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, 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.
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. For tips on the best times to visit the Giant’s Causeway, keep on reading!
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 start arriving at the Giant’s Causeway around 10am, so in the winter months when sunrise isn’t until close to 9am, you’d better already be out there. During the summer months when sunrise occurs much earlier, arriving at sun up isn’t quite as necessary, but it’s still best to arrive as early in the morning as you can, especially if the quality of photos you capture is important to you.
On our visit, 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 in 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 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.
Hiking 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 may 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!
Sunset at the Giant’s Causeway
In addition to early morning, another great 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 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.
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.
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