Here’s what you need to know to plan your visit to Gougane Barra.
It was a muggy August afternoon in West Cork. One of those days where rain and shine streamed down from the sky in equal doses, often at the same time. Every time the sun broke through the clouds it restarted the process of evaporating the freshly formed puddles on the tarmac; the vapor rising up and cloaking the landscape of Gougane Barra in a misty blanket of fog.
It’s hard not to feel the magic, the magnetism of a place like this.
Lucky for us, it was also blackberry season. Bushels of plump, onyx coloured berries spilled out of every hedgerow and thorny pile of brambles from Gougane Barra’s famous church right the way to the fringes of the forest park.
Popping them in our mouths as we walked along, it was easy to remember all the ‘whys’ that brought us back to West Cork after years of beach bumming around the tropics of Southeast Asia — wild blackberries and magic being just the beginning (admittedly, pints of Murphy’s were fairly high on the list too).
Being the hopelessly addicted outdoor junkies that we are, we’ve been making regular excuses to visit Gougane Barra to walk around the lake, hike through the forested hills, and visit its sweet little church — and it’s come to be one of our favourite things to do in Ireland.
As a result, we’ve gotten to know the trails and things to do nearby quite well; so this post is our way of sharing some of that magic with you — and letting you in on why you shouldn’t miss a visit to Gougane Barra yourself.
Pssst: if you love the idea of visiting Gougane Barra, you might also enjoy our complete list of the best things to do in Cork (city + county)!
What to expect from a visit to Gougane Barra (TL;DR version)
History. Scenery. Nature by the bucketload. Some of our favourite hiking trails in Ireland. Possibly a few deer. A peek at the country’s ancient culture. A creamy pint of stout.
When you pull down the little road leading to Gougane Barra, you’ll be met with the craggy Sheehy Mountains bordering a lake on your right, and the iconic church sat therein. Opposite is Cronin’s (a double whammy bar and café) and the gorgeous property of the family-run Gougane Barra Hotel.
You have the option of parking up here or continuing along the road towards Gougane Barra National Forest Park, which if you choose to drive into, will cost you €5 per car (we’ll share our recommendations for where to park a little further down this post).
There are public parking spaces and restrooms both inside and outside the park. You’ll be able to fill your belly and quench your thirst at Cronin’s Bar & Café, and find a place to lay your head at night in the fabulous Gougane Barra Hotel. There aren’t any ATMs around here though, so you’ll need to take cash out beforehand in one of the nearby towns — Macroom, Bantry, or Glengarriff.
Gougane Barra church & history
It’s said that Saint Finbarr, the patron saint of Cork, came to Gougane Barra in the 6th century and built his monastery here. Following this, St. Finbarr followed the path of the River Lee — which begins in the mountains of Gougane Barra — to Cork City, where he founded the monastery that today is known as the glorious Saint Finbarr’s Cathedral (if you find yourself in Cork City, make sure you pay a visit — the stained glass and architecture is something pretty special).
Though itself steeped in religious history, the chapel you see in Gougane Barra today isn’t that of St. Finbarr but of Father Denis O’Mahony who retreated to the island in the 1700’s and erected this church.
When you arrive, step inside the low-rise stone walls and follow the short causeway leading up to the church where it sits, set back from the road on its own island. With reflections of the hills cast on the lake beyond, the stations of the cross, stained glass, and ancient architecture are all the more atmospheric — and photogenic (it’s easily one of the most popular wedding photography spots in all of Ireland).
Side note: If, like us, you tend to visit places with a furry four legged friend in tow, be aware that they won’t be able to enter the church grounds with you. However, there’s no problem taking them (o the lead) to the next port of call: the forest park that lies just down the road.
Gougane Barra Forest Park
Gougane Barra Forest Park is one of Cork’s national parks, and is comprised of about 140 hectares of woodland, rivers, waterfalls, and steeply sloping hills.
You can enter the park for free on foot by parking your car near the church (it’s about 700 meters from the park entrance) or by car (quick reminder: cars cost €5 to bring into the park). Once inside, you can either park in the designated area or continue touring around on four wheels.
