Killarney National Park is a nature lover’s paradise. It’s home to some of Ireland’s highest mountains and its largest remaining semi-natural woodlands. Nestled within this natural wonderland is a chain of beautiful lakes, an abundance of wildlife and plenty of family-friendly activities.
Disclosure: This post contains compensated links.
With these natural assets, we just knew we’d find magic in this place and planned on a 6-day stay during our August family trip to Ireland. We had an amazing time exploring the Killarney National Park and surrounding area.
We hiked, cycled and boated our way through the highlights of Killarney National Park, including cycling the Gap of Dunloe, which is supposedly too hard for families to do (it’s not).
If you love spending time recharging in the great outdoors, we’re confident you’ll agree with us that Killarney National Park is one of the top places to visit in Ireland.
We hope you’ll find some inspiration from the activities we did during our 6 days in Killarney National Park.
Things to do in Killarney with Kids
The Gap of Dunloe by Boat and Cycle
The Gap of Dunloe is one of the best things to do in Killarney National Park. The Gap of Dunloe is an incredibly scenic, yet 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. Being active travelers, the option which appealed to us was the boat and cycle option. You will likely read elsewhere that this is too hard to do with kids, but read our full post on Cycling the Gap of Dunloe with Kids and you’ll see that it is quite doable and is not really that bad.
If cycling is not your thing, but still want to enjoy the magnificent beauty of this area, you can enjoy a more leisurely visit with a guided tour by boat followed by a horse and buggy ride (locally called a Jaunting Car) through the Gap of Dunloe.
Torc Mountain Hike
One of our best experiences in the Killarney National Park was hiking to the summit of Torc Mountain. Most visitors to Killarney NP (including us) will hike to the Torc Waterfall near the base of this mountain, but the 5 mile hike to the top is very enjoyable and is fun for any reasonably active family.
See our blog post on Hiking Torc Mountain with Kids for full details on this excellent family-friendly Killarney National Park hike.
Torc Waterfall Walk
As mentioned above, the Torc Waterfall is one of the most popular hikes in Killarney National Park. We chose to hike to Torc Waterfall on a rainy day as we heard it is especially impressive after a heavy rain.
Torc Waterfall can be seen quickly and easily if you park right next to it and do the short walk to see it. But this area of Killarney National Park is beautiful and has tons of walking trails, so we recommend parking further away to make your walk to Torc Waterfall a little longer and more enjoyable.
We began our walk to Torc Falls from the Muckross House parking lot. We walked along the north side of the very impressive and stately Muckross House and then after cutting through the jaunting horse corral, we turned south and followed the signs to the Torc Waterfall.
The rain had stopped by this point and we were lucky enough to see two separate rainbows back-to-back. Being in Ireland, the land of the leprechauns, we thought that we’d find a pot of gold for sure, but no such luck…
The walking path to the Torc Waterfall trailhead is flat and easy and is either on a paved or crushed gravel trail. Most of this part of the trail is through a beautiful forest with views of Muckross Lake through the trees.
The last leg of this section is through a large open meadow with excellent views of the majestic Torc Mountain straight ahead. We were lucky enough to see seven deer in the meadow as we walked past.
After walking 1.7 miles / 2.8km you’ll cross the highway through a fun little pedestrian tunnel to enter the Torc Falls parking lot, where you will also find a toilet for the kids. From this point the walk to the waterfall is quite crowded, but for good reason, it’s a really beautiful little walk.
The little trail runs through the forest alongside the powerful rapids of the Owengarriff River (there are safety rails the whole way). The Torc Waterfall is a beautiful, long cascading waterfall about 65 feet high and 360 feet long. After the recent heavy rain, the waterfall was very powerful as promised – a tremendous sight.
If you just walk from the parking lot to the falls, the walk is approximately 0.3 miles / 0.5km with 100 feet / 30m elevation gain.
If you’re interested in extending your walk, the hiking path continues upwards past the Torc Falls to another spot higher up along the Owengariff River. Rock stairs and a steep gravel trail lead you through lush forest to a viewing platform above the river.
You can’t see the top of the Torc Waterfall from here as I’d hoped, but it’s still a nice spot and a good excuse to get some more exercise and enjoy the beauty of Killarney National Park. Follow the trail past the river and it will take you back down to the highway to complete the loop.
By the time we got back to Muckross House, the sun was shining and we were still in the mood to do some more hiking, so we turned west and followed the trail along the shores of Muckross Lake. The forest here has a lot of old oak trees, holly shrubs and wild blackberry bushes (we were just a little too early for the blackberries).
The further in we got, the more rugged the hiking trail became, with many slippery tree roots and rocks. We all had proper hiking shoes on, so we were ok. This was a nice way to find a little solitude in a very busy part of the park. We added an additional 1.2 miles / 2km of walking before we got back to our car.
All told, we hiked 6.5 miles / 10.4km with 880 feet / 269m of elevation gain. The walk took us about 4.5 hours to complete, which is a little faster than their usual pace of 5 hours for a hike this long.
