How To Use Your iPhone GPS For Hiking In The Wilderness

iPhone GPS Hiking

Using Your Smartphone GPS for Hiking

Travel Tips

Would you be surprised if I told you my favorite piece of backpacking gear is my smartphone? I love using my iPhone’s GPS for hiking in the wilderness.

If you’ve been following me on Facebook & Instagram, you’ll know that I recently returned from an epic trek in Greenland on the Arctic Circle Trail.

There’s no cell-service on this hike. It was a 10 day adventure through remote Greenlandic wilderness. However I was still able to use my iPhone’s built in GPS capabilities to help me navigate the long-distance route.

My battery lasted 7 days before it needed recharging too!

I’ve been using Gaia GPS for hiking trips in places like Turkey, Norway, Israel, Greenland, Canada, Iceland, and the United States. It’s a super useful app for adventure lovers.

GPS Hiking App

Gaia GPS in Greenland

Smartphone GPS For Hiking

Did you know that cell service is not necessary to use your smartphone’s Global Positioning System (GPS) chip? However to track your progress effectively without service, you must pre-download maps before the journey.

There are a few different GPS mapping apps out there for smartphones, but my favorite (and the most used) is called Gaia GPS Topo Maps.

This amazing app allows hikers to pre-download different types of maps from around the world for use with your iPhone’s GPS. You can also record altitude, speed, leave waypoints, create tracks, and produce all sorts of other detailed information about your backcountry trips.

Better Than Dedicated GPS Unit?

Why spend hundreds of dollars on a dedicated GPS device for hiking when you can get the same functionality with a $20 app for your smartphone?

Using your phone as a GPS unit saves you money, reduces the amount of weight you pack, and serves multiple purposes (photos, journal, notes, etc.).

It’s a wonderful backup to have along with paper maps, and can save your butt if you happen to lose the trail or get caught in bad weather.

Both have happened to me a few times, and whipping out your phone is far easier than attempting to use regular maps during a raging storm!

GPS Hiking App

Pre-Downloading a Section of Map

Gaia GPS Settings

To get the most out of Gaia GPS, there are few settings you need to be aware of. First, there are many different map layers you can use within the app. The two I use most often are the Open Hiking Map and Google’s satellite view called Imagery + Roads.

These are probably the best maps for hiking. The Open Hiking Map includes basic topographical features along with known hiking trails, while Satellite Imagery gives you a better picture of the landscape.

If hiking somewhere without cell service, make sure to pre-download sections of the map that cover the area where you’ll be.

Pre-downloading maps is explained in the YouTube tutorial below.

Gaia GPS also allows you to record tracks as you hike, but don’t do this unless you have a specific need, because it drains battery life and requires the phone to be powered on the whole time.

I only use the app to confirm my GPS location or navigate in bad weather.

Close the Gaia app after each use (double tap the home button and swipe the app up to close). This prevents Gaia from continually updating your location. Turn the phone off to further reduce battery drain.

iPhone GPS Hiking

Hiking in Norway with the LifeProof FRĒ Power

Protecting Your Phone

As you might already know, I’m a huge fan of the water & shock-proof smartphone cases from LifeProof, and they’re one of my sponsors too.

Using the LifeProof FRĒ POWER gives me double the battery power for long-distance treks like the Arctic Circle Trail.

So when my phone’s battery eventually dies, I simply press a button on the back of the LifeProof case to recharge it completely.

Battery Conservation Settings

While hiking through Greenland for 10 days, my iPhone 6 battery lasted for 7 days using the settings below. I turned off the phone when not in use, and only powered it up to compare my GPS location with the paper maps I carried.

