If you are visiting Northern Ireland, you could do far worse than a day or two spent exploring the Mourne Mountains. Nestled in the far south of County Down, the stunning peaks (of which the highest is Slieve Donard at 850m, Northern Ireland’s highest point) rise out of the Irish Sea to provide breathtaking hiking and scenic drives across hillsides covered in moorland, farmland and pastures.
Formed some 56 million years ago from volcanic magma which hardened and evolved into granite peaks, the Mourne Mountains are situated between the towns of Newcastle and Newry, and can be reached from Belfast in about 1 hour. With a little planning, however, there is a great weekend route which you could take to explore even more of Northern Ireland’s history and natural beauty.
Heading out of Belfast east along the A2 and the A22, your first stop is the historic Stormont Estate. The seat of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Stormont is a familiar sight from news bulletins, but it is also situated in sweeping parkland which is a wonderful spot for a stroll. Various different types of woodland have been planted, so you can check out beech forest, pine forest and much more. If you make your way up to the castle itself, there are signboards explaining the history of the building, the parliament and key figures in Northern Ireland’s history.
Continuing south along the A22, consider making a detour to check out Strangford Lough, a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, before another stop-off in Downpatrick. Just outside the town lies picture-postcard Inch Abbey. In ruins, and tucked away down side roads, the abbey is the ideal spot to scamper over the remains of the medieval walls, check out the ruined chapel and admire the pretty Quoyle River and the views across to Down Cathedral on the far bank. Parking and entrance are free, and there are few visitors. It is also a great location for dog walking.
Heading into Downpatrick itself, your next stop should be the cathedral. In the graveyard just outside lies the tomb of St Patrick, Ireland’s patron saint who is celebrated across the globe every 17th March in a flurry of green shamrocks and comedy hats. Whether this is genuinely his tomb is up for debate (he appears to have several gravesites across Ireland), but the locals certainly believe that this is the spot. A large stone marks the grave, although this was added in the early 1900s. While you’re in town, you can also check out the St Patrick Centre, the only exhibition in the world devoted to the man himself.
Newcastle – gateway to the Mourne Mountains
Continuing on along the coast, stop for the night in the town of Newcastle. I stayed at the Donard Hotel, which lies on the main street and is a classic Irish hotel in the traditional style, complete with rambling hallways, huge rooms, and one of the best Irish breakfasts I have had in a long time. If your budget stretches a little farther, the Slieve Donard Hotel (note the difference in names!) is not far away, and offers 5-star luxury. Newcastle has a number of pubs and restaurants; for a cheap eat, check out Doc’s Café which does a great fish & chips! If there is daylight to spare, the seafront has a long, level promenade which is a wonderful place to stroll and check out Newcastle’s beautiful historic buildings.
High Mourne Scenic Loop
After a good night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast (don’t miss the potato bread and soda farls for the full Irish experience!), it is time to explore the mountains. I took the High Mourne Scenic Loop, a well-signposted driving route which will take you straight across the beautiful moorland and allow you to experience the full majesty of this wild landscape. The Mourne Mountains walks and hikes are some of the best in Ireland, although care should be taken; the weather in Northern Ireland can change quickly, and every year there are emergency rescues of inexperienced hikers who end up in trouble. For mapped and signposted routes check out the Walk NI website, but common sense should always apply.
Families and lovers of garden follies might want to check out Tollymore Forest Park, located just a short drive outside Newcastle.
Silent Valley Mountain Park
As I was visiting on my own, I opted instead for a scenic drive across the moors followed by a visit to Silent Valley Mountain Park near Attical. This park has a number of marked trails of varying degrees of difficulty. A large car park, children’s play area and café cater to tourists; to avoid the vehicle entry charge, there is also a small parking area on the bend of the road just at the entrance to the park (note that there is still a small charge for pedestrian entry; if you are in a group, it is probably worth paying the vehicle fee!). The gatekeeper will give you a map of the walking routes available, together with a leaflet explaining the history of Silent Valley.
Silent Valley is the site of a huge dam constructed in the late 19th century to store water for the growing city of Belfast. A settlement known as Watertown sprang up to house the construction workers, and remains of the community can still be seen around the park. The walking trails vary in difficulty; the easiest is the Nature Trail, a mostly level walk of just over 1 mile which is accessible to pushchairs and wheelchairs, although it is not paved and there is one short, relatively steep, section where wheelchair users will need a hand. The most difficult trail is the Mountain Route, which takes you across the wild hillside and close to the Mourne Wall, a landmark in these parts which was built in 1922 to keep livestock off the land owned by Northern Ireland Water, and which winds its way over no fewer than 15 of the Mourne’s peaks. I chose to take this hardest trail; I am able-bodied but not particularly fit, and the 2-mile route presented no challenges for me. However, it is rocky and can be wet in places, so walking boots are essential. It is not accessible to pushchairs or wheelchairs. An added bonus of the route when I visited (September) was the delicious wild blackberries which lined much of the path – don’t forget to look out for them at this time of year!
Heading back to Belfast
Spend a few hours checking out the Silent Valley area, which offers stunning views of forests and mountains, and a sweeping vista across the reservoir which brought the area to life. Round off your day in Kilkeel or Newry, or check out Carlingford Lough, before heading back to Belfast along the A1 and M1. Or stop off in historic Hillsborough, home to Hillsborough Castle, the official residence of Her Majesty the Queen in Northern Ireland. There are so many things to do in this corner of Northern Ireland that you will never get bored.
This is not a sponsored post, and I paid for all transport, food, hotels, and entrance fees myself. This post does not contain affiliate links. All opinions are my own.
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I’m Jill, and I’m a British blogger who has been travelling for more than 15 years, visiting 70 countries on 6 continents. I love to travel both solo and with groups, and to discover the cultures and peoples of the countries I visit. And I love to share a good story or two along the way!