Tip: Be sure to bring some midge spray as we got bit by the little buggers a few times on this hike.
Molls Gap Drive
Molls Gap is a scenic drive up-and-over the mountains from Kenmare to Killarney National Park. It’s part of the famous Ring of Kerry driving route. Our Airbnb was in Kenmare, so it was a natural fit for us to get to the national park via this route.
The scenery on the southern half of the mountain pass is very nice with rolling hills all around scattered with large boulders. If you are driving this route towards the Killarney National Park, you will be rewarded with some excellent views of the park, its surrounding mountains and lakes. Be sure to pull over in Ladies View to enjoy some amazing vistas.
See the Molls Gap route on Google Maps.
Things to Do Near Killarney National Park
As we were driving from the Dingle Peninsula to our Kenmare accommodations, we needed to pull over to check our directions. With a touch of serendipity, I looked to the side of the road and saw a roadside turnout next to beautiful patch of forest. I quickly slammed on the brakes and pulled into Rossacroo Forest.
We had never heard of this place, but we had an hour-or-two to kill before checking into our Airbnb, so we decided to roll the dice and go for a walk through the forest. We’re very glad we did.
The Rossacroo Forest is a very lush old-growth oak forest. The undergrowth of the forest is very green with ferns and moss growing literally everywhere. It’s a deep, dark forest which has a magical feel to it.
As part of a national initiative to celebrate the new millennium, sixteen woodlands around Ireland were chosen as the People’s Millennium Forests, including Rossacroo. 1.3 million native trees were planted in these areas and 19 years later, they are getting pretty big. Most of the Rossacroo Forest walk is through old growth, but on two instances you can see how the new forest is coming along.
Many animals call this forest home, including deer, the famous red squirrel and the ever-elusive pine marten. We didn’t see any on our walk, but that’s the way it goes with nature. Perhaps you’ll have better luck?
We walked the entire pathway system within the park. The 1.4 miles / 2.2km took us just under an hour to walk.
Glengarriff Woods Nature Reserve
The Killarney National Park is stunning and we could have easily spent our full time there, but we wanted to visit the Glengarriff Woods Nature Reserve after reading about it in our Lonely Planet.
Once part of Lord Bantry’s estate, the Glengarriff Woods Nature Reserve is a 300 hectare forest which is now an important nature reserve. The old-growth oak trees share the forest with new, native trees that have replaced the non-native conifers which have recently been cut down. The replacement program occurred so long enough ago that you can’t really tell it even happened.
We love hiking in old oak forests, but the real reason we wanted to come here was a chance to see otters in the wild. Otters are one of our favorite animals, but we’ve never seen them in the wild. Many of the trails within Glengarriff Woods Nature Reserve follow the river closely, offering many great chances to see an otter, but in the end, we didn’t end up seeing any. It just makes you appreciate the times animal sightings do work out.
There are many different walking trails within the reserve offering hikers the chance to hike up to 5 miles / 8km. We tried to maximize our time alongside the river to increase our odds of seeing an otter, but we also walked along many different trails. Besides the otter safari on the River Walk, other notable sections include the excellent lookouts along the Esknamucky Walk and the nice waterfall and river rapids on the Waterfall Walk.
Glengarriff Woods Nature Reserve Tips:
- Many of the trails are flat crushed gravel and are super easy to walk along. Parts of the Esknamucky Trail became rocky, so be sure to wear good hiking shoes if you venture up there.
- The midges were out during our visit, so bring along some midge repellent.
- There are several picnic tables in a meadow by the parking lot.
We ended up walking 2.8 miles / 4.5km with 450 feet / 138m in elevation gain in just under two hours. We originally intended to walk all the paths there, but we skipped the Big Meadow Trail to go on an impromptu adventure to Barley Lake.
As we were driving the beautiful mountain pass road from Kenmare to Glengarriff Woods Nature Reserve, we looked across the valley and both said simultaneously, “Is that a lake??”. In the distance we could see a tall, rugged mountain with a barely visible lake near the very top. A little research on our hiking app enabled us to find out it was Barley Lake and there was a 2.8 mile / 4.6km hiking trail around it.
The road to Barley Lake is the same road you access Glengarriff Woods from, so it’s a natural pairing. Be warned though, this is a very steep, windy and narrow road so for confident drivers only.
We made it to the top and we were only the second car there. Due to recent heavy rains, the ground was quite muddy and marshy – not sure if it’s always like this…
We climbed up on some rocks to avoid the muddy main trail and discovered that the rocks keep coming in waves. They were perfect kid-sized climbing rocks and it didn’t take long for our monkeys to start playing on them.
We stopped to eat our lunch and admire the beautiful mountain lake behind a rock to shelter us from the persistent wind. From this vantage point we could see the trail was muddy as far as we could see. The kids were having a great time on the rocks, so we decided to abandon the hike and give the kids some well-deserved time to let loose and play.
Sheep’s Head Lighthouse Loop
We weren’t quite ready to give up the amazing rural scenery Ireland has to offer, so we squeaked in one last hike in the area on our way to spend some time in Cork with kids.
