Deep in the Southwestern countryside of County Cork lies Gougane Barra – Ireland’s oldest national park. This diverse thousand-acre preserve opened to the public in 1966 and is best appreciated from the many well maintained hiking and walking paths meandering through the park.
Upon entering the park, one is immediately struck by the natural beauty of towering hills, babbling brooks and of course, the timeless reflection of St. Finbarr’s Oratory perched upon its tiny island in Lake Gougane Barra.
On the island, just beyond the Oratory rest the sixth century remains of St Finbarr’s monastery and its ancient prayer cells. St Finbarr, the patron saint of Cork, spent time here before finally making his way down to Cork. Each year on the 25th of September pilgrims gather for the feast of St Finbarr and mass held on the Sunday closest to this date.
While planning for our time in Ireland, we stumbled upon a photo of this little church, perfectly reflected in the lake and instantly knew this was one of those special places that had to be seen in person.
The quaint family-run Gougane Barra Hotel sits at the lake’s edge directly across from St. Finbarr’s and is the perfect place to stay when visiting the park. Neil, Katy and their adorable family run the hotel. Don’t miss the opportunity to sit and chat with Neil about Irish history, lore, and the ancient spiritual energy of his homeland. The passion in his storytelling is contagious and his well of knowledge is deeper than any guidebook – and far more interesting.
While the neighboring Cronin’s Bar & Caffe has great snacks and lunch dishes (try the potato salad), be sure to reserve a table for dinner at the hotel. Katy runs the kitchen and her dishes and deserts are divine. In casual conversation over the front desk we mentioned that we are vegetarian, and she went out of her way to make sure we had plenty of creative and delicious options to choose from during our stay.
After a successful morning shoot, armed with a trail map from the hotel, a few light snacks and the misguided presumption we knew where we were going – we struck out to explore the surrounding terrain.
We’d been told Ireland had endured an unusually wet summer, our chosen path seemed less traveled and decidedly more soggy and overgrown than expected. Regular trail markers assured us we were on an actual trail however, so we forged onward and upward. The tree lined trail soon gave way to expansive patches of long grass and open rocky outcroppings. Within half an hour we were standing on the ridge enjoying a stunning panoramic view of the lake and lush green valley below.
Trail quality continued to deteriorate until it was little more than a series of soggy grass patches and mud puddles strung together by occasional slabs of dry rock.The map suggested the trail should take around 2 hours to complete so we hiked on, assuming the trail would eventually begin its descent toward the valley.
As two hours turned into three and the conversation shifted from “Wow! can you believe how beautiful this is?” to “This definitely isn’t the trail on the map!” and the more pressing “Do we turn back or continue?”. Backtracking the steep sloppy mess we’d ascended was a slippery and dangerous prospect, but would it be any better if we continued?
As the four hour mark approached we decided perhaps it was time to make a phone call down to the hotel for a little guidance. Thankfully Neil answered. We explained our predicament and listened intently as he described the path ahead. Though relieved to hear we could continue onward to intersect a trail back to the valley, we would still have a considerable distance to cover.
Neil’s instructions were simple: continue following the fence along the ridge, pass one lake, then upon reaching a second take the trail to the right heading into the valley. Neil figured we had another two hours to the intersection. We devoured the last of the snacks and slogged on.
We reeled in the first lake within the hour and had the second in our sights at 90 minutes. We were making good time… If you can call 6 hours on a 2 hour trail “good time”. Arriving at the second lake however, no trail was to be found. We repeatedly traversed the slope hoping we’d somehow overlooked it, but to no avail and finally decided we were going to have to forge a trail home ourselves.
Our initial series of short trail blazing attempts below the lake were stopped short by impassible steep rocky cliffs and eventually we opted to continue along the ridge to the other side of the valley where the slope eventually mellowed and we could safely make our escape. It would add more time and distance to the walk, but was the safest bet to get off the hillside before sunset.
In the end, our little two hour hike took seven and a half – and with sloshy boots, hungry bellies and exhausted legs, we finally reached the hotel as dusk crept over the valley. Thankfully we’d booked our table for dinner before departing and had just enough time for a hot shower before the parade of deliciousness from Katy’s kitchen soothed the days events into sweet memories.
Over the following two days we explored more “actual” trails in the park, which were both beautiful and well maintained, but both agree that getting lost in the hills high above Gougane Barra all by ourselves with those incredible hilltop views was our favorite after all.
Getting To Gougane Barra
Gougane Barra Forest Park is located 5km west of Ballingeary on R584 to Bantry, at the Pass of Keimaneigh.
The Gougane Barra Hotel can be found at Gougane Barra, Ballingeary, Macroom, West Cork, Ireland which probably looks a lot less like an address than you’re used to seeing, but that’s all there is.
Or, if you prefer GPS Coordinates: