Rush Ranch Open Space – Suisun Hill Trail

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Rush Ranch Open Space is a few miles south of Suisun City in southern Solano County. About 2000 acres in size, it is next to Suisun Marsh and not far from Grizzly Island Wildlife Area. There are 3 hiking trails. On a previous visit I had walked two of the trails, and on this visit I walked the third, the Suisun Hill Trail, whose trailhead is just across Grizzly Island Rd from the main entrance to Rush Ranch. It was a pleasant day for a hike, with the temperature about 80 degrees.

The Suisun Hill Trail is a short 1.7-mile semi-loop that goes over and around Suisun Hill, a 212-foot hill at the northwest end of the Potrero Hills. After I completed the loop I continued along Grizzly Island Rd for about ¼ mile before returning to my car, marked by the orange dot on the GPS track.

GPS track

GPS track

The trail is relatively compact. There is a short access trail before the loop proper starts. I decided to go left, to travel around the loop in a clockwise direction. Way-finding is straightforward, with “Trail” and arrow signage at each junction (there are a few alternatives). And along the trail there are unmarked 4×4 posts that serve to mark the trail. Traveling clockwise, the trail immediately climbs to the top of the nearby hill, which is Suisun Hill. So I arrived at the highest elevation of the hike quickly, just 0.4 mile from the trailhead.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

Because much of the immediate surrounding area is sea-level marshland, the top of a 200-foot hill actually affords some nice views. The row of hills in this view is the Potrero Hills, in their seasonal golden brown hue. They would be lovely in the rainy season. At the right (southeast) end of the hills it is barely possible to see a few of the windmills in the large Shiloh Wind Power Plant.

picture of Potrero Hills from Suisun Hill

Potrero Hills from Suisun Hill

Looking toward Suisun City there is a nice view across Suisun Marsh, with Suisun Slough making a pretty pattern and the Vaca Mountains behind.

photo of Suisun Slough and Suisun Marsh from Suisun Hill

Suisun Slough and Suisun Marsh from Suisun Hill

You also have a birds-eye view of the Visitor Center area of Rush Ranch. Two other trails, the Marsh and South Pasture loop trails, start at the Visitor Center.

image of Rush Ranch

Rush Ranch

About 25 miles to the south, Mt Diablo rises dramatically, 3800 feet higher than the intervening marshland and bays. From the relatively high (200-foot) vantage point of Suisun Hill, the connected Suisun, Grizzly, and Honker Bays at the Sacramento River delta are visible.

picture of Mt Diablo across the bays at the delta of the Sacramento River

Mt Diablo across the bays at the delta of the Sacramento River

The hilltop has a couple of benches and sign posts for signage, not currently present. The benches are Boy Scout projects. After enjoying the views I continued along the loop trail down the hill and toward the north end of the loop, where there is a trail junction. At the junction there is a livestock water trough – at least that’s what I presumed it to be. In the picture the Vaca Mountains make a pretty backdrop.

photo of water trough with the Vaca Mountains in the background

Water trough with the Vaca Mountains in the background

I followed the trail signs along a curve to the south. After about 0.3 mile there was a side trail that angled back up the hillside. I walked up this trail, just to confirm that it intersected the loop trail where I thought it did, and returned to the main loop. After completing the loop I returned along the short access trail to my car. I still wanted to explore a bit more, so I walked up Grizzly Island Rd for about ¼ mile. Alongside the road there were a few wildflowers, including this purple star thistle. While I recognize that star thistles are considered invasive plants, the flower is still pretty.

image of purple star thistle along Grizzly Island Rd

Purple star thistle along Grizzly Island Rd

I also found this pretty yellow flower. The blossom bunches are at the top of quite long (perhaps 24-inch) stems.

picture of yellow flower along Grizzly Island Rd

Yellow flower along Grizzly Island Rd

One of the reasons I walked up the road was to see if I could get a different perspective on the Potrero Hills. What I discovered was that I got a different perspective on Suisun Hill! From this perspective I’d say it is a pretty gentle and mellow hill.

photo of Suisun Hill from Grizzly Island Rd

Suisun Hill from Grizzly Island Rd

Though my hike was only 2.2 miles and I took my time to enjoy the views, it turned out to be a pleasant hour-long interlude.

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Causeway Coast Way from Carrick-A-Rede to the Giant’s Causeway (part 3)

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This post covers the third and final part of my single-day hike along the Causeway Coast Way walking trail , continuing from Bengore Head along the Giant’s Causeway to the Visitor’s Centre. It’s another part of my eachtra aisling Éireannach (Irish dream adventure).   In the previous section I hiked from Ballintoy Harbor to Bengore Head. I just kept hiking, and after-the-fact I am breaking the hike into three posts, since there were so many wonderful sights to see and pictures to share.

This section of my day’s hike was about 6½ mi long and focused on the Giant’s Causeway World Heritage Site, the only World Heritage Site in Northern Ireland. It has been justly designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The actual Causeway Coast Way trail distance was only about 3 miles, but I took time to explore the additional trails between the Visitor’s Centre and Lacada Point. In the downloadable WalkNI brochure about the Causeway Coast Way this is a portion of Section 4. It is also part of the North Antrim Cliff Path.

GPS track

GPS track

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

After all of the wonderful sights and views I’d had during the first 10 miles of my hike, it was exciting to look down from Bengore Head and see my first view of the columnar basalt structures for which the Giant’s Causeway is justly famous.

image of first view of basalt columnar structures below Bengore Head

First view of basalt columnar structures below Bengore Head

The columns here are not as regular or as closely spaced as they would be once I was within the World Heritage Site, but they were unusual and beautiful nevertheless. These structures are remnants of volcanic activity and great lava flows some 50-60 million years ago.

