We may as well begin our tour of Kerry at the centre of it all. I’m not a huge Killarney fan – there are nicer towns in the county – but the National Park is a fabulous attraction and worthy of a full day’s attention. Part of the park’s appeal is its location – its right on the edge of town and therefore easily accessible by foot or bike.
Ireland’s oldest National Park was formed in 1932 when Muckross Estate was donated to the state. Today, it covers 26,000 acres of mountains, lakes, waterfalls and woods. There are dozens of walking routes to choose from or you can explore by car, bike, boat, horse and carriage (you can actually enjoy the whole lot in a combined boat-cycle-bus-pony tour of the lakes and surrounding forests and mountains). If the weather isn’t great you can take a guided tour of Muckross House or Ross Castle. The easily accessible areas are a pleasure in themselves but its worth making a bit of an effort to reach some of the more demanding areas of the region.
Its all about the Lakes. Long celebrated in poetry and song, Lough Leane, Muckross Lake and Upper Lake are linked together over about a quarter of the park area. Occupying a broad valley, they were formed as a result of glacial excavation during the last Ice Age and are surrounded by Ireland’s largest mountain range, The MacGillycuddy Reeks.
There are plenty of lake tours but most visitors just enjoy the lakes from the shores and surrounding viewing points.
There are many picturesque cascades in the area but Torc is the most famous. The Owengarrif River flows from high in the mountains into Muckross Lake and the display is particularly spectacular after heavy rain.
This wonderfully named trail heads up the side of the waterfall towards Torc Mountain. Rated as moderate (!), I was huffing and puffing within a few steps – you can assume that something with ‘cardiac’ in its name is not exactly going to be an easy ascent (except for the runner who breezed past at one stage!!). We (thankfully) hadn’t allowed enough time to do the whole climb but apparently the steep ascent and the hundreds of steps are worth the effort for the panoramic views. We just went up as far as the bridge crossing the river above the falls. There are various route options – a few loop trails and the more extended walk to the summit of Torc Mountain.
(Proof that we at least made it to the bridge!)
Walking and Cycling Trails
It would be great if you had enough time to break away from the main sights and enjoy some of the less busy trails. The park was designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1981 due to its extensive range of habitats and species. The area is home to the greatest stretch of native woodland left in the country – oak and yew are of particular importance but its also abundant in arbutus, holly and mountain ash. Below the tree canopy is a wealth of ferns, mosses and other plants. The varied habitats of mountain, moorland, woodland and lake support over 140 bird species – you might spot a white-tailed eagle . Hopefully you will see some small animals on your travels – stoats, hedgehogs, pygmy shrews, hares, rabbits, badgers, foxes and squirrels all live here. It is also home to the only herd of native red deer – believed to have existed in Killarney since the last ice age. The lakes are stocked with brown trout, pike and salmon (which can be fished subject to usual Irish salmon license regulations) and less common species such as the Arctic Char and Killarney Shad.
The Meeting of the Waters
A walking / one direction cycling trail will bring you to this point where the waters of the three Killarney lakes meet together at the Old Weir Bridge. There is no direct vehicular access so its not as busy as other parts of the park. There are parking facilities about a 15 minute walk away. Dinis Cottage is a popular stop for a well earned coffee!
Muckross House and Gardens
A classic example of the Victorian era, Muckross House and its parklands were donated to the State in 1932, forming the initial part of what is now known as Killarney National Park.
When open to the public, you can enjoy a guided tour of the house which reflects the lifestyle of its previous inhabitants and contains original pieces of furniture, artwork, etc. from the 19th century. The grounds include manicured gardens and working farms.
(How’s that for a view from your window!)
A chieftain of the O’Donoghue Ross clan built the castle on the shore of Lough Leane in 1537. It has been beautifully restored and worth a guided tour if you have time.
Apparently, O’Donoghue killed himself by leaping out of a window into the lake. He still sleeps under its waters. On the morning of May 1st, every seven years, he rises and circles the lake on a white horse. If you can catch a glimpse of him, you will be assured of good fortune for the rest of your life!
(The road from town to the castle is a popular jarvey route)
Copper Mines Trail
There was mining in this area from about 2000BC right up until the mid 19th century when the mines were finally abandoned. A 2km looped woodland trail begins at the castle and leads to the mining area on the lake shore. Little evidence remains today but there are detailed information boards and marked points of interest as well as great views of the lake.
Kerry Airport is located only 15 minutes’ drive from Killarney town. It offers direct access from Dublin, UK, Germany, Spain and Portugal.
Killarney is directly linked by railway to Cork & Dublin.
Killarney is linked to many parts of Ireland by bus
Where to Stay
As I mentioned earlier, Killarney isn’t my favourite town but you are probably going to spend a night or two here if its your first visit to Kerry. As a tourist base, you’ll find everything you need. In normal times (and they will come back) the summer months offer accommodation and restaurant options to suit every taste and every pocket. You can enjoy festivals and great nightlife. There are over 70 pubs in town – there must be traditional music every night of the week. There are plenty of tourist shops of course but there are other shopping opportunities – I even noticed an Outlet Centre when driving through.
There aren’t many sights as such but the 19th century Gothic style Cathedral is worth a visit.
Getting around the Park
Walk Walk Walk – Walk as much as you can – especially if its dry! – its all beautiful and it could (and probably will!) rain tomorrow!!
Car – You can park at Muckross House, Torc Waterfall and Ross Castle and explore those areas in turn.
Bike – You can rent bikes in the Park or from one of the many bike rental companies around town. Cycle Ireland has an app that guides tourists around the various National Park routes.
Jaunting Car – think Venice and the Gondola – if its your first time in Killarney then you will have to try it at least once somewhere! There are a few popular routes in the park. Caveat Emptor –prices can be high and the jarveys (drivers) are quick to spot an easy mark!
Boat – Boats such as these are covered so you can enjoy the lakes in any weather.
There is no admission fee to enter the park
Muckross House tours cost €9.25.
Ross Castle €5.00
♫ How Can You Buy Killarney ♫
An American landed on Erin’s green isle
He gazed at Killarney with rapturous smile
“How can I buy it?” he said to his guide
“I’ll tell you how” with a smile he replied
How can you buy all the stars in the skies?
How can you buy two blue Irish eyes?
How can you purchase a fond mother’s sighs?
How can you buy Killarney?
Nature bestowed all her gifts with a smile
The emerald, the shamrock, the Blarney.
When you can buy all these wonderful things
Then you can buy Killarney.
(Bing Crosby, 1949)
(Songwriters: F. Grant /G. Morrison /H. Kennedy /T. Steels)