A Hidden Irish Paradise of Vertigo-Inducing Fun

By European standards, Ireland’s County Donegal, tucked into the country’s far northwest corner, may as well be Mars. But for adventure travelers, it’s a hidden frontier packed with wind-bitten landscapes to hike or mountain-bike, rowdy coastline to surf, and 500-foot sea stacks to climb. That is, if you’re brave enough.

The county is nearly 1,900 square miles but has only 161,000 residents in its 47 villages and sees just 6 percent of Ireland’s almost nine million annual tourists. Beyond the villages, where the same families have lived for centuries, are heather-covered bogs, quartz and granite cliffs, the Derryveagh mountain range—which rises to 2,467-foot Mount Errigal—and empty white-sand beaches lined with tropical-looking cabbage palms. The topography is reminiscent of Tasmania or the Falkland Islands, but Donegal is accessible via an hour-long flight from Dublin.

Over a stone bridge spanning whitewater, up a muddy path, and through a heather pasture where sheep nurse their lambs, you reach the base of a knife-edge ridge in Donegal. Known as Sturrall Headland, it juts 2,624 feet into the North Atlantic and drops 590 feet into the sea. From the landward side, the route to the top looks like a T. rex spine.

It takes an obsessive athlete to engage with the fierce coastline in Ireland’s far northwest corner. Seaside cliffs stretch on for miles, often there are four seasons in a day, and ocean temperatures average 48 degrees. Climbers, hikers, surfers, kayakers, windsurfers, and sailors need technical skills, extensive knowledge of tides, and the patience to wait out lethal conditions.

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