The coastline in the area is scalloped, with heads alternating with bays or coves. Each time I rounded a head there was another dramatic view, whether I looked ahead of me or behind me. Here is a view of columnar structures in two layers, as I rounded Benbane Head. The highest point in the trail is in this area and is known as Hamilton’s Seat, named for Dr William Hamilton, who is credited with providing the volcanic explanation for the basalt columns in 1786. The cove in the center of the picture is Horseshoe Harbour, and I believe the rock in the middle of the cove is called The Nurse and Child. Just behind it are two rocks with a common base and a gap between. This is called the Giant’s Eyeglass, and used to be a complete arch until part of it fell into the sea. Another structure here is called The King and His Nobles.

photo of columnar cliffs coming into view while rounding Benbane Head

Columnar cliffs coming into view while rounding Benbane Head

The trail remains on the cliff-tops, around 300 feet above the water. There is a little bit of elevation gain and loss. Notably, the trail is outside the primary fencing for grazing animal control. There is some signage reminding walkers not to stray too closed to the cliff edge. Note the plank-type stile at the smaller side fence at the bottom of the dip.

picture of North Antrim Cliff Trail near Benbane Head

North Antrim Cliff Trail near Benbane Head

There had been a few periods of intermittent light rain earlier in the afternoon. I was glad that the rain didn’t last too long, because I was just starting to get used to what I needed to do to keep myself – and especially my gear (camera and GPS) – dry. I had brought a lightweight emergency poncho, which I was able to use to cover up, including my backpack and gear. After each raincloud passed, the sun came back out and it got warm under the poncho. I also discovered that the rain apparently encouraged thousands of small insects to emerge, fly around, land on certain objects, and generally be a bother. My hands, camera, and poncho were good targets, as well as certain types of flowers. The little buggers almost covered some of the flower heads!

image of flowers covered by small bugs after a rain shower

Flowers covered by small bugs after a rain shower

After passing Benanouran Head the path passes Port na Spaniagh, or Spanish Bay, where the Spanish Armada warship Girona went aground in 1588. From here there was a spectacular view behind me toward Rathlin Island, where I was planning to hike the next day. The picture shows Benanouran Head framing the foreground, with the west end of Rathlin in the background. The white building on Rathlin is the West Lighthouse, which is notable for being designed and built upside down, i.e., with the entrance at the top and the light at the bottom, down the cliff-side.

photo of Rathlin Island and its West Lighthouse, with Benanouran Head in the foreground

Rathlin Island and its West Lighthouse, with Benanouran Head in the foreground

From here on I would be encountering many of the unique and distinctive features of the Giant’s Causeway World Heritage Site. This map provides an overview of the site, and I entered the map area at the right, or northeast, end. Note that there are eight locations identified as viewpoints!

Giant's Causeway map

I carefully went just a little closer to the cliff edge for this dramatic view of Spaniard Rock below the distinctive basalt columns known as Chimney Tops. The long, skinny dark rock in the water to the right is Lacada Point. The Girona wreck is just off the end of Lacada Point.

picture of Spaniard Rock, Chimney Tops, and Lacada Point

Spaniard Rock, Chimney Tops, and Lacada Point

The path goes around one more small cove, which houses The Amphitheater and where I would shortly return. When I got to the trail junction shown on the map I was about halfway around Port Noffer, the Giant’s Port. I decided to first explore some of the lower area, then return to the cliff-top path. This included descending the Shepherd’s Steps, something like 162 steps total, and continuing back generally in the direction from which I had come. This path goes to the small cove that houses The Amphitheater, but the path stops before entering the amphitheater proper. This is due to a landslide that occurred about twenty years ago, covering the trail. It is evident that there is still a trail on the other side of the slide, below rows of clustered basalt columns.

picture of The Amphitheater, showing the landslide that has closed off the trail

The Amphitheater, showing the landslide that has closed off the trail

After this brief exploration I returned to the Shepherd’s Steps and back up to the cliff-top trail. This is an overview of the trail: to the left of center it splits into a lower and upper trail. The handrail next to the steps is visible at the upper right. The two paths curve around the bowl that sweeps up from Port Noffer.

photo of trail along the cliff side above Port Noffer

Trail along the cliff side above Port Noffer

From the cliff-top at the northeast end of Port Noffer there is a wonderful overview of the bay and the Giant’s Causeway, the skinny spit that kind of disappears into the sea in the center of the picture. The peninsula behind it is Great Stookan.

image of Giant’s Causeway overview

Giant’s Causeway overview

After the cliff-top path continues around Port Noffer it presents a dramatic overhead view of the Giant’s Causeway from a small headland called Aird Snout. The Grand Causeway is in the center of the picture, with the Middle Causeway at the left. The entire ground area that is not covered in grass, and some that is, consists of basalt columns. There are an estimated 40,000 columns here. During the 13.5 miles of my hike so far, except for the detour to The Amphitheater I had encountered fewer than 10 other walkers or hikers, but evidently I was about to have significantly more company!

photo of Giant’s Causeway top view

Giant’s Causeway top view

This view of Port Noffer is from the same location at Aird Snout, looking northeast. Spaniard Rock and Chimney Tops are visible in the background. At the very left of the picture the very low, flat rock with a bigger rock at its shore end is called Sea Gull Isle.

picture of Port Noffer (The Giant’s Port) overview

Port Noffer (The Giant’s Port) overview

The path to The Amphitheater is clearly visible about a third of the way up the cliff wall and passes just below a dark-colored area. This is another basalt column feature called The Organ, shown here in a close-up from a slightly different perspective. The Organ, or Giant’s Organ Pipes, is a row of about 60 columns up to 12 meters high. The path passes right next to the base of several of the central pipes.

image of The Organ, or Giant’s Organ Pipes

The Organ, or Giant’s Organ Pipes

Continuing along the cliff-top between Aird Snout and the next small headland of Weir’s Snout there were some pretty, light purple thistle-like wildflowers. I think they are common knapweed – common in the United Kingdom but not in the United States.

picture of common knapweed

Common knapweed

I should mention a little bit about the legend of the giant. According to legend, the Irish giant Finn MacCool (Fionn mac Cumhaill) was challenged to a fight by a Scottish giant and built a causeway across the North Channel so they could meet. Later the Scottish giant destroyed the causeway as he returned to Scotland. It turns out that there are essentially identical basalt columns at Fingal’s Cave on the island of Staffa, about 60 miles away to the north, thought to result from the same lava flows. As a consequence of this legend there are numerous rocks and other features in the Giant’s Causeway area with giant-related names.

