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Killarney National Park is one of the most beautiful spots in Ireland, a lush swath of hills, ancient forests, shimmering lakes and tempting trails. Here are the top 10 things to do there.
I’m pretty sure a ghost stole my glove at Muckross Abbey in Ireland’s Killarney National Park, but in case I just dropped it, please keep an eye out for it if you’re wandering through.
Ghosts aside, there is no question that wandering is the best thing to do in this stunning national park just 6 km (3.6 miles) outside the town of Killarney. Located in Country Kerry in Southwestern Ireland, Killarney is one of the most popular stops on the Ring of Kerry, a 179-km (111-mile) loop around the Iveragh Peninsula, and Killarney National Park is the emerald in the crown.
About Killarney National Park
Ireland’s oldest national park, it was established in 1932 when Arthur Vincent and his parents-in-law donated the Muckross Estate, the core of the park, to the Irish Republic in memory of Arthur’s wife Maude. Sadly, she’d died of pneumonia three years before.
The park has since been expanded and became a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1981.
Is Killarney National Park free? Yes, entrance is free. So is parking.
The setting is simply gorgeous. Crawling down the foothills of the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks mountains to its three famous lakes, the Upper Lake, Muckross Lake and Lough Leane, the park is ideal for outdoor activity, and covers 26,000 acres of woodlands, waterfalls and walking trails.
If you’re planning a trip to the Ring of Kerry, you won’t want to give this beauty a miss.
In addition to the park’s earthy charms you’ll find landmarks such as Muckross House and Gardens; Muckross Traditional Farms and the romantic (as well as haunted by a glove-stealing ghost) ruins of Muckross Abbey.
Short on time and want to see it all? You can sign up for a Highlights of Killarney Town and National Park Experience Tour. Find more information here.
A Trip to Killarney
I spent a soul-enriching five days exploring Killarney National Park, a solo trip filled with rambles through forests of ancient oaks and yew, and bike trips along lakes of pale silver and startling blue.
It was slow travel at its best, and much better than the fleeting drive by I did with my husband on a previous road trip around the Ring of Kerry.
(Not that I don’t love road trips with my husband, especially the kind where you stop for five minutes at all the big landmarks and then race back to the car so you can knock another sight off your list. But it was, after all, our last day in Ireland and we were trying to cram in the entire Southwest.)
Can you do a Ring of Kerry day trip from Dublin? Yes. Check out a tour here.
Having seen Killarney National Park at two different speeds, however, I can tell you it’s better the longer you linger. So press the pause button, take some time and check out these top things to do there.
Top 10 Things to Do in Killarney National Park
Visit Muckross House
The focal point for visitors to the park, Muckross House is a grand Victorian manor built in 1843. It was built by the British architect William Burn for the wealthy Herbert family and polished up – at a massive cost – in preparation for Queen Victoria’s visit in 1861.
Did Queen Victoria Ruin the Herbert Family?
It’s hard to imagine how coveted a royal visit was, and no expense was spared. The gardens were expanded, curtains for the dining room especially commissioned and woven in Paris (you can see them if you tour the house), and everything from new furniture to dishware was purchased.
Let’s keep in mind this was for a two-day royal stay.
Be that as it may, it’s said the extravagance contributed greatly to the Herbert’s eventual financial ruin.
But I’m not doing the family justice. They were passionate about improving the land, were active in politics and reportedly did their best to help their tenants during the Irish Famine, which began a scant two years after the house was completed.
Today the legacy of Muckross House lives on, and you can tour the 65-room mansion and pretend that you are as much a sought-after guest as Queen Victoria was, and that the dining room curtains were specially woven for you.
Travel tip: The cafe onsite is a good spot for a break.
Stroll Through Muckross Gardens
After you’ve toured the house, explore the gardens. Plants flourish in the mild climate of County Kerry, and Muckross Gardens are famous for the rhododendrons that bloom from April to July.
Travel tip: There is a fee to tour Muckross House but access to the gardens are free.
Check out Muckross Traditional Farms
The Muckross Estate is not all about aristocrats and their fancy houses. To see how the rural folk lived in the 1930s and 40s you can stop in at the Muckross Traditional Farms (open seasonally).
Here you can tour the cottages of different workers, see the farm animals or watch down-to-earth endeavours like churning butter and baking bread – a good family outing.
Travel tip: Shuttle buses run regularly to Muckross Traditional Farms from Muckross House.
Take a Boat Tour on Muckross Lake
A few hundred metres from Muckross House is the Boathouse, which lies on the shores of Muckross Lake, Ireland’s deepest lake. Here you can take a boat tour to Innisfallin Island, Dinis Cottage and the Meeting of the Waters.
Travel tip: If you don’t feel like a boat tour, you can also walk, cycle or jog the Muckross Lake Loop. This will take you to Dinis Cottage and the Meeting of the Waters on the western edge of the lake. The total trail length is somewhere around 15 km (9.3 miles), so prepared for a lengthy walk. Also, beware of speedy cyclists.
A different option for a lake cruise is to sign up for a Combination Killarney Boat Cruise and Jaunting Car Tour. Check prices, protocols and availability here.
Visit Dinis Cottage, the Old Weir Bridge and the Meeting of the Waters
Dinis Cottage dates back to the 1700s. This historic cottage was built by the Herberts and was used as a hunting lodge. It’s a lovely rest stop, and there are two main reasons to visit:
- For the tea. Dinis Cottage has been serving thirsty customers for 200 years. There is seating inside and out.
- For the graffiti. In the 19th century it became a trend for newly-engaged couples to scratch their initials into the glass windows of the cottage with their diamond rings for luck, and the earliest markings are from the 1820s. Kind of sweet.
Dinis Cottage is a jumping off point for a walk to the Old Weir Bridge and the Meeting of the Waters.
This ancient Old Weir Bridge dates back to the 1500s and is located at the Meeting of the Waters where the three great lakes of Killarney – Upper Lake, Muckross Lake and the lovely Lough Leane – meet.
Take a Side Trip to Torc Waterfall
Visiting Torc Waterfall is one of the most popular outdoor activities in Killarney. An 18-metre (60-foot) cascade of froth, it even has a legend behind it. Or, more accurately, underneath it.
The word ‘torc’ means wild boar in Gaelic, and the story is that the falls were created by a cursed man who was doomed to turn into a wild boar each night.
Versions vary but here’s the gist of it: After his cave lair was discovered, he became filled with rage, turned into flame, and jumped into a lake called the Devil’s Punchbowl. The lake burst its side and created a waterfall, which now hides the entrance to his home. So there you have it, the legend of Torc Waterfall.
A hike to the waterfall can be added on to the Muckross Lake Loop Trail, though it will add a few kilometres. If you’re driving through Killarney National Park, parking is about 200 metres away from the falls.
It should take about 2.5 hours to hike to Torc Waterfall from Muckross House.
Visit Ross Castle
This is Ireland so there are bound to be more legends, so let’s move on to Ross Castle. Sitting at the edge of Lough Leane (Lower Lake), the castle dates back to the 1400s.
This was the stronghold of the O’Donoghue chieftains, and it’s said O’Donoghue Mór himself slumbers under the lake. On May 1st every seven years he rises on his white steed, circles the lake and, if you see him, it will bring you great fortune. (Much better fortune, presumably, than spotting a cursed wild boar.)
A Unique Way to See Ross Castle
Get out on the water with a Killarney 2–Hour Kayaking and Ross Castle Tour. Check prices, safety protocols and availability here.
Go Hiking in Killarney National Park
In my opinion the real beauty of Killarney is getting away from the crowds, so if you’re mobile plan for at least a short hike. There are so many hiking trails in the park, from easy multi-access paths to challenging ones.
Just the thought of hiking here brings back memories of woodsy scents, lakeside scenery, winding trails and, quite often, rain. Be prepared.
If you’re lucky you’ll see a herd of Red Deer, which were nearly extinct 50 years ago. A good place to spot them is in Reenadinna Wood, a fern-covered forest you can get to on the Muckross Lake Trail.
