In Ireland’s far west lies ruggedly beautiful Connemara, a place where barren purple hills rise out of the sea and unruly tufts of wild grass meet the road in wayward undulations.
Where exactly Connemara is can be difficult to define, for the boundaries exist because of ancient tribal politics moreso than any visible markers in existence today. Most of the large swath of peninsula in the northwest part of Co. Galway is part of Connemara, and it extends across to western Co. Mayo, as well.
Although there are plenty of tourist options for getting to and around Connemara – buses that take visitors on half-day tours of the area – really, the only way to experience its fullest beauty is by car. Even if you don’t hire a car for your entire trip, it is possible to rent one in Galway for a day or two.
Scenic Connemara Driving Loop
This scenic driving loop will take you through the wilds of Connemara, where the scenery runs the gamut from stunning, raw coastline to dense forests and lumbering mountains. Along the way, we’ll take in a historic Benedictine abbey, a national park, a quaint seaside village and a fjord. Be sure to bring your camera because Connemara is one of the most photogenic places in the world.
You’ll want to allot a full day to really appreciate this drive, or perhaps even plan for an overnight stay. It is also worth noting that driving in Ireland, and especially Connemara, often takes longer than you expect because, though the mileage may not add up to a lot, the roads are small and winding and sometimes not well-signposted.
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Salthill to Maam’s Cross – the R336
We’ll start on this lovely coastal route heading west from Galway City and passing through the seaside resort of Salthill. Crashing waves hit the beach here in regular undulations before going a bit further west, where the coast becomes rugged and rocky. There are plenty of places on this stretch to stop and take in a few moments of crashing waves before continuing toward Maam’s Cross. Be aware that when you reach Costelloe, the road splits and you’ll need to turn right to continue on the R336. We are also getting into a Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) area and you’ll notice some of the roadsigns are only in Irish.
Maam’s Cross to Lissoughter – the N59
When you reach Maam’s Cross, turn left (west) on the N59. An Irish national highway, this is one of the better roads that you’ll encounter in Connemara and it represents a chance for you to make up a bit of time. On this short drive, you’ll pass by a number of stunning lakes and ponds backed by the beginnings of the 12 Bens, the small mountain range that gives Connemara its iconic purple hues.
Lissoughter to Kylemore – the R344
Easily one of the most beautiful sections of Connemara and my personal favourite spot, this stretch of road runs through the incredibly scenic Inagh Valley, nestled quietly between the massive Maumturk Mountains to the east and Bencorr, one of the 12 Bens, reflected in the inky waters of Lough Inagh just below it. You will find the road to be generally free of traffic, but beware of stopping or slowing too much to enjoy the scenery, as locals sometimes roar through at high speeds. Instead, use the unpaved dirt lot near the entrance to the Lough Inagh Lodge as a pullout point to stop and enjoy the view.
Killary and Leenane – the N59
The R344 tees into the N59, which makes a loop around the coast of Connemara. Before going to the stunning Kylemore Abbey, head east (right) where you can check out Ireland’s only fjord, Killary Harbour. Formed by an ancient iceberg, this stunning waterway looks more like a fingerlake than a harbour. Once Killary comes in sight, you will find a spot or two to pull out from the road and notice, on a clear day, that you can see all the way out to the island of Inish Turk.
If you fancy staying over for a night in Connemara, here is IrishJaunt’s pick for budget lodging in Connemara, Sleepzone Connemara, a beautiful and quiet hostel located in an old reconverted hunting lodge. Their 100 guest rooms consist of both dorms and ensuite privates, and the gorgeous sunroom overlooking the harbour is, alone, worth the stay.
6 km further east is the tiny little village of Leenane, which sits at the head of the fjord and provides one or two options for pubs and gifts.
