This article is part of our Trip Report, A Summer Holiday in Ireland & Scotland.
The Ring of Kerry is a popular, scenic drive and day trip through County Kerry, Ireland, covering about 110 miles. Among American visitors to Ireland, the Ring seems to be virtually iconic. I can’t tell you how many times, when I told someone I was going to visit Ireland, the response was, “you have to do the Ring of Kerry; it’s so beautiful.”
The Ring of Kerry commercial website describes the Ring like this:
But what is the Ring of Kerry? Well, it’s a route. A trail. A road. But this is no ordinary road.
It’s a road that takes you through 10,000 years of dramatic history. It’s a road that takes you from deep forest to the crashing waters of the wild Atlantic. It’s a road through rugged, majestic landscapes: where wild stag roam and where tumbling waterfalls crash into crystal streams teeming with wild salmon. It’s a road that shows you the real meaning of a holiday in Kerry, Ireland.
Consistent with the hyperbole, numerous tour buses circle the Ring every day filled with admiring tourists. Buses travel counter-clockwise around the Ring, starting from Killarney. The large tour buses on the narrow Irish roads make for some slow going. Conventional wisdom is split on whether people driving the Ring on their own should go clockwise, so as to avoid getting stuck behind the buses and hopefully time their arrival at various points on the route when the bus crowds won’t be there, versus driving counter-clockwise, so as to avoid having to meet and pass by the tour buses on narrow roads that sometimes have a stone wall tight against the road surface on each side.
Having done it, I’m going to take a somewhat contrarian opinion on the Ring of Kerry. I don’t think it’s a “must-do” to drive this precise route, or to drive the Ring in its entirety. I’ll explain more in the rest of this article.
Where Is the Ring of Kerry?
The map below shows the location of the Ring of Kerry with respect to the entire Irish island:
The most common route for the Ring of Kerry starts and finishes in Killarney. Directions are:
- From the town center of Killarney, head north on Lewis Street/Upper Lewis Street until you reach Highway N22
- Turn left (west) on N22 and continue west as the road turns into Highway N72
- Stay on N72 until it ends in Killorglin; then turn left (continue west) on Highway N70
- Most of the Ring of Kerry is on N70 – take N70 all the way around, through Cahersiveen, Caherdaniel, Sneem (and several other villages) until you reach Kenmare
- At Kenmare, turn left (north) onto Highway N71
- Follow N71 through Molls Gap and Killarney National Park to get back to Killarney
Here is a map illustrating the route:
As you can see above, Google Maps estimates the Ring of Kerry drive at 3 hours, 11 minutes. I think that is extremely overly optimistic. Even before you build in your stops, I’m going to estimate the drive time alone at 4 hours, at least. And given that you’re going to be stopping at various points along the way to admire the scenery or wander around the villages and sights, be sure to plan for pretty much a full day to do the Ring.
Our Day Driving the Ring of Kerry
Our drive around the Ring of Kerry was a bit unusual, in that we drove the Ring on the same day we visited Skellig Michael (Incredible Skellig Michael – A Trip to the House of Ancient Monks … and Luke Skywalker). This meant that we left Killarney extra-early (around 6:45 am), we covered some extra ground to get back and forth out to Portmagee for our boat tour, we spent roughly 6-7 hours in the middle of our day on the Skellig Michael visit and lunch afterwards, and we made the last two-thirds or so of the drive around the Ring late in the afternoon. We did the drive in the traditional counter-clockwise direction.
There were some good things and some not-so-good about driving the Ring this way. On the good side, we missed almost all of the bus traffic on the Ring, and the roads and sights were not crowded at all. On the not-so-good side, we were all extremely tired after our trip to Skellig Michael. It was very hard on Philly to drive the section from Portmagee back through Kenmare and up to Killarney. And Maria & Erin were so tired that I think they slept through every single kilometer from Portmagee back to Killarney, save for our stop in Kenmare. The other not-so-good part was that, because we were on-the-clock to make our boat tour departure in the morning and dead tired in the afternoon, we really couldn’t meander slowly around the Ring. We couldn’t stop as long or as often as we would have otherwise in order to truly soak in the scenery and enjoy the sights.
