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Glendalough Monastery and the Best Glendalough Walks

by Valerie Vanr

Glendalough Monastery is one of Ireland’s earliest Christian monasteries. Its seven church ruins are found in the stunning Glendalough Valley, part of Wicklow Mountains National Park. Exploring the monastery and any of the Glendalough Valley Walks makes a great day trip from Dublin.

Glendalough Valley Itineraries

A visit to the valley can be an hour long or a day or more. The star attractions in the valley can easily be seen in two hours. These are our recommendations based on visit time:

With more time, enjoy in a more leisurely visit or add other Glendalough Walking Trails after walking through the Monastery ruins.

Glendalough Map

Glendalough Valley walks starred attractions noted
Click on the map for an interactive version.

The Visitor Centre is a great place start a visit.

Glendalough Visitor Centre

Exhibits and an audio-visual presentation introduce St. Kevin, the monastery and the lives of those who lived within. A model of the entire area helps with orientation. Staff is available to answer questions. Often guided tours are available.

Many of the exhibits inside the centre are richly carved crosses found nearby. See the ornate 12th-century cross, called the Market Cross, which stands 2 metres high. It features carvings of a crucified Christ and a bishop, likely St. Kevin.

The visitor centre is open daily throughout the year except around Christmas.  There is an admission fee to the visitor centre but not to the monastic site itself. The centre is fully accessible for visitors with disabilities however the paths of the graveyard are very difficult for wheelchairs.

Narrow path goes under gravestones tipped against each other
Gravestones have toppled in a number of places and the paths don’t always go around them.

Glendalough Monastery

St. Kevin, patron saint of Dublin, founded the monastery in the Glendalough Valley in the late 6th century CE. The resulting monastic city flourished for six centuries after his death in 618. While the monastery survived attacks from both the Vikings and the Normans, it was the English in 1398 that finally ended its dominance.

Despite this, Glendalough continued to be a focus of pilgrimage well into the 18th and 19th centuries. In the last century the area has become one of Ireland’s most popular tourist destinations.

Glendalough monastery center mountain background
The large ruins of the Glendalough Monastery stand out in the beautiful Glendalough Valley.

The structures visible today were built in the 10th and 12th centuries. They are all that survives of a large complex of workshops, guest houses, infirmaries, farm buildings and dwellings for the monks and the lay population.

Glendalough Gateway

The two granite arches of the Gateway are almost all that remains of the monastery’s enclosure wall. The gateway was originally two-storied with a timber roof. It is the only remaining medieval gateway to an early monastic settlement in Ireland.

Glendalough Round Tower

The tower, built between 900 and 1200 CE, stands out on the horizon as a landmark for visitors today, as it did when the city was occupied. Built primarily as a bell tower, it is about 30 metres tall.  The entrance to the tower is 3.5 metres up the tower, which was likely accessed by a movable ladder. During an attack the ladder could be removed, protecting those sheltering inside. Walk around the tower and note the window placement. This is ideal for both maximizing light inside and providing 360 degree visibility surrounding the tower. Round towers are rarely found outside Ireland and are typical of early Irish monasteries.

Glendalough Round Tower, graveyard and Cathedral
The cathedral and tower are the largest ruins in the monastery grounds.

Glendalough Cathedral

This is the largest building found at Glendalough and it shows evidence of multiple building phases. The square west doorway leads to the nave where the congregation gathered. This is the oldest part of the building. The chancel and sacristy on the east side of the building were added in the late 12th and early 13th centuries.

Child explores chancel of Glendalough Monastery Cathedral
The pattern of the stones of this east window remains quite beautiful. It would have been very decorative when the chancel was added over 800 years ago.

The placement of the stones in the east window suggests the window was very decorative. Under the south window, see the wall cupboard thought to be for storing sacred vessels.

In 1214, when the diocese of Glendalough was united with that of Dublin, this church was no longer recognized as a cathedral.

