The 50 Greatest Walks of the World - Barry Stone (2016)
31. KERRY WAY
County Kerry, Ireland
Distance: 214 km
Time: 9 days
The Iveragh Peninsula in County Kerry is the largest peninsula in southwest Ireland. And it is also a place of legends, filled with place names like Lough Brin and Bealach Oisin that hark back to the Fianna, a curious mix of landless warriors and young aristocrats from Irish mythology who roamed these lands waiting for their inheritance. The peninsula also contains the tallest mountain summit in Ireland - Carrauntoohil (3,406 ft) - itself surrounded by hundreds of other peaks within the inland Macgillycuddy’s Reeks mountain range, beneath the summits of which you’ll come to know the beauty of this diverse peninsula in a way those in cars, driving the more-or-less parallel Ring of Kerry driving route, could never imagine.
A National Waymarked Trail, the Kerry Way is one of Ireland’s most demanding walks as it takes you along a mix of old coach roads and long-abandoned pathways the Irish call boreens on a journey that packs an accumulated ascent over the course of its 214 km in excess of 13,000 ft. Needless to say, this is not a walk for the faint-hearted.
It begins in the popular tourist town of Killarney on the northeastern shore of Loch Leane and follows the arc of Castlelough Bay through a deciduous woodland and past 19th-century Muckross House, completed in 1843 and visited by Queen Victoria in 1861. You’re now at your first ‘discretionary’ juncture - a 90-minute return walk to the summit of Torc Mountain, or following the Owengarriff River before climbing to Friar’s Glen and your first views to distant Macgillycuddy’s Reeks. Marshy areas follow, and there’s a gorge walk up to Esknamucky Glen and down to Galway’s Bridge. You’re welcome to take a horse and cart through the Black Valley, but you’ll want to walk the Gap of Dunloe, a narrow 11-km-long mountain pass between Macgillycuddy’s Reeks and Purple Mountain.
A steep, rocky and often wet ascent to a saddle beneath Broaghnabinnia (2,444 ft) is followed by an equally slippery descent into the Bridia Valley. The misleadingly named Lack Road, a zig-zagging sheep’s path, takes you over the next pass, and care should be taken when you step on to the narrow, sealed road into Glencar. Forests, forestry roads, primeval dells, quiet back roads and moorlands lead on to a saddle at Windy Gap and its views over neighbouring Dingle Peninsula to the north on the way to Glenbeigh, set in a horseshoe of surrounding hills and known locally as the ‘Jewel in the Ring of Kerry’.
There are always things to be mindful of, both natural and man-made, on a walk like this. Wear proper hiking boots as you near Coars as the surrounding land has an extremely ‘boggy’ reputation, and a recent diversion now sees the trail turn left, not right, on the approach to Cahersiveen. And there are also some quite long sections with significant gaps between accommodation options, so plan these sections carefully.
The trail crosses the summit of Knockavahaun (1,217 ft) after 2.5 km of hard climbing before descending into a broad valley which puts you on a sealed road into Mastergeehy, one of the many isolated townships you encounter on the Kerry Way. The next town, Waterville, was frequently visited by Charlie Chaplin and from there you have the choice of an inland or a coastal route to Caherdaniel, where you simply must pay a visit to Staigue Stone Fort, one of Ireland’s largest ring forts and finest examples of the art of dry stone walling. Leaving Staigue, ridge walking and more forest trails take you over the Kenmare and Bunnow Rivers, over another mountain ridge and along back roads paralleling the Owreagh River before passing through Sneem, Tahilla and Blackwater Bridge where the trail follows the estuary of the Blackwater River before passing the ruins of the 13th-century Cappanacush Castle, then through Templenoe to Kenmare. The trail climbs from Kenmare over mountain saddles on an old coach road before descending into Killarney National Park. Created in 1932 and Ireland’s first national park, it contains the country’s only native herd of red deer and is one of the few places in Ireland that has been continually covered in woodland since the end of the last Ice Age. Once again you enter Galway’s Bridge and the trail up Cromaglan Mountain back to Killarney, and your Kerry Way circular trail is done.
If you only have a few days to spare for the Kerry Way and want to spend them wisely, the trail’s most spectacular 60-km-long section from Killarney to Glenbeigh can be done in as little as three days, or the 30 km between Sneem and Waterville is another option at under two days. And the options are indeed many. In 1982, when members of the Laune Mountaineering Club and An Taisce (the National Trust for Ireland) first suggested that a vast single trail loop could be created by linking up some of the Kerry Peninsula’s sinuous, web-like paths, little did they know they were creating what one day would be acknowledged as, quite simply, Ireland’s most popular walking trail.