The southwest of Ireland is an outdoor lover's paradise. Its landscape includes soaring mountaintops, gentle hillsides, secluded lakes and valleys, lonely islands, dramatic sea-cliffs and long, sandy beaches. The main hub of attraction is along its five peninsulas extending out into the Atlantic, from the pointed finger of Dingle in the north to the headland of Mizen in the south. Three other peninsulas are situated in between - Iveragh (the largest), Beara and The Sheep's Head.
Ten out of the 12 Irish summits over 3000ft are located on these peninsulas and they are also home to 104 Vandeleur-Lynam tops (Irish summits over 600m with a 15m prominence). Four of the most popular long distance walks are also here: the Kerry Way (214km), Dingle Way (162km), Beara Way (206km) and Sheep's Head Way (90km). It is also home to the world famous Ring of Kerry coastal drive and the 10,289-hectare Killarney National Park. On top of it all, this area is a heaven for rock climbing and watersports.
Here are ten of the best walks in the area, from sea cliff hikes to scrambes on Ireland's highest peaks:
Brandon ridge via the Paternoster Lakes
At 952m, Brandon Mountain reaches Munro standards. It is the highest point in Ireland outside the chain of peaks that dominate the MacGillycuddy's Reeks. There is an unearthly quality – powerful and uplifting – on its lofty heights, and in particular along its fin-shaped ridge, which takes in the two other summits of Brandon Peak (840m) and Gearhane (803m). On a clear day, views of mountain, lake, land and sea from its summit ridge are unparalleled. The standard walking routes to the summit are via an old pilgrim's path from the west or via a steep, rocky path on its eastern side from Faha. However, the connoisseur's approach to gain the ridge is via a series of paternoster lakes below the rocky walls of the Brandon massif. This classic route follows the course of these lakes, a level at a time, until meeting the Faha path at the head of a magnificent glacial corrie. The scenery throughout is stupendous.
Great Blasket Island
There is something truly magical about the Great Blasket Island, the largest of an archipelago of seven islands on the western tip of the Dingle Peninsula. Step off the rubber dinghy near Pointe an Ghoib to the sight of ruined stone cottages and sounds of seabirds squawking or drawn-out calls of grey seals from the direction of An Tráigh Bhán's sandy cove. A powerfully evocative circuit is traceable around the uninhabited island. The circuit is mostly on fine tracks, while the most exhilarating section runs along its mountainous spine along a path on the grassy and heathery ridge connecting Slievedonagh and Croaghmore (292m), the highest point on the island. The smaller islands of Beginish, Inishtooskert, Tearaght, Inishnabro and Inishvickillane can be seen out to sea. At times dolphins, porpoises, whales and basking sharks may also be spotted in the waters below. The route also visits the site of An Dún - an Iron Age promontory fort dating from 800BC, the ruins of an old signal tower and the site of the 'Fatal Cliff' or 'Sorrowful Slope', where Blasket women watched in horror as their men's boats were smashed against the rocks beneath during a gale, drowning them all.
Sybil Point, Sybil Head and The Three Sisters
This is an unmissable stretch of coastline, boasting some of the finest sea cliffs that the Dingle Peninsula has to offer. A narrow path can be traced along the crest of the ridge from Sybil Point to Binn Diarmada, the last of The Three Sisters. The top of the ridge near the signal tower at Sybil Point is guarded by 200m-high sea cliffs. The view is stunning, with the switchback line of The Three Sisters to the northeast and Brandon Mountain as the backdrop. From the signal tower, a narrow path flanked by bracken, heather and gorse weaves along the airy cliff-top for several miles. The pointed tops of The Three Sisters must all be visited, culminating in Binn Diarmada, whose summit is a precipitous ledge marked by a sharp, rocky fin and splashed with clusters of pink sea-thrift. The ledge is said to be the spot where the legendary Diarmuid and Gráinne slept while they were pursued by the mythical Fianna. They couldn't have picked a better spot!
This is easily the most challenging mountain circuit in Ireland. On mostly trackless ground, it encompasses a distance of 17km and a total ascent of 1200m. For the peak-bagger, it is an opportunity to tick off as many as 9 Vandeleur-Lynam tops in a day. One top towers head and shoulders above the rest. Known locally as 'the Matterhorn of Kerry', Mullaghanattin (773m) displays a distinctive triangular shape whose apex often 'wears its cap' in the clouds. After negotiating several summits along the Beann ridge, comes the highlight of the circuit – the rough and rocky descent to Coomalougha Lough. The landscape here is barren and austere: nestled lakes, rocky fangs, sandstone slabs and sheer cliffs – a primeval world. From Coomalougha, traverse the ground above a chain of paternoster lakes then strike for Coomura Mountain (666m), where with a bit of luck you will be greeted by the sunset beyond Cloon Lough. The descent is rough and full of rocky outcrops and slabs of various sizes, so it's well advised to reach the valley floor below before dark.
The MacGillycuddy's Reeks chain is home to 9 out of the 10 highest summits in Ireland, all of which are over 3000ft. It is a range named after the son of Cuddy, a former local landlord. Of all its summits, Carrauntoohil is the highest, and at 1040m it is also the highest mountain in Ireland. The area is a mecca for mountaineering and in the winter it often holds a good deal of snow. If you only have a few days to spend in the Reeks, then don't miss out on the classic Coumloughra H|orseshoe - a circuit over the three highest peaks in Ireland whose highlight must be the airy Beenkeragh ridge, where some scrambling is required. The other popular non-climbing routes up Carrauntoohil include O'Shea Gully, Heavenly Gates, Devil's Ladder and the Zig-Zags. A complete traverse of the Reeks ridge is also possible, from Cruach Mhór (932m) to Carrauntoohil. The section of ridge from Cruach Mhór to Cnoc na Péiste (988m) via the Big Gun (939m) is knife-edge in places, and requires some exciting scrambling. Any peak in the Reeks would be a serious proposition in the winter under snow and ice conditions.
Cnoc na dTobar
Cnoc na dTobar (690m) can be climbed from Kells or via an old pilgrims route from Killurly. Legend has it that Saint Fursey (c597-650AD) was cured of blindness at a Holy Well on the foothills at Killurly. The pilgrim's route initially zigzags below Cnoc na dTobar's southwest ridge before veering right to reach the top of its airy crest. This is where spirits soar. The green and brown plains, fed by the Ferta and Carhan rivers, unfold as a wide expanse to the southeast. A backdrop of hills completes the picture, and these extend westward to hug the waters of Valentia River and Portmagee Channel. The view down along the ridge becomes more impressive as you climb toward the summit, with the coastline and headland at Canglass and Doulus, as well as Valentia Island, in the background. The summit view is full of superlatives and includes nearly all the mountains on the Iveragh and Dingle peninsulas. It is also interesting to note that the other two sacred sites of Brandon Mountain and Skellig Michael, both within sight, form a perfect triangle with Knocknadobar – coincidence?
Situated on the western tip of the Beara Peninsula, Dursey Island (Oileán Baoi, 'yellow island') is named after the goddess Baoi, also known as the Cailleach Bhéara or 'Hag of Beara' in folklore. The island was used as a Viking slave depot from 800AD to 1150AD. Viking marauders called it Thjorsey meaning 'Bull Island'. At the start of the 20th century, the population exceeded 200, its families living harsh lives but filled with song, dance and story-telling. Today it is largely uninhabited, with only a handful of seasonal island residents. Depopulation has marginalised agriculture on the island, although fishing activity still persists. A tidal rip through Dursey Sound sets it apart from the mainland and a cable-car crosses its fierce currents, giving access to people and animals to the island. Dursey Island is a sanctuary - popular with bird, dolphin and whale watchers. A memorable route traces the road south of the island toward its very tip at Dursey Head, and returns via a scenic low-lying ridge along its spine, with majestic views towards the sea and mainland.