  • Enable Airplane Mode (turns off WiFi/Bluetooth)
  • Close all apps except Gaia
  • General > Usage > Battery Percentage = ON
  • Privacy > Location Services = OFF (except Gaia)
  • Privacy > Advertising > Limit Ad Tracking = ON
  • Privacy > Motion & Fitness = OFF
  • General > Siri = OFF
  • General > Accessibility > Reduce Motion = ON
  • General > Date & Time > Set Automatically = OFF
  • General > VPN = OFF

One more important tip is to keep your phone warm when it’s cold out, like in a pants pocket. This includes when sleeping too. Nothing drains the battery faster than cold weather! ★

Watch Video: Gaia GPS Tutorial

(Click to watch Gaia GPS Tutorial on YouTube)

More Information

Product: Gaia GPS App for iPhone | Android
Total Cost: $19.99 USD
Useful Notes: Gaia GPS is a pretty big application with many features. You’ll want to set aside at least an hour to learn how to use it.

READ NEXT: Complete Travel Gear Guide

Have any questions about using your phone’s GPS for hiking?

My Experience Learning Spanish In Guatemala

San Pedro La Laguna

Learning Spanish in Guatemala

San Pedro La Laguna, Guatemala

While traveling through Guatemala I spent 3 weeks taking Spanish classes and staying with a local family on Lake Atitlan. Here’s a rundown of my experience.

Guatemala is one of the best countries in the world to visit if you’d like to learn Spanish. It’s not too far from the United States, classes are inexpensive, and locals naturally speak slowly without using too much slang.

Plus, if you’d like to learn Spanish fast, there’s no better way then to be totally immersed in the culture & language for an extended period of time.

I decided to study in the town of San Pedro La Laguna on Lake Atitlan, located in the Guatemalan Highlands of the Sierra Madre mountains.

This massive lake is surrounded by volcanoes, colorful wildflowers, and traditional Maya villages. A picture perfect setting to learn Spanish.

Lake Atitlan

Beautiful Lake Atitlan

San Pedro La Laguna

My Home for 3 Weeks

Spanish School In Guatemala

I went to Cooperative School San Pedro on Lake Atitlan (Lago de Atitlan). It’s a true cooperative started by a group of experienced Spanish teachers who believe they have a responsibility to their community.

In general it’s recommended to take at least 3 weeks of Spanish classes to get a basic grasp on the language. You can choose between 3-6 hours of instruction per day, either morning or afternoon classes.

Homestays are available or you can find your own accommodation.

I paid $205 USD per week for 4 hours of class per day, 5 days per week, which also included my homestay plus 3 meals a day. It was a great deal!

Lake Atitlan has a laid-back hippy vibe, and the landscape around the lake is breathtaking with many outdoor activities nearby. However Antigua & Quetzaltenango (Xela) are also popular towns for learning Spanish.

Xela is a larger city, while Antigua is a bit more touristy.

Friends of mine have recommended ICA Spanish School in Xela and Antigua Plaza School in Antigua if you’re looking to stay there instead.

San Pedro La Laguna

Spanish Class with Flori

A Typical Day At Class

There are a few different options for class schedules, however I choose 4 hours of one-on-one Spanish instruction per day, five days a week. My teacher was Flori, a local woman who’s been teaching for years.

She always seemed upbeat and excited to teach as we sat in the shade overlooking Lake Atitlan.

After a general evaluation of my Spanish skills (almost non-existent in my case), Flori gave me a refresher course on rules of Spanish and helped improve my vocabulary using fun games and written exercises.

There were homework assignments every night too…

My Spanish quickly improved with regular daily instruction, and I was finally able to communicate with my Guatemalan host family and other locals.

Three weeks of class wasn’t enough to become fluent, but traveling through Central America was MUCH easier because I could understand a lot more and make myself understood.

Even though I probably sounded like a 5 year old!

Homestay Guatemala

Guatemalan Homestay

Mayan Hosts

Local Maya Host Family

The Homestay Experience

While taking Spanish school in Guatemala I stayed with the Bixcul-Pichilla family in their small two-story cinderblock home nestled at the bottom of Volcano San Pedro.

It was super difficult to communicate at first, as they don’t speak any English. Only Tzujill (a local Mayan language) & some Spanish.

I had my own bedroom, and the family of 5 shared 3 others. We also had a basic kitchen and open-air courtyard. Living this way was an eye-opening experience for me, very different from the “comfortable” American lifestyle I’m used to.