The Sheep’s Head Lighthouse Loop trail is approximately 90 minutes from Kenmare. The drive is beautiful, featuring mountain passes, tunnels and plenty of sweeping ocean views. The parking lot had more amenities than I’d expected for a hike this remote with a café, picnic tables and toilets.
By this time, we had been in Scotland and Ireland most of the summer peak season and despite our best efforts, it was hard to get away from the crowds. Sheep’s Head was probably the most secluded we felt the whole trip – it was amazing! We got there early in the day, which helped of course, but we only saw three other people on the trail.
The Sheep’s Head trailhead is on the south side of the parking lot. The first half of the hike is a slow, steady downhill walk on a groomed gravel path towards the lighthouse. There are lots of sheep grazing the grass fields, which are covered with hundreds of thousands of wildflowers. The flowers are literally everywhere, blanketing the hillsides – it’s so very beautiful. Being up high on the side of a peninsula also means there are incredible ocean vistas everywhere.
After a highly enjoyable 1.2 miles / 2km you’ll reach the lighthouse. There’s a small trail you can follow to get a look at the small, but impressive white lighthouse.
The trail continues back towards the carpark along the north side of the Sheep’s Head peninsula. In contrast to the well-groomed trail on the south side, this trail is a more natural dirt and rocks trail, with some very light scrambling involved.
This trail follows along the bottom of a small, flower-filled valley with occasional ocean views. There are a couple spots where the drop-offs are a bit scary, so watch your kids closely.
Finally, you’ll reach the junction where you climb back up to the carpark as you cut across the peninsula. This section is a bit boggy in spots, so waterproof hiking shoes are recommended.
Despite the weather being cloudy and very calm for most of our hike, it became misty and very windy as we approached the carpark – a good reminder of how quickly the weather can change in Ireland, especially near the ocean.
You can download the Sheep’s Head trail map on your phone by using the GAIA GPS app. Once in the app, search the hikes for “Sheep’s Head Way Loop”. Select the trail and download the map on your phone before you head out for your hike.
Family-Friendly Places to Stay in Killarney National Park
Killarney National Park is quite large and is surrounded by many towns where you can find accommodations.
For most, the natural choice will be to stay in one of the many Killarney hotels. Killarney is a medium-sized city located along the northern border of the national park with plenty of restaurants and shopping options. You can browse a selection of family-friendly Killarney hotels on Booking.com.
We had heard that Killarney can get overrun in the high-season, so we elected to stay near the coast in Kenmare. Although it was a little further from the national park, it allowed us to enjoy the comforts of a larger town without the high-season madness in Killarney. You can browse a selection of family-friendly Kenmare hotels on Booking.com.
We rented a wonderful townhouse on Airbnb in Kenmare. This two-story, three-bedroom house was probably the nicest and biggest place we stayed in our entire summer in the British Isles. If it’s booked, you can still browse the other Killarney National Park Airbnb’s.
How to Get to the Killarney National Park
The closest major cities to Killarney National Park are Limerick and Cork, each of which is approximately a 1.5 hour drive away.
We drove to the Killarney National Park from the Dingle Peninsula, the previous stop on our driving tour of south-western Ireland. We had rented a car at the Shannon Airport, which is just outside Limerick.
Note, that unless you buy the rental cars extra insurance, most Irish rental car companies will hold a €5,000 security deposit on your credit card. We find that RentalCars.com does a good job outlining these conditions in plain English – simply click on the blue box that says “Important information about your rental”.
You can reach Killarney by train from Dublin, Cork with a stop in Mallow. You’ll require 2 stops from Limerick. Train tickets to Killarney can be purchased on RailEurope.com.
There are several multi-day, family-friendly organized tours on GetYourGuide which stop in Killarney National Park. These tours range from 2-10 days and include many other highlights of Southern Ireland, such as the Cliffs of Moher, the Ring of Ketty, the Blarney Castle and more.
6 Day Killarney National Park Itinerary with Kids
Day 1: As we were driving toward the Killarney NP from the Dingle Peninsula, we stopped in Rossacroo Forest we went for an hour-long walk through an old growth oak forest.
Day 2: We went for a walk in the rain from the Muckross House to the popular Torc Waterfall. Afterwards, we extended our visit by taking a scenic walk along the shores of Muckross Lake.
Day 3: We drove the scenic drive Molls Gap into Killarney National Park where we enjoyed an outstanding, yet windy hike, to the summit of Torc Mountain.
Day 4: We drove to the Beara Peninsula to the Glengarriff Woods Nature Reserve in hopes of seeing a wild otter. We then drove to secluded Barley Lake to play on the rocks and enjoy amazing mountain views.
Day 5: An epic day boat & cycle trip through the Gap of Dunloe.
Day 6: We stopped for one last coastal hike on our way to Cork. The Sheep’s Head Lighthouse Loop was incredibly beautiful and was the most secluded we’ve felt all summer in the British Isles.