Castlewellan Forest Park is a stunner of a spot.
Located near Newcastle, Castlewellan is a 460-hectare landscaped park surrounding a dramatic baronial castle built by the Annesley family.
Visitors can view the large lake, explore the mesmerizing Peace Maze and enjoy the 18th century National Arboretum of Northern Ireland with its fine species of champion native and exotic trees.
Below, you’ll find info on everything from the trails and admission to the history of Castlewellan.
Some quick need-to-knows about Castlewellan Forest
Although a visit to Castlewellan Forest Park is fairly straightforward, there are a few need-to-knows that’ll make your visit that bit more enjoyable.
Located in southeast Northern Ireland, Castlewellan Forest Park is on the outskirts of the village of Castlewellan in County Down. It lies north of the Mourne Mountains in an area of natural beauty, 31 miles south of Belfast.
There is a charge for vehicle admission to Castlewellan Forest Park and it’s currently £5 for a car. Pedestrians are not charged for walking in the forest. Regular visitors to the forest can apply for an annual car permit, currently £40, or £25 for those eligible for the concessionary rate.
3. Home to heaps of walks
Castlewellan Forest has plenty of trails suitable for all fitness levels. You can circumnavigate around Castlewellan Lake on the flat 2.4 mile trail passing the former Ice House and plenty of birdlife. It takes just over an hour to complete. The one mile Garden Walk extends out to Mitchell’s Lake in a loop and there are longer, more strenuous walks for keen hikers.
About Castlewellan Forest
Located in the Mourne AONB, Castlewellan Forest Park covers 450 hectares (1112 acres) and was the originally the estate of the Annesley family.
It was purchased from them by the Forest Service/Department of Agriculture in 1967 and opened to the public. The Victorian castle is now used as a private conference centre and the lake is popular for fishing.
There’s a cafe, equestrian centre and Nature Play for kids. The forest park has some unique features including the National Arboretum of Northern Ireland.
Started in 1740 as a private collection by the Annesley family, the trees include plants from Asia, Australasia and the Americas.
Hugh Annesley, the 5th Earl planted over 1800 specimen trees and shrubs and many still thrive, including 50 champion trees of Ireland.
Check out the giant sequoia (redwoods) and the tree-creepers (like woodpeckers) that nest and burrow in the bark for insects. The Japanese maples are splendid in autumn.
In 2000 a Peace Maze was constructed from 6000 yew trees. The gardens, greenhouses and Moorish Tower were restored in 2012 with funding from the National Lottery and the local council.
Things to do at Castlewellan Forest
There’s plenty of things to see and do around Castlewellan Forest Park that make it a great day-trip-destination. Here are some suggestions:
1. Tackle one of the trails
Recreational trails in Castlewellan Forest Park include 27 mountain biking trails and several trails for horse riding. Walkers have miles of trails on the upgraded trail system that was introduced in 2014.
There are 12 trails in total including a mixture of off-road and forest road trails with something for everyone.
Families can explore the 1.2 mile Bunkers Hill Walk and Play Trail, Garden lovers will enjoy the 2.2 mile Annesley Garden Walk while bird watchers have the 2.4 miles Lakeside Walk and 3.1 mile Cypress Pond Walk.
Longer walks include the 2.7 mile Slievenaslat Walk and the 3.2 mile Moorish Tower Walk.
2. Ramble around the Peace Maze
Created in 2000 from 6000 yew trees, the maze was the longest permanent hedge maze in the world at the time.
Visitors must find their way along over 2 miles of winding paths to the Peace Bell at the centre of the maze, and then find their way out again!
It’s good fun for families and can take longer than you think if you lose your sense of direction (and you will!).
Spoiler: If you put your hand on the right wall of the maze at the entrance and follow it, it will take you to the centre and back to the exit no problem.
3. Take the kids to Animal Wood
Animal Wood is a superb play area for kids aged 4-11 and its next to the Peace Maze. Follow the footpath passing animal sculptures along the way with plenty of opportunity to stop and play.
There’s a badger’s den, a red squirrel and a giant spider to negotiate as well as a wooden play tower with climbing wall, fireman’s pole, tree stump slide and a rope bridge.
Adults might be glad to sit down and rest while watching the children play.
4. Admire the glorious gardens
Castlewellan Forest has one of the most outstanding tree and shrub collection in Europe and is a must-see for horticulturalists and keen gardeners.
The restored 18th century gardens have both formal and informal areas with terraces, water features, colourful borders and sculptures adding to the pleasure.
The walled garden was the start of the arboretum and provided shelter for rare conifers and Japanese maples.
Many of the trees in the arboretum are the oldest in Ireland or are Champion trees (the largest or best of their type anywhere in Ireland, the British Isles and beyond).
5. Visit Castlewellan Castle
The Victorian structure is one of the more impressive castles in Northern Ireland and it was built in 1846 by the Earl of Annesley on the site of a former church facing the lake.
It was constructed from granite quarried from Ballymagreehan and is in Scottish Baronial style with corner towers. The castle is currently used as a centre for Christian conferences and training events.
It can be booked for private retreats, youth weekends etc and may not be open to the public when you visit. However, It’s an impressive building to walk around and admire.
It has featured in several films including Woman in White (2018) and Mickeybo and Me (2004).
Places to visit near Castlewellan
One of the beauties of Castlewellan Forest Park is that it’s a short spin away from many of the best places to visit in Down.
Below, you’ll find a handful of things to see and do a stone’s throw from Castlewellan Park!
1. Tollymore Forest Park (20-minute drive)
Another lovely forest for walking and exploring, Tollymore Forest Park is beside the Shimna River and has panoramic views of the coast and Mourne Mountains. Open year-round it has four way-marked trails from 0.5 to 5.5 miles in length.
2. Murlough National Nature Reserve (20-minute drive)
The Murlough National Nature Reserve is about 7 miles southeast of Castlewellan and is on the coast near Newcastle. Owned by the National Trust, it offers trails, boardwalks and sandy beaches for enjoying the woodland, coastal scenery and wildlife.
3. Slieve Donard (25-minute drive)
Also on the Co. Down coast near Newcastle, Slieve Donard is hard to miss as it’s the highest peak in Northern Ireland. This is one of the tougher Mourne Mountain walks, but it’s straightforward to follow.
4. Slieve Croob (30-minute drive)
Slieve Croob is part of the Dromara Hills. It’s in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The 534m summit is the site of a large ancient burial tomb marked by a cairn said to be the burial chamber of 12 kings. Views from the summit are spectacular.
FAQs about Castlewellan Park
We’ve had a lot of questions over the years asking about everything from ‘When is it open?’ to ‘How much is it in?’.
In the section below, we’ve popped in the most FAQs that we’ve received. If you have a question that we haven’t tackled, ask away in the comments section below.
Do you have to pay into Castlewellan?
There is a charge for vehicle admission to Castlewellan Forest Park (£5). Pedestrians are not charged for walking in the forest.
How long is the walk around Castlewellan Lake?
Castlewellan Park Lake Walk should take you around 1 hour in total to complete. This is one of the more easy-going trails in the park.
How long does it take to do the peace maze?
You’ll want to allow around 40 minutes to tackle the peace maze at Castlewellan Park (but allow a bit longer, just in case!).
Gillian Birch is a travel writer and published author. She has travelled the world and uses her personal journals and memories to write about her many travel experiences, particularly those that involved adventures in Ireland.