Bikepacking Kerry, Ireland

After spending over 18 months researching, photographing and cycling over 100 routes for my guidebook, Cycling in Ireland, one route stands out above all the others. Called the Tour of Iveragh, it’s a 207km loop around the coast and mountains of Iveragh, the middle of the three peninsulas that jut out into the Atlantic from Ireland’s south western corner.

The Ring of Kerry, which follows the main roads around the coast of the Iveragh, is world famous for its scenery and every July it is taken over by nearly ten thousands cyclists taking part in the Ring of Kerry Sportive. The roads are closed for the sportive but during the rest of the year they can be very busy, particularly during the summer, with coaches and cars.

The Tour of Iveragh was conceived as a quieter alternative, ideal for touring cyclists who want to take in many of the sights that aren’t on the Ring such as the Gap of Dunloe, the Black Valley, Ballaghbeama Gap, Ballaghisheen Pass, Coomanaspic and Valentia Island. Seeking out quiet back roads where possible the route features a mix of epic mountain passes and spectacular coastal scenery.

My friend Alan and I set off from the busy tourist town of Killarney on a sunny July afternoon. Our bikes are loaded with camping gear but we have managed to keep it fairly minimal as the forecast is good. However if the weather turns we will stay in hostels or B+Bs. With three days to cover the 207km route we will have plenty to time to relax along the way.

From Killarney we follow the Fossa cyclepath west skirting around Lough Leane, the largest of Killarney’s three lakes. Dominating the view to the south are the Macgillycuddy Reeks, Ireland’s highest and most rugged mountain range. Our route is to take us through through the only breach in the mountains, the Gap of Dunloe.

At the head of the valley is Kate Kearney’s Cottage, a popular pub and restaurant, and although we have only covered a few kilometres we embrace our leisurely ethos and stop for a quick pint and a bowl of seafood chowder before starting the climb through the Gap.

The Gap of Dunloe

The Gap is a popular tourist destination and the during the day the narrow road that runs along the valley floor is busy with horse-drawn carts. But in the late evening we have the road to ourselves as we climb upwards passing a number of small lakes and huge boulders until a series of tight hairpins lead to the top of the pass.

Ahead of us is the Black Valley which was one of the last places to receive electricity in Ireland in the late seventies. It has retained its wonderfully remote feel thanks to the fact that it can only be accessed via two narrow and winding roads. We drop steeply into the valley and it isn’t long before we are climbing up the far side following the Owenreagh River upstream into a broad flat valley.

The Black Valley

At this point the sun is starting to set and the midge come out in force. The air is still and humid so if we want to keep them at bay we are going to have to find some higher, more exposed ground. Diverting off our route we climb up to Moll’s Gap where the N71 crosses the mountains linking the towns of Killarney and Kenmare. The Gap, which is named after a lady called Moll who ran a shebeen that served booze to the worker’s who built the road, is now home to an upmarket gift store and café.

Thankfully there is a gentle breeze and we find a patch of flat ground near the road that offers a fantastic view of the Reeks. The sky is clear so we decide not to put up our tents and watch a spectacular sunset from our sleeping bags. I wake in the middle of the night to an amazing view of the stars and even through it’s the height of summer the Milky Way is clearly visible stretching across the sky. A few hours later there is a wonderful sunrise. After a few more hours of slumber the midge get us up and we retreat the short distance to the café where we enjoy a coffee before setting off for the day.

Dropping back down the hillside we regain our route and head west along a typical Irish boreen – a quiet, narrow road with a strip of grass running along the middle. After a short climb the first challenge of the day, the climb through the spectacular Ballaghbeama Pass, comes into view.

Lough Brin

We follow the road past Lough Brin before starting the 4km climb. The gradient is a steady 5% and as we gain height the valley walls begin to close in on us. From the top of the pass we fly down the narrow, winding road back into the lowlands. In the village of Glencar we stop for lunch in the Climber’s Inn and sit for a while watching the world go by.

Ballaghbeama Pass

Back on the bikes we face the second challenge of the day, Ballaghisheen Pass. It’s a short (1.6km) but steep (an average gradient of 9%) and I end up walking the final hairpin but at the top we are rewarded with another excellent view over the Reeks. We drop steeply down the other side and make our way to the coast and the seaside town of Waterville, our goal for the day.

As there is rain forecast we decide to stay in a B+B in the centre of Waterville. After an excellent meal, more chowder for me, and a few pints we head to bed only to wake up to the promised rain.

Fortified with a hearty full Irish breakfast we set out in the deluge. It’s never fun heading out into the rain but there is nothing to do but put up our hoods and get on with it. The route follows the coast north passing through Ballinskelligs and St Finian’s Bay before we arrive at the fearsome Counmaspic. The climb starts gently but the last 1.5km has an average gradient of 11% and it isn’t long before we start walking. A fast descent straight into a strong headwind leads down into the village of Portmagee where we cross the bridge onto Valentia Island.

Cold and wet we cross the island before taking a break in Knightstown. Soaked through, we settle into a quiet corner of the Royal Valentia Hotel and order a big pot of tea before taking turns drying our clothes under the hand dryer in the bathroom. After more chowder, by far and away the best of the trip, and an outstanding crab pizza we have dried out and the rain has finally stopped.

Knightstown ferry

We roll our bikes onto the ferry and make the short crossing back to the mainland. As we pass through the town of Cahersiveen the sun comes out and we follow a network of quiet back roads to the north coast of the peninsula. After a few kilometres on the busy N70 we drop down to Rossbeigh beach where a long sandy spit reaches across the bay towards the Dingle Peninsula. In the nearby village of Glenbeigh we book into a guesthouse before retreating to the pub to rehydrate.

Cahersiveen

There are plans for a greenway along the course of the old railway between Cahervieen and Glenbeigh. Unfortunately it has been held up by planning problems for a number of years but if and when it gets built it will be spectacular.

Glenbeigh

The next morning we turn inland and follow quiet roads along the shore of Lough Caragh and through the beautiful oak forest of Lickeen Wood. Our planned route continues clockwise around the Reeks but at the last minute we decide to take a more adventurous off-road option following the Kerry Way through Bridia Valley and over the pass into the Black Valley.

Bridia Valley

Heading up Bridia Valley the views are spectacular and eventually we reach the end of the road. The path is narrow, rocky and completely unrideable. It steepens towards the top where are forced to shoulder our bikes. The path on the other side is no better and we push and haul our way down to the road at the head of the Black Valley. After crossing paths with our route from two days ago we follow a trail through the oak forest before taking the N71 back into Killarney.

Killarney oak forest

How to get there?

The best starting point for this route is Killarney. The busy town is easily accessed by train from Dublin and you can take your bike for free but must book it in advance, see www.irishrail.ie for more information. Another option would be to fly with Ryanair from London to Farranfore which is 17km north of Killarney. You could then hire a bike from O’Sullivan’s Cycles (www.killarneyrentabike.com) who have a good range of touring and road bikes.

When to go?

During the summers months of July and August the tourist season is in full swing and the pubs are busy and accommodation can be a little harder to find. However the weather is usually reasonably good and the days are long. If you want a bit more peace and quiet then late spring (May, June) and early autumn (September) are good alternatives and the weather can often be just as good.

Note that the ferry that links Knightstown on Valentia Island with the mainland only runs between the start of April and the end of September. See www.valentiaisland.ie/getting-here for more information.

Where to stay?

Kerry is one of the most popular tourist areas in Ireland and has a wide range of accommodation from campsites and hostels to five-star hotels. It can get busy during the summer when you would be well advised to book ahead.

Wild camping is a good option and there are plenty of nice spots on the coast and in the mountains. If you are discrete and set up late and leave early you will have no problems. The midge can be bad in the summer so pack insect repellent and a head net.

Fit riders could probably complete the Tour of Iveragh in a long day, but, with so much to see, it’s much better to spread it out over a few days. If you plan to do it over two days then Waterville, near the midpoint, is a good place to stay overnight. Over three days Glencar and Cahersiveen are the best options.

Alternative Routes

There is plenty of scope to extend this route for those with a bit more time. To the north is the Dingle Peninsula where you can follow the Wild Atlantic Way for approximately 150km taking in Dingle Town, Slea Head and the Conor Pass. To the south is the Beara Peninsula where a 184km signposted route, the Beara Way Cycle Route, loops around the coast and over the mountains. Combining the these two routes with the Tour of Iveragh would make for an amazing 400+km route.

For more information about these routes and many others across Ireland see Cycling in Ireland: a guide to the best of Irish cycling available for only €25 including postage worldwide.

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