The small town of Killarney in southwest Ireland is more than just the subject of a cheesy Christmas song; it is one of Ireland’s best hubs from which to launch your Irish outdoor adventures — and I don’t just mean a bus tour around the Ring of Kerry.
True, this day-long loop of the nearby Iveragh Peninsula is one of the country’s top attractions, but those heading out in a jam-packed bus often overlook the top-notch exploring adventures awaiting them in Killarney National Park, maybe just a few steps from their chain hotel on the edge of town.
The northeast corner of the park — just over a wall on the west side of Killarney town — is a wide, flat former estate garden crisscrossed with well-kept walking trails. The most popular route begins at the park entrance near Saint Mary’s Cathedral and continues through the floodplain of Lough Leane to Ross Castle.
This fifteenth-century stronghold, long abandoned but now restored, enjoys one of the best views in the park — and that’s saying something. Poke around the castle walls, looking out over the lake to Innisfallen, a tiny island of great historical and religious importance. If you care to, arrange a ferry ride to the island to explore the ruins of a seventh-century monastery and a series of later centers of monastic life and study.
Take the car or the bike farther around the lake south of town to one of the entrances to Muckross. Hop on one of the trails and follow signs first for Muckross Abbey, a very well-presented example of an Irish religious ruin. Be respectful of the still-active graveyard as you explore the ruins, finding the chapel sanctuary and climbing to the dormitories and tower of the upper floors. The yew tree planted in the inner courtyard is an ancient Irish symbol of life and rebirth, and such trees are common in local cemeteries. The tiny limestone stalactites dripping from the doorways are a reminder to us all that nothing — not even something built of strong stone — lasts forever.
Continue on to Muckross House, the fancy manor of the wealthy family who once owned the lands of the national park. The house is open for tours, but walkers can simply enjoy the impressive gardens before moving on.
The tour buses on their way back from a drive around the Ring of Kerry nearly all stop for a quick look at Torc Waterfall. And why not? It’s a convenient, accessible look at a beautiful cascade as the Owengarriff River drops from the slopes of the mountains into the lakes below.
But the trail continues past the crowds posing for selfies in front of the waterfall, and able walkers can hike one of several well-marked loop trails on the mountainside for good views of the lower lakes and Killarney town. More ambitious hikers with proper boots and a map can ascend all the way to the summit of Torc Mountain for a spectacular panorama of Ross Castle, Muckross, the town, and the lakes.
The Gap of Dunloe
Skip the queues waiting for the horse-and-carriage rides through this classic tourist route and strap on your walking shoes instead. This mountain valley road at the foot of Tomies and Purple Mountain has been a popular draw for more than a hundred years, running seven miles along a series of connected lakes from Kate Kearney’s Cottage to Lord Brandon’s Cottage at the foot of the Ladies’ View.
If walking, set off early to avoid the worst of the crowds and take your time exploring some of the side trails on the surrounding hills. Exercise caution when following the road, as touring cars can appear around bends in the narrow road without warning. Free parking is available at Kate Kearney’s for there-and-back walkers with a car; full-lengthers can arrange a boat ride from Ross Castle to Lord Brandon’s, walk the Gap south–north, and catch a taxi from Kate’s.
Next time you’ll be visiting County Kerry, consider swapping the bus tour for the walking boots to see some of the country’s most historic and beautiful places on quiet trails away from the crowds shuffling through gift shops on the Ring.