The Ring of Kerry is a loop drive that circles the Iveragh Peninsula in County Kerry. It’s just 110 miles (176 km) long but is not a fast drive as its narrow and winding. And there’s lots of beautiful scenery and historic stops along the way, so take your time and a full day to enjoy this trip. The Iveragh peninsula has many ancient ring forts dotting the rocky land and this road offers the opportunity to easily explore several of them. Awe-inspiring vistas of a rugged coast, the central mountains (including the tallest mountain in Ireland), and on clear days the Beara Peninsula to the south, the Skellig Islands to the west and the Dingle peninsula on the Northern part of the drive (limited views and visibility on a cloudy or foggy days).
The Ring of Kerry is a very popular tourist destination and as it’s just wide enough to be driven by big tour buses the large tour companies aggressively advertise this area. But it’s much handier to have your own car here because of the freedom and flexibility this gives you. Start your drive at Kenmare and circle the Ring of Kerry in a clockwise direction. Stop as often as you want and for as long as you want; that’s the way I like to explore!
Using the clockwise route, the key sights you’ll encounter on the Ring of Kerry drive when you depart from Kenmare include:
1) Sneem: A charming small village not far from Kenmare. Sneem has a picturesque bridge, colorful homes and shops, two nice town squares, and is famous for its salmon fishing (and in the afternoon it’s a very popular stop for those large tour buses). You can see the Beara peninsula and its Caha mountains to the south on a good day.
2) Staigue Fort: One of the highlights of the Ring of Kerry drive, and one of the best preserved iron age sites (500 – 1000 BC) in Ireland. Stague Fort is a large ring fort, its walls up to 6 meters tall and 4 meters thick, and measuring 30 m in diameter. There’s a small entrance and historically the interior would have had wooden buildings or tents for the chief and his clan, but none of this internal infrastructure survives. You’ll need to turn off the main road and drive through narrow poorly developed side roads for about 5 km to reach it (drive carefully!). Situated near the crest of a hill, with dramatic views of pastoral land, the Beara Peninsula and Kenmare Bay, this was my favorite site in the Ring of Kerry drive!
3) Coomakesta Pass, on the western side of the Ring, offers great views over the ocean including, on clear days, Skellig Michel. From here you descend to the town of Waterville where you’ll find a Charlie Chaplin statue on the waterfront. Charlie Chaplin used to enjoy visiting this area and stayed at the Butler Arms Hotel with his wife.
4) Detour to Ballinskelligs (Skelling Ring on Hwy R567), a Gaelic village. Ruins of an ancient castle and abbey, and nice sand beach. Gets you away from the western part of the island when large numbers of the infamous tour buses transit the region.
5) Detour to Portmagee on Hwy 565. This is the departure point for boat trips to the Skellig islands. The Skellig Experience, a small museum highlighting the islands’ history and biodiversity, is on Valencia Island across the bridge from town. The museum gives an insight into the Skellig Islands and the natural history of the area.
The Skellig islands are worthy of further discussion. They are a pair of rugged conical islands 8 miles (12 km) off Valencia Island, the larger of the two being Skellig Michael, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Early christian Monks built a small settlement of beehive huts, oratories and churches on the rock and lived atop this rocky mound from the 6th – 12th centuries (during their time this was the furthest corner of the known world). A precipitous stairway leads over 200 meters up hill to the monk dwelling site, with a total of 2300 steps hand-carved out of the rock creating paths to the top and to other points on the island. This trail is very sheer and very dangerous, with no handrails, and this climb not to be lightly undertaken. It is not recommended for people who can’t climb well, who have balance or joint problems or who are traveling with small children. One of the B&B owners we stayed with told us that every year some tourists fall to their death on this island, so be cautious if you go here. There’s also a lighthouse on Skellig Michel. Access is limited to summer days with good weather, so even if you do want to make the journey be prepared to wait several days for appropriate conditions.
Little Skellig has steep cliffs with lots of sea birds, including large numbers of puffins.
6) Castle and Stone Fort Ruins. Located north of the town of Cahersiveen is Ballycarberry Castle: A picturesque ruined 16th century castle sitting by the Atlantic. There are two well-preserved ring forts nearby and quite close together: 1) Leacanabuile Stone Fort: Built around the 9th century, the walls are 3 m thick with four interior stone houses, 2) Cahergall Stone Fort: About 1000 years old. Larger ring but without the inner stone houses.
7) On the north shore of the Ring of Kerry you get nice views of the Dingle peninsula.
Besides just driving the Ring of Kerry, there’s lots of outdoor opportunities in this relatively unspoiled piece of Europe. There’s options for golfing, cycling, fishing, horseback riding and, of course, hiking. The 230 km hiking trail, the Kerry Way, is worth considering for those with lots of time who enjoy a long walk.
Our day on the Ring of Kerry was one of the best of this trip, so it is definitely recommended! But if your time is limited, I’d rank the road around the Dingle Peninsula as more scenic and more worthy of your time than the Ring of Kerry (but do both if you can). And that’s where we’re going next on our journey — the town of Dingle and the wonderful Dingle peninsula!
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