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Cuilcagh Boardwalk Trail (Stairway To Heaven)

Home > Dublin > Walks | Fun Things To Do | Day Trips
by Gail Clifford MD (subscribe)
I'm a freelance writer and photographer traveling the world, often following my daughter. Visit our site at www.ABLETravelPhoto.com and follow us on Instagram @ABLETravelPhoto
Published July 23rd 2022
Stairway to Heaven, Ireland, Northern Ireland, tourism, GeoPark, hiking, community, fog, cloud
View from Near the top of the Stairway to Heaven


When you travel, do you ever check out the Meet Ups available in your new city? I've had great luck with Dublin's groups, from getting me to the Bray to Greystones Cliff Walk to kayaking in Skerries. This time, Dublin's Local Meet Up offered a trip to the Stairway to Heaven from Dublin City Center, Connolly Station to be specific, with round-trip transportation. Count me in!

I'd not heard of the Stairway to Heaven before but quickly learned that it is a 14.8 km hike (in and out) with stairs up the mountain into the heavens as the midpoint. The Stairway to Heaven is part of UNESCO's Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark. Rough and wild, it was important to be prepared with sufficient water, good walking shoes, food, a hat, and sunscreen. Rain gear is helpful.

Camelbak filled, cameras and phones charged, I walked from my apartment to the Connolly Station Saturday morning and watched for the silver minibus. The group's leaders worked out all the details, have everyone added to the WhatsApp group, and were great at communicating so everyone found each other in short order.

Ireland, Dublin, Stairway to Heaven, Hike, Route, Map, Guide
Routes between Dublin and the Stairway to Heaven


Carsick-prone people in the front, we sorted quickly and jumped into the mini-bus for our drive north. Our driver-leader, Davey, shared that it's about a 2.5-hour drive. We'd stop about 90 minutes on for a bathroom and deli break, then another half hour where there would be a second break for a bathroom stop if needed, and about a half-hour more into the park itself. Grand.

As the rolling Irish countryside passed across the windscreen, we got to know each other. Small, sleepy Irish villages woke up as I learned a little about my seatmate, Kathy, from Meath, and heard some of the voices in the back from all over the world. I'd meet women from France, Spain, Ireland, and the Philippines. Two of the men were from India. Most worked in Dublin, many still remotely due to Covid. It was great to be able to get out in the fresh, albeit rainy, air and socialise again.

I enjoy learning what other people like to do, especially on rainy days. Kathy was grand. In addition to the museums and libraries in Dublin, she recommended walking on the beach in the rain, an arts and crafts day, and restoring furniture (she learned in her grandfather's woodshop as a wee lass).

Stopping at a petrol / deli / restroom area, Davey shared that he bypassed the typical travellers' rest because of the strong manure scent in the area. We appreciated this. We didn't want to have the flavour of our sandwiches disrupted by those smells. There was a McDonald's just next door and several of us availed ourselves of that. Turns out, they only accept credit cards. This leads to one other point. Have your international credit card with you whilst in Ireland. You never know when you'll suddenly be on a trip that takes you cross border.

Using the restroom before you get to Cuilcagh is critical. The fields are wide open and there is no place for privacy until you reach the top of the mountain. "Going" over the side of the mountain is reported acceptable. Though, having been there in fog, I wouldn't have risked it. We learned that we should have followed my mother's old dictum: never forego a rest stop. When Davey asked if we needed that additional rest room break a half hour on, we'd declined. Oops.

Ireland, Dublin, Cuilcagh, Stairway to Heaven, Hike, Route, Map, Guide
Cuilcagh Mountain Patch or Logo


We arrive at Cuilcagh Mountain. Davey had pre-booked our parking, essential at this active farm with two small parking areas. He cautions us to not bother the sheep.

At the end of the parking lot, we find this sign at the first gate:
Winter weather on Cuilcagh includes extreme cold, strong winds and poor visibility. This is a challenging walk so you should be well prepared."

Ireland, Dublin, Early Hike, Stairway to Heaven, Hike, Route, Map, Guide
On Our Way - Stairway to Heaven


We climb over the gate, there will be five of them in all along the path. Do note, this is not a hike appropriate for the physically disabled. If you require a cane or walker, you won't be able to manage well for that distance on uneven surfaces, or even on the slick boardwalk, made safer by chicken wire. In addition, there are many flights of stairs at the end.

Just past the gate, we're greeted by the bucolic countryside and sheep amongst the rock that many of us associate with Ireland. The sheep baah to each other, warning our arrival. Some of the nearest leap further up the rock to safety.

Signs along the way of the Marble Arch Caves Global GeoPark tell us the importance of these areas of conservation and the process of becoming a GeoPark. This is the only one in the world, they tell us, that crosses the country's boundaries. It also shares the reasons why many birders will enjoy the area. "These habitats support some of our most amazing species such as golden plover, red grouse, sundew, and marsh fritillary."