There was a bathroom in the courtyard, and a sink area used for washing clothes, cleaning dishes, brushing teeth, shaving — pretty much everything.

Water was delivered via pipes once or twice a week, where it’s stored in drums for later use. Occasionally it would run out if we used too much.

San Pedro Volcano

Climbing San Pedro Volcano

Lake Atitlan Canoe

Traditional Wooden Canoe

Activities Nearby

Like I mentioned earlier, the Lake Atitlan area is full of cool things to do. So when I got sick of trying to memorize new Spanish words, I’d take a break and get outside for a Guatemalan adventure!

Volcano Hikes

Lake Atitlan is surrounded by volcanoes. Hiking these is a great way to get some exercise and capture epic photos of the landscape. Two of the most popular hikes are Volcano San Pedro and La Nariz de Indio.

Lake Kayaking

Rent a kayak and explore Lake Atitlan up-close and personal. Or if you’re feeling REALLY adventurous, find a local fisherman willing to rent out his traditional wooden canoe. They aren’t easy to navigate!

Scuba Diving

Yes, you can go scuba diving under the lake here, and apparently there’s interesting stuff to see. Like freshwater crabs, underwater volcanic hot-vents, and flooded hotels. ATI Divers is located in the town of Santa Cruz.

Coffee Tours

Coffee is a big deal in Guatemala, and the nutrient-rich volcanic slopes around Lake Atitlan are covered in coffee farms. A coffee tour allows you to experience the fascinating coffee production process from start to finish.

Maya Villages

There are 12 Maya villages spread out around the shores of Lake Atitlan, with many only accessible by boat or on foot. My favorites were Santiago, San Juan, and San Marcos. Walk the cobblestone streets, visit old churches, watch a local basketball game, and experience some Maya culture.

Community Outreach

Many of the Spanish schools in San Pedro give back to the community with social aid projects, and you can volunteer to help out by bringing food or building supplies to poor local families in need.

San Pedro Church

Church in San Pedro la Laguna

Santiago Lake Atitlan

Santiago Streets

Tips & Advice

Panajachel is the main transportation hub for the Lake Atitlan area. A bus from Guatemala City to Panajachel takes 3-4 hours. Once at the lake, the best way to travel from village to village is by lancha (boat taxi). Prices vary, but are generally around 15-25q ($2-3 USD).

The temperature around Lago Atitlan fluctuates between 50 – 80 degrees (F), so it can get chilly at night. Larger towns like Panajachel & San Pedro have ATMs, but not all of them do.

When picking a Spanish school in Guatemala, keep a lookout for schools that funnel money into social aid projects for the local community. I’d also recommend staying in a homestay for the same reason, that money goes a long way towards improving the lives of your host family.

For additional recommendations, talk to people who’ve actually attended the school you are interested in. Search travel blogs or online forums like Lonely Planet to read reviews of other schools. ★

More Information

Location: San Pedro La Laguna, Guatemala [Map] Spanish School: Cooperative School San Pedro
Total Cost: $90 – $225 USD per week depending on hours/homestay
Useful Notes: Staying with a host family is the most cost-effective way to learn Spanish in Guatemala, and the best way to practice what you’re learning in school while learning about local culture.
Recommended Reading: Lonely Planet Guatemala

READ NEXT: Camping On An Active Volcano

Any other questions about learning Spanish in Guatemala?

Cliffs Of Insanity! Visiting Ireland’s Cliffs Of Moher

Cliffs of Moher

Ireland’s Cliffs of Moher

Doolin, Ireland

A cold wind blows as I walk along the legendary Cliffs of Moher. Ireland’s most famous landmark rises dramatically out of the ocean, waves crashing into rocks far below.

Whoever he is, he’s too late. See?! The Cliffs of Insanity! ~ Vizzini

A favorite childhood movie of mine is the 80’s cult classic The Princess Bride, a crazy fairy tale adventure through the mythical kingdom of Florin.

In one scene, Princess Buttercup’s kidnappers are chased across the ocean by the Man in Black before they climb the steep “mile-high” Cliffs of Insanity.