St. Kevin’s Cross

The large, fairly plain cross found near the cathedral is carved from a single piece of granite. It is unusual as its ring is not perforated like most Celtic crosses. Local legend says anyone who can wrap their arms around the entire width of the cross and close the circle by touching their fingertips will have their wishes granted. If you have long arms, be sure to try your luck!

This cross marks the east side of the earliest graveyard at Glendalough.

Celtic cross in Glendalough graveyard
St. Kevin’s Cross stands about 2.5 metres tall.
Woman crouching under gravestones tipped against each otherGlendalough Roun
The graveyard is centered in the area around the Tower, the Cathedral and the Priests’ House.

Glendalough Graveyard

The area around the cathedral was likely a cemetery from at least the 11th century. Overall, the Glendalough Graveyard contains more than 2000 gravestones. Most of the engraving on the oldest stones is not visible. Look for them near the east gable of the Priests’ House.

Priests’ House

This building, with partial walls, is a reconstruction based on a late 18th-century sketch. In the 18th and 19th centuries, several priests were interred within it. The building’s exact use is not known.

Glendalough Round Tower and Priests' House
The oldest gravestones are around the Priests’ House. Most of their engraving is gone.

St. Kevin’s Church

Its steep roof of overlapping stones is supported internally by an upper vault. Originally the church had only a nave. A chancel, now gone, and sacristy were added later. The belfry on the west end is a miniature round tower.

Since the roof of this building survived, a large number of crosses, cross-slabs and other architectural fragments were stored within it. Many of these are preserved and displayed in the Visitor Centre.

Stone building with stone roof and tower
This church is commonly known as St. Kevin’s Kitchen since its bell tower resembles a kitchen chimney. Food was not cooked in the church.

St. Kieran’s Church

The foundations of this church were uncovered in 1875. Its name is believed to be in honour of St. Kieran. He was the founder of Clonmacnoise, a monastic settlement associated with Glendalough in the 10th century.

St. Mary’s Church

The church is hidden in a small grove of trees to the west of the buildings in the graveyard. The church is one of the earliest here and best constructed. Unfortunately, we missed seeing this on our visit. To reach it, walk the main road west toward Upper Lake. In about 200 metres a lane leads to the right. Watch for the stile to cross into a field on the left. Go over the stile and walk ahead to the trees.

Head back to the road and continue west past Lower Lake to Upper Lake. Adjacent to Glendalough’s Upper Lake parking area notice a stone circle.

Caher Stone Circle

This dry-stone circular enclosure is 20 metres across. It is not known when it was built or even what its purpose was.

Large dry-stone circle Glendalough
A number of crosses can be found between the lakes similar to the cross seen in the background. Their true purpose is unknown.

Reefert Church

This simple church is in a grove of trees near the shore of Upper Lake. It is from the late 11th century but most of the present walls are more modern. Parts of the church were rebuilt about 100 years ago using some of the original stones.

St. Kevin’s Cell

Just west of the church, there are more stone foundations. The area is about 3.5 metres wide and the walls would have been almost a metre thick. It is suggested that its construction was similar to the “beehive” huts found in southwest Ireland.

Temple-na-skellig and St. Kevin’s Bed

This area is on the south side of Upper Lake but can only be reached by boat. Stairs lead from the shore up to the small rectangular church. A raised platform with walls west of the church may have been the site of dwellings.

St. Kevin’s Bed is a cave believed to have been St. Kevin’s refuge when he first arrived in the Glendalough Valley. It is partially man-made and about 2 metres deep. The cave opening is about 8 metres above the level of the lake.

To the east of the Glendalough Visitor Centre parking, there are 2 more churches which are part of the monastic city.

Trinity Church

Just below the main road, see the foundations of a simple nave and chancel church.

St. Saviour’s Church

This 12th-century church is the newest and the furthest east of the monastery’s churches, quite close to village of Laragh. It was restored in the 1870s using stones found nearby.

Wicklow Mountains National Park

The 20,000 hectare park of beautiful mountain wilderness was established in 1991. Most of the park is remote with few facilities. There is no entry fee to the National Park or to the Information Office, however there is a charge to park in the car parks. For more information check the Wicklow Mountains National Park website.

