There is no better way to shake off the cobwebs and clear the head during the mayhem and rush of the festive season than indulging in a long walk around Northern Irelands stunning countryside.
Some routes are made for walking when the cold weather sets in, from the highest peaks to tree-lined lanes, and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB) is encouraging people to get outdoors and explore them.
“Winter is the perfect time to get wrapped up and either enjoy a relaxing stroll along the banks of a river, a hike up a mountain, a ramble through the forest or even a mad dash with the kids and your four legged friend,” said NITB’s Destination PR Officer, Pauline Gormley.
Pauline continued: “There is something special about walking around our green spaces at this time of year when everything is dusted in a glittering coat of frost or carpeted in brilliant white snow which beautifully enhances the landscape around us in a magical way.
“There are hundreds of walking paths and trails that suit families with young children with easy distances on flat ground and parks with slides and swings to add to the fun. But Northern Ireland has walks that suit Sunday strollers too and the many serious ramblers we have here meaning everyone is catered for.
“As we all know, the festive season is a joyous time of year but it can be hectic too so it’s important that we take time out to recharge the batteries, spend quality time together and perhaps even shed a few pounds after all those Christmas treats and there is no better way of doing that than on a winter walk.”
To help walkers put their best foot forward, NITB has put together a list of top walking routes this winter.
A winter morning is arguably the best time to walk the Lagan Towpath as the mist hovers just above Belfast’s main river. The towpath starts in Stranmillis, just minutes away from Belfast City Centre, and sets off along the river and canal systems through a variety of wetland, riverside meadows and mixed woodland. After passing through Lagan Meadows and over Shaw’s Bridge this section of the towpath finishes at Sir Thomas & Lady Dixon Park, one of Belfast’s most popular parks. Just minutes from Belfast city centre, there are lots of places to sit down, relax and sip on a coffee or enjoy lunch.
The Divis Ridge Trail, Divis and Black Mountain allows walkers to enjoy panoramic views of Belfast, the Mourne Mountains and even Scotland on a clear day. After an exhilarating walk, stop and enjoy a hot drink and snack at the Divis Coffee Barn which is the highest in Ireland at 1025 feet! It is perfect for hungry walkers and serves delicious treats such as home made scones, tray bakes and hot chocolate.
Winter creates the perfect backdrop to explore the mature woodland of Glenariff Forest Park with freezing waterfalls and open, frosted moorland. The trail first takes you down the Inver River gorge, to the edge of the Ess-na-Crub Waterfall and your path back offers spectacular views straight down the misty Glen to the coast and the sea beyond. Located only 10 miles from Glenariff Forest Park is the Londonderry Arms Hotel, the ideal place for walkers to rest their feet and recharge their batteries.
Whitepark Bay is a spectacular sandy beach in a secluded location which is perfect for a gentle walk when you need to get away from the stresses of everyday life. The bay is one of the most natural coastline sites in Northern Ireland and is backed by ancient dunes and rare plants and orchids. The area is rich in fossils so perfect for any budding archaeologists who also enjoy a brisk walk.
Co. Antrim also boasts Croaghan, a 6.5 mile circular stroll, with a variety of hills, forest tracks and stunning panoramic views of Rathlin Island, just off the Antrim Coast.
The Slieve Gullion walk is 9.5 miles and located within the Ring of Gullion Area of Outstanding Beauty. Rising to 573m, Slieve Gullion is the centrepiece of the volcanic landscape and is a Special Area of Conservation. The Ring of Gullion and Slieve Gullion have rich associations with Irish legends and myths and are home to the highest surviving passage tomb in Ireland, known locally as ‘the Calliagh Berra’s House’.
Gosford Forest Park comprises of 240 hectares of diverse woodland and open parkland set in gentle rolling drumlin countryside. It was designated as the first conservation forest in Northern Ireland and has a number of way-marked nature trails and treks to explore with the whole family.
Walk along the banks of the River Cusher near Tandragee and take in all the delights that Clare Glen has to offer. The abundance of trees such as hazel, oak and ash will look mesmerising on a cool, crisp winter’s day as you enjoy the spectacular views.
This year brand new walking trails were launched in Castlewellan Forest Park and Bunkers Hill which boast breathtaking views of the Mourne Mountains. The trails total 7.5 miles and take in numerous points of interest such as the Annesley Garden and the Arboretum. New trails have been constructed and some existing trails have been upgraded to create the five walk trails which are the Slievenaslat walk, the Moorish Tower walk, the Annesley Garden walk, the Lakeside walk and the Cypress Pond Walk.
Walkers should also explore the Peace Maze which is one of the largest permanent hedge mazes in the world and has recently been refurbished making it the perfect place for a fun game of hide and seek with the children.
Bunkers Hill has also been given a new lease of life with the launch of a brand new 1.2 mile walking and family cycling trail as well as a Play Trail consisting of a variety of play structures made entirely from wood. The trail allows walkers to soak up stunning views of Slieve Croob, Dundrum Bay and the Mourne Mountains.
Castle Archdale Country Park offers a variety of walks on a 5 mile trail and with stunning views of the unforgettable Fermanagh lakes, the deer park enclosure, wildfowl ponds and butterfly garden there is more than enough to keep the whole family entertained.
Why not explore Lisnaskea Forest wrapped up warm in your woolly hats and scarves and as it offers moderate walks it is great for those with a young family. Ramblers will enjoy the winding forest roads and remote country lanes that offer stunning views of Lough Erne, the rolling hills beyond that stretch even as far as County Cavan.
Vinegar Hill Loop is a 7 mile walk located near to Gortin, just outside Omagh, and provides a taster of what the beautiful Sperrins have to offer including lush green valleys and breathtaking scenery. This walk is the perfect way to spend a crisp winter morning with your family, or your other half hand in hand or a lively dash with the dog at your side.
The Sperrin Mountain range is the largest in Ireland and stretches along the Co Tyrone and Co Londonderry borders and is best described as wild, untouched and beautiful. A clear winters day is the perfect time to wrap up warm and take in the undulating hills covered in heather, the wonderfully quiet valleys and boggy uplands.
To uncover a true hidden gem, get outdoors and visit Davagh Forest near Cookstown. For a joyful and very manageable two miles you can enjoy the lush woodland and streams as you work off all the extra pounds piled on during the holidays.
Somerset Forest hosts a range of walks of varying lengths and degrees of difficulty and is located on the south western boundary of Coleraine. Walkers should be sure to keep an eye out for the abundant wildlife including herons, squirrels and other animals that call the park home.
Just south-east of Derry city, lies Burntollet Wood which sits beautifully in the picturesque, Faughan Valley. The wood sits adjacent to Ness Country Park which is an area of Special Scientific Interest containing fragments of rare ancient woodland. The Woodland Trust has planted over 43,000 native trees at Burntollet including oak, ash, alder and wild cherry which make the perfect backdrop for a crisp winter walk.