One giant masterpiece – hiking from the Giant’s Causeway to Dunseverick Castle

Not many tourists know this, but access to the Giant’s Causeway is absolutely free of charge. Here’s how we skipped the crowds and enjoyed the very best of Northern Ireland’s natural masterpiece… for the price of a bus ticket.

We’re astonished to find only one other vehicle in the car park. Maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised; after all, there’s not much left of Dunseverick Castle. Two walls of a small gate lodge stand facing each other, poised precariously on a barely-accessible rocky headland, the only tangible remains of 1,500 years of history.

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On the way to Dunseverick Castle

But Dunseverick’s location is superb, slap-bang in the middle of Northern Ireland’s famed “Causeway Coast”. Surveying the coastline from the castle’s clifftop perch, I delve back into my youth and start pointing out the unseen jewels of this part of my native country. Just behind that headland, kids, lies the gorgeous White Park Bay beach, with Ballintoy harbour jutting out into the sea. Just beyond that you’ll find the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge and the spectacular Fair Head cliffs.

In the other direction, a succession of cliffs and coves dip and bob into a rapidly-darkening horizon. This, kids, is our territory for today, for here is one of the most glorious coastal hiking paths anywhere in Europe. In these waters lie sunken Spanish galleons, on these cliffs nest thousands of sea birds… and in this salty air are whispers in the wind telling tales of swan princesses and feuding giants.

Speaking of giants, we have a bus to catch. Let’s go kids!

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A fleeting visit to the Giant’s Causeway

Ten minutes later we step off Bus 402 and join the camera-toting masses sheltering from the rain amongst the sleek basalt columns of the Giant’s Causeway Visitor “Experience”.

Dr Samuel Johnson  – an 18th century writer and traveller – once famously quipped that the Giant’s Causeway is:

“Worth seeing, (…) but not worth going to see”.

Whilst he was presumably referring to his arduous journey to north Antrim, his observation still partially rings true today: the Giant’s Causeway is – undoubtedly – worth seeing, but for certain independent-minded tourists the hassle and frustration of going to see it may become overbearing. The combination of a confusing entrance payment scheme (as of April 2017, see the “Practical information” section below) and the sheer number of people now clambering over these magnificent volcanic rocks means that finding a meaningful, deeper connection between yourself, the stones and the roaring Atlantic Ocean is often impossible. Don’t get me wrong, the Giant’s Causeway is a wonderful, unique experience; its inherent weirdness and raw beauty utterly captivating in the right conditions.

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Child #1 on those famous stones, back in 2011

But overcrowding is becoming a problem, and visitors need to be mentally prepared for a reality that may – sadly – more closely resemble this:

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Photo taken on a rainy Thursday in April. What must this place be like in July??

But it doesn’t have to be this way – visit very early in the morning or late in the evening to see the Giant’s Causeway at its glorious best.

Otherwise, do as we did, and don’t linger there too long. Trust us, there are other – equally wondrous – sights to be seen here. Let’s go there now…

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You’ll need to get on your hiking boots if you are to spot the “heart” of the Giant’s Causeway, located roughly two-thirds of the way between the Causeway and Dunseverick Castle

Hiking from the Giant’s Causeway to Dunseverick Castle

The 240 steps from the sea up to the top of the cliff are slippery from the squally rain and residual mud of thousands of hiking boots. Slightly breathless, we emerge at the top and turn left, away from the Giant’s Causeway Visitor Experience.

Immediately we are alone.

Our hike has begun in earnest and, as if to celebrate, the sun emerges, tentatively at first but enough to illuminate the already-ebullient gorse blooms lining our path.

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Kids with their Auntie Julie. Yellow was the colour of the day.

Grandiose, spectacular, breathtaking, spellbinding, monumental… I’m going to quickly run out of superlatives if I try to describe the views along the entire route of our hike from the Giant’s Causeway to Dunseverick Castle. From the path straddling the peak of the near 100m-high cliffs, we are treated to other-worldly views of Ireland’s most celebrated coastline, accompanied by the incessant murmuring of the sea.

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Basalt cliffs at the Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland

If the “Causeway Coast ” is a symphony, then the Giant’s Causeway itself is merely the first movement: it introduces a beautiful but simple melodic theme (the basalt columns). Then, in the following movements, this theme is developed and distorted to produce moments of supreme beauty and unqualified brilliance. The columns of basalt rise powerfully into immense towering cliffs, yet tenderly shelter nesting sea birds; they are smashed relentlessly by the roaring Sea of Moyle, but this only shapes them into exquisite rock formations. In short, the hike from the Giant’s Causeway to Dunseverick is a classic, one of nature’s great masterpieces.

