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Visiting the Giant’s Causeway at Sunrise and Sunset

Have you ever anticipated visiting a particular place so much and for so long that when the opportunity to see it finally comes around, you’re actually kind of nervous about it? (Please tell me this isn’t just me.) This is how I felt about seeing the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland for the first time and it’s how I still feel about visiting the Grand Canyon, New Zealand’s South Island, and pretty much the entire country of Iceland.

I tend to build places like these up so much in my mind that I fear the act of actually visiting them will somehow end in disappointment – maybe they’ll be too crowded, or the weather will be off, or I’ll take crappy photos and not have anything worthwhile to remember the experience by. (I mean, come on, Sarah, get over yourself.)

This bizarre fear of travel disappointment often causes me to delay visiting the places I want to see the most, which explains why it took me three full years of living in the UK to finally make it over to Northern Ireland’s most majestic natural beauty – the Giant’s Causeway.

The Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland Visiting the Giant's Causeway at sunrise

People walking over the ancient stones at the Giant's Causeway

What is the Giant’s Causeway?

The Giant’s Causeway is a unique stretch of Northern Ireland’s coast in Co. Antrim featuring a massive network of over 40,000 interlocking stone columns. Some columns are tall, some are short, some are wide, and some are narrow – basically, the Giant’s Causeway is like one enormous rock puzzle beside the sea.

How the Giant’s Causeway came into being is the subject of good-natured debate. Scientists believe it was volcanic activity some 60 million years ago (creationists believe it was a little more recent than that), but by far the most interesting explanation comes from Irish mythology, as all the best explanations do.

According to Irish legend, what remains of the Causeway today was once part of a road built by the great Irish giant Finn MacCool that stretched from the coast of Northern Ireland across the North Channel to Scotland so that MacCool could fight one of Scotland’s most notorious giants, Benandonner.

The rest of the story involves a little trickery on MacCool’s part, resulting in Benandonner destroying the road (save for the portions remaining along the coast in Northern Ireland and a similar, smaller structure on the Scottish island of Staffa) to keep from having to fight MacCool.

Whichever origin you choose to believe, seeing the dramatic landscape of the Giant’s Causeway in person feels like an otherworldly experience. Assuming you visit at the right time of day, that is. Keep reading for tips on the best time to visit the Giant’s Causeway below!

Read More: A Scenic Weekend Itinerary for Northern Ireland + Travel Tips

Photographer taking photos at the Giant's Causeway

Early morning is the best time for photography at the Giant's Causeway Visiting the Giant's Causeway without crowds

Family photo at the Giant's Causeway

Up close look at the stone columns at the Giant's Causeway

Sunrise is the best time to visit the Giant's Causeway for peace and quiet

Sunrise at the Giant's Causeway in May

Sunrise at the Giant’s Causeway

The Giant’s Causeway is a UNESCO world heritage site and Northern Ireland’s most visited natural attraction, which means if you want to avoid the crowds, you’re going to have to get there early. Like, sunrise early during certain months of the year.

Tour buses from Belfast usually start arriving at the Giant’s Causeway around 10am, so in the winter months when sunrise isn’t until close to 9am, I suggest arriving just before sunrise so you’ll have at least an hour to yourself before the buses begin to show up.

During the summer months when sunrise occurs much earlier in the day, arriving at sun up isn’t necessary to avoid crowds, but it’s still best to arrive early in the morning, especially if the quality of photos you capture is important to you. (You can find estimated sunrise times for any time of year here.)

On our visit in late May, we didn’t quite make it for sunrise, but we still got to enjoy that lovely warm light that comes afterwards and an almost completely deserted coast. We parked our car at the Giant’s Causeway Railway lot for £6 (if you want to avoid the outrageous fees charged by the official visitor’s center, definitely do this) and then started walking towards the coast.

After about a mile, we reached it, and I almost cried with happiness. No crowds, perfect weather, and beautiful morning light – it was everything I could have hoped for. Not to mention that the Giant’s Causeway is even more impressive in person than pictures would lead you to believe. Definitely no over-hyped disappointments here.

Where the stone columns meet the ocean, they rise out of the sea like stairsteps from a hidden underwater civilization and then stretch down the coast as far as your eye can see. Behind them, rugged emerald cliffs separate the Giant’s Causeway from the rest of the island, and looking ahead there’s nothing to see but the azure waters of the Atlantic disappearing into an infinite horizon. It all makes for a beautifully isolating experience. Just you, a lot of ancient lava, and the sea.

For a couple hours we wandered along the coast with only a handful of other people, taking photos and playing a precarious game of hopscotch as we meandered among the stones. (Finn MacCool may have been able to traverse the columns with ease, but I – a below-average sized human with an above-average tendency towards clumsiness – didn’t manage it nearly as gracefully.) Then, after we’d seen what we wanted to see, we found some comfy sitting stones and watched the tide come in until the tour buses began arriving.

It didn’t happen slowly. Instead, it’s like they all appeared at the same time, dropping hundreds of people onto a previously empty coast within a span of a few minutes. Needless to say, the environment changes drastically when that happens. We took that as our cue to go. We’d already experienced the magic, time to make a little more room to let others do the same.

Read More: Kinbane Castle: Northern Ireland’s Scenic Gem

Sheep grazing in the pasture beside the Giant's Causeway Hiking trails at the Giant's Causeway

Hiking at the Giant's Causeway is a great way to capture photos from up high

Hiking Trails at the Giant’s Causeway

We could have just walked back to our car after leaving the Giant’s Causeway, but there are several hiking and walking trails in the area, a couple of which we wanted to check out.

