Hidden Adventures in the Wicklow Mountains
© Flickr Creative Commons; Giuseppe Milo
The largest of Ireland's six National Parks, the Wicklow Mountains are bursting with adventure. Here's an insider's guide to the best of it.
The Wicklow Mountains are a box office draw 420 million years in the making.
A result of the continental plates of North America and Europe once colliding, these mountains may not quite match the lung-sapping altitudes of the Rockies, but they are nevertheless a natural wonder in their own right, packed with stunning vistas and barely half an hour’s drive from Dublin city centre.
Don’t let these rolling hillsides fool you though. For beneath this tranquil exterior lies a real adventurer’s playground - read on to see how best to get off the beaten track.
1. Go wild swimming in a heart shaped lake
There’s no shortage of places to enjoy a secluded dip in the Wicklow Mountains, but Lough Ouler, a lake shaped like a heart that’s guaranteed to melt your own, really does take some beating. Once you’ve towelled off, take advantage of this Instagrammable backdrop with a picnic. “It’s absolutely wild and beautiful”, says Magdalena Seifert, who works for the Kippure Estate, which itself covers 240 acres of wild and beautiful forest around the Wicklow Mountains.
“The lake looks even more stunning once you’re looking down on it. You have to hike there but there is a car park (Turlough Hill) not too far away and you can do it all in two or three hours - it’s a 4.6mile loop trail. One summer, I slept in the heather here, in a sleeping bag, and went for a morning swim when I awoke. The water was lovely."
2. Go bouldering near the Miner’s Village
If you’re after a veritable goldmine of bouldering opportunities you’ll find them over in - well - the old mining village just beyond the popular Glendalough Valley. “Most tourists don’t go past the big lakes at Glendalough, but even if there are crowds then they usually won’t be taking bouldering mats with them," says Seifert.
Making your way past the old lead mining machinery, scramble above the upper lake and you’ll encounter hundreds of problems. Be careful as you scramble uphill though, warns Siefert: “Avoid veering too far left otherwise you might stray towards St Kevin’s Bed [a cave on the rockface above the lake], where it seems there is somebody plucked out of the wall by mountain rescue more or less every week. You’ll have a lot more luck to your right, however, as there are some interesting gullies to explore depending on your climbing experience."
3. Go deer spotting on Brown Mountain
Wicklow Mountains National Park is one of the best areas to spot wild deer in the whole of Ireland. Throw in some world-class hiking routes to the mix and it’s a match made in heaven, as Russell Mills, head of guided hikes specialist MountainTrails, can attest.
“One of the things I love about hiking around Lough Dan is looking down from the balcony path above it,” says Russell Mills, head of Mountain Trails guides. “With a gravelly beach at one end and then a long narrow elbow-shaped lake, the higher you get the better the lake looks. Plus, you're never far from wildlife.
“Park up at Lough Dam scout camp and you can follow this balcony path towards Brown Mountain [Kanturk], which is only about a 20-minute walk and a perfect spot to find deer grazing.
“Once that's done if you’re feeling brave and can read a map, carry on the path towards a mountain called Scarr, a derivation of the Norse for 'tooth' or 'pointy'. It might take a good few hours to walk but it's not too difficult to ascend, offering more chances of spotting deer and great views of the rest of the Wicklow Mountains once you’re up there."
4. Enjoy a mobile sauna in the wilds of Wicklow
When locking eyes on a mobile sauna in the middle of the Irish countryside in the dead of winter, you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve seen a mirage. But Bosca Beatha, complete with head massages in a pop-up luxury yurt, is the real deal.
Although it does tour around Ireland, popping up everywhere from Kerry to Cork, the Bosca Beatha’s most frequented location is around Glenmalure Lodge, right in the heart of the longest glacial valley in Ireland, giving you ample excuse to head for a hike here towards those chillier months.
“Try and avoid hiking around Glenmalure in the summer, especially weekends,” suggests Mills, who is able to arrange group guided hikes in the region. “That way it really feels secluded and you get the trails to yourself. Time it right of course and you can finish a walk with a mobile sauna experience.”
Keep an eye on Bosca Beatha’s Facebook page to know when to expect its return.
5. Stay in a tree tent overlooking a pebble beach
Tipi Adventures Ireland is a 50-acre private wilderness site, forestry and adventure centre all rolled into one. As the name suggests, it's not your basic camping ground, either, with a choice of unique accommodation ranging from massive tipis to tree tents.
"We have a beautiful stretch of the Avimore River running through us, and a pebble beach on site," says owner Ed Ledesma. "People seem to love the tree hammocks as they can get so close to nature, sleeping above a stream and waking up with the light coming through the trees.
