FIVE DAYS ON THE BANGOR TRAIL & THE WESTERN WAY
Despite having a small population, Ireland doesn’t really have any areas of pure wilderness. The road network penetrates extensively into all parts of the country, serving all of our myriad tiny towns and villages. There are no vast tracts of empty wilderness such as you could realistically expect to find in Australia or the U.S.A. say, or to a lesser degree, the Scottish Highlands. The closest that Ireland comes to any sense of solitude on a vast scale is the Ballycroy National Park in North Co. Mayo, an area that the great naturalist Robert Lloyd Praeger described as Ireland’s only wilderness. The Nephin mountain range is covered within the Park and for those backpackers and hikers who are looking to truly escape the crowds, there is thankfully, an old drover’s trail that bisects the very heart of Ballycroy; the Bangor Trail.
The Bangor Trail stretches for some 40km from the village of Bangor Erris on the northern fringes of the National Park all the way down to the town of Newport on the southern edge of the Park, although in reality the last 10km or so into Newport are along a quiet tarmac road, so it’s a 30km hike as far as the Brogan Carroll bothy. The Brogan Carroll shelter is Ireland’s only bothy and while not as welcoming as Scotland’s network of open mountain shelters, it does provide welcome shelter and marks a convenient intersection point with the Western Way.
The Western Way is one of Ireland’s many Long Distance Paths (LDPs) and this one starts in Oughterard in County Galway and stretches northwards for some 200+km into Co. Mayo. I didn’t intend on walking all 200km of it, but instead was going to pick up the LDP from the bothy and hike northwards for about 55km as far as the town of Ballycastle in Co. Mayo. From Ballycastle, I planned on catching a local bus service back to the village of Bangor.
All in all, I reckoned that this combination of the Bangor Trail and the Western Way would go for about 85km and I was allowing myself five days. The Bangor Trail is not nearly as well maintained as the Western Way and having hiked it three times now, I would describe it as being like wearing a pair of wet sponges as footwear while treading water. It is renowned for being wet! There are not too many sections of re-assuring stony terra firma underfoot, or boardwalk sleeper style timber planks and there is a fair amount of “bog-hopping” – negotiating the least ‘squelchiest’ option available to you. If possible, try to wait for one of the prolonged dry periods that Ireland sometimes gets, although these can be as rare as hen’s teeth. By contrast, the Western Way is a fairly well maintained route, largely consisting of forestry tracks, boardwalk (one section through Seeksin forest was 4km long), paths, boreens and minor roads. The 30km Bangor Trail took me 2.5 days while I covered the longer 55km Western Way section in the same number of days, 2.5. If you had optimum conditions vis a vis dry ground underfoot on the back of a long prolonged dry-spell and long daylight hours (May/June), a fit experienced hiker could do the whole Bangor Trail in one day from Bangor to Newport, (as indeed I was fortunate to complete on one occasion back in 2012). However, it is probably more realistic and enjoyable to break the Trail down into a multi-day hike with a wild camp or two thrown in as I was planning to do in May 2021. Finally, it is critical to note that this is a remote walk that does not pass through any area of services or facilities so the backpacker hiker must be completely self-sufficient. You cannot expect any help on this walk!
And so, here is a short account of my 5day walk in the woods along the Bangor Trail & the Western Way in May 2021.
Day 1 The Bangor Trail: Bangor Erris To Tharsagh River Footbridge (Wild Camp)
Duration 4Hrs 24Mins Distance 9.72km Elevation Gain 325 Metres Elevation Loss 285 Metres Terrain Mix of Stony Path (of varying degrees) and some bog
Ignore the nice sign near the amenity area which indicates that you should walk along the nice riverside path. The Bangor Trail actually begins at an inconspicuous path on your right hand side just after the GAA pitch. I left Bangor at about 4pm on a fine late May afternoon. This section of path was for the most part pretty good with just a few sections of bog hopping. I enjoyed the views of Bangor behind me as that was the last bit of civilization that I saw for a few days. There’s one bealach (pass) to ascend and after that the path descends on good terrain down to the wide and curving Tharsagh River. Thankfully, there is a brand new footbridge to get you over this river. About 100metres past the bridge there is a new building going up; I believe the National Parks are constructing a shelter, similar to the Brogan Carroll Bothy at the end of the Bangor Trail. About 2km beyond the shelter, there is a remote farmhouse, which is the last exit point open to you if you get into trouble. The wide S bends of the Tharsagh River have plenty of suitable camp spots and I pitched up with about an hour of daylight left with views of the nearby Nephin ranges to soak up. The moon shone bright overhead tonight and there were no midges. A great camp spot to finish off a short day.