Geologists have identified this area as existing up to 340 million years ago. Apparently, it was near the Equator at one point and sea creatures created sediment that formed limestones. A deep sea formed the mudstones at the base of the mountain and gritstone, or sandstone, at the Cuilcagh summit were formed in an ancient river delta.

I'm impressed that these habitats remain intact so many years later. We're warned by signage regularly that our footsteps can cause serious damage and stay on the path. We don't want to sink in the bog and have no issue following instructions. I'd like my grandchildren to be able to visit someday.

We entered the 2500-hectare park, which has experienced human influence as early as the Neolithic farmers (4000 to 2500 BC) with a drizzle, and fog encompassing us. We sometimes spotted brilliantly lit areas in the distance, gorgeous shades of green lighting up as though they'd been drawn in technicolour. But it never quite reached where we were.

Davey pointed us in the direction of the boardwalk over the Blanket Bog. He explained this area was one where people would cut out squares of land, lay them out to dry, then use them to burn to heat their homes. There are very few places with coal deposits in Ireland, so peat farming is common across the island. This area seems rich with peat.

Ireland, Dublin, Boardwalk, Bog, Blanket, Stairway to Heaven, Hike, Route, Map, Guide
Boardwalk Over the Blanket Bog


While you can remain on the grey-rocked path, the farmer placed a boardwalk so visitors can better explore the Blanket Bog. I'm most familiar with bog from having visited the Bog Bodies at the National Museum of Archeology in Dublin. Viewing it in its natural habitat, vegetated and serene, was a very different experience.

The Biodiversity section of one of the signs fills us in:
"Blanket bogs are wet, squelchy places where the peat forms from the remains of mosses and other plants in the layer typically two to three meters deep and supporting unique plants, animals and insects that are adapted to the waterlogged ground."

Ireland, Dublin, Boardwalk, Stairway to Heaven, Hike, Route, Map, Guide
Nearly Half Way to the Stairway to Heaven


More signage told us about Cuilcagh Way. The total distance from the parking lot to the Stairway is 7.4 kilometres, with an estimated time to walk of 6 hours. It describes the terrain as gravel tracks, boardwalks, and exposed mountain paths.

Ireland, Dublin, Gates, Stairway to Heaven, Hike, Route, Map, Guide
Five Gates in All to Climb Over on the Stairway to Heaven Walk


The grade is "difficult," and the total ascent is 550 meters. The mountain itself stands at 666 meters or 2,182 feet above sea level. An ancient cairn resides at the summit.

Ireland, Dublin, river, Stairway to Heaven, Hike, Route, Map, Guide
The River That Cuts Through Mountains


I was interested to learn that "However remarkable the local geological heritage may be, a region cannot become a global geopark unless it also has a plan for sustainable development to benefit the local economy."

Ireland, Dublin, Boardwalk, Stairway to Heaven, Hike, Route, Map, Guide
Stop Regularly to Enjoy the View

"Our geopark achieves this by encouraging people to visit the area by developing tourism through providing major tourist attractions, creating walking, and cycling trails, training local people to act as guides, working with local farmers, creating a series of fun events and educational activities and also by producing information to allow people to discover the landscape for themselves."

Love this. I wish there were more areas like it.

Ireland, Dublin, Grasses, Limestone, Exterior,, Stairway to Heaven, Hike, Route, Map, Guide
Grasses and Limestone on the Path to Stairway to Heaven


What I didn't love? I had an asthma attack starting at the boardwalk. I haven't had one in years. Likely due to some smoke exposure, pollens, and altitude with the cold air on this rainy day, it made the climb particularly difficult for me and I found myself needing to stop regularly for rest breaks. It was especially frustrating for me since I've been walking six to ten miles every day in Dublin. I thought the hike would be a breeze.

Ireland, Dublin, Lough Atona, Stairway to Heaven, Hike, Route, Map, Guide
Our First View of the Stairway to Heaven


By the time I reached the steps, I knew I needed something to distract myself, so from the beginning of the actual Stairway to Heaven I counted:
12 steps and then 15 longer landing steps
19 steps and then a platform
20 steps and then a shorter platform
12 steps with a short platform
21 steps with small platform
11 steps with a small platform
16 steps with a wider platform
21 steps with a larger platform
14 steps with the longer platform and people telling us that we're "nearly there" and two buzzards flying above us
12 steps with a longer platform
18 steps with a shorter platform that's a little more than a stoop
18 steps with a longer platform
10 steps with a medium sized platform
18 steps with a longer platform to walk along
and then one step where they long platform but shorter than the one we've just passed
19 steps with a short platform
one step with a short platform

I was dismayed to have made my way up perhaps half of the stairs and my phone only registered "6" flights. But I must've caught the cell signal again because it corrected to read "94" flights. Part of that number is caused by the hilly elevation prior to the steps.

19 steps with a short platform
one step with a short platform
10 steps with a shortish platform
10 steps with a medium platform
one step with a medium length platform
10 steps with the medium length platform
1 Step with a medium platform
10 steps with a longish platform
one step with a shortish platform
10 steps with a long platform
10 steps with a medium platform
10 steps with the medium length platform
10 steps with the medium platform
10 steps with the long platform
10 steps with a longish platform
nine more steps to the platform at the top with an additional 2 steps to the platform for additional viewing and seating. Somewhere there's a path to get up to the summit of the mountain, but we can't see it with the fog.

Ireland, Dublin, Lough Atona, Stairway to Heaven, Hike, Route, Map, Guide
We Made it to the Top!


At the summit, surrounded by grey, cumulonimbus clouds, I was reminded of a pastor's sermon long ago a child, maybe 6 years old, was up in the plane for the first time. He looked out at the clouds and turned to his mother. "Where's God?" he asked. "I can't see him."

At the top of the Stairway to Heaven, completely socked in amongst the mist, fog, and clouds, take a moment and you'll feel Him with you if you care to. There's a lot of adrenaline on that platform, people celebrating their accomplishments. Take a moment to seek peace.

I think that may be easier when visibility is better. I've seen photos of people off the platform and near the cairn or the trailhead. We couldn't see it, but I knew it was there. For me, it was a matter of being present. Not focusing on my aching hip or my breathing, just enjoying the fresh air, camaraderie, and joy that I've come so far from those ten years I spent in a wheelchair.

Ireland, Dublin, Lough Atona, Stairway to Heaven, Hike, Route, Map, Guide
View from the Top, Stairway to Heaven


The summit of Cuilcagh, called Montane Heath, is different from the blanket bog. It's shaped by the oceanic climate, well above the tree line. The plants survive extreme temperatures, strong winds, and even snow. On a sunny day, you could spot multiple mountains, the region of the caves, and various lakes.

Pro Tip: The platform at the top is made with special plastic and glass so that walking shoes will hold fast. It is difficult for dog's feet, sometimes even painful.

I've seen another report of 420 steps, mine only reaches 378. I suspect they counted before the base of the stairway. More than 650 meters above sea level and it took us about two hours to reach it.

With the weather causing poor visibility, there was only one legitimate option for our return, the way we'd come. With clear weather, though, is the Ulster Way, which is listed as 20 kilometres long, averaging six hours to complete.

Ireland, Dublin, Lough Atona, Stairway to Heaven, Hike, Route, Map, Guide
Lough Atona and the Author after the walk up the Stairway to Heaven


Our best view of Lough Atona, formed in the last Ice Age almost 13,000 years ago, was from below. I do like the sapphire sparkle of it I've seen in other pictures and am impressed that it's not usually green from the limestone.

Ireland, Dublin, Stairway to Heaven, Hike, Route, Map, Guide
Stairway to Heaven On the Walk Back


Walking back, I got to know one of the other women from our Meet Up preparing for the Camino de Santiago walk just two months hence. This is considered a great walk, she told me, in Ireland to train for the Camino.

She lent me one of her walking sticks as an old knee injury flared as I trudged down the steep downhill path. That descending slope caused too much additional pressure on my lateral ligaments. I learned the least painful way to go down, ultimately, was sideways. It was a good workout for a different set of muscles. Slow, but very effective and a good way to protect my knees.

As she regaled me with her preparations, her family's (all positive) opinions about her doing it with a tour group, we walked several kilometres before catching up with other members of our group.

One of the gentlemen brought his drone so we watched as he flew it, took pictures, then scanned the cloudy sky for those buzzards. Davey tells us that they've taken out other drones. One of his walkers lost the drone but managed to retrieve the SD card, showing a brilliant crash.

Soaked to varying degrees, depending on the amount of rain gear applied, we returned to the car park, happy with our hike, not even that disappointed with the poor views from the top.

Ireland, Dublin, Stairway to Heaven, Hike, Route, Map, Guide
Activity - Stairway to Heaven


We stopped at the GeoPark Visitor Center for restrooms and drinks (have your pound sterling ready) and headed back to town. As Kathy and Davey filled me in on all things Irish and great other things to do, most everyone in the back slept for the 2.5-hour trip home.

Ireland, Dublin, Logo, Stairway to Heaven, Hike, Route, Map, Guide
Cuilcagh Way Logo


When you have the chance to climb the Stairway to Heaven in Northern Ireland, do it. You'll be awfully glad you did. But yes, even after soaking in the tub to reduce muscle soreness, it was difficult to walk the next day.
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Wow, Gail, an awesome achievement - those stairs would have brought me to my knees just to see how many there were ...
by Elaine (score: 3|9170) 198 days ago
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