Some 350 million years ago—well before the dinosaurs—much of Ireland looked like the Himalayas. All of Earth’s landmasses had collided to form the supercontinent Pangea, the massive Central Pangean Mountains forced upward along the equator. For 100 or so million years, Ireland shared 20,000-foot peaks with Canada, Greenland, and Portugal, and then the continents broke apart. Despite the geologic carnage and the passage of time, these mountains still technically exist in the form of the Appalachians, the Scottish Highlands, and, yes, Ireland’s sea cliffs.
Back in the mid-1990s, this geologic unity inspired a beyond-borders look at the Appalachian Trail, a nearly 2,200-mile U.S. footpath snaking from Georgia to Maine. First up was Canada, with a 700-mile extension coursing from Maine to Newfoundland’s Crow Head on the Great Northern Peninsula. Then, in 2009, the International Appalachian Trail (IAT) made the leap across the pond.
“It was the Scottish geologist Hugh Barron who made the suggestion,” says Inga Bock, rural recreation officer with Donegal Local Development Company and one of the key players in getting Ireland’s stretch of the International Appalachian Trail launched. By 2010, Ireland, Scotland, Greenland, and Norway would begin conceiving routes; since then, IAT chapters have sprouted across the ancient mountain range, from England and Wales to Portugal and Morocco.
The island of Ireland takes the carboniferous honor seriously: Mapped out in 2013, the 279-mile Ulster-Ireland Route—aka Ireland’s stretch of the IAT—goes beyond a path on paper, thanks to more than $1.5 million in funding from action groups and cross-border cooperation between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. In 2021, the route got a much-needed upgrade. “While the trail was walkable in 2013, there were long stretches on back roads, wet sections off road, and no continuous marking,” Bock says. Today’s hikers will find consistent green-and-yellow branding and signage, treadway improvements, increased off-road sections, and new facilities. Beginning on Ireland’s west coast at Sliabh Liag, Europe’s highest sea cliffs, the trail courses through the Bluestack Mountains and into Northern Ireland; follows the volcanic Giant’s Causeway on the northern shores; and terminates on the east coast in Larne, just south of the Glens of Antrim.
Iain Miller, trekking and climbing guide for Unique Ascent, a guiding company based in Ireland’s County Donegal, also points to the variety of views hikers see on their walk: “The landscape extremes range from two very different seascapes at each end of the trail,” he says. The west coast of Ireland provides pounding seas and big waves; the east coast is generally calmer with popular swimming beaches. Barring well-known spots like Sliabh Liag and the Giant’s Causeway, Miller says it’s “highly likely you will be alone with your thoughts. The IAT is not busy as a stand-alone trail.” (Exact numbers of hikers are unknown.)
Though Miller can be found in the blanket-bog uplands of the Bluestack Mountains, the Irishman focuses his IAT tours on the sea stacks and remote sea cliffs of County Donegal, at the start of the trail near An Port. “It’s a breathtakingly beautiful bay in one of the most remote locations on mainland Ireland. It’s the gateway to Ireland’s last wilderness,” he says. Here, most travelers should hire a guide like Miller—due to environmental protections, the trail through Sliabh Liag is the only unmarked stretch, and only advanced hikers should tackle the terrain without a guide.
Beyond Sliabh Liag, Miller and Bock have a few recommendations for prospective hikers: The Glencolmcille area of the trail—about seven miles from Sliabh Liag—comes rich with views, from monstrous headlands to the horseshoe-shaped Strand Beach, overlooking the North Atlantic. Thirty-five miles due west, hikers will stumble upon Lough Eske, where idyllic lake scenery surrounds two high-end hotels, one of which is Lough Eske Castle. Across the border in Northern Ireland, the North Antrim Cliff Path, an 8-mile stretch of the larger 18-mile Causeway Coast, connects Dunseverick Castle to the iconic Giant’s Causeway.
Bock recommends interested hikers look at the IAT Ulster-Ireland website to plan their days and book accommodations. Walking services—guided walks and luggage and shuttle transfers—are also listed, though Bock suggests hikers first enquire if their lodging offers this support, as many do. The website also maps the trail, highlights day hikes, and lists contact information for various regional visitor centers that can answer questions and even help hikers build itineraries.
Miller has a few final tips for those considering hiking the Ulster-Ireland Route of the IAT: Carry a paper map, as phone signal and Wi-Fi can be hit or miss; book your accommodation early, especially in the summer season; and take advantage of your lodge’s drying room—after all, Ireland is no stranger to the odd rain shower.
Come rain or shine, the trail offers hikers an increasingly rare experience: a well-marked route without the crowds. “I handle a lot of trails,” Bock says, “but the IAT is something special.”