6 March by Orla McGrady
Throughout the year we welcome many visitors to Northern Ireland. So, we want to share with you as much as possible what there is to do while you are here. And for us living in Northern Ireland we are so lucky to have the playgrounds we do. Orla McGrady heads up the Mourne Mountains.
I often climb in the Mournes, but haven’t completed Slieve Donard in many years, choosing instead other less known trails and mountains to explore. I made myself a promise to complete Slieve Donard last year, but life got in the way. But when my sister suggested some land activity on a calm weekend in January I jumped at the chance.
The weather offered perfect walking conditions, biting cold, but calm and dry with clear blue skies. I’d never climbed high in the mountains in the winter, so this outing offered a new perspective.
We needed to start early as the light fades early in the evening at this time of year, and we wanted to allow at least four hours in total for the hike. Parking in Donard Car Park, a small group of us (including my nephew dog, Red the Chocolate Labrador) took the route along the gushing Glen River, over boulders and forest tree roots, past green-blue crystal clear waterfalls and rock pools.
The initial climb is fairly steep and you do have to watch your step. The trail leads you through forest of Scots Pine (gloriously green and lush even in January), Oak and Birch, past three bridges, which serve as good route markers and resting points. Stopping to catch my breath, I had to take my outer layers off at bridge 2 I was so hot from my initial enthusiasm and the steep climb.
This river trail opens out to the mountain panorama of Donard and Commedagh, with the Ice House on the left, and a stepped trail to the saddle. Looking back there is the most majestic views of Newcastle, the sea and the sandy coastal bay. There were so many walkers out, at one point we were almost in single file along the trail. The thing that struck me most on this section of the walk was the silence as we ascended up the stepped trail to the saddle. There was barely a wind, and soft winter shadows skirted along the beige-green side of Commedagh, while Donard loomed grey and large on the left.
I stopped just short of the saddle to fill my drinking bottle from a bubbling mountain waterfall, tucked in on the left as you ascend the final steps to the flat of the saddle.
Taking a break for lunch sitting along the Mourne wall, it’s a perfect time to rest, refuel and enjoy the landscape before the final ascent to the peak of Donard. Crossing over the stile at the wall offers a beautiful view of the mountain range should you wish to branch off along the Brandy Pad, or turn right to ascend Slieve Commedagh. We turned left to finish what we set out to do, and ascended along the wall to the summit.
Taking approximately 30 minutes, the final ascent is deceptively challenging, and I needed to stop several times along the way. The ground underfoot is rocky although offers good grip along the wall. We met many on their way down, some offering a helpful ‘not long to go now’, ‘you’re almost there’ and ‘you can do it!’. There is such a warm community of people in Northern Ireland when out hiking.
At the summit it was as busy as a night out in Belfast, groups of people chatting, resting, eating, taking photographs, all as elated as me on the achievement of being at the top of the highest peak in Northern Ireland. The sky was clear enough to offer panoramic views as far as to the south of Ireland, and all across the North, as well as the full mountain range and seascape. Truly magnificent.
It was very cold at the peak, so we didn’t hang around. Two hours and we were back in the car park, slightly sore limbs but a heart full of the joy of this spectacular hiking trail right on our doorstep. It struck me that there’s not many places you can wake up, look at the weather and decide, right, I’m off to climb a mountain today. That’s exactly what the Mournes offer, how lucky we are.
Red the dog, having completed his first Slieve Donard ascent, agrees.
- Images of The Mourne Mountains taken by my brother Cormac McGrady. Cormac is a keen amateur photographer focusing mainly on local landscapes
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