Near the Visitor’s Centre the cliff path crosses the paved access road that goes down to sea level. I walked down the road to explore the causeways. There are actually three: the little, middle, and grand causeways. I almost skipped the Little Causeway as I headed for the Middle Causeway, which is notable for having almost perfect hexagonal-shaped columns with a striking gradation between dark and light rock. Somewhere on the Middle Causeway – I did not see it – is the Giant’s Chair. (Perhaps if I had known to look for it, I would have taken the time to find it.)

image of Middle Causeway

Middle Causeway

In any case I continued to the Grand Causeway and walked out toward the tip, which just gets lower and lower until the waves wash over it. I thought it was beautiful.

photo of Grand Causeway tip

Grand Causeway tip

While out near the tip I turned around and looked back to the shore and had a very nice view of the rest of the Grand Causeway, the cliff face, and Aird Snout above.

picture of Grand Causeway base, below Aird Snout

Grand Causeway base, below Aird Snout

After I had explored the Grand Causeway I decided to walk along the rest of the paved lower path, which passes the Giant’s Gate and Giant’s Boot before arriving at the trail junction below the Shepherd’s Steps. I returned via the paved path and the access road to go to the Visitor’s Centre. After passing Great Stookan there is yet another small cove, Portnaboe, with a distinctive rock formation called The Camel.

image of The Camel, Portnaboe

The Camel, Portnaboe

The Camel is at the base of the next headland. The North Antrim Cliff Path and the Causeway Coast Way continue along the coastline. From the section of the path prior to the Visitor’s Centre there is a nice view southwest across flat-topped Runkerry Point. Farther in the background is Inishowen Head, which is in County Donegal, Ireland.

photo of view southwest, beyond the Giant’s Causeway, across Runkerry Point

View southwest, beyond the Giant’s Causeway, across Runkerry Point

Just past the Visitor’s Centre there was a bus stop where I was able to catch a Rambler bus back to my home base in Ballycastle.

The visit to the Giant’s Causeway was the highlight of a wonderful and very full day of hiking along the North Antrim Coast. I had been expecting spectacular scenery, and my expectations were fulfilled and then some. My plan for the next day’s hike was to go to Rathlin Island for what I expected to be different but also beautiful scenery.

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Causeway Coast Way from Carrick-A-Rede to the Giant’s Causeway (part 2)

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This post covers a continuation of my hike along the Causeway Coast Way walking trail, continuing from Ballintoy Harbor toward the Giant’s Causeway. It’s part of my eachtra aisling Éireannach (Irish dream adventure).   This section was about 6½ mi long including striking rocks at the water’s edge, a stroll along a sandy beach, and breathtaking views of and from the coastal cliffs. On the GPS track and elevation profile this section was between roughly 3.5 and 10 miles from my initial starting point. In the downloadable WalkNI brochure about the Causeway Coast Way this is all of Section 5 and a portion of Section 4. During this section of the hike there was some intermittent rain.

GPS track

GPS track

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

From Ballintoy Harbor it is about 0.5 mile to the beginning of White Park Bay. In this short section the trail is very close to the shoreline and there is a small cave as well as interesting rocks at the edge of the water, and at least one arch. This particular interesting rock is called Elephant Rock.

picture of Elephant Rock on the shoreline just west of Ballintoy Harbor

Elephant Rock on the shoreline just west of Ballintoy Harbor

In the UK the stile is a prevalent manner of allowing walkers and hikers to cross over a fence without letting grazing animals cross from one field or pasture to another. This example is a ladder type of stile.

image of stile providing passage over a fence that crosses the walking trail

Stile providing passage over a fence that crosses the walking trail

After reaching the beach the trail continues un-waymarked, simply along the water’s edge, for about 1.5 miles. Both the beach and bay are quite beautiful. Here is a beautiful view of Bengore Head across White Park Bay. Bengore Head is a dramatic and distinctive headland at the east end of the Giant’s Causeway World Heritage Site.

photo of Bengore Head across White Park Bay

Bengore Head across White Park Bay

Brochures about the Causeway Coast Way recommend walking along the beach at low tide. Fortunately, on the day of my hike the tide schedule cooperated with my walking plan! There were several cows near the east end of the beach; I’m not sure what they were grazing on. A bit later, a man was walking two dogs and playing fetch, throwing sticks into the water; the dogs seemed to love it. The beach’s white sand is crossed by several streamlets that were pretty easy to hop across. There were also some interesting small rocks with possibly fossilized shells attached. This cylindrical hole was lined with shells.

picture of shells on the beach at White Park Bay

Shells on the beach at White Park Bay

At the west end of White Park Bay is the quaint hamlet of Portbraddan, which is, or has been, a fishing village.

image of Portbraddan across White Park Bay

Portbraddan across White Park Bay

In Portbraddan there is a tiny church, St Gobban Church, which is arguably the smallest church in Northern Ireland. It is something like 4 feet by 9 feet and has a capacity of 5 people.

photo of St Gobban Church, Portbraddan

St Gobban Church, Portbraddan

Just past Portbraddan the trail is supposed to go around Gid Point but is marked closed due to landslips and unstable land. It had been suggested to me that it was actually safe to proceed, so I decided to give it a try. The gate with the “closed” sign was unlocked and I actually followed several other people onto the trail. The closed section turned out to be about 0.9 mile. I did get slightly off-trail toward the end and had to climb over a fence or two without a stile, but I made it!

