A landscape of sandstone hills and mountains, and a waterfront graced with bays, scenic harbours, nature-rich wetlands and wild woodland mean walking around Lough Derg is a rare treat. The shores here have been settled since prehistoric times and trails are studded with reminders of the past, from a beech grove where 19th century ladies took tea in Portumna Forest, to the vast grassy hump of Brian Boru's waterside fort, just outside Killaloe. As the seasons change, Lough Derg remains constant in its beauty, and is as captivating in the rinsed-out, watercolour tones of winter as it is in the technicolour-drenched heights of summer. Follow one of the trails around Portumna Forest Park, and you'll stumble upon partings in the forest where views of the water will stop you in your tracks. Swans cut soft ripples through the vitreous surface, dragonflies blitz, and the skies above seem endless. Around the lough's southern edges, which are framed by the Slieve Aughties, the Arra Mountains and Slieve Bearnagh, rugged trails reach into the wild, desolate hills to reveal stunning panoramas of the lake below washed in greens and blues.
Portumna Forest Park
Walking through the scented coniferous woodland of Portumna Forest Park, don't be surprised if you hear a rustle in the trees or catch the flash of a fluffy white tail. Fallow deer are common to this forest, and are among the wildlife that will be your companion (sometimes seen, sometimes unseen) as you wander through this natural wonderland. The Rinmaher (10km) and Bonaveen (10.5km) trails are rewarding, lengthy routes that weave through marsh, green fields, woodland and lakeshore, past gnarled oak trees that twist skyward and under native birch trees. Most beautiful of all are the glimpses of the lough, with its birdlife, ragged islands and glassy waters. Cyclists are also welcome here and there are two designated bike trails, as well as family-friendly loops and wheelchair-accessible paths. (coillte.ie/site/portumna-forest-park)
Ballycuggaran, homeland of the O'Cuggaran's – an important family at the court of Brian Boru – is the starting point for the the Crag Wood Walk, which leads up into the hills around the shoulder of Feenlea Mountain. Effort-wise, it's a bit of a climb at the beginning, but on the way back down, you'll be treated to astonishing views over the lake and valley below, as well as woodland filled with Sitka and Norway spruce and noble fir. The forest car park sits just off the R463 road from Killaloe to Tuamgraney, and the walk itself is about 7km, so bring a picnic and make an afternoon of it. (coillte.ie/site/ballycuggaran/)
Millennium Cross Walk
Driving along the lakeside road south of Portroe, you'll notice the huge Millennium Cross silently keeping watch over the Arra Mountains since 2006. This short but steepish 2.4km walk brings you up to the cross along a rugged trail with knock-out views of the patchwork of green fields that tumble down below. Take a seat on the bench and take it all in. (discoverloughderg.ie/millennium-cross-walk)
Graves of the Leinstermen
This walk heads up towards the summit of Tountinna Hill and the Graves of the Leinstermen – today, just a single standing stone flanked by trees that keeps watch over the silent landscape, while the others have long slipped into the earth beside it. Legend has it the stones are the graves of slaughtered soldiers from the time of Brian Boru but it's while the exact era of the stones are unknown, they are thought to be of ancient origin. (discoverloughderg.ie/tountinna-graves-leinstermen/)
Killaloe Historic Town Walk
There are plenty of great walks in and around Ballina/Killaloe, but before you explore further, make sure to wander the heritage town of Killaloe, as it's packed full of history. You can pick up a free map at the tourist office by the bridge in town and walk at your own pace through sites of interest, including the 13th century Gothic cathedral and the old railway line. discoverloughderg.ie/killaloe-historic-town-walk)
Garrykennedy is one of those places that seems so impossibly quaint that you want to hang around for a while – and a good way to spend more time here is to head into the forest for a short but satisfying walk. The dense forest and heady green undergrowth of ferns creates a beautiful emerald-coloured light in the summer, making it a real scenic delight. Finish up with a pint and some dinner in the super-charming thatched pub of Larkins.
The Lough Derg Way
Stretch your legs, go off-grid and head into the amazing surrounding landscape and shoreline of Lough Derg on the Lough Derg Way. This 64km National Waymarked Way starts at the tourist office in Limerick city and finishes in the village of Dromineer on Lough Derg. Judged to take about three days – although you can certainly stretch it over a longer period of time – the route passes through Killaloe and consists mainly of canal and riverside paths at the southern end and country roads at the northern end. (discoverloughderg.ie/the-lough-derg-way)