The Mourne Mountains offer some beautiful walks close to Newcastle, as well as plenty of more serious hiking routes throughout the range, including the Newcastle Challenge Trail, a 44-kilometre waymarked hike, split into five sections, starting and finishing in the town. There’s also an annual walking festival (wwww.mournewalking.co.uk) over three days at the end of June, featuring a variety of lowland and mountain walks, rambles and hikes.
The climb up Slieve Donard, just south of Newcastle, is the obvious first choice. Although at 850m it’s the highest peak in Northern Ireland, the ascent is a relatively easy one on a well-marked trail that starts three miles out of town on the Annalong road at Bloody Bridge and ends at the massive hermit cell on the summit; from here the views across the whole mountain landscape are quite spectacular.
For gentler local walking, there are several pleasant parks created from the estates of old houses in the vicinity. The nearest is Donard Park (free access) on the slopes of Slieve Donard. There’s a good meander along the River Glen from Newcastle town centre to the park, and if you keep following this path uphill you’ll emerge on the other side and eventually come to the Saddle, a col between the two mountains of Slieve Donard and Slieve Commedagh. If you want to carry on further into the mountains from here, a good route is via Trassey Burn towards the Hare’s Gap, where minerals have seeped through the rock to form precious and semiprecious stones – topaz, beryl, smoky quartz and emerald – in the cavities of the Diamond rocks (hidden behind an obvious boulder stone on the mountainside). Around this point in spring, you might hear the song of the ring ouzel, a bird that migrates from Africa to breed in these upland areas.
Two miles inland from Newcastle, along the Bryansford road, Tollymore Forest Park is considerably bigger and better equipped than Donard, and has a campsite. The park creeps up the northern side of the Mournes, and its picturesque trails wind through woodland and beside the river. You enter the park by one of two ornate Gothic folly gates – there are more follies in Bryansford nearby – and there’s an information kiosk in the car park.
Castlewellan Forest Park is also inland about five miles further north, outside the elegant market town of Castlewellan. The estate lies in the foothills of the Mournes, and a two-and-a-half mile trail from the entrance leads to the highest point in the forest, Slievenaslat, providing panoramic views over the mountain range. A wonderful arboretum, dating originally from 1740 but much expanded since, is the forest park’s outstanding feature: the sheltered south-facing slopes of its hills, between the Mournes and the Slieve Croob range, allow exotic species to flourish.
If you’re planning on more serious hiking in the Mournes, heights worth chasing include Slieve Binnian, beyond the Hare’s Gap, reached through the Brandy Pad passes by the Blue Lough and Lough Binnian; Slieve Commedagh, with its Inca-like pillars of granite; and Slieve Bearnagh, up to the right of the Hare’s Gap. Also, try and cross the ridge from Slieve Meelmore to Slieve Muck, the “pig mountain”, descending to the shores of Lough Shannagh, where there’s a beach at either end – useful for a dip, though the water’s freezing. In the panorama beyond the Hare’s Gap, the places not to miss are the eastern slopes of the Cove Mountain and Slieve Lamagan. If you’re sticking to the roads, all you can really do is circle the outside of the range, though there is one road through the middle, from Hilltown to Kilkeel.