Killary Fjord is an isolated, yet spectacular, location on the Wild Atlantic Way. If you are debating whether to visit or not, this detailed and helpful guide should help you make up your mind.
Killary fjord forms the natural border between counties Galway and my home county, Mayo. It is, without doubt, one of Ireland’s most dramatic landscapes.
It’s a grand, atmospheric location, akin to the landscapes of more northerly nations, such as Norway. The surrounding regions are also equally dramatic, the beautiful peaks of the Mweelrea and 12 Bens ranges providing spectacular natural scenery.
I have personally visited this whole area of the west of Ireland more times than I can count, so I’ll somehow have to squeeze all the main highlights (along with my tips) into a few thousand words! So without further ado, let’s dive in.
The name ‘Killary’ is an anglicized version of An Caoláire Rua, which translates as ‘the red narrow sea-inlet’.
If visiting in the winter months, the vast heathlands on the surrounding mountains and hills do have a very distinctive dark orange/almost red tone, although it is believed the ‘red’ relates to the outcrops of red mudstone and sandstone found in the area.
Killary Fjord or Killary Harbour?
Traditionally, it was always referred to as Killary Harbour. As someone who grew up in Mayo, we never used the term ‘Killary Fjord’. It’s really only in the last years I’ve heard and seen the new term being used.
Most maps will also still call it by its older name, but you’ll see all road signs have it labelled as ‘Killary Fjord’. I guess it does sound more appealing and highlights the uniqueness of this stretch of coastline.
Ireland’s only fjord?
Let’s start off with defining what a fjord is. A Fjord can be defined as a long, deep and narrow valley formed by glacial erosion, which reaches far inland and is submerged by seawater.
Many claim that Killary is the best example of a glacial fjord in Ireland, but other examples include Carlingford Lough and Lough Swilly, both formed under similar circumstances.
Not taking anything away from the beauty of the above locations, but in terms of dramatic scenery, Killary is visually far closer to what you’d define as a ‘classic fjord’, with steep mountain sides and narrow stretches of water.
History: How was the Fjord formed?
For anyone growing up in Ireland, you’ll have come across this one in geography class!
This whole area of Ireland is probably the best place to visit if you would like to see first-hand the influence of the last ice age.
The valley itself was formed over millennia, when a vast glacier would have scoured and carved out the classic U-shaped valley we see so clearly at Killary today. As the ice age ended, approximately 12,000 years ago the ice retreated.
Subsequently, the sea levels rose and flooded the valley, leaving the beautiful inlet we see today. Large deposits of glacial moraine (material left behind by the glacier) can be found on the floor of Killary harbour.
In fact, due to this moraine, a local informed me that fishing on the seabed here is a nightmare, as it’s ‘very snaggy, and a tackle graveyard!’
When having a look through sea depth maps, I saw that the deepest part of the fjord lies at the mouth of the fjord (42 metres) Then, barely 500 metres west it rises to 24 metres; this being the start of the terminal moraine.
The sea does not really get under 40 metres until well out in the Atlantic. The sheer power of ice is truly amazing!
You’ll find Killary Fjord in the west of Ireland, along the Wild Atlantic Way. Its waters form the natural border between Ireland’s second and third largest counties, Galway and Mayo.
To the north are the mountains of Mayo, namely the Mweelrea Range, Sheeffry Hills, Ben Gorm and Ben Creggan. To the south are the mountains of Galway, namely The Maumturks and the nearby 12 Bens.
The main settlement along the fjord is Leenaun, a beautiful village located at the far eastern end of the fjord.
How to get there
Because of its isolated location, Killary is certainly not the easiest place to get to. Even when I am making the trip there, I have to set aside a good part of the day, even though I am from county Mayo! There are realistically only 2 main options to get there:
The nearest main town to Killary Harbour is Westport, a 40 minute drive (depending on which route you take) to Leenaun.
The other larger town nearest to Leenaun is Clifden, also a 40 minute drive.
From Galway city, it’s also the best part of 1 hr. 30 to Leenaun.
The good news is though that all of these drives are just stunning. You’ll be passing by some of Ireland’s best landscapes, so in this case it’s as much about the journey as the destination.
Luckily, the Clifden-Westport route (Bus Eireann route 423) passes through the village of Leenaun and the service runs 3 times daily. Taking the earlier bus will give you ample opportunity to explore Lennaun and then you’ll get picked up by the return service in the evening. Timetable is here.
Killary Fjord Facts
Width: 200 – 800 metres
Main Connecting Rivers: Erriff, Lahill, Owengar
Nearby Mountains: Mweelrea (814 m), Devil’s Mother (645 m), Ben Gorm (700m)
Deepest Point: 42 metres (located near Inishbarna)
Villages/Settlements: Leenaun, Rosroe
Economy: Tourism (e.g. Killary Cruises) Aquaculture
Famous For: Links with Hollywood (The Field), Ludwig Wittgenstein’s house, Ireland’s only fjord
Wildlife: Seals & sea otters are common, dolphins sometimes spotted at the mouth of the fjord
Birdlife: Mute swan, whooper swan, mallard duck, tufted duck, plover and barnacle goose
- Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s spent a brief time in a cottage in Rosroe in 1934. He sought solitude in this remote Irish village, far from the academic world, to reflect on language, the nature of reality, and the limits of knowledge.
- Former president Mary Robinson unveiled a plaque in 1993 in his honour. This is located on the wall of the house he stayed in at the time, next to Killary Harbour hostel.
- Jim Sheridan’s powerful The Field, starring Richard Harris, John Hurt and Sean Bean was filmed in the Killary region. Many iconic scenes were filmed in the village of Leenaun. Gaynor’s pub, which was used extensively still stands untouched in the village, and is well worth a visit.
- Insider Tip: We recently discovered that the actual ‘field’ in question is located here.
Our Favourite Things to do at Killary Fjord
Explore the Fjord by Car
In order to truly appreciate Killary, the best way is by car.
My personal favourite approach is from Louisburgh via the Doolough/Delphi valleys. The R335 meanders beautifully along the shores of the fjord. After heavy rainfall, you’ll notice countless small waterfalls skirting down the steep slopes all around you.
Continue along the southern slopes of the fjord until you eventually reach the idyllic Aasleagh Falls. Stop here to admire the wonderful surroundings; the Erriff valley and high peak of Ben Gorm.
Follow the road around the fjord, where you’ll meet the N59 road to Leenaun. Then after stretching the legs and catching a stunning view of the whole fjord, continue along the N59 on the southern shores.
You’ll now witness the fjord from the County Galway side and begin to see the peak of Mweelrea across the water in all its glory. Pull in when you reach the Killary Discovery Point here.
Insider tip: 200 metres after this discovery point, take a right where you see the signs ‘Connemara Hostel’ and ‘The Misunderstood Heron’. Driving just 100 metres down this road will bring you to an epic viewpoint. Park up, grab a delicious sandwich or some local mussels from one of the best food trucks in the land.
Explore the Magnificent Killary Coastal Walk
Altogether it’s a 16 km walk, which traditionally starts at Rosroe and continues all along the fjord to Lennaun. The views are beautiful as you witness the fjord in all its glory, along with the towering peaks of the Mweelrea range.
Along the walk, you’ll find remnants of old potato beds, a dark memory of the famine and a stark reminder of how the relatively high population was practically decimated here 150 years ago.
This is an out and back trek so if planning to do the whole lot, it’ll be a 2-car affair. You could, however, just do sections of the walk, which is exactly what I have done on previous visits. For example:
- Park near the Killary Sheep farm, location here. There is only space for 1 to 2 cars. This is a very scenic location and you’ll encounter idyllic fields and stone walls. Walk as far west as you wish here, the surrounding greenery and mountain/fjord views are magnificent.
- Park at Rosroe Pier and make your way cross-country, along a stone wall, until you come to a path after 2km. For this you’ll need sturdy and waterproof footwear as underfoot can be very wet.
- From the Leenaun side, unfortunately you have to make your way along a very narrow main road (N59) before entry to the path, location here. From here, the elevated views are beautiful.
Map of walk:
Take a Cruise on Killary Harbour
During may last visit to Killary in August of 2023, the morning was spent walking along the coastal path. The afternoon was spend on a relaxing, informative and well-worth tour on the calm waters of Killary on the Connemara Lady.
The tour takes you all the way to the end of the fjord and the guides provide some great commentary, both anecdotal and factual. I was curious if we would see a pod of dolphins at the entry to the fjord, but it was not to be.