There are two classic routes up this classic mountain! Expect stunning scenery, dramatic cliffs, remote lakes and plenty of rock in both routes. Hungry Hill (682m) is the highest top in the Caha Mountains, a rugged and complex mountain range on the Beara Peninsula. Seven of its hills have been named after the seven deadly sins. Local tradition refers to Hungry Hill as the 'hill of envy', 'tooth hill' and/or 'angry hill'. One route approaches Hungry Hill from the eastern side, ascending its rocky southeast ridge, and then descending to visit two remote lakes below dramatic cliffs. Another route has its humble beginnings from the western side, near the freshwater lake of Park Lough. However, upon reaching the southwest ridge, the route elevates skyward rather steeply, with some scrambling required in places. After a final sting in the tail, the ground relents and reaches a flat, grassy area. The summit is marked by a trig-pillar, stone shelter and beehive cairn. There are fine vistas eastward toward Bantry Bay, southward toward the Sheep's Head and the distant West Cork coastline with its many islands and inlets.
Twenty-nine people lived in Cummeengeera in 1841 and only seven in 1871. This is a remote corner of the Beara Peninsula also known as The Pocket or Rabach's Glen. One stormy night in 1800, a sailor knocked at Rabach's door looking for shelter. However, the greedy Rabach murdered the sailor thinking he had money on him. Unaware to Rabach, a neighbour witnessed the murder through her tiny stone window. Years later during an argument, this woman threatened to inform the public of Rabach's savage act. This led to Rabach ambushing and drowning the woman in a nearby stream. In 1830, a man fatally injured in the local mines confessed to the authorities that he had seen Rabach murder the woman. Rabach was pursued but avoided capture by hiding in a cave known as Pluais an Rabach or 'the Rabach's den' deep in the glen. A year later, the dead woman's son tipped off the police that Rabach would be home for the birth of a child. An ambush was set up and Rabach was finally captured and hanged in Tralee Gaol in 1831.This beautiful area of The Pocket is a mix of green pastures, bog, woodlands, glen, river, lake, sea and mountains. The rugged horseshoe around The Pocket comprises several tops: Lackabane (602m), Eskatarriff (600m), Coomacloghane (599m) and Tooth Mountain (590m). Views are interesting and varied at every turn. Kilmakilloge Harbour, Glanmore valley, Hungry Hill and the mountains of the Iveragh Peninsula across Kenmare Bay are just some of the highlighs.
Sheeps Head coastal walk
The Sheep's Head Peninsula is the narrowest of the five finger-shaped peninsulas extending into the Atlantic. Wedged between the peninsulas of Beara to the north and Mizen Head to the south, it is a place apart. Boasting an idyllic rural charm, the narrowness of the peninsula puts it in close proximity with the waters of Bantry Bay and Dunmanus Bay. The closing line of the Seamus Heaney poem The Peninsula '...water and ground in their extremity' best describes the landscape. A rugged, low-lying moorland crest runs across the spine of the peninsula, culminating at its tip at Rinn Mhuintir Bháire or Sheep's Head. The peninsula boasts some of the most spectacular coastal scenery in southwest Ireland. There are routes to suit all abilities with distances ranging from as little as 4km to 90km. A delightful full-day circuit is a 28km route from the Marian statue on the top of the Seefin pass to the lighthouse, and from there along the coastline towards Cahergal. Highlights include spectacular sea-cliffs, secluded coves, wild tarns, an old copper mine, the ruined buildings of Crimea, a Napoleonic signal tower and a marriage stone.
About Adrian Hendroff
Adrian Hendroff is a member of the Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild (OWPG), Mountain Training Association and Mountaineering Ireland. He is the first person to have ascended the combined list of all 455 of Ireland's Vandeleur-Lynam and Arderin summits. His articles and photographs have been widely published in books and magazines. He has written several Irish hill-walking guidebooks for the Collins Press. His first book From High Places: A Journey Through Ireland's Great Mountains won the OWPG Award for Excellence in 2011.
For more info visit www.adrianhendroff.com
About the books
Adrian's three latest books Killarney to Valentia Island – The Iveragh Peninsula, The Dingle Peninsula and The Beara and Sheep's Head Peninsulas are out now (published by Collins Press). These guidebooks explore a range of forest, hill, mountain and coastal routes on four of the five peninsulas.
YouTube videos for the books: