If you’re visiting the Emerald Isle and certainly if you’re arriving via Dublin, then a venture into the Wicklow Mountains is compulsory (or should be!) As you head south from your Dublin holiday cottage to County Wicklow, you’ll barely leave the city limits before the landscape starts to change dramatically.
The 40km journey along the spine of the Wicklow Mountains is an awe-inspiring sight filled with vast sweeps of heather-clad moors and dotted with small corrie lakes.
A bit of handy geology and geography here: The Wicklow Mountains are the largest area of continuous high ground in the whole of Ireland, with an unbroken area of over 500 km2 (190sq miles) rising to some 300 metres (980 ft). The breathtaking range occupies the centre of County Wicklow extending into the counties of Dublin, Carlow and Wexford.
The mountains are formed into several distinct groups: Kippure in the north, on the boundary of Dublin and Wicklow; Djouce, Tonelagee, Camaderry and Lugnaquilla in the centre; Church Mountain and Keadeen in the west; and Croghan Kinsella to the south. To the east, separated from the rest of the range by the Vartry Plateau, is a group of peaks comprising the Great Sugar Loaf, Little Sugar Loaf and Bray Head.
At 924 metres, the highest peak in the range is Lugnaquilla. More of a hill than a mountain, Lugnaquilla is none-the-less awe-inspiring; a vast expanse of granite mass with an up-welling of molten rock which solidified some 400 million years ago. In between the mountains, there are deep glacial valleys – most notably Glenmacnass, Glenmalure and Glendalough – while corrie lakes (circular lakes formed by glaciers) such as Lough Bray Upper and Lower, and Lough Tay, give the landscape its distinctive wild topography.
The best way to experience this vast and lush area is to pick up The Wicklow Way – one of the most spectacular walks in Ireland through and beyond the Wicklow Mountains National Park. The 20,000-hectare haven was established in the early 1990s as one of only six National Parks in Ireland. Its primary purpose is the protection of the natural habitats - as the largest continuous upland region in Ireland, the Wicklow Mountains supports a plethora of flora and fauna, from mammals, birds and reptiles, to centuries-old woodland and an abundance of wildflowers.
Glendalough is one of the best-known areas of the National Park, its rich history, scenic beauty and abundant wildlife attracts thousands of visitors every year. The Upper and Lower Lakes of Glendalough give the area its name - the original Irish was Glen dá Locha, meaning ‘the valley of the two lakes’.
Most famously, Glendalough marks the site of an ancient monastery believed to have been established by St. Kevin in the 6th Century and is home to some of Wicklow’s best surviving examples of native broadleaved woodland. There’s a Visitor’s Centre situated there, and whilst the ancient site is free to view, there’s a paid-entry exhibition on at the Centre.
There are some stunning walking routes across Glendalough. The National Park has nine way-marked walking trails around the valley, which vary from a half hour stroll to a four-hour hill-walk. The Wicklow Way crosses through the valley, and the St. Kevin’s Way, a pilgrim path, finishes at Glendalough.
If you’ve time for a little light distraction from the trail, Glendalough is also home to the Irish Working Sheepdogs at Annamoe – pop along and watch the action (does what it says on the tin!)
Alongside Glendalough, Lough Tay is one of the most photographed locations in Wicklow. The stunning scenery of the lake surrounded by the mountains makes it one of the most iconic locations in Ireland.
Lough Tay is fed by the Cloghoge River and then drains into Lough Dan, located to the south. The beach on the northern side is bright white sand. Allegedly, it was imported by the Guinness family whose estate runs through part of the Lough Tay area. The shape of the lake with the with the white sand at the top makes it look like a Pint of Guinness!
The best viewing point to see Lough Tay is along the Military Road above, at the junction with the Wicklow Way. From there, enjoy some of the most stunning views of the Wicklow Mountains.
The hauntingly desolate Glenmacnass valley is a stretch of wild bogland between the Sally Gap crossroads and Laragh. It’s one of the most erringly beautiful parts of the range and boasts the second-highest mountain, Mullaghcleevaun (849m) to the west.
Now, the Glenmacnass Waterfall is a sight to behold! Its presence marks the beginning of the Glenmacnass valley which ends near the village of Laragh. The river itself begins high up on the south-east quadrant of Mullaghcleevaun mountain, flowing down the surrounding mountains to the waterfall top. The fall itself consists of three staggered drops and continues through the valley to join the river Avonmore at Laragh. Further down, it’s joined by the river Avonbeg to become the river Avoca and eventually flows into the Irish Sea at the coastal town of Arklow.
If hiking is your thing, then there’s nothing to beat the tried and trusty track between the towns of Bray and Greystones. Bray Head is hugely popular with walkers; the summit offers spectacular views of the coast from Bray to Dublin.
As you move through the diverse and distracting terrain, you’ll understand why Bray Head is of huge ecological importance and designated as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC). The principal habitat across much of the upper area is heath, which is listed under the EU Habitats Directive. The vegetation consists primarily of gorse, Bell Heather, small shrubs and trees, and the ‘Red Data Book’ species of the broom. In areas that are less dominated by shrubs, you’ll be treated to a variety of interesting grasses such as Heath Bedstraw, Milkwort, Sheep’s-bit Scabious and Tormentil flourish.
Once you get to Greystones, you’ve earned a hearty feast! There’s little better way to refuel than a table at The Harbour Cafe for fine local fayre at this well-loved family-run eatery!
There’s no wrong way to experience the Wicklow Mountains! By car, on foot or using a local guide, you’ll be proud and happy to have done it!