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Hiking Ireland’s Stairway to Heaven

Looking back down the steps of the boardwalk from the summit with Lake Atona in the background. Dark shadows dapple the mountainside from dark clouds above.

Unless you’ve been avoiding all forms of social media for the last few years, you’ve probably seen a photo or video featuring Ireland’s Stairway to Heaven. It’s certainly been getting its fair share of attention and deservedly so!

As a result, the number of people visiting this previously little-known trail in Fermanagh has soared. Of course it’s not hard to see why, with stunning views like this to be had.

While the Stairway to Heaven may no longer be a hidden gem, it’s definitely a stop you’ll want to include on your itinerary if you’re planning to visit Fermanagh. Alternatively, you might be able to manage it as a day trip. It’s about a two hour drive from either Dublin or Belfast to the start of the trail. 

Cuilcagh Mountain Park

Officially called the Cuilcagh Legnabrocky Trail, this is a great half-day hike and is all the more accessible thanks to the addition of a boardwalk in 2015. It’s the boardwalk, as much as the social media exposure, that has resulted in the trails popularity. As helpful as it is though, the purpose of the boardwalk was not to make things easier for us walkers!

The Stairway to Heaven trail is part of Cuilcagh Mountain Park, a Special Area of Conservation. It is one of the most intact blanket bogs in Western Europe and is an area of enormous environmental value.

A boardwalk was first put in place to allow rangers to access the bog and help restore the damaged peatland. It was later extended, allowing walkers access to Cuilagh mountain while protecting the delicate blanket bog from erosion. For this reason you’re urged not to wander off the trail to help conserve this unique and precious habitat.

At the start of the boardwalk.

Cuilcagh Mountain

The trail is in Fermanagh and takes you to just below the summit of Cuilcagh Mountain. Cuilcagh is the highest peak in both Fermanagh and neighbouring Cavan. At 665 metres high, it’s the only true mountain in this region. 

How Hard is the Stairway to Heaven?

The Stairway to Heaven is rated as difficult, mainly due to the actual stairway part! It’s a steep ascent to the summit of Cuilcagh so yep, you can expect to break a sweat getting there!

The final climb certainly knocks the wind out of you but the steps and handrail make it somewhat easier. The spectacular views provide the perfect excuse for plenty of stops along the way too.

Getting closer to the Stairway to Heaven boardwalk with Cuilcagh mountain growing larger as we near.

We were lucky enough to get a good day for the trail but like any mountainous area the weather here can change rapidly, so be prepared. We saw quite a few people who seemed to be dressed for the photos, rather than a mountain walk. There was also someone wearing flip flops, which I definitely wouldn’t recommend! Not only is it risky, it can’t be very comfy. It’s safe to say you’ll enjoy the walk a lot more in suitable clothes and with decent footwear. Bring some snacks and plenty of water too. 

It’s not all tough going though!

Though the climb at the end is steep, the majority of the walk is not overly strenuous. Of course this depends on your fitness but if you’re reasonably fit you shouldn’t have any problems.

For the most part, the trail weaves through farmland and is pretty moderate going. There are some gradual inclines but nothing too tough. We started from the first carpark and after reaching the second car park about 1km in (more on this below!), it’s another couple of kilometres to the start of the boardwalk. Until you reach that point, it’s just a gravel path.

Once you hit the boardwalk, it’s about 1.6 kms to the summit and pretty soon you’ll see those steps up the mountainside ready and waiting for you! With all that effort comes reward though and as you climb the scenery only get better. 

Nestled at the foot of Cuilcagh mountain, you’ll see Lough Atona coming into view soon enough. The lake was carved from a glacier during the last Ice Age and it’s certainly a sight for sore legs!

Stepping through time

And if a lake formed about 13,000 years ago isn’t exciting enough, consider the fact that you’re climbing the geological equivalent of about 8 million years in less than 700 metres. No wonder it’s tiring…time travel will do that to you!

How long is the Stairway to Heaven Hike?

I was a bit confused about this before visiting. Some reviews online stated the trail could be completed in 2-3 hours, while others said it was anywhere from 4 – 6 hours. That’s quite a difference!

We completed the walk in about 3.5 hours, that included almost half an hour at the top having lunch and taking in the views. I’d describe our pace as quite relaxed too.

I’m also not really sure of the exact distance and again accounts vary. I calculated it to be about a 12 km round trip from the first car park and 10km from the second car park.

Stairway to Heaven Parking

As the trail is so popular now, parking can be tricky particularly on weekends and holidays. Try to get there earlier to secure a spot. The car park at Legnabrocky is about 1km past the road leading to the Marble Arch Caves. You shouldn’t miss it as there’s a large sign for the caves. Continue straight past that turn off until you see a sign for the car park, which is to your left.

As I mentioned earlier, there is a second car park which cuts about 2km or half an hour off the walk. It is accessed via the first car park but when we arrived there were signs to say it was closed. This was also confirmed by the attendant. So we parked up and started off, happy to have got a space as the car park was filling up pretty quickly.

Nearing the end and looking back to the 2nd carpark where we could have finished. Honestly, I’m not bitter!!

Not long after a car passed us by and then several more. You guessed it, they opened the second car park once the first was full. So in this case the early bird just gets to walk some more. It was a little annoying but what can you do. I just tried to focus on the extra dessert I was going to treat myself to that evening!

The nice thing is knowing that there is someone keeping an eye on the car though, as car parks are so often an easy target for thieves. The cost when we visited was either €6 or £5 per car and you’ll need to pay in cash.

 

 

 

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