Enjoy a day hiking on the Kalmthout Heath in Antwerp province with these routes of 8k or 26k. And experience a bit of wilderness!
No-one would ever describe the words “Flanders” and “wilderness” as a couple of best friends forever. The two words simply do not lie comfortably in the same sentence. They feel as awkward together as “Sahara” and “floods”; “COVID” and “fun”; or “Brexit” and “beneficial”.
But if there’s one area where Flanders might share a passing acquaintance with wilderness, it’s Kalmthout Heath in the province of Antwerp.
Let’s try it out in a sentence; see if we can forge a marriage between these two apparent contradictions.
Located a short car or train journey from Antwerp, Kalmthout Heath extends over six thousand hectares. Its combination of heaths, forests, dunes and pools makes it a great place to recharge your batteries. It’s one of the few places in Flanders where, at times, you could imagine almost being in a wilderness landscape.
There, we did it! That wasn’t too dissonant was it?
And it’s true. Despite Flanders being densely populated and having an intensive road network, multiple airports, numerous cities … there are still places like Kalmthout Heath, where you can walk for kilometers without seeing a soul, glimpsing any houses, seeing planes in the sky, and where no mechanical sounds intrude.
All the photographs on this post are by Herman Vandecauter, who visited the heath recently. Thanks Herman!
On the border
The park is neatly bisected by the Dutch-Belgian border, although not on an east-west axis as you would imagine. (Nothing about borders in Belgium is quite that straightforward). Download a map of the area or buy one from the De Vroente visitor center and you will see that the border lies diagonally north-west to south-east, with Flanders holding the eastern side. This means that along the border you can be in the Netherlands (our northern neighbor), but if you look to the north you will be gazing over … Belgium!
A hiking paradise
When I first visited the heath, I chose to go on the 8k “Sheep” Walk. But then halfway around I though the “Lizard” Walk looked interesting, so I added on that detour. And then I was enjoying myself so much that I extended the route further to walk back on the last leg of the “Deer” Walk. Altogether it was a 20k walk that I would recommend if you don’t mind a bit of randomness and spur-of-the-moment plan-changing. But I think that choosing a fixed route beforehand and knowing the distance and time you will be hiking is probably preferable.
I’m therefore giving you just two of the walks possible: the Sheep Walk (8k) and the Deer Walk (25k).
Below is the map for the 8k Sheep Walk. You can click on the image to enlarge it, or download it here as a PDF. Or get the GPX track from my RouteYou page. It starts from De Vroente nature center which is at Putsesteenweg 129, 2920 Kalmthout. There is a large car park here. By public transport, De Vroente is a 20-minute (1.8k) walk from Heide railway station.
Below is the map for the 26k Deer Walk. Click on the picture to enlarge it. Download it here as an easy-to-print PDF. Get the GPX track from my RouteYou page. I have started this route from Kalmthout railway station but you might prefer to start from somewhere else. Obviously for this route you’ll need a full day for your hike: but I can ensure you it will be a wonderful day’s hiking.
What’s a heath?
Heathland is defined as an open landscape of barren, infertile, usually sandy land. As the soils are sandy, they drain quickly, are often liable to drought conditions, and therefore fires are a constant hazard. Kalmthout Heath has had its share of devastating heathland fires. The most recent one was in 2011.
Heathland can be classified as either wet or dry heath. A wet heath is characterized by the presence of cross-leaved heath, purple moor grass, and sphagnum moss. Dry heath is dominated by heather and gorse. Kalmthout Heath has both. So one minute you could be walking over sand dunes, wondering if you should have brought your bucket and spade. A kilometer further you could put your foot in a mossy, muddy pool and be thinking you should have packed your Wellies.
Heathland needs to be carefully managed so that the purple moor grass doesn’t take over completely. So during your walk you may encounter friendly herds of grazing cows and sheep; they limit the growth of grass, creating suitable conditions for heather to germinate. They also nibble the seedlings of pine and silver birch. If too many of these sprout up, they will shade out the underlying heath vegetation. And from a biological diversity point of view, we absolutely need to keep our heaths! They are home to a rich and often unique collection of flora and fauna.
At the same time, fairly large forests can be found throughout the park, mostly of Scots pine, oak and silver birch. The forests are actively managed to encourage further biodiversity. Competitive exotics such as the American cherry and the rhododendron are removed in favor of indigenous species. Trees are thinned out to open up the forest canopy, promoting the spontaneous generation of the shrub layer. Dead trees are left in place to provide food and shelter for a variety of organisms.
You won’t walk far when hiking on the Kalmthout Heath in the park without coming face to face with one of the many large pools. A key aspect of the park’s management is focused on preserving them – by closing drainage canals and controlling the ground water levels. The quality of the pools is also controlled. Surrounding conifers are cut down to prevent the soil from becoming acidic and dry. Nitrates and phosphates from surrounding agricultural land are kept out of the pools as much as possible.
Balanced management of the sand dunes is essential. Open dunes are encouraged because they are important for insects such as butterflies, digger wasps and bees. But unless they are protected from erosion by wind and from tramping feet, they will soon disappear. So you will see that the tops of the dunes are frequently planted with grass, and visitors are encouraged to stick to the footpaths.
What to see when hiking on the Kalmthout Heath
In short, an awful lot. I was delighted to hear and see my first woodlarks here. In the spring and summer, listen out for the beautiful songs of nesting curlew, tree pipits and skylarks. You won’t go far without hearing the cuckoo (in season). One of the larger pools is the Putse Moer. In summer, watch for hobbies; impressive small falcons that are swift enough to catch swallows and dragonflies. I was thrilled to spot four species of woodpecker here (lesser spotted, greater spotted, green and black) as well as crested tits in the pines and redstarts in the oaks. After much careful searching, I found the insectivorous plant the sundew. And on a warm spring or summer afternoon, the place will be alive with bees, grasshoppers, crickets, butterflies and all sorts of creepy-crawlies.
I hope you enjoy your day hiking in the Kalmthout Heath. Let me know how you get on, either below in the comments or by email. If you haven’t yet subscribed to Discovering Belgium, now’s your chance: