The Stairway to Heaven walk in County Fermanagh has become something of a sensation. It has really captured the public’s imagination since the boardwalk opened in 2015. While you could walk the trail before this, the estimated visitor numbers before 2015 totalled 3,000 per year. The boardwalk and staircase were introduced to conserve the area’s blanket bog and peatland. Since the implementation of the Stairway to Heaven, visitor numbers are now at over 60,000 per year.
Stairway to Heaven Walk Details
Distance: Minimum of 9km but longer options are available.
Number of Steps: 450 wooden steps
Time Required: It took us 3 hours to do the 11km option. We took an easy pace throughout.
Grade: Difficult – a moderate level of fitness is required.
What’s in a name?
Perhaps the marketing team behind the Stairway to Heaven nickname are to be credited with the huge increase in walkers. The route is also known as the Cuilcagh Boardwalk Trail or the Cuilcagh Legnabrocky Trail. My own view however, as to why the Stairway to Heaven is now firmly on every Irish walker’s bucket list, is simply that it is a really beautiful walk. It’s difficult yet achievable and rewarding for anyone with an average level of fitness. The Stairway to Heaven walk is also so well maintained that you don’t need any specialist hiking equipment to complete it. Plus, there are also the simply amazing views.
As with a lot of Irish walking trails there is conflicting information available online about the Stairway to Heaven walk. The walk itself is part of the Marble Arch Caves Geopark. So their website is the official resource for information on the Stairway to Heaven Walk. When I completed the walk in June 2021, the website detailed two options for parking in order to complete the Stairway to Heaven walk. A paid parking option or a free option 1km further away.
There are two types of people in the world. One who would prefer to pay a little for a shorter walk and others who would definitely walk a little extra if it meant getting something for free.
I most certainly fall into the latter category. As such, we set the satnav for the free car park at Killykeegan Nature Reserve. We arrived to find the gates to the car park closed. Slightly annoying. This wasn’t mentioned on the website. However, the paid car park is only 1km further along the road. The parking costs GBP £5 or €6. The parking attendant will give you a little ticket and advise that you can park at the entrance car park or at another car park slightly further up the route. It’s 1km to the next car park. So you have the option of an 11km or 9km walk to reach the summit and back.
If you want to pre-book a space in the paid carpark you do so on the theboardwalk.ie website. This might be a good idea as the weekends can get especially busy.
Starting the Stairway to Heaven Walk
We parked up the car and set off. As noted above, it’s 1km between the car parks. This short stretch is along a gravel road. It’s typical picture-postcard scenes of rural Ireland for the initial stage. Stone cottages abandoned since the famine, lonely sheep grazing alongside a meandering stream type of thing.
We bridged this winding stream (the Owenbrean river) at the entrance to the next car park.
From there it was over a wooden stile and on to properly starting the Stairway to Heaven Walk.
There is a large mountain looming in the distance ahead of you as you start the walk. Logic tells you that this must be the walks ultimate destination. However, there is a lingering doubt in my head as I look up at the horizon. The mountain seems too big and too too far away for anyone to possibly walk to.
As with all walking trails, the best thing you can do is follow the trail and take each step as it comes. The good thing about the Stairway to Heaven Walk is that it is extremely easy to follow. It’s a straight walk the whole way to the top. There is one offshoot via a wooden boardwalk at the start of the walk but this winds back to the main gravel path also.
The gravel path undulates through a large expanse of mountainous blanket bog for 2.8km until you reach the boardwalk itself.
Soon we were starting out on the first of the 450 steps that encapsulates the Stairway to Heaven Walk. Each step brings you closer to the realisation of how steep the walk to the top actually is going to be. One positive though is that a lot of the ascent actually takes place before you get to the steep part. The boardwalk gradually takes you up the mountain before coming to the proper start of the staircase.
One of the nice things is that at the start of the steepest ascent is the encouragement we get from the walkers descending the stairs “it’s only steep at the start….it levels out after a bit”. While very encouraging I’m not quite so sure how accurate this advice was!
Nonetheless the encouragement worked and we took each step at a time and made our way upwards. And upwards!
The best thing about a steep climb is the view at the end. And what a view the Stairway to Heaven delivers. It’s breath-taking. The countryside of Fermanagh and Donegal stretches out before you and provides a stunning vista.
My aunt Moll always advises when on a walk to remember to take a moment to look back. Make sure to see the view behind you too. The great thing about the Stairway to Heaven walk is that after being amazed from the vantage point of the viewing platform, you get to walk down the stairs with the impressive views now constantly in front of you. Bliss!
What to Bring with you
The return journey is also thankfully much easier on the body. The rain started to come down in a light drizzle as we returned to the car. We had come prepared though and took out our rain jackets and continued on walking. This is a good reminder that it’s always good to be prepared when walking in Ireland. We also packed snacks, water and insect repellent (the midges were just starting to descend as we were getting back into our car). It only took 3 hours to complete the walk so there is no real need to pack a whole lot of supplies for the journey. We noticed others celebrated reaching the top with picnics and this is also a nice option.
Other Attractions in the Geopark
It would have been lovely to spend more time in the Geopark. There are plenty of attractions here that I would love to spend more time enjoying. The obvious one being the Marble Arch Caves themselves. There are also a number of other waymarked trails within the Cuilcagh Mountain Park. As is usually the case following a really good walk, I find myself thinking that I must come back to do even more exploring in the area. I’m hoping it won’t be too long before I get the opportunity!