Prolific hillwalker and guidebook author Adrian Hendroff describes ten of his favourite walks in the Mourne and Cooley Mountains, a diverse and spectacular corner of Northern Ireland that's too often overlooked.
The Mourne mountains, the jewels of County Down that 'sweep down to the sea' hug the Irish coastline in a compact region designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. These are the mountains that inspired Belfast born novelist C.S. Lewis to create his magical land of Narnia and also served as the backdrop of the epic TV series, Game of Thrones. Less than an hour's drive from Belfast and around two hours by car from Dublin, the Mourne mountains are a circular cluster of majestic granite tops, some sharp and rugged, and others more rounded domes, dominating the landscape in almost every direction. Some rocky summits are even crowned by an exquisite collection of granite tors of various shapes and sizes, a magnet for climbers as well as walkers.
South of Mourne is the Cooley Peninsula, a mountainous finger of land sandwiched between Carlingford Lough and Dundalk Bay, extending for around 11 miles (19km) into the Irish Sea. The Cooley landscape is a diverse mix ranging from enchanting woodlands to lush green valleys, and from scenic stretches of coastline to high rugged peaks. It highest mountain, Slieve Foye, towers over Carlingford, a medieval town characterised by defensive walls, narrow lanes, tower houses, ruined castles and old buildings.
Slightly northwest of Cooley, on the opposite side of the motorway, is the Ring of Gullion, a unique geological landform, unparalleled anywhere in the British Isles. It is the first ring-dyke ever described in scientific literature and was named in 2014 as one of the top 100 Geosites in Britain and Ireland. The ring-dyke is best appreciated from the summit of Slieve Gullion or Black Mountain on the Cooley Peninsula.
Here are ten great walks that await you in this fascinating area...
The Mourne Mountains was once known as Beanna Boirche or the 'peaks of Boirche', named after a Celtic chieftain who lived in 250AD. Boirche was recognised as the 'cowherd to the High King of Ulster', a name that was bestowed on him based on the number of cattle he owned. Tradition suggests that Boirche once lived on the lofty summit of Slieve Binnian. Slieve Binnian is a fascinating mountain, with its rugged crest featuring a collection of granite tors of various shapes and sizes, some higher than double-storey houses and others resembling Easter Island 'Moai' statues. The bristly outline of these tors is easily identifiable even from afar, giving the mountain its distinctive character. Novice hillwalkers will be content to bypass these tors, but the more experienced may choose to scramble up them. Slieve Binnian may be approached from the car-park at Carrick Little then following the course of the Mourne Wall to its summit. Another option begins from the Silent Valley, then over the lower summits of Moolieve and Wee Binnian, before rising steeply up the Mourne Wall. Beyond the summit, a traverse northward along its crest passes all the aforementioned tors, culminating with stupendous views down into the Ben Crom Reservoir near the end.
Slieve Foye is the highest mountain on the Cooley Peninsula and County Louth, rising proudly above the woodlands behind the ruins of Taaffe's Castle in the charming coastal town of Carlingford. A traverse along the length of its hummocky ridge from Eagles Rock to its summit is an exhilarating experience at any time of year, giving impressive views across Carlingford Lough toward the majestic sweep of green Rostrevor hills and the higher Mourne mountains farther away. Carlingford Lough, a sea-inlet formed by glaciation action during the Ice Age, stretches for miles along the length of the Cooley Peninsula, with its deep turquoise waters dividing Northern Ireland to the north and the Republic of Ireland on its opposite end. The Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw, once referred the area around here as 'more beautiful than the Bay of Naples', and on a clear and sunny day, it truly is! Note that the bedrock on the rugged crest of Slieve Foye is a combination of granite, dolerite and gabbro. It is said that gabbro, a coarse-grained, dark igneous rock has magnetic properties known to interfere with compass needles - so do take heed in the mist.