The trail climbs up a bit and passes through an arch. On the way up the slight incline I noticed a quite unusual plant. Each leaf seems to be adorned with a white puff of something. I hope it was a normal part of the life cycle of this plant.

picture of unusual plant just west of Portbraddan

Unusual plant just west of Portbraddan

Shortly after the arch there was a small but pretty waterfall cascading down the side of the grass-covered cliff.

image of waterfall near Gid Point

Waterfall near Gid Point

I also saw a Eurasian oystercatcher, with its distinctive broad red bill, walking around on some rocks. Then the trail climbed again and I seemed to startle a couple of sheep; I wondered if they were surprised to encounter a hiker.

photo of sheep that seemed a bit startled to see a hiker on this section of trail

Sheep that seemed a bit startled to see a hiker on this section of trail

Toward the end of the off-trail part I was able to see the “closed” sign that marked the other end, and I basically bushwhacked my way to the sign and got back on-trail. After the sign the trail briefly follows a road, then diverges again to pass through the Dunseverick Coastal Grasslands. There was a narrow place between some rock stacks at the water’s edge where several youngsters decked out in wet suits were taking turns diving or jumping into the water. I could barely hear them calling out to each other things like “jump now!”

picture of young divers enjoying the seaside rocks

Young divers enjoying the seaside rocks

The next 3 miles or so are along the dramatic coastal cliffs curving northwest past Geerach Point, Port Moon, and Contham Head and leading to Bengore Head. There were wildflowers such as heather, bluebells, and pink orchids here and there along the path. About 1 mile past the closed section, after rounding Geerach Point, there is a nice view along the coastline toward Contham Head. The building near water’s edge is a former salmon fishery. Port Moon is a cove within the larger (perhaps 2½ miles long) curve in the coastline.

image of view of salmon fishery at Port Moon, below Contham Head

View of salmon fishery at Port Moon, below Contham Head

Less than 0.25 miles farther the trail passes a small promontory where the ruins of Dunseverick Castle are located. According to history, St Patrick visited the castle in the 5th century AD. Also, one of the royal roads from Tara ended at the castle, making it a so-called key site in ancient Ireland.

photo of Dunseverick Castle ruins

Dunseverick Castle ruins

Between Dunseverick Castle and the Giant’s Causeway the Causeway Coastal Way is also known as the North Antrim Cliff Path and is maintained by the National Trust. As the path goes along the cliffs the ocean views are balanced by inland views across green pastures.

picture of rolling hills of green grazing pastures

Rolling hills of green grazing pastures

About 0.6 mile past Dunseverick Castle there was a dramatic view of the coastline looking roughly east, the direction from which I had walked. It was amazing to me, even though I had just walked there, that there was a walking path not far from the water! The small cove in the foreground may be Portnagova.

image of view east from the North Antrim Cliff Path near Dunseverick Castle

View east from the North Antrim Cliff Path near Dunseverick Castle

Perhaps another 0.5 mile farther the path makes its closest approach to Contham Head and turns west. Looking back along the coastline again, there was another fantastic view. The large rock in the center of the picture is Benadanir, and the smaller pointed rock is Stac-na-cuil-dubh, which may mean sea stack with a dark corner (or top). The mountain in the background is Knocklayd, near Ballycastle. And I think the low grassy cylindrical-shaped cliff in the line of sight to Knocklayd is the small promontory where Dunseverick Castle is located.

photo of coastal view from near Contham Head, on the North Antrim Cliff Path

Coastal view from near Contham Head, on the North Antrim Cliff Path

The salmon fishery is more or less straight down from this location, out of sight because of the contour of the cliff’s edge. From here the path continues parallel to the water for about 0.6 mile before turning west near Bengore Head, where I saw the first formations that I associated with the Giant’s Causeway. This section of my hike was just 6½ miles but packed with interesting sights and dramatic views. The final section of my day’s hike was spectacular in different ways.

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Causeway Coast Way from Carrick-A-Rede to the Giant’s Causeway (part 1)

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Once I had arrived in Ballycastle to begin the hiking phase of my eachtra aisling Éireannach (Irish dream adventure), I was looking forward to six days of interesting hikes in the area. I had shared with the proprietor of my B&B the trails I was hoping to hike; essentially I could do them in any sequence. He suggested that I start with the Causeway Coast Way walking trail since the way-finding would be straightforward. In addition, this hike was especially perfect for the gorgeous sunny weather that seemed to be in store! In fact, there was a bit of rain in the afternoon, but it did nothing to spoil a most memorable hike. There were so many fantastic views that I’m going to use 3 posts to cover the day’s hike, which was 16.5 miles with gentle elevation changes of less than 1600 feet.

GPS track

GPS track

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

This first post covers just a short distance: 3.6 miles. I took one of the local Rambler buses from Ballycastle to one of the highlights of the Causeway Coast Way, Carrick-A-Rede, where I started my hike. The first section continues west to Ballintoy Harbor. In the downloadable WalkNI brochure this is a portion of Section 6. In another brochure about the Causeway Coast Way, this part is an entire section.

The bus driver dropped me off at the short access road to the Carrick-A-Rede parking area. Carrick-A-Rede comes from Scottish Gaelic Carraig-a-Rade, which means rock in the road. Carrick Island is like a rock in the road for migrating Atlantic salmon, which journey westward past the area on their way to the North Atlantic Ocean. Salmon fishermen have installed a rope bridge from the mainland to Carrick Island, and the rope bridge has become quite an attraction for visitors. It is under the management of the National Trust.

