Put on your walking boots and discover Northern Ireland's most spectacular scenery along these awesome hiking trails
Distance: 2.5 miles (4 km)
Time: 1 hour 15 minutes
Start/End: Murlough carpark
Explore Murlough National Nature Reserve, a fragile 6,000-year-old sand dune system that is home to a wide range of habitats, including heathland, species-rich grassland, woodland and scrub. Along the way, you'll get fabulous mountain views, walk along one of the finest beaches in County Down, and discover the site of the rare marsh fritillary butterfly.
Things to see
This walk offers some great sights and beautiful scenery. You can look out over the mountains Slieve Donard and Slieve Commedagh, both cared for by the National Trust. In the opposite direction you can see Dundrum Castle, a fortress built by John de Courcy that dates back to the late twelfth century.
The beautiful little fritillary can be seen in flight from late May and June. Sadly, its numbers are declining all over Europe; the UK is considered a stronghold for this butterfly and it's a priority species in Northern Ireland. The caterpillar feeds on the devil's-bit scabious, a tall purple-flowered plant in full bloom in late August and September. This flower also provides valuable nectar for other butterflies, particularly in late summer.
August is the best month to appreciate the Murlough heathland in its full glory. Look for the two species of heathen bell heather and common heather, or ling. Bell heather's flowerheads are purple, and flower slightly earlier than the pink ling heather. Thousands of years of rain have washed the calcium out of the sand, allowing for more acid-loving plants to flourish. Bell and ling heather both grow on the older dunes, creating an unusual dune heathland.
By train: Belfast 25 miles (40 km)
By car: A24 then A2 from Belfast, 2 miles beyond Dundrum village
More information: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/murlough
Distance: 3.5 miles (5.6 km)
Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
Start/End: Crom Visitor Centre
With its ancient woodland, picturesque islands and historic ruins, the tranquil landscape of the Crom Estate has given rise to a number of ghostly tales and unexplained spectral sightings. This easy walk takes you around the edges of Upper Lough Erne, which is home to many rare species. Look out for wildflowers, fungi and bats along the way.
Things to see
The ancient yews in the Old Castle Garden have been named among the '50 greatest British trees'. In the nineteenth century, parties of 200 people are said to have dined beneath their branches. The Crom Estate is one of the largest areas of semi-natural woodland in Northern Ireland, with a rich variety of uncommon lichens and wildflowers such as dog violet and wood anemone. Many different species of fungi can be found here, including waxcaps – bright toadstools that emerge in autumn in short grassland.
From the early eighteenth century until the 1960s, locals spoke of eerie lights that appeared above the waters of Upper Lough Erne. The lake doesn't produce the right settings for marsh gas, which is the usual explanation for these occurrences. Some believe them to be ghostly 'fianna', the fair-headed people who resided here long ago. Others have sought for a more down-to-earth explanation, believing they might relate to the area's smuggling history, lights being used to keep law-abiding locals away from illicit activities.
In 1992 a man had a disturbing experience while on Inishfendra, a small island in Upper Lough Erne. Having fallen asleep on a rock jutting out into the water, he woke suddenly to find himself surrounded by a group of bare-chested, heavily armed men who disappeared moments later. When he described his experience to a local volunteer at the visitor centre, detailing the strange archaic clothing the figures had worn, the volunteer realised that the rock was in fact a votive stone, a sacred place where pre-Christian Celts used to make sacrifices to their gods.
How to get there
By boat: Ferry from Derrymore church (book 24 hours in advance)
By car: 3 miles (4.8 km) west of Newtownbutler on Newtownbutler to Crom Road.
More information: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/crom
Distance: 3 miles (4.8 km)
Time: 1 hour 20 minutes
Start/End: Minnowburn carpark, Endenderry Road
A green oasis situated on the southern edge of Belfast, Minnowburn is the perfect place for a gentle stroll. Starting alongside the Lagan River, the trail soon heads south, taking you through deciduous woodland and farmland before looping back to the river once more. Along the way you'll find a Neolithic monument and a magical garden, and may even spot spawning salmon or sea trout.
Things to see
The Lagan is the main river that flows through Belfast. It was used as a canal for more than two centuries, linking the city with Lough Neagh until the navigations' closure in 1958. Today, the Lagan towpath forms the spine of the Lagan Valley Regional Park and is an important walking and cycling facility. This stretch of the river is a wonderful wildlife haven where wetland birds such as little grebe, moorhens and tufted duck can be seen. You might even spot one of the seals that commonly make their way upriver from the port.
The Giant's Ring
This massive earthwork circle, roughly 600ft (183m) across and 13ft (4m) high, is a beautiful example of a henge monument. It was built around 2700BC, during the Neolithic period. In the middle is a passage tomb made up of five upright stones and a large capstone. The site has always been a popular attraction, and has been in some sort of public use since the time it was first built.
Terrace Hill Garden
This garden was built by the famous linen merchant Edward (Ned) Robinson in the mid-l930s. This is one of the best viewpoints in the Lagan Valley, but it became very overgrown until 2001 when the National Trust began to restore the garden back to something resembling its former glory. The location of many an after-dinner stroll in its heyday between the 1930s and 1950s, this site commands superb views across the Lagan Valley to Malone House and the Belfast hills beyond.
How to get there
By train: Balmoral Station 2 miles (3.2 km)
By car: Just off A55 outer ring, taking Malone road from city centre.
More information: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/minnowburn
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