"These tree tents can be accessed by rope ladder, and you'll be in a privileged position to see deer in the late evenings."
6. Unleash your inner viking
Axe throwing and archery are just a few of the bespoke lessons that Tipi Adventures can also provide should you book in advance. And where better to practice your aim with arrows and hair-raising weaponry than the exact spot they shot an episode of the mightily popular TV show Vikings?
Just adding to the immersion, you can still find many of the tree carvings and treehouses that the production crew purpose-built for the show. Following a heavy day's battle, finish the day off with a big campfire cookout fit for a Norse invader.
As well as private bookings, Tipi Adventures also put on company getaways and team bonding sessions. So, if you do have an axe to grind with a colleague, now's the time to do it...
7. Explore Hells Club under moonlight
Casting an ominous shadow over Dublin since 1725, the Hell Fire Club has long been associated with sinister goings-on and occult practices. Believed to be one of the first Freemason’s lodges in Ireland, it originally opened as a hunting lodge for a speaker of the Irish Commons, William Connolly, before falling into the hands of the mysterious Hells Club.
Granted, it exists on the periphery of the Wicklow Mountains — specifically at the summit of Mount Pelier Hill (1,257ft) — it would still be remiss of us not to include a night hike to this supernatural landmark, which you can reach via the 4km Montpelier Loop Trail. For the most effective experience go at dusk, giving you time to drink in those views of the Wicklow Mountains at sunset before a final ascent to the site under moonlight. Word to the wise: it’s thought to be haunted by a great big black cat, so take an extra torch – you know, just in case.
8. Hike your way to a flatwater kayaking spot
Nick Doran of Kayaking.i.e hails the region as a real gem for kayakers. “The rivers in the Wicklow mountains are as incredible as they are hectic. They’re completely rain reliant. So when it hammers rain you have to be prepared to drop everything and just pick up and go.”
However, one way to ensure year-round kayaking experiences come rain or shine, particularly for beginners, is to book a group trip with the group, who can provide lessons on the impressive Lough Bray along with other spots around the region. “Half the adventure is hiking to these places as they’re tricky places to access,” says Doran. “They're all great flatwater kayaking spots, but we can also work all the way up to the famous Liffey, with slow-moving rivers with a weir every half kilometre providing a more challenging paddle."
Crucially, don’t get on the water without a guide if you’re not experienced, stresses Doran, whose team also run sunset kayaking tours down into Dublin Bay and beyond.
9. Paddle some of the ‘source to sea’ trip
Of course, if you do classify yourself as a seasoned kayaker and fancy dialling the gnarly up to 11, there are plenty of places for it in the Wicklow Mountains.
“The Source of the Liffey is one of the toughest rivers in Ireland,“ explains Doran. "It’s about 3km of constant class 5, at the very start of the river; it’s really full-on, and once you reach the start of the Upper Liffey, which is constant class 3 and 4, it is possible to continue on down the entire way into Dublin.
One kayaker, Tom Dunphy, who you can see in the video above, recently did just this, working his way through on a 'Source to Sea trip’ all the way from the Wicklow Mountains to Dublin Bay, taking him 18 hours.
Clearly you won’t have 18 hours and paddling for that long in tough waters can be dangerous for even proven kayakers, but you can always try easier stretches of the river, scouting where you believe your level of kayaking is at.
"Wicklow's Animo Bridge is a good place to start," says Doran., "Animo's the name locals give the upper section of the Avimore, and that’s the first section of it. You’d need to be kayaking for a year at least before taking on any of this solo. From there you can go on towards Lara Bridge and even as far as what’s called the ‘meeting of the waters’ near Rathdrum. The further you go the more difficult the descent becomes, but there’s nothing stopping you from taking on a few of the easier stretches of the 'source to sea'."
10. Cycle to a big waterfall
A sumptuous east-to-west mountain pass with an elevation of 503m complete with views to die for, the Sally Gap is a rite of passage for road cyclists in Wicklow. But if you fancy checking it out on two wheels yourself, why not combine it with a visit to a beautiful waterfall?
“The Wicklow Gap is spectacular and so too are the Glenmacnass Waterfalls,” says Doran, “which are about 600ft in length, and you can cycle right down next to them. From the bottom of it, it'll take you about 15km to get up to the top of the hill next to the waterfall. You can hop off your bike and stand with your feet a couple of inches from the water. and after checking that out it’s about a 15km which brings you straight to the Sally Gap, which is popular with cyclists but a beautiful sight."
For a really good ride, carry on the Sally Gap and head towards Lough Tay Viewing Point, where you'll have incredible vistas over arguably the most beautiful lake of them all in Lough Tay.