The Wicklow Mountains, on the east coast of Ireland, showcase what cycling in Ireland is all about. Offering some of Ireland’s most beautiful cycling routes, they're at home on any list of the best regions of Ireland for cyclists.
They're also very accessible; you can drive from Dublin to the Wicklow Mountains in around 30 minutes…
Home to the renowned Wicklow 200 sportive, cycling the Wicklow Mountains is one for the climbers. But there are also lots of non-cycling attractions that ensure there’s plenty to do when you’re not riding.
In this Q&A, Desmond Bergin shares his love for the Wicklow Mountains, an area he’s been going to on annual holidays for many years.
You’ll find his pick of the best cycling routes in Wicklow together with tips on where to stay, when to go and what to take.
Written by Desmond Bergin
1. Why do cyclists love Ireland’s County Wicklow?
The county of Wicklow is called the Garden of Ireland, yet it has a real mixture of landscapes with magnificent hills and mountains, long sandy beaches, tumbling rivers and glassy lakes. It’s also host to Ireland’s largest national park (the Wicklow Mountains National Park), greatest forest acreage and highest waterfall.
Located around 30-60 minutes drive from Dublin, the area is both a perfect holiday destination as well as being popular with day trippers and indeed coach tours. The ancient monastic city of Glendalough, founded in the 6th century by St Kevin, is hugely popular and this means that main roads can be busy, especially in summertime.
The good news is that there is a wide network of minor roads that never see a coach and provide excellent and sometimes challenging cycling. Active cycling clubs from Dublin and county Kildare ride regularly into the Wicklow Mountains and this part of Ireland is often cited as having some of the best cycling routes in Ireland.
2. What are the cycle routes in the Wicklow Mountains like?
In a word, Wicklow’s cycling route options are excellent.
There’s climbing galore on quiet lanes.
Road surfaces vary from very good to decidedly rough, but all absolutely fine on skinny road tyres.
We ride from Laragh where quiet roads lead west to the Wicklow Gap, north to Glencree and Enniskerry and south to Rathdrum, Woodenbridge and Aughrim.
Routes 1-4 below all start from Laragh at the Glendalough Green Cafe, a local cyclists’ favourite, run for many years by the lovely Clodagh.
Route 1: Shay Elliot and Slieve Maan climbs
One must-do climb is easily accessible from Laragh: the Shay Elliott Climb is named after Ireland’s Vuelta and Giro stage winner, TdF yellow jersey holder and World Road Championship runner-up, Seamus “Shay” Elliott. He was a legend of Irish cycling before Stephen Roche and Sean Kelly.
Detail for Route 1
Set off from Glendalough Green Cafe, leaving Laragh on the R755 south towards Rathdrum, but turn right after a couple of kilometres onto the military road signed for Glenmalure. It’s a 10% ramp but soon settles down to a steady climb though farmland, then coniferous forest, with a final 10% out of the trees to the top. Point of Interest: Memorial to Shay Elliott.
It’s worth stopping to take in the views, especially west to Lugnaquilla, Ireland’s second highest mountain. From the memorial, there’s steep descent towards Glenmalure, with the option of turning left for Rathdrum or straight on to Aughavannagh and Aughrim.
Route 2: Glenmacnass climb
Again, from Laragh (but easily run from Enniskerry) this is a ride across the open moorland to Glencree and Enniskerry.
Detail for Route 2
Depart Glendalough Green Cafe in Laragh on the R115, passing Glenmacnass Waterfall and climbing to Sally Gap. Continue on R115, turning right after about 7km for Glencree where there is a cafe in a former barracks. Point of Interest: German WW2 War Cemetery opposite.
Continue on to Enniskerry (with a selection of cafes). Leave Enniskerry to the south on the R760, then after about 3km turn right onto a minor road for Long Hill. Follow this road for about 12km to Roundwood, then taking the R755 back to Laragh.
Route 3: Roundwood and Rathdrum figure of 8
A not-so-taxing ride from Laragh takes in the scenic countryside, visiting the villages of Roundwood and Rathdrum. If you feel like an extra stretch towards the end, you can divert to the Shay Elliott Climb for an up and down.
Detail for Route 3
Leave Glendalough Green Cafe in Laragh and take the R755 towards Roundwood (best ridden in the morning, as the tourist traffic from Dublin will be heading south). Turn right in Anamoe and after about 3km turn left at the crossroads. After a further 2km, turn right onto the R764, skirting the Vartry Reservoir. Point of interest: the reservoir supplies much of Dublin city’s fresh water.
