The Wicklow Mountains scenic drive is one of the top itineraries of Ireland. What you will see is heather slopes, vast plains and rugged wilderness, combined with fine Celtic stone constructions. We wanted to see these mountains, hired a car and set off from Dublin airport.
Even when there is a good choice of bus tours from Dublin city we decided to tour the mountains on our own. Travel by car gives you so much more flexibility and in our case renting a car didn’t even cost more than going on a day tour by bus.
Views from the road, Wicklow Mountains scenic drive
To see even more of the pretty area we took the smallest back roads and stopped a lot to take in the views. If there was a path we hiked a little bit. This is our way of travel, traveling slowly through beautiful regions.
What are the Wicklow Mountains?
The historic monastic site of Glendalough in the Wicklow Mountains
The Wicklow Mountains are a vast mountain range covering the region right south of the Irish capital. The treeless mountains are up to 900 m high and the climate up here is very different from what it is in the capital.
Wicklow offers some very typical Irish scenery, bogland, rivers, glens and lochs. Yet the top sight most visitors come here for is the pre-historic town of Glendalough that has a magic location by two lakes.
Today the Wicklow Mountains form a national park, the largest and the most popular of six national parks in Ireland.
Wicklow Mountains scenic drive: heather slopes and lush gardens
But the Wicklow region offers more to see. The Vale of Avoca east of the mountains has its own micro climate that makes tropical plants thrive in the area. For that reason Wicklow is the home of two of Ireland’s great gardens, the Powerscourt and Mount Usher Gardens.
You can learn more about Wicklow Mountains sights on the official Wicklow websites:
Wicklow Mountains Scenic Drive
We were going to spend a week in Dublin, Monday to Friday, all for business. However, as we wanted to see more than the city itself, we arrived Sunday morning, hired a car at the airport and spent a sunny Sunday in the Wicklow Mountains.
After the day’s scenic drive we returned the car in the same place and took a taxi to the city. Why? We had no need for a car in Dublin city, and returning it to the same location was we got a good price. So we threw our luggage into the car and started roaming. We needed driving directions.
This was our Wicklow Mountains driving itinerary:
Wicklow Mountain Scenic Drive on the Map
Map of Wicklow Mountains scencic drive, starting from Dublin Airport
The drive was 170 km in all which was not at all exhausting after an early morning flight. The distance from Dublin Airport to Glendadlough in the south is 70 km (50 km from Dublin city) and driving to where the mountains begin takes half an hour (30 km) from the airport.
Zoom out the map to get a better view of the Wicklow Mountains, or look at the official Wicklow Mountains National Park Map.
Here we are, crossing the Irish Sea and soon landing in Dublin:
The Irish Sea separating Ireland from the Great Britain
And here we are, two hours later, taking photos of the panoramic Wicklow Mountains of Ireland:
Photographing Lough Tay, one of the small lakes in the Wicklow Mountains
Driving in the Wicklow Mountains
To get here we first took the M50 motorway half way round Dublin, and then finally got on small back roads:
Driving from Dublin Airport to the Wicklow Mountains
The road started climbing and before we noticed everything was brown, it was huge, vast expanses of brown mountain terrain. The air up here was windy and cool. And we had all this just for ourselves! There was just us and occasional bikers on the road.
Scenery of the Wicklow Mountains, Ireland
The Wicklow Mountains is a biking destination, and a hiking destination as well. The longest hiking trail is the 132 km Wicklow Way and in addition there are a lot of short tracks. The Wicklow Mountains National Park map has all the main trails.
Hiking on Lough Tay Hills
Lough Tay, a great hiking destination in the Wicklow Mountains
So we came through the remote Sally Gap to an area that is dotted with small lakes. This is the pretty Lough Tay where we went and followed other hikers to see and learn more of the mountains.
Below some more views of the mountains around Lough Tay::
Wicklow Mountains by car: the road goes on
Then the road took us down to some pretty villages and to the magic valley of Glendalough:
Wicklow Mountains Scenic Drive: Glendalough
The Upper Lake of Glendalough, Wicklow Mountains
Glendalough means the valley of two lakes. The lakes are called the Upper and Lower Lake.
The two lakes are connected by a river and next to the lower lake are ancient ruins. The site has a high stone tower, a small church, a graveyard and an double stone arch leading to the site from the main road.
You can choose if you want to park in the small village where the monastic site is or if you drive on to the Upper Lake and walk back.
Glendalough pre-historic site: St. Kevin’s Church and round stone tower
History of Glendalough
It’s hard to believe that this place once was a powerful city. It all began around the year 500 when a noble man, St Kevin, left his family and wealthy life to be a hermit. He moved to a cave behind the Upper Lake of Glendalough and lived there for seven years, sleeping on a stone bed and only talking to animals.
