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Glenariff Waterfalls walks first opened to the public in 1889 as a railway ‘special attraction’ managed by the Northern Counties Railway and accessed by train from Ballymena to Parkmore and then a ride in a jaunting car. The Ess-na-Larach Tea House opened in 1891 and its successor, Laragh Lodge restaurant, still operates on the same site today.
Tourism from Ireland and Great Britain was fundamental to the business of the Northern Counties Railway, and Glenariff Glen, along with the Giant’s Causeway and the Gobbins path, were its core visitor attractions. In the inter-war period over 30,000 visitors a year made the journey here via the Ballymena – Parkmore railway, terminating at the highest train station in Ireland.
I have called this route ‘Glenariff Mountain and Glens’ as much of it runs above the forest tree line at over 800 feet and affords some of the best high walking views to be had in the Glens of Antrim. It also visits both branches of the upper Glenariff, follows the route of the first narrow gauge railway in Ireland (the mineral railway) and ends by climbing past the spectacular waterfalls, which first brought the Victorian visitors here 130 years ago.
|TYPE||Circular mountain path walk above wooded Glens followed by a descent to the valley floor returning upstream past the famous waterfalls|
|DISTANCE||5.6 miles / 9 km (0.5 mile / 0.8 km extension)|
|SURFACES||Well made compacted paths with variable slopes. Descent by steep stone steps and climb up extended wooden stairways|
|HEIGHT GAIN / LOSS||1200 feet climb|
|HAZARDS||– Much of the walk is over 800 feet and exposed.|
– It should be treated as a mountain walk and you should dress appropriately.
– Steep irregular stone steps descent – could be tricky in icy conditions
This route starts in the visitor centre car park. There is a basic, but cheerful cafe here, toilets and a small permanent forest information display. The display boards specific to Glenariff are dated, but full of well-written relevant information on the economic, cultural and natural history of the park. This is well supported by photographs and graphics. – certainly worth a 15 minute visit.
There is a small charge per car per day to park here (June 2019 £5). At the edge of the main car park there is an information board and a small mound which gives a great view over the U shaped glaciated valley, the surrounding mountains and the sea below. A good spot to contemplate and then start your walk.
The route described here combines the best of the black Scenic Trail and the red Waterfall Trail. However, you will be travelling in the opposite direction from the waymarks so they will be of limited value. As always we recommend printing out our trail map (PDF link below) and refer to it to make the way clear.
Start by following the path alongside the car park back toward the park entrance. This will be signposted to the Waterfall Trail. After 200m a path cuts off downhill signposted waterfall trails, ignore this and proceed on the level path head.
Initially you are above the river valley with a view across it to fields beyond. The path gradually dips into the edge of rich mature deciduous woodland, crossing a number of old well-made small stone bridges. This upper section of the Glen featured in the Victorian visitor experience, but the path then (now abandoned) was on the other side of the river. After about 0.5km you come to a viewpoint where one can just glimpse Hermit’s Falls, one of the original four featured Victorian waterfall attractions.
Continue and after a further 100m the path bends up from the river valley to cross the Park access road. From here up to the near skyline the conifer plantation has been felled and the hillside left apparently to regenerate naturally. The benefit to the walker is that this broad treeless strip affords great views over Glenariff and beyond to Scotland and extends almost 4km along the valley edge beneath your route ahead!
So head uphill crossing the exit road and climb to the upper edge of the rough open area where the path levels and begins to contour along the scenic skyline.
After a time you will arrive back above the park’s car parks with the recently added caravan and motor-home site.
Continue along the skyline as the path swings southward and you leave the Glenariff river valley and join that of the Inver instead. Again the lack of mature trees around the path affords a great view over the terrain ahead.
The path now starts to lose height and drops to join a small vehicle track. Turn right and then after 25m left off the vehicle track back onto a waymarked footpath (be careful not to miss this).
After a short wooded section the path re-emerges on the valley side and you pass a giant ‘erratic’ boulder on your right.
You now have an excellent view of the head of the valley and an intriguing sequence of sharp interlocking spurs and ridges. Irish mountains tend to be smooth and relatively featureless, the rocky skeleton often hidden by a blanket of peat bog. When this pattern is broken, glacial deposits (moraines) or our human intervention (mining) are often the cause. Here both factors are at play.
The sides of the Inver valley were mined in the 1800s, first for Iron ore, then for Bauxite. The area seen here at the head of the valley was the site of several adits – (horizontal tunnels dug into the sides of a slope).
After 500m your path joins another climbing up from the valley below. Turn right uphill and continue to the edge of the Glenariff Forest where three streams converge amid interlocking spurs to form the Inver River.
This hidden spot feels a long way away from car parks, roads and modern life. The sea is no longer in view and only a distant escarpment edge is visible as you look down the valley.
In various places the landscape skin is broken exposing strongly coloured soils and rocks.
The miners’ adits and associated spoil heaps have merged with the natural landscape, all adding to the interest and strangeness of this place.
Now, having crossed the third bridge, follow the path upwards away from the River Inver and back up onto the valley edge. Again the ground below you has been felled and your view out to the sea and Scotland is restored in even finer form.
The next kilometre or so is a delight – it is a proper mountain walk with great views over Glenariff and beyond. Yet you are on a well formed path within a forest, with some shelter from the trees above. The Glens of Antrim are very beautiful, but offer few high walks such as this which combine public access, good underfoot conditions and varied scenery.
