Most travelers wouldn't associate Ireland with long distance hiking. (Or really any significant outdoor recreation for that matter, at least not at first thought.) Instead, people think of quaint villages, endless emerald hillsides, dramatic shorelines, ancient stone structures, thick brogues, thicker James Joyce novels, creamy pints of Guinness and.. well, sheep.
All of these quintessentially Irish elements are reason enough to visit, but for anyone that does wish to venture beyond the typical Irish experience, it’s worth packing the hiking gear.
Over the past several decades Irish hiking clubs and generous landowners have pieced together several long distance trails across some of Ireland's most stunning regions, and County Kerry's famous Kerry Way may be the most stunning of them all.
The entire length of the trail is 135-150 miles (divided into 9 or 10 sections) and roughly follows the "Ring of Kerry," a popular driving circuit around the Iveragh Peninsula—one of Ireland's must-see destinations. Even many years after its completion, the Kerry Way remains a well-kept secret among European distance hiking destinations. Traffic on the trail is low enough to offer total solitude (especially in late fall and early spring), a perk that other popular European trails cannot offer.
The Kerry Way began forming in the 1980s with the purpose of connecting some of Ireland’s most spectacular scenery by means of thousand year old footpaths, while supplementing with farm roads and double-track paths when single-track wasn’t available.
The goal was quite ambitious. The remnants of innumerable stone walls built over the course of several centuries, as well as the existence of newly formed farmland and private property made creating a straight path through the hilly Kerry terrain virtually impossible. This resulted in a constantly changing path and hundreds of fence stiles to pass between properties and onto trail, road, or field sections. European distance trails are often heavily segmented with paved roads or jaunts through villages, and the Kerry Way is the perfect embodiment of this trend; around 35-40% of the hike's length follows small roads of some sort.
Stages 1-3: Killarney-Glenbeigh
Starting in Killarney, a beautiful lakeside town right outside of Killarney National Park, the Kerry Way passes into the park and works upward through a gorgeous moorland landscape. The last native population of Red Deer, a species of large deer that once widely roamed the island, populate the mountains of Killarney National Park and, during the fall, can be heard bugling from high in the hills during their rut.
Moving from Killarney National Park, the Kerry Way passes through MacGillycuddy's Reeks, the highest mountains in the country, and moves west towards the coast. Glenbeigh is a small village where supplies can be found and the coastal hiking begins.
Stages 4-6: Glenbeigh-Caherdaniel
The miles between Glenbeigh and Caherdaniel will be full of scenic views over County Kerry’s famous farmland and the ocean. Waterville, reached at the end of Stage 5, is a small town where views of Skellig Michael, a jagged island hosting a World Heritage Site ancient monastic settlement, can first be seen.
There are several castles and 1,000+ year old circular stone forts to be seen along these stages. After passing Waterville, a stone fort can be seen downhill from the trail just before crossing the Ring Road, and another, more elaborate and worthwhile stone fort (actually, there are two) can be seen in Cahersiveen. Cahersiveen is actually a 5-mile out and back from the Kerry Way’s loop, but is very worthwhile in order to enjoy some luxuries like a coffee shop/pub and to see the stone forts and castle just across the river from town. Some of the most fantastic views of the entire hike can be found between Waterville and Caherdaniel, so keep your camera handy!
Stages 7-9: Caherdaniel-Killarney
Leaving Caherdaniel, the Kerry Way works through rolling farmland towards Sneem, a quaint and colorful village worthy of a lengthy break. Many small bed and breakfasts and cafes encircle one of two main “squares” of the village, and it’s not uncommon to see weathered old Irish men in their tweed walking caps leading herds of sheep through town.
The Way continues from Sneem back towards Kenmare and the mountains. Kenmare may be the most scenic village of the entire hike (and possibly in all of Ireland) with dozens of browse-worthy boutiques, restaurants, and plenty of traditional Irish pubs. The trail leaving Kenmare, although a massive incline at first, gives some truly spectacular views of Killarney National Park. A quick 16 miles later the trail ends back in Killarney, where you may continue your Irish adventure.
Tips and Tricks
- Maps: Maps can be found in several stores in Killarney, but the trail is so incredibly well marked you would be mostly fine without one. You can expect a trail marker every 30 minutes, but much of the trail has markers more frequently than this.
- Food: There are plenty of stores along the Way to stock up on food. You can feel comfortable carrying two days of food at a time.
- Boots and Clothes: You will need waterproof everything! Irish weather is very temperamental and this creates a muddy trail much of the time. Your feet will thank you for wearing nice boots and your morale will appreciate some quality rain gear.
- Camping/Housing: There are very few sections of the Kerry Way where camping is possible without asking permission from a farmer or checking into a “campground.” There are plenty of bed and breakfasts if you are interested in staying indoors at the end of your days, but if not you will need to ask permission to camp in fields.
- Getting There: Frequent inexpensive buses can be found from Dublin to Killarney if you do not have a rental car.