As part of a walking holiday which I’ve now done a few times in Ireland, we get to spend a whole day in Killarney National Park and around the Muckross estate which seems to be an activity that crops up rarely on most group itineraries so I thought it would be worth a mention!
The park seems pretty small when you look at it on the map but there’s actually so much to do that you could spend a couple of days exploring and still come back again to revisit some favourite spots or discover something new. Of course, a good pair of hiking shoes will be absolutely necessary as there is a quite a bit of walking on uneven surfaces if you really want to see something of the hidden gems in the park, but you could also easily spend a day in the grounds around Muckross House itself without having to do too much walking and still getting to see plenty.
One of my favourite walks in Ireland is in fact around the edge of Muckross Lake which is the middle of the 3 lakes of Killarney. I tend to start the walk from the main road which leads off towards the Ring of Kerry (driving much further in this direction on a bus would cause a problem due to some points where narrow tunnels have been cut into the rock to allow traffic through). There is a large lay-by where the path starts towards Dinas Cottage and the Meeting of the Waters which you’ll find after about a mile. Dinas Cottage is an olde worlde building now used as a tea room, but there are also some restrooms at the back which I’d recommend using as it’ll be your last chance before you get to Muckross House at the end of the walk. The Meeting of the Waters is a stunningly beautiful spot which could entice you to stay all day – there is a small viewing area behind Dinas Cottage where you can sit and put your feet in the water. It’s pretty secluded though a well known spot in the area and you’ll often see small boats full of people passing through on the Gap of Dunloe tour either coming to or from Ross Castle on the Lower Lake. The Old Weir Bridge is often used as a backdrop for wedding photos here as its a stunningly romantic location but if you’re venturing into the water, don’t go too far as the currents are pretty strong because this is in fact where the 3 lakes meet – you are in fact on an island at this point with the Upper Lake ahead of you beyond the bridge, the Lower Lake to the right, and Muckross of the Middle Lake to your left.
Back on the trail around Muckross Lake (going back past Dinas Cottage) you will continue along the paved road often used by cyclists and other walkers, to the Brickeen Bridge which takes you from Dinas Island back to the mainland and on into the forest. The area is well known for a huge variety of vegetation including the Arbutus or Strawberry tree which locals seem particularly proud of. It normally flowers around October though when the strawberrys can be picked from the tree and eaten, although I’ve only ever found to taste rather sour and they’re probably best used in jam at the most! There is also plenty of Yew, Rhodedendrons, garlic in May, gorse (or furze), and you’ll also see some Mountain Ash as well as the remains of a few Elm trees which were all killed off around 30-40 years ago following the outbreak of Dutch Elm disease. There are also many Blackthorn bushes which is what gave the area its name – Cill Airne in Irish means ‘Church of the Sloes’. Sloes are the fruit of the Blackthorn which are best picked after the first frost sometime in October – I regularly pick them in the woods around where I live to make Sloe Gin which is normally ready by Christmas as a warming treat!
The leaf coverage is pretty dense in the summer months but also throughout the winter, and this means that even if the sun is strong or if it’s raining you don’t tend to get too wet or sunburnt! However, the climate in this part of the world is generally rather mild throughout the year so its easy to walk at any time.
You’ll pass a few of the buildings left over from when the area was used for copper mining and some of the remains of open cast mining before you get to what looks like an old gateway behind which there’s a footpath leading off into the forest. This is the mossy woods trail and will end up back at Muckross House having passed some great views across Muckross Lake towards Devil’s Island and Torc Mountain.
On arrival at the house there is a good opportunity to get some lunch in the Garden Restaurant before exploring the extensive gardens with a huge arboretum, stream garden and rock garden. The glass houses are not open to the public but you can walk around the walled garden where there are many fruit trees growing against the walls.
Following this, you can take another walk (or ride the minibus) around the Muckross Traditional Farms. There is an admission fee but you can buy a joint ticket to include a tour of Muckross House. The farms are extensive and are all working with staff often dressed traditionally and all happy to explain their traditional working processes. There is a small piggery and occasionally you’ll find someone baking bread in one of the farm buildings where you can often also find a peat fire burning in the hearth. There are a couple of the enormous, yet very placid, Irish Wolfhounds who look rather threatening at first due to their size but in fact are rather dismissive to any attention at all from visitors and seem to spend most of their day sleeping!
The tour of the house will introduce you to the period in the mid 19th century when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert came to visit with their entourage. For the sake of a 3 day visit, the owners of the house at the time seem to have spent a huge amount of money on the property in preparation for the visit in the hope that they would have been given a title which would of course have brought money in, in the long run. However, due to the unfortunate and rather tragic death of Prince Albert just a few months after their visit to Killarney, Victoria went into morning and Killarney and the Muckross Estate and its occupants were forgotten and their affairs drifted into bankruptcy pretty quickly. The house and estate is now in the ownership of the nation and managed by the Office of Public Works along with the rest of the National Park.
Lastly worth a mention is the spectacular Torc Waterfall. There are many waterfalls in the area some of which are rather hidden away, and even though I mentioned it in my write up about the Ring of Kerry, Torc is always worth a mention as it really maintains a special place in my heart not least for its beauty and the power of the water as it gushes down the mountain. Many of the waterfalls in the area can be rather difficult to access but Torc is only about a 20 minute walk from the house, signposted and down a footpath full of rhodedendron bushes which are extremely colourful in the May/June, so a pleasant walk. You can also take one of the famous jaunting cars (horse & cart ride) from the house to the Torc Waterfall or back into town through the National Park.
Muckross is a fantastic day out for individuals, groups, and families and can be done rather inexpensively even if you do choose to go and visit the house. There is a picnic area too so you could pack up your lunch if you prefer not to use the restaurant. One of the best things about the estate though is its convenience to Killarney (30 minute walk/15 jaunting car ride/5-10 minute drive) so is a superb way to really take in the beauty of the area surrounding the town and shouldn’t be missed on any visit to Ireland’s south west.