Top 20 family walks in Ireland: Get kids of all ages into the outdoors!
1. Ards Forest Park, Co Donegal
When you're heading off with a really little one, accessibility is the main issue. Whether you're pushing a buggy or carrying the baby in a sling, you want to make sure you're not going to encounter any bumps, tree roots or tricky climbs. Ards Forest Park covers a stonking 480 hectares of gorgeous sand dunes, beaches, marshes and woodland, with nine trails in total to choose from. The buggy-friendly options are the Salt Marsh Trail and the Sand Dune Trail – neither will take too long, but you'll be rewarded with killer views for very little effort. There's a playground for older kids, too.
Best for: Buggy-pushing bird lovers (there's a bird hide on the Salt Marsh Trail).
Length/difficulty: 0.5 – 1km (linear, easy).
Trailhead: Ards Forest Park, near Dunfanaghy (parking fee, bring coins).
Pit-stop: Grab a wood-fired pizza at the Rusty Oven in Dunfanaghy (facebook.com/therustyoven).
2. Coill an Fhaltaigh co Millennium Park, Kilkenny
Just a short hop out of Kilkenny, this woodland spot is a great choice if you want to be among the trees for a while. There are two looped walks, both of which are doable with buggies, but the red trail is a little longer, if you want to really stretch the legs. This is the largest of the 16 Millennium Forests planted in the 1990s, and the woodland is a mix of old oaks and newly planted trees like ash, birch and cherry.
Best for: Woodland nymphs.
Length/difficulty: 3.3km (easy).
Trailhead: Coill an Fhaltaigh car park (Millenium Park, Castleinch on Google Maps).
Pit-stop: Mocha's Vintage Tea Rooms in Kilkenny (facebook.com/thevintagetearoomsbymocha).
3. Lough Muckno, Co Monaghan
Close to Castleblayney, the Lough Muckno Leisure Park is set around one of Monaghan's largest and most beautiful lakes. There are a few different trails here, but The Black Island Circuit Walk is the handiest with a buggy, because it's relatively flat. Though it doesn't have the steep climbs others do, you will still get lovely lake views and quiet sections of forest to potter around. There's also Wilbert's Enchanted Garden, which older children love – there's a cool zip wire that will go down a treat, and a dedicated section for toddlers, too.
Best for: Napping babies.
Length/difficulty: 1.7km (easy).
Trailhead: Lough Muckno.
Pit-stop: Have an afternoon tea at the Glencarn Hotel (theglencarnhotel.ie) in Castleblaney.
4. Portumna Forest Park, Co Galway
The Forest-Friendly Walking Trail is a short one, but loops through the woodland on a smooth road and a wide timber boardwalk, making it perfect for even the clunkiest of buggies. There's a neat viewing platform over Lough Derg, and you pass by the duck pond which is sure to please the older babies – don't forget to bring the crusts from your turkey sandwiches! Keep an eye out for red squirrels and fallow deer, too. The gorgeous Portumna Castle and Gardens aren't open during the depths of winter, so pop back in summer too.
Best for: Nature lovers.
Length/difficulty: 1.4km (easy).
Trailhead: Portumna Forest car park.
Pit-stop: Nip into nearby Blas Café (blascafe.ie) for soup or a slice of cake.
5. Curragh Chase Forest Park, Co Limerick
Juggling babies and older kids? This circular walk will keep everyone happy. Baby can snooze while older ones run amok through this grand old estate, complete with a gorgeous lake and arboretum, which is home to some beautiful old trees. You might also stumble across the pet cemetery of the old homeowners, the de Vere family. This will be either be a huge selling point or the start of an awkward conversation about what really happened to your family hamster… be warned!
Best for: Kids of different ages
Length/difficulty: 1km (easy).
Trailhead: Curragh Chase House (parking fee).
Pitstop: Warm up with a coffee and a scone at the onsite DeVere Café (curraghchase.info).
6. Gruffalo Trail, Belfast
Walking with toddlers can be a challenging affair. But when the trails are specifically designed to keep them happy, life is made so much easier. The Gruffalo Trail in Belfast is impossibly cute, with carvings of each beloved character scattered throughout the leafy Colin Glen Forest Park. It only takes around 20 minutes to get to the Gruffalo himself, and then there's a small seating area by the river in case anyone wants a sit down.
Best for: Gruffalo fans (obviously).
Length/difficulty: 1km each way (easy).
Trailhead: Colin Glen Visitor Centre (colinglen.org).
Pit-stop: Keep things simple at the onsite café.
7. Donadea Forest Park, Co Kildare
There are three looped walks through the beautiful grounds of Donadea Castle, with plenty of spots to explore along the way. You'll find the remains of the castle and walled gardens, a church and old houses. Take the Nature Trail and you'll pass by a forest, a walled stream, small lake and the 9/11 memorial, built in honour of local man and firefighter Sean Tallon who lost his life in the tragedy. There's also an accessible lake walk, if you need to bring the buggy (there's the added bonus of ducks in the pond, too).
