Our Hike In Ireland’s Wicklow Mountains National Park
The day following our wild ride around the countryside in and around Glendalough, Bob and I wanted to get up close and personal with nature by going for a hike in Wicklow Mountains National Park. The predawn light nudged me from my sleep around 4 a.m., and excitement snuck into my consciousness as I thought about the hike we would take in the morning.
After a stop at the Visitor Centre near our inn, Bob and I decided to tackle the Red Trail within Wicklow Mountains National Park . The Red Trail is called Spinc and the Wicklow Way (“An Spinc” is Irish for pointed hill). Our planned hike would cover a distance of 11 kilometers not including an extra 3 kilometers or so to get to the head of the trail.
From the Wicklow Mountains National Park Visitor Centre, on a perfectly gorgeous morning, Bob and I crossed the Glenealo River near St. Kevin’s Monastic Retreat and followed a section of the Derrybawn Woodland Trail towards the Upper Lake. We sauntered along in dappled shade for the first couple of kilometers and scanned the mossy green glens bordering the trail for any signs of wildlife.
I was excited to come upon our first patch of shamrocks, the plant associated with the good luck of the Irish.
Initially, the trail followed the course of a stream that had numerous plunge pools. The constant sound of splashing water was music to my ears. There in the cool hollows of the forest, we thankfully were protected from the increasing intensity of the sun.
The trail climbed steeply up along Poulanass Waterfall, and led us through the scenic Glendalough oak woodlands. The name Poulanass is taken from the Irish “Poll an Eas” which means “hole of the waterfall”. As we began the steep climb, the cool air stirred and gently washed over our damp skin giving us a refreshing boost.
At stream’s edge, many moss-covered boulders invited us to stop and stay awhile, while the stream bottom was strewn with water-worn rocks that tempted us to explore the flowing waters.
After a brief rest, it was time to undertake what would be the most challenging part of the climb. Before we got very far, Bob and I were surprised to spot a Red Squirrel. At the Visitor Centre, a winsome Irishman named Kevin had chatted with us about the rarity of the Red Squirrels in Ireland and how they are endangered, so we had never expected to see one.
We continued on our way, never anticipating such a marvelously constructed series of steps to assist hikers to the top of the plateau. More than 600 of them were creatively designed to facilitate walking when the conditions are wet and slippery.
A thin veneer of micro-sized chicken wire was secured to the wooden steps by thousands of large, rounded staples. The staples had been pounded only half way into the wood so that their rounded projections afforded even further grip. I was surprised that the surface didn’t affect the comfort of our walking, and I thought, “how ingenious!”
Our stamina was really starting to be put to the test. The temperature was mounting, and our legs were really feeling the strain.
The shaded trail ascended through evergreen forests and then suddenly broke out into a spacious lookout point. A spectacular view of the Lower Lake and Glendalough Valley was the reward for such a grueling climb, and yet the trail was well-populated with hikers of all ages.
From the lookout, the trail skirts the top of the cliffs, and all along that 1.7-kilometer section, a boardwalk has been provided to help minimize the impact of all the foot traffic on the vegetation . It also made our passage easier, for rather than being concerned about our footing, we could concentrate on the panoramic views.
Bob and I were totally exposed to the elements, and the sun was blistering hot, so we didn’t mind the blustery thermal winds rising up the cliffs and sweeping over us. It was nice to have an overview of the Glenealo Valley where the waters of Upper and Lower Lakes shimmered in the sunlight.
Around noon, Bob and I found a lovely little promontory for our picnic lunch, and from that perch, we observed the myriad hikers passing by on their way to the Glenealo Valley Trail. That trail descends into the valley and eventually circles back to the ruins of a Miners’ Village on the far side of the river.
We couldn’t think of a more perfect spot to have our lunch. The brisk breeze helped to dry our sweat-soaked clothing while we munched tasty sandwiches, and then we were ready to turn off in the direction of Lugduff Mountain.
