the stunning Mizen Head. However, an argument can be made that of the two, Three Castles is the more spectacularly awesome.
Starting at Dunlough Café and Restaurant, follow the track until you see a marker pointing the way across a field towards a gate in the fence on the far side. Go through this and walk along the cliff top. Rounding a bend, you’ll be blown away by the sight of a wall linking a Norman-style castle and two towers.
On the west side of the castles head upwards towards Three Castles Head, the south-western tip of the peninsula. A walk around this peninsula offers panoramic views across Dunmanus and Bantry Bay to the Caha Mountains.
Heading down towards Dun Lough, you can start making your way back towards the castles along the lake-shore, but you will have to revert back to higher ground when the land drops steeply to the water. For more information and an aerial video, visit threecastlehead.ie.
1. THE SHEEP’S HEAD WAY
National Waymarked Looped Trail and one of the best and most scenic cycle routes in Cork. Entire trail takes approx 4 days to complete. There are multiple shorter marked looped trails en route; for info, visit thesheepsheadway.ie.
It can be easy to bypass the Sheep’s Head on the way to the better-known Beara Peninsula. However, exploration by foot of this narrow finger of land, extending into the Atlantic between Bantry Bay and Dunmanus Bay, will reward the walker many times over.
An 88km circular walking route, The Sheep’s Head Way begins in the town of Bantry, runs along the north coast of the peninsula to the scenic lighthouse at the very tip, then returns along the south side, passing through the pretty villages of Kilcrohane, Ahakista and Durrus.
The peninsula’s narrowness and elevation guarantee awe-inspiring panoramic ocean and mountain views. There is great variety in the terrain, from boreens, quiet country roads and field paths to patches of woodland and open moorland.
Attractions include high cliffs, a blowhole, old churches, the remains of an old copper mine, a Napoleonic signal tower, stone circles and standing stones. There are regular sightings of dolphins and whales off the westernmost tip of the headland.
Returning to Skibbereen from the raw elements and wild remoteness of the Sheep’s Head, you will understand why West Cork is called “A Place Apart”.
Best hikes around Ireland
The 10 highest mountains in Ireland
Top 10 best cliff walks in Ireland, RANKED
Top 10 scenic walks in Northern Ireland you need to experience
Top 5 mountains to climb in Ireland
The 10 best things to do in south-east Ireland, ranked
The ultimate 10 best walks in and around Belfast
5 incredible hikes and walks in scenic County Down
Top 5 best Mourne Mountain walks, ranked