I arrived at the parking area before the access trail was open for the day, so I had a little time to enjoy views of the dramatic coastline. Looking west, where I would be walking later in the morning, I could see the town of Ballintoy across several pastures where sheep were grazing. In the background, across the coastal bay, was the headland that marks the eastern end of the Giant’s Causeway, where I would arrive later in the afternoon. I enjoyed being able to anticipate the rest of my walk while enjoying what I was experiencing more immediately.

photo of Ballintoy with the Giant’s Causeway headland in the background

View of Ballintoy with the Giant’s Causeway headland in the background

Just west of the parking area is a beautiful white-cliffed headland which defines the west end of Larrybane Bay. Just off the headland are 3 distinctive rocks. The largest is Sheep Island, and the middle-sized rock is called Stackaboy. I particularly noticed how blue the water looked, reflecting the clear blue sky.

picture of Sheep Island and Stackaboy off Larrybane Head

Sheep Island and Stackaboy off Larrybane Head

As soon as the access path opened I was on my way along the 1 km trail, which goes along the top of the cliff edge of Larrybane Bay. Here is the spectacular view approaching Carrick Island, which is the largest lump in the right-center of the picture. Though not obvious from this viewing angle, the island is indeed separate from the mainland and is crossed by the rope bridge. The low-profile island in the background is Rathlin Island, which I would be visiting the next day. In the far background at the right is the Mull of Kintyre, which is part of Scotland. The waterway between the Northern Ireland mainland and Rathlin Island is locally called the Moyle Sea.

image of Carrick Island, with Rathlin Island and the Mull of Kintyre in the background across the Moyle Sea

Carrick Island, with Rathlin Island and the Mull of Kintyre in the background across the Moyle Sea

As the path got closer to the rope bridge there was a great view of the coastline immediately to the east. This cliff area is called Knocksoghey Sill; a sill is a geological feature that seems to frequently include vertical faces.

photo of Knocksoghey Sill just east of Carrick-A-Rede

Knocksoghey Sill just east of Carrick-A-Rede

The path descends down the cliff to reach the rope bridge. This is an overview of the path, with the bridge in the center and Carrick Island to the right.

picture of Carrick-A-Rede rope bridge overview

Carrick-A-Rede rope bridge overview

The rope bridge is 20m long and 30m above the sea. The final approach is down a set of steep steps – with a nice, sturdy handrail. A National Trust guard monitors and meters traffic on the bridge; only 8 people are permitted to be on the bridge simultaneously, and they all must be traveling in the same direction. Walking across the bridge was quite an experience!

image of Carrick-A-Rede rope bridge

Carrick-A-Rede rope bridge

The steep cliffs attract quite a few gulls and other sea birds. I noticed a herring gull in a tuft of grass at the edge of a vertical drop-off. It was too late in the season for nesting, I believe, so I suppose it was just enjoying a bit of rest in the wonderful sunshine.

photo of herring gull resting

Herring gull resting

After exploring Carrick Island I headed back toward the parking area. On the way I enjoyed the view of Larrybane, or Laragh Bán, which means ancient white site and refers to the limestone in the headland cliff. On the left is the Carrick-A-Rede access trail running near the edge of the cliff, and Stackaboy is just at the right of the tip of Larrybane Head. A few buildings are visible, as is the headland marking the east end of the Giant’s Causeway.

picture of Larrybane Head

Larrybane Head

A bit farther along the path I noticed several unusual cows grazing. They were some of the so-called panda cows that I’d noticed the previous day on the bus to Ballycastle. Actually, I think they are belted Galloway cows, which are adapted to certain habitat that occurs near Galloway, Scotland. They are quite striking!

image of panda (or belted Galloway) cows

Panda (or belted Galloway) cows

The trail continues across Larrybane Head and along the edge of Ballintoy Bay, then runs between sheep pastures to reach the Harbour Road, which goes down to Ballintoy Harbor. Here there were nice views of numerous rocks just off-shore.

photo of Ballintoy Harbor

Ballintoy Harbor

The next section of my day’s hike would make its way mostly along the bayside before climbing up into the headlands again.

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Ballycastle exploration

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Following my brief sightseeing walk in Belfast, the next leg of my eachtra aisling Éireannach (Irish dream adventure) was a bus ride to Ballycastle, a pretty seaside town on the north coast of Northern Ireland in County Antrim. I would have my headquarters at a B&B in Ballycastle and hike in the area for six days.

There are actually two bus routes between Belfast and Ballycastle, one along the coast and one inland. The bus schedule worked out better for me to take the inland route, via Antrim, Ballymena, and Armoy. The town of Antrim is on the shore of Lough Neagh, the largest lake on the island of Ireland as well as in the United Kingdom and in the British Isles. It was difficult to get good photos from the moving bus, but notable sights included a few isolated windmills, for wind energy, and a special type of cow known locally as panda cows. I was hoping to see more panda cows later (and I did!).

Approaching Ballycastle the road passes around Knocklayd, one of the highest mountains (approx. 1695 ft or 515 m high) in Antrim and an easy-to-identify landmark. This view from the bus shows Knocklayd with other characteristic features: unbelievably green sheep grazing pastures and the almost ever-present clouds.

image of Knocklayd, near Ballycastle

Knocklayd, near Ballycastle

As the bus enters town on the A44 from Armoy the route passes through Glentaisie, one of the nine famous glens in the area. Glentaisie was named after Princess Taisie, daughter of King Dorm of nearby Rathlin Island. It seems that there is an interesting story or legend behind many of the place names in the area! Entering town, there is an intriguing view of the top of a church steeple: Holy Trinity Church (Church of Ireland), located on The Diamond, or town square. I took this picture later while exploring town on foot, but imagine seeing just the top half or so over the crest of the bluff straight ahead of you as you enter town.

photo of Holy Trinity Church on The Diamond in Ballycastle

Holy Trinity Church on The Diamond in Ballycastle

After the bus dropped me off at the Marine Corner, right next to the harbor edge, I took my luggage a short 0.2 mile up the street to my B&B, named An Caislean in honor of the castle after which Ballycastle is named. I could hardly wait to go out and explore more of the town. In fact, I went for an afternoon walk and another walk in the evening, taking advantage of the late (~9pm) sunset.

