Tucked away along the tidal shores of Sheephaven Bay lies Ards Forest Park, an ancient woodland and forest that spans over 1000 acres and provides some of the most unique woodland trails in the whole of Ireland. I've been visiting this area of Donegal since I was a child but somehow this place remained a secret from me until this year and now I'm hooked!
The park blankets the majority of the Ards peninsula between the towns of Creeslough and Dunfanaghy on the northern coast of Donegal. Not only is it the most northerly forest park in the country, it's only one of a few that links trees with the sea right down to the waters edge.
You can pay the 5 euro to drive right down to the main car park but it's a worth walking from the main road, past the salt marshes and Lough Lilly (which blooms with lilies during the month of August) and under conifers and woodland trees before reaching the sand dunes that give way to the bay.
The park is steeped in local myths and legends and it's great to see that Coillte, the forestry organisation who manage the park, has not only conserved the megalothic tombs and ringforts that have survived for centuries but has also embraced the local stories that too have survived for so many years.
Legend has it that one of the tombs was the bed of Gráinne and Diarmuid who hid in the forest to escape the wrath of Fionn Mac Cumhaill. Gráinne had been betrothed to Fionn but upon seeing him and realising that he was older than her own father, she escaped with her lover Diarmuid and they lived in hiding until a deal was negotiated and peace restored.
There are plenty of different trails depending on your mood. Want to explore the salt marshes and woodland? Take the Yellow trail. Fancy rambling across dunes and enjoying views all the way out to the Atlantic Ocean? Follow the Marine trail. Honestly, you could spend days wandering through the miles of paths and coastline here and you would never get bored.
Not even the kids! Woodland creatures carved out of wood provide the wee ones with their own nature treasure hunt and when that's done, a playground by the beach should entertain them (& tire them out!)
There's even more local history to be found on the Heritage trail where you can find the famous Ague Well. When thousands were fleeing this part of Donegal after the famine and in the latter half of the 19th century, many brought with them a bottle of water from the well which was said to contain a cure for "the argue", now known as malaria. Locals continued to practice this tradition right up in to the 1930's.
One of my favourite parts of the park is the boardwalk out to the dunes. It offers some of the most beautiful views of the ever-changing landscape of the bay. The tide acts as master of exposure here, revealing beaches that were hidden under water, as it retreats to the Atlantic.
There are dozens of secret beaches to discover when the tide is out, many of which you will have all to yourself during the colder months. If you're brave enough you can even swim here in the winter too! I've loved flinging myself in the safety of the waters and have chosen my own beach to return to just as the sun rises and turns the peninsula gold. A total joy.
If you're not quite ready for the chill of the Atlantic waters then you can just admire the sparkle of the bay from the paths that wrap around the coast. Each corner brings a new view: the distant silhouette of Horn Head, the outline of Clonmass and Gull islands, the twinkling lights of Downings...
You might even find a rainbow or two.
To find out more about this nature wonderland, you can visit the Coillte website where you can find maps to download and visitor information. Enjoy - I know you'll fall in love with it just as much as I have.