Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Giant's Causeway

Coming fresh from our Grand U.S. Road Trip, we might have (mistakenly) thought North America had cornered the market on natural beauties and curiosities.  We would have been dead wrong, of course, and almost no natural landmark on this island would have proven us more wrong than the famed Giant's Causeway.

Giant's Causeway from Near Distance
Giant's Causeway from Near Distance

Giant's Causeway stones close up
Individual Stones
This curious and unique formation was formed by intense volcanic activity and rapid cooling during the ancient birth of the island.  Cooling basalt was cracked vertically down from the surface, forming these neat hexagonal "pillars."  Since the seventeenth century, this has been a popular tourist attraction for international globetrotters.  Like many historic landmarks on Earth, it has only recently been placed under protected status.  Some of the stones here were quarried out to build roads and castles nearby, but the site is largely intact and undisturbed.

Giant's Causeway in the sun
Shadows cast by the Causeway
The name "Giant's Causeway" comes from an old legend of the people here.  We overheard most of the story from a tour guide further down the coast.  According to the tale, an Irish giant named Finn MacCool lived on this coastline.  Another giant lived across the sea in Scotland (which is visible on a clear day from the Causeway.)  The two giants were bitter rivals who exchanged taunts and thrown boulders across the open water for years.  Finally, they built this stone bridge out of hexagonal stones to face off with each other once and for all.  When Finn saw the other giant charging across the channel, he lost his nerve and asked his wife to help him hide.  Cleverly, she dressed him up in baby clothes and put him in a crib with a giant-sized bottle.  When the Scottish giant arrived at Finn's home, Finn's wife told the Scot that Finn wasn't at home, it was just she and the baby at the moment.  If he would wait, Finn would be home shortly for their battle.  When the Scot laid eyes on the (fully grown Finn) baby, he was terrified at how large the giant must be to have a baby of this size!  Quickly, he ran back to Scotland, destroying the bridge as we went.  The formation does amazingly continue on the Scottish side of the sea, giving this entertaining myth just a bit more believability.  

Giant's Causeway stones worn smooth by erosion
Causeway stones worn smooth by erosion

Cory looks at the water at Giant's Causeway
Obligatory Cory-looking-at-the-water shot

After making the hike down to the Causeway, visitors can walk back up the gradual hill to the visitor's center OR take the steep Shepherd's Steps up the cliffside for a bird's-eye view.  We, of course, elected for the strenuous steps.  These steps were originally carved and built by shepherds to literally carry sheep on their backs from the rocky shoreline to the green pastures on the clifftop.  After a tiring climb, we were rewarded with beautiful views of one of the biggest formations at the Causeway.  Looking at the photo below, one can make out tiny people on the rocks and the high-tide line shown by the darker (seaweed and barnacle-covered) stones.

Giant's Causeway from the top of Shepherd's Steps
Giant's Causeway from above

Some totally biased and unsolicited tips for the potential Causeway visitor:

1) The site is technically free, but there is a steep "parking" cost charged by the visitor's center that suspiciously charges by the visitor rather than by the vehicle.  Tour buses also pay a parking cost charged by the passenger.  Hmmmm...  If traveling by car, park much more cheaply at the nearby Causeway-Bushmills Railway station, or better yet, take this historic slow train on the beautiful seven-mile ride along the coast from Bushmills.  There are also free bathrooms for Railway parking customers.

2) Bring good walking shoes with sturdy grip.  This World Heritage Site (thankfully!) has no velvet ropes or safety guardrails.  The basalt stones have been worn smooth by years of erosion and can be very slick when wet.  The last photo was taken literally off the edge of a high cliff.  Getting to the formations from the parking lot and visitor's center is a bit of a walk on steep trails.  There is a shuttle that runs from the center to one peninsula of the formation, but it isn't free.

3) This site can be seen in a quick trip or in a longer day of exploring.  We spent a couple of hours here in total, which was just enough for us.  We didn't do the long hike along the whole of the formation, which would have taken several hours itself.  Our time was spent hiking the trail to the nearest (and among the largest) formation, poking around on the stones, climbing the cliff, and having a picnic lunch back at the railway station.  Quick trippers could park at the visitor's center, take the shuttle to the formation, snap some photos, and take the shuttle back to the center.  This would be a bit like the Griswold's trip to the Grand Canyon to me, but everyone has their own pace and their own taste.

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