If you’ve got time to spare and want to make the most of your visit, you’ll definitely want to do the same. Between the cliffs, the coast, and the countryside, you’re pretty well guaranteed a scenic view at all times. A map and instructions for each trail can be found by following the links below.

We’d already walked a good portion of the Red Trail on our way to the Giant’s Causeway, taking the Shepherd’s Steps down from the cliff. So as we left, we hopped on the Blue Trail which takes a gentler route back up the cliff. (Unless you want to feel the burn, I don’t recommend taking the Red Trail up the cliff.)

The Blue Trail ends at the visitor’s center where it connects with the Green Trail. We had a moment of hesitation here, wondering whether we should keep going or head back to the car, but I’m so glad we kept going because the views of the Giant’s Causeway along the Green Trail are outstanding.

There is another trail, the Yellow Trail, which heads in the opposite direction from the Green Trail, but unfortunately we didn’t have time to check that one out. Something to do on our next visit, I guess!

Read More: Crossing Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge in Northern Ireland

Photographing the Giant's Causeway at sunset

Beautiful sunset at the Giant's Causeway Sunset is a great time to visit the Giant's Causeway to avoid crowds

Sunset across the water at the Giant's Causeway in County Antrim

Sunset at the Giant’s Causeway

In addition to early morning, the other best time to visit the Giant’s Causeway is at sunset – not only because the crowds have once again cleared out, but also because it’s one of the best places along the coast to watch the sun go down. Trust me, you won’t want to miss this!

Although the £6 we’d paid earlier was for all-day parking, it turns out the railway lot closes before sunset, so we went on a hunt for another cheap alternative to the visitor’s center and found the Causeway Hotel.

You don’t have to be a guest of the hotel to park there, but technically you should at least pop in and buy a tea or coffee from the cafe to justify parking in their lot, which is free. (This is an especially good place to park at evening since the hotel is so close to the coast, and it gets quite dark out here after the sun goes down.)

This time of day, you’re unlikely to be the only one on the Giant’s Causeway, but it’s still far from overcrowded. You’ll find a few photographers and tourists staying nearby scattered along the coast, but it’s easy to find a great spot to watch the sunset without anyone blocking your view.

I recommend arriving about an hour before the sun is scheduled to set. The colors of the setting sun and the sky change continuously over the hour before official sunset and you’re going to want to see all of them. It’s really quite a show. (The sunrise link above will also give you approximate sunset times.)

Watching the sky shift from deep blue to vivid orange and seeing the sun turn into a blazing pink fireball before it finally disappeared beneath the water, all while sitting amidst one of the most extraordinary landscapes on the planet was enough to give me goosebumps. Or maybe that was just the unexpectedly cold temperature. Either way, this sunset definitely goes down as one of my favorite sunsets of all time.

Read More: 12 Free Things to Do in Dublin + Travel Tips

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Helpful tips for visiting the Giant's Causeway at sunrise and sunset, including a guide for hiking trails to check out while you're there. Helpful tips for visiting the Giant's Causeway at sunset and sunrise, including a guide for hiking trails to check out while you're there.

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  • Chelsea
    April 26, 2019 at 3:17 PM

    Hi Sarah,

    We’re headed to N. Ireland in July for a wedding and are ready (and willing!) to get up as early as we have to to get just a little slice of this peace. What time of year did you all go and how early did you arrive? What time did the tour buses start showing up? How long would you recommend allocating for a visit? Thanks in advance!

    • Sarah Shumate
      April 29, 2019 at 3:34 PM

      Hey Chelsea! We were in Northern Ireland the last weekend in May. I don’t remember the exact time we arrived, but I think it was just before 8am. The first thing we did was head straight to the Giant’s Causeway, then when the tour buses started showing up at 10am, we headed off to do some hiking. I’d say in all we spent about three hours there, but a huge portion of that was spent taking photos, so if you don’t plan to take many photos, I’d say two hours would be plenty to walk around the causeway and then take one or two of the trails for cool views from above.

  • Amy B
    May 29, 2018 at 1:12 PM

    How incredibly beautiful! We’ve been kind of back-and-forth about our TA cruise coming up next year, but Belfast is one of the stops and now you have me convinced to go again lol Giant’s Causeway is on my very long bucket list and if you’re telling me that it’s even more amazing than your stunning photos, I don’t think I can turn it down! You’re definitely not the only one who gets nervous about visiting places you’ve built up in your mind, I’m so happy you weren’t disappointed and your photos turned out wonderfully- I need to enlist your help with that part ;)

    • Sarah Shumate
      May 29, 2018 at 7:27 PM

      I feel like my pictures just couldn’t capture the scale of this place. It’s truly larger than life! And I think you need zero help from me in the photography department. You’ve got skills, my friend!

  • Ashley Urke | Domestic Fashionista
    May 14, 2018 at 7:11 PM

    So cool! I’d love to visit ireland!

  • Rachel G
    May 14, 2018 at 6:03 PM

    Yours pictures are incredible!! Kind of hard to imagine that places like this are real–but I’d sure love to see it in real life! I think I was mildly apprehensive that Hawaii might not live up to the hype….but I wasn’t too worried because we were just stopping over there for a few days on a layover and weren’t planning anything extravagant, just a really low-budget layover adventure. We spent nearly the whole time hiking various trails in Oahu and it definitely didn’t disappoint–not even a little. One of my best vacations ever!

    • Sarah Shumate
      May 15, 2018 at 12:10 AM

      How fun that a low budget layover turned into one of your best vacations! Although, I can’t say I’m surprised – it is Hawaii after all. And I’m glad I’m not the only one that gets a little apprehensive about visiting popular places. :)

  • Tanja/The Red Phone Box travels
    May 14, 2018 at 6:41 AM

    stunning photos