According to the guide, they are a common sight here in the summer, due to the large number of salmon trying to make their way upstream.
In any case it was really a worthwhile experience, even though it was quite a grey day. It’s awesome to view the high surrounding mountains from the water and to imagine that this whole fjord was covered in a thick sheet of ice not all that long ago.
The boat’s capacity is 150 persons. By the way, I had to book my ticket in advance as this was the high season. Tickets cost 25.50 for adults, children under 10 are free. There are also other family ticket options available.
Tickets can be found here
Visit a Working Sheep Farm
As regards ‘cultural attractions in the west of Ireland’, a visit to a real working sheep farm sits very high on the must-do list.
Killary Sheep Farm could certainly lay claim to being Ireland’s most beautiful farm. In terms of wonderful scenery, it’s definitely well up there with the Lost Valley on the other side of the fjord.
But before we veer off into any sort of Mayo/Galway rivalry, Killary Sheep Farm is definitely worth a visit. Tom will bring you out on his idyllic stonewall enclosed farm and show you how sheepfarming done in this part of the world.
It’s actually quite hilarious to see the hundreds of sheep just roaming around every nook and cranny of the farm, until being rudely interrupted by Tom’s highly skilled sheepdogs. On top of this, you’ll get a sheep-shearing and turf-cutting demonstration.
Turf, or peat, was (and still is to a certain degree) the chief form of fuel here in the west of Ireland. If wandering around the village of Leenaun, you may get a sniff of the sweet-smelling peat burning in the open fires of the pubs here.
The smell, for me, is ‘the smell of Ireland’. Apart from some areas of Scotland, I have never come across this unique aroma before.
We highly recommend visiting Tom’s sheep farm. It’s certainly a unique and memorable experience set in some breathtaking natural west of Ireland scenery. Tickets to the sheep farm can be found here.
Explore the Village of Leenaun
Leenaun has always been one of my favourite villages in the west of Ireland. You’ll find many stop here to soak up the views, have a bite to eat or just enjoy the stunning setting of this remote village.
Right across from the main carpark, we recommend visiting the Connemara Sheep and Wool Centre, an interesting and insightful attractions with a great shop and adjoining café.
The forge is also a nice quaint shop, offering various souvenirs and woollen products at affordable prices. You’ll find the 2 ‘main’ stores located at Gaynor’s and Hamilton’s bars. And yes, although unusual, shops joined to pubs was very common in the west of Ireland!
In terms of where to eat, I recommend the Purple Door for a light lunch. Their Croque Monsieur was amazing. They also do an excellent breakfast.
Some years back I had an excellent lunch at the Leenane Hotel. I can highly recommend their mussels and incredible seafood chowder. The mussels are harvested in the waters of Killary, so you really can’t get any fresher. It’s also just a lovely, welcoming place that is particularly cosy on an inclement day.
Other things to do at Killary Fjord
Visit beautiful Aasleagh Falls
At the mouth of the wonderful Erriff river (which flows into Killary) you’ll find the small but picturesque waterfalls at Aasleagh. Near the falls you’ll find ample parking and then you’ll have to walk across some very mucky ground to get to the closest viewing point of the waterfalls.
Along with being a beautiful photo opportunity, if you’re lucky enough to visit in the early summer months you’ll get to witness the infamous Aasleagh salmon run. Here the salmon will leap with all their might to get to the top of the falls where they’ll then continue upstream to spawn. A Sight to behold.
Visit the Lost Valley
You may be thinking, ‘But the Lost Valley is over at Silver Strand, that’s nowhere near Killary?’ That’s true, but when you’re on your guided tour with John, he’ll take you to a high point where you’ll get an almighty view over the whole fjord.
The tour, by the way, we highly recommend, especially for those who appreciate beautiful scenery and are curious about Ireland’s famine history.
When I visited in summer 2023, I stood on that hilltop and just marvelled at the scenery around me.
Mweelrea towering above, to the right some of the most glorious beaches you’ll ever see and in front, the vast drowned glacial valley snaking its way inland. There are not many spots which offer such phenomenal diversity of scenery.
That image will stay etched in my memory forever and no photos will ever do it justice.
Killary Adventure Centre
Killary Adventure Centre, located on the southern shores of the fjord is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts and adventure seekers. Offering a wide array of activities on land and water such as kayaking, zip-lining, rock climbing and so much more, the centre has built up a fine reputation over the years.
Summer 2023 saw the introduction of an exhilarating high ropes course, where you are elevated high on the trees of Killary estate. You’ll need a head for heights for this one!
You can take part in each of the adrenaline packed activities or as part of a half-day or full-day package. There are tons of options here to suit everyone’s needs.
As a young fella, we visited Killary Adventure centre on a school tour and had a blast! Having returned recently, it is amazing to see how it has developed over the years into such a state-of-the-art outdoor centre.
There is also accommodation on site, which sleeps up to 100, with the rooms offering panoramic vistas over the fjord.
The staff here are highly skilled and super friendly, and they’ll ensure paramount safety, along with providing expert guidance. This makes for an epic day out and is an ideal destination for families, friends and corporate groups looking to create some brilliant memories at Killary Fjord.
While there are no blue flag swimming areas along the fjord, Killary is known for its lovely calm waters and for being one of the best wild swimming locations in Ireland. We can’t offer any advice here on the best swimming spots, but always adhere to the safe swimming guidelines.
September is marked by the annual ‘The Great Fjord Swim’, an exhilarating open water swimming event. There are 3 courses on offer, 750 metres, 2km and Ironman distance (3.9 km)
The 2km is the definition of an open water swim, as you’ll be brought out into the middle of the fjord by boat, and the swim starts the moment you dive into the chilly waters!
Important info: No swimmer is allowed into the water without a tow-float. You can order a tow float to rent or buy when you sign up for the event, or of course bring your own.
For registering, it is recommended to book online as early as possible, to avail of the cheapest rate. Details are here.
Stand up paddling & Kayaking
Because of its sheltered waters, you can imagine that Killary is an excellent spot for SUP and kayaking. While we personally have not tried it ourselves, we know plenty who claim it’s a magical experience to be on this wonderful stretch of water with the mountains towering all around.
Killary Adventure also offer rentals and guided kayak tours.
Mussel Farm Tour
Ever wondered what it would be like to work on a fish farm? Simon and this team will bring you out to the mussel farms on the fjord and show you first hand the whole process behind mussel faming. This is a unique experience and is capped off with a bowl of the freshest seafood you probably ever had.
There is also a premium package available, which offers a gourmet 4 course seafood feast. All details here.
Other Places to Visit near Killary Fjord
This pocket of Ireland (south-west Mayo, Connemara) stands out as an area of outstanding natural beauty, not just in Ireland, but anywhere in the world. I find myself returning again and again and the sheer variety of landscapes and natural beauty is something that I am very proud of, as a local who grew up nearby.
I could write a whole other 5,000 word article on what there is to see and do near Killary, but for now I’ll have to whittle it down to some highlights. I do, however encourage you to browse the Mayo section of this site, where we have a great number of nearby places covered in great detail.
Stark and bleak, magnificent and tragic. Doolough is a must visit on your trip to the west of Ireland. The good news is that it’s just north of Killary and both can be explored in the same day.
Doolough, the Irish for ‘Black Lake’ is another spectacular example of the impact of the ice age in Ireland. The valley is also remembered for the traumatic Doolough Tragedy.
We have this stunning location, along with this tragedy covered in detail here.
Connemara National Park and Diamond Hill
Feeling up for a hike? Only 40 minutes south of Killary, you’ll find stunning Connemara National Park. From here, you can tackle the moderately difficult Diamond Hill.
This is one of my top hikes in the west of Ireland, and it’s very accessible too. There’s an excellent path to the top, from where you’ll be greeted with views that will knock your socks off!
We have a detailed guide to Diamond Hill, which includes all practical info, here.
Visit Kylemore Abbey
Kylemore Abbey is located right next to Connemara National Park. This 150 year old architectural masterpiece is regarded as Ireland’s most beautiful castle. If visiting, you’ll marvel at its idyllic setting along the lakeshore, with lush, green hills providing an almost unbelievable backdrop.
Entry costs 16 euros and gives access to the castle, the magnificent grounds, along with the Victorian walled garden and the Gothic Church, which happens to be my favourite church in Ireland.
Tackle one of the many fantastic hikes in the region
This region is one of my favourite places to go hiking. All around are endless possibilities, from the towering peak of Mweelrea to the comically named Devil’s Mother. As this is the west of Ireland, rain is going to be your biggest obstacle, so plan accordingly.
