Bizarre rock formations, an astonishing sea stack, and the country’s highest mountains make up some of the top natural wonders of Ireland.
Like everything in Ireland, there’s a certain magic to Ireland’s natural attractions. Whether backlit with a moody gray sky or bathed in a golden summer evening’s light, the Emerald Isle’s hills, mountains, cliffs, bays, and lakes don’t just sit there looking pretty. Rather, they seem to draw you in to share a little of their legend and story. One of the great advantages of visiting a small country bobbing in the Atlantic Ocean is that its incredible diversity of natural beauty is within easy reach so that you can easily experience and capture as much of the magic, legend, and breathtaking natural settings as you wish.
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The Burren, County Clare
Catch a clear spring evening, and you will be enchanted by one of the strangest of all effects that the Burren affords: a delicate, pale-pink hue creeping slowly across the rocky landscape. The glow settles over the limestone pavement, walls, and terracing of the hills–a place that is slow to give up its secrets. Bracing eternally against the Atlantic winds, the Poulnabrone dolmen is one of Ireland’s most iconic archaeological monuments, and the oldest dated megalithic monument in Ireland. While Poulnabrone attracts the most attention, there is much more to see in the Burren region, and if time permits, you will want to linger awhile rather than speed through. The Burren is a botanist’s paradise, with a kaleidoscope of alpine and Mediterranean wildflowers such as dazzling blue gentians, purple orchids, magenta geraniums, the yellow bird’s foot trefoil, and creamy mountain avens growing wild alongside the pungent three-cornered leek.
INSIDER TIPA great way to see the area is to hire an Irish gypsy cob, noted for its comfort, and enjoy a gentle canter through the quietude of the boreens, or stony paths, of the Burren Way with views out to the Aran Islands.
Killarney Lakes, County Kerry
Some say that the best things come in threes. This saying holds water, literally, with the stunning trio of Killarney’s famed lakes: Lough Leane (lower), Muckross (middle), and the Upper Lake. Celebrated in song and poetry, the most serene is the mountain-ringed Lough Leane, with small, uninhabited islands and a restored castle. The lakes and woodland are in an area that extends to nearly 25,000 acres and is designated a national park. Flourishing profusely are oak and yew trees alongside Mediterranean plants such as the arbutus, or strawberry tree, named for its red edible fruit. You can reach one of the wooded islets, Inisfallen, by rowboat, where between AD 950 and 1350 The Annals of Inisfallen, a chronicle of global and Irish history, was written by monks. Today the island holds the remains of an abbey and is inhabited by a very special aura.
INSIDER TIPTo truly experience these atmospheric lakes, book an organized tour or half-day cruise and capture them in evanescent summer light.
Giant’s Causeway, County Antrim
In the eyes of the 18th-century writer Dr. Samuel Johnson, the Giant’s Causeway was “worth seeing … but not worth going to see.” Despite this dis, hundreds of thousands of visitors make the trek each year to the north Antrim coast to explore the phenomenon of a UNESCO World Heritage site where history and folklore coalesce. No fewer than 40,000 basalt stone columns—most hexagonal but some pentagonal—were formed by volcanic eruptions 60 million years ago. Or, perhaps they were formed as a result of a fight between Irish and Scottish giants. Either way, they have left a distinctive mark today in stone formations given names by early guides such as the Camel, Wishing Chair, Harp, and Organ. Take a seat, gaze out to the moody ocean, and make up your own mind on this geological curiosity.
INSIDER TIPArriving by public transport entitles you to a reduction in the admission price. Leave your visit until late afternoon when it’s less busy.
Ben Bulben, County Sligo
Seen from a distance, the striking, flat-topped profile of Ben Bulben, steeped in myth and history, resembles the capsized hull of a ship and is sometimes called “Table Mountain.” The epicenter of the Sligo landscape for miles around, this is the best-known Irish mountain because it is inextricably linked to W. B. Yeats, the country’s most illustrious poet. Ben Bulben, sometimes spelled Benbulbin or Benbulben, is the Anglicization of the Irish Binn Ghulbain: binn means peak and gulbain means jaw, so Binn Ghulbain literally translates to beak or jaw peak. With its vertical gullies, it is a steep scramble to the top and is best approached in the company of a local guide from the gently sloping south side. On the summit plateau at 1,725 feet views look across a wondrous landscape that is known as “Yeats Country.” You may prefer to remain at the bottom, where under the mountain’s shadow stands Yeats’s gravestone with the immortal words: “Cast a cold eye on life on death, horseman pass by.” One of the poet’s last acts was to dictate corrections to a poem he had written about Ben Bulben.
Slieve League Cliffs, County Donegal
Imagine a remote hilltop where you humble yourself before the ocean and sky. Such a place is Slieve League, home to the highest cliffs in Ireland and one of the west coast’s most spectacular sights. The views are especially rewarding if you take the Pilgrims Walk, a challenging trail of 45 minutes (twice that if muddy) along a coastal path to the summit; but tread carefully as the weather can quickly close in, bringing rain, mist, and wind—even snow. The harrowing One Man’s Pass is aptly named, with a narrow track that ribbons its way steeply to the top. When (okay, if) the sun shines, the cliffs are suffused with the tones of mineral deposits in amber, white, and red along with outstanding panoramic views across the bay.
