Sharing my passion for Ireland’s wild places with our travellers is the single most joyful aspect of working in Wilderness Ireland, the second, well getting out there and joining one of our life-affirming trips of course.
Before the pandemic took hold, I was lucky enough to hike the Wicklow Way. Though travel isn’t possible at the moment, I took a trip down memory lane in order to share my amazing experience of hiking the Wicklow Way.
The Wicklow Way is 127km long, starting at Marley Park in Dublin and finishing in Clonegal Co. Carlow. As Ireland’s premier long distance hiking trail, the Wicklow Way weaves through hills and valleys banked with heather, along the shores of enchanted lakes and past important historical sites.
Over the next week, I would be hiking the very best of the trails on offer in this region, spending each night in a different location, my bags having been transferred ahead of me, my only concern being for my daily pack needs and, as I would quickly establish, the rewarding beverage at the end of the day.
Note: Published in February 2021, this trip took place pre-lockdown. For the time being, travel restrictions remain in place.
My guide on this trip was Tom, a cheery native of southeast Ireland, and a longtime outdoor enthusiast. Having hiked all over the world, Tom spent 36 years in the maritime world before heading back to land to become a Mountain Leader. An amateur musician, Tom treated us to folk songs on his guitar in the pub each evening!
Our guide Tom, with his easy smile and friendly nature, immediately appeared as a cool and calm leader, looking like he had just descended from the hills to which we were bound. Comprising a mixed bunch of nationalities and professions, we all were chomping at the bit to escape the city and begin our exploration of Wicklow.
Setting off from the train station, our first stop was Johnny Fox’s pub. Purporting to be the highest pub in Ireland, we took the chance to wander about the rooms, examining the olde Ireland memorabilia, signage and antiques telling the story of life in rural Ireland from bygone years.
After a deliciously hearty lunch where we got to know each other a little, we peeked outside to discover the rain had set in and our first walk was going to be a bit damp. Not to be put off, on went our rain gear and out we ventured. Ireland and rain go hand in hand. How else would we have all those luscious green fields and valleys to gaze upon?
Our first walk of the week was an easy 10km stroll of gentle forest track. This was a great intro walk, offering us a chance to get to know our fellow group members, assess our pace, test out our shoes and gear, and get a taste of what the week would bring. While we were hoping for some good weather during the week the biggest issue on day one turned out to be the midges!
At the end of our walk, there was a short transfer to Powerscourt Estate for a welcome cup of tea and sweet treat. Take the chance to wander around the award-winning gardens before checking into our first night’s accommodation for dinner and, what was to become our tradition for the week, a well-earned pint.
Top Tip – Bug spray. Bring midge spay, but avoid the aerosol variety. Tom thankfully had a liquid version that worked wonders at keeping the bugs off.
Top Tip – Be prepared. Either arrive wearing hiking gear or be ready for a quick change at the pub before your luggage heads off to your first accommodation.
Ireland is always beautiful, but Ireland is the most spectacular country when the sun gods shine – it’s a marvel to behold and nowhere on earth holds more beauty.
After a delicious home-cooked breakfast in a friendly café, we each selected freshly-prepared snacks and baked goods for lunch and set off on our first full day’s walking.
The sun-dappled shade of Crone Woods awaited us, with the entire group excited at the change in weather and eager for the chance to see some of Ireland’s majestic scenery. Climbing steadily all morning through peaceful woods, it was an enjoyable amble with plenty of photo opportunities and the chance to simply breathe the warm and fragrant fresh air. Viewing the impressive Powerscourt Waterfall (Ireland’s highest cascade) from above on our trail was special. Having Tom on hand to relate the local history and point out locations added layers of knowledge and depth to our experience.
By mid-morning, we found ourselves sitting atop a hillside with 360’ views of lush green fields all around, offering the chance to drink in the rich tapestry of the Emerald Isle before we descended into the valley below. It was here we faced our first big decisions of the week – to Djouce or not to Djouce?
Djouce, meaning “fortified height,” stands at a total elevation of 725m with the last section consisting of a steep, rocky incline. My competitive nature was urging me to go for it but I would be lying if I said I didn’t have some reservations as to the reliability of my calf muscles – would they get me to the top or not?
The climb was a challenge and I soon found the advantage of carrying a camera – “No I’m not resting, simply taking more photos!” However like most challenges in life, the rewards outweigh the effort. Panoramic views from the top of the hill greeted us of Dublin Bay, Lough Tay, the Sally Gap and the Roundwood Bog Plateau, one of the best lunch spots I’ve ever had.
Our return journey was far less challenging as we descended via the boardwalk path, created in the 1990’s to protect the bog from human erosion. Around us we had views of the Luggala and White Hill with our path eventually leading us to a scenic point overlooking Lough Tay and a memorial to the late J. B. Malone.
Lough Tay, otherwise known as the Guinness Lake, is a small but scenic lake situated between the mountains of Djouce and Luggula and has been given its moniker as its shape and colour are similar to a pint of Guinness (as well as to its connections to the Guinness family).
With the thoughts of cool refreshing pints in mind, the group consensus was that we had all earned a refreshing drink that evening.
Top Tip: Water. Don’t underestimate the amount of water you will drink, especially on a hot summers day. I was out by lunch time, thankfully a fellow climber had a spare bottle in his pack.
Ireland is famed for many things, such as its warm friendly people, its love of the craic (meaning “good fun”), and amazing coastal and coastlines to name just a few…
The weather outside was overcast and humid weather, which we soon discovered were ideal conditions for the bugs. Cue Tom and his magic bug spray which worked wonders. Starting at the Pier Gate, we set off up along forest trails with more commanding views opening for us around each bend and curve we took.
Today’s walk gifted us with another of Ireland’s gems, panoramic views over the patchwork green fields for which Ireland has become synonymous. Shades of green, vibrants hues, subtle tones, depths of colour and contrast are displayed before you as far as the eye can see. Hedgerows and stone walls outline the boundaries, white fluffy sheep graze the pastures and farmers work the land, creating a picture postcard Ireland. This is the image that each visitor hopes to see, and it was a perfect moment.
We descended into a forest rich in earthy smells of pine and freshly cut timber, through tunnel of pine trees with their bed of needles crunching underfoot to emerge alongside a farmer working his field cutting the hay for the winter.
If ever you have seen ferns you will know they are prolific in their abundance, however, never have you seen a sea of ferns such as those we walked through after lunch. A never-ending sea of ferns for miles around, swishing and swaying in the gentle wind, surrounded by the hills, almost giving you the feeling of being on water. With the quiet seeming almost audible, we were feeling tranquil and relaxed and ready for more climbing.
Our final descent, through a green forests trail had us emerging right at the door of our hotel that night… and there may have been a race for the bar!
Top Tip: Chocolate. It is essential, rewarding, encouraging and comforting. No more need be said really.
Though my legs were feeling a bit heavy this morning and I knew I’d have to dig deep, the day started off with treat: a visit to the nearby Glendalough monastic site, home to one of Ireland’s most important ancient monastic centres.
Founded by St. Kevin in the 6th century, the site developed over time into a monastic city and despite attacks and raids over the years, most of the buildings have survived today. Anyone interested in Ireland’s long history and medieval past must visit Glendalough. A network of tangled paths entwine the ancient site, and the stone buildings hug the hills and hide amongst the forest.
Tom is a master of many crafts and skills – his calm measured tone and gentle encouragement coupled with his knowledge of the hills and valleys he calls home have already proved him an exceptional guide. But at Glendalough, Tom’s storytelling skills transported us back through the ages with tales of raids, conquests and monks of old. Tom brought this period of Irish history to life, finishing with a song as we stood in the ancient graveyard surrounded by our ancestry.
Leaving Glendalough, we took a forest trail leading upwards past Poulnanass Waterfall and along the wooded slopes of Derrybawn to our first vantage point of the day overlooking the spectacular Glendalough Valley below. From here we followed the Spinc ridge along a board-walk trail to the summit while the Wicklow uplands spill open on every side.
The climbing could be challenging, with the boardwalk paths offering a different type of challenge to more uneven ground, but the view from our lunch spot was unparalleled in its beauty and worth any amount of steps. There are moments in our lives that make us stand still and nearly observe ourselves from a distance. That quietly stunning lunch time stop was one of those moments.
