Knowing that my fitness levels have dropped significantly in the last five years, I have hesitated to take a day hike in Ireland before now. I knew it would be… painful. After our big trip to New Zealand where Tiernan and I punished ourselves cruelly with several multi-day hikes, camping and kayaking trips we both recognized that we needed to ‘get back into it’ at home in Ireland.
That is the story how, at 9 o’clock in the morning, we found ourselves leaving the Slieve Donard car park in Newcastle, Co. Down and following the Glen River skyward. This is a casual hike for a lot of people. I’m not a lot of people. For myself, I often have to double the estimated time for any ascent. I find climbing hard and often wonder why I’m even doing this approximately half way up the mountain. I’ll walk for miles on the flat. But a mountain… why did I decide to go outside today?
The highest peak in Northern Ireland
At 850m, Slieve Donard is the highest mountains in the Mourne range; making it the 19th highest mountain on the island of Ireland. It sits in southeast County Down, kissing the coastline just below the town of Newcastle. From the top, you can see all the way to Belfast and Dublin.
The initial ascent
The climb up from the carpark to the saddle between Slieve Donard and Slieve Commedagh is quite pleasant. We crossed the first of three bridges only a few minutes after leaving the car. Walking up through pine needles, keeping clear of the dubious overhangs that have been carved out by the river, was sheltered and peaceful – other than the sound of water on rock.
At the second bridge, we crossed again and continued further uphill, strolling up through woodland until we left the trees behind. The third bridge you do not cross. Slightly upstream is a stile that marks the end of the woodland. From here it is a two-kilometre walk through tufty, bronze grass, along cobbled paths until the river disappears. Then I really began to slow down as we climbed the steps up to the saddle.
It was the end of April and there was still snow and ice about up at the saddle. Once we had conquered the saddle we sat down on the wall for a quick snack and a photo opportunity. And if you’re wondering if there is mobile phone reception up there – there is. I took a phone call on the side of the mountain.
Of course, there’s a wall – I mean, why not?
In the early 20th Century, someone thought, “You know what this mountain range needs? A wall.” And one was built. It took 18 years to build the wall that zigzags the Mourne Mountains. Work was completed between 1904 and 1922. This wall touches the tips of pretty much all the mountains in the range. On Slieve Donard, it follows the western slope and then down the southern slope.
The wall is not the only stonework on this mountain. Two cairns adorn the summit of Slieve Donard. A cairn is essentially a pile of stones that a human has stacked. Sometime during the Neolithic period, stones were stacked on Slieve Donard to create the highest passage tomb in Britain and Ireland. It’s about 3000 years old.
The scrambly bit
The second half of the hike feels like a scramble more than a hike. I found it quite the challenge. So much so that I called it a day only 15 minutes or so from the summit. We made it half way up the scramble when I knew my knees would not forgive me the journey home. Reluctantly, we turned around and started back down the mountain. I’m big enough to handle a bit of failure in my life. And it was a good job too because my knees were already grumbling at me by the time we got back to the car.
When we return later in the summer with knee braces I’ll update this post!
Still, we felt pretty industrious after our few hours of climbing. Proud of ourselves, we cooked up some enchiladas for dinner for a bit of self-love and took the rest of the night off.
Distance: 2.9 miles (one way)
Elevation: 850m above sea-level
Time allowed: 2.5 hours (so 3 hours if you’re me)
Prep for: High winds, snow, steep gradients. Good hiking shoes are essential at a minimum. You may want to consider bringing walking poles.
Ireland has a lot to offer hikers. Which hike should we do next?