Field Guide: County Kerry, Ireland

Home to the Emerald Isle’s tallest peak, County Kerry is a must-visit on the beautiful island of Ireland.

8th December 2023 | Words by Jazz Noble

“There are only two kingdoms,
The kingdom of God
And the kingdom of Kerry.”
- An old Irish adage, dating back to 65 AD

County Kerry (Irish: Contae Chiarraí), otherwise known as ‘The Kingdom’, sits in the southwest of Ireland in the historic province of Munster. Famous for the mountain range of MacGillycuddy’s Reeks, as well as its incredible peninsulas, it’s one of Ireland’s most visited areas for outdoor lovers from across the globe. Think: mysterious Celtic boglands, undulating mountain ridges and unforgettable cliff top walks along the Wild Atlantic Way. County Kerry promises an experience you won’t forget.

Mountains aside, Kerry is also home to the Killarney National Park, the Dingle, Iveragh and Beara peninsulas, Valentia, Blasket and Skellig Islands, and a stunning array of beaches, lakes and Early Christian and Medieval monuments. Due to its very southerly position, and slightly more extreme weather conditions than other parts of the island; Kerry has arguably been less susceptible to external influences. In this sense, it has preserved its culture very well and is proudly home to a number of Gaeltacht (Gaelic-speaking) regions, as well as a great tradition for Irish music and dance.

A golden hour sunset of the coastlines of Valentia Island and the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry, Ireland

Credit: Iftikhar alam

The county town is Tralee which sits on the northern neck of the Dingle peninsula. Home to Tralee Bay Wetlands and Nature Reserve, and the start and end point of the Dingle Way, it’s a great base from which to explore the county. Incidentally, it’s also very near the birthplace of Brendan the Navigator, one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland. Known for spreading the gospel around Ireland, and for his epic sea voyages, you’ll find a statue of him at Fenit Harbour, a short drive away from the centre of Tralee.

Needless to say, you won’t be short of things to do and places to visit in Kerry. Whether you’re a sea dweller, an amateur historian, an all-weather thru-hiker, or a humble pub hopper; here’s a brief overview of just some of the amazing activities you can dive into in this beautiful corner of the world.

Outdoor activites

The MacGillycuddy’s Reeks range is one of the most popular hiking destinations in the country and includes Carrauntoohil, Ireland’s tallest peak. From the summit of 1,038 metres, you’ll witness the famous green valleys of the Reeks District, each with its own lake. Most hikers start from Cronin’s Yard and trek up the Devil’s Ladder to Carrauntoohil. There’s a fair amount of scrambling involved, and a steep descent at O’Shea’s Gully on the way down.

Other famous peaks from MacGillycuddy’s Reeks Range include Cnoc na Péiste, Beenkeragh, and Caher. Though Kerry is covered in trails and hikes, the Coomloughra Horseshoe (9.5 miles) and the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks Ridge walk (16 miles) are the two most popular in this area. Loose scree and sharp ridges are very common so it might be wise to invest in a good pair of trekking poles. Furthermore, since the Reeks are situated towards the notoriously turbulent southwest coast of Ireland, waterproof gear is an absolute necessity.

Two hikers walk along the ridgeline trail on Carrauntoohil in the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks Range in County Kerry, Ireland.

Credit: timursalikhov

In terms of longer multi-day hikes, you’ve also got the Kerry Way, the Dingle Way and the Beara Way. The Kerry Way starts and finishes in Killarney and takes approximately 11 days. At 113 miles (214 km), you’ll visit the MacGillycuddy Reeks range, Killarney National Park, the Iveragh peninsula, Torc waterfall, the Atlantic coastline, and more. It loosely follows the Ring of Kerry drive – which is also incredibly popular with cyclists – though the Kerry Way is specifically waymarked as a walking route.

The Dingle Way, on the other hand, is 112 miles (179 km) long and takes 8 or more days. It begins and ends in Tralee, and wraps round the Dingle peninsula crossing Slea Head, Slieve Mush, Mount Brandon, and more.

A landscape view of Lough Callee, green grasslands and Carrauntoohil, Ireland’s tallest peak, County Kerry.

Credit: andrew

The Beara Way is another incredible hiking trail that begins and ends in Glengarriff and takes in towns and villages such as Castletownbere, Eyeries, Allihies, Kenmare and Adrigole. Crossing 95 miles (152 km), you’ll come across amazing sites of historical importance including ancient stone circles and early Christian churches, as well as the great natural expanses of the Emerald Isle.

Hiking aside, there’s also an incredible kayaking scene across Kerry, in part due to its coastal geography, but also because of the beautiful Killarney lakes. Situated in the wilds of Killarney National Park, the Lakes of Killarney consists of three loughs: Lough Leane, Muckross Lake and Upper Lake. A simple Google search will show you countless kayak rental centres, as well as activity centres offering kayaking day trips around the islands, caves and swamplands of these stunning lochs.

The sea

Situated on the southerly section of the Wild Atlantic Way, it’s no wonder that the coast is such an integral part of the County Kerry experience. Being bestowed with the stunning Dingle peninsula, the Iveragh peninsula and the Beara peninsula, this part of the country is well renowned for its white, sandy beaches and breathtaking, craggy coastlines.

A landscape view of Skellig Michael in the Skellig Islands near the Beara peninsula in County Kerry, Ireland.

Credit: David Matthew Lyons

A key part of the Kerry coastal experience is the islands. The Skellig Islands (from the old Irish word sceillec meaning a splinter of stone or a steep area of rock), for example, are situated just west of the Iveragh peninsula and offer some incredible landscapes and views. Composed of Skellig Michael and Little Skellig, the former is well known as a UNESCO site and is home to thousands of breeding seabirds including gannets and puffins. It was also once used as a monastery in the 6th and 8th centuries and remains a popular site of Christian pilgrimage today.

Another magnificent island is Valentia, one of Ireland’s most westerly points. Highlights include the dramatic cliffs of Bray Head, the earliest fossil footprints in the world (an aquatic tetrapod of some kind), slate quarries, Valentia Island lighthouse, the first transatlantic telegraph cable, and more. Valentia is one of the only islands you can access directly from the mainland through a bridge from the town of Portmagee.

A landscape view of Valentia Island lighthouse and the coastline at Cromwell point, County Kerry, Ireland.

Credit: MNStudio

Other popular activities include sea kayaking, coasteering, kiteboarding, wild swimming and SUPing. There are also quite a few surf spots along the coastline that are well worth checking out. Though the waves aren’t quite as big as they get further up north (see: County Donegal, Ireland), if the forecast hits just right, you’ll be in for a real treat. Popular surfing beaches include Brandon Bay, Inch Reef, Ballybunion, Banna Beach, Gary William Point, Mossies, Rossbeigh, Ballyheigue, and Fenit Beach, to name a few.

Traditional pubs and music

Much like the rest of the island, there are some truly amazing pubs to explore in County Kerry. Foxy John’s in Dingle, for example, is somewhere between a bicycle repair shop, a hardware store and a watering hole. So, if it’s a unique pub experience you’re after, look no further. Dick Mack’s is another great one in Dingle and has been run by the same family since 1899.

The South Pole Inn is also well worth a visit, situated in Annascaul near the Dingle Way. It used to be owned by famed Antarctic explorer Tom Crean, hence the name. You’ll find a whole host of cool memorabilia on the walls, steeped in the history of the Golden Age of Exploration.

A sideways view of traditional Irish pubs in Dingle town on the Dingle peninsula in County Kerry, Ireland.

Credit: Patryk Kosmider

Kate Kearney’s Cottage is another gem and is situated right in the midst of Killarney National Park. Perfect for a mid or post-hike pint (and tasty meal), don’t forget to try the house special: an Irish coffee.

Whilst you’re never far from an impromptu traditional music session, some pubs that are well renowned for their musical reputations include: John B. Keane’s Bar, An Droichead Beag, Crowley’s, Murphy’s pub and Buckley bar, to name a few.

