Best trail centres in Northern Ireland

What the riding's like, who it's suitable for and how to get there

Northern Ireland is fast becoming a popular destination for mountain biking, boasting three dedicated national trail centres, two regional trail centres and two local facilities, adding up to an impressive 145km of dedicated, waymarked mountain bike trails.

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BikeRadar recently visited Davagh Forest, Rostrevor and Castlewellan (the three national trail centres) on a trip hosted by Chain Reaction Cycles — the title sponsor of the three national centres — and Mountain Bike Northern Ireland to see what was on offer.

Here, we cover our impressions of the riding at each of the trail centres, what facilities each offers and how to get there.

For a more comprehensive overview, be sure to check out Mountain Bike Northern Ireland, which has information on each trail centre.

The best trail centres in Northern Ireland in 2019:

  • Davagh Forest
  • Rostrevor
  • Castlewellan

Davagh Forest

Davagh Forest delivers a truly rural and adventurous mountain biking experience within the confines of a really fun, expansive and well-made trail centre. More impressively, Davagh does all of this within a 1.5-hour drive from Belfast.

The trail centre is based in an enormous forested and moorland area located just north-west of Cookstown. To give you an idea of how isolated the area is, a dark sky park is due to open in the forest in 2019.

What facilities are there at Davagh Forest?

The facilities at Davagh Forest are very basic but totally serviceable — a segregated changing room with no doors is a touch drafty when changing. Likewise, the simple bathroom is hardly luxurious but we were very glad of its existence.

A simple bike wash is supplied in the form of a hose and bike stand and we were absolutely delighted to see that this was free to use — hats off to Mountain Bike Northern Ireland here.

Free bike wash for the win!
Free bike wash for the win!
Oli Woodman / Immediate Media

Parking provisions are also extensive and free. A large play park that we declined an offer to try out is also located next to the car park.

Outdoor Concepts offers bike hire at Davagh on Sundays on a pre-booked basis. Bikes can also be delivered to the trailhead on any other day of the week providing you book a minimum of four.

The nearest bike shop is Cookstown Cycles (028 867 69667).

What are the trails like at Davagh Forest?

Davagh Forest has a swooping trail network and several rock features to explore
Davagh Forest has a swooping trail network and several rock features to explore
Phil Hall / Immediate Media

Davagh Forest offers a gentle, beginner-friendly green loop, an engaging and twisty blue trail and a truly rocky and challenging red trail. There is also an extensive skills area with green to red-graded features and a pump track located next to the car park.

All of the trails we sampled are exceptionally well-made, with a hardy surface and clever design meaning they drain incredibly well. The same can be said of the connecting fire roads, which in some areas are tarmacked.

The landscape may look rolling from the outside, but the Davagh Forest packs in a number of serious climbs and steep descents that make for a challenging day out.

We rode a mix of the blue and red trails and had a lot of fun on both. Stream Trail — located on the far South Eastern Corner of the forest is well worth riding out to — Run Ragley Run and Big Wig Jig were all particular highlights of the red trail.

It’s worth noting that we visited the trail centre after a fairly serious storm and there were a number of trees down on the trails. Had we been sensible and checked the trail centre conditions, which are regularly updated on the Mountain Bike NI website, we would have been aware of this.

On the conditions, it’s worth stressing quite how rural Davagh is. So, if visiting, it’s important you arrive prepared for all conditions and consider bringing a trail map because pinpointing your location in such a large area in the event of an accident could be challenging.

How to get to Davagh Forest

Davagh is located six miles from Cookstown, off the A505.

  • Postcode: BT79 8JH

Rostrevor

Traversing the hills of Kilbroney Forest Park above Carlingford Lough, Rostrevor — with its 27km long red trail, 19km long black trail and two dedicated downhill runs — is guaranteed to deliver a scenic and enjoyable day out for more experienced mountain bikers.

The village of Rostrevor itself is also quite lovely and, if we were planning on visiting all three of the trail centres, this little village would likely be our top choice.

What facilities are there at Rostrevor?

Rostrevor was the best equipped of the three trail centres we visited.

The Synge & Byrne cafe, which is located at the trailhead, is open 10am to 4pm from October through March and 8am to 6pm from April to September. There is a wide selection of hot and cold food available, all of which we found to be absolutely excellent and the cafe itself is a really lovely space, with spectacular views up the Lough towards Warrenpoint.

