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 “Belgium” 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 Belgium 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 Belgium 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 Belgium 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
There are actually no fewer than 25 named and signposted trails on the heath. You can see all these on this downloadable map of the whole area, although it’s a wee bit overwhelming.
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:
That’s a lovely rustic bench. I’d like to sit there for a while and enjoy the view. And fancy being able to go on a hike in two different countries! That’s not something we can do here.
Yes, you can’t beat a good bench! You could even go from country to country numerous times Carol. Thankfully the same language is spoken both sides of the border!
I can see us doing that just for the novelty factor. ?
A classic. And in COVID times very popular.
And just down the road from you!
Yes some 20 minutes by train.
Very popular? I was struck by the absence of people. Here in the UK finding a place where there aren’t people out exercising is the challenge. Its as if everyone has the same idea of where to go.
Maybe they are just following in your famous footsteps Mark.
When did you go? On weekend days the Heath is quite full.
I rarely go anywhere at the weekends. Being a freelancer I take time off in the week and work on a Saturday if needed. I’ve been a couple of times to the heath, both on random weekdays.
As a train guard I have an irregular schedule. I tend to do activities when others don’t. 🙂
Share, I did! Thanks for your company 🙂 🙂
Lovely photos, good job by Herman!
Looks like an interesting place to critter-watch, much different from the woods I usually walk in. I hadn’t realized rhododendrons and American cherry were invasive species in your region, just as the Amur & Japanese honeysuckles, etc. are in the woods in NY.
I envy the open border, the U.S.-Canada border used to be very porous, my folks have talked about walking over to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, when they were in high school, with no I.D. of any kind, but currently we’re not allowed to cross at all during the pandemic. And flying in to Montreal or Toronto now requires a passport.
Yes, rhododendrons have wreaked havoc in some woodlands. And once they are in, they are in for good. Almost. I once worked on a nature reserve removing rhododendrons. Felling trees would have been easier.
Because the rhodo. have so many stems? Or do they re-sprout after you cut them down.
They have huge root systems and unless you get rid of the whole thing, they will sprout up again.
Walking across the border vs flying also sounds more compatible with averting a climate catastrophe ?
Well, sure, however my hometown is roughly 200 miles from Toronto, 300 from Montreal, so a bit of a hike.
Wilderness is relative these days, especially for those of us who live in Europe. But this looks like a place to get away from it all!
Yes you’re probably right Andrea. Pure wilderness is extremely rare I guess. It’s easier to find a modicum of wilderness somewhere, for a short time.
The photos didn’t come up on my browser. Don’t know what the problem is 🙁
I think the Deer Walk would be a bit much for me but the Sheep Walk would be fine. It looks like a great place, I like the pools 🙂
I hope you enjoy it if you eventually have the opportunity Eunice.
fabulous photography, and wonderful walks – so much to see and hear 😀
We were intending a city break in Antwerp but added this walk and made a lovely mixed holiday. It was truly splendid, a real find. Many thanks Denzil!
That’s great to hear Ann! Thanks for letting me know.
Headed out there today with my little one and absolutely loved it despite the rain. I had never heard of this park and it was so gorgeous, thank you! Will definitely have to go back.
That’s great to hear. Well done for persevering through the rain. Hopefully next time you visit it will be dry and sunny.
Amazing! Your website is so great! I have been looking for nice hikes to do around Belgium and this one sounds really nice! Didn’t know you could find some “wilderness” in Belgium! ?
Thanks for the compliment Juliette and I hope you enjoy your hike around Kalmthout Heath and elsewhere in Belgium. Any questions, just drop me a line.