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The West of Ireland has some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. Killarney is the jumping-off point for many scenic routes including the Ring of Kerry, Dingle, and the Beara Peninsula. However, there’s also a fantastic loop route that’s just outside of town: The Gap of Dunloe & Killarney Lakes. This combination of hiking (or horse-drawn cart) & boats is one of the most popular things to do in Killarney. Hiking the Gap of Dunloe & Killarney Lakes is easily done as a day trip, allowing you to see many Kerry’s best views with plenty of time to relax.
Gap of Dunloe & Killarney Lakes tour options
There are two ways to that you can do the Gap of Dunloe & Killarney Lakes day tour. You can start with the hike & then finish the day with the boat ride back to Ross Castle in Killarney. Or you can do the reverse trip, where you start with the boat cruise, then do the hike (or take a horse-drawn cart). You can either make the trip on your own, using public transportation & booking the boat ride, or you can also go through any of these Gap of Dunloe tour options.
I chose to do the Gap of Dunloe hike first, then the boat ride. I figured that a relaxing boat trip would be nice after a hike, plus going in this order would allow me to hike the Gap of Dunloe while looking upwards at the beautiful mountains, rather than downward with them at my back. Whichever way you do it, the scenery is gorgeous, so it’s up to you. I recommend checking the forecast either way & dressing appropriately, as the weather can be unpredictable on the West Coast of Ireland.
Getting to the Gap of Dunloe from Killarney
The Gap of Dunloe is about 12km from Killarney. There is a bus (route KY2 or Killarney Shuttle Bus) that goes from the Tesco by the tourist information centre to Kate Kearney’s Cottage at the bottom of the mountains. Around 9am on a Monday morning in October, I was the only person on the bus. There are other buses that go later, but since I had a 2pm boat reservation for the Killarney Lakes, I wanted to give myself plenty of time for the hike. After a quick 15 minute ride along the Ring of Kerry, I was at Kate Kearney’s Cottage.
Unfortunately, Kate Kearney’s Cottage had not yet opened for the day, nor had The Coffee Pot Cafe across the street. I was glad that I had brought some food with me. I recommend doing the same, at least as a backup in case the local Gap of Dunloe cafes are not open.
Touring the Gap of Dunloe
There are two main ways to visit the Gap of Dunloe (well, technically three, since you could go by car, but where’s the fun in that?). You can hike, which is what I chose to do, or you can travel by horse and cart. It is approximately 11km (6.8 miles) from Kate Kearney’s Cottage to Lord Brandon’s Cottage on the Upper Lake Killarney.
Driving the Gap of Dunloe
If you do decide to drive the Gap of Dunloe, the cart drivers will try to flag you down to stop you from driving through the Gap. However, it is a public road, and they have no authority to stop you. That said, many reviewers on Tripadvisor who did the drive noted that it is a stressful journey on the narrow roads, especially when they are filled with hikers and horses. It won’t be pleasant for you or for anyone else who has to dodge you as they travel through themselves. There aren’t a lot of places to stop either, so you won’t get the full experience of the panoramic views. I would highly recommend against driving the Gap of Dunloe unless it’s your only option.
The Gap of Dunloe by jaunting car (horse & trap)
The horse-drawn carriages (known as “jaunting cars”) depart from Kate Kearney’s Cottage at the northern end of the route or from Lord Brandon’s Cottage at the southern end if you’ve done the boat trip across the Killarney Lakes first.
The jaunting car ride takes between 60-90 minutes. Prices seem to range from $25-60 per person, likely depending on the size of your group, the season, and the mood of the jaunting car driver. If you’d like to ride in horse & trap in Killarney itself, there are city tours available.
Hiking the Gap of Dunloe
It’s easy to find the road through the Gap of Dunloe because it’s straight ahead from Kate Kearney’s, and it’s also covered in horse droppings. If you’re expecting the Kerry countryside to always smell like Irish Spring soap, maybe take your expectations down a notch.
The biggest portion of the hike from the north goes uphill, but this direction is the least steep way of summiting. As I left the town, there were fewer & fewer trees around me, with the stark Irish landscape reaching up into the light drizzle.
The road goes up and down some smaller hills within the Gap of Dunloe, but none of the walk is too terrible. Intrepid hikers who are looking for additional adventure can take some of the many side trails that lead deeper into the mountains. To the east, there is the Purple Mountain Group & Killarney National Park, while to the west you will see MacGillycuddy’s Reeks, the highest mountain range in Ireland. Carrauntoohil is the highest mountain in Ireland, and it’s just a few miles away from the Gap of Dunloe.
While the landscape may look stark, there is in fact plenty of wildlife here (or at least farm life). Sheep, horses, and deer graze in these grassy hills.
The views in the Gap of Dunloe are stunning. As nice as photos are, they don’t convey the scale of the mountains around you on the hike. This glacial valley is one of the most beautiful places you’ll ever visit. You could easily stop to take photos every 2 seconds while you walk. It does break up the effort, so be sure to leave yourself plenty of time if you’re going to be taking a boat back to Killarney across the lakes.
Thanks to it being early October, the Gap of Dunloe was less crowded than it would have been during the summer. A car passed every 5 minutes or so. There were a few other people out hiking or cycling, plus the occasional jaunting car, but otherwise it was a lovely place for some solitude.
As you hike up the mountain pass, you’ll pass several small lakes, including Black Lake, Cushvally Lake, and Augher Lake.
Wishing Bridge at Black Lake is one of the most iconic views & Instagram spots in the Gap of Dunloe.
There is another stone bridge at Augher Lake.
