KEENAGH LOOP WALK - The 50 Greatest Walks of the World - Barry Stone

The 50 Greatest Walks of the World - Barry Stone (2016)


County Mayo, Ireland

Distance: 12 km

Grade: Moderate

Time: 4 hours

This lovely loop in Ireland’s County Mayo packs a lot into what is a fairly compact trail - panoramic mountain views, clear-running streams and rivers, and a beautiful valley - all set in a wilderness of ethereal blanket bogs, Ireland’s most celebrated type of peatland with a peat substrate that can range in depth from 2 to 7 m underneath a grassy surface of pools, flushes and swallow holes. Here you are in the midst of what could be called Ireland’s ‘blanket bog coast’, a world of low-lying coastal plains which extend through Donegal and Galway - rich wetlands that contain more than 90 per cent water and are in fact vast water reservoirs that support a rich degree of biodiversity including plants, birds, invertebrates and mosses. There are even prehistoric farming landscapes and artefacts hidden beneath in its peat-filled depths. No wonder, then, that those who know better become upset when areas like this are unfairly maligned and referred to as ‘wastelands’.

The Keenagh Loop Walk begins at Bellanaderg Bridge, 20 km outside the town of Castlebar, and crosses the Boghadoon River where you follow an old road towards Newport before branching off at a three-way junction and through Derreen. Next, head south/southwest on a broad, grass-covered track that takes you up over the eastern shoulder of Letterkeeghaun. Continue on the grassy trail for 3 km past a concrete water tower and the edge of a forest where the trail then bears to the right and takes you over a large expanse of typically boggy ground until you reach a small river. There are waterfalls to admire here as you follow a river for 1 km or so towards the remote and spectacular Glendorragha Valley. As you make your way through the valley keep on the lookout for a line of old timber fence posts, and when you reach them turn right and prepare yourself for a little bit of climbing as you ascend along a small tributary of the river you’ve been tracing for a 1-km-long slog up to a mountain pass below Knockaffertag, although the climb is a gentle one. After conquering the pass you then descend via an old sheep track on a north/northwest line down past some abandoned farmhouses to a small farm track and on to a small road which takes you back to your starting point.



Photo: Ben Brooksbank

Walking the Keenagh Loop is an overwhelmingly peaceful, serene experience. This is a genuine wilderness, with what seems like an ocean of grass around you, while peaks like Croagh Patrick far off on the horizon present a haunting vista which only adds to the sense of isolation, not to mention the invigorating sight of Nephin, the conical shaped mountain of quartzite that has been revered - and climbed - for generations. The second-highest mountain in Connaught, Nephin is a wonderful climb, with a route to the summit of some 10 km over hillocky, heather-clad slopes.

The rivers and streams you pass on the Keenagh Loop, if the wind isn’t blowing, supply pretty much the only noise that is not being made by you, and the feeling you get being here can be overwhelmingly tranquil. The back leg of the trail that ascends some 950 ft up to that pass below Knockaffertag can come as a bit of a surprise, but the climb is a gentle one and if taken slowly is one where you can quickly adjust your stride in order to complete it.

As there’s a lot of soft ground on this lovely loop, you’ll want to pack a pair of gaiters as well as the usual rainproof gear. And there is no real ‘high point’ to speak of either, but while there is little real climbing to deal with, what this trail does provide is a splendid introductory walk through the mosses and peats and spiky rush-filled wilderness of West Mayo’s Atlantic blanket bog landscape. And that alone makes it a walk worth doing.