The Slieve Donard Hike: A Guide to Northern Ireland’s Tallest Peak

A high coastal vantage point overlooking the sea.
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Grand titles attract hikers. And, as the highest mountain in Northern Ireland, Slieve Donard attracts a fair few. The tallest of the famous Mourne Mountains, Slieve Donard, is surrounded by a cluster of peaks, with Silent Valley Reservoir in the center of them all. A Slieve Donard hike is by no means a small task, but the summit views make it worth the challenge.

Slieve Donard stands at 850 meters and towers over the nearby coastal town of Newcastle. There are several different routes up the mountain and, as the weather is prone to changing rapidly, you will need strong navigational skills. Before climbing, it is important to research your preferred route and prepare the necessary equipment. While a Slieve Donard hike can be very rewarding, you shouldn’t underestimate the preparations needed to enjoy the mountain safely.

Luckily, we’ve done your research for you. Here is our guide to climbing Slieve Donard to help you prepare for your hike.

Which route shall I take up Slieve Donard?

A Slieve Donard hike is a scenic thing to do in Northern Ireland. This image shows a rocky path leading to a forest and mountain.
A mountain path via Pixabay.

If you are planning a Slieve Donard hike, this is likely one of your first questions. The two main routes are the Glen River and the Bloody Bridge paths.

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The Glen River route is the most popular and conveniently starts at Newcastle, ideal for those staying overnight in the town. The trail is split into three main sections: the forest, the saddle, and the Mourne Wall. From Newcastle, the path takes hikers up through a forest, following the river upstream. Once you exit the forest, you are left exposed to the Highlands with fantastic views over the Mourne Mountains.

The saddle section of the route is the connecting slope between Slieve Commedagh and Slieve Donard and comes a short climb after. Here, you’ll spot the Mourne Wall and can follow the traditional wall to the summit. If it is your first time climbing Slieve Donard, we’d recommend choosing the Glen River route. The path is busier should you need assistance in an emergency or for directions. The starting point is also easy to access from Newcastle, which is often more convenient for hikers.

The Bloody Bridge route starts further South at the Bloody Bridge car park. From the car park, the path follows the Bloody Bridge River, which coined its name from a massacre during the 1641 Rebellion. Hikers cross many footbridges, styles, and walk through an old quarry.

Aside from the Bloody Bridge, you’ll also spot natural features like Chimney Rock Mountain. Unlike the Glen River route, this path takes hikers up the East side of Slieve Donard to reach the saddle. Once the hikers reach the saddle, the Glen River and Bloody Bridge routes merge. Both routes then follow the Mourne Wall to Slieve Donard’s summit. For those interested in the history of 1641 or wanting a quieter path up the mountain, the Bloody Bridge is a great option. The route is less busy than that of the Glen River and tends to attract more experienced hikers.

How long does it take to walk up Slieve Donard?

Most likely, you'll start your Slieve Donard hike from Newcastle. This image shows seaside houses against the backdrop of a forest and mountain tops.
Newcastle, the start of the Glen River route via Pexels.

Regardless of which route you choose, you should allocate approximately five to six hours to complete a return trip up Slieve Donard. A Slieve Donard hike is something you should dedicate a full day in your itinerary to, especially so you can leisurely enjoy the summit without rushing back down.

The Glen River route is 5.8 miles return and slightly shorter. Typically, hikers can expect to reach the summit in around two and a half hours. For the Bloody Bridge route, the path is 6.4 miles return, and you should allow approximately three hours to reach the summit.

How difficult is it to climb Slieve Donard?

A Slieve Donard hike is a relative challange. This image shows a girl with a big backpack hiking through a forest.
A female hiker via Pexels.

Slieve Donard is a relative challenge and the final section to reach the summit is extremely steep. We’d advise hikers to be of moderate fitness, although with planned breaks along the way, most people will be able to complete the climb.

Keep in mind that Slieve Donard can be unsuitable for beginner and novice hikers across the winter months. Sections of the path, especially the final climb, get slippery and treacherous in ice and snow. Strong winds can also impact the difficulty of your climb. If you are less experienced hiking, we’d recommend planning a Slieve Donard hike in the spring and summer months. Even in these months, it is worthwhile checking the weather forecast before embarking on your hike.

What shall I pack for a Slieve Donard hike?

This image shows a man holding the straps of his backpack in a white shirt.
A hiker via pexels.

As we have said, when planning a Slieve Donard hike, preparation is key. You will need warm and waterproof hiking clothes, with plenty of layers to remove and add when necessary. Most of the hike up Slieve Donard is exposed and prone to extreme elements. Therefore, thermal layers, spare socks, and waterproofs are essential additions to your hiking attire.

Many hikers like to climb Slieve Donard for sunrise or sunset. If you plan to do this, you should invest in a headtorch rather than relying on a mobile phone torch. On certain sections, you may need your hands free for balance and help climbing, so it’s easier just to purchase a headtorch in advance.

While not compulsory, a portable charger, camera, emergency blanket, and trekking poles may be worth your investment. Also, make sure to bring snacks and refreshments with you, as there are no facilities on Slieve Donard’s summit.

You should prepare for your Slieve Donard hike to avoid accidents. This image shows a mountain rescue helicopter against a blue sky.
A mountain rescue helicopter via Pexels.

Has anyone died climbing Slieve Donard?

Yes, hikers have died climbing Slieve Donard. Recent incidents include the death of a 29-year-old man struck by lightning while sheltering from a storm and a 44-year-old man who collapsed mid-route.

Is Slieve Donard walk open?

Yes, the Slieve Donard walk is open and welcomes hikers all year round. You can keep an eye on Northern Ireland’s official entry requirements here.

What can I do near Newcastle, County Down?

After you’ve completed the highest peak in Northern Ireland, there are plenty more things to do near Newcastle. If you’d like to enjoy some gentler walks, Tollymore Forest Park is a scenic place to enjoy a forest stroll and wild swimming. Silent Valley Reservoir, also known as Ben Crom, also has a tarmac track around the reservoir where you can admire the sheer scale of the Mourne Mountains from ground level.

Of course, you may want to rest your legs and avoid ambitious hiking for a few days. If this is the case, we suggest driving the short half an hour to see the Castle Ward estate. Game of Thrones fans may recognize the estate’s medieval fortress as Winterfell, the fictitious home of the series’ Stark family. Meanwhile, wildlife lovers can enjoy spotting seals from coastal vantage points in the autumn months.

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Eibhlis Gale – Coleman is a freelance writer from the UK who is driven by a fierce love of adventure, unique cultural experiences, native animals, and good coffee. She is a passionate traveller and has explored Europe, Southeast Asia, North Africa, and Australia.