Slieve Bearnagh is a mountain of regal character. Like Slieve Binnian, its distinctive, rocky summit is crowned with several granite tors that makes one look up at once and take notice. Sculpted during the Ice Age, these fascinating summit tors dominate the skyline when viewed from nearly every peak in the Mourne. Another characteristic of Slieve Bearnagh is that its steep slopes are cut by deep gaps; to the northwest it plunges steeply down to Pollaphuca, and to the northeast a long crest descends to Hare's Gap. And so, it seems fitting then that the mountain derives its name from the Irish Sliabh Bearnach meaning 'mountain of the gap'. Even the brave builders of the mighty Mourne Wall were defeated by its unrelenting steepness. This is evident by some gaps left in the wall in areas where sheer, vertiginous rock slabs block the way. The normal route up Slieve Bearnagh is to ascend a very steep, boulder-strewn slope from the col at Pollaphuca to reach a rocky outcrop on the summit plateau. Slieve Bearnagh's summit tor is located to the right of this and topping it involves a wee scramble. Another less-steep variation approaches the summit via its southeast spur from a broad, grassy shoulder. Besides giving a glimpse of the valley on the eastern side of Slieve Bearnagh, this approach also passes all of its tors before meeting the Mourne Wall. It is also a quieter option, as the normal route can get quite busy, especially at weekends or public holidays. Whichever route you choose, Slieve Bearnagh is a magnificent peak that deserves a return visit or exploration throughout the seasons.
Ben Crom and Doan
The summits of Ben Crom and Doan don't quite hit the magical mark for it to qualify as a Vandeleur-Lynam, a metric list of summits in Ireland over 600m. However, they make up for it by boasting superb views, outclassing even its higher neighbours. Sheer crags and precipitous cliffs guard the eastern ramparts of Ben Crom, plummeting agonisingly down to the reservoir below for nearly 900 feet – enough to induce a sense of vertigo even to the bravest. The tiny, isolated peak of Doan is safeguarded by a ring of rocky crags, making it interesting for anyone that fancied a scramble. Both summits offer fine views across a deep valley to the western slopes of Slieve Binnian and Slievelamagan. However, it is Doan that provides perhaps the finest 360° views of the area. All the Mourne giants can be identified from Doan's summit: Slieve Binnian and its distinctive tors nearby; the broad slopes of Slieve Muck to the southwest; the Meelmore twins to the north, with Slieve Bearnagh and its summit crown to its right and the line of summits leading to Slieve Donard away to the northeast. The postcard view from Doan is arguably southward toward the Silent Valley Reservoir - where a panorama of mountain, hill, plains and sea unfold. Both Ben Crom and Doan may be approached either from the northwest along the Ott track, or from the south along Banns Road, or the base of Ben Crom's southern face at the top of Ben Crom Reservoir.
There is nowhere higher in the Mourne or Northern Ireland than the summit of Slieve Donard, thus making it a unique vantage point for appreciating views far and wide, including the iconic Mourne Wall and all the great peaks in the area. In ancient times, the mountain was known as Sliabh Slainge, named after Slanga, a Partholan prince of Grecian roots who came to these shores after the battle of Troy. Its summit cairn came to be known as 'Slainges Cairn', in which today is the Great Carn. According to the Annals of the Four Masters, Slanga's final resting place is allegedly under this large cairn, and so it was that the mountain was named after him. This name stood for around 2,000 years until the arrival of St.Patrick's follower St. Domangard in the 5th century. Domangard, like other great Irish saints, found solace of the heavens on such lofty heights, so much so that he built an oratory on the summit. They say that the stones of the Great Carn may have once been part of the saint's oratory and even his passage grave. And so, it soon became known and accepted as Sliabh Domangard, and now Donard is thought to be a corrupt form of this name. The normal and most popular route up is an out-and-back from Donard Park via Donard Forest, along the scenic Glen River trail to the col below the summit, and from there following the Mourne Wall steeply to the top. It may also be approached from Millstone Mountain via the Granite Trail, or from the east along the Bloody Bridge track. Whichever way you choose, be prepared for a great day out!
