Ireland: Giant’s Causeway

Along the northern coast of County Antrim in Ireland lies a unique coastal area made up of hexagonal columns called Giant’s Causeway. The strange shape of its rocks has spawned legends among the Irish. It is now one of the top tourist areas in all of Ireland (North or the Republic). It was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1986. It is worth the trek if you are ever in Ireland, particularly for the photographer.

Photo of Giant's Causeway from above (using a drone)

About Giant’s Causeway

Giant’s Causeway is a coastal area in County Antrim made up of hexagonal columns. The tops of the columns form stepping stones that lead from the cliff foot and disappear under the sea.

Legend has it that the stones are the remains of a causeway built by a giant named Finn MacCool. He was challenged to a fight by a Scottish giant. Finn accepted the challenge and built the causeway to get to the other giant.

So who wins the fight? There are a couple of versions of the story. In one version, Finn wins. In another, Finn hides when he sees the Scottish giant, who is much larger than he. Finn’s wife then disguises Finn as a baby and tucks him in a cradle. When the Scottish giant sees the size of the ‘baby’, he decides that its father must be truly enormous and flees back to Scotland, destroying the causeway behind him so that Finn could not follow.

Hexagonal stones of Giant's Causeway

When to Go

If you look at standard tourist guide books, you will see opening hours for Giant’s Causeway. Those are the hours for the visitors’ center, which opens at 9:00 am and closes between 5:00 pm and 9:00 pm (depending on the month). If you want to approach your visit to Giant’s Causeway more like a standard visitor – with a trip insider the visitors center, a ride down to the coast, and a trip to the gift shop – then you should go during opening hours. The earlier the better to avoid crowds.

Don’t be fooled though – you are not limited to the hours of the visitors center. If you want to photograph Giant’s Causeway around dawn and dusk (when the visitors center will not be open), there is nothing impeding you from doing so. There is a paved path that runs from the parking lot, goes to the right of the visitors center entrance, and winds down to the coast. It will probably take you 20 minutes or so to walk down (more about that in the next section). Just walk on down and enjoy the attraction in better light and free of crowds.

Looking back at Giant's Causeway

How to Get There

Giant’s Causeway is the primary tourist attraction along the Antrim Coast. In fact, the whole coastline is referred to as the “Causeway Coast.” The main road running along the coastline is the Causeway Road. So, in terms of getting to the actual location, you really won’t be able to miss it.

From the main road, turn off when you reach the pub called The Nook. There is a hotel called the Causeway Hotel immediately adjacent to the visitors center. Just pull in there. There are parking lots, which will have plenty of parking if you go off-hours or out of season. It will cost you £9 to park during normal operating hours (free after or before).

During the height of the tourist season in the middle of the day – good luck trying to find a place to park. You may end up walking quite a ways. I did see that there were shuttles running from the town center of Bushmills.

Getting Down to Giant’s Causeway

Once you have reached the parking lot and visitors center, there are good, better, and best ways to get down to Giant’s Causeway itself.

The first (good) way is to arrive during visitor hours, at which time a shuttle will be running. It will take you down to the coast. It has the benefit of requiring the least amount of energy, since you will be riding a shuttle up and back. The downside is that there will inevitably be a lot of other people down there at this time as well.

The better way (for photographers, at least) is to go down to the causeway before or after opening hours. It is not illegal or even frowned upon, as near as I can tell. That will allow you to photograph near sunrise or sunset and will also alleviate the crowd problem. In that case, you can just walk down the path and you are there. The downside, of course, is that there is no handy shuttle. But the benefits of good light and sparse crowds more than make up for that.

Finally, there is a best way, which took me some time to figure out. In my last visit, I discovered that you can simply drive your car down to the coast when nobody is around. There is a road that takes you from the visitors center all the way down (the same one the shuttles use) and there are no gates or anything else blocking your way after hours. Just drive down the road that starts near the visitors center and drive down. There is no designated parking, but there is a turnaround at the end of the road (right at the causeway itself) where you can park.  This works great, particularly if you have a lot of gear.

Giant's Causeway after sunset

Finding the Shot

There are so many ways you can shoot Giant’s Causeway, it is hard to know where to start. You can take in the whole scene with the sea and the sky, or you can focus entirely on the rocks. You can shoot out toward sea or back toward the mountains. You can capture the power of the sea with a fast shutter speed or slow the shutter speed down to capture serenity. Part of this will depend on the weather when you attend.

Before you go, check out others’ shots of Giant’s Causeway. You’ve already seen mine in this article, and seeing others’ will not require much effort. A simple Google search of Giant’s Causeway will turn up hundreds of photos. The best way is probably to use the term “Giant’s Causeway” in the 500px search box. If you do so, you will be treated to many, many great photos of Giant’s Causeway.

Giant's Causeway

What to Bring

Make sure you have your tripod, remote shutter release, and neutral density filters. A polarizer will also come in handy here, both to improve the sky and to reduce reflections on the rocks if they are wet.

You will likely need only a wide angle lens. Even if you want to capture details, you will not need a lens with a large focal length since you can get as close to the rocks as you want.

Hexagonal stones of Giant's Causeway

Other Area Attractions

As noted previously, the entire area is referred to as the Causeway Coast. There is a path that essentially runs along the entire coastline for miles in either direction. Check out this website, which even has detailed maps of the Causeway Coast. You could spend days (or weeks) walking it. Assuming you do not have that kind of time, here are some highlights moving from west to east:

White Rocks Beach – Follow the signs for White Rocks. This is a standard sand beach, but it has large white cliffs behind it. There are also some large rocks sticking out of the sand and water that can provide interesting subject matter.

Magheracross lookout – This is just a little turnoff with a parking lot, but it offers fairly dramatic views to either side. If you are facing the ocean, look to the left for steep and picturesque cliffs. To the right is Dunluce Castle. It is worth a stop.

Dunluce Castle – This is a large castle ruin hanging precariously off the coast. It is only about a mile from Giants Causeway (to the west). For photographers, it is not to be missed. Better than a trip to the castle is a visit to the fields immediately to the right (east) of the castle, where you can get great shots, particularly at sunset. Beware the cows though.

Ballintoy Harbor – A few miles east of Giants Causeway is a small harbor called Ballintoy. Take the winding road down to the harbor, park, and check out the harbor. The real star of this show is the coastline immediately to the west of the harbor though. Take the path to the left (if you are facing the water), which will pass coastline with giant rocks, hills, and even a sea arch.

Kinbane Head – This is protrusion sticking out to the ocean. Follow the signs to Kinbane Head to the parking lot. There is a path that takes you down to the protrusion. All by itself, this protrusion is worth photographing, but since this is Ireland it even has a castle ruin on it!

Map of causeway coast attractions, including Giant's Causeway

For those more interested in car touring, this stretch of coast is part of a larger scenic drive called the Causeway Coastal Route. Check out this website for more information on that drive.