Castles to cliffs: Exploring Killarney National Park and Dingle, Ireland

Between unwinding along Ireland’s quiet northwest reaches and enjoying copious helpings of Scottish whiskey, we took the train down the Irish coastline for a weekend of adventures along the southern reaches of the Wild Atlantic Way, a 1,500 mile scenic route speckled with jaw-dropping views and castles along Ireland’s rugged westerly shores.
With much to do and just a few days to soak up Ireland’s first national park, centuries of history, a gorgeous peninsula, and some incredible seafood, my husband and I hit the ground running as soon as the train slowed into Killarney station. Our first stop would be the surreal sanctuary of , a small bed and breakfast nestled away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Killarney in an ancient valley between the mountains of .

Killarney National Park: Friar’s Glen

After dropping our bags and borrowing a flashlight (and quick history lesson) from the Glen’s innkeeper, we took off into the woods for a walkabout to Muckross Abbey. Evening had just begun to work its way down the quiet country roads that lead up to the 600 year old Franciscan friary ruins.
A few passersby lit candles throughout the cemetery where, for centuries, locals have buried their kin on family plots, and the moon cast otherworldly, greenish shadows on every last headstone. Aside from the murmur of creaking yew trees perhaps as old as the Abbey itself, the night was quiet, alone, asleep. A cool breeze followed us back to the Glen and I couldn’t help but to throw open all of our room’s windows to enjoy the eerie and peaceful lull of a rural night.

Dingle Peninsula

The next morning we grabbed a quick breakfast and piping hot coffee at the Glen before hopping into a fresh taxi to join up with , the outdoor excursion company that would whisk us away for a full day of sightseeing along the rugged coastline and windswept hills of Dingle Peninsula.

Gallarus Oratory + Slea Head

For all of its deserted cliffs and sprawling pastures, it’s interesting to learn that, like Killarney, Dingle is as thoroughly steeped in Atlantic saltwater as it is in rich, spiritual history. During the medieval Dark Ages, monks found a peaceful existence along the peninsula’s windswept hills, keeping the light of literature alive in stone beehive huts that dot the evergreen paddocks along with Gallarus Oratory, a 1,300-year-old stone church that stands as water-tight today as when they it was crafted a century ago.
Ramble along the westernmost point of Dingle and you’ll stumble upon one of the westernmost sailing points in Europe, Slea Head, which is named for both the herds of sheep that call it home and for the land underfoot that creates a sheep’s head as you map the peninsula’s jagged edges.

Blasket Islands

Beyond Dingle lay the curious Blasket Islands, just a few rocky hills seemingly perpetually blanketed in dense fog and drenching rains. It’s hard to imagine carving out a good life in such a hard place, yet Irish families firmly planted themselves here for almost a thousand years (annual island rent in the 1200s was “two hawks per year to Earl of Desmond”).
Islanders tilled a living out of the rocky soil, taking cover from storms in a village of farmhouses until the Island’s population dwindled and the land was abandoned in the 1950s. The inhabitants left quite a history behind them. Just as the monks and friars of Dingle and Killarney crafted dwellings and manuscripts to illuminate and weather through the ages, the people of the Blasket Islands had an affinity for literature and the Gaelic language. The Islanders left the world a handful of great writers richer, each crafting their stories with an incredibly distinct writing style and world view.

Muckross Abbey + Torc Waterfall with Mór Active

The next day we again met up with Mór Active Tours for a rambunctious day among the waves and trails of Killarney National Park. First on the agenda was a guided bike ride along old Irish roads and ancient woodlands past Muckross Abbey, around the lakes of Killarney and the Meeting of the Waters, on up to Torc Waterfall. Our ride was sprinkled with conversation about local folklore and a quick little shower of rain that gave way to the perfect afternoon breeze.
A few hours later we’d don wet-suits as the wind picked up and sent our kayaks sailing like toy boats in all directions around Ross Castle, the last stronghold against Cromwell’s forces (Henry VIII, anyone?). As any good day on the water should be, our maiden voyage across Lake Killarney was lively and enriching and drenching.
Our guide was a fellow geology buff and taught us all about the history of the craggy rocks as we spelunked around their narrow passes, avoiding the gale force winds that whipped us away from the sunlit mouth of Innisfallen Island. By the time my feet hit dry land, I was totally knackered.

Muckross House & Farms

Before jetting out of Country Kerry and off to Scotland, we managed a final traipse along the shores of Lough Leane and Muckross Lake before wandering through the shy gardens tucked away at Muckross House & Farms. As a storm rolled in and the last jaunting horse cars clopped away from the mansion, I was struck by the peaceful expansiveness of the estate, christened the first National Park of the Republic of Ireland nearly a century ago.

Have you ever visited Ireland? I adored every minute and can’t wait to get back.

Get the look

Also on this trip

Galway, Ireland | Islay, Scotland | Edinburgh, Scotland
Trip Packing List |
My Camera Kit


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