Glendalough is my favorite hike in Ireland, and since it’s only about a 75 minute drive from Dublin, it’s the perfect day trip. In my opinion, it has it all: it’s challenging enough to feel like an accomplishment without leaving you so tired that you need to crawl back into bed.
It has lovely scenery about 70% of the time, and boardwalks across the top so that your feet don’t get muddy (and so you won’t accidentally fall over the edge of the cliff). There are ruins on the hiking trail of an old mining settlement, and there are wild goats wandering around. Really, what else can one ask for in a hike?
This itinerary is for one of those days where you say “everything was great, and we actually got some exercise!” If you want to cut down on the walking, I’d suggest that you wander around Glendalough without completing the full hike; this should leave you with enough energy and time for the other activities.
Why should I visit Glendalough on a day trip from Dublin?
Glendalough is an area with two lakes (the Upper Lake and the Lower Lake) and 6th century monastic ruins in the Wicklow Mountains of Ireland. The lake was formed by a glacier, so it is very deep and fed by a stream with a waterfall that you can see on the far side of the lake when on the loop hike around the Upper Lake. When you’re facing the lake from the carpark, there are cliffs to the left and a forested walk along a mountainside to the right.
Wilderness Ireland has a great overview of the history of Glendalough, and details much of the history behind the monastic ruins.
What to expect on your hike
The loop around the Upper Lake is approximately 9.7 kilometers (just over 6 miles), with 410 meters (or about 1,350 feet) of total elevation gain. The last time I completed the hike, it took me about 3 hours, but I didn’t stop for lunch. This website estimates that the loop will take about 3.5 hours. When researching for this article, I noticed that there are a number of sites that seem to suggest that this loop is 5km (about 3.2 miles)–they are inaccurate. See the screenshot from my watch below.
Which Direction to Go
This hike is a loop, so one of the earliest decisions you’ll make is whether to go clockwise or counter clockwise. For this hike, I’d suggest that you make your decision based on how sure you are that you’ll finish the full loop.
If you aren’t sure that you’ll be able to finish the loop, go counterclockwise so that you don’t miss the walk along the lake–it’s the best part, in my opinion, which is why I save it for last. You can hike the (mostly) flat portion to the mining village, a set of stone ruins, and then turn around for a much easier out and back.
I prefer to hike the loop clockwise because I enjoy getting (most) of the hard part out of the way right at the beginning when I have the most energy so that I can coast the rest of the way around the loop. Going clockwise, you’ll leave the carpark and walk uphill following a waterfall until you reach a forested area. From there, you’ll follow some switchbacks up the side of a small mountain/large hill (depending on your persuasion) until you reach a boardwalk with an overview of the lake. The boardwalk will then continue uphill until you reach the “summit” and begin your descent.
The boardwalks will end about a quarter of the way down the hill, and from there you’ll go along a trail until you reach a bridge with a stream running under it. If it’s not too cold, this is a great spot for a lunch/snack/meditation/nap/cup of tea!
The trail becomes pretty rocky at this point, and you’ll walk along and sometimes over large boulders, following a few switchbacks until you reach an old mining settlement. The ruins are a great spot to take some photos, and I’d suggest taking a few opportunities to look back at the valley behind you as you hike–this is undoubtedly the most significant view you give up when you decide to do the loop counterclockwise.
Past the ruins, it’s smooth sailing–the path heads straight through some covered pine forest that is sheltered from both the wind and the sun, so it’s usually a comfortable temperature. You’ll walk along the lake shore for the duration of the lake before crossing a small bridge that will take you back to the carpark on your left.
This day trip is great because it can definitely be done on a budget. The park itself is free, but there is a €4 charge to enter the Upper Lake carpark. Be sure to bring coins!
The ruins are free to visit, and bringing a sack lunch can help cut down on food costs. The gardens run €10-11.50, depending on which ones you choose, and neither charge for parking. Dinner/drinks will likely be the priciest part of your day, but you can get a (vegan) entree at Daata for €14. If you want to save a bit more money, you can get takeout and eat your dinner on the nearby stony beach. As a bonus, there’s no charge to visit the swans.
What to bring to Glendalough while on a day trip from Dublin
There is a portion of this hike that goes along a clifftop overlooking the lake, and it can get pretty chilly and windy. This is true even if the weather seems decent at the lake. For that reason, I’d suggest that you plan to dress in layers and bring a warm coat, rain jacket, hat, and gloves (if you have them).
- Comfortable walking shoes – Choose a pair that can handle a variety of terrain. Flip flops or flimsy sandals won’t cut it for this one–the boardwalks are covered in a rough sort of chicken wire to prevent slipping. I say this as someone who once did this hike in a pair of Danskos: your feet will prefer some real shoes for this one.
- Backpack – A day pack will help you keep track of all of your essentials for your hike. If you didn’t bring a backpack with you to Ireland, you can pick up a cheap (and very simple) one from Decathlon for €6.
- Water – I usually bring a full 32 oz Hydroflask and that’s enough water for me.
- A Note on Water: I drink plenty of water before the hike. If I were to start the hike a bit dehydrated, I’d possibly need more than the 32oz. I also always keep iodine tablets in my hiking gear in case I need extra water. You can pick up bottled water at McCoy’s, the gas station across the street from the Wicklow Heather on your way through Laragh.
- Lunch – I’d recommend bringing a sandwich or large snack on the hike. You can pick up lunch in Dublin or from Avoca in Kilmacanogue.
- Snacks – Bring your favorite hiking snacks! You can pick up essentials at McCoy’s the gas station in Laragh, if needed.
- Sunscreen – Always better safe than sorry.
- A long sleeved t-shirt – I always bring a thin long sleeved shirt, usually something that is quick drying. A light sweater would also work here.
