Every visitor to Ireland must experience the Ring of Kerry. This 180km-long, scenic drive around Ireland's southwestern Iveragh Peninsula is a photographer’s paradise filled with mystical, stunning landscapes that change like the winds over the Atlantic Ocean. Part of the Atlantic Way, this unspoiled region has attracted visitors for hundreds of years with its spectacular beauty. The Ring of Kerry takes you from the lush forests of Killarney National Park to the crashing waves of the wild Atlantic Ocean, covering 10,000 years of dramatic history.
Where To Start
Whether you plan to take a bus tour or drive yourself, almost everyone starts in Killarney. The main attraction with taking a bus is that you don’t have to drive. Just sit back, relax and enjoy the beautiful scenery of Iveragh peninsula. A tour takes about 7 hours. You will learn about Iveragh’s history, geography, culture, and folklore from a live, knowledgeable tour guide. And there are quite a few stops along the way, so you will have time to explore some of the more popular attractions. A few of the main tour companies include Deros Tours and Killarney Executive Tour Company.
Alternatively, you can drive yourself. This is what we did. Expect a full day’s drive. The more you stop, the longer it will take. It took us about 10 hours to make the trip. If I were to make the trip again, I would stay overnight about halfway through and do it over 2 or more days. There is a vast amount of attractions along the way. In fact, you could take a whole week and still not see everything.
If you drive yourself, figure out if you want to drive clockwise or counter-clockwise. The bus tours usually take the counter-clockwise route. If you go that way, you may get stuck behind a bus for much of the drive. Many tourists and locals who drive themselves prefer driving clockwise around the Ring of Kerry. Know that going in this direction you will be heading towards large buses on very narrow streets. This can be unnerving. But we did it. After driving a week around rural Ireland, I felt comfortable enough that on-coming traffic didn’t bother me anymore.
Jewel In Kerry’s Crown
Our first stop along the N71 was the Jewel in Kerry’s Crown, otherwise commonly known as Killarney National Park. The Park covers approximately 26,000 acres encompassing vast and gorgeous mountains, lakes, islands and flatlands. Our first stop was at a lookout overseeing Upper Lake. It had just started to drizzle and the mist over the lake imparted an enchanting, mythical atmosphere to the landscape. The lake is one of three famous Lakes around Killarney. The other two are Muckross Lake and Lough Leane.
A little further down the road, we made a quick stop at a small, lovely stone Derrycunihy Church to photograph the falls and rapids. A few minutes up the road is the Derrycunihy Castle ruins, which is also worth a look.
Everyone must stop at Ladies View when driving the famous Ring of Kerry! It is the first viewing point you’ll meet (or the last, depending on which direction you’re driving). Ladies View gets its name from Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting who visited the site in 1861 and gaped in awe at the majestic valley, lakes and mountains before them. The view is rumored to be one of the most photographed and Instagramed sites in all of Ireland. The gift shop and café across the road is a much-welcomed site as well.
Tranquility on the banks of Looscaunagh Lough
Half way between Ladies View and Moll’s Gap we stopped at Looscaunagh Lough, one of the smaller lakes in Kerry. If you don’t know, Lough is the Irish word for “Lake”. There is a spot on the side of the road to pull over. Looscaunagh Lough is a very serene place with a few cottages scattered about. The shimmering, cool waters and the light mist created a tranquil setting for a few moments of quiet time.
A short drive further and you will hit Molls Gap. Not a lot to see here other than a view of the MacGillycuddy Reeks mountains, formed by a glacier during Ireland’s last ice age. The area is named after Moll Kissane, a woman who ran a shebeen (unlicensed public house) in the early 1800s.
Kenmare, a small town in the south of County Kerry, is located at the head of Kenmare Bay. This town intersects two tourist routes, the Ring of Beara and the Ring of Kerry. As a result, Kenmare is a very popular with the tourist crowd. If I were to drive the Ring of Kerry over several days, this is one locale where I would stay overnight.
I Found Heaven
A short distance after Blackwater Bridge, I discovered a little piece of Heaven. It is unmarked, but there is a narrow area to pull off the road. If you use GPS, it is located at 9° 58’ 51.93“W & 51° 49’ 3.702”N. Climb down a small bank to get to the water’s edge and be astonished by the rustic beauty in the landscape. You will kick yourself if you don’t climb down the bank and find out later what you missed. Maybe it was the mist and clouds, but I felt like I went back in time to the “Days of Yore”. I lingered here for quite a while and took tonnes of pictures. It’s now one of my favourite spots in all of Ireland.
Just before reaching Castlecove, we stopped at Killeen Beach for about an hour. Stopping to take pictures along the road, we accidentally discovered this lovely beach on the southwestern side of the peninsula. The landscape changes quickly here with the tides. I heard that if you were to camp out overnight on one of the exposed islands, you may not get back to dry land until the morning.
Castlecove is a small village along the Ring of Kerry. “Cuan an Chaisleáin” is Irish for “Castlecove”. But the village's officially recognized Gaelic name is “An Siopa Dubh”, which translates to The Black Shop. Of course, there is a pub here called The Black Shop. Some historical maps from the late nineteenth century listed the village as Blackshop.
About halfway between Caherdaniel and Waterville, there is an area to pull over to view the Deenish and Scariff Islands. The lush green landscape laying before us was astonishing. We overheard a tour guide explain to his audience that this is probably the most famous and photographed sites in all of Ireland. I believe he was referring to the Skellig Islands, which unfortunately because of the weather, we could not see. By this time, the heavy mist over the water reduced visibility considerably.
Little Skellig Island is not open to visitors, but it is home to Ireland’s largest northern gannet population. Skellig Michael, also known as Great Skellig, is larger than Little Skellig and houses a Christian monastery from the 6th century close the top of the lower peak. Some scenes from the Star Wars series were filmed on the island with the monastery appearing as an ancient Jedi Temple.
Other Popular Attractions
There is far more to Ireland’s Ring of Kerry than what we could see in one day. If you have the time, venturing off the main road to lesser known sights will allow you to experience a more authentic side of the Ring. And it’s not all about sight-seeing either. Popular activities include surfing, cycling, horseback riding, hill climbing, golf, and fishing. The coast of Ireland offers some of the best fishing you’ll find anywhere.
What We Missed
The Gap of Dunloe - a narrow mountain range forged by glaciers between the MacGillycuddy Reeks and Purple Mountain. Look for an old stone bridge, known as the “Wishing Bridge”. They say wishes made here really do come true!
Derrynane Beach - a beautiful, long sandy beach. One of the nicest in Ireland. And close to Derrynane House, the childhood home of Irish Historical figure, Daniel O’Connell.
Torc Waterfall - lovely waterfall about a 5-minute walk off the main road through moss-covered trees. It is about 80 feet high and best seen after heavy rains. If you are up for it, you can climb the steps beside the falls to get a great view of the lake. This waterfall is one of Killarney’s more popular tourist attractions. The tour buses usually make a stop here.
Muckross House - a sixty-five room mansion built in 1843. Queen Victoria stayed here in 1861. The owners donated the house and its 11,000 acre estate to the Irish Free State in 1932, which formed the basis of the Killarney National Park we see today. Admission to the house is by guided tour only, but you can roam the gardens freely.
Waterville - the only seafront village on the Ring of Kerry. There is plenty to do here. Browse local craft shops, pamper yourself at a spa, or indulge in world-class fishing or a round of golf. Or maybe just slow down and take a break. At night, sit and gaze at the stars gleaming above you while sipping hot whiskey on the hillside.
While learning about the historic sights is truly fascinating, the best reason to visit the Ring of Kerry lies in the rugged beauty of the Irish landscape. If you go the Ireland and don’t see the famous Ring of Kerry, you will miss the best part.