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Is that wise?

But there is no dramatic finale here, just a serene, hauntingly beautiful ending; the imposing cliffs slowly decrescendo into a series of lower headlands with gorse sugar-coating, each sheltering coves with inaccessible beaches and one – Port Moon – with an impossibly romantic fishing bothy.

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Port Moon. Oh to spend a night in that fishing bothy!
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Decrescendo – The dramatic cliffs along the Causeway Coastal Path gently fall away around Dunseverick Castle

From here it’s only a short walk back through the brilliant yellow of the north Antrim spring, where Daisy the bus patiently awaits us in her (now) lonely parking spot overlooking Dunseverick Castle. The bustle and clamour of the mass tourism side of the Giant’s Causeway has been long since forgotten, but memories of this hike will linger long.

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Practical information for visiting the Giant’s Causeway and Causeway Coastal Path

  • Entrance on foot to the Giant’s Causeway is free of charge (see photo below for evidential proof).
    • Visitors are requested to pay to enter the visitor centre, not to visit the stones. In my personal opinion, this is not made sufficiently clear, neither onsite nor in the tourist marketing materials.
      • Costs (as at April 2017) are GBP10.50 per adult and GBP26.35 per family.
      • Paying visitors gain access to a café, gift shop, toilets, an audio guide and a few interpretative exhibitions.
    • Parking at the Giant’s Causeway is rather limited and will automatically incur the visitor centre fees. A free P&R operates from the nearby village of Bushmills (well-signposted).
      • Parking at Dunseverick Castle is free (height restriction of 2.1m applies).
    • Even merely using the toilets inside the visitor centre will trigger the entrance fee (seriously). However, there are a limited number of free public toilets outside the building, in the covered area just opposite the main car park.
  • To access the Giant’s Causeway free of charge, simply park elsewhere, then walk through the “tunnel” on the right hand side of the visitor centre, and keep on going straight. Or walk from the direction of Dunseverick Castle (i.e. do our hike, but in reverse – see below).
  • Bus 402 runs along the “Causeway Coast” (Summer only. The day we visited – 13 April – was in fact the first day of the season). Single tickets from Dunseverick to the Giant’s Causeway cost GBP2.30 per adult; children, students and seniors go free. Visit www.translink.co.uk for more information on buses in Northern Ireland.
  • Our hike was 8km long and took around 3.5 hours. Apart from the occasional series of steps it is fairly easy-going. However, it is – for the most part – along a dramatic cliff edge, so is not really recommended for young children (we only took our two eldest kids; I would recommend 6 years and up).
  • Finally, this is Northern Ireland. Dress appropriately with waterproofs and sensible shoes, at any time of year. During our hike we had bright sunshine, pouring rain, storm-force winds and fluffy white clouds, occasionally all at the same time.
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“Public access on foot to the Causeway stones is free”.

Daisy the bus visited the Causeway Coast in April 2017

All photos and text (c) 2017 Jonathan Orr

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Author: daisythebus

Father-of-four based in Luxembourg. I write about "off the beaten track" travel adventures with my family. Expect to read about nature, outdoor activities, the arts, authenticity, and alternative ways of discovering the world around us.

51 thoughts on “One giant masterpiece – hiking from the Giant’s Causeway to Dunseverick Castle”

  1. Such a useful post, I’m sure that if I we’d gone before reading your post it would have ended up costing a lot of money! I love your photos and the clifftop hike looks gorgeous-definitely one to do when Finn is a little older. I love the look of that bothy, would love to spend a night there. #AdventureCalling

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  2. The Giant Causeway has long been on our must see list but I can totally understand your point about ‘worth seeing, not worth going to see’. Your advice is spot on for more independent traveller like us. The whole coast looks so dramiatic why limit yourself to one time part that is forever over crowded! Thanks for joining us on #adventurecalling

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    1. Your observation is absolutely spot on: tourists often limit their own experience by doing exactly what the audio guides / marketing materials tell them to do. But I have learned that different cultures value certain experiences in vastly different ways to others: my guess is that the majority of people who take the minibus to the Causeway (less than 1km, folks…) battle the crowds for that perfect photo and spend more time in the gift shop afterwards than on the Causeway itself actually LIKE it that way. Don’t ask me to understand why; like you, I need to explore, to reflect, to find some deeper connection or different angle… and this hike allowed me to experience the Causeway Coast in the way that I wanted. Greetings from Luxembourg!
      (p.s. Sorry- this response became a bit long-winded and over dramatic! 😀 )

      Liked by 1 person

      1. No apology needed haha. We share the same passion for the outdoors. I too will never understand the gift shoppers when there’s a whole other part of the coast to explore and fall in love with.

