Scenic Wicklow walks on the Vartry Reservoir Trails
Immerse yourself in nature and enjoy the incredible views on one of Wicklow's most picturesque walking routes: the Vartry Reservoir Trails near Roundwood. In a county famed for its scenery, this has to be one of its most serenely beautiful walks. Boasting just under 20kms of scenic trails around the upper and lower reservoir lakes, surrounded by woodland and mountains, the full loop is on relatively flat terrain throughout, and suitable for most ages and fitness levels.
But you don't need to do the full route at one time - it's divided up into three distinct looped walking trails so you can take it at your own pace. The Lower Vartry Trail is the longest at 7.2kms, following the blue arrows, while the Upper Vartry Trail is 6.4kms, waymarked by green arrows. The two trails are linked by a shorter 3.3kms Woodland Trail with pink arrows - download a map here. I walked both the Upper and Lower trails in one day, taking a break in between for some sustenance in Roundwood.
A short history lesson - the lower reservoir was constructed between 1862 and 1868 when a dam was built across the River Vartry. This was later followed by a second dam in 1923, forming the upper lake. The surrounding area is teeming with wildlife and rich in flora and fauna, while tunnels of trees line its peaceful pathways. On a Baltic but beautifully clear January day, I felt all the stresses and excesses of the previous weeks just melt away. After an hour of walking I realised I hadn't been thinking about anything other than my surroundings, feeling the cold, crisp air on my face, listening to the rustling of small creatures in the bushes and the gentle lapping of water at its edges - an unconsciously mindful experience.
UPPER VARTRY TRAIL: 6.4kms
Starting off: You'll find designated roadside parking area at Knockraheen entrance for this section of the route and for the Woodland Trail. GPS start point and grid references can be found here. Following the green arrows, I turned right at the information point, continuing in a loop until finally coming back around to the iconic Upper Draw outlet tower pictured above.
The Upper Trail follows the periphery of the upper reservoir lake where you'll enjoy fabulous views of the Djouce and Sugarloaf Mountains across the water. There are a few small inclines but nothing remotely challenging.
The earliest stages are idyllic: I followed the meandering woodland path which soon opened out to the gorgeous expanse of the lake. A bright winter sun cast long shadows ahead, creating a dappled effect between the trees, and sprigs of winter berries added a pop of colour to the cool winter palette. Rounding the next bend, the snow-topped peaks of the Djouce mountain came into view, dominating the landscape.
It was one of the those perfect winter's days. A frosty morning haze hung heavily in the air and the lake waters reflected back the terrific blue of the sky. I was particularly struck by the richly coloured palette of densely packed trees on the opposite bank punctuating the cool tones - an impressive panorama. Despite the bitingly cold temperature, I found myself rooted to the spot, wanting to absorb every small element of what lay before me.
A perfect stillness hung in the air, interrupted only by a noisy bird or the gentle lapping of water at the shoreline. After a series of inclines and declines, the entire expanse of the upper lake opens out in front of you to a sweeping view. Shortly afterwards the path leads to a short section of the route to be completed by road, traversing an upper section of the lake. It's at this point you'll get your first glimpse of that majestic Wicklow icon, the Sugarloaf Mountain.
The route is well signposted and I soon found myself off-road and back on a country lane again on the opposite bank of the water. Here you'll encounter the wonderful Ogham Tree Trail, an initiative of the Creative Ogham Wicklow. This project involved a collaboration between heritage educators, a woodcarving sculptor, and Roundwood and District Men’s Shed. The result: a series of beautifully carved wooden posts which stand alongside the native trees, bearing the name of each in English, Irish and Ogham, as well as relief carvings of their associated leaves and fruit to enable people to take rubbings. Both educational and interactive, it would make an excellent nature walk for families, encouraging kids (and adults) to engage with their natural heritage.
At a clearing beyond the Ogham Tree Trail, pause for a moment to savour the stillness and serenity of being lakeside. On this early January day, the ever-changing light created wondrous reflections of the stark, bare branches on the twinkling surface of the water.
Beyond this point I found myself cocooned by tall trees in an abundant forest setting which offered only an occasional glimpse of the lake beyond. Staying left at one of the main parking areas at the end, I entered a second wooded area which looked like something from Hobbiton with its lush green and mossy undergrowth heightened by the dazzling winter sun.
Beyond the forest is the home stretch which follows the southern edge of the reservoir back around to the picturesque Upper Draw outlet tower. Topped with a crenellated parapet and accessible via an iron girder bridge, it's a striking feature of the landscape, set against a mountainous backdrop and sweeping lake views. Extraordinarily beautiful!
LOWER VARTRY TRAIL: 7.2kms
Starting off: Unlike at the Upper trail, there is no designated parking for this section of the route. Your best option is to avail of the free parking on the outskirts of Roundwood village and make your way to the starting point from there (less than a kilometre). It is well signposted but just in case, GPS start points and grid references can be found here
The Lower Vartry Trail follows a lakeside path the entire way, with just one short diversion onto a country road. Taking the entrance to the right, the lake views revealed themselves pretty quickly after a short walk down a pretty country lane, with scenic meadows and rolling hills on the opposite side.
The expansive views across the water here are quite breathtaking, and the hypnotic sound of the water lapping on the shore will keep you company as you walk. A nature-loving friend had recently remarked to me that this was one of her favourite places in the country to walk, and I can now see why. On this particular midweek day, I met only a handful of other hikers though it gets busier in the summer months, especially at weekends.
On this chilly January day, I cherished the solitude. I paused frequently to watch families of moorhens float nonchalantly past and waited with baited breath to see what small creatures would emerge from the bushes. At one point, two ducks shot out from the narrow stream running parallel to the lake and flew right over my head.
The silhouettes of the bare winter branches created some striking reflections as the trees emerged like dramatic sculptures from the water. It was starkly beautiful.
As I followed the lakeside path, the late afternoon sun was dropping low in the sky, casting a soft golden glow across the landscape, in contrast to the icy-blue stillness of the water. As I rounded a bend, the magnificent Djouce mountain came into view, its summit topped with snow, while in the opposite direction came the first glimpse of the Lower Draw outlet tower, one of the most recognisable and iconic features of this trail.
Not long after this point, the trail joins the road for a short distance. Here you'll find the water treatment plant on one side, marked by a colourful plaque, and the elegant stone castellated tower on the other with its ornate iron gate. A sprig of vibrant red winter berries had flourished through a crack in the wall, adding a striking pop of colour.
This is roughly the halfway point on the Lower Trail, offering a vast expansive vantage point across the water to the distant Djouce Mountain. Make sure to look out for the fairytale-like house on the right before you finally leave the road again and rejoin the woodland path along the lakeshore.
This final section was particularly scenic, not least because of the beautiful sunset visible through the trees. Keep an eye out for signs pointing to two Bullaun stones on the lake's edge. A stillness had descended on the landscape and I sat on a memorial bench on the final bend to take in the exquisite fading light, glistening across the expanse of water. It was absolutely breathtaking and one of my favourite moments of the day.