Giant's Causeway is a spectacular series of rock formations on the north coast of Northern Ireland. The main site stretches for 2-3 miles, with some 40,000 basalt columns rising out of the sea. The area is owned by the National Trust and is Northern Ireland's only UNESCO World Heritage Site: it's impressive but very touristy, with a million visitors each year. It's mobbed on fine weekends, try to visit off-peak.
Some 60 million years ago, a great rift developed in the earth's surface that sundered Europe from America and formed the North Atlantic. Lava gushed up from fissures: it was fluid and spread out into vast fiery lakes, rather than heaping up into volcanoes. The lava cooled into a deep layer of basalt, the Thulian Plateau. The Atlantic widened and fractured the plateau into what is now the Scottish Hebrides, Northern Ireland, Iceland, Greenland and maritime Canada. It's still widening and the lava continues to well up from time to time, most obviously in Iceland.
Basalt layers are found worldwide, they form the dark maria or "seas" of the moon, are common on Mars, and are seen elsewhere in the solar system. The shape they take on cooling depends on conditions: here a thick lava flow cooled slowly, contracting slightly. This created a network of vertical fractures in a hexagonal pattern like mud in a dried-up lake-bed: it's the most energy-efficient way to dissipate the contraction stress. Horizontal cracks were wider spaced so as the basalt and other material eroded, this exposed tall black columns of about 0.5 m diameter, with a stepped appearance as upper segments washed off.
These formations were discovered by tourists in the 18th century, but local people had long wondered at them, and their fishermen told of similar formations across the North Channel in the Hebrides. Such a cascade of steps was surely not natural, but no mortal man could have wrought such things. Fortunately they knew just the fellow, one of the superheroes that inhabited the Ireland of legend. In the green corner, step forward Fionn mac Cumhaill or Finn McCool. In the blue corner for Scotland, step forward Bennandonner, the towering Bluto to McCool's Popeye, loud boos and jeers from the Ulster audience. It's a real grudge match because these two have a lot of previous. Like the time McCool scooped up a clod of earth to hurl at Bennandonner, but it fell short and created the Isle of Man, while the clod-hole filled with water as Lough Neagh.
Still the North Channel lies between them, with swift cold currents, too far to swim and McCool is too large for any boat yet built. So he creates a causeway across the sea, and storms ashore in Scotland to confront his foe. But then he sees Bennandonner up close for the first time. Big? Huge?? Humongous - McCool realises he's made a serious mistake, and legs it back to Ireland. Benandonner pursues him across the causeway, a tad slower, so McCool makes it home and has a few minutes to consider his defence.
Bennandonner pounds on the door and Mrs Oonagh McCool answers - "You'll be waking the baby! . . . my man Finn, oh but he's gone to the fields . . . do come in and wait, he wouldn't want to miss you, but keep quiet and don't wake the baby!" Bennandonner clocks the size of this baby - it's Finn himself playing cute in frills and a vast cradle. Baby that size, perhaps Bennandonner won't wait around to meet the father. So he scarpers back to Scotland and tears up the causeway behind him.
Day trips run from Belfast and even from Dublin - if you don't have your own transport and have limited time, these are a good option. They're sure to take in the other big-name attractions of Bushmills Distillery, Carrick-a-Rede Bridge and Dark Hedges; maybe a glimpse of the Antrim Glens.
By public transport you usually travel via Bushmills 3 miles south. That will mean a train from Belfast to Coleraine then Bus 402 / 172 along the coast.
Stay on the bus at Bushmills and another five minutes brings you to Giant's Causeway. The bus continues east to Dunseverick (for crumbly castle), Ballintoy (for Carrick-a-Rede Bridge) and Ballycastle (for ferries to Rathlin Island).
By car reckon 80 min from Belfast via M2 / A26 to Ballymena then A44 towards Ballycastle, branching west on the coast road A2.
The area is maintained by the National Trust and is free to enter all year 24 hours, but you pay heavily for parking in a congested car park. You can avoid paying by using other transport over the last couple of miles, and the high charges are meant to encourage you to do so. The options are:
- - Bus 402 / 172 along the coast between Coleraine, Portrush, Bushmills, Giant's Causeway and Ballycastle, as above.
- - Park at Bushmills free, and take the heritage railway, or the shuttle bus from the P&R. Don't attempt to park on the roads near the Causeway entrance, they're narrow and double-yellow-lined; offenders are likely to get towed.
- - Park at Causeway railway station for £8, but only if you're riding the railway, see below. It makes more sense to ride it the other way round, parking free at Bushmills.
- - Hike along the cliff tops from Portballintrae a mile west or Dunseverick Castle 3 miles east.
Parking at the Causeway is only available if you've pre-booked a ticket to the Visitor Centre: adult £13, child £6.50, NT members free but they must still pre-book. The centre has toilets and an exhibition: it's of interest, but not remotely worth what they're charging. You don't have to enter it to access the site.
1 The Visitor Centre, built in 2012, is next to the car park. It's normally open daily Apr-Sept 10:00-17:00, Oct-Mar 10:00-16:00, but closed ufn in early 2021.
From the centre it's half a mile or so to the start of the area of interest, along the tarmac lane which descends to become the low-level path. A shuttle bus plies along it, £1 each way, NT free. This path gives the best view of the site but it dead-ends at Port Neostan - its continuation east has been closed because of erosion. The other path from the centre is along the cliff tops and extends for miles, great views out to sea but only oblique or more distant views of the rock formations. There's no other link between these paths (the Shepherd's Steps are closed) so you'd have to backtrack.
- Causeway School east side of the car park was an art school then a museum. It's now offices for the National Trust.
- Throughout the area, watch for bird life. Resident species include fulmar, petrel, cormorant, shag, redshank, guillemot and razorbill.
- 1 Portcoon Jetty is the cove everybody misses, as you branch west instead of following the beaten trail. Right of the jetty, east side of the cove, is the large Portcoon Cave. You need low tide to scramble along the beach and into it, and torches to get any distance inside.
- 2 Portnaboe or Bay of the Cow is the first inlet you reach on the low-level path north of the Visitor Centre. On the shore find The Camel, a hump-backed blade of rock formed as a "dyke" by lava cooling within a crack in now-vanished rocks.
- Great Stookan is the promontory closing that bay to the east, and the headland above is Weir Snout. The Granny is a rock part way up, said to resemble a stooped old woman climbing the hill - many visitors have difficulty spotting it, or seeing any resemblance. The inlet beyond is Port Ganny, bounded to the east by the centrepiece of the causeway.
- 3 Grand Cascade is the one in all the tourist publicity, the great stairway, more suitable for a dance routine in top hat and tails than for clumping quarrelsome giants. The Wishing Chair is a throne-like cluster of columns gazing down amidst this vista, where what you wish is that your backside wasn't so wet and cold. The chair hexagon retains dampness, so take a plastic shopping bag to tuck under your butt, easily hidden from your partner's photo. The headland above is called Aird Snout and a steep path leads down, The Shepherd's Steps. In 2021 this path is closed by a rock fall.
- Port Noffer is the next small bay east. On the shore, The Boot is a large rock, from which it's calculated that Finn McCool stood 16 m tall. But suppose it's just the baby's boot?
- 4 Organ Pipes are unbroken 15 m columns set into the cliffs above Port Noffer.
- Port Reostan is the next little cove east, backed by the cliffs of The Amphitheatre. The low-level path ends here, so if you want to explore further east, you need to backtrack and join the clifftop path. One offshore rock has a column that makes it resemble a submarine with a conning tower.
- 5 Lacanda Point bounds that bay east, with The Chimney Tops the cliff formation above - erosion has separated these columns from the main rockface.
- Spanish Bay is the next, where the Armada galleas Girona was wrecked on 26 Oct 1588, with the loss of almost all 1300 aboard. After the Armada scattered and fled around Scotland, Girona was patched up in Donegal and attempted to head for Scotland instead of running for home along the Irish Atlantic coast, but a storm drove her onto the rocks here. In 1967 the wreck was located, and a huge hoard of gold recovered; diving on the wreck is forbidden. Set into the hillside, the Spanish Organ is similar to the Organ Pipes.
- Port na Callan, Port na Tober and Port na Plaiskin are the last three inlets at the east limit of the park area.
- There's a gift shop within the Visitor Centre, but you've already paid them plenty just to go in the centre.
- There's no ATM here, the nearest is in Bushmills.
- Save the Bushmills whiskey for evening. Those cliffs are high and the rocks are wet and slippery enough even with a steady gait.
As of March 2021, the area has 4G from all UK carriers. This continues south to Bushmills but there are dead spots on the road east to Ballycastle. 5G has not reached this area.
- Bushmills has the well-known whiskey distillery.
- Carrick-a-Rede Bridge is a few miles east along the coast towards Ballycastle. Although it's called a "rope bridge" it's nowadays a sturdy metal hawser structure, open all year.
- Ballycastle is a pleasant beach resort, with ferries to Rathlin Island.
- The Antrim Glens are reached along the coast east between Ballycastle, Cushendall and Larne.
- West along the coast are the resorts of Portrush and Portstewart.
- Fingal's Cave on the island of Staffa is the Scottish end of the Causeway. You reach it by boat trip from Mull.
- Iceland was covered in lava as part of the Thulian Plateau, with further flows right up to the present day. It has lots of basalt formations, and a dozen of them are spectacular.