Out of the woods

 From the Irish Times, 23 March 2012

A walk along Lough Mask offers rich rewards, writes LENNY ANTONELLI

WALKERS HEADING to the mountains of Galway and Mayo could easily overlook the isthmus between Lough Corrib and Lough Mask, but this narrow neck of land offers big rewards to those who explore it. There’s excellent walking around the villages of Cong, Clonbur and Cornamona, on lakeshore, woodland and hillside trails. On a mild March morning I set off from Cong Abbey, on the edge of the village. The mixed woodland here boasts a warren of trails and impressive trees, including redwoods and sequoias. Lord Ardilaun – a member of the Guinness family best known for donating St Stephen’s Green to the public – planted many of them, and most trails here run through his family’s old estate.

The track to Clonbur winds around the forest and through old stone tunnels before entering Clonbur Wood. Signs of large-scale tree harvesting are apparent here, but you should aim for the superb northern end of the wood.

You’ll come to a Y-junction at an information sign where the leftwards trail heads for Clonbur: take the right instead. This brings you to the limestone pavement on Lough Mask’s southern shore, the largest example of this habitat in Ireland outside the Burren. The habitat is a patchwork of shrubs, trees, wetland and open limestone pavement. A Coillte project has restored 550 hectares (1,360 acres) of woodland, removing exotic species in favour of native vegetation.

Don’t miss the superb signposted detour around White Island, where the track hugs the shores of Lough Mask. I stopped for lunch on a limestone clearing at the water’s edge. Sailors on the lake in the distance were the first people I’d seen since leaving Cong two hours before.

Leaving White Island, you can follow paths back to Cong through the same woods. You could turn right on a trail south of the R300 marked for Ard na Gaoithe Forest, a pleasant mixed woodland with trails along the shore of Lough Corrib, and a safe swimming area. But the biggest attraction lies further west. The Seanbóthar is a little-known 10km (6.2-mile) trail that follows the old road from Clonbur to Cornamona, and it’s one of the best paved trails in Ireland.

From Clonbur Wood follow signs for the village or the cemetery outside it. From Clonbur join the road to Cornamona and take the second right. When you come to a T-junction go right again. Soon the road becomes a car-free path.

The Seanbóthar winds across the southern flanks of Benlevy (also known as Mount Gable, 416m/1,365ft), crossing stone-walled fields that extend up the hillside. There are excellent views over Lough Corrib and its countless islands.

The remote hills and valleys of Joyce Country, named after a Welsh family that settled here in the 13th century, open up before you marking the transition from a landscape of forests, fields and lakes to the mountains of Connemara, with the Maamturk range lurking in the background.

To gain access to the summit of Benlevy, which offers a wonderful panorama, take the right turn before the T-junction I mentioned and heading for a townland named Ballard on the OSI map. Look out for a ladder stile beside a gate on your right that provides access to the hillside. You can then head down to Lough Coolin on the northern side of the hill.

Cong to Connemara

Map: Ordnance Survey. Discovery Series. Sheet 38

Start: Cong village, Co Mayo. From Galway take the N84 to Headford; turn left on to the R334 to Cross village. Then take the R346 to Cong.

Finish: Cornamona, Co Galway. If a linear walk is impractical, there are plenty of opportunities for looped walks around Cong Forest, Clonbur Wood and Benlevy/Lough Coolin.

Time: Two to three hours for each leg: Cong to Clonbur, Seanbóthar and Benlevy/Lough Coolin.

Distance: Cong to Clonbur: 8km, Seanbóthar (Clonbur to Cornamona): 10km. Plus a further 2.3km of trails at Ard na Gaoithe.

Suitability: Moderate. With its well-marked trails and low hills the area is suitable for everyone, but Benlevy requires care as the terrain is steep and wet in places – navigation skills and rain gear are vital in poor weather. You can make your route as easy or as strenuous as you like, but some of the forest trails can be churned up, so good boots are crucial.

F ood and services: Cong, Clonbur, Cornamona. Tourist office in Cong.

Further information: See irishtrails.ieand coillteoutdoors.ie for maps, route information and looped walk options.