Driving into Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland, my curiosity was piqued. I was visiting something I had never heard of before, much less seen anywhere on my travels – a UNESCO Global Geopark. As it turns out, spending the day exploring this massive region was one of the many highlights of my trip but, since Geoparks were new to me, today I want to share more about them and highlight Northern Ireland’s remarkable Marble Arch Caves.
What’s a UNESCO Geopark?
Established in 1998, there are only 6 Geoparks around the world from New Brunswick, Canada to Shimabara, Japan. The Global Geoparks Network was organized to help promote and conserve the planet’s geological heritage. The parks are much more than simple preserves though, they’re active spots where local communities are working to create sustainable development either through agri-or geo-tourism throughout the regions. In order to be considered for Geopark status, these places should have an incredible geological heritage, but one that is being actively protected and used for educational purposes as well. It’s a very complex set of criteria, but spending the day in the Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark brought into focus exactly what the goals are and why the regions are so important to both recognize and protect.
Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark in Northern Ireland
Unlike a national park, the Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark is a loosely defined area. It includes many natural formations and 40 different sites, but they are interspersed throughout different counties and communities. They are pockets of preservation rather than an entire region that is under conservation protections. At the center of the experience though was my first stop in the Geopark, the famous Marble Arch Caves.
While not ordinarily someone who enjoys spending time in caves – they’re all kind of the same – even I soon learned to appreciate what makes these particular caves so special. Although locals certainly knew about the caves for generations, fear and superstition kept them out until, in 1895, a pair of explorers finally descended into the cave system. Named for one of the limestone rock formations that looks like a marble arch, the caves are formed from three rivers that drain off the slopes of a nearby mountain After millions of years, the result has been the longest known cave system in Northern Ireland and one of the finest in Europe.
Descending into the caves with my guide, I was at once impressed not just by the caves, but by the tour itself. I’ve been on many, probably too many, cave tours and the knowledge and professionalism at Marble Arch is probably the best I’ve experienced. It was also just fun. Wandering around the path, marveling at the formations and learning more about both the geological as well as cultural history of the area, it was a great introduction not only to County Fermanagh, but the massive Geopark as well.
Just as the caves are well organized, so is the entire Geopark. Before leaving the caves, I asked the information desk for some help and they immediately presented me with a map of the massive Geopark and together we figured out what I should see and do. There’s far too much for one or even two days, the size and diversity of the park means multiple trips are in order. But the sites they include are diverse enough to interest just about anyone. From dense forests to scenic overlooks and even ancient castles, the spots along my self-guided tour of the Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark were all fun to visit and different enough to keep things interesting throughout the day.
As I continued to drive around the region during the week, I couldn’t help but notice other Geoparks site along the way, quietly existing and quietly doing their job of preserving not only the natural beauty of the area, but the cultural heritage as well. I had never heard of a Geopark before, which is slightly embarrassing, but I now want to visit the others, to see how they differ as well as to discover the heritage and traditions they’re preserving. There are many reasons to visit this near-perfect area of Ireland, but at the center of that discovery I think has to be the incredible Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark.