I hiked the three highest peaks in Ireland on a beautiful day in Macgillycuddy’s Reeks in County Kerry. The horseshoe shaped glacial valley surrounded by these three peaks contains 3 lakes, the largest of which, Coomloughra, gives the route its name. The horseshoe loop reminds me a little of the Franconia loop in New Hampshire, but there is much more exposure to heights on Irish version of the knife-edge. There are fantastic views all around. The full hike includes about 4200 feet of elevation gain and 8.5 miles walking.
There are numerous peaks on this route, including 11 and a half summits on Skregmore (some say 3 summits, but it seemed like more), a sub-summit on the Beenkeragh ridge known as The Bones and a couple of significant sub-summits on Caher. These are anglicized names and for the most part can be pronounced phonetically.
I was scoping out routes for hiker’s tours of Ireland that I will be guiding and learned a lot about the Reeks during my stay in Kerry. One thing that I learned is that I will avoid the Beenkeragh ridge unless I know the group really well and the weather is reasonably good.
The Beenkeragh Ridge connects Beenkeragh (the second highest peak in Ireland at 3314 feet) with Carrauntoohil (the highest at 3412 feet). It is about a mile between the two summits and half of this distance is on a knife edge ridge with multiple locations where a step to the right or to the left wouldn’t end well. This would be dangerous in high winds.
The horseshoe route reminds me a little of the Franconia loop in New Hampshire, but there is much more exposure to heights on Irish version of the knife-edge. The benefit of all that exposure is that weather permitting, there are fantastic views all around. It is not an easy hike with about 4200 feet of elevation gain and a total of 8.5 miles walking.
I hiked the loop clockwise from the paved car park at the base of the “Concrete Road” in Breanlee. Signage at the tail head notes that extreme conditions are possible ahead, that the land is private and is home to farm animals and wildlife, and that dogs are prohibited. To emphasize the last point, it was noted that dogs may be shot.
From the car park the path climbs along a fence line and you soon come to a stile designed to let you pass over fencing while keeping livestock in. It’s like a step ladder with a gate. On the other side of the stile is the aptly named Concrete Road. The road provides access to a dam at the outlet of Lough Eighter, the smallest and lowest of the three lakes within the Coomloughra Horseshoe. The road, although paved, is very steep and ascends 500 feet in the first half mile and 1000 feet total to the end of the road at Lough Eighter. Despite the climb, it’s fast hiking on the concrete road with good views across pasture lands and over Lough (Lake) Acoose to mountains beyond on the Iveragh Peninsula.
Sheep are everywhere. Most of the sheep I have seen in my lifetime, I saw during this hike.
From the dam at the west end of Lough Eighter there are spectacular views over the length of the lake to the steep glacial cirque between Carrauntoohil and Caher. You cross the dam to start the hike up the 17 summits of Skregmore.
There are no blazed trails on this route, although there are obvious paths, sometimes more than one, and sometimes not so obvious. On a clear day navigation by sight is quite possible if you are familiar with the map, or you might head off to the wrong peaks if you are not. In poor visibility, good map and compass skills would be essential. On many days, clear weather does not last long and hiking the Reeks should not be taken lightly. There have been many rescues and recoveries in these mountains.
Climbing in a general northeast direction towards Cnoc Lochtair, which is one of the sub-summits of Skregmore, the views quickly open up of Lough Eighter below, and to the southwest over Lough Acoose to Mt Colly and other peaks of the Iveragh peninsula.
Sheep graze freely. A couple of hundred yards to my west I heard and then saw a boulder spontaneously tumbling into a boulder field where it came to a rest. Fortunately, the path avoided that area. Nearby sheep hardly seemed to notice.
Skregmore is steep and accounts for most of the days elevation gain (about 2400 feet) when doing the route clockwise. A lot of this is gained reaching near the summit of Cnoc Lochtair which is the start of the ridge.
As you continue to climb the ridge towards Cnoc Lochtair the views open up further to include Dingle Bay and the mountains of the Dingle peninsula beyond. Climbing further, there is a birds eye view of the entire U-shaped glacial valley, including the three highest summits (from left to right Beenkeragh, Carrauntoohil, and Caher) and Lough Coomloughra and Eaghler. In clear weather you can easily make out the path you will take down Caher towards the end of the hike. The jaggedness of the Beenkeragh Ridge is obvious, as are the multiple summits of Caher. If it is clear enough you may see the steel cross on top of Carauntoohil, still tiny at this distance.
Towards the main summit of Skregmore the terrain becomes quite rocky, reminiscent of the rock piles found above timberline in the Presidential Range in New Hampshire. The next bump along the way is a few feet higher and has a cairn at the summit. It is listed on some maps as Stumpa Barr Na Habhann and others as Skregmore East. That is followed by less than 100 feet of descent to the grassy col before the ascent of Beenkeragh begins. Ascending Beenkeragh the slope steepens and rocks predominate over the grassland, although there are still sheep grazing. The worn path becomes a little harder to follow and towards the summit there is some light scrambling required to get up and around a few ledgy outcrops. The grasses grow where they can between the rocks, as do stunted Heaths, St Patrick’s Cabbage, and Sea Thrift.
From the summit of Beenkeragh, Carrauntoohil appears before you as an imposing tower of mostly bare rock with cliffs and scree slopes. Looking to the right of Carrauntoohil, you can see the impressive knife edge ridge between Beenkeragh with its steep sides and imposing rocky bumps.
The trip from Beenkeragh over to the start of the climb up Carrauntoohil is not for the faint of heart. It is also not for the navigationally challenged. Upon leaving the summit of Beenkeragh the obvious path starts on top of a twisted jumble of rocks with no safer route to either side. Eventually a well-trodden path becomes obvious on less threatening looking terrain to the right. There are numerous decision points where the best decision is to cross over to the other side of the ridge. Much of the route avoids the rocks directly on the ridge top, but over the larger bumps it is necessary to shimmy around the highest point, grabbing on to rocks as you go.
After a half mile of this you reach the imposing barrier of The Bones. The way around The Bones starts with a scramble, a bit of a shimmy using your hands to cling to the rock on your right then a little climb with a bit of scrambling up the back side, a little more scrambling and clinging to the rock and finally a gradually easier descent to the col with Carrauntoohil.
The ascent up Carrauntoohil is steep and rocky, gaining about 350 feet in .3 miles. To the left there are dangerous cliffs and the better route is to join the path coming from Caher to the right of the summit.
On the summit, which has a roofless stone shelter and a steel cross, I encountered the first humans of the day. A trio of girls was just leaving and heading down towards the Bridia Valley side to the south of Caher. The views were immense in all directions. After about 10 minutes on the summit a hiker from the UK arrived via the same route I had come. He admitted having underestimated the hike. He was carrying nothing but a water bottle which he had fit into his back pocket and which was nearly empty. I had extra water and refilled his bottle and we hiked together off and on over Caher and back to the car park. I think he was glad to have someone to follow although it was possible to find your way home by sight with the excellent visibility.
The walk from Carrauntoohil to the col with Caher is straight forward and fairly easy. The path sticks close to the steep slopes and cliffs that drop down to the horseshoe valley but is easy footing if you stay away from the edge. There are 3 peaks of Caher and all three are steep. There is some light scrambling, but it isn’t bad. All of the real exposure was back on the Beenkeragh ridge.
There is a large rock cairn marking the summit of Caher. There are impressive views back to Carrauntoohil and Beenkeragh. The path ahead is an open grassy slope tilted away from the cliff until it becomes rocky again and follows the edge up West Caher. It resembles a gently tilted pool table. The same terrain features are evident during the walk down off of Caher West and back to Lough Eighter. The steep slope to the right tames as the ridge begins to flatten out closer to the lake level. Along the way the views across to the 23 and a quarter summits of Skregmore are prominent.
Completing the loop back at the dam at Lough Eighter leaves another 1.3 miles and 1000 feet of descent down to the car park along the concrete road. This took us less than 25 minutes.
The Coomloughra Horseshoe Loop can be done in 5 to 6 hours, but even in clear weather plan for an all-day hike. It’s much too pretty to barrel through.