The Grand Tour of Northern Ireland

The idea for the Grand Tour of Northern Ireland came from how to solve the challenge of doing all 6 N.I. County Tops whilst making the trip "wife-friendly". Timi (the wife) loves travel as much as I do, enjoys trekking (to a point) but is not fond of mud and cold. We've learnt that the best combination is to do the adventure thing in the day but stay at nice places at night. A much as I could sleep in a tree, that's never a good option for Timi.

The plan was to start in Belfast, do some sight-seeing then take an anti-clockwise tour of the six counties, ticking off the County Tops. The anti-clockwise option works well as Trostan is a relatively straightforward warm-up and the others build up to the highest peak, Slieve Donard, at the end. In order to get the right balance of adventure and rest, we did no more than 1 walk per day and built in a day off between Trostan and Sawel Mountain to see the Giant's Causeway and Carrick-a-rede.

Giant's Causeway

1: County Antrim Top: Trostan

Significance: Highest peak in  (Traditional CT)
Member of: Marilyn
Elevation: 550m
Date climbed: May 1st 2016
Coordinates: 55.0458° N, 6.1553° W
Route Start / End: Layby near Essathohan Bridge on Ballyeamon Road
Route Stats: 9.75 km in 3 hours 14 mins. Elevation +724m
Subsidiary tops on route: None
More on the web: Wikipedia entry, Peakbagger entry


Our first walk was Trostan, about an hour North of Belfast in the centre of County Antrim. The weather was fairly good and the rain held off till the last 20 minutes. Even so, the ground was saturated and most of the route was through a peaty swamp. We followed the Moyle Way, initially along the right hand side of a stream to a waterfall and an old stone bridge. We turned left across the bridge, following a track for about 2 hundred metres, then turned right to follow another track up though the forest. This took us a little off course which we needed to correct once we got above the tree line. On the way back we discovered that the better route up would have been to have continued straight up past the stone bridge, following the course of the stream.

Once we were back on track after the forest, we relied on the GPS for navigation and the trek to the summit was mostly a matter of finding the driest and least bumpy route. The actual summit is enclosed by a fence with one dilapidated style that takes some skill to cross without impaling yourself. Once past the fence, we headed towards the 2 cairns and the summit Trig Point was very close-by and easy to see.

The descent was much more enjoyable as we took a more direct route down through the forest, following the stream. The colours of the moss covered trees were amazing, showing why they call this place the Emerald Isle. The path next to the stream was very boggy, but added to a fun walk down with many stops for photos.

From the lay-by where we parked we continued on towards Cushendun and picked up the Tor Point Scenic Drive. This is a off-shoot of the Causeway Scenic Route and takes in some dramatic cliff top lanes overlooking the North East Coast. The route passes through Ballycastle and a collection of National Trust properties, before reaching the Giants Causeway near Bushmills.


2&3: County Londonderry and Tyrone Tops: Sawel Mountain.

Significance: Highest peak in  (Traditional CT)
Member of: Marilyn, Hewitt
Elevation: 678m
Date climbed:  May 3rd 2016
Coordinates: 54.8189° N, 7.0386° W
Route Start / End: Layby just past cattle-grid on highest point of Park-Sperrin road.
Route Stats: 6.4 km in 2 hours 42 mins . Elevation gain +593m
Subsidiary tops on route: None
More on the web: Wikipedia entry, Peakbagger entry


After a rest day at the Giants Causeway we drove South for an hour and a half to find Sawel Mountain. This is clearly not a popular route as the path is not signposted and you need to be careful to find the right spot on Sperrins road to start. Its fairly straightforward, however, and there's a good parking spot just before the cattle grid on the high point of the road.

Navigation is fairly simple as you just follow the fence from the cattle grid all the way up to (almost) the summit. Following either side of the fence is OK although we had to cross over a few times and found the south side to be generally dryer that day. 

The ascent was a boggy slog taking about an hour and a half. Near the summit the fence veers off to the south for a few hundred metres before taking a right angle to the west. The summit is an obvious Trig Point about 80 metres up from the fence.

It was hailing and blowing a gale when we got to the Trig Point so we didn't hang around for long. We did hop back over the fence for a few minutes to find the closest bit of high ground to claim the County Tyrone high point.


4: County Fermanagh Top: Cuilcagh Mountain

Significance: Highest peak in  (Traditional CT)
Member of: Marilyn, Hewitt
Elevation: 666m
Date climbed: May 4th 2016
Coordinates: 54.2017° N, 7.8123° W
Route Start / End: Cark park at Cuilcagh Mountain Park
Route Stats: 13.5 km in 2 hours 31 minutes . Elevation gain +897m
Subsidiary tops on route: None
More on the web: Wikipedia entry, Peakbagger entry

Cuilcagh would be the first of the 2 more challenging County Tops of the trip. Timi decided to have a spa day at the hotel so I headed out on my own.

The start is near the Visitors' Centre for the Marble Arch Caves, part of the UNESCO Geopark that covers a lot of the surrounding area. The Visitors Centre sells maps which was pretty handy I'd found that OS maps of Northern Ireland pretty hard to find. From the Visitors Centre, turn right out of the car park and you'll see the car park for the Lenocky Trail very shortly on the left hand side.