GPS track

GPS track

The first objective for my afternoon walk was to return to the Marine Corner area, in the upper right of the blue GPS track, go to the Tourist Information Centre and get some maps and other information for my planned hikes, and check out the ferry to Rathlin Island, which I planned to visit a couple of days later. I passed by the Marine Corner at least twice every day I was in Ballycastle, and I was continually fascinated by the ever-changing views of Fair Head, a dramatic headland just 4 mi away. The cliffs of Fair Head are 196 m (650 ft) above the sea. In the background the skyline of the Mull of Kintyre, the southwestern tip of the Kintyre Peninsula in Scotland, can be seen. It is about 20 mi away, visible in relatively clear weather but certainly not every day. It turns out that Paul McCartney, with Denny Laine, wrote a song called “Mull of Kintyre” that, performed by Wings, was a huge hit in Britain in the late 1970s.

picture of Fair Head and the Mull of Kintyre from Ballycastle’s Marine Corner

Fair Head and the Mull of Kintyre from Ballycastle’s Marine Corner

Turning away from Fair Head, I could enjoy a pretty view of boats moored in the Ballycastle Harbor, with commercial buildings and houses on the bluff above the harbor. In the harbor area the water was so calm that the boats and clouds were nicely reflected.

image of boats moored in Ballycastle Harbor

Boats moored in Ballycastle Harbor

There were several types of sea birds either perched on various posts and signs or flying around the harbor area. I think this is a black-headed gull in non-breeding plumage.

photo of black-headed gull

Black-headed gull

In the harbor area there are a few sculptures and an interesting-looking rock monument. This monument is called the Marconi Memorial and commemorates the first commercial wireless telegraph communication, achieved by Marchese Marconi and his assistant George Kemp. The wireless communication took place in 1898 between Ballycastle and the East Lighthouse on Rathlin Island, to advise Lloyds of London about ships passing safely through the North Channel, which goes between Northern Ireland and Scotland and connects the Irish Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean.

picture of Marconi Memorial

Marconi Memorial

Also visible across the water is Rathlin Island, the only inhabited island off the north coast of Antrim. Rathlin is about 6 miles away and is 6 miles long, with a maximum elevation of about 110 m (365 ft). From Ballycastle it looks low and wide. I was looking forward to spending two days hiking on Rathlin during my stay in Ballycastle.

image of Rathlin Island

Rathlin Island

In the evening I went out for a second exploratory walk, this time continuing up the street away from the harbor. As seems to be common, the street changes name several times, from Quay Rd to Ann St to Castle St. The Diamond, mentioned earlier, is where Ann St becomes Castle St. I continued a short distance further, then turned around about 1 km from my B&B. I explored a couple of side streets, with more views of Knocklayd. Following some signage, I went down a side street, Fairhill St (at the bottom of the GPS track), which led to the final prize of my exploration, a trailhead for the way-marked Moyle Way. I hoped to hike this trail as two day hikes. The significance of the Moyle Way is that it is the family name of my mother’s family.

photo of Moyle Way sign at the Ballycastle trailhead

Moyle Way sign at the Ballycastle trailhead

After celebrating finding the trailhead I returned to my B&B to get ready for my hiking adventures. These initial explorations were a great introduction to the upcoming six days. I could hardly wait to get started!

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Belfast sightseeing

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On my way from Dublin to the north coast of Northern Ireland during my Irish dream adventure, I made an overnight stopover in Belfast. In the morning I spent a couple of hours exploring the center city area before continuing to Ballycastle by bus. My hotel was very close to the Europa Bus Centre and Great Victoria Train Station, so it was very convenient for my intercity travels on public transportation. My short sightseeing walk began at the hotel, at the bottom end of the blue GPS track.

GPS track

GPS track

My plan was to walk north to St Anne’s Cathedral, then explore the riverfront area, and stop in at the Tourist Information Centre to change money. Northern Ireland, as part of the United Kingdom, uses pound sterling currency, while I’d been using Euros in Dublin. My route to St Anne’s took me along Queen St, Castle St, and Royal Ave. At a cross street I noticed that the buildings along Royal Ave seemed to be almost facades, they were so skinny from front to back. I’d never seen anything quite like this building style before.

photo of tall skinny buildings along a busy street in Belfast

Tall skinny buildings along a busy street in Belfast

Continuing roughly north, after less than a 20-minute walk I arrived at St Anne’s Cathedral, which is also Belfast Cathedral. The current building is relatively new, having been built between 1899 and 1981. The end of the North Transept has an outer layer consisting of a large Celtic cross. The spire is a modern, unadorned spire. In the park across the street there is an exhibit of three actual navigational buoys, presented by the Commissioner of Irish Lights to highlight the city’s tradition as a seaport and shipbuilding city.

picture of St Anne’s Cathedral exterior

St Anne’s Cathedral exterior

Before entering I walked around the block outside the cathedral (see the almost complete loop in the GPS track). On one side there is an open plaza called Writer’s Square. Quotations about Belfast by well-known local writers are carved into paving stones scattered throughout the plaza.

