Official Length: 50km
What we walked: 70km (it is definitely more than 50km)
Start/end points: Kealkill/Millstreet
Trail difficulty: 4.5/5 (steep! and wear gaters!)
Trail quality: 4/5
Camping/accommodation: Well-placed B&Bs and hotels. Camping options seemed only OK, too muddy and cold for us in late March.
The Sli Gaeltacht Mhuscrai, or the Muskerry Gaeltacht Trail, is a three day linear walk from Millstreet to Kealkill, although canonically it's done in the other direction as part of the Beara-Breifne Way. The landscape becomes more and more stunning the further you go, culminating in Gougane Barra with a fantastic climb over Conigar, a 500m mountain.
We started the Sli Gaeltacht Mhuscrai in Millstreet, a lovely town in the north of Cork. The first ten or so kilometres follow the same trail as the Duhallow Way and turn up the mountains where the Duhallow Way goes along. We'd walked the first little bit before, and it was just as good this time as last time. The Hillstreet Tidy Towns commission even put a few benches and an info board along the trail, which is extremely appreciated since the trail is more than a little hilly.
The Duhallow Way was our third-last trail last year before Ellie's injury, so it was really nice to be back in the region so early in the year.
The trail is quite off-road, save for some small, mostly quiet road sections. The first road section you come to after Millstreet is where the trail splits between the Duhallow and the Sli Gaeltacht - do be careful as this particular section wasn't very well waymarked. An info board or clearer signage would be quite welcome at this split, since the next few kilometres of the Duhallow way are on road - perhaps not the most enjoyable way to spend a few hours going the wrong direction.
In any case, I want to give a big thumbs-up to that first segment out of Millstreet. Some gorgeous forestry and views, completely off-road walking, and well-kept trail.
Anyway, the split turns downhill to the Duhallow Way, and uphill to the rest of the trail we're doing. It's uphill a lot on this one. This is among the steepest National Waymarked Trails, and we're still getting back into our walking shoes; we were out of breath a lot on this one. I'd actually created an elevation map for this trail before walking it, which made the hills larger and larger in our minds. Perhaps we wouldn't even have felt the hills before creating the map - I'm not going to do it again until after we've done the trail, just in case.
The weather was really something else as we walked the trail through a bog and into wind farm. We really had that 'four seasons' weather that people talk about. In the space of abour twenty kilometres, we had bright sunshine, rain, hail, and snow. A lot of our breaks were spent admiring the snow steaming in the sun, something I'm not sure I'll ever forget.
We enjoyed our first fruit cake of 2018 sitting underneath a wind turbine after a long climb. The next few kilometres were on wind farm access roads, which felt more enjoyable than I expected. You get a decent pace on the gravel, the roads are basically empty, and the views are often quite nice. I don't always want that kind of walking, but this was welcome.
We ended the day in Ballyvourney, a small town in the Gaeltacht. The section of off-road walk into the town looked quite new, through some fairly mucky farmland, but it was appreciated - our maps had a bit of road on this section that the new trail managed to avoid. We stayed at the Mills Inn, a pub and bed and breakfast built next to an old mill. We'd decided not to camp through this trail, since the weather was completely unpredictable and the temperature was often below zero
The landscape on the trail got more and more spectacular the further along we went. The ground rose up more and more, almost like a carpet pushed up against a wall. We stopped a lot just to admire the view (and definitely not just to give ourselves a minute to recover, we're way too hardcore to need recovery time).
On the way out from Ballyvourney is a fantastically decorative holy well, dedicated to St Gobnait. This is one of the most well taken care of wells we've seen, and we spent some time admiring it.
Since we were now definitely in the heart of the Gaeltacht, we decided to play I Spy in Irish as a way to improve our own abilities. We've wanted to create a video in Irish since the beginning, and we were considering it for this trail. It wasn't meant to be, but it'll happen in the future, I promise.
There were some extremely boggy forestry sections, some of which had what looked like many fresh footprints. We found out later that there had been an ultramarathon on this trail only the previous week, which explained a few things about how worn some of the trail had been. I found myself wishing I had gaiters and walking poles, which are things I have personally found unnecessary before.
The trail has a fairly significant off-road portion, so it could be a completely different experience at other times of the year - the ground might be completely solid most of the year. We just happened to get on the trail right after dozens of impressively crazy ultramarathon runners did it in the rain!
We took a short coffee break in Ballingeary. The walk into the town is on a small and fairly busy road, and the weather decided to pelt us with hail on the walk in, so we both were quite happy to drink our coffee and grouch about the world at large (maybe this was just me, Ellie isn't a natural grouch). In any case, a fruit cake and a coffee later, we were back for the final stretch.
The finish line for our second day was Gougane Barra, which is a stunning glacial lake and valley. Apparently the site of an extremely early (565AD) monastery built by Saint Finbarr (though not listed as such by the National Monuments Service), the ruins on a small island on the lake are mainly from an 17th century hermitage. It's a really incredible place, and the Gougane Barra Hotel is on my list to a revisit when we need a holiday! The owner is involved in the trail, which was great for us, since we can't resist a chance to talk about walking in Ireland
The walk out from Gougane Barra isn't so much a walk out as a walk up - to get from Gougane Barra to Kealkill, you cross Conigar, a 566 metre mountain. It's an extremely steep ascent, and we were trudging through snow most of the way over. The views were really astonishing.
I'm quite glad that we did this section in this direction - descending the way we ascended would definitely require walking poles. We even scrambled a little bit, using our old climbing muscles, since the obvious path was extremely muddy and we weren't in the mood to lose a boot. Unfortunately, my insoles have cut into the waterproof lining of my boots, so my feet were both soaked and frozen at the same time.
Regardless, this section was among the best sections we've ever had the pleasure to do. We were able to see the whole way back to the Paps, the end of the Duhallow Way. It's always extremely satisfying to see where you've come from, and to be able to see a large part of Bantry Bay and the Sheep's Head (our next trail) just by turning around was an amazing feeling.
The descent from Conigar wasn't nearly as bad as we'd expected, but it did take us longer than we'd planned.
It looked like Conigar to Kealkill is only around fifteen kilometres, so we expected to arrive in Kealkill in around three hours. In reality, the trail goes through a recently felled forest, and the mud was among the deepest and slimiest we've had the pleasure of walking through. This section took us over an hour longer than we'd expected. I was quite glad to be walking this in the early Spring, because the midges weren't yet out in force. I'd hate to be schlepping my way through this mud while simultaneously slapping myself in various exposed areas to teach midges a lesson in ferocity. Forget gaiters - in the late Summer this part of the trail is probably better in a beekeeper's suit.
Instead of tackling a final hill, we took a detour past the ancient Maughnasilly Stone Row. Cork and Kerry have an incredibly density of standing stones, stone rows, and stone circles, and this was our first re-introduction to them since the Dingle Way last year.
A short road walk later and we arrived to Carriganass Castle in Kealkill, the end point of the trail. We were picked up by our friend Peter, and prepared to start the Sheep's Head Way.
In my opinion, this trail is among the best challenging trails that we've done, on par with the Duhallow Way. The views are spectacular, the off-road portion is very significant, and the towns and amenities are well-placed and scenic. If you're a hiker looking for a short challenge, this is definitely one for you