Turn left after the dam and head to Roundwood, leaving the village on a minor road to Derrylossary. Rejoin the R755 for a little over 2km to Anamoe, turn left and then shortly after turn right on a minor road to Moneystown, following a minor road for about 9km to Rathdrum. Turn right in Rathdrum. If you fancy a coffee stop, The Coffin Shed lies through an archway in the village centre. Continue on the R755 back to Laragh.
(If you need a little more climbing, take the Glenmalure turning after about 8km and tackle the Shay Elliott Climb, up and down).
Route 4: Wicklow Gap, Sally Gap and Blessington Waters loop
1,000m of ascent
A challenging ride taking in both Wicklow and Sally Gaps with 1,000m of climbs and visiting the west Wicklow town of Blessington and its lakes.
Detail for Route 4
Leave Laragh on the R756 to the Wicklow Gap, passing old lead mine workings and the modern hydro electric generation scheme at Turlough Hill. Continue on downhill to turn right on the R758 for Valleymount and Blessington Lakes. Follow the N81 into Blessington (west Wicklow’s major town with cafes galore) and then turn right at AIB into Kilbride Road.
After 1km turn right over the bridge and the left to Oldcourt, and right for Ballysmuttan to join the R759 for Sally Gap. It’s a stiffish climb to the Gap at 500m, then turn right for a fast 19km descent to Laragh.
Route 5: Dublin Bay to Howth
260m of ascent
If you decide to stay in Dublin and want some cycling around Dublin that’s closer to home, this regular run for local cyclists is one of Dublin’s best cycling routes. It takes you along Dublin Bay to Howth, a fishing village at the foot of a hill.
Detail for route 5
There’s a cycle path from Clontarf to Sutton Cross. For a coffee diversion, cross the wooden bridge at Dollymount, leading to the Bull Island and the Happy Out Cafe (happyout.ie) run by Karl and nephew Brian. Point of Interest: the Bull Island is a nature reserve as well as home to two golf courses; the Royal Dublin Golf Club, founded in 1885, has hosted major tournaments throughout its history.
Rejoin the cycle trail on the mainland towards Sutton Cross. From there you can tackle Howth Hill anticlockwise before descending into Howth Village. For a more taxing climb, go straight on at Sutton Cross and climb the hill clockwise from Howth Village.
Return to Dublin along the same Bay route.
3. Where’s the best place for a cyclist to stay to explore the Wicklow Mountains?
The choice really lies with Dublin and its environs or the county of Wicklow.
As you’ll have seen from the routes above, we’d suggest staying in Laragh because it avoids the need to ride out of Dublin.
Wicklow has an abundance of accommodation, both at the coast and inland. The village of Laragh is both a destination and a centre for road cycling in the Wicklow Mountains and we have stayed there over many years. From the village there is excellent access to dozens of quiet mountain roads. There are excellent B&Bs as well as a hotel and a couple of first class restaurants.
Our recommendations include:
Bramble Rock B&B, Laragh East, Glendalough, Co Wicklow.
Pinewood Lodge B&B, Laragh, Glendalough, Co Wicklow.
Wicklow Heather Restaurant, Laragh, Glendalough, Co Wicklow.
Public transport to and from Laragh is very limited so it does mean a car is really necessary unless, of course, you’re cycle touring, in which case you’ve got your transport sorted!
Other options in County Wicklow
Bray and Greystones on the coast are served by the DART train from Dublin, and have good restaurants and accommodation.
Enniskerry just south of the Dublin/Wicklow boundary is a lovely village well provided with cafes, restaurants, as well as hotels and B&Bs. Poppies Cafe is one of many and popular with cyclists. There is a regular bus service to and from Dublin. If visiting for a very special occasion, The Ritz Carlton Hotel at Powerscourt is, as the name suggests, ritzy.
As a capital city, Dublin has a vast choice of accommodation from hotels to B&Bs and everything in between.
Staying on the south side of the city or in the neighbouring town of Dun Laoghaire (pronounced Dunleary) gives easy cycling access to the Dublin Mountains, leading on to the Wicklow Mountains. Public transport is excellent with the Luas tram network and the DART train which runs along the coast to Dublin centre.
4. Are there any bike shops you’d recommend?
There are a couple of options – of course you’ll find more in Dublin.
Cycleplus, Greystones. Tel 086 8181573. email@example.com
Everest Cycles, Bray (behind Lidl). Tel 01 2828660. firstname.lastname@example.org
5. Are there any cycling events in County Wicklow?
The Wicklow 200 is regarded as one of the toughest sportive events in Ireland. A Wicklow 100 is run concurrently.
The Tour de France visited Ireland in 1998. Extensive road improvements were made, much to the delight of local cyclists. Anecdotally, I understand that local drivers found Wicklow’s new smooth roads just too skittish, so the council roughed them up with liberal doses of gravel!
6. Is there anything that visitors shouldn’t miss?
Dublin is a cosmopolitan city with a history going back to the Vikings and earlier. It is renowned for its Georgian architecture and fine public buildings from that era and from Victorian times.
Powerscourt House in Enniskerry is open to visitors and has extensive shopping opportunities as well as formal gardens and Ireland’s highest waterfall.
Glendalough’s monastic site is popular with visitors.
Clara-Lara fun park, between Laragh and Rathdrum, is popular with families.
And finally, those in your group that are into their walking won’t want to miss the spectacular views along the Wicklow Way route that runs vertically through the county. It’s 127 kilometres long though, so probably a separate holiday in and of itself!
Irish Tourism: www.tourismireland.com
Wicklow Tourism: www.visitwicklow.com
7. What’s the best time of year for cyclists to visit?
Ireland’s location, just off the Atlantic, means that its weather is heavily influenced by that ocean and by the Gulf Stream. As a result, the weather is mild and moist in most seasons.
Wicklow’s mountainous landscape often sees four seasons in one day but don’t be put off, just be prepared.
I’ve mostly cycled in spring and autumn and enjoyed glorious weather. Once in February I rode in falling snow but that just added to the experience. If you’re used to cycling in many parts of the United Kingdom, you’ll know that you need to cover all eventualities, irrespective of the time of year.
8. What are your best tips for a first bike trip in Wicklow (or Ireland)?
Most of the county is covered by Ordnance Survey Ireland’s 1:50,000 Sheet 56 & 62 maps. Unfortunately, OSI seems to have omitted any chevrons to indicate steep bits, so careful study of the contour lines pays off.
All suggested routes are on Ride with GPS and on sealed tarmac roads only. Road conditions can vary in terms of maintenance.
Note that where the Wicklow Mountains extend into County Dublin, they're known locally as the Dublin Mountains.
The routes I've suggested above have cafés in most villages.
Some routes will feel remote but generally have good mobile telephone coverage.
It is advisable to travel in pairs in case of emergency.
What to wear
Having read the paragraph about the weather, you’ll have an idea about what to wear. Always carry some sort of rain cape, irrespective of the season. In winter, early spring and late autumn, either bib tights or leg warmers are pretty much essential.
Remember that some routes are remote as well as open so shelter may not always be available.
What to carry
Leading on from clothing, you need to be fairly self-sufficient in terms of kit and spares while tackling the Wicklow Mountains. Spare tubes, tyre levers, puncture repair kit, multitool, quick link and pump are the minimum. A mobile telephone is essential and riding in at least pairs is strongly advised.
Check out the packing list here for further ideas.
Given the steep hills you're likely to encounter, have a good think about gearing before you arrive.
Local Cycling Clubs
Dublin and the surrounding counties have a plethora of cycling clubs. Dublin Wheelers, Orwell Wheelers, Bray Wheelers and Naas Cycling Club (and many others) regularly run into the Wicklow Mountains.
Dial 112 for emergency services.
Mountain biking and leisure rides
If you're wondering about the mountain biking potential in the Wicklow National Park, know that it's not permitted off-road other than on the Ballinastoe Mountain Bike Trail (a challenging 14km of purpose built trails) and the Ticknock Mountain Bike Trail (8km of trails).
The walking/off-road trails in Glendalough are suitable leisure cycle routes (but you need to give way to pedestrians).
Getting to Ireland
We normally catch Irish Ferries service from Holyhead to Dublin with multiple sailings daily. There’s a choice of a fast catamaran taking 90 mins and two large car ferries taking about 3hrs 30mins. There is also a Stenaline ferry service from Holyhead to Dun Laoghaire and Fishguard to Rosslare. The ships are spacious and Irish Ferries vessels have a Club Class for a modest extra charge.
The nearest international airport is Dublin, served by numerous UK and continental airlines. Major US carriers also fly into Dublin. Car hire is available and there is also a shuttle bus service to Dublin city centre.
A big thank you to Desmond for these really useful insights into cycling Ireland's Wicklow Mountains. If you haven't considered a cycling trip in Ireland, perhaps now's the time reconsider?!