Hiking in Glendalough, Ireland: Wicklow Mountains National Park
Updated: Mar 7
In between visiting historic sites, Hermann and I did a little hiking while visiting Ireland. But this is a different hiking experience for us since it was a combination of exploring nature and visiting historic ruins at the same time. Sounds interesting doesn’t it? That’s why we added it to our two-week itinerary for exploring Ireland. It was worth a hike (or walk) to the waterfalls, two lakes and a visit to the monastic city all in one day.
Glendalough, in Irish, Gleann Dá Loch, meaning "The Glen of the Two Lakes", is a valley carved by glaciers during the last Ice Age. The valley is located in the Wicklow Mountains National Park, the largest of six national parks in Ireland. Two lakes can be found here, the Lower and the Upper Lake. Above the upper lake is where a bronze age tomb (now known as ‘St. Kevin’s Bed') can be found, although it is not accessible to the public. Kevin, who later became an Irish saint, spent seven years living in this cave as a hermit after being ordained.
There are signs to all the historic sites and hiking trails you want to follow so you have an option to decide where you want to go. Visiting the area is free except for parking at the Upper Lake and the exhibition at the Visitor Center. The exhibition is worth checking before heading out to the monastic site. In fact, I highly recommend it. It is a good introduction to what you will see later on as you explore the sites.
The monastic settlement is located near the visitor center. You will see the round tower so you won’t miss it. It stands about 108 feet high. This tower called “Cloigtheach”, meaning bell tower, was built by the monks living in the monastery almost 1000 years ago.
The monastic city is an early medieval 6th century settlement, founded by St. Kevin, first abbot of Glendalough. St. Kevin was born to a noble family in Leinster. As a child, it was said that he had a horrible temper and disliked other people, but he loved animals. He was sent to the monastery as a young boy to live among the monks. He studied for the priesthood and later attracted followers by his teachings and acts of miracles. He lived to be 120 years old.
The remains of what was once an active monastery can be found hidden among the lush forest in Glendalough. This monastic site became one of the great centers of learning during the early Christian era in Ireland. That is until the destruction by the English forces in 1398 left it in ruins. The ruins are only a fraction of what the settlement had in its heyday. There were workshops, guesthouses, farm buildings, to name a few (a mini rendition or model of the whole settlement can be seen at the visitors's center). It was a city in a sense that they had everything a community of monks, lay people, and guests or pilgrims' needed. Today, the settlement continues as a church and a place for pilgrimage.
So, why is St. Kevin's Church better known as St. Kevin's Kitchen? That puzzled me at first but I found out that people believed that the bell tower of the church was a chimney for a kitchen.
Besides the Round Tower and St. Kevin’s Church/Kitchen, look for St. Kevin’s Cross, a Celtic cross, also called “sun cross”. This type of cross, found in many historic sites around Ireland, is a fine example of how early Christians incorporated pagan beliefs (worship of the sun and moon) on to the cross. Local legend says that the Celtic cross was first introduced by Saint Patrick.
A local legend also says that wrapping your arms around the width of St. Kevin’s cross with your fingertips touching, will cause your wish to be granted. I didn’t know it at that time, darn!. But then again I don't think it will work for short people like me.
After exploring the monastic site we followed the trail to the Upper Lake, skipping the Lower Lake for later. The Upper Lake was once connected to the Lower Lake, but accumulated sediments divided the lake into two. The Upper Lake has a spectacular view of the mountains. We could have stayed a little while so we could enjoy the beauty and serenity of the place but the wind was relentless. We just took a few pictures and turned around to see the other sights nearby.
Near the Upper Lake is a stone fort of unknown date. It was suggested that it might have been a stone enclosure for cattle. Some scholars describe it as a fort used by the early people of the valley. It was also suggested that it may have served as a meeting place or even shelter for pilgrims. Small crosses can be seen nearby.
The Reefert Church is located near the Upper Lake car park, close to the Information Office. The name Reefert derives from the Irish ‘Righ Fearta’ meaning, ‘Royal Burial Place’. It is a burial site of the chiefs of the O’Toole family. It dates from the 11th century, built in Romanesque style, but it might have been built on the site of an earlier church. The surrounding graveyard contains a number of stone crosses and slabs, too old that you can’t recognize what was written on them and who was buried there and when.
There are nine trails with different difficulties around Glendalough. You have options for a network of forest paths depending on your allotted time and condition. We only had one day, not enough time to explore all the trails so we had to choose. We chose the easy one, the pink route to Poolanass waterfalls.
In Irish ‘Poll an Eas’ means ‘hole of the waterfall’. The trails are mostly even pathways around the two lakes, but the one that leads to the waterfall has steep steps, though not difficult. Above the waterfall’s viewing point the trail continues, leading to the Spinc ridge overlooks. A spectacular view I’m sure, but unfortunately the weather was not so nice that day so we skipped it.
Going back down we followed the trail to St. Kevin’s cell. Take note, you might miss the remains of the cabin if you are not looking closely, as we did. While we were looking at the lake below, we didn’t notice that the stone we were standing on is the remains of St. Kevin’s cabin. The only sign indicating the site was on a piece of wood attached to the barrier fence.
If you have time, you can visit the Miners' Village, also in Glendalough, following on foot the Miners' Road (purple route) from the upper parking lot.