The Wikipedia page for the Ring of Kerry has a nice list of popular points along or near the Ring:
Popular pionts include Muckross House (near Killarney), Staigue stone fort and Derrynane House, home of Daniel O’Connell. Just south of Killarney, Ross Castle, Lough Leane, and Ladies View (a panoramic viewpoint), all located within Killarney National Park, are major attractions located around the Ring. A more complete list of major attractions along the Ring of Kerry includes: Gap of Dunloe, Bog Village, Dunloe Ogham Stones, Kerry Woollen Mills, Rossbeigh Beach, Cahersiveen Heritage Centre, Derrynane House, Skellig Experience, Staigue Fort, Kenmare Lace, Moll’s Gap, Ballymalis Castle, Ladies View, Torc Waterfall, Muckross House, The Blue Pool, Ross Castle, Ogham Stones, St Mary’s Cathedral, Muckross Abbey, Franciscan Friary, Kellegy CHurh, O’Connell Memorial Church, Sneem Church and Cemetery, Skellig Michael, Beehive Cells and the Stone Pillars marking an important grave.
I’ll share a few observations and thoughts from our drive around the Ring:
One, driving through the Irish countryside is entirely underrated. It’s beautiful. Driving pretty much anywhere in Ireland is enjoyable, and the Ring of Kerry is as nice and as beautiful a place as any to get away and out into the open country. One thing we really enjoyed is spotting the sheep everywhere. To our surprise, many of the sheep in Ireland are painted. You read that right. Many of them have a good-sized spot painted on their backs near the rear end. They look like they’re spray-painted, and I’m pretty sure they actually are. Ask a local in Ireland why the sheep are painted – I’m not going to spoil the surprise 🙂
Two, the most scenic part of the drive is near and along the coast in the far southwestern part of the Ring around Caherdaniel. There are some turn-off vistas on this part of the Ring – don’t miss them. The views are fabulous. It was overcast when we visited; I can hardly imagine how beautiful it would be on a clear, sunny day.
Three, there are several nice-looking villages along the way, and I’d recommend stopping at any of them. Because of our time constraints, we stopped only in Portmagee (a bit off the Ring, for our boat tour to Skellig Michael) and Kenmare. Without researching, I’m going to say that Kenmare is the largest town along the Ring. We stopped in Kenmare for an hour or so, browsing the shops along Main Street and Henry Street) and getting some ice cream. We all enjoyed looking through the book store, where I found this gem:
Sadly, on the last part of the Ring through Molls Gap and Killarney National Park, we were too tired to really enjoy the views and too late to stop. Be prepared, parts of this road are very hilly and curvy. It can be a bit of a tough slog at the end of your day and drive, even if your day wasn’t as long as ours.
Middle Age Miles’ Recommendations on the Ring of Kerry
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I don’t think the Ring of Kerry is a “must-do” if you travel to Ireland. However, the scenery on the Ring is beautiful, and it’s certainly enjoyable. Also, if you do the Ring, when you get back to the USA and are inevitably asked, “Did you do the Ring of Kerry? It’s awesome,” you can answer “you better believe it – and yes it was awesome!” instead of having to explain, “no, we did [something else] instead and it was awesome too.”