A few other hiking trails in Killarney to keep in mind are:
- Rated easy is the Lakeside Walk from the main entrance to Muckross House.
- The 2-hour Arthur Young’s Walk between Lough Leane and Muckross Lake was established in 1776 and is rated moderate.
- The Dinis Cottage and the Old Weir Bridge walk on the western side of Muckross Lake is rated moderate.
- The Torc Waterfall Walk is a 6.3 kilometre hike from Muckross House to the waterfall with a bit of a climb, or you can add it onto the Muckross Lake Loop.
- The 5 km Knockreer Circular Walk is a paved path that takes you past some of the national park’s top sights.
Exploring by bicycle is one of the best things to do in Killarney National Park. In fact, I’d rate it as one of the best things to do in Ireland.
A cycle path in town takes you to the entrance to Killarney National Park and you can pedal around many areas of the estate.
The one-way loop from Muckross Lake to Dinis Cottage and the Old Weir Bridge can get busy, but it’s a great ride.
Where Can You Rent a Bicycle in Killarney?
I rented a bicycle from a roadside cycling place near my hotel – I’m not even sure they have a website. Here are some others: Cycling Killarney, Killarney Bike Rentals and O’Sullivan’s Cycles. Pick up a cycling map when you rent your bike.
Commune With the Past in Muckross Abbey
Finally, don’t miss a stop at Muckross Abbey. Remember the ghost who stole my glove? My brand new black leather glove I had literally bought a couple of hours earlier? It disappeared at the abbey within minutes of me arriving there.
I was sort of making it up about a ghost stealing it (kind of, though only partly), but there is something about the abbey that feels …. occupied.
It’s a roofless romantic relic, a yew tree growing atmospherically from its cloister, and it was almost always deserted when I went there.
Of course, the more I researched the more I learned about the abbey’s brooding bloody past. It was founded in 1448 as a Franciscan friary after mysterious music was discovered emanating from a rock here, though an earlier site may date as far back as the 6th century.
The founder was Donal McCarthy Mor, also known as Dan the Feathers, a fierce foe of the English.
Over the next 150 years, in the battles between Catholicism and Protestantism, many of the friars suffered horrific fates at the hands of Elizabeth I’s troops and by Oliver Cromwell’s forces. More than one person was tortured to death here.
Irish chieftains, poets and monks are buried here, a hermit lived in a coffin for a decade (I’m not making that up), and, while Donal McCarthy Mor is said to haunt the Lake Hotel, where I happened to stay, I feel quite sure that he walks the grounds here too.
So that wraps up my summary of things to do in Killarney National Park. I hope it gave you loads of ideas for your own trip. If you’re staying for more than an afternoon, here are some hotel suggestions.
The Lake Hotel
I loved my 5-day stay at the 4-star Lake Hotel, which is located on Killarney Lake near the national park. It’s a luxury hotel, a bit creaky, and you can tell that guests have been returning here for years.
Address: Lake Hotel, On the Lake Shore, Muckross Road, Killarney, Co. Kerry, V93 RR59, Ireland
Check rates here.
The Brehon Hotel & Angsana Spa
After my week at the Lake Hotel I moved to the Brehon Killarney Hotel, which is closer to the town – about a 15-minute walk. The design was inspired by Muckross House and I was here for a TBEX conference. It’s more modern than the Lake Hotel, and on a busier road but is also near the park.
Address: The Brehon Hotel & Angsana Spa, Muckross Rd, Poulnamuck, Killarney, Co. Kerry, V93 RT22, Ireland
Check rates here.
Park Hotel Kenmare
If you prefer to be away from Killarney in a more quiet town, the Park Hotel Kenmare in Kenmare is top luxury, historic, and has one of the best spas in Ireland. It’s about 20 km (12.5) from Killarney.
Address: Park Hotel Kenmare, Shelbourne St, Kenmare, Co. Kerry, V93 X3XY, Ireland
Check rates here.