Here is a view of the nave inside the cathedral. There are also several pretty stained glass windows and special areas (small chapels, etc).

image of St Anne’s Cathedral interior: nave

St Anne’s Cathedral interior: nave

As I left the Cathedral Square area to make my way to the riverfront, I noticed an archway that led to an alley. The entrance to the alley surprised me, because it seemed to be basically a hole in the buildings lining the street.

photo of alley branching off from a bigger street

Alley branching off from a bigger street

Several blocks later I passed the Merchant Hotel, a luxury hotel located in the former headquarters of the Ulster Bank – it really looks like a business building rather than a hotel! – and the Customs House, located on the bank of the River Lagan, which runs through the city. Along the riverfront there is a kind of plaza with another buoy,

picture of buoy near the River Lagan

Buoy near the River Lagan

as well as distinctive sculptures like some playful seal heads and the appropriately-named Big Fish. There is also a distinctive tall building with a profile resembling the prow of a boat, with the exterior adorned with colored picture-frame-like decorations.

image of “The Boat” building

“The Boat” building

There are four bridges across the river, rather close together. One is a pedestrian bridge, and I walked across to the east bank and back. Looking to the south, toward Queen Elizabeth Bridge, the bridge and clouds were nicely reflected in the water.

photo of reflections in the River Lagan

Reflections in the River Lagan

Just a block from Queen Elizabeth Bridge is Queen’s Bridge. At the west end of the bridge, next to Thanksgiving Square, is a sculpture called Beacon of Hope. According to its designer, “I hope that the figure is adopted by the people of Belfast as a symbol of peace and reconciliation, and as a shining beacon of modernity and progress”.

picture of Beacon of Hope

Beacon of Hope

As I left the riverfront area I made a slight detour to walk past the Albert Memorial Clock, built in 1865. The land on which it is built was reclaimed from the River Lagan, and apparently the clock tower began to lean. A recent renovation has corrected the issue.

image of Albert Memorial Clock

Albert Memorial Clock

As I continued back toward the city center, I passed St George’s Church, which is built on the site of the original settlement of Beal Feirste (“the sandy ford at the mouth of the Farset”) nearly 1000 years ago. Belfast’s history is quite old!

In contrast, I also passed a store with a sign in its front window advertising how you can stay dry in the summer rain with a “kit you can trust for weather you can’t”. (Kit is like an outfit or uniform.) Although I hadn’t experienced much Irish rain yet, I hoped that the rain gear I’d brought with me would be adequate.

For many years Belfast was well-known as a shipbuilding city. Along the sidewalk next to Donegall Pl there is a series of exhibits commemorating some of the most famous ships built by Harland & Wolff for White Star Lines between about 1899 and 1920. Each of the eight exhibits consists of a plaque in the sidewalk and a mast-like structure with a fabric sail. The most famous of the ships is the Titanic.

photo of Titanic mast on Donegall Pl

Titanic mast on Donegall Pl

The Titanic mast is basically across the street from City Hall, which occupies Donegall Square.

picture of City Hall

City Hall

As planned, I went into the Tourist Information Centre, around the corner from the masts, to change money. While inside I turned off my GPS unit, so the track does not return all the way to the hotel. I had just the right amount of time to retrieve my luggage and make my way to the Europa Bus Center to continue my journey north.

My time in Belfast was very limited, so I had to skip some popular and well-known tourist spots, such as the Titanic Belfast exhibit and the famous murals. Perhaps I’ll have an opportunity to return to Belfast another time.

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Tour of the Hill of Tara and Newgrange

This was the only event in my entire Irish dream adventure that did not involve a hike or any other significant walking: a day trip via bus and guided tour to the valley of the River Boyne, about an hour north of Dublin in County Meath. Included were visits to the Hill of Tara and Newgrange, both of which are sites of great historical interest and significance.

It turned out to be a beautiful day for the tour. The weather was not quite as clear as it had been the previous day for the half marathon but stayed dry. During the bus ride from the heart of Dublin, our guide provided quite a bit of interesting information. For example, in honor of producing writers such as Joyce, Yeats, Beckett, Shaw, Wilde, and others, Dublin is one of 7 cities that have been designated as a UNESCO City of Literature. Also, one of the towns we passed by was Navan, childhood home of Pierce Brosnan (aka James Bond).

The River Boyne near Drogheda is the site of perhaps the most famous battle in Irish history, the Battle of the Boyne, in which William of Orange and James II, both crowned kings of England, fought each other in 1690. William, who was both son-in-law and nephew of James, won decisively. This battle is said to be the origin of “the troubles” that were part of Irish life for 3 decades in the late 1900’s.

Our first stop was the Hill of Tara (Teamhair na Rí), ancient inauguration site of the High Kings of Ireland. There are numerous monuments at the site, some dating to the Neolithic period, 4000-2400 BC, and most thought to have had a ritual purpose. The hilltop is at an elevation of about 650 feet, with the surrounding valley nearly at sea level. The best overview of this remarkable site is from the air – I can give an impression of it via this photo of one of the excellent interpretive signs.

picture of overview of Tara complex

Overview of Tara complex

The monuments are primarily earthworks: mounds surrounded by ditches and outer banks, for example. One of the oldest is called the Mound of the Hostages (Dumha na nGiall) (in the overview photo, the small bump slightly to the upper right of center), originally built as a passage tomb and dating from the Neolithic Age. Although there is now a gate across the entrance to the tomb, you can easily reach through well enough to photograph a side stone that has original carved designs.

photo of carved side stone in the entrance passage of the Mound of the Hostages

Carved side stone in the entrance passage of the Mound of the Hostages

The large oval in the overview is the Fort of the Kings or Royal Enclosure (Ráith na Rí). It’s at the top of Tara Hill and is the largest enclosure, with a 1 km circumference. The two circles that seem to form a figure eight are the Royal Seat (Forradh) and Cormac’s House (Teach Chormaic), built in quite different time periods. Here is a view of the Royal Seat, topped with a phallic standing stone called the Stone of Destiny (Lia Fáil), the inauguration stone of the Kings of Tara.

image of Royal Seat at Tara, with the Stone of Destiny

Royal Seat at Tara, with the Stone of Destiny

Other major monuments on the hill include the Banqueting Hall (Teach Miodhchuarta), parallel earth banks over 200 meters long, which may actually have been a ceremonial approach to the summit rather than a banqueting hall; and the Rath of the Synods (Ráith na Seanadh), thought to be a ringfort or circular fortified settlement, with 3 concentric earth banks. About a half mile south of the main hill is another hill fort known as Rath Maeve (Medb), which may be associated with the legendary queen or goddess of Tara. Near the location of Rath Maeve there was a flock of sheep, placidly grazing or resting, apparently oblivious to the history of their surroundings. (I was to see many, many more sheep during my hikes!)

image of sheep at Tara

Sheep at Tara

The views from Tara were simply lovely.

picture of view from Tara

View from Tara

A church is located near the entrance to the site. The current building is dedicated to St Patrick and dates from 1822, but a medieval church most likely occupied the site previously. The stone wall around the graveyard had a special type of gate known as a kissing gate, which lets people – but not livestock – through and does not require a latching mechanism.

photo of kissing gate

Kissing gate

By the way, Tara of Gone with the Wind fame was named after the Hill of Tara.