Best for: History buffs.
Length/difficulty: 1.6km (easy).
Trailhead: Donadea Forest car park (parking fee).
Pit-stop: Refuel at The Pot and Pantry in nearby Clane (facebook.com/thepotandpantryclane).
8. Belleek Woods, Co Mayo
If your little ones harbour an obsession with fairies, this walk will be like Christmas all over again. Tiny little fairy houses are hidden throughout the trail, which is free to enter. But the rest of the woods are just as magical. Running along the River Moy, there's plenty for kids to explore, with the gorgeous Belleek Manor at its heart. Along the water's edge, you can keep an eye out for herons, kingfishers and even otters. This is a shared trail, so keep an eye out for cyclists.
Best for: Little fairies.
Length/difficulty: Varies (easy).
Trailhead: Belleek Wood car park.
Pit-stop: Warm up in Jack Fenn's Courtyard Café in Belleek Castle (belleekcastle.com).
9. Ross Castle Loop Walk, Killarney, Co Kerry
This one is a little longer (especially for those with shorter legs), but is suitable for buggies, if you need a contingency plan. The plus side? It's one of the most beautiful walks in Kerry, with stunning lakes and mountains at every turn. You'll start and finish at Ross Castle, looping through the demesne and along the water's edge. There's another option that's slightly longer (6km) taking you around Ross Island, if you feel up to it.
Best for: A combination of walking and pushing
Length/difficulty: 5km (easy).
Trailhead: Ross Castle (heritageireland.ie).
Pit-stop: Pop into Muckross House, a short distance away, for a pot of tea in the Garden Restaurant.
10. Doorly Park, Co Sligo
This is a great choice if you're not sure how long you'll want to be out for. Meandering alongside the Garavogue as it morphs into the lake, this pretty waterside walk passes by swaying reeds and greenery. If you want to, you can walk the full 4km loop, but it's easy enough to turn back on yourself if you're ready to finish up before then. There's a very well equipped playground to keep everyone happy, and you can watch the kayakers dip into the water alongside the swans.
Best for: Active toddlers.
Length/difficulty: 4km in full (easy).
Trailhead: Doorly Park.
Pit-stop: Back along the riverside, Café Victor is a great spot to pop into (facebook.com/cafevictor.sligo).
Routes For 5-9 Year-Olds
11. Dalkey and Killiney Hill, Co Dublin
Adrian Hendroff (adrianhendroff.com) writes about the loop around Dalkey Quarry, Dalkey Hill and Killiney Hill in his book Family Walks Around Dublin (The Collins Press). "For its modest height, it has great vistas of the Dublin and Wicklow coastline, as well as views of Dublin city and its mountains. Dalkey quarry is also a great spot to watch rock climbers in action. The follies (Mapas Obelisk, Step Pyramid/Wishing Stone, Boucher's Obelisk/Witches Hat) atop Killiney Hill are a great attraction for kids." Best for: Adventurous kids.
Length/difficulty: 2.5km (easy)
Trailhead: Killiney Hill Park
Pit-stop: "The Tower Tearoom (01-202 3825) is a great place to snack and stock up on treats!"
12. Hazelwood, Co Sligo
On the shores of Lough Gill, this looped walk weaves through pretty woodland with the water by your side. It's fairly sheltered, too, so don't let a bit of drizzle put you off. You can let the kids run on ahead, as there's plenty to catch their eyes – there's a series of cool sculptures hidden in the trees. Bear in mind that it's not really one for buggies or bikes, because some sections are a little bumpy underfoot. There's a little picnic area by the car park, so pack a thermos and let the kids watch the swans while you warm up with a hot chocolate.
Best for: Those with energy to burn.
Length/difficulty: 3km (easy).
Trailhead: Hazelwood car park.
Pit-stop: Drive on into Sligo for a healthy treat at Sweet Beat (sweetbeat.ie).
13. Lough Key Forest Park, Co Roscommon
If your suggestion of a family walk is met with a chorus of groans, then this may just be the answer. Lough Key Forest Park is a paradise for kids, and they'll be running around like mad things before they realise they've been tricked into the great outdoors. There are a number of walking routes, but the Drumman's Island Trail takes you on a good loop along the lakeshore, crossing two pretty bridges. It's also suitable for buggies, if you've littler ones in tow.
Best for: Reluctant walkers.
Length/difficulty: 3.5km (easy).
Trailhead: Lough Key Visitor Centre
Pit-stop: Treat the gang to a homemade bun in the Lakeside Café (lough key.ie).
14. Ardgillan Castle, Co Dublin
Gerry Mullins is a seasoned organiser of family hikes, with an in-depth knowledge of kid-friendly spots around Dublin. He pegs the walk around Ardgillan as "an absolute winner" with the bonus of free parking and excellent facilities. "The hike is variable. If you go right around the perimeter that's a good hour-and-a-half's walk, but you can easily cut it short, depending on how young or old your kids are. If you start at the top of the hill and go clockwise, you finish at the playground, so you have a reward at the end."
