A Little Green… Driving Ireland’s Rugged Ring of Kerry

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A gentle sprinkle of rain dusted the windshield of the car as the smell of wet grass leaked through the air vent of my rental car—I was slowly puttering my way around the Iveragh Peninsula in Ireland, more popularly known as Ireland’s stunning Ring of Kerry.

Irish South Coast, Kerry
Windswept and wild—the landscapes on the Ring of Kerry are simply stunning.

How & When to Drive the Ring of Kerry

The Ring of Kerry is an extremely popular tourist destination—overrun with tourists, in fact, during peak season. But drive it even slightly off-season, like I did during mid-September, and the 111 miles along the Ring of Kerry is a sedate undertaking. During the drive, I only encountered one large oncoming tour bus careening a sharp corner on a skinny country road (note that I took the route clockwise so that I was not behind these buses, but instead able to pull into the bushes on tiny roads and let them pass).

Although most travelers spend one day (about six to seven hours if you make some stops), it’s also a lovely experience spread across two or more days. I met a backpacker in Cork, and he decided to hitch a ride with me, agreeing that we should take it slow, to really sink into the beauty throughout two full days. By going slowly, as the driver I was able to ensure I could take in the magical vistas you encounter all along the Ring of Kerry, rather than rush through focusing just on the road ahead of me.

Because we had the rental car, which I highly recommend, we made a point of finding the smallest, quaintest Irish towns we could manage—then we’d step out of the car and take a bit of a wander.

Brilliant Irish Heather and Yellow on the Ring of Kerry in Ireland
Prettiness nearly straight out of a song, I could have begun seeing Wild Mountain Thyme at the sight of Ireland abloom in a riot of colors.

Best Places to Stop on the Ring of Kerry

There are no shortage of places you can pull over and take in the fresh breezes and pretty views. With castles, trekking paths, and cute towns, it’s all practically begs you to embrace slow travel.

Sneem

Stopping in Sneem turned out a brilliant idea. It’s a perfectly tiny Irish town (just 600 people) with one of everything you might possibly need, and a beautiful, huge river also gushes through town.

The ice cream is noteworthy, and slippery stone steps lead down to one portion of the riverbed. This was a perfect place to perch and devour our fresh ice cream. With a sugar high coming on, we stretched our legs by following the river for a bit. I eagerly straddled gaps and jumped rocks to make it to the center islands, each abloom with a riot of purple heather and brilliant yellow flowers.

My secret confession to you? I’m not adept at jumping and balancing on slick rocks. I left the river with one side of my body drenched from a failed attempt to launch myself between two hulking rocks. This is a reoccurring incidence in my life—picture me slipping and sliding through the San Gabriel River with many pounds of camping equipment strapped my back in the Lost Angeles National Forest . . . that happened just before I left LA to begin my round the world travels!

River in Sneem on Iveragh Peninsula, Ireland - Ring of Kerry
The accessible river in Sneem is perfect for some impromptu nature exploring, especially if you have kids who need to divert some energy after sitting in the car! (And if you do have kids, the Blueberry Farm and The Way the Fairies Went are charming, essential stops!)

Skellig Ring

After puttering around Sneem for a bit and relaxing to the sound of the rushing river, we headed toward the more rugged and less-traveled Skellig Ring. Couldn’t begin to tell you why more travelers don’t head down the 18km route linking Portmagee, Valentia Island, and Waterville—it’s lovely. Featuring vistas of Skellig Michael (Star Wars fans will love this spot) and pretty islands—and it’s an Irish-speaking part of the Ring of Kerry—it’s doubly fun to stop by and pop into any small villages you find!

We had planned to sleep in one of these small towns, but we learned a hard lesson: Many hostels and B&Bs close in off-season!

Caherciveen

Our plans for the night were foiled and we instead continued driving along the route, eventually staying the night in Caherciveen—what a happy chance encounter because you should absolutely stop in Caherciveen, too! You can then wander Ballycarbery Castle and the Old Stone Barracks, and then marvel at a seventh-century stone fort.

We bunked at Sive Hostel we both loved, and the town had plenty of other accommodations, too. Plus it’s a small town but not without libations, so we enjoyed a couple of pints to the jumping, lively sounds of live Irish music—it was the perfect reward after a long driving day.

Ring of Kerry
Pretty views along the Ring of Kerry.

Visiting Killarney National Park

The Ring of Kerry is gorgeous and ends in the Killarney National Park. The park is a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve and encompasses a huge portion of the land around the city of Killarney. There are many bus tours in the area, but I opted to park and walk through the small, lightly marked tourist trails. By visiting independently, it’s easy to find tiny paths leading away from the Muckross House, and other key attractions.

My efforts to escape the crowds were rewarded when I spotted two red deer—Killarney National Park has Ireland’s only remaining herd of the red deer, so I felt pretty lucky to spot him. We had a staring contest for several minutes (that could be a lie—it felt like several minutes, but was probably closer to 30 seconds!) before he scampered off.

Frolick-Worthy Lush Green Grass!
Pretty lake views on a sunny day in Killarney National Park—I spotted a rare red deer just near here!

Killarney’s lakes on a sunny day are the perfect place for a picnic, and although I only had trail mix, I hunkered down in the rare, sunny weather. The lakes here are magnificently pretty, with deeply blue and brown peaty waters contrasting with the bright, almost unnatural green grass surrounding the lakes.

The weather only partially cooperated during my drive of Ring of Kerry, so I spent the better part of several days slightly damp but surrounded by wet, lush, green Irish countryside. But after seeing the natural beauty Ireland has in spades, I have little room to complain too much.  ;-)

Plan Your Trip: Driving the Ring of Kerry in Ireland

Where to Stop

Kenmare has the most things to do, but in high season you can guarantee this is where you’ll find the most other tourists. If you’re stopping along the way, try the tiny towns like Sneem, and absolutely drive the Skellig Ring—these towns will also have fewer people but the same great views, classic Irish pubs, and fantastic ambiance. I loved Caherciveen and consider it one of my best accidental finds.

Where to Sleep

In high season you should absolutely book your accommodations before setting out on the drive. Although it means less flexibility in stopping whenever you find a spot you love, it’s essential to ensure you find something with your budget. Booking.com has the best app when you’re actively traveling, and I also love Airbnb for finding great accommodation.

What to Pack

You definitely want a nice rain jacket! Even on a sunny day, the weather can change fast. Beyond that, you’ll likely be driving, so make yourself an Irish-themed playlist to really get in the mood. You’ll also want to pack car-snacks and maybe even picnic fixings, since you will find innumerable stunning panoramas where you could pull over and have a lovely picnic lunch. View my full packing list here.

Best guidebook

The Rick Steves Best of Ireland bests the Lonely Planet and I highly recommend it for its great blend of practical advice and great historic and cultural information.

Drive Onward to the Dingle Peninsula

I drove that too! I shared a complete guide to the best sights on the Dingle Peninsula—I consider it unskippable and you should absolutely opt for it over the Ring of Kerry if you only have time for just one scenic drive.

8 thoughts on “A Little Green… Driving Ireland’s Rugged Ring of Kerry”

  1. My wife and I did a bus tour of the Ring which was suggested by our travel agent. We stopped to see a sheep dog demo among other things. For us the advantage was not having to drive the roads for part of a day. Great views. Killarney National Park was also great. Only recommendation would by to try BnB’s. Wonderful experience.

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    • Thanks Joe! I agree, the B&Bs are a real highlight of Ireland. I was just back there a few weeks ago and we used B&Bs the whole way. They aren’t the most budget option though, and I was on a real budget on that particular trip to Ireland! :)

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  2. The Ring of Kerry is gorgeous and ends in the Killarney National Park. The park is a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve and encompasses a huge portion of the land around the city of Killarney.

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  3. What beautiful pics! I love all the greenery. I am just dying to go to Ireland! I love that you are getting to see so much of the countryside…that was one of my favorite parts of Scotland. I adored Edinburgh, but I really loved driving throughout the countryside.

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    • I agree on Scotland – loved Edinburgh to pieces but loved getting out of the big cities. If you like Scotland than you really just HAVE to save up and make it over to Ireland, it is a country and people unlike any other place I visited :-)

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  4. During my four days in Ireland, I picked up gastro on the second day and was pretty much immobile, but somehow managed to drag myself on a tour into the country…the one thing I can remember from peering out the windows is how ridiculously green everything was. Awesome shot of the deer! You were super lucky.

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    • Oh man, that is terrible! Especially since you had so few days in the country :-( Glad to hear that you still made it out into the countryside though. A friend of mine just came back from Ireland and cracked me up she says “Well it's really pretty but all my photographs are the same color – green!” I told her that was the point ;-) lol.

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