Today was day 5 of our road trip and we decided to take a break from driving and spend two nights in Kenmare. There is so much to see and do in this area, including exploring Ireland's oldest National Park.
The Irish have a strong sense of belonging to the land, which made the forced removals and emigrations of the past all the more heartbreaking. This small island contains an astounding diversity of landscapes - from rolling green hills and pastureland, to heather and heath, boglands and wetlands, dramatic cliffs and rocky coastlines. There are 6 National Parks in the Republic of Ireland that preserve this bio diversity - Wicklow Mountains , Killarney, Connemara, Wild Nephin, and Glenveagh (we'll be visiting 5 of the 6).
70 percent of Ireland’s land area is devoted to forestry and agriculture -including the sheep, dairy, and cattle industries, as well as crops of wheat, barley, sugar beet, and potatoes, but forests are notable for their absence. The early Celts practiced rudimentary slash and burn farming. Later English colonial harvesting of timber exacerbated the deforestation process. Today Ireland has the smallest proportion of forested land of any EU nation (around 10 percent) which makes National Parks like these vital in their roles as the guardians of the country’s unique geography and ecology.
Killarney National Park's 25,000-acres are dotted with ruined castles and abbeys, harbor the only native herd of red deer, and contain the best-preserved old growth oak, yew, and alder groves in all of Ireland. This park is also part of the famous Ring of Kerry scenic drive which makes it a popular tourist destination. We decided to avoid the crowds and spend as little time in our car as possible by exploring the park on horseback, on foot, and by jaunting cart.
We started out with breakfast and a quick stroll around the village of Kenmare which was once the center of Irish lace making in the area. This historic village has its own stone circle, a holy well dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and an ancient stone bridge which fords the river.
From Kenmare we headed 10 minutes down the road to River Valley Stables for a trail ride. We were hoping to ride through the National Park but found out that the trail wound through country roads along the estuary instead. It was still beautiful and a great way to explore the area.
After a quick lunch at the Shire restaurant in Kilarney (the village not the NP - super busy and touristy!), we visited Ross Castle with the intention of taking a boat ride on the lake. Unfortunately a large tour group beat us to it and the boats were fully booked, so we made our way to Kate Kearney's Cottage where we parked our car and hiked up to the Gap of Dunloe. It is a steady hours uphill walk (2 if you are a slow walker), but the views were spectacular, and it was well worth the effort.
From the Gap of Dunloe we drove back along the lake to Muckross House. This magnificent manor house once hosted Queen Victoria and her entourage. After exploring the house and grounds (definitely worth it!) we hopped on a jaunting cart to visit nearby Muckross Abby which has an ancient old Yew tree growing in the courtyard. Each of the horse and buggies is owned by a family who has operated in the park for years and pass on their business to the next generation. The young guy who took us out offered Rachael the opportunity to drive which was so much fun!
Our final stop of the day was at Ladies View (named for Queen Victoria's ladies who admired the viewpoint), where Rachael just had to pose in her cloak for an epic pic and we enjoyed a cup of tea and the most delicious white chocolate, berry cheesecake I've ever tasted!
Honestly, getting out of the car and finding alternative ways to explore the park was the best decision we could have made. We’ve visited a lot of National parks in the US and the experience is always so much richer if you can get away from the crowds and into the back country. Killarney was no different.
Hacking in Ireland, Gap of Dunloe (middle pics), Jaunting Cart to Muckross Abbey, Ladies View