Best for: Those looking for a playground.
Length/difficulty: 3km (easy).
Trailhead: Ardgillan Castle car park (ardgillancastle.ie).
Pitstop: Call into the tea rooms before you head home.
15. Bray to Greystones Cliff Walk, Co Wicklow
This one is sure to blow the cobwebs away, but is probably more suited towards happy and confident walkers. Start off in Bray and head along the cliff sides for unbeatable views over the water on the way into Greystones. There are a couple of climbs, and the track can get a little rough in places, but nothing will get you out of your Christmas slump quicker. And in case you needed any more persuading, Michael D Higgins walked the very same trail just a few weeks ago. Hey, if it's good enough for the President…
Best for: Thalassophiles (those who love the sea, don'tcha know!)
Length/difficulty: 6.5km (one-way, moderate).
Trailhead: Bray bandstand.
Pitstop: Make like Michael D and stop off at The Happy Pear (thehappypear.ie) for a bite before getting the DART back to Bray.
Older Kids and Teens
16. Howth Cliff Walk, Co Dublin
If we find ourselves blessed with one of those perfect winter days, then this is the walk to do it justice. On a clear day, you'll get amazing views out to Lambay Island, Ireland's Eye and Dublin Bay. In all likelihood, you'll also run into plenty of other walkers doing the same, which keeps the Christmas spirit alive and well. Drifting between the breezy clifftops and rugged meadows, this is the kind of walk that will leave you with muddy boots and rosy cheeks – which means you'll more than earn your place by the fire afterwards.
Best for: Those with good walking boots.
Length/difficulty: 6km (moderate).
Trailhead: DART station at Howth
Pitstop: There's no shortage of places to eat in Howth – settle in for a bowl of chowder anywhere by the pier. See more on visithowth.ie.
17. Stairway to Heaven, Co Fermanagh
Teenagers will love the Instagram potential of this one – with its wooden boardwalk snaking through the bogland, it's a view that will win those all-important likes. The Cuilcagh Legnabrocky Trail has seen a huge amount of footfall since the launch of the 'Stairway to Heaven', which has led to the recent decision to temporarily close the final 1km section beyond the boardwalk. It's still a mighty linear walk though, with a strong climb involved – your thighs will be feeling this one the next day! Don't forget to bring along some water and snacks, too.
Best for: Social media mavens.
Length/difficulty: 11.2km total (difficult, allow several hours).
Trailhead: Legnabrocky car park
Pitstop: Nip over to Tully Mill Restaurant in Florencecourt (tullymill.com).
18. Shannon Blueway, Co Leitrim
One of the newest trails in the country, this walk has one particular showstopper – what's billed to be Ireland's first ever "floating walkway". This 600m long boardwalk snakes out onto the River Shannon as part of an off-road trail linking Leitrim Village to Drumshanbo, and is cool enough to tempt even the most reluctant walker out into the fresh air. If you don't want to tackle the whole thing, you can take two cars and leave one in Battlebridge. It's very bikeable, too, so the perfect choice if your kids are happier on two wheels.
Best for: Little cyclists.
Length/difficulty: 10km in total (easy).
Trailhead: Drumhauver Bridge.
Pitstop: Finish up at Beirnes of Battlebridge, with well-earned drinks and bites (battlebridgecaravanandcamping.ie).
19. An Creagán, Co Tyrone
An established route that's easy to follow, this forest and river loop leads you through an area of outstanding beauty, with plenty to satisfy eagle-eyed botanists. There's a short section of boardwalk leading you over a section of the Creggan Bog – keep your eyes peeled for the nifty sundews, a carnivorous plant that's bright orangey-pink in colour. When you reach the old quarry you can spot newts and frogs; get really lucky and you might catch a glimpse of a flying raptor in the distance – buzzards, sparrowhawks and owls swoop in and out.
Best for: Budding botanists
Length/difficulty: 5.5km (moderate).
Trailhead: An Creagan Visitor Centre.
Pitstop: The onsite café overlooks the bog, and there's a craft shop and playground, too (an-cregan.com).
20. The Carrowteige Loop, Co Mayo
If you've any hint of Christmas lethargy, then the Erris peninsula is one of those places that will (quite literally) blast it out of you. It's impossible not to feel energised when walking on the Carrowteige cliffs, though you may be battling the elements to do so. Rachel Nolan (rachelsirishadventures.com) frequently takes walkers out on this loop, which she describes as "Mayo's undiscovered hidden trail and possibly the most spectacular coastal trail in Ireland". There are a few different lengths you can walk, the beach trail being the shortest.
Best for: Those with severe cabin fever.
Length/difficulty: 6.5km (moderate).
Trailhead: Carrowteige Village.
Pitstop: Rachel loves Mary's Cottage in Ballycastle "for her delicious seafood chowder and homemade bread… but be sure to keep some space for her chocolate cake!"
NB: Find route details on IrishTrails.ie and Coillte.ie.