Our Epic Killarney Quest: 1) March through the Gap of Dunloe; 2) Navigate the Three Lakes; 3) Storm Ross Castle!

Today our party of ten split into two groups of five, then one of those groups divided yet again. Sound confusing? It turned out to be a fairly simple plan that accommodated a wide range of desires and activities; I’m lucky to travel with a group that’s so flexible! Everyone wanted to head towards Killarney but one group was super-psyched to drive the Ring of Kerry and see sights along the way.

Amazing vista near the west end of the Ring of Kerry by Bray Head

That’s one heck of a long day in the car so the rest of us opted for an abbreviated itinerary in the same vicinity. Our car stopped shy of Killarney at Kate Kearney’s Cottage where Karen and I hopped out to hike the Gap of Dunloe and then catch a boat to Ross Castle. Mom, David and Uncle Bill stopped for lunch in Killarney, took in the stunning scenery from Ladies View, toured Muckross House, and finished the day at Ross Castle where the five of us converged for the drive home. The plan worked like clockwork! Chris already wrote an article about his Ring of Kerry adventure; I’m finally getting around to documenting my fabulous day with Karen and crew.

Hiking the Gap of Dunloe

I can see why this area is so popular; it’s simply gorgeous. Once again I would classify this as more of a “nice walk” than a hike, with paved road, a gentle grade, and only one decent hill over the 11 km route that stretches between Kate Kearney’s Cottage and Lord Brandon’s Cottage. Google Maps estimates 2 1/2 hours to walk and that’s just about what it took us, although we lingered over our picnic lunch along the way. We started walking at 11:15am and reached Lord Brandon’s at 1:45pm just before our boat shoved off at 2:00pm.

Just starting our hike through the Dunloe Gap

There are many ways to explore the Gap of Dunloe; choose your poison:

  • Catch a boat from Ross Castle to Lord Brandon’s Cottage, then travel the Gap from south to north
  • Arrange for a car, taxi, or coach to Kate Kearney’s Cottage, then travel the Gap from north to south
  • Traverse the Gap between the two cottages by walking, riding a bicycle, riding horseback, or hiring a pony & trap (a horse drawn carriage).

We saw LOTS of folks riding horseback through the Gap

Check out the Killarney Day Tours website to get a feel for how much each option costs. Karen and I each paid €15 for our boat ride; we could have gotten a 10% discount for online booking, but made our reservation last minute over the phone. We saw plenty of people enjoying themselves with each mode of transportation, but found ourselves cringing for those who got more (or less) than they bargained for. In general, we noted:

  • Horses can be slow; we passed a few on foot.
  • The pony & traps jaunt along merrily until they encounter any kind of uphill grade, then they get slow. Slower than walkers. We passed a few on foot.
  • Unless you really like to climb hills, bicycles are not a good idea. There’s only one hill of note, but it’s a doozy for a bike. If you really want to ride, go from Kate Kearney’s to Lord Brandon’s; the reverse could have inexperienced cyclists cursing. I’m in decent shape and I know I’d be walking my bike for a good chunk if traveling from Lord Brandon’s to Kate Kearney’s. Of course once you’re past the hill, it’s a fabulous ride.

A lush valley in the Gap of Dunloe

Be forewarned that the road is popular and can be quite congested with bicyclists, horses, etc. Most folks are on a schedule though, trying to catch transportation at one end or the other. People appeared in clumps which left plenty of time to walk solo and enjoy the peaceful setting.

If you’re planning to pack a lunch, have your picnic between Kate Kearney’s and the crest of the big hill. There are fences along both sides of the road for much of the walk between Lord Brandon’s and the crest; they effectively eliminate road-side rest stops. Bathrooms and refreshments are available at both Kate Kearney’s and Lord Brandon’s.

Location: Start (or end) at Kate Kearney’s Cottage, 13 km west of Killarney, County Kerry; GPS: 52.04031, –9.63161.
Hours: Access is not controlled; hike whenever you like
Cost: Free to hike
Mileage: 11 km (6.8 miles)

Cruising the Three Lakes

I can’t think of a nicer place to be on a fine day, and what a day we had: blue skies, high 60s, light breeze…perfection. Karen and I arrived at Lord Brandon’s Cottage at 1:45pm as directed. We had just enough time to use the restroom and look around briefly before our skipper loaded us and ten other passengers into his wooden motor boat and shoved off. We left promptly at 2:00pm and pulled up to Ross Castle at 3:00pm. Although traveling at a sedate speed, the hour-long cruise flew by.

Our entertaining skipper, preparing our boat for loading

We marveled at rugged mountains and picturesque islands while cruising through Upper Lake, Muckross Lake and Lough Leane. We slowed briefly at the Meeting of the Waters where the three lakes meet, then “shot the rapids” under the Old Weir Bridge. Our captain kept up a steady banter relaying history, telling tall tales (beware the teezy-weezies!), and pointing out sights along the way.

The view as we traverse Upper Lake on our way to Muckross Lake and ultimately Lough Leane

Karen and I agreed that the trip was well worth the €15 price tag. I am smiling now just thinking of the gentle sun, smooth glassy water, and the sneaky smile on our captain’s face as he spun a yarn in his charming (and sometimes incomprehensible) Irish accent. Priceless.

Our skipper waves farewell after dropping us off at Ross Castle

Location: Start (or end) at Lord Brandon’s Cottage, at the west end of Upper Lake, County Kerry; GPS: 51.9801, –9.62169.
Hours: Check with a tour operator (we used Killarney Day Tours) and be sure to book ahead to ensure a spot on the boat.
Cost: We paid €15 per person, but could have received a 10% discount for booking online

Exploring Ross Castle

Our timing was spot-on today. The boat dropped us in front of Ross Castle at 3:00pm, plenty of time to join the next tour at 3:30pm. I’m not exactly sure why this is one of my favorite castles; I think it’s the combination of location - right on the lovely Lough Leane - and its careful restoration. Most castles, abbeys, priories and other historic sites across Ireland stand with rough, unfinished stone walls. Ross Castle on the other hand, has a whitewashed interior and has been filled with 16th and 17th century oak furniture. In this castle more than any other, I can picture what life might have been like in a late-medieval times.

Approaching Ross Castle by boat

Our OPW tour guide was informative and entertaining as always (I’ve had good luck with tour guides this trip), but also had a special way with the children on our tour; she reached out to them with fun facts about the riveted oak doors, spiral staircases, arrow slits, machicolations (aka murder holes) and garderobes. I think we would have heard the same information regardless, but the presentation had me looking at the castle through the eyes of a child. Boy would it be fun to have the place to ourselves!

Ross Castle

One final note: Ross Castle was built in the late 15th century by the O’Donoghue clan. It’s said that one of the O’Donoghue chieftains still sleeps beneath the waters of Lough Leane. He arises on May 1st once every seven years to ride around the lake on his magnificent white horse, and anyone who catches sight of him is assured lifelong good fortune. Perhaps I should plan my next visit for early May…

The view of Lough Leane from the top floor of Ross Castle

Location: 3 km southwest of Killarney, County Kerry; GPS: 52.04124, –9.53143
Hours: Visit OPW’s Heritage Ireland site for seasonal hours
Cost: €4 per adult; concessions available; free with OPW Heritage Card