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How to hike to Ireland's heart-shaped lake - Lough Ouler in Co Wicklow

A tough trek brings you to the heart of the Wicklow Mountains, and the pay-off is a photo op to remember, writes Pól Ó Conghaile


Lough Ouler, Co Wicklow

Lough Ouler, Co Wicklow

Lough Ouler, Co Wicklow

Fancy a hike to a heart-shaped lake?

I've been looking for ejector-seat options lately - day trips and micro adventures that pull me out of our stressy, messy new normal, however briefly. As romantic notions of escape go, this one takes some beating.

You may have seen Lough Ouler in your Instagram feed. It's a corrie lake (the term for a glacial lake surrounded on three sides, like an armchair) and it lies just out of view of the R115 Old Military Road between Laragh and the Sally Gap in Co Wicklow.

Hiking the full 8.5km loop up around it took me four hours with my 10-year-old, involving several stops, contrary weather, filthy boots and one pair of socks lost down a stream.

This is not an easy hike (you'll earn that selfie) so check the weather, let someone know your plans and pack properly for it.

You should arrive early and off-peak. This part of Wicklow Mountains National Park can be a magnet for daytrippers, especially at weekends, so we got to our start point, the car park above Glenmacnass Waterfall, at 8.45am. It was almost empty then but by the time we returned was rammed.

You'll also need proper boots, due to Wicklow's unique mix of springy heather and slippery, squelchy, foot-swampy bog.

We set out from the car-park corner, carefully crossing the Glenmacnass river on stepping stones. It's not waymarked (take an OS map, or save it in your phone maps) but a trail is visible leading steeply upwards, levelling out a little before continuing up above the southwestern side of the lake. Lough Ouler will come into view here to the right, but it's not until you dip down, pass over the saddle and start climbing Tonelagee behind it that the heart shape starts to properly emerge.

Roughly halfway up this slope is where you'll find the best photo ops, with the height bringing the heart into focus. Grab the snaps here, before lumping on up to claim the 817m summit of Tonelagee (aptly named from the Irish 'Tóin le Gaoith', or 'arse to the wind').

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We spent half the time up there inside a cloud - but when the mist parted, views over the mountains and sea made us feel like we were in the pages of National Geographic.

Continuing clockwise around the lake, the trail is trickier to find, so take your time and stay away from the edges. You'll pass a small standing stone with a cross on it and should aim to track down to the end of the lake from here, following the shore around to the right, before picking up a clearer track back towards the river. Cross that carefully again, turning right and returning alongside it back to the car park.

Expect to get dirty and tired; to be frustrated in wind and weather. But expect pure exhilaration, too, pressing 'eject' from the pandemic for a few hours for a uniquely Irish adventure - a search for the heart of the Wicklow Mountains.

Walking Guide

Level: Moderate to hard, depending on the weather. Don't underestimate this walk, particularly given the lack of way-marking. Proper footwear and packing (see below) are essential.

Distance: 8.5km. Expect at least three hours of moving time.

Tips: The car park at Glenmacnass Waterfall is a popular spot - arrive early to guarantee a place. It's also possible to walk up to the lake, without climbing to the views above, making for a shorter outing (though without the views). In rainy weather, the level of the Glenmacnass River can rise quickly - this walk can also be done, without crossing the water, from the Turlough Hill side (the Turlough Hill car park is just off the R756).

A bite nearby: At the bottom of the Old Military Road in Laragh, Glendalough Green is a cool little café and deli worth a pit-stop. The Wicklow Heather and Lynham's of Laragh are nearby for more substantial meals - be sure to book ahead.

More info: visitwicklow.ie; sportireland.ie

Your walking checklist

  • Safety comes first on a walk, no matter how easy. Check the weather, leave word of where you’re going and when you’ll be back, and pack smart. And remember, never leave valuables visible inside parked cars.
  • A fully charged phone, water and snacks, layers of appropriate clothing and sturdy footwear are essential for most walks. Bring a bag for rubbish, and clean shoes and socks in the boot for afterwards.
  • Covid-19 measures: Avoid peak times at busy spots (going early, late or midweek), don’t arrange to meet in large groups, observe social distancing, and park considerately — leave room for farmers, locals and emergency services to pass.
  • Check websites before travelling for the latest opening hours for restaurants and pubs, most require booking ahead, and have a Plan B in case your car park is full.
  • Responsible walkers always respect private property.

For more great walks, visit our Irish walks hub.

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