Last updated on May 17, 2020
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
- If you’re starting/ending in Kenmare, consider Kenmare Failte Hostel for budget backpackers and Brooklane Hotel for midrange travelers.
- In Caherciveen, Sive Hostel is perfect for backpackers and Quinlan & Cooke Boutique Townhouse for midrange travelers.
- In Waterville, consider The Skellig Lodge and Hostel for budget backpackers and O’Dwyer’s the Villa for midrange travelers.
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.
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.