Killarney, the quintessential Irish town, boasts bright, vibrant and bustling streets and an adjacent national park with trails for hiking, biking, horseback riding and mountain climbing. Here’s how to experience it all!
Traveling to Killarney is like stepping into a movie. The enchanting, multicolored restaurants and storefronts — and the cheery locals inside — transport you to the opening scene in “Beauty and the Beast”, when Gaston chases a singing Belle down their town’s lovely little main street. (Minus the Gaston. OK, and minus the singing – basically everyone in Killarney is friendly, and the city is an all-beauty, no-beast fairytale.)
Step outside the city center into Killarney National Park, and you’re immediately on the Hogwarts Express, traveling through miles upon miles of emerald beauty. Now (settle down, HP trivia buffs – cough, my boyfriend, cough), the Hogwarts Express technically drove through the Scotland Highlands, but my trip to the beautiful city of Killarney — my first solo trip ever! — was filled with nothing short of Harry Potter magic.
If you love animals and love nature (like yours truly), then sometimes the best way to see a new city or national park is on the back of a horse. This was my first introduction to Killarney, and it was a great way to take in the scenery, meet new people and fall in love with my mischievous black sheep of a horse.
After landing in the Kerry Airport, I took a cab over to the Killarney Riding Stables for an introductory horseback riding lesson through the absolutely stunning Killarney National Park. We trotted through fields, galloped through forests and often rode in stunned silence, astonished by the 360-degree kerry-green fields and striking mountains that surrounded us.
When my jaw wasn’t hitting the floor astonished at Killarney’s beauty, I chatted with another solo rider from Limerick, Ireland. While we never exchanged contact information or met again, it always amazes me how those conversations – with the stunning backdrop of Ireland, and on horseback, mind you – stick with you forever.
Meeting new people, whether locals or fellow travelers, is one of the most valuable parts of globetrotting.
Killarney National Park Bike Ride
Killarney boasts some of Ireland’s best bicycling routes, including a 17-mile route that takes you:
- Through an area called the Gap of Dunloe,
- Along the Ring of Kerry,
- Up to Lord Brandon’s Cottage, a little cafe and shop, where you can catch a boat with your bike back through the Killarney National Park lakes,
- With a drop off at the 15th century Ross Castle, which is a quick two miles from town.
Sounds incredible, right? It was. But, it was also terrifying.
While I had “planned” (ha) this whole cycling trip through and through, I failed to look at the forecast. So, a good hour after leaving the bike rental shop in Killarney, I found myself cycling between the unexpectedly hilly Gap of Dunloe in the pouring rain.
Paper map in my pocket? See ya, any semblance of directions. Rain jacket? Yeah, guess I should confirm “water resistant” before buying.
But I persisted (looking absolutely pathetic while doing so), and pushed through the Gap of Dunloe, got lost along the Ring of Kerry, accidentally trespassed onto a farmer’s land – only to get chased away by a growling dog, and finally found my way to Lord Brandon’s Cottage.
I was terrified, slightly trembling for a solid three hours of this ride, but, as I (knock on wood) always do, I somehow figured it out. And to me, getting lost and finding my way despite challenges (The Wanderlost Way!) leads to better memories and stories than any tour bus can provide.
Climb Carrauntoohil Peak
If you’re like me, and love checking the “climbed the tallest mountain in X country” off your list, then you must take a stab at Carrauntoohil Peak — Ireland’s tallest mountain at 3,414 feet. Carrauntoohil Peak is part of Ireland’s tallest mountain range, McGillicuddy’s Reeks.
While I’m all Wanderlost Way all the time, I’m also a realist, and know that Mother Nature uses mountains to teach foolish adventurers a lesson. That’s why I’d always suggest hiring a local mountain climbing guide.
I went with a guide from Outdoors Ireland, an Irish-based adventure travel company that I’d highly recommend, and one fellow climber. The guide picked us up at a coffee shop in downtown Killarney for a quick fuel up before the big climb.
I have a number of international climbs under my belt, but Carrauntoohil Peak still remains one of the most interesting. The hour hike to the mountain’s base was, as you’d imagine, stunning, filled with eerily quiet, foggy lakes bordered by lavish fields of emerald. Once we reached the mountain, though, the terrain was another story. And this story’s name was Bog.
A bog is wet, muddy ground that can’t fully support the weight of humans, therefore if you step in it, you’ll sink down two to three feet. We spent the three-hour climb up dodging these bogs, viewing the scenery only during breaks because a misstep could get you stuck knee deep in bog.
Once past the bogs and onto dirt and rocks, it’s only a short climb up to the peak. Unfortunately when we made it to the top, that quintessential Irish fog took over in full force so we couldn’t see a thing. But hey, what is Ireland without some fog and rain?
On the way down, the clouds broke for us, unveiling incredible, kerry-green and ocean-blue hues, from Killarney all the way out to Dingle, blending into the horizon.
Door to door, the trip took a full day, but if the mountains in Killarney are calling your name as loudly as they did mine, then I’d say a full-day trip is definitely worth the time spent.
Know before you go
If you’re going for an afternoon or evening stroll in Killarney National Park, get familiar with the sunset times. On my first evening hike, I went way too far in, way too late, and eventually had to run to the exit in my Minnetonkas to avoid getting completely lost in the dark. That tends to happen to me a lot, so don’t let it happen to you!
Have you visited Killarney? What spots would you recommend?