- A warm layer – I usually bring my Patagonia Nano Puff unless I’m hiking in the middle of winter, in which case I’d wear a winter jacket.
- A waterproof layer – I usually bring a rain jacket, which doubles as a windbreaker for the clifftop section of the hike, where it tends to be cold and exposed.
- A warm hat – they’re small and easy to pack, bring one if you have it.
- Gloves – if you’re hiking September to April, you’ll probably want a pair of gloves. These aren’t necessary in the summer months.
- Walking poles – helpful for going downhill, if you have them. There’s no need to buy walking poles specifically for this hike.
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Full Itinerary: A Day Trip to Glendalough from Dublin
There are a number of bus services that run from Dublin to Glendalough, but you’ll probably be better off if you’re able to drive as you’ll feel more free to complete the full hike without time constraints. I’ve written this guide assuming that you will have a car and drive yourself from Dublin.
Make sure you eat a full breakfast and bring a lunch or substantial snack of some sort to eat while on the hike! If your hotel doesn’t offer breakfast, a few Dublin spots I particularly like are Groundstate, ALMA., and Two Boys Brew. Brother Hubbard is also a solid choice, and they have a few locations around town. If you’re able to make it to Groundstate, you could easily grab a sandwich for your lunch while on the hike!
A great alternative to breakfast in Dublin is to swing by Avoca in Kilmacanogue on your way towards Glendalough, where you can enjoy a variety of breakfast options and also pick up a sandwich to eat while on your hike. As a bonus, Avoca is a great spot to pick up some nice, not-overly-touristy gifts!
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If you opted for a small lunch, you’ll probably be pretty hungry by the time you leave Glendalough. If you’re looking for a lunch spot on your way through Laragh, I would suggest that you grab something to eat at the Wicklow Heather. They have a few vegetarian and vegan options, but if you’re gluten free there may not much here for you to eat.
Hike the Spinc Trail
This is a popular hike year round, so you’ll want to start hiking as early as is practicable. There’s no need to get up at dawn–unless that’s your thing!–but you can expect to see other people out and about pretty early in the morning. I would aim to start your hike no later than 11am, if possible, to give you a chance to beat some of the crowds.
Park at the Upper Lake carpark, if possible, as this is the closest to to the trailhead.
Visit the Monastic Ruins
After you finish your hike at Glendalough, stop by the monastic ruins on your way towards Laragh. You can either walk from the Upper Lake carpark or, if it’s not too busy, start driving back towards Laragh and park near the entrance to the ruins.
If you decide to drive, the easiest places to park are immediately before the food trucks (the spots will be on your left when you’re headed away from Glendalough) or on either side of the road after you cross the bridge (after the road straightens out).
In my opinion, there’s no right way to wander the ruins–but be sure to visit the Round Tower and St. Peter and St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Visit a Garden
After Glendalough, there are two great gardens worth a visit, though you’ll likely only have time to squeeze in one. The first is Powerscourt, set on the grounds of a former estate, and the second is Victor’s Way, a privately run statue garden.
Named the third best garden in the world by National Geographic, the Powerscourt Gardens are stunning and stately. There are a number of activities related to the Powerscourt Estate: a waterfall, gardens, golf course, and cafe. Assuming you only have time to do one activity, I’d definitely recommend wandering the gardens.
In order to tour the gardens, I would suggest that you give yourself at minimum two hours. Don’t skip the Italian Garden or Walled Garden–my personal favorites–though it’s worth your time to try to see as much as possible. There’s even a pet cemetery that contains headstones for the various pet dogs, ponies, and even a cow from the Wingfield and Slazenger families.
When I brought my dad and younger sister to visit Ireland, they both said that a visit to Powerscourt was the highlight of their trip.
As of this writing, the entrance fee for adults is €11.50.
If you’re looking for something completely different–and imminently Instagrammable–you might prefer a visit to Victor’s Way. It’s a bit hard to describe Victor’s Way, but at its core it is a sculpture park designed to be a meditative and contemplative space for adults. The park is filled with black granite statues, many of which are political or social statements. If you choose to visit Victor’s Way, here are some Instagram captions for your post.
If you have children in your group, I’d recommend you head towards Powerscourt. On the website for Victor’s Way, it states:
“Parents are discouraged from bringing their children. If in doubt, kindly view the sculptures on this page and decide if you want your children to see them. Children go in free… Victor’s Way was designed for adults between 28 (minus 10) and 60 (plus 30) needing to some quality time out + a bite of serendipity and to reflect on the wider canvas of life, specifically their own.”
As of this writing, the entrance fee is €10 per adult. Visitors are encouraged to book their tickets online, you can do so here.
Grab a Drink and a Bite in Bray
On your way back to Dublin, make one final stop in Bray to see the Wicklow seaside and relax. My two favorite spots in Bray are Fika, a rooftop bar with great drinks and small bites, and Daata, an Indian/Pakistani restaurant with delicious and fresh dishes. Daata has a sizeable vegan/vegetarian menu with abundant options for people who are gluten free. I would recommend making a reservation at Daata or Fika, if possible.
After you eat, or while you wait for a table, take a stroll along the seaside. If you’d like to try to see some swans, head north along the seaside towards the Bray Sailing Club, where they tend to hang out on the small beach nearby. If you want to feed the swans, a great snack option is defrosted frozen peas (but not bread!).
Final Thoughts: How to visit Glendalough on a day trip from Dublin
I love having really active days sprinkled in, especially when I’m visiting a city while traveling. If you hike Glendalough, please let me know what you think in the comments!
If you’re considering visiting Ireland as an (aspiring) digital nomad, check out my guide for planning a remote work trip.