Mourne Wall Challenge
This is a true Irish mountain classic. The core of this epic walk involves following the course of a 22-mile (35km) stone wall known as the Mourne Wall. Built when the water commissioners identified the Mourne as an ideal natural source for supplying millions of gallons of clean water per day to an expanding Belfast, it took 'hard men with herculean strength, powerful shoulders and hands like shovels' almost 18 years to complete. Working through harsh weather conditions of bitingly cold winter winds and lashing rain, hundreds of thousands of tons of granite boulders, prised and shaped from the bedrock of the Mourne was painstakingly put in place by the men. The top of the Mourne Wall is high enough to require one to stand tiptoe for a view across its other side, and just about wide enough to walk on. For 27 years from 1957, the Mourne Wall challenge was an annual affair organised by the Youth Hostels Association of Northern Ireland, growing to be the largest mass participation event held in the Irish mountains, with some 4,000 challengers on a single day. However, this contributed to a severe amount of erosion to the hillside, and amid growing concerns the organised event was discontinued. The Mourne Wall challenge – if you dare attempt it - links 15 summits, of which 9 are over 2,000 feet and involves approximately 9,383ft (2,860m) of total ascent. Start and finish from Carrick Little, the Silent Valley Mountain Park or Meelmore Lodge.
Slieve Gullion (Sliabh gCuillinn, 'mountain of the steep slope') is the highest mountain in County Armagh and on the Ring of Gullion. It is a large, solitary mountain shaped by glaciation and surrounded by a number of low-lying hills. The mountain itself is ancient; it is what remains of a Paleocene volcanic complex encircled by a 60 million years old ring-dyke. The ring-dyke, which has attracted many geologists worldwide, is around 7 miles (11 km) in diameter and was formed due to the collapse of the surface above a retreating chamber of molten rock. There are two cairns on Slieve Gullion's summit plateau, one just north of a tiny mountain lake, and the larger circular one on its southern end. The southern cairn is nearly 13 feet (4m) high with a kerb of large stones around its perimeter measuring around 98feet (30m) in diameter. This large cairn is also a Neolithic passage tomb, the highest surviving one in Ireland, whose entrance is aligned with the setting sun of the winter solstice. The mountain can be summited by picking up a path from the top of the Slieve Gullion Forest Drive to reach the southern cairn. Summit views are all-encompassing and includes the Ring of Gullion, Armagh drumlins, and as far as the mountains of Mourne and Cooley. On a clear day, even the Antrim hills and Wicklow mountains can be traced in the distant horizon.
Fathom Forest and Flagstaff Viewpoint
Flagstaff is one of the classic viewpoints on the Cooley Peninsula. The panoramic vista from here to the southeast is one of the finest in the area - dominated by Carlingford Lough, whose Mediterranean blue waters are guarded by the green, forested slopes of Slievemartin on one end and the brown, menacing face of Slieve Foye at the other. Down on the estuary, Narrow Water Castle stands watch near the mouth of the Newry River. A ribbon of road can also be seen snaking towards the white and grey concrete jumble of Warrenpoint, which glistens and sparkles in the sun. Most day-trippers would be content to access the viewpoint from its car-park just below, but a more rewarding outing would be to hike up the woods of Fathom. The forested slopes rise steeply from the roadside on the eastern end, close to the Newry River. Here in the woods, the song of the chiffchaff and robin can be heard under a lush cover of birch, larch and tall pine trees. These woods were also a favourite haunt of rapparee and poet Séamas Mór McMurphy until he was arrested and hanged in Armagh in 1750.
