If you’ve ever thought about taking a road trip around Ireland, chances are you’ve considered visiting Donegal. It could be argued that it’s one of the most remote parts of Ireland to get to. It’s not exactly close to any major airport or port and the roads aren’t always top class but it’s worth the journey. Plus getting round there is half the fun, right?
With such a large area to cover, knowing where to start might be hard. In this post I’ve set out my route for the ultimate Donegal road trip, tried and tested with lots of unreal pictures, giving you an idea of my must see bucket list places to visit.
Starting on the northern coastline of the island, Kinnagoe bay is my first stop on the road trip. Follow the Wild Atlantic Way round the coast to end up at the hills above Kinnagoe. Overlooking the beach is one of the most picturesque views in the county but the steep and windy road down is a bit mad and usually packed. So save yourself the time and stress and just park at the top of the hill.
From Kinnagoe we’re going to continue round the coast line, heading to the most northerly point in Ireland. You may have heard of Malin Head before, it could be the most famous landmark on this Ireland road trip but when I say it’s windy up there, I am not joking. It’s the perfect insta spot if you’re trying to recreate the classic Marilyn Monroe skirt in the wind shot. The walk is not for you if you’re not keen on dandering round a cliff edge but there’s something special about standing out the top of the emerald isle onto the Atlantic Ocean.
A short stroll from the carpark and a nice spot if you have some time to kill. This one is cool because if it’s not too busy and you get a moment to yourself there, you can climb down to the waterfall for the all important insta shot. But if you fancy seeing a waterfall on a grander scale try Assaranca Waterfall about 2 hours south of here.
If you have a drone you’re going to want to make sure it’s ready for this point. Mamore Gap is a drive through the Urris hills with some of the most incredible views from the top. Take your time on the drive through and make sure to stop and experience Donegal’s “magic road” trust me you have to see it to believe it.
After Mamore Gap we’re going to hop onto the Lough Swilly Ferry in Buncrana and head across the water to Rathmullan. This 20 minute journey saves over an hour of driving but it’s usually busy so get there early. Once off the ferry, continue to follow the coast and Wild Atlantic Way heading for Ballymastocker beach. This drive is one of the highlights of the road trip, take your time, stop often and take photos of everything. The viewpoint above Ballymastocker will take your breath away.
I had low expectations heading to Fanad Lighthouse but it quickly became a must on this list. The walk around the grounds is free but I would highly recommend paying the small amount to go into the lighthouse, I mean, if you’ve driven this far you may as well have the full experience! Look out for dolphins and whales from the edge of the lighthouse, you may just be lucky enough to spot some.
Next stop is the biggest mystery of Donegal, the hidden beach… Take the Mulroy drive from Fanad heading towards Melmore Head, the drive itself is incredible, I know I’ve said this before, but the drives are honestly to die for. Set your Maps for “Murderhole beach”. When it looks like you’re lost and heading into a caravan site you’re close. If you go during summer you will probably see cars parked everywhere but if not, park in the lay-by before you get to the caravan park. You should see a big gate, go through this and head over the fields (watch out for the sheep, and close the gates behind you!) The hidden beach is so named because from the road it looks like just a field but if you keep walking you will find Murderhole Beach. It really is even better than it looks in the photos.
Funny story though, after visiting there this summer I posted a pic on Instagram and someone commented underneath saying her family owned the land and they don’t mind people going across their fields but they wish people wouldn’t swim there due to the danger of strong currents, so maybe something to think about.
Now you’re in the Rosguill Peninsula and be prepared to stop the car every few miles to take in the views. Note: if you’re following the Wild Atlantic Way and trying to find all the discovery points follow the road for Doagh to find the Rosguill sign. My favourite thing about road trips is getting off the beaten track and finding new places, so take a few wrong turns and see where you end up! That’s how we found Doe Castle and discovered the story of Donegal’s Romeo and Juliet.
A little Irish history for your road trip, Ireland used to be ruled by different clans and Chieftains, the Mac Sweeney Clan being one of them and the rivalry between different rulers was immense. The Mac Sweeneys were said to live in Doe castle and legend has it that one of the Chieftains daughters threw herself from the top of the castle after her father murdered her lover, the son of a rival Chieftain.
If the weather is good and you want a good hike then Horn Head should definitely be on your list. Dunfanaghy is a lovely little town so if you don’t fancy the walk then stop here for some food and a drink, just head to the Horn Head viewing point and take the scenic route back down.
The abandoned church of Dunlewey is a must for the view of Mount Errigal. It’s not far off the main road and close to Glenveagh National Park, so worth stopping at if you have some time.
Glenveagh National Park
Glenveagh is incredible but could easily take up most of a day. If you’re trying to squeeze in as much as you can on your road trip, plan at least half a day here and just go as far as the castle. It’s a fair walk but very accessible for all ages and abilities and in normal times pre covid a little bus runs back and forth to the carpark if you don’t want to walk back again. If nature and scenic walks are something you enjoy I would definitely plan Glenveagh into your itinerary.
When you think of the most scenic airport in the world, you might start thinking Caribbean or some such paradise. But did you know the descent into Donegal Airport is said to hold the title? Carrickfinn beach runs parallel to the runaway and allows you to walk right beside the planes landing, a must see for any aviation fans.
The tiny little fishing village of Burtonport feels as if it hasn’t changed in 50 years. Narrow roads, a couple of pubs and a pier are just about all that’s there. But if visiting Arranmore Island off the west coast of Donegal is included in your bucket list then this is where you will board the ferry, I’ve included their website here. This is something I haven’t done before but is high on my bucket list for my next Ireland road trip.
Slieve League Cliffs
Less famous than the Cliffs of Moher but equally as impressive Slieve League is another must see spot! You have two options here, park at the main car park or risk your lives and drive to the top, making sure to dodge all the walkers. The walk up is a little steep but not too far if you just want to get to the viewpoint and not do the complete hike.
A typical little Irish town, with possibly more pubs than residents. Donegal town is a great base for a road trip as you cover the south/ south west of the county. If you do visit, I would highly recommend The Harbour bar and restaurant, the food was so tasty. I’m not going to mention the hotel we stayed in… we were pretty sure it was haunted (tripadvisor reviews confirmed the same) and didn’t feel very relaxed there, especially with the fire alarm going off in our room at 3am in the morning, rang twice, scared the absolute life out of us, and no one else heard a thing… but sure it’s a funny story now.
Last stop on the Ireland road trip is Bundoran. Just like Rossnowlough, Bundoran is a big surf spot. If you’d rather watch than partake, follow the Roughey Cliff walk and you’ll come across the Fairy Bridge and wishing chair (pay close attention to the instructions before you make a wish).
And there ends our trip through Donegal, from North to South. Obviously this can be done in reverse or whatever order suits you but I hope this has given you an idea of some of the amazing things to do in Donegal. If you do get to any of the places I’ve mentioned I would love to know what you thought or if you think I missed somewhere special let me know, I’m always up for new ideas!