Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland

Posted on
Oct 8, 2012

Fortunately, even non-giants are allowed to explore the area.

While we were in Northern Ireland, I decided that we needed to visit the Giant’s Causeway despite not really knowing what it was. When Rand asked, I replied with the rather vague and not-entirely accurate, “It’s a big rocky thingy. Um … with giants.”

My explanation, he pointed out, was in no way helpful. Fortunately, upon stopping by the newly-built visitor’s center, we came back with a slightly clearer picture.

From this angle it looks a wee bit like a bomb shelter, but it’s really quite nice inside.

The Giant’s Causeway is the result of ancient volcanic activity. About 50 to 60 million years ago, a volcanic eruption caused molten basalt (which is regular salt, I guess, but, you know … has a “ba” in front of it) to seep through chalk beds, creating a wide, flat surface which then cooled rapidly. This caused the basalt to contract and form tall hexagonal columns.

The cooling caused further striations, so that the columns look like they are composed of many small “biscuits” (I didn’t come up with that. Apparently other people see cookies everywhere, too). The biscuits have convex tops and concave bottoms, so they fit together neatly, like a very elaborate game of Jenga.

Some of the basalt “biscuits”. Water pools in the concave impressions.

Like snacks from the worst tea party, ever.

To recap: ancient volcano makes cool rocks.

There’s another story, too, about how the Causeway came to be. It involves an Irish warrior named Finn MacCool (Yes, I know. “Finn MacCool” sounds like a spokesman for a light beer circa 1984, but I swear, that’s what he was called), who built a causeway to Scotland in order to fight a giant named Benandonner.

Unfortunately for Finn, Benandonner was much bigger than he had predicted, and when he saw the giant approaching (on his Causeway) Finn freaked out and asked his wife Oonagh for help. (Parenthetically, isn’t Oonagh a great name? Too few monkers out there start with double Os, if you ask me.)

So Oonagh disguised Finn as her very large, very hirsute baby. When Benandonner saw Finn, he believed him to be Finn’s son, and rethought his earlier plans, reasoning that if the baby was that big, he did not want to meet dad. So Benandonner fled back to Scotland, tearing up the Causeway in his path. The broken remains are what we see today.

Since my understanding of geology has never been all that great, I’m going to say that both stories about the origins of the Causeway sound equally plausible.

We walked the road down to the Causeway, passing a point that was supposedly the windiest spot in Ireland.

While I can’t definitively say whether or not that was true, the wind was quite intense. I could barely hear my audio guide. Everyone around seemed to be having the same problem. We all looked like we were the quiet end of a one-sided and very confusing cell phone conversation.

Wait, what?

And then we rounded a corner …

And there it was.

I can say, without hyperbole, that it was the most impressive hexagonal columnal basalt structure I had ever seen. I mean, it literally made every other hexagonal columnal basalt structure I’ve encountered look like a pile of crap, you know?

Rather remarkably, you can walk right on it. I guess the people from the National Trust reason that if something can withstand millions of years of erosion, as few hundred thousand tourists in tennis shoes aren’t going to make that much of a difference.

Some folks even appeared to be having a picnic. Which is a nice idea in theory, but, if you’ll notice the sky in these photos, the weather was literally changing by the minute. Sun, then clouds, then drizzle, back to sun again. I’m not one to risk getting my scone damp.

The lingering question, even after we’d read up on the place, listened to the audio guide, and stopped by the visitor’s center, remained: we kept wondering what exactly this place was. It felt more substantial than merely a geological formation. We wanted more of an explanation – the idea of lava flows and fast-cooling basalt sounded too simplistic.

Especially when you consider how wonderful and strange and complex life is.

And so the idea that magic was at play, with giants and warriors and clever women wrapping their husbands up like infants, didn’t seem that far-fetched after all.


