The Macgillycuddy’s Reeks ridge in County Kerry has it all: wonderful views, great scrambling and a superb mountain environment. I have to say that this combination, together with the fact that there are ten 3000ft summits along its ridge, made it one of my favourite mountain days over the last 20 years.
The Macgillycuddy’s Reeks stand out in many ways. First, they’re home to Ireland’s highest mountains, with Carrauntoohill (1039m or 3406ft) the highest summit, followed by Beenkeragh (1010m) and Caher (1001m). They also dominate the attractive landscape around Killarney and neighbouring Killarney National Park in County Kerry, providing a scale and grandeur reminiscent of Snowdonia or the Scottish Highlands. The names of the mountain features evoke the rugged beauty of the landscape: Hag’s Tooth, The Devil’s Ladder, Heaven’s Gates and Eagle’s Nest.
The Reeks are notable for several other reasons too. While part of Killarney National Park is in State ownership, the mountains themselves are in private hands, owned by a patchwork of well over a hundred different individuals, either with freehold rights or as commonage (ie shared grazing rights). It’s said that when the original landowners bought their rights from the Irish Land Commission they paid the considerable sum of 11 shillings and two pence twice a year for many decades.
The mountains are also notorious for being in cloud for around 75% of the time, receiving 225 days annual rainfall. I had planned on climbing the eastern and western sections of the ridge over two days, keeping a spare day in my back pocket should the weather not be playing ball, but was fortunate to be able to climb the whole of the ridge in a single day.
I parked at Cronin’s Yard at 8.20am, expecting to see many others already there before me, but was surprised it was quiet. It was a midweek day in May but given the unusually warm, settled spell of weather I thought the mountains would have attracted more walkers.
It was a glorious morning as I followed the path SW from the car park with the ridge opening up ahead. I climbed from east to west, turning off the main path just before the first green footbridge to climb the grassy hillside towards Cruach Mhor, the first summit. There’s a green stile after about 100m and then an intermittent path that gradually climbs uphill.
It was warm work. Since there’s no water available at all on the ridge itself my plan was to hydrate myself as much as possible climbing this first uphill stretch before refilling at the stream that runs out of Loch Cummeenapeasta. I’d already drunk two litres by the time I reached the loch and enjoyed a short break to catch my breath.
Loch Cummeenapeasta is one of several dark lochs nestled in the shadow of the high peaks, and there’s a great view of three of them from the slopes of Cruach Mhor, looking west towards Carrauntoohill and Beenkeragh. In bright sunlight from the ridge west of Cruach Mhor you can also glimpse the outline of a plane wing in the murky depths. An American Dakota plane flew off course en route from Morocco to Cornwall in December 1943 and five airmen died when the plane crashed into Knocknapeasta (Cnoc na Peiste).
I reached the summit of Cruach Mhor at 10.20am, following an intermittent path up a bouldery slope. There’s a large two-metre high grotto that dominates the top, said to have been painstakingly built by a local farmer who dragged sand, water and cement up to the mountain top over a two-year period. There’s no entrance but it does serve as a useful windbreak. I didn’t need the shelter the day I was there but one or two clouds just brushed the summit of Knocknapeasta as I began the next leg.
The section from Cruach Mhor past Big Gun to Knocknapeasta is where the real fun begins! It might not look particularly airy or exposed in the following two photos but in the third one below you can clearly get a sense of the narrow, serrated ridge on this section of the walk. It’s not for the faint hearted – and needs three points of contact at the more exposed scrambly parts.
It’s an exhilarating ride that needs full concentration, and one that’s definitely saving for a dry and less windy day. There is a path that tends to drop down to the northern side overlooking Loch Cummeenapeasta at the trickiest parts but it does involve a bit of headscratching and retracing of steps to make sure you’ve gone the right way. The view looking back from Knocknapeasta along the ridge you’ve just climbed is just spectacular.
West of Knocknapeasta it’s time to relax a bit and enjoy a more leisurely walk. A broad grassy ridge extends past Maolan Bui, Na Cnamha (The Bones Peak), Cnoc an Chuillinn, Cnoc na Toinne before dropping down to the col at the top of the Devil’s Ladder. These summits are less impressive but still grand and chunky hills.
What’s most enjoyable about this section of the walk are the views that open up along the whole of the Reeks ridge. It’s a complex landscape of ridges and lochs, and coupled with dappled sunlight, makes for very picturesque walking.
Broader grassy ridge to Na Cnamha (The Bones Peak)
I stopped for lunch at 12.30pm just before I dropped down to reach the top of the Devil’s Ladder. By this point I’d only passed a handful of walkers and it was clear that the ‘tourist path’ was funnelling many more walkers directly to the summit of Carrauntoohill.
I found the ascent of Carrauntoohill a bit of a slog on its scree path. I was only too glad to get about two thirds of the way up before I could cut across its shoulder to follow the ridge to Caher. Once again I enjoyed some peace and quiet, only meeting a group of walkers who were climbing Caher and Carrauntoohill from the south. Although it looks a narrow ridge I can only recall one or two places where there’s a feeling of slightly more exposure, but certainly nothing like the airiness of other sections of the ridge. A paraglider was clearly making the most of the updrafts on this sunny afternoon.
The out-and-back to Caher took about 75 minutes. I soon neared the huge summit cross on Carrauntoohill and enjoyed the superb, expansive views from Killarney in the east over to Dingle Bay in the west. I lingered only for 10 minutes to replenish myself with an energy bar before tackling the narrow and exposed Beenkeragh ridge.
While the section of scrambling from Cruach Mhor past Big Gun to Knocknapeasta tends to receive most attention in walk descriptions, I found the Beenkeragh ridge to be just as exciting (challenging). It’s really only the short section once you’ve descended steeply from Carrauntoohill’s summit along to 959m top that requires most concentration. But here again, it’s not for the faint hearted or for windy/wet days; it’s grade 1 scrambling that deserves a lot of care and attention. I found the route a little confusing in places and needed to backtrack once or twice to find the intermittent path once again.
Once you’ve hauled yourself up the final summit of Beenkeragh it’s (almost) plain sailing from here. The ever-changing views and perspectives are just as interesting and it’s easier from this angle to trace the many different routes to the various peaks. The descent from Beenkeragh is bouldery for some distance before grassier walking just to the west of Knockbrinnea (847m).
The choice here is to either drop down quite steeply to the Hag’s Glen path before the Large and Small Hag’s Teeth or to continue along the ridge for another kilometre or so before meeting the path close to the second (most southerly) of the two green footbridges that cross the Gaddagh River. I opted for the latter, preferring softer ground beneath my feet after nine hours of walking but should point out that the heathery hillside just to the north of the Small Hag’s Teeth is still fairly steep and I was glad to finally reach the main path.
Whatever route you choose to take – and there are many, many different options around the Macgillycuddy’s Reeks – it’s a superb mountain range. And if you’re lucky enough like me to get a warm, clear and sunny day this has to rate among the very best walks in not only Ireland but also the whole of the UK.
A 1:50,000 scale map is really not sufficient for these mountains. I used the Harvey’s 1:30,000 waterproof Superwalker map which has a more detailed box at 1:15,000 showing the section around Carrauntoohill and Beenkeragh with descents and accurate compass readings.
There are great many options for climbing the Reeks. I used the Collins book by Jim Ryan (‘Carrauntoohill & Macgillycuddy’s Reeks – A walking guide to Ireland’s highest mountains’). This was very useful for understanding the overall topography of the area, possible routes and access options.
The class east/west traverse is also covered by The Big Walks book by Wilson and Gilbert. However, this is a one way walk rather than the circular route I took.
[PS If anyone would like to buy the map and book from me, plus other 1:50,000 maps of the Irish ‘munros’ please get in touch)
Guide to timings for my traverse (8h 45 mins walking time):
Start at Cronin’s Yard 8.20am
Cruach Mhor 10.20am (inc. 15 min break at Loch Cummeenapeasta)
Big Gun 11.00am
Maolin Bui 11.50am
Cnoc an Chuillinn 12.10am
Shoulder of Carrauntoohill 1.35pm (inc.20 min lunch stop near The Devil’s Ladder)
Caher west top 2.10pm
Beenkeragh 4.00pm (inc. 10 min break)
Cronin’s Yard 5.45pm
Read about my other walks of the Irish ‘furths:Lugnaquilla