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    1. The weather was certainly in a strange mood during our hike, even by Northern Ireland standards. And yes, I personally think it is a shame about the pricing confusion; I wonder how many people feel hard done by when they learn exactly what they have spent over 10 quid on? Thanks for reading!

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  3. I have always wanted to visit the causeway but would really hate the extortionate entrance fee and crowds so thanks for the tips. Your way sounds like a much more civilised way to visit and get a wonderful walk in too. Also love the way this is written! #adventurecalling

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  4. Those photos are absolutely stunning!! It’s such a shame that it gets so crowded though as I was hoping for a picture one day that looks like the one you took in 2011. Hopefully it’s not too wishful thinking!! #Countrykids

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    1. Aw thanks! 😉 I should add that the “famous” bit of the Giant’s Causeway is, in fact, much bigger than people probably imagine. There are three “causeways” slipping down into the sea and (literally) thousands and thousands of those famous hexagonal basalt columns. So if you are patient and thoughtful with your framing, you will almost certainly get the crowd-free image that you were hoping for. Good luck!

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  5. And now I’m slightly kicking myself for not realising the whole payment thing when we visited last June. BUT, saying that, we absolutely loved it. Yes, it was busy, but still a must see. Great photos. A walk to note down for sure, as I’d definitely love to return to that area again as we had such a great weekend there. A lot of love for Northern Ireland.

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    1. Don’t be too hard on yourself – I am guessing that 90%+ of first-time visitors without a guide do exactly the same thing. Honestly, I find this wrong; an unjust tax on tourists. I really hope they change or significantly clarify the pricing structure in the near future. Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy any return to Northern Ireland!

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  6. Great tips – it’s always good to know – we went to a place called High Rocks once and realised that if you walked further down the road exactly the same formations were in the local woodlands and we didn;t have to pay to see them. Always good to explore. Sarah #adventurecalling

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  7. This looks like a great hike. Shame about the tourists! It’s the same at Stone Henge near us….terrible crowds but nearby Avebury is much better. I love your photographs too. I’ve never been to Northern Ireland but I’ve always wanted to. #adventurecalling

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  8. That is one hell of a stunning walk! Your photos are beautiful. It’s sad the place is teeming, but nice people want to visit…I think id’s go early or late 🙂 #countrykidsfun

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  9. Wow, just wow!!! I’ve wanted to do the Giants Causeway with the kids for along time now, and you have just provided the perfect solution. Thank you for this super informative, super well-written post, and for the stunning photos! A masterpiece indeed 😉
    #CountryKids

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  10. We are really hoping to visit the Antrim Coast soon so I’ve found your tips really useful and it’s encouraging to see that you can find the less touristy way to do it. I love the sound of that walk. Thanks so much for sharing on #FarawayFiles

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    1. Oh… I really look forward to reading your article(s) on the Antrim Coast. It is not only the “Causeway” part which is wonderful; the whole coastline from Londonderry/Derry to Belfast is magnificent. A few years ago we took the train journey from Londonderry to Portrush, which is really rather spectacular. And the last time we went puffin-spotting on Rathlin Island and checked out some of the beaches and coves of the Glens of Antrim – again, almost impossibly picturesque. I strongly recommend visiting this part of the world… and taking your time doing so. Thanks for reading!

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  11. We love hiking when we travel and are always looking for new places to go. This does look incredible and Ireland has been on our bucket list… perhaps time to go 🙂 #fearlessfamtrav

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  12. The Giant’s Causeway has always looked like a wonderful place to explore and the scenery truly is spectacular. It’s such a shame that it’s becoming a busier tourist attraction so you’re less likely to be able to explore it without crowds surrounding you, over all it’s still a great sight. The kids look like they enjoyed their hike along the Causeway Coast to Dunseverick Castle, it’s great that you got to appreciate more than just the causeway when you were in the area.

