Gougane Barra Forest Park is a place you can only describe as idyllic. Ok that’s not true, you can describe it as a lot of things but I think idyllic suits it best! This is particularly true when you visit off-season and pretty much have the place to yourself, as I did.
The scenery here is wild and beautiful. The sounds of birdsong, streaming water and rustling leaves will clear your mind of all else. I don’t know anyone who has visited Gougane Barra and not fallen totally in love. Spend some time here and I guarantee you’ll leave feeling all the better for it. But just to be clear, this is not one of those money-back guarantees though, ok!
Gougane Barra Lake & St Finbarr’s Oratory
Before arriving at the Forest Park you’re in for a treat with some fabulous views of Gougane Barra Lake, embraced by the stunning Shehy (or Sheehy) mountains. On a small island in the lake sits the beautiful St. Finbarr’s Oratory. It’s a really breathtaking scene, particularly on a calm day when the surroundings are reflected in the mirror like water. It’s not hard to see why this is a popular place for weddings.
There’s a small parking area near a causeway that leads to the island and it’s worth stopping to explore a little. You might find the gates closed but they should be unlocked. Just inside the gate is a holy well and further on is a stone enclosure, the remains of an 18th century hermitage.
The nearby oratory is dedicated to St Finbarr the patron Saint of Cork, who first built a monastery here during the 6th century . With any luck it should be open too. I say this because I saw a couple try open the door and then enter as I drove away! It hadn’t even occurred to me to even check if it was unlocked. I blame the early start but lesson learned…always check!
Gougane Barra Hotel
There is also more parking close by near the Gougane Barra Hotel and Cronin’s Bar & Café, which you pass on your way to the oratory. Both were closed for the season (though the café may be open at weekends) but imagine staying overnight here and waking up to those views!
There are no other shops or services close by, so if you’re planning on doing some hiking bring enough water and snacks along to keep you going.
Gougane Barra Forest Park
Gougane Barra Forest Park covers an area of about 340 acres and was opened to the public in the 1960s. You can choose from six walking trails or a looped scenic drive. With its beautiful pine forests and craggy hilltops it is compared to both the Canadian Rockies and Yosemite Valley, albeit on a much smaller scale!
The entrance to the forest park is only about 700m along the road from St. Finbarr’s Oratory. Note that there is an electronic barrier at the entrance and you need to pay a fee of €5 for vehicle access. You’ll need change as the machine doesn’t take notes, just €2, €1, €0.50 and €0.20 coins.
Alternatively, you can leave your car parked back near the oratory or hotel and walk up to the Forest Park as entry is free for pedestrians. Just allow for a 10-15 mins walk each way.
Of course if you want to do the scenic drive, you’ll definitely need your car! Just bear in mind that though it’s a very beautiful drive, it’s only 3 kms long and without stops you could be in and out in about 5 minutes. So if you’re paying the entrance fee, you might want to bring a picnic along and spend a bit of time there. Or if possible, take even one of the short walking trails as the best way to explore is by foot.
All trails start from either the lower or upper parking area. Four of the walking trails start from the lower carpark, where toilet facilities are also located. In the upper car park you will find the starting points for the two remaining trails.
Signposts clearly describe the trails options so you can choose one that suits best. Trails 1-4 below leave from the lower carpark and trails 5 & 6 from the upper carpark:
- Slí Doire Na Coise – Distance: 1.8km, Time: 45 mins
A gentle loop walk along the River Lee which takes you towards the lakeshore. Pass through magnificent spruces on return before meeting with the road and following it back to the car park.
- Slí Laoi – The Lee Trail – Distance: 1.3km, Time: 1hr
This moderate trail starts near the lower car park and follows the River Lee, eventually leading you up to the upper car park by way of a series of stone and wooden steps. This is good trail for wet days when the river is at its best. Return the same way or by the road.
- Slí an Ghaorthaidh – Nature Trail – Distance: 0.5 km, Time: 30 mins
This is an easy walk suitable for everyone and offers a glimpse into the natural history of the park. There are 10 stops along the way and you’ll see old fields, stone fences, mosses, lichen, algae and other flora. This loop trail will lead you back to the lower car park.
- Slí an Easa – Waterfall Trail – Distance: 1.8km, Time: 1 – 1.5hrs
A strenuous loop trail which takes you past many waterfalls and offers views of the valley, forest, lake and mountains along the way. You will also pass through mature woodland as you return to the car park.
- Slí Com Rua – Distance: 0.35kms, Time: 10 mins
This trail takes about 10 mins, so very short and sweet but with moderate climbing! It really just leads you from one side of the carpark to the other where you can finish or join up with the Slí Sléibhe trail instead.
- Slí Sléibhe – The Mountain Trail – Distance: 2.5km, Time: 1hr 45 mins.
Slí Sléibhe is described as a strenuous trail, being the longest and most difficult in the forest park. On the plus side it’s said to be the best too and at a little less than 2.5km it’s not really very long at all. The linear trail leads you through forest and out onto the open mountain with lovely views.
Choose your own Adventure!
As you can see, there’s plenty to choose from and you could easily do quite a few of the walks if you have time. I did the two trails from the upper carpark and going by those, I’d say the times indicated are on the generous side. So if you’re a regular walker or relatively fit you will probably finish them quicker.
There really wasn’t much to the first short walk, Slí Com Rua (unless I missed something!) but it took me on a lovely little uphill climb crossing a couple of streams and some nice views. Then instead of heading back to the carpark, I joined up with the Slí Sléibhe to see what it had in store. There wasn’t a soul in sight. Just little old me and the sound of running water and birdsong. It really is such a peaceful and soothing place.
Source of the River Lee
The trail continued up hill, criss-crossing the baby River Lee! From it’s source in the Shehy mountains, the Lee flows into Gougane Barra lake and continues eastwards to Cork Harbour.
In Search of Gougane Barra Lake
Climbing onwards I passed through an area of forest where an abundance of moss transformed everything into a green wonderland! That ended when I reached the open mountain and I followed the trail along the tree line, hoping it would lead around to views of the lake and oratory.
It did! Well kind of anyway. As the walk starts to descend downward towards the road, you can take a short side trail where you can get a distant view to the lake. It’s tempting to try and go further but there isn’t really any viable way to proceed from that point. So I just enjoyed the view and headed back to the trail.
Reaching the road, I headed right to return to the upper carpark. It was a pleasant 900 metres with the river Lee running below to my left and stunning views of the rocky hills and pine trees ahead. A lone sheep keep me company for a while but then he thought better of it and did a runner!
On reflection, I should have turned left and headed for the lower carpark and follwed Slí Laoi back to the car. Next time! Looking forward to it already.