As a group we had bonded so much that we now had inside jokes, shared tough climbs, laughed and shared stories and knew the path that brought each of us to where we were that day. Sharing that simple meal, atop that ridge was one of those moments that will stay with us all I think. It was a “take stock and be grateful” moment – for our health, our ability to walk and our chance to pause atop this spectacular Irish hill together.
Our descent was of equal magnitude where we were treated with views of the Glenmalure Valley below, the Lugduff Ridge to our right and the great Lugnaquilla, Wicklow’s highest mountain.
Once back at sea level, the legs and hips were feeling the day’s walking but with the warm sun beating down on our backs we made our way to the doors of our next accommodation. Never did a pint of cold apple cider ever taste so good.
Leaving Glendalough that morning and walking to Glenmalure with no form of transport besides our own two feet was an unforgettable bonding experience. We had had such a great day and spirits were so high that we didn’t think this day could get better until Tom borrowed a guitar from a local musician to sing a series of Irish tunes for us. Memories to last a lifetime were created that day.
Top tip: Sunscreen. Four seasons in one day is not a myth in Ireland.
Have we really arrived at our second to last day already? We set off on a mixture of forest tracks and boardwalks, passing the halfway point for the entirety of the Wicklow Way. Despite the low clouds and showers this part of Wicklow has a wild and wonderful kind of beauty. It is somehow even more quiet and unspoilt than the days before, with hours going by without seeing a soul.
Following alongside Slieve Maan, we stopped for lunch and an opportunity to enjoy the picturesque glacial valleys below us carved from the landscape thousands of years ago. The jaw-dropping landscape provided an ideal moment to reflect on the week’s walks and experiences.
Leaving the peaks of the Wicklow Mountains behind us, we made our way down into the emerald landscapes of south Wicklow. Feeling tired with sore muscles, looking forward to our final night’s treat…
As the countryside opened up in all directions, we dreamt of relaxing at the spa retreat with its pool and thermal suite, not too mention a host of massages and spa treatments available; even the option of a hot bath was wonderfully appealing for our tired legs.
By late afternoon, we had arrived and dispersed to our luxury rooms, spa appointments, or in my case, a bubble bath. Heaven!
Suitably rested and refreshed we spent a wonderful evening dining at the on-site Italian restaurant where we had one the best meals of the week all washed down with some fantastic red wine. Spirts were high with the group and it almost felt like a last night celebration. With the option of a lie in the following morning we were sated, content and happy trotting off to bed that night.
Top Tip: Swimming Costume. Bring your swimsuit and avail of the pool and thermal suite. Excellent for tired muscles after the long week walking.
A most relaxing morning swim and leisurely breakfast was my plan of action before convening in the lobby for our last outing of the week, a climb up the Sugar Loaf Mountain. We had been looking at this mountain in the distance all week and, frankly I had built it up to be Mount Everest at this stage. I was nervous but the weather was simply glorious and the climb itself turned out to be a lot easier than I had anticipated. Just as I was feeling nimble and agile scrambling the last few hundred feet up the hill, two little terriers wizzed past me at speed – really showing me how it’s done!
Sugar Loaf Mountain had families and pets out for an afternoon’s exercise as well as more dedicated walkers enjoying its vistas and views from the summit. A short but rewarding jaunt with a chocolate reward to all and we were off to Dublin City for our final evening together.
Top Tip: Confidence. One foot in front of the other, plenty of stops and encouragement from your group and guide and before you know it, you conquered that with which you were fearful.
Over the last few days many conversations had taken place, some a group chat others one to one on the trail. I had learned a lot about the handful of travellers who had come together randomly yet were now bonded in a shared experience. I know their loved ones whom they had lost and who were waiting for them back home. I knew their professions, passions and interests and some of their hopes and aspirations for the future. And in return, they knew me. Our final celebration dinner reflected that and our time together.
A small disappointment to me but I had to leave the group prematurely this morning and was unable to partake in the final activity for the week, a wonderful historical walking tour of the city.
Although I was unable to attend, I do have it on good authority that it was most enjoyable and informative and a fitting end to our adventure. I said an emotional goodbye over breakfast to a group of people I know I will see again. Slán go fóill!
Final Top Tip: Openness. Come with an open heart and an open mind, you will get the amazing walks you signed up for but can receive so much more if you are willing.