Weekend Window to the Giant's Causeway

PHOTO The Giants Causeway, Northern Ireland?s most popular tourist attraction, is composed of basalt rock columns formed over 50 million years ago by volcanic activity.Courtesy Seamus Loughrey
The Giant's Causeway, Northern Ireland?s most popular tourist attraction, is composed of basalt rock columns formed over 50 million years ago by volcanic activity.

Less than a one-and-a-half hour drive from Northern Ireland's capital city of Belfast, on the rugged north coast, sits Northern Ireland's most cherished natural wonder -- the Giant's Causeway.

"I've lived in Northern Ireland all my life and no matter how many times I come here, I find it stunning," said Irish storyteller Liz Weir.

The Giant's Causeway is a spectacular rock formation of nearly 40,000 regularly shaped basalt columns that were created over 50 million years ago by cooling lava flows.

"Through cracks in the Earth's crust, lava poured out and it started to settle into what was then an ancient river bed. And it started to cool very slowly over a period of approximately 2 million years," said Ken Robinson, a ranger at the Giant's Causeway.

VIDEO: Northern Ireland?s famous geological wonder steeped in mystery and legend. Play

"It formed into regular shapes," Robinson added. "And the reason it formed into regular shapes is that the rock is basalt, and basalt -- because of the minerals it contains -- always forms into regular shapes either in six sides or eight sides."

At the time the causeway was created, Ireland was located near the equator, before shifting tectonic plates moved the land northward.

The Legend

Weir goes by the title "storyteller." Her profession is telling Irish folk tales, and if you ask her about how the Giant's Causeway was formed, she'll tell you a story that has nothing to do with molten rock.

"The Giant's Causeway, as the story says, was built by the great giant Finn Maccool, who was trying to get to Scotland. He always fought with his greatest rival, a Scottish giant, so he thought he'd get there faster if he built a walkway across," said Weir.

The legend gives the causeway its name and hints at the rich folklore and history that defines the Giant's Causeway and the North Antrim coast.

The causeway coastal route, stretching 120 miles from Belfast in the east to Londberry in the northwest, provides some of of the most spectacular coastal views in the world. In North Antrim, where the causeway route meets the Giant's Causeway, the route is dotted with ruins of ancient castles along with rugged cliffs and verdant glens.

"I always tell people this is undoubtedly God's children's country," said Billy Sterling, a ranger at Carrick-a-Rede. "The north coast of Northern Ireland has spectacular rock formations, beautiful clear water, beautiful beaches, and a rich history -- really something for everyone."

World Heritage Site

In 1986, the Giant's Causeway became one of 878 cultural and natural heritage properties considered a World Heritage site by UNESCO -- the United Nations, Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

The Giant's Causeway is Northern Ireland's most popular tourist destination, attracting more than 750,000 visitors in 2008.

For more information on the Giant's Causeway and Ireland visit: www.discoverireland.com.