While not quite a mile high, Ireland’s 700 foot Cliffs of Moher are certainly imposing enough to feature them in the movie. Now that I’ve finally seen them myself, I can assure you the cliffs are even more astounding in person!

Ireland Cliffs

Cliff Views Looking South

Cliffs of Moher Tower

O’Brien’s Tower

Cliffs Of Moher

The Cliffs of Moher are located about 90 minutes south of Galway on Ireland’s west coast in County Clare. They’re part of a scenic driving route called the Wild Atlantic Way.

While technically the cliffs are Ireland’s most popular tourist attraction with one million visitors each year, at 5 miles long, there’s plenty of room to explore if you enjoy walking.

A visitor’s center was built into the hillside so people can experience the site without intrusive buildings wrecking the view, and a scenic walking path branches out in two directions across the top.

The cliffs range in height from 390 feet to 702 feet tall, and are home to over 30,000 birds, including colonies of Atlantic Puffin that usually make an appearance in late March.

Cliffs of Moher

Stunning Cliffs of Moher

Hag's Head

Hag’s Head Tower

Walking Over The Sea

There are safety barriers to keep you from getting too close to the edge of the cliffs, but only up to a point. If you keep walking, eventually the barriers end.

Some people risk standing or sitting right on the edge…

I was one of them. However do so at your own risk! There’s often strong winds at the Cliffs of Moher, with freak gusts reportedly blowing people off to their deaths from time to time.

The Namurian shale & sandstone ledges that make up the cliffs will sometimes crumble without warning due to erosion, creating another danger.

To the south, there’s a beautiful old stone tower from the Napoleonic Wars called Hag’s Head. Walking here from the visitor’s center will take the average person about 1 – 2 hours.

To the north, O’Brien’s Tower marks the highest point of the cliffs. It’s just a short walk away from the visitor’s center and offers the best views in both directions. You can pay an additional $2 to climb the tower.

Cliffs of Moher Flowers

Flowers Growing on the Edge

Visiting The Cliffs

There are two villages near the Cliffs of Moher, Liscannor (6 km south) and Doolin (7 km north). Both are small, but you’ll find plenty of restaurants, bed & breakfasts, and pubs with live music to relax in after a day of exploring.

Tourism is highest here during the months of July & August making the area quite crowded. However in September it wasn’t bad at all, especially if you walk beyond the area around the visitor’s center.

Other potential adventures include viewing the cliffs from below on a ferry boat, or hiking the entire 12 mile (20 km) Coastal Walk over the cliffs.

There is a good reason why Ireland’s Cliffs of Moher are so famous. Walking the winding dirt path on the edge of a precipice, its beautiful Atlantic Ocean views & surrounding landscapes are awe inspiring.

It’s a truly magic travel experience to have in the Emerald Isle. ★

More Information

Location: Doolin, Ireland [Map] Accommodation: Churchfield Bed & Breakfast
Official Website: Cliffs Of Moher
Total Cost: €6 Entry Fee, €2 for O’Brien’s Tower
Useful Notes: Like always, I recommend visiting popular tourist attractions early or late to avoid large crowds. The best time for photography is just before or during sunset, when the cliffs are bathed in light. Plan to visit for at least 2 hours if not more.
Recommended Guidebook: Lonely Planet Ireland
Suggested Reading: In Search of Ancient Ireland

READ NEXT: Finding My Roots In Ireland

Have you ever visited the Cliffs of Moher?

Packing & Planning For The Arctic Circle Trail

Packing for Arctic Circle Trail

Packing for the Arctic Circle Trail

Kangerlussuaq, Greenland

Preparing to hike Greenland’s Arctic Circle Trail? Here are some useful tips for packing and planning your trek based on my Greenland adventure in August 2015.

When I first began planning to hike Greenland’s Arctic Circle Trail, it was difficult to find useful details online. There were a few blog posts about the trek, but they were written in German or Danish.

So this is my attempt to remedy that situation and make the hike more accessible to English speakers who are interested in exploring this beautiful and lesser-known area of the world on foot.

Located about 30 miles north of the Arctic Circle, the typical route stretches 102 miles (165km) from Kangerlussuaq International Airport to the fishing village of Sisimiut on the West coast.

It’s possible to lengthen the trip to 124 miles by starting from Greenland’s ice cap for those who are up for the challenge.

Recommended Experience Level

While most of Greenland is covered with ice, the Arctic Circle Trail is ice-free during the summer. Passing through low valleys covered by many lakes, it’s a relatively easy walk with regards to elevation.

The difficulty comes with packing all your own food and supplies to last at least 10 days. Plus a complete lack of civilization nearby in the event of an unexpected emergency.

Arctic Circle Trail hikers must have experience surviving alone in the wilderness, understanding their own limits, reading weather patterns, and the ability to navigate unfamiliar terrain using a map and compass.

At the hike’s midpoint, you can be 5 days and 50 miles away from any type of civilization. You’re on your own out there. It’s not a trek for beginners, but you don’t need to be a serious mountaineer either.

Hiking in Greenland

Hiking in Greenland

How Long Does It Take?

Depending on fitness levels and the specific route chosen, the traditional 102 mile long Arctic Circle Trail from Kangerlussuaq Airport to Sisimiut can take anywhere between 7-10 days to complete.

To start from the ice cap like I did, plan for an additional 2-3 days.

It’s important to note that Greenland is a wild and unpredictable place. If you think you can hike the trail in 10 days, make sure to include 2-3 extra buffer days for delays due to weather, injury, exhaustion, or canceled flights.

Seasons & Weather

While hiking the Arctic Circle Trail is possible in the winter, it’s far more difficult & technical. The primary hiking season is from June to September when the trail is free of snow.

Greenland has a mosquito problem. Swarms can be downright maddening from June until mid August when the first frost finally kills them off. I started hiking August 12th and had to break out my mosquito head net a few times.

The trail is extremely muddy & boggy in June after the snow melts with river crossings becoming deeper and more dangerous. In September, the risk of snow storms is higher as winter begins.

In August, the air temperature fluctuated between 60’s (F) in the day to 30’s (F) at night, with one afternoon of snow flurries.

Over the 10 days I was on the trail, I experienced steady rain for 3 of them.

Kangerlussuaq Airport

Kangerlussuaq Airport

Flying To Greenland

Flying to Greenland is the most expensive part of this epic trekking adventure. Air Greenland offers regular flights to Kangerlussuaq from Reykjavik, Iceland and Copenhagen, Denmark. So you’ll need to get yourself to one of these cities first.

I flew to Greenland from Copenhagen for $1032 USD round trip. Now if you’re hiking the Arctic Circle Trail from Kangerlussuaq to Sisimiut, you’ll also need to get yourself back to Kangerlussuaq in order to leave the country.

The one-way flight from Sisimiut to Kangerlussuaq costs about $200 USD.

If you need help searching for international flights to Iceland or Denmark, make sure to read my popular post about How To Find Cheap Flights.

Accommodation Options

Accommodation in Greenland before and after the hike is expensive. A single room in Kangerlussuaq or Sisimiut will set you back about $100 – $200 USD. A hostel dormitory bed costs between $30 – $40 USD.

However both towns also have campgrounds available with bathrooms.

Kangerlussuaq Accommodation

Kangerlussuaq Youth Hostel
Old Camp Hostel
Polar Lodge (where I stayed)
Hotel Kangerlussuaq

Sisimiut Accommodation

Sisimiut Youth Hostel
Seaman’s House
Hotel Sisimiut (where I stayed)

Trail Hut

Inside a Trail Hut (Sleeps 6!)

Trail Huts & Camping

Spread along the route are a series of 9 basic wooden huts with bunks that are free for hikers to use. Packing a tent is highly recommended though, as some huts only sleep 4 and could possibly be full when you arrive.

Bad weather may also prevent you from reaching one of the huts in time, so having a backup plan for shelter is very important for your safety in Greenland’s vast wilderness.

Due to personal preference, I spent most nights wild camping. However I did sleep in 2 of the trail huts during my hike, and took an afternoon nap in a third. If you’re hiking from hut to hut each day, the full journey (from Kangerlussuaq airport, not the ice cap) will take 10 days.

How Many Hikers?

Only 300 people hike the trail every year, so while you may run into other hikers, it’s possible to go days without seeing a fellow human depending on which month you decide to attempt the trek.

I met about 10 hikers on the Arctic Circle Trail over 10 days. Most were German or Danish, and one other American. Many people hike this route for the solitude, so walking together and chatting for a few miles before breaking off on your own again was the standard routine.

Breakfast in Greenland

Tasty Trekking Breakfast

Food & Water

The traditional Arctic Circle Trail route takes 7-10 days for most people to complete. So hikers need to pack at least 10 days worth of food to be safe. That’s a lot of food!

At 1-2 pounds (16-24 ounces) of food per day, that’s about 10-20 pounds of food on your back. To keep it as light as possible, I recommend buying dehydrated backpacker meals and bringing them with you to Greenland.

While there is a supermarket in both Kangerlussuaq and Sisimiut, they don’t stock dehydrated meals. They do have ingredients for trail mix — but to be safe I’d also prepare your own trail mix before you arrive. It will be cheaper and you’ll have more options.

Water on the other hand is pretty easy to take care of, as there are countless freshwater lakes, ponds, and streams along the Arctic Circle Trail. So with careful planning you can get by with just a single Nalgene bottle. No filter is required either! Of course there is always a risk of water contamination, but it’s pretty low out here. Most hikers don’t use one.

My Greenland Trekking Diet

  • Muesli/oatmeal with wild berries & brown sugar for breakfast
  • Trail mix plus wild mushrooms/berries for lunch & snacks
  • Canned fish sandwich and dried fish jerky for dinner
  • Chocolate & Greenlandic Schnapps for dessert

(I brought dehydrated meals, but couldn’t use them due to a problem explained below)

Camping in Greenland

Wild Camping in Greenland

Packing List

Mosquito Head Net
Long Underwear
Hiking Pants
Hiking Shorts
Hiking Shirts (2)
Wool Socks (3)
Fleece Top
Ballcap & Sunglasses
Sunscreen & Lip Balm
Mosquito Repellent
Winter Hat & Gloves
River/Camp Sandals
Paper Maps & Compass
iPhone 6 & Camera Gear

Maps & GPS

You’ll want to buy a series of 3 paper topographical maps that cover the entire length of the Arctic Circle Trail. While you can generally buy these at the Polar Lodge in Kangerlussuaq, it’s better to get them in advance because in Greenland, things run out of stock easily.

You can try to pre-order the Arctic Circle Trail maps from Greenland Tourism. The trail is marked with occasional rock cairns along the way, but there are a few places where you can still lose the trail, and in bad weather, the cairns aren’t always super visible.

In addition to the paper maps, I also packed my iPhone 6 with a LifeProof FRĒ Power Case running Gaia GPS and pre-dowloaded maps. There is no cell-service on the trail, but you can still use your phone as a GPS device.

What Would I Do Different?

After hiking the Arctic Circle Trail in August 2015, there are a few things I’d do differently if I decide to return. Hopefully you’ll learn from my mistakes!

My 40 degree (F) sleeping bag was a bit too cold for wild camping, and I was forced to sleep in my clothing and use a space blanket for a few chilly nights. I’d probably want something closer to 0 or 10 degrees.

I packed a great lightweight and efficient Jetboil stove that became useless when I couldn’t buy fuel canisters for it in Kangerlussuaq. The whole town ran out of the type I needed.

Shipping butane/propane to Greenland is difficult, because it’s not allowed on airplanes. Canisters must arrive by boat. Because of this, I’d recommend a multi-fuel backpacking stove instead. It allows you to boil water with a few different types of fuel.

Sure, I made due with cold food for 10 days anyway, but strong hot coffee and warm dinners have a wonderful way of re-energizing you on long-distance hikes. They were missed.

Guidebook & More Details

If you’re planning to hike the Arctic Circle Trail I highly recommend picking up the book Trekking In Greenland by Paddy Dillon.