As you walk, pay attention to the path construction. It has been levelled and raised and in places its solid stone wall foundations still show. Surely this pre-dates recreation and harks back to the exploitation of this landscape for its minerals.
Your high level walk comes to an end close to the forest edge where the path turns and slopes sharply down. You now descend a zig-zag staircase of rough uneven stone steps. Take care (especially in icy conditions) and enjoy this relic from another time and way of building with and within the landscape.
The steps end and the path switches back towards the sea. After a time a well positioned seat is passed – if the weather allows this is a fine place to stop and drink in the day – the simple pleasures of escape and discovery!
Another path turn and you are on the end of a ruler straight and gently falling vehicle width track. This is the start of the biggest zig-zag of your descent and you can see the return leg below, about 150m horizontal distance, but 1.5km away along the track! Why such a long route? The amazing answer is that this track was not built for walkers or horses but trains! This high spot was the terminus of the Glenariff Iron Ore and Harbour Company “Mineral Railway”. The narrow gauge railway (the first in Ireland) opened in 1873 and ran from a specially constructed pier in Red Bay and climbed along the side of Glenariff to this point via a final switchback which you will pass shortly. Unfortunately it closed just three years later having become uneconomic. The remains of the bridge where it crossed the coast road is still visible today at the south end of Red Bay.
A short distance along this track a stream is bridged. Look upstream to see the remains of solid stone piers which once carried the railway.
There were actually two mineral railways built to extract the ore from the hillsides of Glenariff at this time. The second ran from Ballymena to a high point above Glenariff where it abruptly stopped, (appropriately at Retreat Castle). It was intended to terminate at Cushendall but the gradients of the descent required were too much for the builders. Instead an ‘Aerial Tramway’ was constructed to complete the route. This ingenious system of pylons, wire ropes and ore buckets did not survive long. See the Glens Of Antrim Historical Society article The Cargan To Red Bay Wire Tramway for full details, including a very early photograph of this remarkable structure.
As revenue from ore extraction declined the Northern Countries Railway innovated and upgraded the line as far as Parkmore for passenger use. In this mode It opened in 1888 and became a key part of the Northern Countries Railway Company’s Tourism business with Glenariff being promoted alongside the Giant’s Causeway, Portrush and the Gobbins.
Continue downhill to where the old railway bed levels and then reverses, turning sharply downstream for another kilometre of gentle fall. After this the forest track abandons the old railway route and plunges steeply down into mixed woodland towards the Inver River. Here the walking route leaves the vehicle track for a footpath which joins the river bank 100m upstream of Ess-Na-Crub (the second of our Victorian era tourist attractions).
The path crosses the Inver River directly above the falls and turns downstream bypassing them hidden to your right. To visit them you will need to double back on a short path slightly lower down.
Return to the riverside path and proceed straight ahead to cross the Glenariff River immediately in front of the Laragh Lodge Restaurant where light resentments are available (it is all uphill from now to the end of the walk – so you may wish to refuel here).
Leave Laragh Lodge and head upstream on the right bank of the Glenariff River. You now pass a relatively modest cascade which I believe is the site featured of a popular postcard of the early 1900’s entitled ‘Tears of the Mountain’.
While the top of the cascade closely matches the old photographs – the lower half is missing! My theory is that bank erosion and rockfall has filled the riverbed raising the plunge pool to the current level. Try Googling ‘Tears of the Mountain’ Glenariff and see if you agree!
As you continue upstream the river gorge deepens and the walkway requires increasing elevation and somewhat intrusive engineering assistance. Maintaining the tourist path ahead among and against the forces of nature has always been a challenge. In the Victorian era a storm surge carried a full size tree down the length of the Glen destroying all the pedestrian bridges and associated paths. Some of of the current structures here only date from 2014 being a replacement for walkways destroyed in the previous year’s spring storms. As in the case of the Northern Counties Railway’s other famous attraction, the Gobbins Cliff Path, nature exerts an ongoing price for our close inspection of its power!
The walkway now swings across the gorge below Ess-na-Larach. Take a photograph by all means, but don’t forgot to stop and look and listen and see for yourself. Whether the river flow is low or high, this is still a special place to savour.
Now climb the steep tight zigzags up and out of the waterfall gorge. There are substantial handrails here today, but in earlier times visitors relied on a fixed rope!
At the end of the steep climb the path joins a vehicle track where you turn right and head upstream for a further 400m where the path splits in two – the left route directly back and up to the car park, the right an optional extra loop adding 500m onto your day. If you still have the energy I recommend this ‘Rainbow Trail’. Otherwise bear right for the final 500m up to the car park starting point.
Rainbow Trail Option
Follow the path down to return to the riverside – you are now beyond the gorge section and the gradients here are gentle and the bright mature and open larch woodland contrasts with the previous section.
The path crosses the elegant metal Rainbow Bridge which must be on or close to the site of the ‘Rustic Bridge’ the Victorian visitor would have used.
Continue upstream passing a pleasant low cascade before beginning to climb again. You are close to the fourth waterfall – Hermit’s Falls which you viewed at the start of your walk. However today there is no way through to the old viewing platform so the path switches back up into the forest, contours around a side valley and then rejoins the bank. You now have to retrace your steps back across the Rainbow bridge, up to the path junction and then right for the final 500m up to the car park starting point.
- Glenariff Forest Official Information on NI Direct
- The Cargan To Red Bay Wire Tramway Glens Of Antrim Historical Society article
- Ballymena, Cushendall and Red Bay Railway Wikipedia