Travel Writing by Cory Hanson

Lost in the Heather


Looking south from Dublin, the smooth, rolling peaks of the Wicklow Mountains swell on the near horizon. This chain of relatively short and very accessible hills stretches down much of Ireland southeastern coast, its peaks covered in scrubby, purple bog heather and its valleys dotted with lakes of black water.

The most iconic of the peaks visible from Dublin is that of the Great Sugarloaf. The characteristic rolled summit makes it look rather like a melting ice cream cone. A quick hike to the top on the mountain’s smooth, easy south side is a popular pastime on a sunny day, but the southern trailhead is a bit tricky to reach with public transport alone. Luckily (we thought), another trail—much longer than the direct climb—begins on the mountain’s north side, near the village of Kilmacanogue, and is easily accessible by Dublin Bus. On a warm summer Sunday, we joined the swarm of other Dubliners heading out of town for some outdoor adventure.

Great Sugarloaf Peak, Dublin

Looking Up

We arrived at Kilmacanogue in the late morning, after a long bus and train ride. The trailhead was, according to our research, behind the village Gaelic games fields. There, we found what looked like a well-maintained trail, and jumped on. The peak of the mountain looked a bit more daunting from its base than it does when seen from Dublin more than ten miles away, but we weren’t worried. We’d take our time on this nice trail winding its way over the north face of the hill.

Very suddenly the trail led us to a squishy swamp—the high bogland for which the Wicklows are so famous—and disappeared. We slogged through the muck, looking for the trail. Several sheep paths looked promising, but led to dead ends. Frustrated, we looked up to the peak—we weren’t lost, we had simply lost the well-maintained trail, if there was indeed such a trail on this side. We inadvisably turned ninety degrees up the face of the hill, clambering over loose rubble and through fields of bog heather, dangerously hiding ankle-breaking holes.

After a tricky half-hour, we found ourselves only a few dozen yards from the peak—and back on a clear walking track. What a relief it was to know that we would at least have a safe way back down this deceptively treacherous mountain. Spotting some other hikers, we quickened our pace to meet them and ask for directions—both up and down. This trail met up with the short, well-used trail on the south face, and we could see kids and family dogs bounding up to the top—a bit disheartening after our struggle.

Just Shy of the Summit Great Sugarloaf

Just Shy of the Summit

Once safely at the top, we knew it was all worth it; the views of Dublin, the sea, and the rest of the Wicklow range were stunning. Had the day been a bit less hazy, we would have been able to see the peak of Snowdon in Wales, just across the Irish Sea from Dublin.

Looking North to Dublin Sugarloaf Peak

Looking North to Dublin

The journey back to Kilmacanogue was less harrowing, but not quite worry-free. The trail was well worn on the upper stretches of the mountain, but became less so after a series of forks connecting this route to other trailheads. Soon, we found ourselves losing confidence in our own path, and wondering when it, too, would dump us into a bog and vanish. Thankfully, we kept our way all the way to the sports complex…and found ourselves emerging from a trailhead on the other side of the pitches! This trailhead had been hidden by a parked truck when we had first arrived. We had been started our walk on the wrong trail, and had fallen further victim to lack of signage on the route—and our own lack of a good map.

Company on the Way Down Sugarloaf, Dublin

Company on the Way Down

Tired, relieved, wet with bog water, and proud of our accomplishment, we hoofed it back to the village to catch our bus for the long ride home.

Nuts and Bolts

  • Hiking the Great Sugarloaf is a great experience, and the well-worn south face trail is quite manageable for most of its length—the last stretch requires some scrambling and climbing. The north face—even when on the correct trail—is much less traveled, and is not well marked. If tackling the Kilmacanogue trail, make sure to allow several hours and bring along a good map.
  • A map and/or familiarity with this part of the country will also help in identifying some of the sights from the peak. Look for the Gardens of Powerscourt, Bray Head, Killiney Hill, and some of the other famous Wicklow peaks.
  • Other, easier hikes in and around Dublin can be found in Howth and Bray, both on the DART line and both walks are safe and accessible, even for tourists. See my free eBook, The Frugal Guide: Dublin for more information about those hikes.

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