The walk starts along a well maintained farm track heading South towards the mountain. You only have to walk a few minutes before Cuilcagh and the route to it are fully visible. The first 2.5 miles are a very gentle gradient along this track, making it pretty straightforward for most walkers. The next section is a wooden Boardwalk which looked like it had been recently made. It is raised by about half a metre to protect the ground underneath. This also makes the next half mile section significantly easier. At the step section leading up the cliffs the boardwalk turns into a well constructed staircase with railings to hang onto.

The boardwalk ends at the plateau and from there the summit is about 800m further. Up to now the navigation had been extremely simple, but this next section requires some care, especially in poor visibility. If you are using a GPS device, as I was, I recommend marking a waypoint at the top of the boardwalk. The top is just under the ridge and you can't see it until you get right to the edge and look down.

As the boardwalk ends, the trail heads across rocks and peat and is occasionally marked by the Cuilcagh Way's yellows leaf insignia, painted on some of the larger rocks. About half way on this section you'll reach a fence with a small opening. Through here turn left and follow the fence for about 50 metres then the summit will come into view directly ahead of you.

The summit is a Trig Point built up on a mound of rocks. It's rare that I can see much at all from the tops, but today was clear and I could see for miles across both Northern Ireland and the Republic. Cuilcagh sits right on the international border and is the County Top for both Fermanagh in the UK and Cavan in Ireland. The border is not marked so I had to use a combination of my Garmin and Google Maps to make sure I'd walked across both countries at the summit.

The way back was simple, especially as the visibility was good. This is the point to use the GPS waypoint to find the top of the boardwalk. Just after the boardwalk ended and I'd got back on the farmers track I saw the first signs of other people. Up til now I'd been on my own, and we didn't see anyone at all on the Trostan and Sawel treks. I'd been wondering if trekking is just not as popular in this area as treks like these on the mainland UK would attract many more people.


5: County Armagh Top: Slieve Gullion

Significance: Highest peak in  (Traditional CT)
Member of: Marilyn
Elevation: 576m
Date climbed: May 5th 2016
Coordinates: 54.1214° N, 6.4304° W
Route Start / End: Slieve Gullion viewing platform car park, Ring of Gullion AONB
Route Stats: 2.8 km in 1 hour 10 mins . Elevation gain +196m
Subsidiary tops on route: None
More on the web: Wikipedia entry, Peakbagger entry

Slieve Gullion was a short walk after a long drive from Donegal. The trek was unexpectedly enjoyable as It looked fairly boring in the book but we really liked it. The mountain road up to the car park was worth the trip there in itself. From the parking spot, the trail snakes up for just over half a mile to the very obvious summit point. We had a clear day and could see for miles.

This was my birthday and the anniversary of our summit day on Mount Toubkal. Whilst a significantly smaller trek than Toubkal, this was still an amazing adventure day.


6: County Down Top: Slieve Donard

Significance: Highest peak in  (Traditional CT)
Member of: Marilyn, Hewitt
Elevation: 853m
Date climbed: May 6th 2016
Coordinates: 54.1804° N, 5.9223° W
Route Start / End: Donard Park car park, Newcastle
Route Stats: 9.8 km in 5 hours 43 mins. Elevation gain +808m
Subsidiary tops on route: None
More on the web: Wikipedia entry, Peakbagger entry

Our final day was the tallest mountain and the most enjoyable trek: Slieve Donard. The week up til this was had changeable weather with every season in every day. This day we were in luck as it was warm with great visibility. On a really clear day you can see England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland from the summit. We couldn't see that far, but we were pretty sure that we could see the Isle Of Man in the distance.

From the Donard Park car park in the centre of coastal Newcastle, the trail follows a stream up through a forest. The tree line ends about an hour in and passes the Annesley Ice House. From here the path continues to follow the stream until a bridge which marks the start of a steep climb up to the Saddle. This is the point where the Glen River Walk meets the Mourne Wall, a 35 km granite wall built in the early 1900s to mark the catchment area of the Silent Valley Reservoir which provides water for most of Belfast and County Down. From here, the summit is another steep climb, following the wall to the South-West.

The summit of Donard is a large pile of stones next to a trig point on a stone tower. This is one of three similar towers originally built to provide shelter for the workers that built the wall. From the summit we could see one of the other towers on the way up to the neighboring Slieve Commedagh, the second highest of the Mourne Mountains at 767m


For us, the County Tops was a great way to see some great parts of Northern Ireland. Its a small place with a lot to offer, but many people avoid it due to lingering memories of The Troubles. When I was growing up, with the Troubles a regular feature of the nightly news I simplistically wondered why the UK didn't just "give Northern Ireland back" to the Irish. Having grown up and learnt a lot more about the history I've realized that its not quite so simple. Its a shame that people are still wary about the place as it has so much to see. Even with an 8 day trip, we missed Londonderry, Lough Neagh and only skirted Strangford Lough, plus many other places we don't yet know about. As with all of our travels, our list of places to visit only gets longer, and with this one I've added a list of all of the Republic of Ireland County Tops plus a return visit to Donegal. ....and then there's the Muff Diving Club ...(obviously).

Another reflection we had was the impact of the UK's EU Referendum, which was 2 and a half months away at the time of writing. The end of the Troubles and having both countries in the EU had made the border crossing almost invisible. A "leave" vote would give this region an interesting set of challenges with a UK/EU border running right over the summit of Cuilcagh. I've got no idea how a split would work and I fear that it wouldn't make things any easier for this place ... but I'm sure someone's worked it out.