A chunk of Mayo has been designated Ireland’s first wilderness area. Declan Cunningham explores the glorious Nephin Begs.

The Nephin Begs: The Lowdown

Start: We left a car at Newport and got dropped to Bangor. Both towns are on the N59 and the spin around takes about 30 minutes. The trek begins at F865 226, the Bangor Trail starting point.

Waymarks: Knocklettercuss (370m), Maumykelly (364m), Slieve Carr (721m), Nephin Beg (617m), Glennamong (628m), Corranabinnia (714m) and Ben Gorm (582m).

Distance: We covered a little under 40km with about 16 hours of walking over the two days.

Maps: The bulk of the route is shown on OSI Sheet 23 (1:50,000) but for the descent from Corranabinnia to Newport you will also need Sheets 30 and 31.

Variations: I doubt many people would like a longer version; shorter routes are possible such as the Corranabinnia to Ben Gorm horseshoe or Nephin itself. Both would make excellent day walks of 20km and 8km respectively.

Difficulty rating: The Nephin traverse is a big undertaking over rough ground requiring good fitness and the ability to navigate. While the Bangor Trail is also through wilderness country, it is a relatively easy track to follow at least when the Tarsagaun Bridge is repaired.

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The Nephin Begs: The route

I think we’ve all heard the call of the wild at some stage, but sometimes it’s not that easy to really get that wilderness feel from a place. Last March though, over 11,000 hectares of pristine Irish real estate in the Nephin Beg Range of north-west Mayo’s Ballycroy National Park was designated Ireland’s first wilderness area. That was a call I just couldn’t ignore.

The project is actually the first of its kind in Europe, with Coillte and the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht signing a Memorandum of Understanding for this innovative project. The ultimate goal of the agreement is to set aside 1 million hectares of wilderness in Europe by 2020. Now, that is wild!

Mayo is a special place at the best of times but that wilderness was something I just had to see and experience first-hand.

Mayo is a special place at the best of times but that wilderness was something I just had to see and experience first-hand. Maybe there’s a little bit of Christopher McCandless in all of us that needs to get out once in a while; I can think of no better place than the Nephin Beg Range to satisfy that need.

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Onto the high road

Considering the length of the route and an intended overnight, I teamed up with Maeliosa ‘Milly’ de Buitléar, a fellow guide from Explore More. We left a car in Newport, and got a taxi to Bangor, where some people will opt to follow the winding ways of the Bangor Trail, the low road through the mountains. However, it was the high road for us, taking in as many peaks between Bangor and Newport as time and our knees would allow.

I doubt its trig pillar gets many visitors, but it’s not the top of the hill that is missing out!

There was something nice about that little sense of commitment with the car now 40km away and only our own legs to get us back. Knocklettercuss (370m) is an avoidable bump but we made short work of it. We were happy to leave the trail and everything else behind us. I doubt its trig pillar gets many visitors, but it’s not the top of the hill that is missing out!

Descending from this little peak, we got our first real sense of the scale of the place, and its emptiness. The civilised, and lived-in world disappeared; there wasn’t so much as a road visible. Kilometres of bog opened up in front of us and even the next objectives of Maumykelly and Slieve Carr seem impossibly distant.

Blessed with the day

Talk about being blessed with the day though, with a bit of a breeze and some sunshine bypassing the streets of cloud in a great big crazy sky. With all the recent rain, the crossing to Maumykelly (364m) would be a lot different now. Even then, we had to contend with more bouncy bog than I’ve ever seen before.

Mind-busting views of the silhouetted and majestic peaks of Achill – great sentries and defenders of the west, silently waiting for the next great storm. Below us, the thin scratch on the landscape that is the Bangor Trail.

Slieve Carr was a bit of a struggle, the top seeming to pull away from us a few times. We finally reeled it in to revel in the mighty views – Nephin way out to the east, a lonely mountain if ever there was one. Too far to include on this trip, but a great reason to come back. Mind-busting views of the silhouetted and majestic peaks of Achill – great sentries and defenders of the west, silently waiting for the next great storm. Below us, the thin scratch on the landscape that is the Bangor Trail. A reminder that we were not, despite how complete our isolation feels, the first ones to pass this way. This is not any Alaskan wilderness, although it is beautiful, remote and ours.

We descended from the great summit cairn of Slieve Carr, down its broad southern shoulder towards the subsidiary peak of Corslieve (541m). It’s a pretty steep descent down to Scardaun Lough from there. Our aim was to bivvy on the other side, and as we reached the col, our horizon was completely filled with Nephin Beg. Now we had 400m of climbing in only 500m distance. It was a struggle to say the least.

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Fading light

We didn’t have the luxury of delaying too long, as the light was beginning to fade and we wanted the bulk of our work done before settling down for the night. Short work was made of the descent, and dusk was on us when we finally reached the deserted Bangor Trail and crossed the Bawnduff River. The midges were happy in the valley so that was motivation enough to gain a bit of height before picking a spot to settle.

I always feel we dine like kings with hunger as a sauce and the endless stars wheeling above us as entertainment.

However basic the meal, I always feel we dine like kings with hunger as a sauce and the endless stars wheeling above us as entertainment. That night, the rain kept away; I woke once and happily watched the lazy progress of Orion stealing his way across the sky. There’s no need for snooze buttons out there.

Milly is a maestro with his Jet Boil stove, so nothing less than a cooked breakfast would do to get us going in the morning. Then we shouldered our packs once more and faced into the challenging climb of Glennamong (628m). Following the ridge line up is the best way because the edge distracts you from the effort a bit. Topping out was amazing, surrounded as we were by mountains and the twin gems of Corryloughaphuill Loughs twinkling below us. A glance back the way we had come was incredibly satisfying; Slieve Carr was just some shadow in the distance now. What was barely credible was that we still had about 15km to go, and all over mountainous ground!

Glorious conditions

The Nephin Begs are quite spread out, with each of the substantial peaks isolated from each other; you have to descend quite a bit between each of them and end up covering a lot of ground as a result. Still, in such glorious conditions, you’d do well to find a better spot to spend time in.

Silver light reflected off the endless sea and the grey shadow of a distant shower hinted at the inevitable change in the weather we were just about ahead of.

Our route took us over Corranabinnia (714m), and the view from there was nothing short of spectacular. Silver light reflected off the endless sea and the grey shadow of a distant shower hinted at the inevitable change in the weather we were just about ahead of. The true high point, though, had to be the archipelago of Clew Bay. They say there’s an island there for every day of the year. It’s like the ill-fated Armada is moored forever in the western ocean. Ben Gorm (582m) was the last worthy obstacle and we were chased by showers most of the way. Nephin is the kind of place that takes a little bit of you, but you get to keep a little bit of that wilderness in return.

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