Glory of Green
Stories from the Great Outdoors
Conor Pass to Croaghskearda Ridge
Wondering about your next destination? Stop speculating and start planning: The Dingle peninsula on the west coast of Ireland is utter heaven for the holiday hiker, and if you’re into surfing, the waves are abundant, the winds strong and the beaches endless. The girls and I drove from Dublin to Tralee in Count Kerry in about three and a half hours. We had no problem filling four whole days of endless outdoors wonder – and it’s a good advice adding some time to wait out the Irish weather. At least in February. We were lucky to reach the pyramid-shaped Croaghskearda Mountain Ridge – it was our first hike in the area, and we chose exactly the right day to see it through.
Yep - that's how we look at nature in this family…
The evil prediction of Thunder
Spending my most formative years in Trondheim – a smallish town in the middle of Norway where all-weather attire is known as the real folk costume, I’m used to dealing with rain and wind. I even miss it when the weather gets too stagnant, or just sunny and nice all the time – give me a good storm now and then, please.
Still, I knew the hike from Conor Pass to the ridge of Croaghskearda (at 608 meters) would not be marked, and I wasn’t willing to risk wandering off into the Irish mountains in fog, on unknown territory, and with the girls in tow. I printed a map before leaving Belgium, packed a compass – and prayed to the nature gods for good visibility.
We woke to heavy clouds our first day in Tralee. The receptionists phone forecasted thunder and lightning – and the rest of the week only looked worse. After a solid breakfast, spending half an hour locating the nice ladies at the tourist office (it felt like we could navigate anything after nailing that one) and a stop at a local chiropractor (my chronic back-problems unfortunately never takes a breather), lemon coloured sunlight was surprisingly shining down between dark clouds. With renewed belief in our destination, we decided to take the road up to Conor Pass and see how it looked from up there.
I was afraid of having to drive on the left side – I’m not very good with left and right in any situation (it’s a family weakness that I, strangely enough, share with my engineer sister), but going up to Conor Pass kind of evens out that problem.
My best guess is that this old mountain road stems from extensive road projects in the western parts of Ireland in the first half of the 19th century. It doesn’t look a day younger, with steep cliffs on both sides – reaching vertically in opposite directions.
After seeing photos, Alma (9) was absolutely sure to die – but I found that left or right really doesn’t matter that much when your car just barely fits the narrow shelf that is originally carved out to function as a road for horse-driven vehicles. Besides, it went so slow I had plenty of time to consider on which side of the road it would be useful to stop and wait for oncoming traffic.
At 456 meters, the pass is a popular tourist attraction and one of the highest road passes in Ireland. Although not that high by Norwegian standards, the landscape displays all the drama you can wish for. I have no problem understanding what people are coming for. Apart from survival giddiness from overcoming the road itself, there are rugged stone walls and small lakes shimmering in green valleys between the mountains.
Looking into the valley east of Conor Pass
170 million years older than the Himalayas, the years and ice have grinded away the height but left a rounded old mountain range - but it still has it's teeth intact. On a clearer day, we could have seen the Aran Island, but sadly not Manhattan, as the 13-year-old had hoped for. However, this created intrinsic motivation to understand the implications of Earth’s curvature. Grab the moment!
Going there in February was pretty brilliant, as we almost didn’t have to deal with other cars at all (the weather might be more stable in summer, but then again, you can’t have it all). Most people seem to stop at the small parking at the top of the pass, or just drive through it, and I guess you can have a remote hike not too bothered with fellow wanderers even in summer.
The girls at Conor Pass
From hail to rainbows to hail – and then some rain for the bog
The absence of fog is crucial for the experience. As you ascend to Croaghskearda, the Atlantic Ocean opens in front of you on both sides of the narrow ridge. You have the charming village of Dingle down at Dingle Bay on your left (western) side, grass parted in small multi-shades-of-green squares where the landscape flattens and sheep grazing the steep slopes of the surrounding mountains. No use in going if you can't see this.
The view towards Croaghearska Ridge
Standing at the ridge of Croaghearska, looking back
Directly related to the wet weather of the Atlantic coast and no less important than the rest of the landscape, is the cover that you’re striding over. As with so many other habitats on this planet, only a small amount of blanket bog is left. Eight percent of the world’s blanket bogs can be found in Ireland – which makes it the most important country in Europe for this type of habitat.
Not only are these bogs vital for lots of species, they also accumulate and store millions of tonnes of carbon. Over-grazing and peat extraction are among the important threats. Tread gently, eat vegetarian and go for peat-free gardening.
Erosion has created interesting other-worldly shapes
We had everything from rainbows to hail, but luckily no thunder and no fog. This turned out to be the best weather of our four days on the Dingle peninsula – and the only day I would have chosen to hike an unmarked trail with the kids.
After starting out on an old gravel road to the east of the parking place (across the road), we were left to find our own way through the bog and over moon-like sandy surfaces of erosion, walking the paths of sheep and humans. So glad we went for it – compass safely set before wandering away from the car.
Don't expect the path to bee this visible all the time...
To the ridge of Croaghskearda, it’s a moderate hike with an easy climb. The length and the climb of the trip is still a mystery to me, as the articles I’ve found differs, even internally, between the length given in miles/feet and the conversion to the metric system – a six miles round trip does not make 7 kilometres…
To make the hike a little longer, though, you can easily add the slightly higher Houlihan’s Bean (local name) to the north-east of Croaghskearda. This would have been a great option for us if the weather had been more stable. We didn’t feel like we were missing out, but I’m sure the views to the north is great from Houlihan’s Bean.
The view from Croaghskearda Ridge towards Houlian's Bean
Be aware that the way up and down to Croaghskearda is exceptionally wet – most of the time you’re wandering in mountain blanket bogs, and that this is more straining than hiking on harder surfaces. We normally sit down and eat lunch somewhere in the middle of a hike, but it was hard to find anywhere suitable. This might be relevant if you’re hiking with small kids or the elderly. It might be dryer in summer.
Still, the most challenging with this hike is the lack of a defined path and the exposure to harsh and ever-changing weather coming in from the Atlantic. Bring map, compass and clothes to match it. You’ll find maps in book stores – or print sufficiently detailed ones before you go. Do not rely on your smartphone in Ireland – mine had no Internet connection unless there was Wi-Fi. Don’t go for it if there’s a fog – it’s not worth it without the scenery. There are excellent options in bad weather – some coming up soon on Gloryofgreen.
Thankfully, it's not possible to bring camper van or caravan to the Conor pass. There are weight, length and width restrictions, and I’ve found some statements suggesting that the road might be closed sometimes if there’s snow.
We’ll be back
If you want more challenge in the same area, I suggest taking one of the many routes to Mount Brandon – we’ll go back for that one during spring or summertime another year. If you’re a history buff, taking a hike in the valley leading up to the pass might be a good idea.
People have been trying to live in this area for 6000 years – coming and going – turning forests to fields and then to bogs, forever shaping the landscape. At Loch an Dúin, east of the Conor pass, a retired school principal has discovered that a 4000-year-old megalithic tomb, known as the Giant’s Grave, is aligned to have sunlight flowing through it at solstice (what a romantic vision – the old principal coming back again and again to prove his theory, hoping for sun). I wonder how they managed that 4000 years ago. Feel free to inform me if you know a megalithic engineer. Next time I’ll bring the historian husband.
Heading back to the car just in time before another shower
Questions? Wanting to share? Duke of Edinburgh or plain Jane? Feel free to contact me.