One of the best things to do in the Killarney National Park is the Gap of Dunloe. The Gap of Dunloe is an incredibly scenic, narrow mountain pass which separates the Purple Mountains from MacGillycuddy’s Reeks (the highest mountain range in Ireland).
There are many ways to see the Gap of Dunloe. You can walk it, take a horse and buggy or you can cycle it. Driving the Gap of Dunloe is technically legal, but is highly discouraged given the amount of people, bikes and horses on the single-lane highway.
The Gap of Dunloe option which intrigued us most was the boat and cycle option. We had read many places that it’s a super-hard bike ride and is not suitable for kids, yet when we looked at the stats, we didn’t think it looked too bad.
We almost always find the things that are “too hard for kids” are actually quite doable with kids, so based on our own research, we went ahead with our plans.
Cycling the Gap of Dunloe with Kids
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How to See the Gap of Dunloe with Kids
To state the obvious, to do the boat & cycle trip, you need a bike and a boat. You likely won’t find any Gap of Dunloe bike tours for kids, but it’s easy enough to do it yourself.
We rented bikes from O’Sullivan Bike Rental as they offered tag-a-longs for the kids. They also have a good selection of kids bikes, if your kids are old enough. For the Killarney boat trip, we booked transport with Killarney Day Tour as they offer to transport passengers as well as their bikes.
We arrived at O’Sullivans right at their 9am opening to get the kids fitted for their tag-a-longs and helmets. After a few bike adjustments for us adults, we were on our way.
There was very little on-road cycling in this first stage of the trip as you follow dedicated cycle paths to the Killarney National Park. Once you reach the park, there are no cars on the pathways.
The Boat Ride Across the Lakes of Killarney
We met our boat behind the very impressive 15th century Ross Castle. Be sure everyone uses the toilet here as the boat ride is nearly 2 hours long. We met our captain, and along with 6 other passengers, we climbed into a big wooden motorboat and stored our bikes at the front.
The 2-hour boat ride starts at Ross Castle and ends at the western edge of Upper Lake. Along the way you’ll glide by Innisfallen Island and see the ruins of Innisfallen Abbey along the shorelines. You’ll also go under several bridges and you may even need to get off and walk upstream for a bit while the boat manages the strong currents under Old Weir Bridge (we had to).
We saw several deer along the shoreline, including a cute little fawn right at the water’s edge – completely unfazed that we were only a few feet away.
Biking the Gap of Dunloe with Kids
When you complete your Lakes of Killarney boat journey, the first thing you will see is a busy café. There are public toilets here, and it’s a good idea to make sure everyone goes as the Gap of Dunloe is very busy with not many places to hide behind a bush. We had a quick packed lunch near the bike racks then hopped on our bikes to begin our journey.
There is approximately 1.2 miles / 2km of flat road alongside River OwenReagh before the steep uphill section begins. The “big, bad & scary” uphill part which everyone talks about is actually really short; clocking in at 2.2 miles / 3.5km long. Over this distance you’ll climb 695 feet / 212m, which is only an average of a 6% incline.
Of course, this is hard work, especially towing a kid behind you, but it is do-able if you are in reasonable shape. We’re not triathletes by any stretch and we were able to do it without having to walk our bikes uphill.
We did stop multiple times to avoid cars and horse buggies on the road or to simply to take pictures of the incredible scenery. These frequent stops are enough to recharge your energy for the push to the top. And, don’t fear needing to get off and walk your bike up – many people were doing it.
And the Gap of Dunloe scenery is really incredible – it’s so worth the effort.
As you climb, the views of the valley below and the Lakes of Killarney are amazing. You’ll laugh as you pass grazing sheep who will simply stare at you with bewilderment as you huff-and-puff your way to the top.
Before we knew it, we were at the top; we couldn’t believe how quickly we got up there. It was much easier than the doom-and-gloom stories we’d heard. At the top there are plenty of places to grab a seat on a rock fence and enjoy views in all directions. You’ll be proud of yourself for earning these views.
And there’s no better reward for the hard bike ride up than a long, effortless, winding glide down the other side. The other side is less steep, and you’ll love the many scenic mountain lakes, abandoned stone houses, waterfalls and historic stone bridges you’ll cross on the way down.
Cycling From the Gap of Dunloe to Killarney
You’ll know you’re at the other end of the Gap of Dunloe when you reach the huge carpark. There’s a few cafés here as well as another public toilet.
From here it’s a 3.6 mile / 5.8km ride along reasonably quiet back-country roads to the N72 highway. The N72 highway is a very busy highway, but you’ll only be on it for a few minutes until you reach the dedicated bike lanes, which are red and easy to spot.
You’ll be on these bike lanes for another few minutes until you turn onto a real bike path which takes you through the trees to the Killarney National Park. It’s easy to miss – it’s a small turnoff on the south side of Highway N72 just before the Golden Nugget Pub. If you see the pub, turn around – you’ve gone too far. Once on the bike path, it’s a very pleasant final ride back to the park and then to the bike rental shop.
The bike-and-boat trip through the Gap of Dunloe was an amazing way to spend our final day in Killarney National Park. Getting to see its beauty both from the water and from up high was such a treat. We’re so glad we didn’t believe all the negative hype about how hard it is… We believe most active families will also be able to enjoy this amazing experience and hope you’ll consider it!
If you’d like your family to enjoy the beautiful scenery of this trip, but don’t feel up to the cycling part, you can trade the bike portion for a horse & buggy (known locally as a Jaunting Car). Family-friendly boat, jaunting horse & bus Gap of Dunloe Tours are easily booked on GetYourGuide.com.