The beauty of southwest Ireland is no secret. Thousands of tourists are ferried around the rolling hills, glimmering lakes and Atlantic coastlines of County Kerry each year. But where there are tourist buses, there’s rarely a platform for genuine adventure.
That doesn’t mean that you have to settle for a weekend of stale coach trips and cake though. The Reeks District is a less-visited area in Kerry, and within it lies Ireland's only Dark Sky Reserve – the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks mountain range. The area is also home to Carrauntoohil, the highest mountain in Ireland, and some of the island's wildest scenery too.
And to celebrate the Reek District's adventure credentials, the tourist board has recently launched the Big Five Challenge. To complete it, participants have to climb Carrauntoohil, cycle 90km around the ‘Ring of the Reeks’, kayak the length of Caragh Lake, paddle board under the stars on Lough Cloon and surf the Atlantic waves on Inch beach.
Although possible to complete over 12 months, those looking for an all-out adventure challenge and the chance to get their name on the Big Five 'Hall of Fame' in Killorglin have just five days to complete it. We made our way to the Reeks District to take on the challenge and found that, as you might expect, the tourist buses don’t see the half of it…
Carrauntoohil is Ireland’s highest peak, but it’s not the only showstopper in the MacGillycuddy's Reeks – 10 of the 12 highest in the country are within eyesight from the top.
It's an accessible and relatively straightforward climb, but as with any mountain, you’ve got to give it the respect of a mountain ascent. On the way to the top, various passersby have to turn back before reaching the 1,038m summit, simply because they’ve underestimated the difficulty of the climb, not left enough time or brought proper gear.
Walking to the base of the mountain is a simple stroll of a few kilometres through the beautifully unkempt Hag’s Glen, where mountain goats and hares roam around boulders and the stone underfoot ranges from purple sandstone to red granite with glimpses of quartz.
The mountains unveil themselves as you get further into the glen, which levels out to reveal an array of peaks and ridgelines around the 1,000m mark. Carrauntoohil resembles a shard of glass at the end of the valley and the Devil’s Ladder, the most popular ascent route, lays straight ahead in the crack between the two lakes either side of Hag’s Glen.
The ladder is effectively a collection of boulders that allow you to scramble up to a plateau beneath the peak of Carrauntoohil. “This is where the hike starts,” jokes our guide Piaras, of Kerry Climbing. It’s not a particularly technical scramble, but it’s certainly a scramble. Some rocks on the route are loose so a watchful eye is needed, as well as a bit of a head for heights.
At the top of the ladder, we're rewarded with panoramic views of Bridia Valley, and another 15 minutes of hiking takes us to the peak, where you can look out upon the Atlantic Coast and back across the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks, which layer right out into the horizon.
The mythical feel of the mountains is matched by the folklore that surrounds it. To our left lies Caher na Féinne, the third highest mountain in Ireland, with an astonishing, intimidating ridgeline and a name that translates from Irish as "stone fort of the Fianna."
The Fianna were warrior bands from Irish mythology lead by mythical hunter-warrior Fionn mac Cumhall. Fionn is said to have once killed a giant, fire-breathing goblin called Aillen, who came from the underworld to lull locals to sleep with his harp music before (for no real reason) burning down their homes. Thankfully, the only thing burning here is our legs, and with no obvious danger from goblins, we trek over to Cnoc na Toinne – a peak connected to Carrauntoohil by a ridgeline – before descending into Hag’s Glen, the first of the Big Five in the bag.
Kayaking the length of Caragh Lake
A good night’s sleep later and we’re making our way 6km across the scenic Lake Caragh in kayaks, the peak of Carrauntoohil behind us in the distance. We’re out with Enda Prendergast, an experienced kayaker and guide with local outdoor experts Cappanalea.
“Given our coastline, we have huge potential for sea kayaking here,” says Enda. “Come a bit inland during winter time and whitewater kayaking tends to take over. Within an hour's drive of Killorglin, you have anywhere between six and eight rivers available, depending on rain.”
We’re the only kayakers out on Lake Caragh, even though there’s no wind whatsoever and the weather is near perfect for it. The only others we see even near the lake are two fishermen and a few rather boisterous, loud-mouthed donkeys.
“It's finding that fine balance between it growing and it being popular while also keeping that essence of what this area does have, and the remoteness,” says Enda.
“It's all there in its little pieces. I think the Reeks District is starting to piece it together and getting a lot of us together. It has huge potential.”
Lake Caragh is not far from Killorglin, and just north of the MacGillycuddy Reeks. The Skellig Islands, where Luke Skywalker sulked away for a bit in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, are not too far from here, either. Enda laughs that he’ll occasionally get tourists from further afield asking him if they can see 'Star Wars island'.
