Day out: Lough Navar Forest Drive, County Fermanagh

The heady scent of pine resin and wildflowers is a constant companion on this springtime drive through Northern Ireland’s south-western hills

Lough Navar Forest, County Fermanagh

High above the shimmering, island-strewn waters of Fermanagh’s forgotten lakes is a great forest. Part conifer, part deciduous, the trees here grow tall, shielding a hidden complex of bog, heath, open water and rich limestone grassland.

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By mid-May, swathes of cotton grass nod among the bogs, bluebells break the grassy glades and brown trout send ripples across the forest’s four freshwater loughs. Even the thickest conifer stands feel the influence of spring, their canopies breached here and there by the high May sun.

Lough Achork in Lough Navar Forest, County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland
An amazing 30% of Fermanagh is made up of lakes and waterways, such as Lough Achork in Lough Navar Forest
Daniel Graham

Extending across 2,600 hectares of rolling countryside, Lough Navar Forest can be explored via a network of walking trails, but if you only have a morning or afternoon, this seven-mile forest drive offers a pleasant alternative. There are plenty of pull-ins for those wanting to take their time, as well as some of Northern Ireland’s most extensive views.

Lough McNean Lower, County Fermanagh

Window with a view

The one-way drive starts at the eastern end of the forest just off Glennasheevar Road, between Derrygonnelly and Garrison; look out for a small car park and picnic area beside the Sillees River. In spring and summer, silver-washed fritillaries, Ireland’s largest butterfly, flit beside the banks while, beneath the surface, freshwater crayfish forage on the rocky bed.

From the car park, follow the narrow roadway as it climbs into forest, before emerging on to an open landscape with young hazel, spruce and birch. Continue uphill beside prongs of rosebay willowherb and cow parsley to Aghameelan Viewpoint. To the south-east, hills of yellow buttercups roll down to Carrick Lough and the Carboniferous limestone ridge of Knockmore Cliff.

A short walk from the car park is the Blackslee Waterfall, a 20m cascade that tumbles down into a rocky gorge.

Lough Navar Forest, County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland
County Fermanagh boasts 24,000 hectares of forest, covering 14% of the land area
Daniel Graham

Lake cliffs

Back on the road, continue deeper into the forest for about one mile to reach Letter Lough, an old lake that, over the past 50 years, has gradually in-filled to form an area of raised bog. Half a mile beyond, turn right and slalom through trees for a little under a mile to the Cliffs of Magho viewpoint.

The vast waters of Lough Erne, 230m below, stretch east and west. Small boats cruise among the arboreal islands and, on a clear spring day, the subtle outlines of Blue Stack Mountains and Donegal Bay sit like a stroke of watercolour on the distant horizon.

A belvedere path leaves the parking area to the west, skirting the limestone bluff for 500m past rare crowberry shrub and insectivorous butterwort to reveal a stirring view of the Cliffs of Magho. At their base, trees crowd and clamber – a reminder of the vast forests that once covered Fermanagh.

View from Cliffs of Magho over Lower Lough Erne, Fermanagh Northern Ireland
View from Cliffs of Magho over Lower Lough Erne
Daniel Graham

Old man in the rock

Leave the Cliffs of Magho the way you came, rejoining the one-way road to the right. Look out for oxeye daisies and knapweed among the grassy verges as you drive for one mile to a rocky outcrop known as The Old Man’s Head. A little further on is Lough Achork; explore the shores on a 1.8-mile lakeside path, which offers the chance to see mute swans, otters, foxes and hares.

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Continue through the trees for just under two miles to return to Glennasheevar Road.