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The Big Routes: A Traverse of the Dingle Peninsula

© Stephen McAuliffe

Packing a tent and a sense of adventure, Stephen McAuliffe walks the length of Ireland's Dingle Peninsula, where the mountains rise straight out of the sea.


Ireland is blessed with some of the most spectacular - and diverse- scenery in Europe. With the Wild Atlantic Way rightly gaining worldwide fame as one of the finest holiday must do's and hillwalking growing in popularity all the time, there has never been a better time to explore the wildest places in the country.

At the western end of the route the mountains run down to meet the sea  © Stephen McAuliffe
At the western end of the route the mountains run down to meet the sea
© Stephen McAuliffe

The southwest of Ireland is notable for the four peninsulas that spear out into the Atlantic. I would be hard pushed to pick a favourite; each is surprisingly different from the rest. The Beara Peninsula offers wonderful wild rugged ground and a very remote feel. The Iveragh Peninsula is broader and again offers some of the most spectacular scenery in Ireland - and of course is home to the mighty Magillycuddy Reeks where peaks soar to over 1000 metres. The Dingle Peninsula, meanwhile, boasts the wonderful Mount Brandon, a spectacular massif rising straight from the sea to over 3000 feet.

Something it's sometimes a little harder to find in Ireland is that wilderness feeling, where you are cut off from the world for extended periods. But with a little planning and determination some superb multi-day adventures can be had. A recent three-day solo hike along the spine of the Dingle Peninsula is one of the best.

Only birdsong and the wind broke the stillness  © Stephen McAuliffe
Only birdsong and the wind broke the stillness
© Stephen McAuliffe

A good weather forecast and a few days off coincided so I headed to Tralee on the train with my rucksack, fully laden with my tent and food and set off on a three day quest to do a full traverse along the spine of the mountains.

A combination of public transport got me to the village of Blennerville, where I treated myself to a coffee and the biggest slice of "Rocky Road" I have ever seen. Suitably overdosed on sugar, I was off before mid day. I'd soon joined the "bohereen" that rises gently up towards the open mountain beyond. The weather was glorious, with a gentle breeze and plenty of sunshine.

Main Peaks

Baurtregaum (851m)

Caherconree

Benoskee (826m)

Slievanea

Brandon Peak (840m)

Mount Brandon (952m)

Masatiompan (763m)

Drawing closer to the Brandon massif  © Stephen McAuliffe
Drawing closer to the Brandon massif
© Stephen McAuliffe

My plan was simple. To reach the crest of the mountains and basically follow this, crossing over the mountain tops all the way to the furthest extreme of the peninsula. This would take me three days and should offer a proper wild mountain experience. First up though I had to reach the crest and this involved a lengthy slog up gentle but boggy ground. Soon the only noise I could hear (besides my laboured breathing) was a distant cuckoo and the trill of a skylark. The sun had retreated behind some clouds and with arctic air flowing over the country it was suddenly decidedly chilly. Winter wasn't that long ago after all.

Despite the late start I wasn't worried about time as there was a long evening ahead, and sunset wasn't until after 9pm. That isn't to say I was taking it easy and I kept up a good pace on the climb to the crest. As I neared the crest the wind increased further and it was now at times buffeting. A layer of cloud clung to the highest tops but elsewhere the views were wonderful and extensive.

It is always exciting to reach the crest of a ridge where suddenly your views are doubled and the landscape beyond is revealed. The Iveragh Peninsula with its wild mountains is a joy to behold as it stretches out into the Atlantic on the other side of Dingle Bay. The mountains stretched away to the east as far as my local hill Mount Hillary some fifty miles away. Behind me were the delights of Tralee bay and the sandy beaches that stretch into the north Kerry landscape. I was loving it.

Ancient cairn on Dromavally Mountain  © Stephen McAuliffe
Ancient cairn on Dromavally Mountain
© Stephen McAuliffe

Easier walking on better ground followed as I passed over the tops of Barnanageehy, Knockauncorragh and Glanbrack on the serpentine ridge. Height is gradually gained and finally I reached the 200 metre slog to the stony summit of Bartregaum (851m). With no views and cloud scudding across the chilly bleak summit I didn't delay and I set off towards Caherconree. Briefly I emerged under the clouds at the col between the summits and next up came the gentle 130 metre pull to the top. Again cloud spoiled the view so I turned and headed towards the ancient promontory fort on the shoulder of the mountain. I was soon under the cloud again and the views towards Inch and west towards Benoskee were gorgeous. I had now covered 16 kilometres and my thoughts were turning towards finding somewhere to camp for the night.

I dropped easily along the boggy path towards the little road that rises from the village of Camp and once across this I headed for the outlier of the Slieve Mish range, Moanlaur. Though more modest in height this is still rough wild ground and the climb up through heathery ground to Knockbrack and then to the main summit added another 300 metres of climbing to the day. Fatigue was becoming more of a factor so once I had dropped down the 250 metres on the northern flanks to the flat boggy ground below I was fully focused on finding a spot for my tent. This I found a couple of kilometres further on beside a metalled bog road and soon my home for the night was up. It was now nearly 19.30 so the day had taken over seven and a half hours. I had covered 24 kilometres and climbed nearly 1300 metres. It had been a worthy start to the trip. I enjoyed a hot meal and the remaining evening light before retiring to bed in the gloom. I hadn't seen another soul once I left the road and the only sound to be heard was the call of birdsong. I slept well.

Benoskee and the Brandon massif  © Stephen McAuliffe
Benoskee and the Brandon massif
© Stephen McAuliffe

An insomniac skylark woke me before dawn but I was soon off into lala land again nice and snug in my down sleeping bag. I emerged at 6.30 into a beautiful calm bright morning and what a joy it was to breakfast in this wild and wonderful place. I was all packed up and ready to go at 07.15.

Once across the main Tralee-Dingle road I was once again on open mountain ground. I followed the gently rising ridge that headed for the hills above Annascaul. This made for a delightful gentle start to the day and the views to the sea on either side were wonderful. Things gradually get tougher as the terrain gets boggier and going up and over Knocknakilton with its myriad of peat hags and holes makes for tiring progress. The breeze was quite strong and chill so it was another coat and hat day, despite the sun. Finally I reached the col under Dromavally Mountain where I left the worst of the ground behind. Time was slipping by quite quickly and it was already after 11am so I had to stop here for a bite to eat in the shade of the large and complex bronze age cairn. As I rested I surveyed the ground ahead and decided that today I would take the tougher continuance and climb Stradbally and Benoskee instead of heading along the ridge that rises from the southern side of the wide expanse of bog that stretches west.

Looking down on the sand dunes of Tralee Bay  © Stephen McAuliffe
Looking down on the sand dunes of Tralee Bay
© Stephen McAuliffe

The walk above and around the back of Glanteenassig is lovely but soon I was down at the wide pass and I had to start my climb of Stradbally (798m). I would love to be able to say that the climb flew by, but boy oh boy was the reward worth the effort. It is a stunning viewpoint. Here you are basically in the very heart of the peninsula, and while the views back to the start are great it is the majesty of the Brandon massif that takes the breath away. It seemed to beckon me on and reinvigorated me for the journey ahead. A short drop from the stony summit and it is an easy climb to reach the higher Benoskee (826m). Here I enjoyed my lunch and relaxed before dropping easily to the boggy plain below.

It had been a cold night... but a lovely one  © Stephen McAuliffe
It had been a cold night... but a lovely one
© Stephen McAuliffe

Now some 500 metres lower I was faced with the energy sapping gradual ascent towards Slievanea. There is no easy way to do it as the wet ground saps the legs and seems to go on for ever. Eventually, I reached the point where I had to cross the sizeable river before Slievenalecka. I then had to contour around to the edge of a little lake and and then commence the very steep 250 metre climb to Slievanea. It was very tiring and when I reached the top (another amazing viewpoint) I rested a while and once again my mind turned to finding somewhere to camp. I contemplated going all the way to the lake under Fallaghnamara but that would take another two hours or so and I had already been on the move for nearly 9.

I walked around to final top above Peddlars Lake and basically headed due south across the gently boggy slope and before too long I had found my home for the night. I had lovely views down to Dingle town and harbour and beyond to the Blasket Islands. I whiled away a very enjoyable evening in the quiet landscape and soaked in the views until the sun had set. Approx 25 kilometres covered with 1350 metres of ascent in just over 9 hours and I hadn't seen another soul all day today either.

Beyond the Connor Pass, the Brandon massif is waiting  © Stephen McAuliffe
Beyond the Connor Pass, the Brandon massif is waiting
© Stephen McAuliffe

There had been a frost overnight and I emerged into a bright clear morning with not a puff of wind. I quickly ate and packed up as it was quite cold but it was a lovely gentle start to the day as I descended to the Conner Pass. Itwas nice to be here before the masses arrived to enjoy the views but I must give a special mention to the knobhead that left a few beer cans strewn in the carpark.

I climbed away into the wilds again and soon my mind was once more engrossed with the wonderful place I found myself in. The broad boggy summit of Ballysitteragh (623m) was a wonderful place to pause and enjoy the panorama. Next comes the drop to the pass below Fallaghnamara and then more climbing as I headed towards Gearhane and Brandon Peak. The 400 metre climb is broken in the middle by the level ground beyond Fallaghnamara but it is fair to say I was warm by the time I crossed the "highest gate in Ireland" to reach Gearhane. It was just a stunning morning with warm sun and uninterrupted views in all directions. Things only get better as you head to Brandon Peak and here I stopped for a bit of sustenance.

Brandon Peak (right) and Mount Brandon from An Gearan  © Stephen McAuliffe
Brandon Peak (right) and Mount Brandon from An Gearan
© Stephen McAuliffe

I still hadn't met another soul since I started out but I could see other hikers approaching as I headed towards Mount Brandon. Most of the climbing was done for the day except for the near 300 metre pull to the summit of one of my favourite mountains anywhere. It came as something of a shock to find myself in the midst of a group of fellow hikers after so much solitude so I didn't linger after I enjoyed some lunch and soon I was mostly on my own again as I headed along the beautiful ridge towards Masatiompán.

A final push to this rounded top and then it was an easy thing to follow the Dingle Way down for a while before I crossed and followed the cliff edge, overlooking the sea far below. From the edge the views are predictably spectacular and I couldn't help but marvel at the place where people lived in the famine times. Living among the sloping stony paddocks, situated above the roaring seas and a full 1000 foot climb to exit the area, must have required incredible ingenuity and no small measure of desperation in order to survive. We are indeed fortunate to live when we do.

Looking down Brandon's brilliant Faha Ridge  © Stephen McAuliffe
Looking down Brandon's brilliant Faha Ridge
© Stephen McAuliffe

A final drag saw me reach the 350 metre top at Breennaman and I then dropped to reach the trail that leads easily to the roadside. I briefly debated hitching to Dingle but instead I rang for a taxi which duly arrived and whisked me into the very busy town. Today's effort took me just 7 hours, covered over 21 kilometres and had over 1000 metres of climbing in truly spectacular scenery. I had time for a coffee and delicious cake before I caught the bus back to Tralee and my connecting train. It had been a delightful few days and I basked in the glow of having completed one of the finest wild walks in Ireland.

Masatiompan rises over 700m straight out of the sea  © Stephen McAuliffe
Masatiompan rises over 700m straight out of the sea
© Stephen McAuliffe

Essential info

Getting there: This route can be accessed using public transport. With lots of flights to Cork or Kerry airports and good train or bus connections to Tralee it is very possible to be walking on Day 1.

Start: Blennerville near Tralee ( you can walk directly from the train station in Tralee. This would add about 5 kilometres to the first day)

Length: 70km

Total ascent: 3700m

Time taken: 3 days with a total of about 24 hours on the move.

Accommodation: I used my tent, but if the weather is truly terrible then it is possible to be far more civilized and stay in the villages of Camp (ironic or what) and Annascaul. On either side of the mountains a road runs by the sea and once down there you are never too far from a B&B.

Maps: Ordnance Survey of Ireland Discovery Series no.70 & 71

Terrain: Once you leave the road near Blennerville you are on rough open boggy ground, and most of the time it is pathless terrain. Don't expect to keep dry shoes. The ridges are wide and gentle, with no rock climbing or vertigo inducing crests involved. The scenery is some of the best to be found anywhere.

Other options: A slightly easier option is to follow the ridge west from Annascaul Lake. The trip can be extended by hiking the gorgeous Three Sisters, and perhaps continuing over Mount Eagle. Doing some of the low level hike "The Dingle Way" is another option if the weather really turns bad.

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30 Aug, 2019
Ah Stephen there are five peninsulas in the SW, don;t leave poor little Mizen out.
31 Aug, 2019

You are of course completely correct. Sincere apologies. The Mizen is a jewel in itself.


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