Day 2 The Bangor Trail: Tharsagh River Footbridge (Wild Camp) to Scardaun (Wild Camp)
Duration 7Hrs 30Mins Distance 10.55km Elevation Gain 294 Metres Elevation Loss 211 Metres Terrain Mostly bog, hard going. A short section of stony path for about 2km after Tharsagh River Footbridge
My plan today was to get as far as the Bothy, but I didn’t count on how hard the terrain would be. And having a lazy start (10:30am) to the day didn’t help either. After breakfast and breaking camp (LEAVE NO TRACE), I left the Tharsagh River. Straight away, I was bog-hopping. There were a few sections of sleeper boardwalk to assist and then the path improved for about two kilometres as it slowly & gently wound its way up and around an offshoot of the Tharsagh. This was a very nice section of the trail with a few way marking fingerposts to re-assure as well. However just where I decided to stop for lunch before a bealach, was where the terrain really became tough. After lunch, my pace slowed down a lot as I was constantly hopping from one side of the grassy meridian path to another to try to find the driest spots. By 6pm, I was still about 4km short of the Lough Avoher Hut and another 4.5km short of the bothy when I came across a lovely spot to camp. I decided to call it a day and pitch up. It’s just before a point where you have to ford a tiny stream, marked by a fingerpost, and it was the only bit of dry flat grass around for miles. It’s on a small bend of the stream and there are some cracking views of the Nephins and Slieve Carr both behind and ahead of you. A tough day but a great spot at which to finish off.
Day 3, Part 1 The Bangor Trail: Scardaun (Wild Camp) to Brogan Carroll Bothy
Duration 4Hrs 59Mins Distance 9.28km Elevation Gain 298 Metres Elevation Loss 408 Metres Terrain Bog and grass as far as near Lough Avoher Hut. Good stony Path thereafter.
The dry weather of the last two days broke today, but I was lucky insofar as an early start allowed me to anticipate the coming rain when I looked out early this morning and to have a quick breakfast and break camp by 09:30am. (LEAVE NO TRACE). Thirty minutes later while ascending another bealach, the drizzle descended and stayed all day long. So, it was out with the waterproof jackets and a final 3km of tortuous bog-hopping, before the path improved substantially on the descent to Lough Avoher Hut. It was also around this point that I saw the first tree on the Bangor Trail. At a pinch, you could possibly have pitched here, though it was not nearly as nice as Scardaun. There were a number of small brooks to ford (could only be a problem if in spate) before the stony path began to bring me down to Lough Avoher Hut. This is one of two huts in the vicinity and I was counting on it to provide a bit of shelter for a chance to have a longer breakfast and to dry out a bit. These huts are built by MounainMeathail, a voluntary organization that has built three huts on the Wicklow Way and these two here in Ballycroy. Lough Avoher Hut is an open three sided shelter built in the Adirondack style. It provided welcome sanctuary for a more relaxed breakfast and a chance to dry out. The last 4k to the Bothy was also on a good path which had three small footbridges. The bog hopping was over.
Day 3, Part 2 The Western Way: Brogan Carroll Bothy to Altnabrocky Wilderness Hut
Duration 2Hrs 18Mins Distance 9.18km Elevation Gain 214 Metres Elevation Loss 149 Metres Terrain Forestry Track
At the bothy, I again made use of the dry shelter to have lunch and dry out. There was only one other car that pulled up in the car park, but this was a family of day-trippers and they headed off on their stroll. Brogan Carroll doesn’t have any furniture and its fireplace is blocked up so it’s not the most welcoming but as I sat down on the hearth with my re-hydrated meal out of the wind and rain, I was mighty glad of it. From the bothy, I would now be on the Western Way, so I was hoping that I wouldn’t have any more wet feet. I left at about half three and set out on the WW in the drizzle. I’m sure there would be nice views on this section but the low cloud prevented any views. It was a good forestry track with a slight but steady incline and by 6pm I came upon the sign for shelter and I turned off for the 2nd hut of the day, the Altnabrocky Wilderness Hut. I was hoping that there would be somewhere suitable to camp nearby, but in fact I had a better idea when I saw the hut which was just as well because I think everywhere would have been pretty sodden with all the rain that day. My trusty MSR Hubba Hubba NX is a freestanding tent so I had enough room to pitch the tent on the dry raised platform. The hut provided shelter from the damp, wind and drizzle and there’s a stream across from the path where I was able to get some water to boil up for my dinner. A great end to a hard day, mainly because of the lack of views and constant drizzle.
Day 4 The Western Way: Altnabrocky Wilderness Hut to Ballymunnelly Townland Area
Duration 7Hrs 15Mins Distance 18.43km Elevation Gain 113 Metres Elevation Loss 202 Metres Terrain Mix of Forestry Track, Boreen, Minor Road, R312 and an unavoidable 4km section along the N59 which has practically no hard shoulder. Dangerous section – take care.
I woke to the sound of birdsong and the bright rays of the sun coming through the mesh part of my tent. I took advantage of the warming sun to lay out my damp gear on the path to dry while I had breakfast and packed up and was gone by about half nine. It promised to be a lovely day’s walking and sure enough the views behind me of Slieve Carr duly obliged. After about an hour and a half, I passed a nice lough too on my right but I don’t think it’s a good place to camp as its shoreline is very marshy. The forestry track met a bog road after about 8km and as my map indicated that it was road walking from here on with no water sources available, I thought that this would be a good place to have lunch. I walked down the bog road past a farm building and turned down a track that ran adjacent to the river where I collected some water and settled down for lunch. It was here that I met the only other person in 5 days, the farmer, and I got talking to him about the Western Way. Like me, he wonders why the National Parks couldn’t extend the Western Way through the local forest and out past the N59 at Ballymunnelly rather than the road loop along the R312 and N59 which all Western Way walkers have to endure. Anyhow, after lunch, I headed on down the bog road, onto a minor road, onto the R312 for a couple of kms and then onto the busy N59 with minimal hard shoulder. This section of the trail has little to recommend it other than the fact that you can generate a bit of speed. Anyhow, at Bellacorick Bridge on the N59, I passed a Western Way information panel which gave some good detail about the next section for tomorrow’s walk to Ballycastle. I walked for about 4km from the “musical bridge” at Bellacorick to Ballymunnelly where I found a quiet place to camp (Secret Location, use your own map reading skills).
Day 5 The Western Way: Ballymunnelly Townland Area to Ballycastle
Duration 8Hrs 59Mins Distance 31.45km Elevation Gain 474 Metres Elevation Loss 513 Metres Terrain Mix Of Forestry Track, Path, Boardwalk sections, Boreen, Minor Road.
The last day’s waking from Ballymunnelly to Ballycastle was a monster walk, over 30km long and it was the warmest, and so I took every opportunity to dip my bandanna in water to cool down. I had to be in Ballycastle by 17.45 to catch the local McGrath’s coach bus service back to Bangor – I had rung them before I left Bangor to confirm. I had my earliest start of the whole trip and was gone by just before 8am and just as well I did too, as I didn’t arrive in Ballycastle till just before 5pm. This section of the Western Way was very, very remote. Once I left the townland of Ballymunnelly, I only saw one other house after about 21km till I reached Ballycastle. I was also well away from any roads as I spent the majority of the day walking through Seeskin Forest. Earlier on in the morning, I took a very short detour to the ruins of Seeskin Lodge, a former Victorian shooting lodge, but it didn’t inspire as a location for a camp spot. There was a long section of forestry road which then became a path which then ended in a very welcome 4km section of boardwalk through some truly nasty bog; it reminded me of the Bangor Trail!! Another forestry track through a long section of overhanging claustrophobic forest brought me out onto the Altanderg River where I passed what must be one of the most remote houses in all of Ireland. I got some water from the river and had a much needed lunch for the next section of forestry track which ascended slowly and steadily for about 1.5kilometres. At least there were some views on offer here. But TBH, by this point, I was getting browned off with the never ending monotony of forest track and there was a spring in my step as I neared Ballycastle. I got a cuppa tea and energy drink at a local shop and had about 30minutes to spare for the bus that would take me back to Bangor and my car.
This was a brilliant (near-loop) walk combining the Bangor Trail and the Western Way, which had long been on my radar. I was very lucky with the weather as on the only day it rained I had already broken camp and I had the Lough Avoher Hut shelter for a late breakfast, the Brogan Carroll bothy for lunch, and the Altnabrocky Wilderness Hut for accommodation. My first two camp locations at Tharsagh River and Scardaun were both delightful and Scardaun in particular was a real highlight. The terrain on both trails are markedly different. You cannot rely on terra firma on the Bangor Trail whereas the Western Way is very well maintained, consisting of forestry track, boardwalk, bog road, minor road, regional road, and one 4km section of dangerous national N59 road. It is essential that you are entirely self-sufficient with enough food and provisions to see you through. Bring a water filter. Bring enough gas for 5 days’ worth of breakfast, lunch and dinner. Top tip No. 1: bring at least two extra pairs of socks – your feet will thank you for it. Navigation is not too difficult. There are a handful of fingerposts on the Bangor Trail, especially near Bangor and near the bothy, with the fewest number being seen from lunch on Day Two to the camp spot on Day. The Western Way has a lot of fingerposts. Bring good raingear. Bring good footwear. I would not advise trail runners, I think you will do better on the Bangor Trail in proper hiking boots. 2nd Top Tip: Bring gaiters, your trousers will thank you. 3rd Top Tip: Bring trekking poles – even if you don’t usually hike with trekking poles, it is a good idea to bring a pair so that you can use them to test out how firm or how boggy a particular piece of ground is. They will also assist you in your frequent bog hopping endeavours.