Northern Ireland: Hiking the Causeway Coast Way

The famous rocks of The Giant's Causeway
It's a little bit windy
It’s a little bit windy

The Causeway Coast Way is a 33-mile hiking trail in Northern Ireland, named for the magnificent Giant’s Causeway, which sits at its halfway point. It runs along the coastline from Portstewart to Ballycastle on mainly traffic free walking paths.

A free downloadable guidebook produced by ‘Walk NI’ is available on their website or by clicking here.

Many people (us included) choose to end the trail at the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge as inexplicably, the last 5 miles of the walk are along the busy A2 road, which doesn’t have a pavement.

After 2 days of breathing nothing but fresh sea air and having to step aside only for the occasional Gore Tex clad rambler, it seemed a shame to blight a beautiful trip with lungfuls of car fumes and games of chicken with speeding 4X4s.

There are on-going talks between the council and local landowners about re routing the path but it doesn’t look anywhere near reaching a conclusion so my advice would be to take the bus the last 5 miles for your fish and chips in Ballycastle. The A2 is horrible to walk.

However, the 28 miles leading up to Carrick-a-Rede are quite spectacular and I cannot recommend this trail highly enough.

If you’re not interested in where we stayed during our walk or how we got around, and simply want to hear about the walk itself then you may wish to skip the next 2 sections. Maybe have a little peek at the pretty pictures on the way down though, they are nice after all.

ACCOMMODATION

The Causeway Coast Way
The Causeway Coast Way

My girlfriend Claudia and I stayed at Whitepark Bay Youth Hostel for the duration of our trip. The white building sits on top of a cliff overlooking a vast sandy bay with cows often roaming on the beach below. It’s a dramatic sight and the big windows in the dining room made for some scenic breakfasts.

Whitepark Bay Hostel is clean, basic and good value. It cost a bit more than some YHA Hostels but we didn’t mind, the view really is special. Phone signal is pretty bad here and the hostel wifi is touch and go.

There are heaps of lodging options along the route, many of which are listed on the Walk NI website.

TRANSPORT

Spectacular sea views near Dunluce Castle
Spectacular sea views near Dunluce Castle

Buses run regularly all the way along the route. A simple and easy to use route planner can be found on the Translink website.

We were lucky enough to have a rental car so on the first day we drove to Portstewart at some ungodly hour to get a head start as rain was due in the afternoon. Once we reached the Giant’s Causeway and finished exploring, we took 2 buses back to Portstewart to pick up the car. The buses ran on time and cost less than a fiver.

As with any walking trip, it was somewhat galling to whizz back past the ground we had just spent an entire day covering in just forty minutes. The spectacular views took the sting out of it though.

On day 2 we got a bus from the hostel to the Giant’s Causeway. Once we reached Carrick-a-Rede we got another bus back to the hostel, but it is possible to get a bus from here directly to Ballycastle if you so wish.

You can also get a bus to Bushmills if you fancy ending your day with a tour of the whiskey distillery.

Claudia on the trail
Claudia on the trail

We met a couple of people who were hitch hiking along the route with great success and we considered doing this ourselves. We didn’t need to in the end, as we were very lucky with bus timings.

One of the ‘hitchers’, a young Belgian man, proudly told us he was hiking “along the Northern coastline”. After some questioning he admitted to hitching twice and getting 3 buses because it was raining. When I showed him the map of the route we were walking he looked at it and said gravely “No, sorry. This is not possible.”

Well I’m sorry gloomy-guts but it is possible and I have lived to tell the tale.
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THE WALK: DAY 1

The trail starts on the promenade in Portstewart and passes alongside several golf courses. At least I think they were several golf courses, maybe they were one really long golf course. I know nothing about golf. Are courses sometimes many miles long? Anyway, I digress.

We walked in the sunshine alongside dog walkers, pram pushers and joggers for much of the morning and, as pleasant as this was, I hoped we’d soon get stuck into something a bit more wild.

We didn’t. Unless you count two cups of tea and a fat slab of carrot cake at a café at Portrush harbour as wild in which case, call me Bear Grylls.

One of many caves along the seafront.
One of many caves along the seafront.

Shortly after Portrush, at about the 10km mark, the path took us uphill to the tip of a rocky headland called Ramore Head. The views here are particularly good with Dunluce Castle visible 4km to the east.

We followed the path down from Ramore Head to the first beach section of the trail. After 2km walking on the sands of Curran Strand the trail followed the A2 for 3km. Thankfully there’s a pavement here and constant sea views made this section fly by.

A short detour from the main road brought us to Dunluce Castle, an impressive ruin perched on a basalt cliff. It’s also the House of Greyjoy in Game of Thrones, which I found very cool.

Dunluce Castle
Dunluce Castle aka. House of Greyjoy

We chose not to enter the interior castle grounds but I’m sure we could’ve spend hours exploring here. Instead we walked around the perimeter and down the stone staircase to look at the ‘mermaid’s cave’, a huge sea cave 25 metres beneath the castle.

Back on the main road, we soon reached the turnoff to Portballintrae. The Walk NI Guidebook advised us to turn left at this point but there was a Causeway Coast Way sign telling us to continue straight along the A2.

The bridge at Dunluce Castle.
The bridge at Dunluce Castle.

After consulting a map I decided to go with the book and turn left, sticking with the route that ran closest to the coast. This turned out to be the correct choice and after a mile of doubt I spotted another signpost.

