Located at an elevation of 707m, Lough Cummeenoughter in Co Kerry is a unique swimming spot. Not only is this the highest lake in Ireland, it's also one of the most dramatic. Nestled at the base of a natural amphitheatre with the country's two tallest peaks towering on either side, Irish swimming doesn't come any wilder than this. The lake itself is surprisingly hospitable; it has a sandy bed and becomes deep quickly enough to dive into.
As you might imagine, however, the main challenge is getting there. A footpath called O’Shea’s Gully passes right beside the lake, but this is rough mountain terrain, and you will need to be suitably prepared for all the eventualities of a steep hillwalk. There are even a couple of rock ledges and easy scrambling moves thrown in for good measure.
Fortunately, the path is one of the most popular ascent routes to Carrauntoohil, so if you head out on a fine summer’s day, you should have the reassurance of other walkers around you. Most parties are fixated on the summit, so you may be the only one stopping to swim at the lough. The water remains cool here all year round, but it’s wonderfully refreshing to arrive at the lake all hot and sweaty from the climb, and dive straight into the depths. Prepare yourself for a sharp intake of breath – given the length of the walk, hauling a wetsuit up to these heights is impractical, and this is likely to be a flesh experience.
The route statistics assume that after your swim, you return the way you came. If you prefer to climb for a further 332 vertical metres to reach the top of Carrauntoohil, this will add at least another 2km and 1½ hours to the day.
From Cronin’s Yard, head south through a metal gate and join a wide track. Follow this through two more gates, then begin a gradual climb up Hag’s Glen, beside the Gaddagh River.
After roughly 1km, cross two green metal bridges, following signs for ‘Carrauntoohil Mountain’. Keep left at a path junction and continue along the west bank of the river for 1.2km. The main path now crosses the stream flowing out of Lough Gouragh.
Instead of crossing here, follow the stream’s western bank almost as far as Lough Gouragh. Shortly before the lake, veer right and join a stony path that climbs to the west. The path begins with a rising traverse towards the rugged lower slopes of Carrauntoohil. The terrain is rough underfoot, and you’ll need to negotiate one steep rock ledge to reach a flattish platform, known as the ‘first level’.
From here, climb south-west to the foot of an imposing black cliff, where the path splits. Turn right for Lough Cummeenoughter and O’Shea’s Gully. The trail now veers north-west and cuts up a rock crag to reach another hanging valley, known as the ‘second level’. Here, you join the banks of the outlet stream that drains Lough Cummeenoughter, though the lake itself remains hidden from sight.
Follow the left bank of the stream across the hollow and up a short, cliff-like headwall. You will need to use your hands to pull yourself up the rock, with the stream forming a waterfall on your right. You now arrive at the ‘third level’, the final hanging valley of the route.
Backed by the vertiginous slopes of Carrauntoohil and Beenkeragh – Ireland’s first and second highest mountains respectively – this is an immensely atmospheric location. It’s only as you mount the final rise that Lough Cummeenoughter is revealed at the base of the corrie. The path passes along the southern shore – follow this until you find a suitably sandy place to enter the water.
The swim itself is exhilarating both in terms of the drama of the location, and the temperature of the water. Try to stay in long enough to float on your back and appreciate the horseshoe of cliffs all around.
After your swim the simplest option is to reverse your route back to Cronin’s Yard. Having come this far, though, it’s tempting to continue to the summit of Carrauntoohil. To do this, continue along the path, climbing steeply up the loose rock of O’Shea’s Gully at the back left-hand corner of the corrie.
At the top of the gully you’re met by an incredible view over Coumloughra. Turn left here and make the final, steep climb to the top of Carrauntoohil (1,039m). The summit is marked by a conspicuous metal cross, and a suitably impressive 360-degree panorama.
Great for: Looking up from the water to the intimidating peaks looming overhead; refreshing yourself after the climb in the best way possible.
Conditions: Dry ground and good visibility for the climb.
Access: Start and finish at Cronin's Yard, at the end of the road in Hag's Glen. The car park here costs €2, and excellent facilities include a tearoom, camping, showers and toilets (see croninsyard.com).
Grid ref: V 836 873.
GPS: 52.026536, -9.695809.
Time: 4½-5½ hours.
Ascent: 570m (1,870ft).
Maps: OSi 1:50,000 sheet 78, OSi 1:25,000.
An edited extract from Ireland's Adventure Bucket List: Great Outdoor Experiences by Helen Fairbairn, published by the Collins Press