Over the years, humans have had an impact on this natural area. Neolithic farmers (more than 4,000 years ago) cleared trees which led to the formation of the blanket bogs seen today. The scars of 150 years of mining are visible in some of the valleys. The most obvious change is the Glendalough Monastery in the Glendalough Valley, the most visited area of the national park.

Couple stands in front of Glendalough's Upper Lake
The view of the Glendalough Valley from the beach at Upper Lake is stunning.

Glendalough Valley

This spectacular, glacial valley, in the heart of Wicklow Mountains National Park, stretches for 3 kilometres. The Irish ‘Gleann dá Locha’ means ‘valley of the two lakes’. The natural beauty of the two lakes and the surrounding mountains have brought travellers for thousands of years. The valley still attracts visitors who explore the ruins of the monastery and walk the valley’s paths enjoying the outstanding scenery.

Glendalough Walks

The National Park maintains nine way-marked trails, all of which start at the National Park Information Office at Upper Lake. A paper trail guide is available at the office. Hike to amazing views of the lakes and explore the region. Both the Wicklow Way and St. Kevin’s Way, (long-distance walks) pass through the Glendalough Valley, paralleling parts of several trails.

Best Glendalough Walks

  • Green Road Walk
  • Spinc and Gleanealo Valley Walk

Green Road Walk (Green Route)

This is a short, loop walk around Lower Lake. Enjoy the view up the valley from the east side of the lake on the boardwalk,. The path along the road to Upper Lake is paved.

Spinc and Glenealo Valley Walk (White Route)

This is one of the most popular Glendalough Walks. It is a hill walk so be prepared for a challenging 3 hour hike. The scenery is considered some of the most spectacular in County Wicklow. The trail begins with a short steep climb up the west side of the Poulanass Waterfall. A boardwalk to the right and a set of more than 600 steps will lead to a breathtaking view of Upper Lake.

Narrow Poulanass Falls through green forest
The Poulanass Waterfall is a series of falls and pools carrying water from the mountain peak above to Upper Lake.
Glendalough Valley mountains at head of lake
The Glenealo River flows down the hills at the west end of Upper Lake.

The boardwalk continues along the top of the Spinc, then descends through blanket bog and heath into the Glenealo Valley. A rough path leads down to the shore of Upper Lake and the ruins of a Miners’ Village. Lead, silver and zinc were mined in this valley and the neighbouring Glendasan Valley between 1800 and 1963. Walk back along the north shore of Upper Lake. Watch for a sign post from which St. Kevin’s Bed, across the lake, is visible.

Short Glendalough Walk

If time is short, enjoy a quick walk and get a flavour for the area.  Walk through the Glendalough monastic site, exiting to the south across the bridge. Walk west on the Green Road to Upper Lake. Climb to Poulanass Waterfall. Turn around, heading back to Upper Lake. Walk the path on the north shore of Lower Lake back to your starting point. This takes about 1.5 hours.  

Glendalough's Round Tower, St. Kevin's Church from afar
The round towers stand out when looking north to the Glendalough monastic settlement from the Green Road.

Glendalough Walking Trails

This is a summary of the 9 way-marked walks.

Walk NameGrade/ClimbLength/Time
Miners’ RoadEasy, 20 m5 km/ 1:10
Green RoadEasy, 20 m3 km/ 0:50
PoulanassModerate, 100 m1.6 km/ 0:40
Poulanass and St.Kevin’s CellModerate, 85 m1 km/ 0:30
Derrybawn Woodland TrailRamble, 160 m8 km/ 2:00
Woodland RoadRamble, 90 m4 km/ 1:15
Spinc and Glenealo ValleyHill walk, 380 m9.5 km/ 3:00
Spinc and the Wicklow WayHill walk, 490 m11.5 km/ 4:00
Spinc (short route)Hill walk, 300 m5.5 km/ 2:00

Glendalough Hiking Tips.  Wear good walking shoes and always carry lots of water. Hill walks are not recommended for solo walkers or walkers without experience. If taking a hill walk, leave details of route and estimated return time with someone. On a hill walk, carry a map and compass and know how to use them.