Gradually other people followed and Glendalough became a settlement and a Celtic monastery. The settlement attracted more people and stood there for centuries until Viking raiders came and blew out the city. This was in the 9th century.
What remains today is the 1000 year old high round tower and a little church that also has a round tower sticking out of the roof. Around the two buildings is a well-preserved graveyard with many Irish High Crosses.
Photos of the round tower and the monastic graveyard:
Ancient Celtic tower and graveyard in Glendalough, Wicklow Mountains
This is St Kevin’s Church, also called St Kevin’s Kitchen, due to the exceptional round tower that more looks like a chimney:
St Kevin’s Church, a highlight of the monastic site of Glendalough
Here are some more Glendalough High Crosses:
Glendalough High Crosses
St Kevin’s cave where it all began hides behind the Upper Lake, hard to reach, but next to it are other remarkable ruins from St Kevin’s days that you can get to.
Here are some more views of the Upper Lake grounds:
Views of Glendalough Upper Lake, Wicklow Mountains
Glendalough lakes are a good destination for Sunday hikes with the family. There are nice, accessible walking trails around the lakes and along the river, between the two monastic sites, the big and the smaller one, that are about 1,5 km apart.
Glendalough walking trails
It looks like Glendalough is a favorite place to visit, not for tourists only but for the local Irish as well. As it was Sunday crowds of locals were gathering to Glendalough for Sunday lunch and the afternoon in the restaurants was very busy. Despite that we got a small lunch in one of the restaurants before it was time for us to move on.
Driving along Wicklow back roads
Now we wanted to see what Wicklow gardens, especially the Mount Usher Garden is like. The Mount Usher Garden is said to be Ireland’s greatest, at least people have voted it the best garden in Ireland to visit.
The Gardens of Wicklow
Gardens of Wicklow
The sheltered east slopes of the Wicklow Mountains are blessed with a climate that makes exotic plants grow in the area. This is the reason why Wicklow has so many gardens, including the famous Powerscourt and Mount Usher.
Right at the entrance to Mount Usher Gardens we could guess that we will like the place. The cafe bakery was offering amazing cakes below cherry trees, what a pity that we just had lunch. So we went into the gardens.
Mount Usher Gardens
Visiting the Mount Usher Garden in the Wicklow Mountains
The Mount Usher Garden was created over a long period of time, by four generations of a wealthy family. In a time when most gardens had a formal layout the gardener of this family built a garden in harmony with nature and existing landscape.
So the garden became a natural, wild garden, yet containing plants from warm countries all over the world.
The Mount Usher Gardens have 4500 different plants: trees, shrubs and flowers, spread in the area around the family’s house:
Mount Usher Garden in photos
There is a small river running through the garden and suspension bridges across it.
The family later sold their garden which is why it’s open to the public. We spent a long time strolling through this wild, shady garden and now I know for sure I prefer this kind of gardens to the formal ones.
Some more garden views:
Wicklow Mountain scenic drive: Mount Usher Gardens
Powerscourt and Enniskerry
On the road again
After a long while in the Mount Usher Gardens the other garden Powerscourt was already closing for the day so there was no chance to get in. We had spent so much time traveling slowly in the mountains that time was running out.
Links to the gardens’ websites:
So we went on to the nearby village of Enniskerry, parked the car and walked a bit in the village center and along the riverbanks.
Enniskerry looks like this:
The riverside village of Enniskerry, Wicklow
From Enniskerry it’s a very short drive to the motorway and back to Dublin and the airport. But as it was still sunny we wanted to drive one more little loop to the green hills, to see the famous Powerscourt Waterfall.
Sheep and Waterfall
Wicklow Mountains scenic drive: shhep along the road to Powerscourt waterfall
The Powerscourt Waterfall is 130 m high and the highest waterfall in Ireland. And it, too, was closed. So we didn’t see the waterfall but instead we saw a lot of sheep in a fantastic scenery. A very Irish view. Then the sun was going down and we had to rush back to the airport.
That was it, our Wicklow Mountains scenic drive. I think we saw quite a bit in a day.
Rhododendrons of the Mount Usher Gardens
More on Ireland Travel
If you are planning a trip to Ireland, check out my other posts on the green island:
- A day trip from Dublin by bus: Giants Causeway Day Trip from Dublin
- What to see in Dublin: Self-Guided Dublin Walking Tour: Dublin;s Top Sights
- Or what about a road trip around Ireland? Road Trip in Ireland: Dublin to Galway, Moher and Cork