After leaving this site we continued through the Boyne River Valley to the Palace of the Boyne (Brú na Bóinne), an area of several square miles just inland from Drogheda of such historical and archeological importance that it has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Brú na Bóinne includes the site of the Battle of the Boyne as well as three great passage tombs known as Newgrange, Knowth, and Dowth, and several other significant sites. The area lies within a large bend in the river.

Along the way we passed through the town of Shane and past fields with hay harvest in progress.

image of field with hay harvest in progress

Field with hay harvest in progress

Our tour group made a lunch stop at Newgrange Farm. In order to get there we drove down a country road that was barely wide enough for the bus to pass. I took this picture through the windshield of the bus as we drove along.

picture of country road near Newgrange

Country road near Newgrange

Newgrange Farm is a working farm. During our lunch stop there was a little time to explore. Among other wildlife (cows, sheep, a couple of horses), I noticed ducks, white doves, barn swallows, and a large and strange-looking type of crow called a rook.

photo of rook perched in a tree

Rook perched in a tree

Finally our reserved time slot approached, and we walked a short distance up the hill to the Newgrange site. By the way, this was a special arrangement for tour groups; the normal way to access the site is through the Visitor’s Center.

Newgrange is the best known of the passage tombs in the Brú na Bóinne complex. Simply put, the site is spectacular. Our first view was from the bus before lunch; I took this photo out the bus window as we drove along. Our guide explained that one group was just exiting from the tomb and the next group was ready to enter, so this was the very maximum number of people that is ever present at the site.

image of Newgrange passage tomb

Newgrange passage tomb

The mound covers a chamber with three recesses where people were buried, most after cremation. A passage nearly 19 meters long and lined with large stones leads from the entrance to the chamber. These main features give rise to the term passage tomb. Newgrange dates from the Neolithic period and is believed to be 5000 years old, older than both Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids in Egypt.

Around the base of the mound is a row of 97 retaining boulders called kerbstones, some of which are carved with spirals and other geometric designs. The white quartz stones on the front face are a reconstruction carried out by Professor M.J. O’Kelly, who directed a major excavation of the site in 1962. He used stones that were already at the site. However, this reconstruction is somewhat controversial since no one knows – or can know, now – if it is accurate.

When our designated time slot arrived, we walked up to the entrance area. The very large kerbstone is called the entrance stone, and its triple spiral design (at the left) is thought to have special significance.

picture of Newgrange entrance

Newgrange entrance

Just above the entrance is a rectangular opening called the roof-box. This opening admits sunlight to the chamber at dawn on the winter solstice, and for a few days before and after. The entrance passage is narrow and has curves, so light does not enter that way. And the passage slopes upward such that the light from the roof-box illuminates the floor of the chamber in the back recess. It is thought that Newgrange may be the oldest known deliberately aligned structure in the world. There is no photography allowed inside the mound, but there is a “re-enactment” of winter solstice dawn included in the tour. It is quite amazing! If you want to see the real thing, there is a lottery for tickets for the winter solstice dawn time slot. No guarantee that the weather will be clear enough to see the sunrise.

In front of the mound are other features that are associated with later uses of the site. One is a large circle, roughly 100 meters in diameter (about the same size as the main mound), actually a double circle in which portions of animals were cremated and buried in pits around the circumference of the circle. This area is known as the Pit Circle and was constructed in the Early Bronze Age, around 2000 BC. The posts in this picture indicate the Pit Circle; about half of the circle is on the other side of the hedge. The circle in front of the hedge marks the outline of a satellite tomb.

photo of Pit Circle and satellite tomb at Newgrange

Pit Circle and satellite tomb at Newgrange

There are also several large standing stones in at least a partial circle around the main mound. Their purpose is unclear. This circle was constructed after the Pit Circle.

image of standing stones at Newgrange

Standing stones at Newgrange

The archeological research at the site indicates that Newgrange has been used in different ways and by different cultures over the centuries. In Celtic mythology, after about 500 BC, the so-called Fairy Mound of the Brú (d im Brúg) was the home of Dagda Mor, the greatest Celtic God, and his son Oengus. The reputation of the site apparently persisted for visitors from Roman Britain as late as 400 AD.

The land around Newgrange was acquired by the nearby abbey at Mellifont after its founding in 1142, and it became a grange, or outlying farm, for the abbey. By the late 1300’s it was simply referred to as the “new grange.” This is a view looking down the hill from the area in front of the entrance, toward the River Boyne.

picture of view from Newgrange

View from Newgrange

To exit the site we took the on-site shuttle bus back to the Visitor Center. A trio of enterprising young men entertained visitors waiting for the shuttle with traditional Irish music.

photo of musicians by the shuttle bus stop

Musicians by the shuttle bus stop

The shuttle bus route stops on the north side of the River Boyne, where there is a pretty footbridge crossing the river to the Visitor Center.

image of footbridge across the River Boyne

Footbridge across the River Boyne

The river itself flows serenely past these sites of historical significance.

picture of River Boyne

River Boyne

All in all, this tour was quite remarkable, and included only a small preview of the rich history of Ireland.

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