That said, if you’ve read our Skellig Michael article, you know that I consider that place a “must-do” if at all possible and one of the most spectacular and memorable places I’ve ever been. If you visit Skellig Michael, you’ll by necessity drive part of the Ring. But unfortunately, that northern leg from Killarney to Cahersiveen and beyond to Portmagee isn’t the best part of the Ring of Kerry drive. If you only do that part and go back to Killarney the same way, you’ll miss the really good stuff. On the other hand, trying to do the entire Ring and Skellig Michael in one day (like we did) is, honestly, too tough of a day to thoroughly enjoy the Ring. Options would include either (1) driving from Killarney to Portmagee and back on the day of your Skellig Michael tour, and then the next day driving south and west from Killarney to Caherdaniel and back, to enjoy the prettiest parts of the Ring; or (2) spending a night in Portmagee or somewhere else along the western part of the Ring to break the trip into two days and give you time to stop at many of the sights along the Ring and really savor the drive.
Also, consider alternatives to driving the Ring of Kerry. The far southwest portion of Ireland has 3 peninsulas – from north to south, the Dingle Peninsula, the Iveragh Peninsula (Ring of Kerry), and the Beara Peninsula (Ring of Beara). Killarney is a good central launching point for any of these (although a bit of a long drive if you’re trying to cover the entire Ring of Beara).
The three peninsulas/rings are roughly shown on this map:
Drives to the Dingle Peninsula and/or the Ring of Beara would be great alternatives to the Ring of Kerry.
We have not driven the entire Dingle Peninsula, but Philly & I drove back-and-forth from Killarney to Dingle a few years ago. This drive is really beautiful with rugged, coastal scenery – especially the part on the R561 highway along the southern edge of the Dingle Peninsula. Philly reminded me that the road to Dingle was smaller and tighter than the roads on the Ring of Kerry, so be aware and be careful!
The village of Dingle is pretty, and the people there were very nice to us. Philly & I had actually signed up to run a half-marathon in Dingle – the course went west from Dingle out to the end of the Peninsula and looped back, all along Slea Head Drive – but we weren’t able to actually do the race because we ended up with a timing conflict with a Notre Dame football game back in Dublin (you read that right – Notre Dame played Navy at Aviva Stadium in Dublin in the first game of the 2012 season). Dingle was hilly and had some neat shops. There is a nice aquarium there but we didn’t have time to go. The thing I remember most about Dingle is a statue of a dolphin at the pier. Fungi the Dolphin is apparently legendary and a long-time resident of Dingle harbor.
Continue past Dingle on R559 / Slea Head Drive for more fabulous coastal scenery, including visiting Slea Head and the Beehive huts and forts on the Peninsula. Google Maps estimates that the Slea Head Drive loop takes about an hour and 10 minutes, although I’m sure you should budget more time including stops along the way.
Finally, the Ring of Beara circles the southernmost peninsula on Ireland’s west coast. The official Ring of Beara website says that it is “[w]ild and relatively unexplored, … less known to tourists than the Ring of Kerry. Those lucky enough to visit this hidden gem will encounter lush natural beauty, wild landscapes, unspoilt seascapes and the warm welcome of the Irish people. The customary Ring of Beara route starts and ends in Kenmare. Google Maps estimates this drive at about 2.5 hours (with an additional 45-50 minutes to 3:17 on my map below as I’ve mapped it from Killarney). Again, I suspect that the drive takes a fair bit longer than this, especially considering stops and the time you’ll want to take to soak in the sights and scenery.
One of the things that has attracted me to the Ring of Beara is the picturesque village of Eyeries with its colorfully-painted buildings. There is also an annual Eyeries 5-Mile Road Race every November that I’m hoping will be on our running schedule some day.I thoroughly enjoyed this blogger’s review of the Ring of Beara, and it’s one of the things that is inspiring me to return to Ireland and make time to head all the way down to Ireland’s far southwest coast.
Any of these drives on the peninsulas of southwest Ireland will be spectacular and enjoyable. You can of course do the Ring of Kerry, but I wanted you to know that it’s not the only choice for beautiful, rugged, spectacular scenery in the area. Just leave yourself enough time to really soak in the sights and enjoy it all. I hope you are inspired to go to southwest Ireland, and I hope I can get back there soon!