Note: not every road in Gougane Barra Forest Park is accessible by car, so you’ll have to follow the designated ‘scenic driving route’. For this reason — and considering the eco-friendliness factor — we recommend parking your car as early as you can and exploring the area on your own two legs.
Gougane Barra walks & hiking trails
Winding throughout the various tiers of the forest park are some of the most peaceful, scenic, and all-round enjoyable hiking trails you can find in the south of Ireland. There are 6 marked trails in total, from the easiest going walks which stretch little more than half a kilometer to the most challenging uphill treks of 2.5 km.
The trails exist by the grace of Coillte Ireland; as such, each one has been named as gaeilge (in Irish):
The Lee Way, so named as Cork’s iconic River Lee originates right in the mountains where this hiking trail leads you. This is the trail we hike most frequently — and it seems to reveal new gifts to us each and every time we do.
The hour-long trail begins just beyond the entrance to the park and takes you walking along a creek, across the verdant forest floor, amongst towering pines, and slowly creeps uphill past gushing streams and waterfalls.
The most challenging part is at the furthest end of the loop, where you’ll need to scale a steep set of wooden stairs. From there, it’s all downhill along the gentle slopes of the Sheehy Mountains.
Measuring in at just half a km, this is one of Gougane Barra’s easier walking trails. It’s a nature trail more than an actual hike, which you’ll be able to complete in half an hour and still see the highlights of the forest.
Slí Com Ruadh
This 30-minute walk takes you looping around the back of the forested valley, across a little footbridge over a stream, and between red sandstone slabs flanking the pathway. Not a hard one to manage, but by no means lacking in natural beauty.
Slí Doire na Coise
An easy walk along the trickling stream that marks the beginning of the River Lee — and back. A chance to breathe in the smell of spruce and larch trees, ogle at the impossibly green moss carpeting the forest floor, and take it easy. At just shy of 2km and with little to no elevation, this walk takes about 45 minutes.
Slí an Easa
One of the most challenging Gougane Barra walks, this hiking trail begins near the public bathrooms at the entrance of the park and takes you to 65 metres of elevation gain over 1.8 kilometres. It’s well worth it though, with views of the valley and waterfalls along the way.
The most difficult of all the hikes in Gougane Barra Forest Park, this trail is 2.5 km long and brings you 130 meters above your starting point — to the top of the highest peak overlooking the park and lake. You’ll snake over the River Lee numerous times, crossing small wooden footbridges as you go. Give yourself a good 2 hours for this one.
The Cork City – Gougane Barra – Beara cycling route
Gougane Barra is one of the marked stop-offs on an epic road cycling route that takes you from Cork City all the way to the farthest flung corners of West Cork. The route is relatively well signposted from beginning to end (keep your eyes peeled for the little yellow bicycle signs)
Beginning at the Mardyke, the route takes you out of the city towards the town of Macroom and then deep into the countryside to the teeny village of Inchigeela. From there, cyclists can choose to veer off to Gougane Barra or continue to Kealkill — and onwards to Glengarriff and the Beara Peninsula, where you can loop back around to Gougane Barra, should you wish to.
Depending on how much of the route you choose to complete, the distance ranges from 94-318 km. Check out a map of the entire route here.
Where to stay near Gougane Barra
Though the towns/villages of Macroom, Bantry, Glengarriff, Ballylickey, and Kealkill are relatively nearby (and offer plenty of accommodation options in their own right) nothing beats staying right on the shores of the lake and waking up to look out at the mountains and church.
Gougane Barra Hotel is the only place to do so; and with its simple clean rooms, home cooked meals, and dangerously close pub, it’s got all the makings of a perfect base for a weekend in the countryside. Granted, it is extremely remote — but with scenery like that our bet is you won’t mind extracting yourself from daily life to stay here for a night or two.
Check prices & availability and book your stay at Gougane Barra Hotel now!
Have a question about visiting Gougane Barra — doing its walks, hikes, cycling routes, or where to fit it into your Ireland itinerary? Drop us a comment below or join our FREE adventure travel Facebook group and we’ll answer your queries in full.