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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.