Ed Leahy gets his boots on.

On a clear day you can view the Mourne Mountains from Dublin's Howth Head.

But on the other 350-odd days, an hour's drive will take you out of the Fair City and into the heart of spectacular County Down countryside, where you will wind and meander through hills and valleys, with jaw-dropping scenery awaiting around every turn in the road.

Head east for the coastal town of Newcastle and set off on some of the best walking trails to be found in Ireland. The seaside town makes for the perfect base ahead of your day's hiking or weekend walking adventure, with some great hotels, restaurants and bars in close proximity to the start of many Mourne Mountain hiking trails.

The views from the town are spectacular and dramatic as mist or cloud can often hide the summits, but there is always an available walk, whether your level is beginner, intermediate or advanced.

For serious hikers, a challenging hill walk with some strenuous ascents takes you into the heart of the Mourne Mountains on a 15-kilometre trail taking in three of the four highest peaks: Slieve Donard at 853m, Slieve Commedagh at 765m and Slieve Bearnagh at 739m.

The walk offers breathtaking views out to the Irish Sea and equally impressive further inward to the high Mournes.

Elsewhere in County Down, and only 20 minutes by car from Newcastle, Castlewellan Forest Park boasts one of the most outstanding tree and shrub collections in Europe and walkers can enjoy its mile-long lake, which gives a great insight into 18th-century landscaping.

As well as the forest and riverside walks, Kilbroney Park in Rostrevor offers walkers the opportunity to climb to Cloughmore or 'the big stone', a 30-ton erratic, which sits at approx 1,000ft above Rostrevor. Geologists believe that the rock was deposited during the Ice Age.

The North Down Coastal Path extends from Holywood, just outside Belfast, to Orlock and passes along coastline and parkland, where historic relics and flora and fauna can be found in abundance and grey seals are often spotted offshore.

Belfast is also well-served with a range of walking trails, including an excellent stroll by the river along the Lagan Towpath, which starts in Stranmillis, just minutes away from the city centre, and sets off along the river and canal systems through a variety of wetland, riverside meadows and mixed woodland.

Divis and Black Mountain rest in the heart of the west Belfast hills and provide an impressive backdrop to the city's skyline, offering spectacular views across the north from Belfast Lough as far as Donegal.

Travel north of Belfast into the Glens of Antrim and explore the Glenariff Forest Park, where mature woodland is set along the edges of steep-sided river gorges with freezing winter waterfalls and open, frosted moorland. The 10-kilometre trail takes you down the Inver River gorge to the edge of the Ess-na-Crub Waterfall.

Elsewhere in Antrim, the Croaghan walk is about 10 kilometres in length and offers stunning panoramic views over to Rathlin Island, just off the north Antrim Coast.

And no visit to Antrim is complete without a hike along the Causeway Coast Way, which takes you along cliff-top paths and passes Dunluce Castle, The Giant's Causeway and the nerve-jangling Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge.

The Slieve Gullion trail takes you through Armagh's scenic Ring of Gullion, which has been classed as an 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 legends and myths and superstition survives that if you bathe in the Lough your hair will turn white.

County Derry's Roe Valley Country Park boasts a variety of routes along the River Roe or Red River, which originates amidst the peat bogs of the Sperrin Mountains.

Port Path follows a stretch of scenic coastline between Portstewart and Portrush and the winter seascape is an experience not to be missed.

And Prehen Wood is a plant-lovers paradise and is home to at least 60 different types of plants, including bluebells, lesser celandines and wood anemones. Birds such as sparrowhawk and long-eared owl live in the wood, as does the endangered red squirrel. The wood has terrific views overlooking Derry City and the River Foyle, while a range of nature-inspired sculptures are dotted throughout.

In Fermanagh, Castle Archdale Country Park offers a variety of walks with a walking trail that runs along the shore passing the deer park enclosure, wildfowl ponds, wildflower meadow and butterfly garden.

Elsewhere in Fermanagh, Castle Coole, located just outside Enniskillen, is a majestic 18th-century home and has a stunning landscape park as well as a surrounding wooded landscape park sloping down to Lough Coole.

If you are looking for a great off-road, hill walk across rolling hills and moorland, you should pay a visit to Robbers Table in Tyrone.

The highest point of this route provides superb views of the Bluestack and Derryveagh Mountains of Donegal to the west and the high Sperrins to the northeast.

As the 12-kilometre mile route climbs south over Ballynatubbrit Mountain it passes Robbers Table, the site where supposed local 17th-century highwaymen met up to divide their spoils after raiding the postal carriages that traversed this upland landscape.

And Dungannon Park is a 70-acre oasis centred around an idyllic still-water lake and you will enjoy the magnificent scenery on this leisurely walk along the park trail. The higher grounds offer excellent views of the surrounding countryside and Lough Neagh...on a clear day!

For more information, visit: www.discovernorthernireland.com.

Ed Leahy
RTÉ is not responsible for the content of external websites.

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