East Coast Adventure offers bike hire seven days a week on site. Full prices and info are available on the East Coast Adventure site. There is also an uplift service available on weekends and bank holidays, with extended hours on Friday through to Monday during July and August.

There is extensive free parking at the trailhead, and toilets are in the reception building. A bike wash, which costs £1 to use, is also available.

What are the trails like at Rostrevor?

A long climb reveals some stunning views and exhilarating descents at Rostrevor
A long climb reveals some stunning views and exhilarating descents at Rostrevor
Russell Burton / Immediate Media

The red trail at Rostrevor is a magnificent day out that feels like a proper on-bike adventure.

The ride starts with a stiff climb from the trailhead, which is followed by a short but fun descent. A very extended but fairly mellow climb then takes you all the way up to the summit of Slieve Martin.

On this climb, you will pass the amazingly scenic #KodakCorner, which offers expansive views of the whole of Carlingford Lough and the surrounding area.

Get lucky with the weather and #Kodakcorner will provide you with an ultimate Instabanger
Get lucky with the weather and #Kodakcorner will provide you with an ultimate Instabanger
Oli Woodman / Immediate Media

It’s all downhill from the top of Slieve Martin with an extended descent taking in steep chutes, drop-offs, challenging flat corners, seriously rocky sections, fun bike park-like sections and pretty much everything else you can imagine.

We opted to take a slight detour from the red trail and tackled Boulderdash, a super rocky, physically exhausting and really fun section of the black trail. Plus tyres are definitely a boon here if you want to hit this one fast!

The black sections at Rostrevor feature some extended rock gardens
The black sections at Rostrevor feature some extended rock gardens
Jack Luke / Immediate Media

Both trails follow the same line from the bottom of Boulderdash, with a long, mellow and twisty descent taking you back to the trailhead.

Rostrevor features two dedicated downhill runs
Rostrevor features two dedicated downhill runs
Jack Luke / Immediate Media

While there are only red and black graded trails at Rostrevor, beginners shouldn’t be immediately put off. While there are lots of challenging sections, these can usually be rolled and the lower half of the trails are fairly tame.

How to get to Rostrevor

Rostrevor is on the east coast of Northern Ireland, about an hour from Belfast.

  • Postcode: BT34 3AA

Castlewellan

Castewellan’s trails, which are located minutes from the town of the same name, are situated in the beautiful forested grounds of Castlewellan Castle and circumnavigate the beautiful lake, which is the centrepiece of the area.

What facilities are there at Castlewellan?

Castlewellan is located to the town of the same name so you should have no trouble finding supplies for the day.

The Life Adventure Centre offers bike hire, including an off-road e-trike and, should you so fancy a little paddle, canoes as well. There is also a coffee station and cakes available, but for more substantial sustenance you’ll have to roll down to Castlewellan itself. Toilets are also located in the centre.

We spent some time at the centre and were really impressed by how friendly and hospitable the staff were.

There is very extensive parking at the centre, but be aware this costs £5 for a day.

Life Adventure Centre stocks some spare parts but for everything else, Green Bikes (028 3083 2829) in Newry is your closest option.

What are the trails like at Castlewellan?

Castlewellan doesn't feature quite the same lofty heights as Rostrevor or Davagh, but it still packs a punch
Castlewellan doesn’t feature quite the same lofty heights as Rostrevor or Davagh, but it still packs a punch
Jack Luke / Immediate Media

Castlewellan features a gentle 4km long green trail around the lake, a 4.5km blue trail that also circles the lake, a 19km long red trail that weaves around the whole forest park and two black-graded descents.

We rode the full red trail and both black options on our visit. While Castlewellan doesn’t pack in quite the same amount of elevation as Rostrevor, it’s still a really challenging day out that features lots of fun man-made obstacles alongside natural singletrack.

The views from the far northern end of the trail centre, near the top of The Great Escarpe, are phenomenal, with sweeping panoramas of the central hills of County Down.

The well made and extensive pump track, which is located next to the car park, is also a highlight.

How to get to Castlewellan

Located just 30 minutes from Belfast, Castlewellan Forest Park is clearly signposted from Castlewellan Main Street at the end of a forest road.

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  • Postcode: BT31 9BU