When I hiked the Gap of Dunloe, the weather was typically Irish. The early mist turned to showers a couple of miles into the hike. As I neared the top of the first part of summit, the rain began to get worse. This was the most unpleasant part of the day, as there’s also a bit of a steeper climb. But the views are always worth it.
After this first summit, the road flattens out for a while. It took about 90 minutes for this part of the hike.
About 30 minutes later, you’ll reach the summit of the Gap of Dunloe, known as the Head of the Gap. The rain had thankfully stopped so the scenery could be better seen. From the Head of the Gap (elevation 241 metres (791 feet)), you can gaze back down toward Kate Kearney’s Cottage as well as across the sweeping southern views toward the Black Valley, the Lakes of Killarney & the Ring of Kerry.
The road then descends more steeply into the Black Valley. Be cautious, as there is often rush hour traffic.
Lunch at Lord Brandon’s Cottage
The Black Valley has more signs of life than the rest of the Gap of Dunloe. It forms part of the Kerry Way, a 214km (133 mile) loop trail that roughly follows the Ring of Kerry. There are a few hostels & guesthouses here.
Follow the signs toward Lord Brandon’s Cottage, a nice resting point and the location of docks for the boat rides across the Lakes of Killarney.
I arrived at Lord Brandon’s Cottage around 12:45pm, expecting to have a nice relaxing lunch before my 2pm boat cruise. The whole Gap of Dunloe hike had taken almost 3.5 hours, about an hour longer than if I had hiked constantly rather than stopping to take photos & enjoy the views.
Lord Brandon’s has a large covered patio & some other outdoor tables. I sat down at one with some vegetable soup, Irish bread, and hot apple tart with cream, starving & a bit chilly after a long morning of hiking in the rain. I wouldn’t get to sit for very long.
Boat cruise across the Killarney Lakes including Lough Leane
There are a couple of different companies that run boat cruises between Ross Castle & Lord Brandon’s Cottage across the Lakes of Killarney. I had booked with one of them online through a third-party, however that company had no record of my booking, and without any other reservations that day, had not done the boat cruise to the Gap of Dunloe.
Thankfully, Patrick, another boat captain, was still there. I had spoken with him while trying to resolve the situation, so not only was he nice enough to wait for me, but he also said that they’d work out getting paid by the other boat tour. The only issue was that his group was scheduled to be leaving just after 1pm, an hour before I had planned. He waited with the other passengers while I finished eating. The boat tour schedules across the Killarney Lakes are not necessarily set in stone. If the weather is right and all of the travelers are ready, then they go, so make sure you book & confirm your place ahead of time.
Our tour group consisted of 9 people, all from the United States. The most important member of our entourage was Sam, Patrick’s dog. He served as an excellent co-captain and overall good boy.
Patrick is a master of storytelling, in the true Irish tradition. He wove tales with his knowledge of the region, pointing out the plants, animals, and geology of the Killarney Lakes. He truly seemed to enjoy taking these boat trips, even if he’s done them hundreds of times.
The boat cruise across the Lakes of Killarney to Ross Castle is about 10 miles. The route first passes across the Upper Lake, which is the smallest of the three lakes.
There was plenty of wildlife to see. We spotted deer along the shoreline. In 1865, Japanese sika deer were brought to Killarney for hunting.
We also saw a pheasant that Patrick & Sam had befriended.
From the Upper Lake, the boat headed through a narrow river channel that lasts a few miles. The water looks black thanks to the peat bottom.
Near the end of this river, at the Meeting of the Waters, you’ll pass under the 400-year-old Old Weir Bridge, one of several low stone bridges along the boat cruise.
The route then passes briefly onto the middle lake, Muckross Lake. At 75 meters deep, Muckross Lake is the deepest lake in Ireland.
A bridge later, we were on the lower lake, known as Lough Leane. The name Lough Leane means “lake of learning” in Gaelic. It got the name thanks to Innisfallen Abbey, an old monastery that inhabited an island in the lake for centuries.
Normally, the lake cruise from the Gap of Dunloe goes straight back to Ross Castle. However, since we’d departed early from Lord Brandon’s Cottage, Patrick & Sam added a bonus stop to our day tour: Innisfallen Abbey.
I had spotted Innisfallen Abbey when I’d visited Ross Castle & Ross Island earlier in the week. I’d wanted to go check it out, so I was excited to get the chance.
In 640, St. Finian the Leper founded a monastery on Innisfallen Island on Lough Leane. This monastery survived for nearly a thousand years. During that time, the monks wrote the Annals of Innisfallen, an important early history of Ireland. Today, the ruins of Innisfallen Abbey are solely populated by deer.
These ruins date back to the 10th to 13th centuries. As bleak as the weather may be in Killarney National Park, it’s remarkable that these stone walls have still remained relatively intact over such a long time.
Innisfallen is a small island, but we had a nice bit of time to wander around the ruins. Since our boat tour was the only one there, we had the whole place to ourselves (aside from the deer).
As we were boarding the boat to Ross Castle, there was a massive downpour. The rain continued right up until we disembarked, at which point the skies finally turned blue for the first time all day. Such is the luck of the Irish.
There’s a reason why a day trip to the Gap of Dunloe & Killarney Lakes is one of the most popular things to do in Killarney. It’s truly a fantastic way to see all of the best of Ireland in a day, without having to spend it all on a tour bus. It’s a beautiful hike (or horse & trap ride) & boat cruise, and you get back to Killarney with plenty of time for an evening beer. Not only was it my favorite day in Killarney, it was one of the best travel experiences I’ve ever had.
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