The tip of Connaught. The view from Mweelrea across Killary fjord, the only natural fjord in Ireland at the silhouette of the 12 Bens in Connemara #landscape #landscapephotography #mountains #ireland pic.twitter.com/W6d8GgFd43— Conor Varley Photography (@conor_varley) February 13, 2022
Should you be lucky enough with the weather, an excellent hike near the fjord is the Ben Creggan-Ben Gorm trail. This out and back route is challenging but will take you deep into the mountains of south Mayo, providing you with mountain, glacial valley, lake, coast and beach views.
You’ll be hard pressed to find such a variety of landscapes anywhere. Exact details are here.
Accommodation Near Killary Fjord
There really are so many memorable experiences available along Killary Fjord, from mussel farming to sheep farming, high ropes to kayaking. Many people will just pass through and just see the highlights, but we highly recommend staying one night. Here, our choices:
Ireland’s oldest hotel has been welcoming guests since 1796 and are still going strong. Located on the waterfront in the village of Leenaun, the hotel has a classic antique feel to it.
They pride themselves on the quality of their their mussels originating from the waters of Killary and their vegetables grown in their own garden, this is a real gem along the Wild Atlantic Way. Check their rates here.
The Connemara Hostel
Could this be the most scenic hostel in Ireland? Located just next to the Misunderstood Heron food truck, the Connemara Hostel is a very solid option for anyone on a budget and just needs a place to rest the head after all the adventures on Killary.
It’s fully kitted out too for all you self-catering needs with a kitchen, dining room and a large garden. A solid option for adventure seekers.
Have you wondered what it would be like to live in a cottage similar to that in the film, The Field? This, we believe is as close as you’ll get.
Located on the waterfront at the start of Killary Fjord, near the Aasleagh Falls, the house has 2 bedrooms, WIFI and bucket loads of charm. Imagine sitting yourself by the fireplace on a wild night with a whiskey in hand? Sounds perfect!
Another solid option for those who prefer to stay in a bed & breakfast, to experience that good ol’ Irish hospitality.
Portfinn is located excellently in the village of Leenaun, with stunning elevated views of the mountains and fjord. You’ll be treated to an full Irish in the morning before you head off on your adventure, which guests describe as ‘fabulous’
Any negatives to visiting Killary Fjord?
This really is a gem of a region and as you can see there are huge possibilities for exploring. From my perspective the only real stand out issue with Killary is the weather. The region is notorious for rain, due to the coastal location and with high mountains all around.
I will however say that after heavy rainfall, the waterfalls streaming down the hillsides is a sight to behold and the moody nature of the barren peaks adds its own special dimension to the whole experience.
We do advise to visit in the warmer months, from May to September, especially if you are keen on adventure and hillwalking.
One other observation would be the aquaculture. It is truly a fantastic resource and the amount of work and energy that has gone into producing such delicious mussels must be commended. It just takes away slightly from the natural aesthetic of the fjord. But to be honest, I’m clutching at straws here.
Your questions about Killary Fjord answered
Is Killary Fjord worth visiting?
Due to the fact that it’s Ireland’s only true fjord, one could argue it’s the most unique place to visit along the Wild Atlantic Way. Added to this, it offers a wide range of outdoor activities, from water sports to hiking, making it definitely worth a visit on your trip to Ireland.
How deep is Killary Fjord?
The deepest point is 42 metres, and is located just east of the islet of Inishbarna at the mouth of the fjord.
Is Killary Fjord salt water?
Although, many river and rivulets flow into the fjord, such as the Erriff river, the fjord is connected to the sea and is tidal, therefore it contains saltwater.
How long should I spend at Killary Fjord?
If you have time on your hands, we recommend staying a night, especially if you wish to partake in the countless outdoor activities on offer. Otherwise, spend an afternoon driving to all the sights nearby and grab some lunch in Leenaun or The Misunderstood Heron.
We hope you have enjoyed our detailed guide about Killary Fjord. In our view, it offers so much, from sea kayaking and coastal walks to some serious hiking, it’s an adventure lovers’ playground.
Even to just explore the fjord by the comfort of your car is a beautiful experience. Whatever method you choose, enjoy it and let us know if we have helped enrich your journey in any way. All the best!