Discovering Ireland’s Ring of Kerry

Ireland's Ring of Kerry is one of the world's best-known beauty spots. Discover what it's all about, and start planning your trip.

Ireland’s Ring of Kerry has become something of a ritual for tourists visiting the Emerald Isle. This 179-kilometer scenic drive through southern Ireland’s County Kerry shows up on nearly every suggested itinerary you’ll find. It’s such a ubiquitous term in Irish tourism, you might think that by now, the Ring of Kerry is nothing but an oversold collection of tourist towns lining a highway. Luckily, you’d be wrong!

Find unforgettable views in the Ring of Kerry's Killarney National Park. Photo: Shutterstock

Find unforgettable views in the Ring of Kerry’s Killarney National Park. Photo: Shutterstock

Whether you drive the entire route or just spend time exploring a few choice landmarks along the route is up to you. What isn’t up for debate? The sheer beauty of the Ring of Kerry, from the conical peaks of MacGillicuddy’s Reeks, Ireland’s tallest mountain range, to the deep brooding waters of the Lakes of Killarney, to the colorful villages dotting your route, and the breathtaking mountain passes where there’s nothing around you but stone, sky, and grazing sheep.

Driving the Ring of Kerry

Treat yourself to the entire route. You’re worth it, right? You can drive the Ring of Kerry route in a day and have time for a few stops along the way. So unless you’re interested in some of the region’s recreation opportunities (think surfing, mountain climbing, or horseback riding), experiencing the Ring of Kerry can easily fit into one day of a week-long Ireland vacation.

Ballinskelligs on the coast of the Ring of Kerry. Photo: Failte Ireland

Ballinskelligs on the coast of the Ring of Kerry. Photo: Failte Ireland

Along the route, you’ll want to pause in Sneem and Cahirciveen, villages known for their traditional market streets, historic sites ranging from early medieval forts to birthplaces of Irish leaders, and stunning views over the Atlantic coast. As you change elevation, you’ll also travel through remarkable habitat diversity, from palm trees (!) along the coast to the yellow-flowered gorse bushes that dapple the stony mountainsides.

Ireland's small towns have a special charm. Photo: Failte Ireland

Small Irish towns like Sneem have a special charm all their own. Photo: Failte Ireland

The backbreaking curves of the route through Killarney National Park, Ladies View, and Molls Gap make it of the most picturesque drives in Ireland (maybe anywhere), meaning you’ll want to look everywhere but at the road. There are small lay-bys where you can quickly park your car, soak up the scenery, and take a few photos. Ladies View and Molls Gap, two incredible viewpoints over the mountains and lakes, also have parking areas, dining and shopping available.

The curving road to between Kenmare and Molls Gap. Photo: Failte Ireland

The curving road between Kenmare and Molls Gap, where a breathtaking view awaits you. Photo: Failte Ireland

But as you’re passing all the splendor without a parking area, your driver is going to have to concentrate on the road, which you might be sharing with quite a few other sightseers depending on the season. If you’re at all nervous about driving narrow, twisting mountain roads (with the occasional one-lane passage through a stone tunnel or over a bridge), or you simply don’t want anyone to miss a thing, consider a tour of the Ring of Kerry instead of driving a car.

In this case, a motorcoach tour is a perfect choice. Everyone is able to marvel over the surroundings, the driver knows just where to stop for pictures and refreshments, and there’s no stress over the unexpected on roads you’re not familiar with.

A drive along the Ring of Kerry is included in most Ireland tours from Virgin Vacations. Often, there’s enough time in the afternoon after your drive to strike out again from Killarney and visit Ross Castle or Muckross House.

Killarney National Park & Muckross House

Whether you have extra time in Killarney or you just want to concentrate on a few key places during your stay, there’s enough gorgeous scenery and historic antiquities in the 26,000-acre Killarney National Park to keep you busy for a full day… or more. The largest national park in Ireland, it’s home to MacGillicuddy’s Reeks (Gaelic for “the black stacks”), the still glacial waters of the Lakes of Killarney, medieval Ross Castle, and Innisfallen Island, where you can boat to the ruins of a medieval abbey.

Ross Castle is a striking white fortress which makes calendar-perfect pictures with its backdrop of rolling mountains, and its reflection peering up from the dark lake. Built by the O’Donoghue chieftains in the 15th century, it’s as beautiful as any medieval tower house you’ll find in Ireland… and you’ll find quite a few!

Ross Castle sits between lake and mountains in Killarney National Park. Photo: Failte Ireland

Ross Castle sits between lake and mountains in Killarney National Park. Photo: Failte Ireland

Also part of the park is Muckross House, a stately restored mansion where Queen Victoria stayed in 1861, taking in the fabulous views for herself. The estate includes a working traditional farm (open spring to autumn) and the well-preserved ruins of Muckross Abbey, where you can walk through an incredible cloister surrounding a dramatic old yew tree.

Muckross House welcomes visitors year-round. Photo: Failte Ireland

Muckross House welcomes visitors year-round. Photo: Failte Ireland

Muckross House and the adjacent abbey are easily accessed via free parking lot if you’re driving your own car. The abbey is free to explore; there’s a fee to enter Muckross House itself. Similarly, Ross Castle has a free parking lot and you can explore the grounds and shoreline, decorated with boats and impressive bird-life, free of charge.

Or for a unique experience, take a jaunting cart to the estate or castle from Killarney. This traditional pony-and-trap combo has been winding through Killarney National Park since the Victorian tourists arrived to see the sights in the 1800s. Killarney’s jaunting cart guides are known for their banter and local stories, so you’ll get a good dose of legends and history alike on your ride. Tours from Virgin Vacations usually offer a jaunting cart add-on with just one click, making it easy to add to your day.

A traditional jaunting cart travels through the Gap of Dunloe in Killarney National Park. Photo: Failte Ireland

A traditional jaunting cart travels through the Gap of Dunloe in Killarney National Park. Photo: Failte Ireland

Nearby, Torc Waterfall thunders down a 20-meter cascade of rocks, under a green canopy of trees. You can walk up from the small parking area for a relatively low-impact look at the falls, or you can climb a series of stone steps set into the mountainside for a viewpoint out over the lakes and mountains.

All of these sights are so close to the town of Killarney, you can easily fit them into a day without long drives through the mountain roads.

When to Visit the Ring of Kerry

The Ring of Kerry is beautiful no matter what time of year you visit, but your jaunting cart driver will probably tell you to visit in April and early May, when the wildflowers are blooming on the hills, in the meadows and the bogs. In summer, you’ll enjoy incredibly long days, so if your touring style is go-go-go, you’ll appreciate the 18 hours of sunlight! Early summer usually also provides your best shot at a clear day in this extremely wet corner of an extremely wet island.

The festive season in Killarney town. Photo: Failte Ireland

The festive season in Killarney town. Photo: Failte Ireland

However, like just about any other destination, with summer come crowds, and the Ring of Kerry hasn’t been a tourist draw for nearly three hundred years for nothing. For your best chance at a few quiet moments alone, gazing into the mountains from a quiet shore, late fall and winter draw far fewer visitors. You might feel the winter chill, but you’ll be able to lose yourself in the scenery–until someone else comes along in search of a little solitude of their own.

Ready to plan? Take yourself on a Fly & Drive vacation in Ireland with one of our hotel/car rental packages. We even have sample itineraries to get you started. Or join one of our escorted tours, and let our expert guides give you the lowdown on the legends of Ireland.