No visit to the Mourne is complete without an excursion to see the iconic Cloghmore Stone. Perched high above the woodlands of Kilbroney Forest Park, simply follow Cloghmore Trail signposts to reach it, or take a longer route up the woods of the Nature Reserve via Fiddler's Green. Legend suggests that the mythical warrior Fionn MacCumhaill was hunting on Slieve Foye one day when he was faced with Ruscaire, a giant of Ice and Winter. A fierce battle ensued between the pair that lasted three days and three nights. Finally, in a fit of anger, Fionn picked and hurled a boulder across the lough that landed on Ruscaire's head, killing the giant. The boulder - as you have probably guessed - is the Cloughmore Stone. However, despite the legendary tale, the 50-tonne Cloughmore Stone is really just an erratic – a boulder dislodged from the mountains during the Ice Age and deposited in its present location as the glacier receded. It is said that the Stone provided C.S. Lewis the inspiration for Aslan's table in his Chronicles of Narnia. Some local folk also suggest walking around the Cloghmore Stone seven times will allegedly bring good luck! If you don't then simply linger and enjoy stunning vistas down to Carlingford Lough and Rostrevor, and across to the rugged range of hills sweeping along length of the Cooley Peninsula.
Slievelamagan to Slieve Beg via the Silent Valley
This scenic route is one of the loveliest in the Mourne, combining both magnificent low and high-level views almost throughout the walk. The route meanders on trails along the eastern fringes of both the Silent Valley and Ben Crom reservoirs during the early and latter stages. Both of the reservoirs are nestled in an impressive U-shaped glacial valley flanked by steep slopes of granite peaks. The high-level section of the walk slots in between the reservoir trails and is a straightforward traverse over three Mourne summits along a broad crest to the east of Ben Crom Reservoir. The first summit, Slievelamagan, is a towering mountain, with very steep slopes of scree and heather, so it isn't surprising that its Irish name Sliabh Lámhagáin means 'crawling mountain', possibly referring to having to ascend the mountain with hands and feet in places due to its steepness. The next summit, Cove Mountain, takes its name from a cave at Lower Cove; and the last one, Slieve Beg, is quite easily the highlight of the day. Just before the summit is a vertigo-inducing glimpse down the steep scree-filled gully of the Devil's Coachroad at the edge of some cliffs. The top of the gully is flanked by vertiginous granite buttresses and crags, with Slieve Donard neatly framed in between.
About Adrian Hendroff
Adrian Hendroff is a member of the Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild (OWPG), Mountain Training Association and Mountaineering Ireland. He is the first person to have ascended the combined list of all 455 of Ireland's Vandeleur-Lynam and Arderin summits. His articles and photographs have been widely published in books and magazines. His first book From High Places: A Journey Through Ireland's Great Mountains won the OWPG Award for Excellence in 2011. Adrian has also written seven Irish walking guidebooks since, all published by The Collins Press. Two of his guidebooks were Highly Commended in the OWPG Awards - Donegal, Sligo & Leitrim: Mountain & Coastal Hillwalks in 2012 and Family Walks Around Dublin in 2017. One of his other guidebooks, The Beara & Sheep's Head Peninsula received a special mention in the OWPG Awards in 2015.
The Mourne and Cooley Mountains: A Walking Guide by Adrian Hendroff, published by The Collins Press
The Mourne and Cooley Mountains are quite simply a hiker's paradise. These exhilarating walks will take you to the highest point in Northern Ireland, to scenic Slieve Foye and the ancient summit of Slieve Gullion. On routes steeped in the legend of the Táin Bó Cúailgne, trek through picturesque woodlands. Discover the highest passage tomb in Ireland, use an old smugglers route and walk alongside tranquil reservoirs. The more ambitious will relish the Mourne Wall and Mourne Seven Sevens challenges, and some summits include optional scrambles to the top of dramatic granite tors or rocky outcrops. Each graded route is illustrated with photographs and specially drawn maps. Snippets on the rich flora, fauna, geology, history, heritage and folklore of each area are included throughout. So, get your walking boots on and discover the impressive landscape that inspired C.S. Lewis magical world of Narnia and served as the backdrop for Game of Thrones.
For more info see www.adrianhendroff.com