The Essentials on The Giant’s Causeway:

  • Verdict: Heck, yeah. The Causeway is on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and is considered one of the U.K.’s Seven Wonders.
  • How to get there: You can drive from Belfast (it will take you along what is arguably one of the most lovely roads in the world) and it shouldn’t take you more than 1.5 hours. HOWEVER, if you are not accustomed to driving on the opposite side of the road or operating a manual transmission, please note that serious martial strife may arise. There are also many, many tour buses that can take you here (lots of packages will also take you to the Bushmills Distillery, which we sadly arrived at after the tours had ended, as well as the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge).

    My dear husband, upon learning Bushmills was closed for the day.


  • Ideal for: hikers, geology nerds (those exist, right?), and anyone who loves the outdoors.
  • Insider tips: wear comfy shoes and bring a windbreaker or a raincoat. The wind can get quite chilly, and the weather can switch from sunny and pleasant to lashing rain in a matter of seconds. There’s a shuttle that goes down to the Causeway every 10 minutes from the visitor’s center, but it will cost you 1 pound per person. Consider walking the half mile down, and then hopping on the shuttle for the ride back up. Also, you can make a day trip out of this and visit Carrick-a-Rede and Bushmills, too.
  • Nearby food: I’d recommend eating after you’ve seen the Causeway so, as one gentleman put it, “You won’t have to carry all that down with you.” The visitor’s center has a cafeteria with lunchtime staples: tea and an assortment of cakes, grilled sandwiches (flavors while we were there included tuna melt, cheddar and chutney, and ham and cheese), as well as soups and stews. I ordered the latter and found an entire potato in mine (it was still pretty good, though). The later in the day, the less of an assortment you’ll find.
  • Good for kids: Yup. Exercise caution, as the terrain can be quite rough and some columns are rather tall and drop off sharply. Little ones who venture on their own might face a dangerous tumble. But they can scramble around and touch everything, which is a nice change from many tourist destinations. Plus, tidepools!


Leave a Comment

  • abigailabear

    I laughed out loud at least three times reading this! I see cookies everywhere too;)

  • Giant’s Causeway looks so fun… like a 3-D version of the world’s most complicated hopscotch. Or maybe I’m the only one who sees that?

  • Love it! Went to Giants Causeway a few years ago, before I had a blog, and now I feel like I’ve just visited again… through your post. Sums it up very well, took me right back there! x

  • They look like oyster crackers to me!

  • This may well be my favorite travel post from your blog. It looks exactly like the kind of place I would want to go see and I had no idea it existed! And the look on your face holding up an entire potato cracked me up. Great post! Thank you!

  • So, I’m a lawyer/travel blogger with a serious geology fettish, so this looks like my kinda place. BTW, having driven around the Republic of Ireland with my husband— on the “wrong” side earlier this year, the bus tour idea seems like a good one.

  • kokopuff

    It’s posts like these that make me want to be you. I hope I get to travel to 1/10 of the places you have…but this is a must. (because I’m Irish and I feel the call of the homeland.) You just know in the States, we’d put up guardrails and “keep off” signs and ruin the whole experience.

  • They have something like this in California near where I grew up called Devils postpile, its amazing and also really great for geology nerds.

    • LarenR

      It was several years ago, but I loved walking across the top of Devil’s Postpile. I remember it as being relatively smooth and reminding me of a tile kitchen floor.

      Also, check out Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. Very cool.

  • Brooke

    Loved seeing the Giant’s Causeway! When I went there I was studying in Dublin and we went there for a science trip. My professor was a major Geology nerd so we would always have impromptu lectures at the most random places. These included bogs, at the other end of the Carrick-a-Rede bridge, pulling over to an old cemetery and the best on top of the Giant’s causeway. Some tourist thought he was a tour guide. It was great!

  • Mark

    That stew looks delicious even with a whole potato in it!!

  • HollyFromHomer

    There’s plenty of that in your state of residence as well, didn’t ya know? Probably not, since the “columnal jointing” (that’s what I called it in Geology class in WA) is in the western part of the state… If you find yourself in the vicinity of Eastern WA University, or driving to Pullman/Moscow/Walla Walla you can see a lot of it on the side of the road. Yeah, in case you just didn’t get enough of it. 🙂

  • Jenny

    Well, crap, now I want to go to a tea party 🙂

  • Excellent “I found a potato in my soup” picture. And I laughed out loud at the “most impressive hexagonal columnal basalt structure” you’d ever seen line. You’re my favorite travel blog!

  • I don’t wish to sound negative, but you’ve got ALL the facts wrong.

    1) The Giant’s Causeway is made of crinkle-cut fries for Irish rock trolls. It’s a kind of geological fast food joint. If you’d asked any of the locals you’d know this.

    2) “Finn MacCool” is actually the Gaelic for “MacGyver”. It’s what it was called when it was imported and aired in Ireland. I don’t know where you got this mythological nonsense. Again, the locals could have told you this. Ask them.

    3) As a fellow lover of Bushmills, I am *appalled* that you gave up so easily. This is *Ireland*. Basically, if there’s really good alcohol involved, you make your own entrance. It would have taken no time at all to wrap your jacket round your arm and safely knock a window in. If you’d spent *any* time there, you’d have seen the locals doing it. But you didn’t, clearly.

    4) I bet you didn’t actually eat that potato in one bite – *like the locals would have*.

    In short, I’m awarding you an A for entertainment value and a pathetic F-minus for consulting the locals. Thanks for the read.

  • Kelsey

    This same basalt columns rock formation can be found in Yellowstone National park. it is called the sheep eaters cliff.
    Cool stuff!

  • absolutely awesome!! Must go someday! I am going with the giant story by the way …

  • Looks awesome…I’d seen a photo of it here and there, but never really knew what it was. Looks like a beautiful side trip

  • Kristina Cline

    Oh gosh with two boys on the spectrum, whenever I read a review the back of my mind always says “But can they TOUCH it?” Seeing people clambering over a world heritage sight makes me very happy in a strange way. Plus tide pools! Yay!

  • James

    Did you have a look inside the new visitor’s centre? It has been in the local news recently because of a ‘controversial’ exhibit (I am from Belfast)

    • Iain

      There was definitely a stooshie about the creationist version of how the Causeway was formed being included in the visitor centre. Interesting (and I think absolutely appropriate) that this was not blogged about.

      Let’s be realistic, the Giants Pretending To Be Babies story is far more plausible!

  • Jenn

    This was one of my favorite places in Ireland. I can’t wait to go back!

  • I was there nearly 20 years ago (sheesh, I’m old) and there was nothing out there but the causeway. No visitor’s center or really many other tourists, except a few other Northern Irish people and their friends. It was in the midst of “the Troubles,” so tourists up there were few anyway. I think it was the only thing folks thought worth seeing in the North at the time, even Northerners! Everyone said: “Oh, see the Giant’s Causeway, since you have to be up there anyway.”

    I lived in the Belfast and Portadown areas for a couple years, and there wasn’t much there to like at the time, so the Giant’s Causeway was a bit of a big deal for me. It was like: ah, there is something here besides soldiers and Orange marchers and my evil future-mother-in-law (fortunately, I escaped from that arrangement before any wedding). I do remember liking the old Titanic exhibit before they built the new fancy-pants museum, mostly because it was 20 years ago so no one cared about the Titanic at the time and I found all the info so surprising, and the open air museum next door. It was the first of its kind I’d ever visited, and now I hunt them down everywhere I go, because they’re so freaking cool. Nothing like walking through original buildings to understand history. Check it out next time. Better than Bushmills, I promise.

    Very cool to see Northern Ireland again through your blog.

  • Willem Van Der Westhuizen


    I assume you moderate before posting on the site so desided to contact you via the blog just. We are a new tour company(6 Months Old) and i was hoping to get a link from your site for
    We do daily tours to the Giants Causeway from both Dublin and Belfast

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