Couple sitting on U-shaped tree limb
Enjoy the beautiful Glendalough Valley!

Long-Distance Walks

Along the trails at Glendalough, there are also sign posts for the Wicklow Way and St. Kevin’s Way. With more time, consider hiking one of these more challenging adventures.

The Wicklow Way is the best known of Ireland’s long-distance ‘way-marked’ walks. It was the first to be formally established in 1980. It begins in south Dublin and travels 130 kilometres, roughly south, through the Wicklow Mountains to the village of Clonegal.

St. Kevin’s Way is a pilgrimage trail leading to Glendalough.  The main path begins in the west of County Wicklow at Hollywood and travels 30 kilometres up over the Wickow Gap and down to Glendalough. An alternative spur starts in Valleymount.

Sculpted stone post Glendalough monastery
A number of carved stone crosses and statues are found between the lakes. They may have been markers along the pilgrimage route to the Glendalough Monastery.

How to get to Glendalough from Dublin

If travelling by car, head south from Dublin on the N11/M11 to Kilmacanogue village. Take the exit marked Roundwood/Glendalough (R755) and follow the R755 to Laragh village (25 km). Stay on the main road through Laragh which becomes the R756 to the Glendalough Valley (2 km).

By bus, there are a couple options between Dublin and Glendalough Visitor Center.

  • St. Kevin’s Bus is a private company operating since 1927. Their buses run year-round between St. Stephen’s Green in Dublin and the Glendalough Visitor Center. Check the St. Kevin’s Bus website for schedules and fares.
  • The Irish public transit system is integrated between urban transit, national rail service, and national and regional bus lines. Visit the Transport for Ireland website to plan your journey and determine the fare. The exact route to Glendalough Visitor Center will depend on starting point and time of travel.
Glendalough Monastery Round Tower and graveyard
The Round Tower is the only structure in the Glendalough Monastery which is totally intact.

Facts about Glendalough

Who was St. Kevin?

St. Kevin was a descendent of one of the ruling families of the province Leinster. As a boy he was schooled by holy men and visited the Glendalough Valley. Later he returned with a small group of monks in search of a place of solitude. He eventually founded the monastery. He was canonized in 1903 by the Roman Catholic Church and is a patron saint of Dublin.

Is Glendalough open year round?

Yes. You can enter the Glendalough monastery ruins at any time. The visitor centre is open most days from at least 9:30 to 17:00. It has longer hours during the peak summer season.

Is there a charge to visit the monastery at Glendalough?

There is an admission fee to enter the Visitor Centre but the monastery itself is free of charge. Parking charges are in effect at many of the parking lots, particularly during busy periods.

How long do you need to visit Glendalough?

You can spend as little as an hour walking through the monastic city or spend a full day enjoying various walks.  The way-marked walking trails vary from short half hour strolls to long 4-hour hill walks. The Glendalough Visitor Centre recommends at least an hour and a half for a visit.

Can you swim in Glendalough?

Yes. The sandy beach at the eastern end of Upper Lake is popular during the summer. The area is not supervised so you swim at your own risk. The lake is deep and the depth changes quickly. Parents should never leave children without supervision.

Can we picnic in Glendalough?

Yes. Glendalough has picnic areas at the Upper Lake. All litter is to be taken out following the principles of ‘Leave No Trace’.

Is boating, canoeing or kayaking allowed in Glendalough?

No. None of these activities are allowed in the lakes of the Glendalough Valley as they are a part of a nature reserve.

Are climbing and bouldering allowed in Glendalough?

Yes. Climbers must watch that they do not dislodge cliff plants or disturb birds during breeding seasons. Check at the information office for the times of these seasons.

Glendalough – Ireland Road Trip

Glendalough is just one of many amazing points of interest in Ireland.

Be sure to check out our article, Ireland Self Drive Tour – Your 7 Day to 14 Day Itinerary. On this scenic drive, see Glendalough and more ancient historic sites all set in the beautiful Irish countryside.

Rugged coastal cliffs inlets

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