The kayaking is serious, though. “This part of the world, in Ireland, it's where all the whitewater is congested," explains Edna as we prepare for our final sprint to the shore. "The Reeks have rivers from grade two to five that are available regularly and really quite accessible. There are some very good rivers around Ireland but for variety and quality, Kerry has it all."
Night-time stand-up paddle boarding on Cloon Lough
There isn’t a sound in the air except the paddle strokes through the water and the childish laughter that’s bound to accompany a SUP crew in wetsuits embarking on night out on a lake with only a glow stick, the full moon and some slowly adjusting human eyes to trust for navigation.
Kerry's Dark Sky Reserve is the only one in Ireland and one of only four reserves in the world with a 'gold tier' rating. The grading means there's a seriously low amount of light pollution, and so the stars are as visible here as anywhere.
Cloon Lough is a remote lake in the Kerry mountains, sandwiched between the craggy peaks of Knocknacusha and Mullaghanattin. It’s regularly used for fishing during the day. But SUP at night? Less so, but the outdoor lot at Cappanalea have recently added it to their portfolio. So recently, in fact, that a local farmer pitches up at our van at the edge of the lough, rifle over his shoulder, to ask (nicely) what the hell we’re up to.
“Paddle boarding? At night? Why would anyone want to do that?” he laughs.
When the novelty wears off, it’s actually an intensely serene experience out on Cloon Lough. The water is calm, the moonlight illuminates our paddle strokes and bats flutter past. It’s the ultimate meditative experience, and a definite once-in-a-lifetime experience on the dark side of the Cloon.
Surfing Inch beach
Although Inch beach is one of the tourist coach stops on the Ring of Kerry, we're far away from the crowds, neck deep in the Atlantic Ocean and chasing the Irish waves.
It’s no secret that Ireland has some of the best surfing not only in Europe but way beyond – if you know where to look, and if you’re good enough to make use of it, of course. Inch beach is a renowned surfing spot on the Kerry coastline, and unlike a lot of the others in the area, it’s accommodating for beginners as well as advanced.
“There are not many suitable beaches for beginners around here but there are a lot of surf spots for intermediate or advanced surfers,” says local surfer Tom Lean, who runs the Kingdom Waves Surf School. “[It's] more for advanced, really – particularly in winter. When the winter comes, the winter swells are a lot bigger and you've got to work a lot harder to catch the waves.
“The water is just starting to heat up now, though, and it actually holds its temperature quite well, all the way through September and October; September is one of the warmest months.”
It certainly doesn’t feel warm when we first step in, but then, it never does at first, does it?
Crash, crash, crash. First me, then three waves on top of my head. If at first you don’t succeed – crash, crash, crash again. At least there is no lack of waves at Inch Beach.
It takes us a while to get going, but when you catch a wave there’s no feeling quite like it. With a bit of direction, we spend more of the day standing up than anticipated, and the more time you spend on the surfboard, the harder it is to bring yourself to leave the Atlantic water.
Cycling the Ring of the Reeks
Of course it would be at 60km into the 90km cycle that the steepest hill arrives, wouldn't it?
Still, the climbs are a little easier to take given that, if you scale three of Ireland’s highest mountain passes in one ride, you’re sure to get some fuel to feed that nature addiction.
It seems like Carrauntoohil is at the centre of everything in the Reeks District, and in the 90km Ring of the Reeks, that is quite literally the case. The cycle is basically a long route around the district, with Carrauntoohil slap bang in the middle of the loop.
Starting and finishing in Killorglin, the Ring of the Reeks takes you through the type of scenery that involuntarily triggers trad music in your head. We pass by Lake Caragh where we’d kayaked earlier in the week, before jumping onto a nine percent gradient hill for 20 minutes as we ascend to the remarkable valley of Glencar.
Thankfully, the big climbs are regularly rewarded with fast, scenic descents on good roads, where you can really let loose.
It’s the climbs that steal the show, though. From Blackwater to Molls Gap must be one of the most typically Celtic, beautifully wild roads in Ireland. The following Derrynafunsha descent, dropping 140m in roughly three minutes over 2.5km, is just pure, childish fun.
At 60km we get to that final, lengthy uphill – a 4km slog to the Head of Dunloe. It’s a chance for the roadies to show off and one final climb to conquer for those who still have Carrauntoohil in their legs from day one of the Big Five. We pass hikers on the way up the mountain and stop to catch our breathe at the eventual top. You need to be fit for this one.
The final descent brings us down through a valley dotted with lakes, and is a little busier than elsewhere on the route. We whizz over a beautiful little stone bridge with the picturesque Coosaun Lough on one side and the enormous Auger Lake and the Gap of Dunloe behind.
It’s a 90km highlights reel of the best Kerry has to offer, over mountain passes truly as beautiful and unkempt as any the world over, and a fitting end to the Big Five Challenge.
We head back to Killorglin, legs aching, to get our names up on their shiny ‘Wall of Fame.'