The seaside resort of Newcastle, at the foot of the Mourne Mountains in Northern Ireland, has some fantastically atmospheric hiking and hillwalking on the doorstep.
A beautiful range of coastal granite mountains fringed by fragments of temperate rainforest, Northern Ireland’s Mourne Mountains are well-known across the island of Ireland but are arguably under-appreciated by hikers and outdoor enthusiasts on the other side of the Irish Sea. But the profile of these hills is set to be boosted by their designation as part of a UNESCO Global Geopark, in recognition of the landscape’s outstanding geological heritage; a natural inheritance which has become intertwined with the region’s history and culture in fascinating ways. Fantasy fans will also be in their element here: the Mournes were used as a suitably epic filming location in Game of Thrones, and were said to have inspired C.S. Lewis’s visions of Narnia.
“The dark Mournes sweep down to the sea”, as the song goes, and the seaside resort town of Newcastle is a good place to appreciate this, being as it is spectacularly overlooked by the shapes of Slieve Donard, the region’s 850 metre (2,790 feet) high point, and its surrounding hills. The town promotes itself as the ‘activity resort’ of Northern Ireland, and walkers are well catered-for here, with the town and its surroundings making an excellent base for hiking and hillwalking in these rugged, heathery hills, with their broad granite backs punctuated with plunging crags and fortress-like tors. These aren’t hugely tall summits but they deliver a punch: the terrain underfoot is often challenging and walks sometimes begin from sea level, packing in the elevation. Fans of the hills of Arran – another compact range of maritime granite mountains – will likely feel at home here.
The area around the Mournes also offers ample scope to combine your hiking with other types of outdoorsing, like mountain biking or paddleboarding. And if you want to contextualise your adventurous exploits, there’s an array of cultural activities allowing you to get an insight into the region’s history. With its array of cafes and restaurants, Newcastle is also an excellent place to dip into the thriving local culinary scene, and sample some treats with a firm rooting in the local landscape.
Your weekend in Newcastle, sorted
- Your itinerary
- More great walks in the Mournes
- Food and drink
- Guides and activity providers
- Getting there
Hit the heights with a classic hike up Slieve Donard, or take it easy on some gentle forest trails…
Slieve Donard, Northern Ireland’s highest summit, makes for an irresistible objective, and it’s walkable straight of the door from Newcastle. The popular but rewarding out-and-back route up it via Glen River (10km/6 miles, 866m/2841 ft ascent, 4 – 6 hours), begins in Donard Park, although you could start nearby on the beach if you want to make it a ‘sea-to-summit’ trip. The first section of the route climbs via a beautiful woodland path, with the water of said river snaking through sinuous cataracts in the rock below. At the saddle between Donard and Commedagh you meet the famous Mourne Wall – a 22-mile dry stone wall built to enclose the catchment area of the Silent Valley Reservoir, finished in 1933 after 11 years of building – and join it for the final steep push to the summit. Return the way you came.
Prefer to take it a bit easier? Kilbroney Forest Park near Rostrevor (a 30 minute drive from Newcastle) has an array of visitor-friendly waymarked trails of various lengths, including the gentle and family-friendly Cloughmore Trail (5km/3 miles, 1.5 – 2 hours), which takes you up to the giant glacial erratic boulder of Chloch Mhór (Irish for ‘big stone’, aptly enough) and provides beautiful views over Carlingford Lough.
Soak up one of the most spectacular views in the Mournes with a strenuous walk up Slieve Binnian, or enjoy some family fun in a beautiful country park…
With the highest hill in the Mournes under your belt, it’s time to look elsewhere. There’s an ample array of options, but our pick for the second day of your weekend would be the third-highest hill in the Mournes, Slieve Binnian (11km/7 miles, 616m/2021 feet, 4 – 5 hours). Climbing it from the Little Carrick car park near Annalong (a 20 minute drive from Newcastle), you join the line of the Mourne Wall and follow it to the spectacular array of tors on the mountain’s 745 metre (2444 feet) summit, before soaking up one of the range’s finest views: the Silent Valley reservoir hemmed in by plunging crags and rocky mountaintops, a scene reminiscent of some of the glacial troughs of the Cairngorms.
If you’re looking for a more easygoing day, or have kids in tow, Castlewellan Forest Park is the place to be. The 5km (3 mile) circular walk around the wooded shores of Castlewellan Lake is a beautiful wander, but for the little ones there’s also the ‘Animal Wood’ play structure and the Peace Maze, one of the world’s largest hedge mazes. Local providers also offer mountain biking and e-biking on the park’s 27km of biking trails.
More great walks in the Mournes
Slieve Bearnagh and Meelmore circuit
Distance: 10km/6 miles | Ascent: 797m/2614ft | Duration: 4 – 5 hours
Starting from Trassey car park, this fantastic round incorporating Slieve Bearnagh, one of the Mournes’ most distinctive summits, with an array of awesome rocky tors. Rugged terrain and path ill-defined in places.
The Hen, Cock and Pigeon circuit
Distance: 13km/8 miles | Ascent: 802m/2631ft | Duration: 5 – 6 hours
So named for the animal-monickered mountains you encounter along the way, this walk starting in the Hen Mountain car park on the western side of the Mournes takes in some wild terrain and spectacular rock formations. Expect boggy ground and tough terrain underfoot in places.
Accommodation in Newcastle
Double rooms at the boutique Avoca Hotel, with gorgeous views overlooking the sea and promenade and lively bars below, start from £150 a night. Briers Country House, a mile or two outside offers doubles for about £110. Hutt Hostel, close to the Newcastle seafront, offers dorm beds for £26 a night. Green Holiday Cottages, near Newry, provide self-catering cottages based around a converted mill from If you want to wild camp, ensure you do so at a good distance from civilisation and leave no trace of your visit, and be mindful that, like the rest of the UK, it is not officially legal to do so in the Mournes.
Food and drink
Newcastle is well-served by a range of restaurants and cafes, but if you’re feeling fancy, Brunel’s Restaurant is excellent. If you’re feeling even fancier, and are a committed foodie, local Michelin-starred chef Paul Cunningham offers a unique ‘secret dining’ experience, where you get whisked off to a mystery location and served an 11-course tasting menu entirely made from ingredients sourced within 15 miles – a sort of down-to-earth fine dining, if such a thing exists. The Killowen Distillery – Ireland’s smallest distillery, perched in a beautiful spot in the hills near Lisnacree – is well worth a visit; expect music, heritage, and some surprisingly delicious poitín, Ireland’s most ancient and head-spinning spirit.
Guides and activity providers
- Walk The Mournes: Run by local walk leader Peter Rafferty, offers various walking tours in the range
- Bike Mourne: offer mountain biking and e-biking tours in the Mourne area, including a popular ‘Trails and Ales’ trip
- Green Holiday Cottages: as well as accommodation, owners Mark and Jenny also offer a dry stone walling experience giving you the opportunity to build part of a traditional Mourne-style granite wall, accompanied by insights into the region’s landscape, geology and history
- Tracey’s Farmhouse Kitchen: combine paddleboarding on the beautiful, birdlife-rich Strangford Lough with lessons in traditional baking techniques, including soda bread
- The Mourne and Cooley Mountains: A Walking Guide by Adrian Hendroff (The Collins Press)
- The Mourne Mountains: The 30 Best Hikes by Andrew McCluggage (Knife Edge Outdoor)
Getting to Newcastle
Newcastle is a one-hour drive from Belfast, or an hour and a half by bus, changing in Downpatrick. Flights to Belfast are widely available from airports in Britain, and ferries run from Birkinhead in England and Cairnryan in Scotland. Both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are part of the common travel area, meaning there are no travel restrictions for British travellers.
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