It may act as the northern passage to the Wild Atlantic Way, but there is more to County Donegal than its rugged coastal habitats. The district offers a real feast for the senses when it comes to exploring our natural landscape and nowhere is this more evident than in the vast moorlands of Glenveagh National Park.

Driving through miles of barren heathland you could be forgiven for thinking you were driving along the face of another planet. In truth this granite moonscape is common to the county and adds to the mystique of what lies waiting beyond. The long and winding road will eventually lead you to a lush green landscape, marking the entrance to the national park. From here visitors can opt to walk or take a bus (for a small fee) down the rocky lakeside trail, which leads towards the foot of the majestic Glenveagh Castle.

Initially constructed in 1869, the castle was erected by the side of Lough Veagh and was conceived as a romantic project by the love-struck couple of John George and Cornelia Adair. The castle’s formation began to take shape shortly after they married and was created for use of their past-times for art and nature. The estate would later go on to serve as a summer retreat for recreational sports, such as hunting and fishing as well.

The Victorian castle stood solitary under the staggering Derryveagh Mountains, until further construction began in the mid-1880s. Plans were drawn to cultivate the land to the rear of the castle, turning the wild moorland into a botanical pleasure garden. To this day, the original Victorian layout of the garden remains intact. Here you will find a quaint whitewash cottage sat back from the bedded flowers. This was once the home of Glenveagh’s chief gardener, employed especially from Kew Gardens in London, to oversee the introduction of exotic species from the like of South America, Australasia and Madeira.

The castle gardens are considered one of Ireland’s greatest horticultural masterpieces. The walled garden is overarched by rows of Scots Pines and Purple Maples, which shelter many rare species unpredictably thriving in the harsh Irish climate. Glenveagh is notably renowned for its varied assortment of rhododendrons, as well as its rich collection of plants from the southern hemisphere. The Rhododendrons are at their peak from early March to late May, which is also prime viewing for the locally cultivated narcissi collection. However, the best time to visit is undoubtedly throughout the summer months, when the garden is in full bloom with a vibrant array of colour. Although, there is still life to be found in the garden until late October.

Wander beyond the garden gate and you will be confronted by a vast expanse of wilderness, printing a dramatic impression on visitors’ minds. The castle is cradled beneath two of Donegal’s tallest peaks Mount Errigal (752m) and Slieve Snaght (683m), creating a focal point in the valley by the side of Lough Veagh. There are a number of signposted trails through this haunting landscape and if you’re lucky you may even catch glimpse of a Golden Eagle soaring overhead.

Golden Eagles were formally extinct on the island of Ireland, but in the year 2000, Glenveagh re-introduced the species and have continued to prosper. The national park is also home Ireland’s largest herd of red deer. Once driven out by hunters, numbers have now grown back to a sustainable figure. The best time for sightings is the breeding season in early to mid-autumn. The breeding season can often provide theatrical displays between dominant stags, as they ‘rut’, locking antlers, in an often violent fight to mate with their female companions.

Glenveagh is comprised of over 16,000 hectares, a vast expanse of land just waiting to be explored; a beguiling and inviting scene, sure to captivate the imagination through the changing of the seasons. Whether you’re keen to uncover the castle’s history or simply hitting the hills, Glenveagh is sure to leave a memorable impression. Although hidden away, there’s good reason to keep this place secret; a sure visit if you’re ever passing through Donegal.

Glenveagh National Park, Church Hill, Letterkenny, Co. Donegal, Ireland
Email: glenveaghbookings@ahg.gov.ie Phone: + 353 76 100 2537
The Visitor Centre is open from 9.15am – 5.30pm (March – October)
Free entry to the park and gardens, but prices vary for castle tours.
Last bus to the castle is 4.45pm. Last bus from the castle is 5.45pm.