Obviously as a mountain loving climbing enthusiast I’m quite biased but hiking really is such a fantastic hobby with so many benefits, so why not get the whole family involved?
Hiking burns body fat, improves your heart health and builds stronger muscles and bones, but more importantly in this day and age, where children are so obsessed with gaming and social media and spend way too much time indoors, getting your family out for a hike even just once a week gets them away from that for some proper ‘family time’ to chat with you and their siblings, maybe even have some fun and hopefully appreciate the beautiful world we live in that little bit more!
I’ve been asked many times by people thinking of taking up hiking where the best place to start is and I always recommend the forest trails in the Mourne area. Forest hikes are a great adventure for the kids with so much to see and discover, and are an excellent introduction to the gradient and terrain before moving on to the raw mountains.
Slieve Martin in Kilbroney forest, Slievenaslat in Castlewellan forest and Tollymore mountain and Drinns trail are all regular hiking spots for us. Silent Valley is also a great place for a family day out in the Mournes – you can follow the walking trail along the reservoir and when you reach Ben Crom dam you can climb the stile at either side to get a taste of walking in the mountains!
It’s quite a difficult task for me to compile a top 5 list as I have so many favourite mountains and hikes in the Mournes, but with the help of my son Jacob (my hiking side-kick), and obviously taking into account this list has to be family-focused and kid-friendly with things like distance, difficulty and safety being the most important factors, we’ve been able to narrow it down to the following five.
Hen Mountain (354m)
Hen is a lovely little mountain found in the Western Mournes just outside Hilltown. Parking is available on the Sandbank Road and refreshments are also available at the Hen & Cock Coffee Dock.
A short gravel trail will take you to the base of Hen in as little as 10 minutes. The climb up the mountain is also quite short, probably only 20/30 minutes, but it can be quite mucky at times so I would recommend good walking shoes or boots.
The summit provides beautiful views of the Western Mournes and the Rowan Tree River Valley, and has ample space to walk around and explore. Its flat rocky tors are the perfect spot for a picnic on a sunny day and a very popular spot for rock climbers, which the kids love to watch.
If you fancy exploring further while in the area the walk along the valley through the mountains is very enjoyable, or you also have the option of climbing Hen’s steeper neighbouring mountains, Cock and Pigeon Rock!
Slieve Doan (562m)
Doan is a little gem found in the heart of the Mournes. The trail bringing you here starts at the carpark on the Slievenaman Road and takes you up to the stile and the Mourne wall at Ott mountain in around 20/30 minutes.
The trail then continues on towards the little rocky peak ahead of you. The area around Ott and Doan can be very boggy at times so I would definitely recommend boots for this hike. As you ascend Doan the terrain is much drier and rockier but the boots also provide a good grip for this.
You should reach the top of the mountain quite quickly but I recommend you take your time with the kids as there are a few tricky areas where you may need to scramble up over the rocks – they will obviously really enjoy this but they need to be careful! I always recommend climbing Doan on a dry sunny day so that you can see clearly and the rocks aren’t slippery! Doan may be small but the views from the summit are probably the best in all of the Mournes – you are literally surrounded by mountains and water for miles and miles as far as the eye can see! Paradise!
The hike from Slievenaman carpark and back should take around 3 hours depending on how much time you spend snacking (and taking photos, of course!).
Slieve Loughshannagh (617m)
This hike also begins on the Slievenaman Road. Follow the trail up to the wall at Ott, same as with Doan, only this time once you cross the stile you turn to your left and start climbing up the grassy slopes of Loughshannagh.
It’s a steep enough ascent but the terrain is quite easy to climb as it’s not too mucky or too rocky and you should reach the top in 15/20 minutes. Slieve Loughshannagh is a popular spot for campers as there is a lot of space at the summit – it has fantastic views of the mountains lakes and reservoirs so it’s a great place to put a blanket down and have a picnic, plus it’s extremely close to lots of other neighbouring mountains if you want to conquer more than one or two peaks in a day!
The Brandy Pad
This is a beautiful walk on a good day with amazing scenery. Park at Trassey carpark or the Mourne Lodge and follow Trassey track to Hare’s Gap. The trail is around 30 minutes long but very enjoyable walking along the Trassey river.
The climb up Hare’s Gap to the wall between Bearnagh and Slievenaglogh is strenuous at times but the kids should really love climbing the rocks! After a quick break and a snack (or two) climb the stile and follow the trail ahead over the Brandy Pad along the base of Slievenaglogh, Corragh and Commedagh. This is the old historic pathway used by smugglers transporting brandy, tobacco, tea, coffee and wine from Newcastle to Hilltown.
The trail is easy to walk and a real adventure through the mountains with views over Ben Crom reservoir and its surrounding rivers and waterfalls. You have the choice of following the trail right through to Slieve Donard or even further to Bloody Bridge but this would be a full day hike so depending on the weather and how much the kids are really enjoying it you can basically just pick a point to stop and turn back.
I recommend stopping at the stone cairn at the base of Slieve Beg before the Castles of Commedagh – this is another good spot for a snack and you can even hike on up the side of Beg in as little as 10 minutes for great views of Donard, Annalong valley and the famous Devil’s Coach Road (maybe you will be lucky enough to spot some rock climbers on their way up the gulley!).
Just be extremely careful with the kids up here as there are a few sharp cliff drops – everyone should stick together (no wandering off!). It’s probably not the best place for the little ones but the teenagers will love it!
Slieve Donard (850m)
Yes Donard is a big one but a great day out for the whole family! You can park at Donard carpark in Newcastle town centre and follow the Glen river trail through Donard forest right up to the wall at the saddle and on up to the highest point in Northern Ireland.
The main reason Donard is in my top 5 is that although it’s the highest of all the Mournes, the superbly laid stone track from the forest to the saddle and more recently to the summit means it’s not the longest or most difficult climb. The hike is strenuous at times though as you’d expect climbing such a huge mountain but the amazing panoramic views from the top make it all worthwhile.
Donard can also be conquered via the Bloody Bridge river trail, which is a great day out for the family and maybe even more of an adventure as it’s a more secluded, quieter route which takes you through the old granite quarry and rail tracks at Chimney Rock mountain. You’re also more likely to bump into some of the Mourne wild horses along the way.
This route is longer and steeper and not as well laid as the Glen river trail though so younger children might find it a bit more difficult. But as always, the climb is well worth it when you reach the top – I mean, what kid wouldn’t want to boast they’d conquered the highest mountain in Northern Ireland?
Helpful hints & tips
We all know kids are always hungry so I don’t really need to tell you to pack lots of snacks for your hike, but make sure you also have plenty to drink so that they are well hydrated, especially on a warm day. Water is good but a drink of juice or Lucozade might give them that extra boost of energy on a long hike. A warm flask of tea comes in handy on a cold day, too.
Make sure you and the kids are wearing layers that you can take off or put back on during your hike as temperatures can change drastically in the mountains – one minute you’re burning a sweat and the next the wind chill hits and you’re freezing!
Pack some extra layers in your bag too and maybe hats and gloves depending on the time of year. Bring or wear a waterproof coat and even waterproof trousers if possible to ensure everyone stays dry if it rains because getting wet can lead to feeling very cold and miserable, which may lead to a lot of moaning!
And last but not least I definitely recommend hiking shoes or boots for good grip and support, and to prevent any ankle injuries or sore feet. Keep those wee toes cosy, warm and dry!
Well, you’ve heard all the benefits and you’ve now hopefully got plenty of ideas of where to go, so it’s time to get your family out hiking in the Mournes and make some memories! Enjoy!