The Mourne Mountains are one of the best outdoor areas to explore in Northern Ireland. Hikers and rock climbers flock to this coastal range in County Down to take in the unrivaled scenery, stretch their legs, and flex their skills while surveying the granite summits.
You don’t have to be an expert outdoorsman to enjoy the natural beauty of the Mourne Mountains. From pretty scenic walks to incredible man-made landmarks, here is everything to do and what to see when you visit the stunning Irish mountains.
The Mourne Mountains are a granite range which formed around 56 million years ago, during the same period of geological activity which gave rise to the Giant’s Causeway.
The largest mountain in the Mournes is Slieve Donard, which is the highest peak in Northern Ireland and one of the highest mountains in all of Ireland. The mountains are free to hike but are made up of a mix of privately owned farmland and protected areas that are under the management of the National Trust.
C.S. Lewis, the author of "The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe," was born in Belfast and used to visit the Mourne Mountains with his family. He once wrote that the landscape here is what inspired his mythical land of Narnia. The same natural beauty is what spurred Percy French to pen the classic Irish song “The Mountains of Mourne.”
The mountains were not only a dream location for writers, but the wilderness was also a favorite hideout spot for smugglers looking to avoid taxes on luxury goods and outwit the authorities. In the 19th century, ships loaded down with silk, spices, and brandy would land on the coast near New Castle and then the cargo would be carried over the mountains, following a trail known as the “Brandy Pad” which can still be walked today.
What to See
With several different elevations and landscapes, the natural wonders in the Mourne Mountains are incredibly varied. You can experience coastal areas, sparkling loughs, rocky outcroppings, and forests along a single trail.
One of the most famous landmarks in the Mourne Mountains is the manmade Mourne Wall. The wall stretches for more than 22 miles and was built over a period of 18 years. It was finally completed in 1922 and was designed to keep livestock away from the water in the nearby Silent Valley reservoir. The height of the stone wall varies but it is up to 8 feet tall in some places. Given its length, it is easy to see the Mourne Wall along multiple trails but it is most commonly visited as part of the climb to the summit of Slieve Donard.
The Mournes are also the most extensive rock climbing area in all of Ireland. There is a huge variety of rock climbing opportunities spread throughout the area, including exposed crags on the side of peak summits. There are rock climbing routes at all grades but most are best for more experienced climbers. The most well-known crag is Pigeon Rock – popular partly because it requires the shortest hike to reach it and thus it is the fastest place to get started climbing.
Best Mourne Mountain Hikes
The Mourne Mountains are considered by many hikers to be the best walking destination in Northern Ireland. There are extensive and well-maintained trails that crisscross the peaks, but you can also find rambling trails in the foothills that are suitable for walkers of all abilities.
To tackle the biggest mountain of them all, train your eyes on the summit of Slieve Donard. The hike to the top of this mountain from Newcastle is just under 3 miles each way. As you walk up the dirt trail, you will have incredible ocean views and should be able to spot Scotland and the Isle of Man.
For the best circular path (which loops around through different terrain and means you never have to backtrack down the same trail), start from the Carrick Little parking lot. From here, you can set out on a 7-mile loop that first follows a track along the Mourne Wall, which acts as your guide to the top of Slieve Binnian – the third highest peak in the range at 2,450 feet (747 meters). You will have to scramble up granite rock to reach the true summit, but you can skip this to continue down between the North and South Tors (rocky outcroppings), and follow the downhill path between Slieve Binnian and Slieve Lamagan.
The trail continues past the beautiful waters of Lough Blue before passing through the Annalong forest and finally back to the parking lot.
If you visit in August, you can also take part in the Mourne Mountain Challenge. The organized walk traverses all seven of the peaks that rise above 700 meters (2,300 feet) in a single, exhausting day.
For even more hiking routes, stop at an information center to buy the reasonably priced pack of route cards known as the “Mourne Mountain Walks” which has been produced by the Mourne Heritage Trust. There are also seven mapped routes for cycling if you prefer to enjoy the Mournes by bike. You can find the guides to the hilly bike paths at any of the area visitor’s centers, as well.
How to Visit
The busiest time to visit the Mourne Mountains is during the months of July and August when the weather tends to be best suited for walking without requiring much rain gear or multiple layers of warm clothes.
Walking in the Mourne Mountains is free, but if you want more flexibility in your walk planning, the Mourne Shuttle Service is a private van shuttle that can pick you up at the end of your route and take you back to the starting point so that you can break out of needing to follow a loop trail. The shuttle costs around 5 GBP per person, depending on the size of the group and the exact distance you need to travel.
There are no facilities when you are out hiking in the Mourne Mountain wilderness, so be sure to pack appropriate provisions for the duration of your walk. The nearest food and bathroom stops will be in the closest villages to your chosen path – including Newcastle and Annalong Village.
How to Get There
The Mourne Mountains are in Co. Down, Northern Ireland in the Province of Ulster. The range can be found about 30 miles south of Belfast or 60 miles north of Dublin.
The easiest way to reach the Mourne Mountains is to self-drive by car. There are no direct buses from Belfast, however, you can reach the town of New Castle by coach bus with one change, depending on the exact day and route you plan to travel. Check the Translink website, one of the largest transportation companies in Northern Ireland, to find the best schedules and prices.