Hill of Tara, County Meath
Long, undulating lines of earthworks, grassy banks, and ditches make up the fascinating Hill of Tara. While somewhat unspectacular at first sight, you quickly discover a landscape of myth and legend. Tara is a many-sided place where archaeology and history overlap and fascinate. Its monuments include a passage tomb, a henge, and standing stones, ranging in date from 3500 BC to AD 400. Tradition states that Tara was the inauguration site of the High Kings of Ireland, but it was also a place of protest. Molly Weston, who helped organize the United Irishmen in 1798, rode into battle here on a white horse. 45 years later, the nationalist leader Daniel O’Connell’s monster repeal meeting of 1843 reportedly hosted 1 million people here. On Easter Sunday 1916, Tara was the focal point for Meath volunteers who mobilized here in preparation for the Easter Rising but went into hiding because of instructions that it had been called off. From the top of the hill, beside the Lia Fáil or Stone of Destiny, you can take in the countryside of the Boyne Valley and see hills in each of the four Irish provinces. While you appreciate the landscape, be sure to also soak in the mythscape as you wander the area.
Clew Bay, County Mayo
The island-studded Clew Bay, sitting hard by the Atlantic coastline, is made up of scores of tiny dots which, from a distance, look like sleeping whales, snakes, dragons, or an upturned curragh (a traditional boat with a wooden frame). The best place to get a feel for the scale of the bay and its reputed 365 islands—although no one is certain of the authenticity of that number—is from the Great Western Greenway walking and cycling route along the line of an old railway track. From here, if your luck is in and the sun is shining, you can survey the panoramic image of beach, bay, islands, and the conical peak of Croagh Patrick, Ireland’s holy mountain. On the last Sunday in July, thousands of people climb it barefoot, so if you prefer avoiding crowds, choose another day. In the late 1960s, John Lennon bought Dorinish Island, which he planned to turn into a hideaway. When Yoko Ono arrived, she was swooped on by nesting terns and solemnly vowed never to return. Lennon later agreed to allow hippies to establish a commune on the island. The story is now a small part of the rich tapestry and checkered history of one of Ireland’s most outstanding natural spectacles.
MacGillycuddy’s Reeks, County Kerry
At the heart of the ancient (yet newly-christened) Reeks district of Kerry, Carrauntoohil is part of the oldest red sandstone mountains in Europe and the highest point in Ireland. For walkers, this prominent mountain on the Iveragh Peninsula has an inexhaustible allure but is dangerous in the fickle and often treacherous weather conditions of snow, sleet, and rain.
It is a truly magical experience to get up close to these jagged peaks, glacial lakes, babbling streams, and fields ablaze with yellow gorse and wildflowers. As you stand at 3,414 feet, Ireland’s highest point, your reward for the effort is some of the country’s most breathtaking scenery. Another way of exploring the Ring of Reeks is by car or bicycle. A 90-km (56-mile) route takes in not only Carrauntoohil but also Ireland’s next two highest mountains: Beenkeragh and Caher, as well as the Gap of Dunloe, where you may come across another mode of transport, the splendid horse-drawn cars, known as jarveys.
INSIDER TIPIf you are inexperienced, the best way to tackle the Reeks is to hire a qualified guide or tag along with a group of walkers from Killarney.
Dún Briste Sea Stack, County Mayo
The squabbling of the thousands of seabirds who make their nests on Dún Briste’s rugged limestone sea stack, which separated from the mainland in 1393, is reminiscent of children in a playground. In spring and summer, this glorious site at Downpatrick Head is approached through a carpet of pink sea flowers in an area known locally as the “land of the salty wind.” The name Dún Briste means “broken fort,” and the 150-foot-high cliffs include a rock formation more than 350 million years old.
The summit of the stack contains the remains of buildings where people once lived, but today these flat-topped cliffs are only home to an array of cliff-hugging guillemots, kittiwakes, cormorants, fulmars, and common gulls. Some even have their own positioning quirks on the layered shelves: the colonies of kittiwakes, for example, keep to the narrow guano-spattered ledges, while the guillemots occupy the broader shelves, favoring more space. An atmospheric place with a remarkable resonance, the susurration of the wind will linger long in your memory after a visit.
INSIDER TIPThe path uphill to the headland leads to a landscape installation, “The Crossing,” created around a blowhole by the influential American architect Travis Price and part of his “Spirit of the Place” project.
Powerscourt Waterfall, County Wicklow
Awe-inspiring Powerscourt, the biggest waterfall in Ireland (England, too), is a dazzling sight, leaping and splashing in a frenzy across the rock face. At nearly 398 feet, it stands in a valley on the River Dargle near the foot of the Wicklow Mountains and has inspired writers and painters for centuries. Some of the trees surrounding it, such as the giant redwoods native to California, are dwarfed by it since they are still a long way from rivaling its height.
The waterfall is 6 km (4 miles) from the Powerscourt House and Gardens, and after you have grabbed your photo opportunity and sampled the spray, it is worth strolling along the winding pathways here. Keep an eye out for the avenue of monkey puzzle trees and the exquisitely colorful and scented Japanese garden with its pagoda, Chinese fortune palms, and a trickling stream. It is an ideal spot for a picnic, so bring along a basket of fruits and treats. You may come across finches and warblers as well as red squirrels and Sika deer, which were introduced to Ireland in 1858.