The Giant’s Causeway: A Complete Guide to Northern Ireland’s Natural Wonder

The Giants Causeway is Northern Ireland’s most iconic natural landmark. Located on the Causeway Coast in County Antrim, this UNESCO World Heritage Site draws nearly 1 million visitors every year.

This striking geological formation consists of approximately 40,000 interlocking basalt columns that extend into the sea. According to legend, the columns were built by an Irish giant known as Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn McCool). He constructed the causeway so he could fight his rival, the Scottish giant Benandonner.

Giants Causeway

The 60 million-year-old columns were formed through ancient volcanic activity. Successive lava flows cooled rapidly when they met the seawater. This solidification created the unusual hexagonal columns stacked neatly on top of each other like stepping stones.

Let’s take a closer look at visiting this exceptional site and the myths and geology behind the Giants Causeway:

Where Is the Giants Causeway Located?

The Giants Causeway sits on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean on the northern coast of County Antrim. It’s part of the Causeway Coastal Route, which extends for 17 miles between the towns of Bushmills and Ballycastle.

The Causeway Coast offers many scenic highlights besides the Giants Causeway. Visitors can also explore the ruins of Dunluce Castle, the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge suspended high above the waves, and the picturesque village of Ballintoy Harbour.

Giants Causeway

The seaside town of Portrush provides the gateway for most visitors traveling to the Giants Causeway. Portrush offers convenient rail links to Derry and Belfast. The Giants Causeway also can be reached from Bushmills via the heritage railway or by several bus services.

The Legend Behind the Giants Causeway

While geologists understand the volcanic origins of the 40,000 basalt columns, legends narrate a very different tale. The most enduring myth centers around Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn McCool), the greatest of the mythical Irish warriors.

Stories relate that Finn McCool built the causeway himself to face his arch-enemy, Benandonner of Scotland. The two giants traded insults across the sea, leading Finn to invite Benandonner to a fight.

To reach Scotland without getting his feet wet, Finn McCool constructed the causeway across the narrow sea strait separating Ireland and Scotland.

Giants Causeway

When Benandonner accepted and started thundering across, McCool realized his foe was much bigger than expected.

Terrified, McCool fled home where his wife Oonagh disguised him as a baby. When Benandonner saw the “infant” he assumed the father must be gigantic. He destroyed part of the causeway to halt McCool’s pursuit before escaping home.

Exploring the UNESCO World Heritage Site

The Giants Causeway became Northern Ireland’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986. It also holds the status of a National Nature Reserve. The National Trust has managed the site since 1961.

The Causeway Itself

The main attraction is the causeway itself where visitors can clamber over the stepping stone formations leading down into the sea.

The causeway consists of approximately 40,000 basalt columns, mostly with five to seven sides. The tallest reach over 39 feet while many are only inches high.

Giants Causeway

The entire causeway covers three-quarters of a mile but much of this becomes submerged at high tide. Check tide times carefully to see the maximum extent. Early morning and late afternoon tend to offer the best light for photographs.

The Coastal Walk

Don’t just come to see the stones! The half-mile cliff-top walk from the visitor center down to the causeway provides spectacular scenery. Along the way, look for seabirds like fulmars, shags, razorbills, and guillemots.

The path descends alongside Port Noffer or the Bay of the Heifers. Today sheep graze here but cows kept the grass cropped in the past. Take care of twisted ankles on the uneven stones.

The Visitor Centre

The award-winning visitor center opened in 2012 after a suspicious fire destroyed the original in 2000. Interactive displays showcase the science and stories behind the geological formations and legends.

Exhibits describe the volcanic origins and 65 million years of weathering that created the distinct rock formations found here. Visitors can sample pyroclastic rocks and basaltic lava like those spewed from ancient volcanoes.

Don’t miss the inspiring 10-minute overview film dramatizing how the Causeway Coast’s unique landscape was formed. The legendary conflict between the Irish and Scottish giants also receives dramatic treatment.

The Geological Origins of the Causeway

The peculiar hexagonal columns of the Giants Causeway hold the key to understanding Antrim’s tumultuous geological past.

Between 50 to 60 million years ago, massive volcanic eruptions occurred as the Atlantic Ocean rifted apart during the breakup of the supercontinent Pangaea. As molten basaltic lava rapidly cooled, it fractured into regular columns. At least five major lava flows contributed to building the causeway.

The area later underwent uplift and erosion from wind and waves. These forces exposed the vertical and horizontal joints between the basalt columns, giving us the remarkable stepping stones visible today.

Ongoing erosion means the causeway continues to change. Chunks of columns regularly break off during fierce Atlantic storms. Visitors need to be cautious of falling rocks when exploring the causeway.

Giants Causeway

The Impact of Tourism on the Giants Causeway

Tourism sustains the economy of Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast. But it brings challenges as well as prosperity.

The Giants Causeway has suffered problems from overcrowding and congestion given its compact size. Up to 7,000 people a day pack the causeway on peak summer weekends.

Tourism expanded after the opening of the Causeway Tramway in 1887. By the 1960s, visitors could even ride a miniature train down the tramway embankment to the causeway.

Following the path we walk today, the tramway carried countless Victorian tourists to marvel at the giant’s handiwork. The tramway served for over 70 years but closed in 1949. A preservation society reopened a one-mile restored portion in 2001 which still operates seasonally.

Visiting the Giants Causeway as Part of a Northern Ireland Itinerary

The Giants Causeway deserves a spot on any itinerary for Northern Ireland together with other top attractions like the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, Dunluce Castle ruins, and the Old Bushmills Distillery.

Many tourists visit the Causeway Coast as a day tour from Belfast. But staying overnight allows time to explore without as many crowds. Consider spending a night in Portrush to enjoy sunsets and sunrises when most tourists have left.

Allow at least half a day to meander along the cliffs, explore the causeway’s nooks and crannies, and investigate interactive exhibits in the visitor center. Be sure to also save time for snacks in the cafe.

Check ahead on the tide tables so you can see the most extensive causeway at low tide. An early start beats the tour buses. Foggy or drizzly days can offer moody skies and beautiful lighting for photographs.

The Giant’s Causeway never fails to impress, even on return trips. The stunning sea views, the chance to spot seals or dolphins, and the opportunity to connect with 60 million years of geological history make this a must-see attraction for Northern Ireland. Just watch your step on those slick uneven stones!

Map to Giant’s Causeway


FAQs

Where should I stay when visiting the Giants Causeway?

Portrush and Portstewart offer the most options within walking distance of public transit to the Causeway. Bushmills are also convenient but choices are more limited. Consider staying in Belfast if doing a day tour.

How do I get to the Giants Causeway without a car?

The public bus from Portrush is the most convenient option. A shuttle bus runs from Bushmills in summer. Guided tours also offer roundtrip transport from Belfast or other locations.

When is the best time of day to visit the Giants Causeway?

Early morning and late afternoon provide the best lighting for photos. Mornings tend to be less crowded. Check tide tables to see the most extensive causeway at low tide.

Do I need to buy tickets ahead of time to visit the Giants Causeway?

No, you can purchase entry tickets at the visitor center. But buying online in advance lets you skip ticket queues.

Is walking on the causeway dangerous or risky?

The uneven and slippery basalt stones can lead to twisted ankles or falls. Take care when scrambling over the stones, especially when wet. Stay back from cliff edges.

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