Leenane to Kylemore – the N59
This is one of two times in this driving loop that I will ask you to backtrack, but by this point you will have seen Killary Harbour and understand why. In Leenane, retrace your steps going west on the N59 for about 30 minutes. The road will begin to wind its way through the 12 Bens and you’ll pass several icy clear lakes as the road snakes in between mountain and water. Kylemore Abbey will come into sight on your right, across a lake, where it sits on the shores like an opulent castle. The entrance is located a few clicks up on the right side and signs point you to the free carpark.
You can either enjoy the view of Kylmore from across the lake for free (this is also the best vantage point for photographing it), or purchase tickets for €8-10, which grant you entrance to the Visitor’s Centre and a chance to explore part of the abbey’s interior, as well as a few outbuildings, a small cathedral and a garden walking path. You can explore the gift shops and get a bite to eat in the restaurant without buying a ticket.
Kylemore to Clifden – the N59
A few miles further west, you’ll come to the entrance of Connemara National Park, a state-owned parkland that covers nearly 3,000 hectares of space in the heart of Connemara, including several of the 12 Bens and an array of natural wildlife and flora, such as the celebrated Connemara pony. Entrance to the park is free and a visitor’s centre provides information and exhibits on the scenery and wildlife of Connemara, as well as maps and walking trails for the more adventurous. A free guided walking tour is conducted Wednesdays and Fridays at 11am during July and August, and good footwear is recommended.
From the park, you’ll wind your way west and then south on the N59 until you reach Clifden, a scenic if not slightly touristy little town on the tip of the peninsula. Clifden is one of the largest settlements in Connemara and has plenty of accommodation, food and shopping on offer. IrishJaunt’s pick for luxury accommodation in Connemara is the Abbeyglen Castle Hotel, an 1830s manor house converted into an opulent 4-star hotel. The manicured lawns that sweep down from the hotel with views of Clifden Bay make the Abbeyglen feel remote, but it is only a 6-minute walk to Clifden town centre and is an all-in-one resort with an upscale restaurant, spa and Piano Bar pub.
If you’d like to stay in Clifden but don’t have the cash to shell out for something quite so fancy, there are many many options around the villlage, with a particular concentration of B&Bs and guesthouses along the Sky Road just to the west of the village, or alternately several comfy hotels, such as the Clifden Station House, are located in the town centre.
Clifden to Derrynavglaun – the R341
Assuming you’ve decided not to stay overnight in Connemara (I really recommend that you do), you’ll by this point by tired and the sun will be getting low in the sky. I’ve included one more scenic road before putting you back on the highway to Galway City, and that is the R341, which loops south from Clifden, following the coast for quite awhile before turning north and meeting back up with the N59. This stretch of road is particularly beautiful at sunset when low sunlight cast along the brown and purple grass creates intense hues and lights the entire landscape up in orange and pink. There are several points along this extremely quiet little road where you can simply stop the car and enjoy the very remote sections of rocky, gentle coast where the ocean lips gently up to grassy tufts of earth.
There are few (if any) petrol stations in this area, so be sure you have a full tank before you leave Clifden.
Derrynavglaun to Galway – the N59
On this last stretch of road is where you will once more need to retrace your steps for the few miles of N59 between Lissoughter and Maam’s Cross. From there, it is about 45 minutes of speedy, open highway back to Galway City on the N59.
Optional extra: Garroman to Screebe – the R340 Coast Road
If you stayed overnight and are feeling fairly perky, there is one more loop of road that you might enjoy. The R340 juts south (right) from the N59 a few miles west of Lissoughter at Garroman. This long, looping road takes you through more of Connemara’s tufted coastal landscape (not the lumbering mountainous areas around the Bens) and provides some absolutely stunning views of the uneven Irish coast as it winds in and out of tiny bays.
The R340 dead ends into the R336 at Screebe (you’ve been here before) and you’ll have to turn left (north) on the R336 for a few miles to get back to the N59. From there, go right (east) toward Galway.
by Megan Eaves
Connemara driving loop map, colour coded: