Visiting Northern Ireland? The Mourne Mountains are the best destination for hikers, climbers, and outdoor enthusiasts.
The Mournes are fabled in Northern Irish legend and adored today. Even out of season in November, I climbed Slieve Binnian alongside a steady stream of hikers and struggled to book last-minute accommodation around Newcastle. Visiting the Mourne Mountains is popular all year round amongst domestic and international travellers!
Apart from climbing the mountains, there is plenty to do around the Mournes. You can enjoy the coast, the things to do in Newcastle, and just unwind in the quietness of the dramatic landscape.
But, to help you plan your trip, here is a complete guide to visiting the Mourne Mountains.
What are the Mourne Mountains?
The Mourne Mountains are a mountain range that includes Slieve Donard, the highest mountain in Northern Ireland.
The twelve Mournes in the AONB are Slieve Donard, Slieve Binnian, Slieve Commedagh, Slieve Beg, Slievelamagan, Ben Crom, Slievenaglogh, Slieve Muck, Slieve Meelbeg, Slieve Meelmore, Slieve Loughshannagh, and Slieve Corragh.
The National Trust owns 1,300 acres of the mountains, although the famous Mourne Wall encloses over 9000 acres. Sections of the mountains are privately owned, while others are open to public use. The mountains are over 50 million years old (which is actually quite young for mountains) and are granite rock.
Where are the Mourne Mountains?
The Mourne Mountains are in County Down, on the East coast of Northern Ireland.
The closest major town to the Mourne Mountains is Newcastle, where the trail to Slieve Donard starts from the main car park.
The best places to see in the Mourne Mountains
I will assume that the Mourne Mountains themselves are already top of your list and provide you with non-mountainous attractions.
Silent Valley Mountain Park
Silent Valley Mountain Park is stunning.
The park is centred around the Silent Valley Reservoir and is a small area of solace surrounded by mountains. It attracts over 50,000 visitors per year, so it is no secret spot. However, I visited just before sunset in November and had Silent Valley almost to myself!
Silent Valley opens daily from 9:30 am until 6 pm. If you don’t plan to walk around the reservoir (which requires 3-4 hours), arrive as late as possible for sunset and a quieter atmosphere.
Fancy braving some wild swimming? Blue Lough is where to head.
The lake is an approximate hour’s hike from Little Carrick Car Park and a designated swimming lake. In Summer especially, you’ll find plenty of families with children paddling and groups of friends going for dips. You usually still find one or two serious swimmers in cold months!
Pack a picnic, towel, fresh clothes, and a hot drink to warm up. After a swim, Blue Lough is a great place to sit and enjoy the serenity of the Mournes. You’ll have views of Ben Crom and Slievelamagan as you warm up.
Tollymore Forest Park
Tollymore Forest Park is easily one of my favourite places near the Mournes!
The forest is filled with semi-preserved forest buildings and arches from the 1700s, joined together by woodland and riverside trails. The park covers 1,600 acres, so it is certainly big enough to keep you entertained all day.
You can camp, go horse riding, mountain biking, or just explore on foot. There are sections of the Shimna River that are perfect for swimming, too, with pretty waterfall pools to bathe in surrounded by woodland.
Tollymore Forest Park is 2 miles inland from Newcastle and sits at the foot of the Mourne Mountains.
The four best walks in the Mourne Mountains
The Mourne Mountains are really a walking paradise. You could live in the centre of the Mournes for months yet still not hike all the available trails!
Needless to say, there is a lot of competition when choosing the best four walks in the Mourne Mountains. I have tried to select four walks that vary in scenery, time, physical and technical difficulty.
Slieve Donard Summit Hike
Distance: 5.90 miles
Terrain: Slippery/Mixed Surface/Steep
Time: 4-5 hours
The hikes of all hikes – you cannot visit the Mournes without scaling the tallest mountain in Northern Ireland!
The terrain is rough and slippery in sections, but the hike is untechnical and achievable for anybody of moderate fitness. Make sure to dress suitably, check the weather forecast before setting off, and pack refreshments for along the way.
AllTrail provides an amazing, detailed route description which I’ll link here.
Slieve Binnian Summit Hike
Distance: 6.1 miles
Terrain: Very Steep/Unclear Paths/Slippery
Time: 3-5 hours
Slieve Binnian is tough – mentally and physically.
The mountain may not be the tallest of the Mournes, but it is a tough nut to crack. The trail starts deceptively gentle on a wide, stone path. However, as soon as the trail turns left onto the mountain track, you can expect steadily increasing steepness.
Near the summit, you will need to use your hands to climb and watch every step you take. The trail is unmarked and slippery, so you must check the conditions before setting off.
Of course, the summit view makes it all worthwhile. You overlook Silent Valley and can sometimes see Dublin’s Wicklow Mountains on clear days. A sunrise or sunset hike is ambitious but also highly recommendable if you hike prepared.
Silent Valley Heritage Trail
Distance: 1.75 miles
Time: 1 hour
The Silent Valley Heritage Trail is my favourite trail in the Silent Valley Mountain Park.
The circular route passes the reservoir, dam, Interpretive Centre, Mourne Hand statue, and a memorial to those who died constructing the reservoir. As the trail name suggests, the route is a great way to experience both the heritage and stunning nature of the Mournes.
You can find a route description and map on the Northern Ireland Water website.
Mourne Wall Challenge
Distance: 22 miles
Terrain: Steep/Mixed Surfaces/Muddy
Time: 24 hours
The Mourne Wall Challenge is Northern Ireland’s most revered fitness challenge. Like the Three Peaks, one of Yorkshire’s best walks, the Mourne Wall must be completed within 24 hours.
The circular route follows the length of the Mourne Wall, scaling fifteen mountains en route. Expect lots of ascents and descents, which demand a high level of cardiovascular fitness and mental grit.
If you are up for the challenge, good on you! Remember to check the weather, dress suitably, and pack portable chargers so that you always have a phone to call for help if needed. There are limited facilities along the route, so pack all the refreshments you need.
Are the Mourne Mountains worth visiting?
Yes! The Mourne Mountains are the highest in Northern Ireland and are well worth visiting.
How many mountains are in the Mournes?
There are 12 mountains in the Mournes AONB.
How high are the Mourne Mountains?
The Mourne Mountains are all over 600m, although Slieve Donard is the tallest in Northern Ireland at 853m.
Is there gold in the Mourne Mountains?
Yes, scientists have linked the Mourne Mountains to a higher density of gold.
How were the Mourne Mountains formed?
The Mournes formed volcanically approximately 50 million years ago. They were formed when a massive block of shale rock sunk into the Earth’s (then molten) crust. As the shale sunk, granite rushed over it and eventually cooled. The mountains were then eroded during the Ice Ages and weathered over millions of years into the form we see today.
The Mourne Mountains are one of the best places to visit in Northern Ireland.
The mountains are only an hour’s drive from Belfast and can easily be added to your Belfast itinerary to balance out your city break. There is enough to keep you entertained for a weekend or three weeks – so let your availability dictate your stay.
Visited the Mourne Mountains before? Drop any suggestions or recommendations in the comments below.