This was genuinely quite confusing and I’ve contacted Walk NI to let them know. I’d be interested to hear if they get rid of the misleading sign.

If in doubt – stick to the coast!

Our stomachs rumbling, we walked through the quiet village of Portballintrae hoping to see a café. There wasn’t one and we had all but given up hope when we arrived at a small harbour that had a little convenience store. To our delight, this shop was also the local café, fishing supplies shop and fish and chip shop. We shared a portion of cod and chips at the picnic tables outside before continuing on the trail.

A wooden boardwalk took us through a network of sand dunes before reaching the single-track Giant’s Causeway to Bushmills railway line. We followed the railway for about a kilometre. I walked along the tracks singing to myself pretending I was in Stand By Me, off on a jolly to try and beat Kiefer Sutherland and his pals to a dead body.
img_3546The trail soon turned left towards the coast, crossing over a cute little footbridge before passing Runkerry House, an impressive estate built in the early 1860s.

From here, the trail ascends steeply before following the natural cliff edge of the coast for the next 10km. This was the first part of the trail that truly did feel wild and there wasn’t a carrot cake in sight.

Runkerry House in the distance.
Runkerry House in the distance.

After 10 windswept cliff top kilometres we arrived at the Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre. More accurately on top of the Visitor Centre; it is built into the cliff and the trail goes right over the top of it.

The famous rocks of The Giant's Causeway
The famous rocks of The Giant’s Causeway

Much to the fury of many locals, it can appear as if you have to pay the £10.50 visitor centre entrance fee before you can go and see the Causeway itself. This is not true, you can simply walk around the visitor centre and straight down to the Causeway.

However, arriving on foot you bypass this problem entirely as the trail pops you out behind the visitor centre, free to walk a short way down the hill to the Causeway.
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There is a bus that shuttles people up and down the hill and back. It’s £1 each way but seeing as you just walked 17 miles to get here it would probably be a bit mental to get a bus 500 metres down a hill.

There is an upper trail and a lower trail around the Causeway. We looped round and did both. The upper trail affords fantastic aerial views of the Causeway and the lower trail takes you right up to it.

You’ll notice on the map here that the trail continues around the coast at a low level and reaches a dead end. This is the former Causeway Coast trail that has since crumbled into the sea. It is well worth following it to the end as there are some impressive views of vast cliffs made up of those famous hexagonal rock formations.
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THE WALK: DAY 2

We started day 2 by retracing our steps over the upper trail at the Giant’s Causeway. The first 5 or so miles followed the cliff edge and it was so windy that at points we had to crawl.

At one point my glasses were blown off of my face and I quickly reached out and caught them in mid air. Now this really felt wild.

Almost blown away.
Almost blown away.

As we passed above the aptly named ‘Port Moon’ I noticed below a small white building with a red roof, which I know to be the ‘Port Moon Bothy’, a ‘sea access only’ shelter for people doing the North Coast Sea Kayak Trail. I hope to return one day by kayak to spend a night here.

On our descent back to sea level we passed Dunseverick Castle, a more ruined ruin than Dunluce but an impressive sight, nonetheless.

I’m not usually very sensible at all but for some reason I decided to follow the warnings in the guidebook and bypass the section of coastline from Dunseverick Harbour to Portbradden, walking along the A2 instead. According to the book the trail is impassable due to landslides.
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I’m very disappointed in myself and must remember not to be so sensible in future. As soon as we arrived in Portbradden a couple of joggers emerged from the trail that we’d just bypassed, practically skipping they were.

Probably best to check with some locals to be sure but I’d say stuff the guidebook on this occasion and follow the coast.

Due to my uncharacteristic bout of prudence we also missed out on seeing St Gobban’s Church, the smallest church in Ireland. Bummer.

At last we arrived at White Park Bay and could see our hostel perched up on the cliff as we walked along the beach. The cows I mentioned earlier were nowhere to be seen – I hope they didn’t drown.

Seaweed.

It is advised to check tide times here, as the headlands at each end of the bay are impassable at high tide and the only way around is another walk on the delightful A2.

I didn’t bother checking tide times at all because of the whole not being sensible thing but we were lucky and managed to boulder hop our way around the headland with ease.

The next section of trail was one of my favourite parts of the entire trip as the coastline became littered with a series of lanky crumbling sea stacks and arches.
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We arrived at Ballintoy Harbour in time for a late lunch at Roark’s Kitchen, a cosy little chalk built tearoom with a bafflingly large selection of cakes on offer. Claudia had a sandwich while I enjoyed some soup and topped up my carrot cake deficiency.

Roark's Kitchen
Roark’s Kitchen

Ballintoy Harbour might be the most picturesque harbour I have ever seen and sure enough, there was a painter sitting there capturing the scene. It’s also another Game of Thrones filming location, the Iron Islands I believe.

Lovely Ballintoy Harbour
Lovely Ballintoy Harbour

Once we managed to drag ourselves away from Ballintoy, we followed the road up hill and soon arrived at the car park for the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, the end of our journey.

Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge. Too windy to cross.
Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge. Too windy to cross.

Sadly, the winds were too high to cross the bridge but we followed the trails to get a better look. It’s a cool looking bridge but I’m not surprised it was closed. As we approached it we got battered by winds and sea spray.

Too windy to cross the real thing, this will have to do.
Too windy to cross the real thing, this will have to do.

Soggily, wearily, but happily we boarded a bus back to Whitepark Bay. The cows were back on the beach. God knows where they’d been hiding.

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