Flora and Fauna

Thanks to a great interest in preserving Ireland’s distinctive flora and fauna, there’s a large number of nature reserves across the country. In Kerry alone, you’ve got the Cummeragh River Bog, the Dennycunnihy Wood, Derrymore Island, Eirk Bog, Great Skellig, Little Skellig, Lough Nambrackdarrig, Lough Yganavan, Mount Brandon, Puffin Island, Puffin Island, Sheheree Bog, Tearaght Island, Tralee Bay and Uragh Wood. The county really is an ecological wonderland.

A dolphin breaking the surface of the Atlantic sea with two boats and one kayaker in Dingle, County Kerry, Ireland

Credit: Andrew

Boasting mountains, coastlines, lakes, boglands, farmlands, heaths and forests; it’s mostly thanks to Kerry’s diverse landscapes that it has such a wonderful array of wildlife. In the woodlands for example, you’ll find oak and yew plantations, as well as alder, ash, willow, holly and strawberry trees (nicknamed the Killarney strawberry). The yew tree actually has links to ancient Celtic druids and is often found situated close to old religious sites.

In terms of birdlife, common species include blue tits, chaffinches, goldcrests, robins, wrens, meadow pipits, little stonechats, red grouse, garden warblers, puffins, guillemots, razorbills and choughs. more rarely, you might spot birds of prey such as merlins, peregrine falcons, ospreys and even golden eagles, though the latter two haven’t been spotted in a while. Little grebes, mallards, cormorants, herons and kingfishers are also common around the lakes.

A black, orange and white puffin in flight on some coastlines with the sea in the b background.

Credit: giedriius

Further west in the coastal waters, you can spot grey seals, dolphins, minke whales, beaked whales, leatherback turtles, and even giant humpback whales.

Other incredible wildlife includes Ireland’s only native deer, the wild red deer, bank voles, pine martens, sika deer, squirrels, rabbits, hedgehogs, badgers, and the almighty Irish hare. There is even a unique slug known as the Kerry slug that is apparently (unconfirmed) the only slug that can roll into a ball.

How to get there

If you’re keen to minimise your carbon footprint, there are a few ferry options from mainland Britain that cross the Irish Sea, including ports at Holyhead, Fishguard and Liverpool. These ferries arrive at the ports of Dublin, Rosslare and Belfast respectively. You can take a car, motorcycle, bicycle or travel as a foot passenger. If you're coming from mainland Europe, there are even ferries from Cherbourg to Rosslare, and Rosscoff to Cork. Alternatively, you’ll find Kerry’s own airport near a village called Farranfore, just south of Tralee. The next nearest working airports include Shannon airport, or Cork airport.

Landscape scene of boats by Killarney lake at sunset in County Kerry, Ireland.

Credit: Patryk Kosmider

It’s worth mentioning, however, that unless you’re embarking on a long-distance, all-weather backpacking or bikepacking adventure, the best way to travel around Kerry is probably by car. This way you’ll be able to experience some of the iconic driving routes including the Ring of Kerry, the Dingle peninsula, Slea Head, the Gap of Dunloe and many more. It also means you’ll be able to soak up as many sights as possible in the shortest amount of time. There are quite a few bus tours, however, as well as local bus routes and the Irish rail network.

When to go

While undeniably a rainy part of the world, this oceanic climate is what creates the luscious greenery Kerry is known for. Not a bad payoff if you ask me. This also makes those sunnier days all the more spectacular, leaving you with no excuse but to get outside and explore the region.

With this in mind, April through to October are probably the best months to visit if you’re looking to avoid the colder weather, with the main tourist season running from June to September. Going during the tourist months will ensure that most attractions will be open, however, there is still plenty to do in the chillier months too – think wistful wintry walks, roaring pub fires, hearty food and more.

Jazz Noble is a London and Northern Ireland-based writer with a passion for hiking, cycling and the outdoor world.

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