Ireland is much more well known for its Guinness and global cultural influence than it is for its outdoor scene. Sure, most everyone is familiar with its rolling green countryside that’s full of ancient castles and stone walls, but adventure? Most adrenaline junkies, mountaineers and hikers look elsewhere to get their fix.
This is a shame because in Ireland’s southwest County Kerry, resides some of the grandest outdoor adventures in all the world. It all begins in the town of Killarney, which sits on the doorstep of Killarney National Park, The Macgillycuddy Mountain range and the ring of Kerry; an epic 171-km route that circles the County and can either be driven or cycled (cycling being the more exhilarating option).
Killarney is a town of about 15,000 and possesses a strong close knit community vibe that is no doubt influenced by the magnificent St Mary’s Cathedral near the center of town. While the church is not even 200 years old, its presence and status as the largest building in town, play a large part in the daily life of Irish locals whose Catholic faith still resonates even amongst the European secularization of the 21stcentury.
Arriving in Killarney takes about a 4-hour bus or train ride from Dublin and upon walking into the town, there are more than a few excellent accommodation options. For backpackers, there is the Black Sheep Hostel, the Railway Hostel, Neptune’s Town hostel and the Shire Hostel. The Black Sheep hostel boasts the top ratings and considering its friendly staff, atmosphere and cleanliness, it is little doubt why it earned the title of Irelands best hostel in 2019. Hotel options are plenty as well, with the Towers being the most popular and boasting an excellent spa area that includes a pool, a hot tub, a sauna and a steam room.
Before one begins their outdoor expeditions, it is certainly worth checking out the café and pub scene that Killarney offers. Reidy’s on Main street is one of the popular places in town to go for a pint and not for any bad reasoning. Boasting live music most nights and a homey and uniquely Irish atmosphere, it is easy to make friends here and to feel as though you’ve become a proud participant in Ireland’s pub culture. On the other hand, The Grand hosts traditional Irish music daily and later in the evenings, becomes the town’s premier nightclub.
Café wise, Noel’s is a quant and charming place located in an alley just off Main street and services great coffee, pastries and delicious pancakes. While the café has no Wi-Fi, it is certainly worth checking out for its atmosphere and sweet treats.
As you plan your expeditions into the heart of county Kerry, it is probable that you’ll become a bit overwhelmed on where to begin. The best option might be to head straight into the Macgillycuddy mountains by renting a bike and heading to Cronin’s Yard. O’Sullivan’s bike rental or Blaine’s bike rental are both ideal options to snag a bike from and with it, one can head off into the national park on the Fossa Trail and head to Cronin’s Yard; a small cottage, café and sheep farm that serves as the starting point for ascents on Carrauntoohil. Carrauntoohil which in Gaelic means, “Tuathal’s Sickle” is the highest peak in Ireland and while it’s summit doesn’t break 4000 ft., its beauty and grandeur is not to be underestimated and is most defiantly worth the trek.
It is important to remember regarding the height of Ireland’s mountains, that while they do not compare to their European counterparts in France and Italy, their prominence makes them formable mountains when considering that their bases begin close to sea level and the trek to the summits are still a commendable challenge.
Cycling to Cronin’s Yard will take approximately an hour and a half, possibly longer depending on one’s fitness level and is by itself, is a worthwhile journey. Between Killarney and Cronin’s yard, one will find the Irish landscape in its prime form, with the views of the Macgillycuddy mountains, traditional sheep farms and stone walls and fences, carving their way through the land in an ancient and signature north Atlantic fashion.
Choosing to climb Carrauntoohil will take approximately five hours and in the winter, is best traversed by being equipped with micro spikes or crampons and an ice axe. The most straightforward route, the Devils ladder will lead one up through a very steep and eroded rocky gulley that possesses flowing water in the warmer months and icy hazards during winter conditions. The steep incline combined with jagged rocks and a slippery footing, make an ascent of this section of the route alone, a worthwhile accomplishment and provides breathtaking views of County Kerry.
The immediate second most adventurous option to begin from Killarney, is to cycle the gap of Dunloe which is a Glacier mountain pass that separates the Macgillycuddy Mountains from the Purple Mountain base. The river Loe Separates the two mountain ranges and the winding, often narrow 56 km route, will be sure to keep the thigh muscles working and the eyes astonished by the rolling scenery that is completely unique to Ireland.
After one tackles these challenges or at least considers them, the next available expeditions include cycling the ring of Kerry or hiking the Kerry way. Cycling the Ring of Kerry takes about three days and is a straightforward route around the breadth of County Kerry that excludes the Dingle Peninsula. Hiking the Kerry way however, will take one about nine to ten days and will have you trekking a trail through the most rugged edges of the county all the way out to the sea.
Choosing either such expedition requires at least a couple nights in a bed and breakfast that will be more expensive than the hostels in Killarney. Of course, one can choose to camp but only in the warmer summer months will the typical Irish rain storm be potentially negated or be easier dealt with than in the winter where the cold and wetness make the expeditions quite cumbersome.
One of the most joyful and delightful expeditions in County Kerry for aspiring adventurer’s, might be cycling the Dingle Peninsula. Before Columbus set sail for the Indies, the town of Dingle, which today’s population totals at a little over 2000, was considered the last port of call of the known world. Resting on the Wild Atlantic way, the town is home to the mythical Brendan The Navigator, a Celtic Monk who legend recounts sailed to North America in the sixth century A.D. The tail of his travels may very well may be embellished by Irish Legend, but his exploits inspired Christopher Columbus and many other sailors who ventured off into the unknown world.
Cycling from Killarney to Dingle is about 65 kilometers in distance and takes about four and a half hours. On the way to Dingle, one would be best inclined to check out Inch beach which is a stunning gold sand shore that takes in beautiful views of the Macgillycuddy mountains and the Atlantic Ocean, that make the location hard to replicate across Ireland.
Once in Dingle, there is no shortage of accommodation, though backpackers might be encouraged to check out the Grapevine Hostel for its central location in town and for its expert hospitality. The Slea Head drive is a must from here and cycling along this drive that is on the Wild Atlantic way will be hard to top for all a Travelers and Explorer’s exploits as the views and landscape are a poets and writers dream come true.
One can cycle this route to the town of Cloghane on the north side of the Peninsula and then attempt a climb of Mount Brandon which will potentially have snow upon its summit until the late spring months. From here, one can continue cycling along the north coast of the Peninsula before eventually having to decide whether to circle around back to Dingle, head to the city of Tralee or cycle back to Killarney.
In all, Ireland’s County Kerry is a region without shortage of potential lucrative expeditions and one can easily spend a month here traversing its wild far corners, climbing the highest peaks on the island and afterwards, having a craic with the thick accented Kerry locals who have a completely unique perspective on Irish life that may beat the Dublin and Galway story.