As the fall of 2022 arrived, with pandemic-weary people traveling so much that our local airport had security lines into the parking garage, I said, “Wow, all those lines sound like so much fun! Sign me up!” No but really, I was ready to begin venturing back into the international travel world, by flying to another country and then immediately avoiding all people. Well, at least anyone who wasn’t also hiking.
I recently explored Ireland for nine days, with almost all of them spent hiking or generally wandering around nature. This was good for many reasons: Lowering the chances of getting COVID before flying home, getting some fresh air, experiencing the Irish countryside up close and personal, socializing with sheep, and saving so much money I could go home with an entire backpack of Cadbury bars. The good ones, not the imposters we have in the States. The money saved also meant that I could afford more trips in the future, to buy other exotic chocolate bars. Priorities, man.
Anyway, one of the main goals on this trip was one my goals on every trip I’ve ever taken: See as many public lands as is humanly possible. This time, that meant three Irish national parks. There was also a lovely hike in an area in County Kerry that, if the droppings on the trail were any indication, hosts thousands of sheep who have been eating *a lot* of fiber. These four, coupled with a drive chock-full of history and gorgeous views, make up my five tips for thrifty activities in Ireland. Five is a nice round number, I think. Unless it’s the number of chocolate bars you have. Then it’s clearly not enough.
Connemara National Park
Connemara National Park is a small park – under 10 square miles – located in County Galway. There are other miniature factors at play here, including its mountains, part of the Twelve Bens range. The largest tops out at under 2500 feet. Being a Mountain West native, that sounds like an absolutely adorable baby mountain to me. This miniature parcel also includes bogs, heaths, grasslands, and woodlands. What wasn’t small, though, was its impact on my heart.
View of some of the Twelve Bens. Not pictured: Me off camera falling in love with them.
This falling in love came from the vantage point on the Diamond Hill loop, which is about 4.5 miles and gradually climbs up a – you guessed it – small summit. This is apparently a pretty busy route during peak season, but going in mid-October with rough weather on a weekday left it pretty dead. I can’t imagine why, what with the all the times the wind almost knocked me over, coupled with driving rain that made me understand the exhilaration of meteorologists covering crazy weather outside. It was a little slow going, and not just because I stopped every three or four minutes to look out over the scenery and utter more “whoas” than a Keanu Reeves character. The summit was the best, though, with the weather politely chilling the heck out just before my eyes were able to take in the view.
You have panoramic views of some of the Twelve Bens, the Atlantic, rolling hills, lakes, and Kylemore Abbey. I’m already the sort of person who can and will sit and stare at a view on a hike for at least an hour, and this summit was no exception. I’d honestly probably still be there if immigration didn’t notice.
The back half of the loop on the way down was just as lovely, though. I kept stopping and looking back as the trail went further and further away from the Twelve Bens, wishing I could stay forever and be the 13th Ben. Just have to grow a few thousand feet. This whole day was free, and I hope I’m free to spend weeks in the Connemara region in the future, or just the rest of my life. Whatever. I’m flexible.
Gap of Dunloe – Strickeen Mountain Hike
The Gap of Dunloe is a mountain pass in County Kerry, located between the MacGillycuddy Reeks and Purple Mountain group. There are lakes and a river to be enjoyed, and you can travel the distance via a combination of horse-drawn cart, boat, or bicycle. The stretch begins at Kate Kearney's Cottage, which is also a stone’s throw from the trailhead of one of the hikes in the area: Strickeen Mountain. This trail is a little over 4.5 miles and provides a vantage point of the gap, as well as greenery, more water, and lovely countryside as far as the eye can see in the other direction. Plus, the heavy foot traffic is mostly sheep… and their poo, but that’s fine. Just make sure you look where you’re stepping while you gush over the cute woolly hikers.
From the trail: A sheep that I'm sure also has a healthy digestive system.
I found this hike on the AllTrails website in a very brief search early that morning. I’m nothing if not prepared. It was a pretty easy hike, well-groomed and with gradual elevation gain. The only difficult thing was remembering that it would be pretty hard to befriend a sheep and sneak it past customs. As with many hikes, the journey was a bit better than the end destination, too. I still can’t get over all the green parcels of land, the lakes, and the glimpse into the pass, nor the man whose girlfriend was the mastermind behind their hike and who said, “Is it much further?” five minutes from the trailhead. I hope he took heart in our encouragement, and that his girlfriend wasn’t an aspiring sheep whisperer like me. Otherwise it probably was much further, and they’re probably still up there.
Killarney National Park
Killarney National Park sprawls across nearly 40 square miles and features waterfalls, lakes, woodlands, mountains, historical buildings from Kenmare and Muckross Estate, and even cows! And, even more exciting than cows, the author just learned that Killarney is sister park to her favorite place in the entire world, Glacier National Park in Montana. Anything associated with Glacier is wonderful, even reservation fees.