Bob and I took a wrong turn somewhere and ended up on the trail heading down into the valley. We learned from a fellow hiker that we had missed a red directional waymarker, so we would have to retrace our steps for a short distance. Bob and I were so absorbed in the view of the ruins far below, that we weren’t too concerned about walking a few extra steps.
It was nice to have a bird’s-eye view of the historic village because we planned to visit it the following day.
The next morning was, yet again, an unseasonably hot day, for our inspection of the miners’ village. We investigated the remains of a number of buildings that sat amongst a boulder-strewn area.
We tried to get some sense of the life the miners and their families would have endured in such a remote, rather austere location.
The village had, however, been strategically located next to the brisk Glenealo River so the residents had easy access to an abundant supply of fresh, clean water. In the distance is the mountain we climbed the day before.
So, back to the previous day’s hike on the mountain….we had to get back on track. As we trod along, Bob and I had a great view of the distant Mullacor Mountain that sits at a height of 665 meters.
Ahead of us on the trail, a number of hikers could be seen at another lookout. As we trudged along the heath, dry, crispy vegetation reminded us of the harsh conditions at that elevation. Our eye was on the goal of the next look-off.
We lingered a short while, enjoying the view,
but then thought we had better pick up the pace and put some distance behind us. Bob and I had a long way to go before Glendalough would be back in our sights.
The rugged cliffs facing us on the other side of the river valley looked quite desolate and barren, but we soon saw with our binoculars that hikers were over there exploring the cliffs just as we were.
It was necessary for Bob and me to cut across the open stretch of the mountaintop plateau in order to reconnect with the Red Trail. Another group of hikers preceded us but were soon out of sight.
Our observations of the surrounding area became more intense because we were hoping to catch sight of some of the wild goats or deer that live there. Their scat was everywhere in the wet peat at trail side.
Guided by only the sparse remains of a wooden fence, Bob and I found our way up and over the mountaintop and continued on our way for another 2.5 kilometers.
As is often the case, Bob saw the Red Deer (Cervus elaphus) before I did. It wasn’t the hoped-for stag, but we were thrilled nonetheless.
Red Deer are native to Ireland and are usually found in mountain and moorland areas.
The deer was foraging amongst the sedges and shrubs before it eventually took notice of Bob and me and disappeared below the ridgeline.
It was easy to identify the junction of the Red Trail because a number of hikers came into sight as we crested the plateau.
They were a cheerful, chatty group, being led by a local guide, so we walked alongside for some distance.
Our energy was fading as Bob and I continued towards the backside of the plateau where the trail would join another known as Wicklow Way. We could see that the landscape was changing and could hardly wait to be in amongst the thick forest of trees; some shade would give us a break from the brutal heat. Some of the open areas along the way were put into use for pasturing sheep.
It was a sad moment when, at the junction with Wicklow Way, we saw that the trail deteriorated into simply a logging road bordered on both sides with heaps of logs and damaged trees.
In comparison, it seemed to us that the protected forest of Wicklow Mountain National Park encompassed a very small area.
For way too many kilometers, we were held hostage in the exposed and unattractive surroundings. We tried to keep cool by hopscotching from one patch of shade to the next.
As luck would have it, we were hiking on a Sunday, so work was at a standstill. Otherwise, that section of the Wicklow Way would have been downright offensive and risky, not to mention noisy.
Bob and I were so discouraged and exhausted that we opted for a shortcut back to the Upper Lake rather than seeing it through to the end connection with the Derrybawn Woodland Trail. The shortcut still followed the logging road but emerged adjacent to Poulanass Waterfalls. That is when we realized what a very narrow swath of trees separates the hiking trails of the National Park from the logging road.
The welcoming shade, once again, of the forest canopy was in stark contrast to the sun-baked exposure of the logging road, but we had only to peak through the trees to see it. The 4-hour hike had turned into a 6-hour odyssey because Bob and I dallied in talking to people and took frequent rest stops. Despite the back end of the trail, we had thoroughly enjoyed the outing, the day and the test of our stamina and determination.