Causeway Coast Way
Antrim, Northern Ireland
Distance: 51 km
Time: 2-3 days
Surface: Countryside Trails, Beaches, Cliff Paths
The Antrim coast is Northern Ireland’s most celebrated coastline, and the Causeway Coast Way that links the towns of Ballycastle and Portstewart passes by some of the country’s most famous landmarks that make up the Giant’s Causeway, the 16th-century roofless ruins of Dunluce Castle sitting alone on its basalt promontory on the site of an earlier Irish fort, and the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge.
Twenty metres long and swinging 30 m above rocks linking the tiny island of Carrick-a-Rede, once used by salmon fishermen but now existing largely as a tourist attraction and crossed by around 250,000 people a year. The trail, which is broken into six half-day sections, makes use of promenades, beaches, fabulous Cliffside trails, and some roadside walking.
Walking the trail east to west has you setting out from the centre of Ballycastle to the coast, with its views out to Scotland’s Mull of Mcintyre from the main Coast Road (take care, there are no footpaths on this section) . After a kilometre on this road take a detour from the trail to Kinbane Head, where you can walk across a dramatic limestone promontory to Kinbane Castle, built in 1547 and besieged by the English in 1551. Back on the Coast Road this is followed, with a detour or two through fields and along cliff tops, through Portaneevy and along the cliff of Boheeshane Bay down to Ballintoy Harbour. Passing through the tiny hamlet of Portbradden the shoreline begins to exhibit Ice Age characteristics with its sea stacks and raised beaches, while in White Park Bay the trail passes through a hole in a sea arch at Gid Point as you make your way to Dunseverick Harbour and its jewel – the gorgeous ruins of Dunseverick Castle on a site visited by St Patrick in the 5th century, attacked by Vikings in the 9th century, and finally destroyed by Cromwellian troops in the 1650s.
The trail from Dunseverick Castle to the Giant’s Causeway is the walks longest off-road section, an isolated ramble along grassy paths around a series of impressive headlands with more sea stacks and views out to rugged, isolated Rathlin Island, former place of refuge for Robert the Bruce (in 1306), Northern Island’s only inhabited offshore island, and just a short ferry ride away if you want to punctuate your walk with a visit to its picturesque harbor and its community of 70 people.
The highest point on the Causeway Coast Way is reached at Ber gore Head (100 m above sea level), and from here a series of interesting landforms seem to draw you on, appetisers on the way to the main course. There is Benbane Head, Northern Ireland’s northernmost mainland point, soon after which you pass into the UNESCO World Heritage Site associated with the Giant’s Causeway, though its famous amphitheatre still remains hidden from view. There is the barely discernible offshore rock formation ‘Nurse and Child’ in Horse Shoe Harbour, and once you get beyond Benanouran Head the first tantalising hints of what is to come suddenly appear – the isolated, free-standing columns at the head of the valley – the so-called ‘Chimney Tops’ which you First see from above before beginning your descent, initially via a set of stairs and then on a zig-zag path, to the amphitheater.
A sea of interlocking basalt columns – more than 40,000 of them – the Giant’s Causeway came to international attention in 1693 with the publication of a Royal Society paper by Richard Bulkeley of Trinity College in Dublin, though its existence was well known of course to locals who preferred the story that it was constructed by the Irish giant Fionn mac Cumhaill, who built it so he and the Scottish giant Benandonner could meet in the middle of the North Channel and do battle – a more dramatic explanation, surely, than volcanism, basalt intrusions, cooling and fracturing of what was left of the ancient Thulean Plateau?
The Causeway Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, established in 1989, is a 29-km stretch of the trail that includes the Giant’s Causeway and the Carrick-a-Rede bridge and is particularly scenic with a rare mix of dramatic headlands, vertical and stepped cliffs, sandy beaches backed by extensive dune systems, black volcanic rocks and white chalk, as well as numerous historic landmarks and a rich diversity of flora and fauna. It is a coastline laced by other trails, too. The Causeway Coast Way is bookended by the Moyle Way and the North Sperrins Way, and the trail itself is part of the Ulster Way, a series of trails that encircle the province of Ulster.
Continuing on past Port Granny there are two options to Portballintrae – the less scenic though more direct route follows a train line to the Bush River, but the more dramatic is, of course, the clifftop trail, an identifiable path that follows the cliffs and allows for some final views back to the causeway as you make for Leckilroy Cove. A set of stairs then takes you up Runkerry Point before a descent to the shoreline and on to the pristine beauty of Runkerry Strand, an 800-metre-long beach, and the gob-smackingly ornate Runkerry House above you on the left. Footbridges and gangways are crossed on the approach to Portballintrae, and from there you head inland past a housing estate before crossing the Coast Road near Dunluce Castle, a must-do detour to one of Northern Ireland’s most impressive medieval monuments. And then you reach Portrush, with its charming Port Path that takes you past idyllic coves such as Devil’s Port, Holywell Port and Stoney Port, on into the town of Portstewart, and along a pedestrian path beneath O’Hara’s Castle, a Dominican convent built in 1834. Finally you make your way up past St Patrick’s Well on the Strand Road, where you have the option of continuing along the Ulster Way – or just walk back into Portstewart on the promenade, to begin a lifetime of reminiscing.