You are looking at the highest sea cliffs in Ireland—among the highest in all of Europe, for that matter. At nearly 2,000 feet, located in a desolate area of County Donegal, Slieve League is nearly three times higher than the much better-known Cliffs of Moher to the south, a fact unknown to many tourists. It takes a good bit of time to reach these cliffs, but the stunning drive through Donegal and one-of-a-kind views are well worth the effort.
My family and I visited last year, making it as far as “Bun Glas”, a viewing spot near the top of the mountain—only near the top because the actual summit via “One Man’s Pass” is best traveled by sure-footed hikers only. Did I mention these cliffs have a sheer drop of 2,000 feet? Think of the Empire State Building and then add another 75 stories to it. After taking several moments to appreciate just how far the ocean waves were relative to where my feet were firmly planted, I was then able to take in the sight of colossal cliffs, crashing waves, Donegal Bay and the Atlantic to the west, and the Sligo mountains to the south. A second look revealed the unexpected: sparkling thin lines of waterfalls, shifting colors in the cliffs, and two rocks known as the Giant's Table and Chair jutting from the sea. Jawdropping, literally.
Slieve League is a wild place, a place “drifting to its own ancient rhythms” as one writer describes it. Indeed, the nearby town of Teelin, cited on Ireland’s earliest maps, was a major port important to early Irish trade and home to a monastic church from the 5th century. It is also neighbor to many megalithic structures scattered throughout the county. So preserved is the area that you realize you're enjoying the same view that inhabitants from every age—Celtic warriors, Vikings, monks, peasants, farmers old and new—enjoyed.
More recent relics feed the imagination in much the same way. To the south, a square tower sits along the cliff edge, erected as a lookout for French ships during the Napoleonic Wars, one of many such towers that dot the coast. Those ships never came, but I can still picture the towers lighting fires to signal one another, similar to what was done centuries earlier in England during the Spanish Armada. In the same direction, from a vantage near the parking lot, there is something from WWII: a navigation aid of painted white stones spelling out the word Éire on nearby slopes, which served to steer allied pilots to Northern Ireland (this, surreptitious support from the “neutral” Irish Republic). I can see farmers waving to pilots as they flew by to join the fight.
Finally, an odd little fact about Slieve League… It is part of the Appalachian Trail. Yes, the same North American hiking trail that starts in Georgia and extends up to Maine and Canada. As it turns out, that ridge continues across the Atlantic and cuts right through Slieve League—or at least the tectonic plates that created it do. From there the trail stretches into mainland Europe and veers south to Morocco in Africa. I call it a trail because that’s what it is: the newly-formed “IAT”, International Appalachian Trail. Crazy, right?
The highest sea cliffs in Ireland do not garner the attention they deserve, primarily because they are just so out of the way. But for those willing to set time aside, they will experience views that few in the world knew existed.
Notes for visitors:
- Make sure the gas tank is full before setting out. The ride to and up the mountain is a slow one.
- Check the weather report. Fog-obstructed views would be disappointing, but they could also be dangerous. This is a blue-sky only kind of trip.
- There’s a lower and an upper parking lot on the mountain. There is no signpost telling you there’s an upper parking lot, so many visitors park at the lower and hike a very long road to the top. Don’t do that. Get out of your car, open the large swinging gate, drive through and close the gate, then continue up the mountain. It will be somewhat steep and narrow in spots, but rest assured if you proceed with caution, you’ll make it to the upper lot without a problem.
- Parents, there is a fence along most of the cliff’s sloped edge, but it’s flimsy and won’t keep a small child from slipping through. The large, relatively flat area around the parking lot is much safer.
- Sheep are everywhere, noteworthy only because you’ll be in awe of how close they get to the precipice, searching for that one last great nibble of grass.
- The scale of the cliffs is hard to capture in photos. Try to include something in the foreground, a person, a tree, a flower—anything to act as a point of reference.
- If you’re lucky, an ice cream truck will be parked near the Bun Glas viewing area.