Glendalough, Ireland and Wicklow Mountains National Park
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Last week Cope and I spent a few days in Ireland sans kids (thanks, Mom!) to celebrate our 15th anniversary. We’d been to Dublin as a foursome a few years ago when we were still living in London, but on that trip we didn’t have a chance to explore the gorgeous Irish countryside. This time we did, and it was fabulous. Though of course (of course!) we’d like to go back again and explore even more. Here are some tips and photos from our three days exploring Glendalough, Ireland (in County Wicklow) and Wicklow Mountains National Park.
Wicklow Mountains National Park
We flew to Dublin rather than Galway thanks to the temperamental magic of frequent flier miles, and with only a few days to work with, we didn’t want to spend hours driving. We knew we wanted to spend most of our time hiking in the countryside.
Ireland has a wonderful system of medium- and long-distance national waymarked trails called Ways. If you’re so inclined, you can hike one of them from end to end over the course of days or weeks, staying in a different place along the route each night.
You can plan this type of trip on your own or hire one of many agencies to plan it for you and even transport some of your luggage. We didn’t have the time or organizational wherewithal to indulge in one of these multi-stop trips, but we did plant ourselves in Wicklow Mountains National Park adjacent to the Wicklow Way, which offers tastes of many of the types terrain you would encounter on a longer journey.
Getting to Glendalough
After taking the redeye from New York to Dublin, we drove south for about an hour from the airport to our B&B in Glendalough.
Day 1: Monastic City, Upper Lake, Lower Lake, Green Road
We spent the remainder of the first day exploring the ruins of a Monastic City, Glendalough’s Upper and Lower lakes and the woodsy Green Road. These beautiful sites are all within extremely close proximity, accessed behind the Glendalough visitor center, which somehow is both right in the middle of town and right in the middle of a forested, gently mountainous national park.
Day 2: Red Trail Hike
Day two we hiked the Red Trail, a “hill walk” and the longest of the trails at 11 kilometers, part of which coincides with the Wicklow Way. The Red Trail takes you up 600 stairs through the dark woods and then opens up onto stunning vistas high above the lakes. The bulk of the trail winds along the hilltops through grassy fields. Despite some semi-hardcore language in the trail guide about compasses and fitness levels, we did not find it the least bit treacherous.
Day 3: Powerscourt Estate, Orange Trail Hike
Day three we drove for 30 minutes to Powerscourt Estate, a much-celebrated mansion with lovely gardens and the highest waterfall in Ireland (which…beautiful, but not super-high). After a few hours of walking around and a quick and yummy lunch at Avoca Café, we headed back to Glendalough and spent the late afternoon on the Orange Trail, an 8 kilometer walk on wide paths through the woods that overlooks the town and monastic city in spots. We saw mountain goats in close proximity and I’m 80% sure we spent 80% of the trail in some sort of time warp hiking behind a young Dumbledore.
Where to Eat
Each morning we ate a hearty vegetarian Irish breakfast at the B&B, and each night we ended up at the cozy local pub for dinner and a drink among locals. Have a scroll through the photos and find details of where to eat, stay and play at the end of the post.
Scenes from the Monastic City: The Round Tower, which is nearly 1000 years old // I got all teary reading headstones at the graveyard
Upper and Lower Lakes and The Green Road Walk
This stunning area is both smack in the middle of a national park and practically smack in the middle of town.
The Red Trail (Spinc and the Wicklow Way)
The red trail was the source of my favorite views on this trip, and some of my favorite views in my lifetime.
The Orange Trail (Derrybawn Woodland Trail)
A more forested trail with a totally different character. It was fun to experience each trail’s different vibe.
Powerscourt Estate and Gardens
Not gonna lie, I’ve kinda run out of words. Here are some photos of this beautiful, sprawling estate and gardens.
Again, not exactly the tallest waterfall, except it is.
The town of Glendalough is tiny and bisected by one of those little winding Irish roads that’s more intense than it seems.
We loved this homey, family-run, quirky little place right at the edge of town. See below for details.
Where to Eat + Stay + Play in Glendalough, Ireland
The Wicklow Heather: Warm and cozy, friendly and full of locals in addition to the likes of us. They seem to have a room of requirement (to stick with the Harry Potter theme) — it looked full but they could always seat you in under five minutes. Try the Glendalough gin, with botanicals foraged from the local area — it’s unlike any gin I’ve tasted. The food is good (with much of it locally sourced from both land and sea), and we especially loved the soups.
Avoca Café at Powerscourt Estate: An indoor-outdoor café in the mansion with quite good, self-serve food and plenty of seating. Coffe and tea, wine, baked goods, soups, salads, sandwiches and more. Worth a visit for lunch or a snack.
Breakfast at Bracken B&B: Lots of options — we went slightly off-menu with a vegetarian Irish Breakfast (fried eggs, baked beans, griddled mushrooms and tomato, buttered toast) that made me nostalgic for the veg English breakfasts I’d occasionally eat in London. Breakfast is well-made and well-served directly by the owner.
Bracken B&B: A sweet, homey little bed and breakfast with just a few rooms, run by Jim and Judy. They are a lovely, extremely welcoming and accommodating couple with grown children and very young grandchildren, one of whom was visiting and cooing in the other room while we ate breakfast on Sunday morning. Rooms are small with very comfortable beds and tiny but very functional bathrooms. (I know that sounds silly, but you never quite know in Europe.) There’s nothing fancy about the place or the price, and that felt just right to us. They’re only open for part of the year, and we had the honor of closing them up for the season as we walked out the door Monday morning.
Wicklow Mountains National Park: Lots of hiking and more, pictured and described above. Just do it!
Powerscourt Estate, Gardens and Waterfall: A great place to spend a few hours. We mostly ambled around the gardens and grounds, but there’s lots of shopping, two golf courses, and even a dollhouse museum and a playground if you’ve got kids (or if that’s your thing).
Glendalough Craft Shop: Right in town, this is the only shopping we did. There are lots of places to buy wooly items and pottery. Town is a little hard to walk in since there aren’t sidewalks and the roads are narrow and winding, but a quick drive with a few stops will get you to lots of nice shops to buy locally made goods.