County Fermanagh’s patchwork of landscapes, from rocky outcrops and blanket bog, to glacial-carved hollows and limestone-littered hills, makes quite an eclectic quilt of scenery.
There’s something very special under this quilt, too; miles of winding, underground caverns of subterranean lakes and bizarre rock formations. In fact, if you consider the thrilling rides (boat journey through caves) spritely characters (resident wildlife) and awesome sights (jaw-dropping cliff-top views), the place almost starts to sound like a theme park!
But there’s one ginormous difference: this is the kind of theme park that those Disney Imagineers can only ever dream of – this is a UNESCO Global Geopark, if you don’t mind. A Geopark, to you and me, is an area recognised by UNESCO for its exceptional geological heritage. So while it won’t be packing rollercoasters and cartoon characters, it does have equally interesting pockets of archeology, history, folklore and wildlife.
The Marble Arch Caves Geopark stretches from the rugged northern shores of Fermanagh’s Lower Lough Erne to the rolling lowlands of ’s Lough Oughter. Neighbour Cavan joining the Geopark in 2008 made Marble Arch the world’s first International Global Geopark – not even Disney managed a cross-country theme park!
I’ve decided here to minimise my waxing prose of glacial-scarred rocks, sapphire-blue lakes and dripping limestone labyrinths, and instead call in the pictures to tell the thousands of words the area deserves.
So buckle up, visitors, keep all arms and legs inside the vehicle and enjoy the ride around Marble Arch Geopark!
Lough Navar Forest
lies at the northwest of the park, criss-crossed with walking trails. The deep conifer Handsel and Gretel-style forest harbors wildlife you’ll be keen to cross paths with, including Bambi-cute red deer, pine marten and tree-treading red squirrel.
Get to the other side of Lough Navar forest and the trees open up to some fairytale views. You’re on the edge of the 9km stretch of , which crests at over 300m, looms over Lower Lough Erne and makes for quite a vantage point. From up here the panoramic view reaches the Sperrin Mountains to the east, Slieve League to the west and the Blue Stack Mountains to the north. If you don’t fancy the uphill climb, cheaters can get here via the Lough Navar Forest Scenic Drive.
Cuilcagh Mountain Park
In the southwest corner of County Fermanagh stands : the highest point in the county at 665m, and a striking feature of the landscape thanks to its distinctive table-top profile. The mountain itself is topped by gritstone, exposed in places as cliffs sweeping down to sandstone and shale slopes. The middle slopes are home to one the largest expanses of rare blanket bog in Europe, while the lower slopes shelter limestone forests and complex caves… hold on as our tour goes deeper…
The area of the Geopark called the makes for a harrowingly beautiful landscape of dry valleys, sinkholes, weathered limestone pavement and rare flora and fauna. ‘Burren’ comes from the Gaelic word ‘Boireann’ meaning ‘stony place’, and describes the exposed limestone bedrock (also seen in County Clare) pretty accurately.
For added elements of prehistoric interest (and photo ops!), you’ll find stone monuments such as this Giant’s Grave wedge tomb dotting the landscape – the work of Neolithic farmers over 6,000 years ago. Yes this park has been years in the making!
Marble Arch Caves
The Cuilcagh Mountain has even more up its sleeve, and under its ground. Past woodland, the mountainside opens to reveal the mouth of one of Europe’s finest showcaves. Hold on to your hats and small children as we duck down and into the for an exploration of this eerily-lit natural underworld of rivers, waterfalls, winding passages and lofty chambers.
The last part of our tour will be pure style: take your seats in the boat and we will glide along subterranean rivers through yawning caverns. To your left and right, you’ll see the cave formations range from fascinating to bizarre: glistening stalactites and stalagmites, cave curtains, rimstone pools and flowstones. Our tour culminates with a spectacular stroll through the Moses Walk; one of the few man-made structures in the caves allowing visitors to ‘walk’ through an underground lake.
Well we hope you enjoyed your visit to the Marble Arch Caves Geopark.
We’re not going to tell you to exit through the gift shop and browse keyrings of stalactites, or mugs shaped like a rimstone pool, or hologram coasters of the Burren forest.
In this park, you can exit through the forest, or down the cliffs, or via your picnic site to see if the squirrels found your crumbs.
Or you could go back to the start and do it all again, we can guarantee there are no queues in this park.
This isn’t our first photographic tour of an area in Ireland, oh no. We’ve also managed to wangle some amazing images from Dave G Kelly and his prettiest spots in Dublin to take a seat, Kevin Dwyer and his stunning aerial photography of Ireland, and John Eagle who takes us on a photographic tour of Ireland’s Lighthouses.