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Glendalough Monastery and the Best Glendalough Walks

by Valerie Vanr
Glendalough Monastery with mountain behind

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 Walks is a great day trip from Dublin.

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 you’ll see were built in the 10th and 12th centuries. They are all that survived of a large complex of workshops, guest houses, infirmaries, farm buildings and dwellings for the monks and the lay population.

Glendalough Map

The Visitor Centre is a great place start your visit and learn more about the monastery.

Glendalough Visitor Centre

Exhibits and an audio-visual presentation introduce you to St. Kevin, the monastery and the lives of those who lived here. A model of the entire area will help you get oriented. Staff is available to answer your questions and suggest ways to explore it. 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 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!

Celtic cross in Glendalough graveyard
St. Kevin’s Cross stands about 2.5 metres tall.

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

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.

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.

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 now.

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 now displayed in the Visitor Centre.

Stone building with stone roof and tower
While food was never cooked here, this church is commonly known as St. Kevin’s Kitchen since its bell tower resembles a kitchen chimney.

St. Kieran’s Church

The foundations of this church were uncovered in 1875. Its name is believed to be in honour of St. Kieran, founder of Clonmacnoise. It was 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. 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 and you’ll see a stile into a field on the left. Go over the stile and walk ahead to the trees. The church is one of the earliest here and best constructed.

Head back to the road and continue west past the Lower Lake to Upper Lake. Adjacent to Glendalough’s Upper Lake parking area you’ll 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 like the cross in the background. Their 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, you’ll find 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

You can only reach this area on the south side of Upper Lake 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

From the main road you can 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.

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. You’ll also see the scars of 150 years of mining 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
You get a stunning panoramic view of the Glendalough Valley from the beach at Upper Lake.

Glendalough Valley

This spectacular glacial valley in the heart of the 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. Today the valley attracts visitors who explore the ruins of the monastery and walk the valley’s paths enjoying the outstanding scenery.

Glendalough Walks

All nine of the way-marked trails start at the National Park Information Office at Upper Lake where a paper trail guide is available. You’ll get amazing views of the lakes and explore the region nearby. Both the Wicklow Way and St. Kevin’s Way pass through the Glendalough Valley, paralleling parts of several trails.

Glendalough Walks Map

Glendalough Walks Map
Click to Enlarge. (Map produced by Wicklow Mountains National Park)

Glendalough Walking Trails

Here’s a summary of the 9 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 ValleyHillwalk, 380 m9 km/ 3:00
Spinc and the Wicklow WayHillwalk, 490 m11 km/ 4:00
Spinc (short route)Hillwalk, 300 m5 km/ 2:00

Glendalough Hiking Tips.  Wear good walking shoes and always take water with you. Hillwalks are not recommended for solo walkers or walkers without experience. If you take a hillwalk, leave details of your route and estimated return time with someone. On a hillwalk, carry a map and compass and know how to use them.

Best Glendalough Walks

  • Green Road Walk
  • Spinc and Gleanealo Valley

Green Road Walk (Green Route)

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

Spinc and Glenealo Valley (White Route)

This is one of the most popular Glendalough Walks. 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 you 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 down to 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 where you’ll find ruins of a Miners’ Village. Lead, silver and zinc were mined in this valley and the neighbouring Glendasan Valley between 1800 and 1963. As you walk back along the north shore of Upper Lake watch for a sign post where you can look across the lake and see St. Kevin’s Bed.

Glendalough Valley mountains at head of lake
A rough path parallels the Glenealo River down to the shore of Upper Lake.

This is a hillwalk so be prepared for a challenging 3 hour walk.

Short Glendalough Walk

If you are short of time, you can still 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 you look north to the Glendalough monastic settlement from the Green Road.

Long-Distance Walks

As you walk the trails at Glendalough you may notice sign posts for the Wicklow Way and St. Kevin’s Way. If you have more time and are looking for more challenging adventures you may want to investigate these further.

Wicklow Way

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 127 kilometres, roughly south, through the Wicklow Mountains to the village of Clonegal.

St. Kevin’s Way

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

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 where you start and when you are travelling.
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 you can spend a full day enjoying various walks.  The way-marked walking trails vary from short half hour strolls to long 4-hour hillwalks. The Glendalough Visitor Centre recommends at least an hour and a half for a visit to its exhibits.

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.

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


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