Gorgeous Glendalough: Is this 10km loop the best walk in Wicklow?
The 10km Spinc & Glenealo Valley Loop showcases the best of wild Wicklow. But start early to skip the crowds...
For a magical moment, it feels like we have Glendalough to ourselves.
Pulling into the Upper Lake car park early on a midsummer Sunday, the gate attendant already has his change arranged into precise, time-saving piles.
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Visitors are already nabbing parking spots in the shade. Early birds are already ambling towards the beach, still deliciously deserted from the night before.
We soon leave them behind.
Following the white arrows up past the gushing Poulanass Waterfall, through woodland speared with pink shoots of foxglove, we take to the first of the boardwalks.
Steep steps calm the conversation, bringing us up through a deforested patch before we emerge at the first money shot… a view of Glenealo Valley.
This is where we feel like we’re alone.
Stopping to soak up the view, a couple of hundred metres above the lake, there isn’t another soul in sight. The water looks dark and peaty; the ridges opposite us like the rolled-up sleeve of a giant. In the distance, spills of quartzite scar the slopes. Close by, we can hear the click of crickets and the warble of birdsong.
What a beautiful country we live in.
Glendalough – from the Irish for glen of two lakes (gleann dá loch) – has a tonne of walks, from easy rambles around the monastic ruins and a 45-minute hike to St Kevin's Cell (follow the bronze arrows), to a tougher, four-hour route around the Spinc and Wicklow Way (follow the red arrows).
Our choice, the Spinc and Glenealo Valley Loop (white arrows), follows that tough first ascent by levelling out for a super scenic stretch along the ridge. Sprigs of purple heather are splashed about, we think a peregrine falcon has flown overhead (it was, wasn't it?) and, at one point, the boardwalk angles itself around a huge, glacial erratic rock that is cracked almost exactly in half – by water and ice, we presume.
A second series of zig-zagging steps takes us to the highest point of the trail, where we start to meet the first hikers of the day coming the other way.
The u-nail-studded boardwalk, which has seen old sleeper-style planks replaced and upgraded, is a super idea for grip and to prevent erosion, but it’s fairly thin, so we need to step off whenever groups of walkers want to pass.
Descending towards the river that feeds the lake, we spot the first red deer of the morning. They’re completely unfazed by walkers, grazing in the long summer grass. I curse myself for not bringing a longer camera lens for close-ups.
Dropping into the valley, the path levels out briefly as it skirts the first of the area's old mining husks. ‘Van Diemen’s Land’ was the name of the outpost mining lead here from the 1850s. Closer to the lake, a 'Miner's Village' feels like an abandoned habitation... signs warn of falling masonry, so we don’t step inside the bigger buildings.
The crowds are coming now. The Upper Lake shore is one of Glendalough’s most popular strolls and, after two hours on the trail, we’re definitely back to civilisation. People are already bathing in pools in the stream, walking dogs, packing climbing gear, and some, huffing and puffing, really look like they should have thought to bring water.
After our early start, we feel a bit smug. Knowing we’re on the home straight, and on the level, is a lovely feeling. We pause briefly to spot St Kevin’s Cell across the lake – the cave where the hermit is said to have slept – before returning to the car park.
Even here, nature is embedded. We spot big, bright-blue dragonflies flitting over the water, and the black shadows of fish skirting beneath the surface.
By now, it’s after noon. The car park is full. I see the attendant slugging down water, with his hi-vis vest on, letting just one frustrated car in for every one that exits.
“I’ve never seen it like this so early,” the girl handing us guilt-free 99s from Emily’s Ice-Cream truck says. As we leave, we witness the trail of cars extending almost to the village, and a long line of traffic crawling beyond that.
For a moment, it felt like we had the place to ourselves.
Need to know
Level: Moderate to strenuous. The Spinc and Glenealo Valley loop has a fairly tough initial climb, needs fitness and good footwear, and you'll encounter exposed cliff edges and potentially dramatic weather changes.
Distance: 10km. Allow three hours with short photo and rest stops.
Tips: If travelling at weekends or during holiday season, it's essential to arrive early - the Upper Lake car park at Glendalough fills up quickly. Bring €4 in cash for the barrier. Later in the day, midges can be a real pest.
A bite nearby: At busy times, you'll find a chip van doing hot food and an ice-cream van doing cones and other treats in the car park. Glendalough village is just 1km away, or you can stop a little further out in Laragh.
More info: visitwicklow.ie; irelandsancienteast.com
NB: 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.
A fully charged phone, water and snacks, layers of appropriate clothing and sturdy footwear are essential for these walks. Bring a bag for rubbish, and pop a pair of clean shoes and socks in the boot for afterwards. You can thank us later!
Responsible walkers always respect private property.
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See irishtrails.ie for more great walks.