It goes into far more detail than I can cover in a blog post, and it’s what I used to plan my own adventure. Good luck, and have fun! ★

READ NEXT: My Favorite Camera For Travel Photos

Do you have any other Arctic Circle Trail questions?

Finding My Roots In Ireland: Family Genealogy Road Trip

Genealogy in Ireland

Family Genealogy Trip in Ireland

Glengarriff, Ireland

It only took me 34 years to visit my family’s ancestral homeland of Ireland. Joined by my parents & sister, we traveled to the Emerald Isle to research our history.

Like most Americans, I’m a mutt. My family immigrated to the United States from Ireland, Poland, Germany and England. Mostly from Ireland though — including my paternal grandmother.

Concentrating on the side of the family with the most recent links to Ireland, we decided to visit the area where my grandmother was born. A small south-western coastal village called Glengarriff in County Cork.

I was especially excited for this journey, as it was the first time that my family members were going to travel with me internationally, and years since we’d traveled together for any kind of road trip. Woohoo!

O'Neils Bar Dublin

Guinness For Breakfast

Dublin Sights

Dublin Castle

Arriving In Dublin

The first order of business once we arrived in Dublin after checking into the Trinity City Hotel was to grab a large Irish breakfast and wash it down with a few pints of Guinness at O’Neil’s Bar & Restaurant. At 10am of course. We were off to a good start.

Hey, isn’t that what you’re supposed to do in Ireland?

We spent the rest of the day exploring Dublin by bus and on foot. Everyone was running on little sleep due to the intercontinental flight the night before, so our activities were kept to a minimum.

Dublin Castle

Dublin Castle was originally built as a defensive structure for the city of Dublin, later serving as residence for the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland who governed for the King of England. These days it’s used for presidential inaugurations and state functions.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral

Saint Patrick’s Cathedral is Ireland’s largest church, founded back in 1191. Jonathan Swift (author of Gulliver’s Travels) was once the dean, and is currently buried here. Dublin actually has two cathedrals belonging to the Church of Ireland, the other being Christ Church Cathedral.

Teeling Whiskey Distillery

Most people who visit Dublin go to the Jameson Distillery, which is just a showroom for tourists. The only working Irish Whiskey distillery in Dublin is called Teeling. We watched the whiskey process from start to finish and tasted the difference between single grain, single malt, and age.

Cashel Castle Ireland

Rock of Cashel

Colmans Cathedral

Port Town of Cobh

Irish Genealogy Road Trip

Now that we’d experienced a taste of Dublin, it was time to embark on the core mission of this trip. Searching for any information we could find about my grandmother’s life in Ireland before she sailed to Boston in 1930.

Prior to traveling to Ireland, my sister Lindsay had done some research on Ancestry.com which helped us track down basic United States immigration records for my grandmother.

To expand on those, we also enlisted the services of Eneclann, a genealogy research company. They provided a detailed report based on Irish census information with all kinds of interesting facts we’d never known before!

Like that we came from a family of fishermen and farmers.

Armed with this new knowledge we rented a car and began driving southwest across Ireland on the M8 through the town of Cashel and the city of Cork stopping at famous landmarks along the way.

One such landmark is the port town of Cobh, formerly Queenstown, where 2.5 million of the six million Irish people who emigrated to North America left from. Including my grandmother in 1930!

Glengarriff

Glengarriff, Ireland

Carraig Dubh House

Paudie & Kathleen Connolly

Glengarriff Village

Arriving in Glengarriff after navigating some of Ireland’s notoriously narrow roads, we checked into a quaint local bed & breakfast called Carraig Dubh House perched on a hillside overlooking the town. It was here we met the cheery owners Paudie & Kathleen.

They would be the key to unlocking the mysteries of our quest.

We explained that we were in Glengarriff as part of a genealogy trip, and asked if they might remember my grandmother or her family. Of course they did! In a small town of 800 people, everyone knows everyone.

My aunt had given us an old postcard of Glengarriff from when she visited a while back. It was said to feature the McCarthy family home that my grandmother grew up in.

Glengarriff Ireland

Old Postcard of My Grandmother’s House

Ellen's Rock Glengarriff

We Found It!

Searching For The House

Our hosts took one look at the postcard and confirmed our suspicions. Yes that’s where she grew up, and it still exists! In fact it’s just down the road…

The traditional 3-room Irish home made of stone is located at a place called Ellen’s Rock, a famous spot for photos when Glengarriff was a popular tourist attraction and ocean cruise destination in the early part of the century.

We jumped in the car and headed over to see it for ourselves.

Sitting on the edge of Bantry Bay, the building has seen better days yet was still standing. Turns out it’s owned by my father’s cousin Teddy, a long-lost family member none of us had ever met before.

Our next mission? Track down Teddy and buy him a beer!

Everything seemed to be falling into place perfectly.

Ireland Family Trip

My Dad Meets His Cousin Teddy

Garnish Island Ireland

Garnish Island Gardens

Meeting With Relatives

Teddy keeps the McCarthy family tradition of fishing and sailing alive as a boat captain for the Harbour Queen Ferry. They take tourists out on fishing trips and ferry rides to the beautiful Garnish Island Gardens.

We went down to the docks, but unfortunately just missed him, so we decided to ride the ferry out to Garnish Island and explore the gardens. Motoring past happy seals sunbathing on rocks.

Concluding the island excursion, we surprised Teddy with an unexpected family visit. He seemed a bit taken aback, and not sure how to respond. Who are these strangers from the United States claiming to be relatives?

We made plans to meet later that evening at The Cottage Bar, a favorite local watering hole in town. Hopefully we would all get to know each other a bit better over a few pints of Guinness.

Glengarriff Church

Sacred Heart Church in Glengarriff

Glengarriff Cemetery

McCarthy Family Plot

Learning Family History

Teddy brought his wife Abigail to join us at the bar. Luckily she acted as a translator too, his thick Irish accent difficult for us Yankees to understand! We learned that Teddy likes to work on old boats, just as my father does.

My great grandfather Timothy was apparently a fisherman & boatman. He boasted the most groomed mustache in town, and was always seen wearing his favorite bright white pea cap.

My sister Lindsay apparently looks just like Teddy’s daughter Marie.

One mystery we never solved is why my grandmother sailed from Ireland to the United States on her own when she was only 17 years old. Everyone we spoke with seemed to remember her siblings, but almost nothing about her.

The town church and local cemetery was our next stop, paying respect at my great grandfather’s grave and chatting with the local priest. My grandmother’s birth was never registered in official county documents, but we did have her baptismal record from the church.

Father Michael Moynihan explained to us over coffee that this was common in those days, as many people from the countryside didn’t bother to travel to the city to register their children so soon after birth, and often forgot to later.

Sheep in Ireland

Irish Traffic Jam

Ireland Road Trip

Learning to Drive on the Right

Exploring Ireland

Towering Cliffs of Moher

Wild Atlantic Way

Overwhelmed with all that we had learned in just a few days, it was time to say our goodbyes and continue our Irish road trip up the West coast along the Wild Atlantic Way.

The complete route stretches 2,500km (1553 miles), however we were driving the southern section up through Dingle and on to Galway before heading back across the country to the capital. I’ll go into more detail in future posts, but the highlights for me were Slea Head Drive and the Cliffs of Moher.

Driving in Ireland can take some getting used to! The back roads are super narrow with no shoulder to pull off on, locals drive fast, curves are sharp, and sheep are plentiful.

But by the 3rd or 4th day I started to get the hang of it. A good trick is to buy the “learner” sticker sold at gas stations so locals don’t get pissed at your incompetence on their roads.

Overall I’d say our Irish genealogy road trip was a success. Together we teamed up to track down relatives, learn about our heritage, and experience a little Irish culture, food, drink, and hospitality.

Ireland’s coastal landscapes are breathtaking to see in person. It was a memorable journey, and I’m happy I experienced it with my family. ★

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Have you ever been on a family genealogy trip before?