Hiking in Glendalough: Cliff Walk

Glendalough Cliff Walk White Route

Have you ever visited a place so surreally beautiful and eerie that it felt like you're in a fantasy novel? Well, I have now. That place goes by the name Glendalough, co. Wicklow. I recently came across a photo of the Glendalough Valley while googling "hiking routes in Wicklow", and well, the rest is history. To conquer the cliffs I had seen in the photo (similar to the one I took above) we would have to select the White Route, also known as the Glendalough Spinc and Glenealo Valley walk, the most difficult and challenging hiking route described as 'strenuous' in the trail map. 'Navigational experience needed', it said. 'Extreme caution'. Sounds perfect.

As I mentioned in my previous post about the Sugarloaf Mountain, I only recently discovered how surprisingly easy it is to reach so many seemingly remote places by bus in Ireland. For some reason I thought that Dublin's public transportation system was somehow representative of the rest of the bus routes on the isle, but I was wrong. Glendalough is basically a few buildings and an ancient monastery alongside one road, but you can get there with St. Kevins Bus Service.  It's actually really handy since they have buses two times a day on weekends, one at 11:30 and the other at 18, so you can either choose to do a day trip by catching the earlier bus and then return to Dublin at six, or take the later bus, sleep overnight in Glendalough and then return the next day.

We decided to go for the latter option since we wanted to make sure we wouldn't have to panic about missing the only bus back to Dublin in the evening. Little did we know how adventurous it'd make our arrival to Glendalough...

... Now, see, as I said it's just a bunch of lone buildings alongside a tiny road, and it was late October. We boarded the bus in front of St. Stephen's Green at 18 with several other people, but during the 1,5h bus ride most of them hopped off one by one in villages that just seemed to keep getting smaller and smaller on each stop. Eventually we were driving a tiny, muddy one-way road in the dimming night, passing lonely farmhouses and several sheep just white enough to be spotted from the darkness. So as we arrived to Glendalough, it was just us and another young couple left. It was pitch black outside the bus windows when we came to a sudden stop. After a few seconds of confused stillness the bus driver impatiently exclaimed 'It's the final stop folks!', and we all, kind of reluctantly, exited the bus. The last glimpse of light we saw before being surrounded by the intense darkness of the rural Irish countryside nights was the rear lights of our bus as it drove away. Uh-oh.

I couldn't see Alex, let alone the other couple who seemed to be struggling even more than us as they had not checked the location of their hotel beforehand, apparently trusting that we'd still be within range for mobile operators and 3G. Sorry folks, this is rural Ireland. Welcome back to the 70s (this isn't a joke, in Kerry we once visited a village that didn't have electricity before the 70s). Alex turned on the torch app on his phone, I had a screencap of the map from the bus stop to the hostel, and off we went.

Never have I been as happy about the reflectors on my hiking shoes. We passed the fancy hotel where assumed the other couple was heading, crossed a tiny bridge (only knew there was a bridge from the sound of the water!) and headed uphill on this road so tiny we would definitely get instantly killed by a passing car if it wasn't for our phone torch and my shiny shoes. Eventually we reached the hostel, a bit further on the side from the rest of the civilisation in Glendalough, and prepared for what was coming the following day.

Village of Glendalough

It was funny to see the landscape for the first time the next morning, knowing we had walked this exact same road the night before but just unable to see any of it. The white route starts from the Glendalough visitor centre along with the other more moderate hiking trails, except that ours was 9 kilometres and would supposedly take 3 to 4 hours.

Road to hiking trails

Waterfall in Glendalough trails

The beginning of the trail, shared with a few other trails, was slight uphill all the way. The shit got real only when we reached the beginning of the white route, where we encountered a woman with her dog. "You're doing the white route? You're gonna love it. Is it your first time? It's such a wonderful trail, one of the best I've tried. Just be careful. And keep an eye for the deers, you might be able to spot a few!"

The woman headed back down the road and we were left on the feet of a wooden staircase for which we couldn't see the end. What exactly had I gotten myself into?

The staircase lasted forever. We did 5 stops, I was panting like a dying animal and stripped down at least three layers of clothing on the way. But then we reached the top of the cliff range, and it was all worth it:

View from Glendalough cliffs

Hiking in Glendalough valley

The walk followed the edge of the cliff. The morning mist still somewhat covered parts of the landscape since we left around 9 in the morning, but there were only a few other hikers behind us on the trail (spot the guy with the orange jacket!) and everything was just so peaceful. It's moments like these I hike for - it's just you alone in the nature, feeling small in front of the vast landscape.

Misty weather in Glendalough valley

Cliff edge on Glendalough cliffs

We couldn't see back in the Glendalough village from this point. My fear of heights wanted to take over when peeking over the edge:

Glendalough valley seem from the top

Autumn colours in Glendalough

Alex wanted to upload the Skyrim theme song on his iPod so we could listen to it and feel like a real dovahkiin while roaming this landscape. At this point I almost got disappointed he forgot about it.

Eventually the fog swallowed us. We had reached the highest point of the cliffs and could only see twenty metres in front of us. There had been a sign moments before warning about the holes in the wood on our trail. We kept going.

Fog on Glendalough cliffs

Glendalough valley

The wooden planks changed into a stone pavement as we started descending from the cliffs towards the tip of the valley. Alex sprained his ankle while going down the steps, falling on the side of the road with a shriek you could probably hear all the way back to Glendalough. Luckily 10 minutes of rest was enough for him to recover, and onwards we went.

Milk thistle in Glendalough

We had been hearing this weird, occasional bass call from somewhere on the hills for a while, unable to identify the source. That's where we spotted the deer. There were a few of them amongst the sheep (because yes, there were sheep roaming on the cliffs), cohabiting the space seemingly peacefully. We met a dove with her two fawns(?), crossing the road just a few meters in front of us:

Deer sighting in Glendalough

Deer in Glendalough

Deer in Glendalough hiking trail

Ruins on the white route

At the peak of the valley lies the Glenealo river, which we crossed by a narrow bridge. A group of staff from the national park had come up here with a few telescopes pointed to the source of the weird noise that kept following us since descending from the cliff range - the dominant alpha buck of the valley. He was lying on the grass just tens of meters away from us, and the group was kind enough to let us take a peek through their telescope to get a detailed look of the animal. Such a cool and random little encounter in the middle of nowhere.

Glenealo river

Glenealo river

The rest of the trail was at the bottom of the valley, passing the ruins of an old miner village. This is where the rain finally caught us (we're in Ireland, after all) and I was more than happy to have made it this far away from the cliffs before the downpour.

View of the Glendalough valley

At the bottom of the Glendalough valley

The miner village ruins were an unexpected but cool extra on the trail. Apparently mining on the area dates all the way back to the 1790, mostly concentrating on lead, zinc and silver, and continued its operations all the way until 1957. Several other of the trails would meet ways around the descended peak of the valley, so we started to meet more people heading the other way and finally disappear into the fog.

... Now if this doesn't make you feel like you're in Skyrim, I don't know what does...

Miner ruins in Glendalough

The Glendalough White Route is easily one of the best hikes of my life. It also felt much easier than what the instructions in the trail map had braced us for, but surely it's good to use caution when you hike just a few metres away from the edge of a cliff in thick fog. We already decided to return later and try some of the other routes further from the valley.

Oh, and just a tip. Don't be like us city idiots who just assumed there would be a grocery store in Glendalough. The closest one is in Laragh, a solid 40-minute walk from the village. Bring snacks or you'll end up like us, who dined like three times in the only restaurant of the entire Glendalough - that being in the only hotel in Glendalough apart from the youth hostel we stayed at. Needless to say, we were hungry quite a bit on this trip.

Have you been to the Glendalough? Are there other hiking trails worth trying in Ireland? Share your tips in the comments below!

Love, Melissa

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1 comment:

  1. Hello! May I ask how long was the trail?
    We will be in Dublin on next week and we would like to make a day trip do Glendalough, is the White trail feasable considering that we will go there by bus?
    Thank you!