This park is free, though, so no reservation fees required. It’s a fun place to meander around and was recommended by a Cliffs of Moher tour guide, as well as the hosts at the “glamping pod” that served as home on the Dingle Peninsula. The hosts had kids who looked to be maybe eight or nine years old, so it should be good for the whole family! …much like its sister park Glacier, at which my brothers and I frolicked, enjoyed views with our binoculars (possibly facing the wrong way), and were so annoying that our parents may have wondered if they could leave us with the mountain goats.
Anyway, one of the main trails I loved at Killarney - out to Torc Waterfall – may not have had mountain goats, but there were plenty of deer again, along with lake views, cows, and some really fun trees that I may have stared up at too long. Just near the waterfall, there are also some pretty impressive mossy tree trunks, making some of the ones I regularly see in the Puget Sound region look positively brown and bark-y. Despite the off-season and the fact that it was a weekday, there were a ton of people at the waterfall, though. All the more reason to backtrack and stare at trees.
Some of the trees of Killarney National Park. Aren't they lovely?
Another fun feature is Muckross Abbey, the ruins of a Franciscan friary first established in the 15th century. It also serves as a current cemetery. It’s free to enter year-round, and in keeping with the important tree theme, features a several hundred-year-old yew tree in the middle of its cloister. It definitely gave me some home décor ideas. Just have to figure out how you can plant a tree in the middle of a third-floor apartment.
Slea Head Drive, Complete with Cats!
The Slea Head Drive is a circular route beginning and ending in Dingle. You can drive it, though you’re strongly encouraged to do so in a clockwise way because of one-lane traffic, but you can also rent a bike to make the journey. I think that would have been kind of fun, but going in mid-October with the windy rain made that possibly not the best idea. I’m sure it would be easier in the summertime, but you may have to play a frogger-type game with the tour buses, which honestly could make it even more thrilling.
The drive includes interesting historical sites like Dunbeg Fort, the Beehive Huts, and the Gallarus Oratory, all examples of stone-stacked buildings and with entry fees of a few Euro. There are also wonderful scenic spots like Dunmore Head, Coumeenoole Beach, and the Three Sisters. Even with pretty small crowds, there were plenty of people ready to get in the way of the scenic pictures you were trying to take. Maybe take your bike out at 5 a.m. if you go in the summer, or just get really good at portrait photography so you can make the most of it. You can definitely practice that skill on the wide range of farm animals and sheepdogs in the area, too. That may have constituted at least 89% of my camera roll that day.
Dunmore Head. I did manage to sneak this picture in just before someone else's head popped up.
There were also pictures of cats. The audio/visual area that explained the history of Dunbeg Fort was so interesting that there was even a red tabby learning more… or just darting around the darkened room, knocking things onto himself, and occasionally stopping for a pet from people who were in there to learn about the stone-stacking architecture and Ireland’s Iron Age history, but were far more engrossed in the story of a teenaged Irish cat who has no chill when he’s learning about archaeological excavations.
There was a little tortie at the Gallarus Oratory, too, but that makes sense. It was a place of worship and there are few experiences so divine as a cat who has never met you deciding to be your friend. Unfortunately, the lord giveth and he taketh away, because I had to face that she was another animal I couldn’t get past customs. Not sure if cats you may or may not see are a good travel recommendation, but I’m gong to go ahead and say they are. (Side note: There were several in the Dingle shops, too. Come to me for more cat tourism tips.)
Wicklow Mountains National Park
The vacation plan had been to spend the last two days in Dublin, but when there’s a national park just south of Dublin, can you really resist? I mean, you might be able to, but I can’t. Wicklow Mountains National Park covers just under 90 square miles, making it the largest of Ireland’s six national parks. There are plenty of trails, nature views, monastic and mining sites, and during mid-October, some deer all up in the rut. On that day’s six-mile hike, there were sika-red deer hybrids right near the trail, with the males more or less screeching their displeasure at all hikers even looking in the general direction of their ladies. I can understand why they saw me as competition, because with the wind doing what it was that day, my hair was definitely bigger and more overwhelming than their antlers.
The hike in question, during which about five of us waited for the stags to meander a little ways away, was the Glendalough Spink Trail. The six-mile path provides views of Glendalough Valley, the Wicklow Uplands, Upper Lake, and Poulanass Waterfall. AllTrails lists it as moderately hard, while the Visit Wicklow site says it’s strenuous. Take from that what you will, but if you do get tired, that just means you can take a break in nature. What’s wrong with that?! There was a guy trail running up a steep incline, and I’m sure he took advantage of a nature break. And hopefully his athletic prowess didn’t get the stags – or any of their ladies – all riled up again.
The view from the top, with the valley and the lake. Not seen: Scowling stags.
Apart from near certain death from randy deer, it was an absolutely beautiful view. The fact that so much of the trail was on a very narrow boardwalk was definitely a switch, but – to my credit – I only fell off and nearly hurt myself once. Again, I can see why I was seen as a rival to those deer. The reason I did trip was because I was too busy staring at the lake, the cliffs, and the valley. They’d totally have been worth the broken ankle.
The visitor information center was helpful, too, with one of the ladies in there giving lots of background information. That included the type of deer with whom we nearly had to duel. Much like everyone else who provided so many recommendations and background on the outdoors on this trip, I greatly appreciate her.