    Thanks for linking up with me on #CountryKids

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  13. We’ve visited the Giants Causeway a couple of times as my folks used to live outside Coleraine. The Causeway Coast is a beautiful place to visit and we like visiting Portrush and Portstewart too. Thankfully everytime we’ve visited (like last year) it wasn’t busy with tourists and was a glorious sunny day! We don’t mind paying for entry as it goes towards the upkeep of the stones and pathways. #CountryKids

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    1. Oh yes, we love Portrush too! After the culture and grandeur of the Causeway, the more simple pleasures of ice cream, “Barry’s” and sandcastles are even more appreciated! 😉

      We don’t mind paying for tourist attractions either, but what bothers me about the Giant’s Causeway is that the admission fee is confusing and unclear. For example, the “pricing” section of the National Trust’s website for the Causeway does not mention that public access is free: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/giants-causeway#Prices (accessed 9th May 2017). This is potentially misleading, and the signage at the Causeway itself does not sufficiently clarify the situation. Some research published in 2013 found that the Giant’s Causeway was the “main reason or a very important reason” for almost 50% of out-of-state visitors coming to Northern Ireland (link below). Given the important influence of the Causeway in attracting visitors to Northern Ireland (and, consequently, on forming their impression of the country as a whole), I personally believe that its pricing structure should be made much, much clearer.

      ( https://tourismni.com/globalassets/facts-and-figures/research-reports/tourism-performance-statistics/signature-project-reports/giants-causeway-visitor-experience-survey-2013.pdf )

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  14. We LOVED our visit to the Antrim Coast, and thankfully, we had a guide who informed us not to pay the visitor center fees… we did however pay for the bus ride, as it was POURING on the day of our visit in June. We also had a chance to visit Ballintoy Harbor, Carrick-a-rede rope bridge, Dunluce Castle and the Dark Hedges that day! I hope to go back in the future, and do some more exploring of this amazing part of the Emerald Isle! #farawayfiles

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    1. Oh no – Irish weather! 😉 Glad you had a great day anway, and hope you get back to the Causeway on a sunny blue-sky day (it’s worth it).
      Can you believe I have NEVER been to the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge? Maybe next time (if I can figure out how to avoid the crowds 😉 )

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  15. I would absolutely love to visit the Giant’s Causeway and your gorgeous photos have only given me more wanderlust 🙂

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  16. It’s totally got rabbit ears! Ireland has such beautiful countryside. Can you call cliffs countryside? I don’t know, they’re just so green! And you can almost smell the fresh air! #FarawayFiles

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  17. Wow what an incredible place!!! We had briefly considered doing a day tour to the Causeway from Dublin but I guess hiking the trail and taking it easy is so much better than visiting with a whole bus load of tourists and having to rush!!!

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    1. It is an incredible place, and it is rather sad that most visitors get to see only the “famous” part of it (and the visitor centre). Indeed, it is better to linger longer and hike as much of this fantastic coastline as you possibly can. Definitely worth the time investment!

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  18. The Giant’s Causeway is one of the few UNESCO world heritage sites in the UK that I haven’t yet seen! Having read your tips I think I’ll try to go low season! Beautiful coastline with stunning views, I love the heart of the causeway and the colour of the gorse. #FarawayFiles

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    1. Low season would, of course, be better but honestly I think that the Giant’s Causeway is busy year-round now. One of the problems of the Giant’s Causeway is the large number of day-trippers.Relatively few tourists (+/- 20%) actually stay in the local area; instead, they visit the Causeway from a base such as Belfast or even Dublin. Adjusting for travel and meal times, this leads to a spike in visitor numbers in the middle of the day. To avoid this, simply visit early in the morning or late in the evening, when the package tourists will be at breakfast / dinner. Remember: public access to the Causeway is totally free and not subject to opening hours. Go at 5am on a beautiful summer’s morning – it would be wonderful!

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  19. Beautiful pictures! And typical Northern Ireland weather is pretty extreme I guess. 8 km is too much for me now (pelvic instability) but when I’m up and running, Ireland would be a great destination. Thanks for the informative post! #fearlessfamtrav

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    1. Hi. It’s not a particularly difficult hike, so it should be no problem. The total length of the section we hiked was +/-8km and was mostly flat with the occasional set of steps. The only area of difficulty is the longer steps (240 of them) from the Giant’s Causeway up to the top of the cliffs. For a map showing our hike, please refer to the link in the “Practical information” section above. Have fun!

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