The Heuvelland Explorer
64 Mi.(103 KM)
% Rideable (time)
Jaïr has spent one year bikepacking the America’s together with his partner Annabel. They biked numerous classics on their way: the Tour Divide, Baja Divide, Trans-Mexico Norte, and the Peru Great Divide, amongst others. He is now back home in the Netherlands, where he is inspired to contribute back to the bikepacking community by creating new routes. You can see more of their journey on Instagram @the_grannygears, or check his bikepacking rig here.
This ATB route is situated in the only properly hilly part of the Netherlands, the “Heuvelland” in South Limburg. The region has a strong local culture, with its own German and French-infused dialect. The cultured landscapes of the Heuvelland are more akin to Tuscany or Mid-France than any other region in the Netherlands. Northern Dutch visiting here often remark that it feels like vacationing abroad. The overnighter makes use of all that the Heuvelland has to offer: beautiful landscapes, elevation, a lot of hard-packed gravel, some chunky singletrack, and a fine selection of regional beers and pies. The riding varies between pastoral fields, forests, and picturesque towns. It starts and ends in the historic city of Maastricht, which is is reachable by train and worth a visit before or after the ride.
The first half of the route starts with rolling gravel through farmland. You’ll pass the touristic town of Gulpen, which is home to the Gulpener brewery. After Gulpen, you’ll climb your way up the highest forest of the Netherlands, the Vijlenerbos. The forest has mostly flowy singletrack with some tough, punchy climbs and chunky, fun descents. Somewhere tucked away in the forest is the Boscafé ‘t Hijgende Hert. A boscafé is kind of like the Dutch version of an alpine refugio. You can have a well-earned, hearty meal here. After the forest, the route skirts the Belgian border as it descends to the Geuldal. The Geuldal makes for a good end of the first day, as there are several campgrounds on route where you can spend the night. On a hot day, you can refresh in the creek.
The second half of the route continues to meander through the Geuldal, from where it climbs on gravel to Epen. It then makes a small foray into Belgium. Although the route doesn’t go by Abbey Val Dieu, you can opt to go on a (paved) detour for some delicious cheese and beer produced by monks. During the mere 10 kilometres in Belgium, the route passes both French-speaking Wallonia and Flemish-speaking Flanders. So, choose your language wisely! Back in the Netherlands, you’ll follow gravel again towards Banholt, a historic hamlet with a few restaurants. Make sure to sample the regional specialty pie here, called “vlaai,” if you didn’t elsewhere on the route already. The route ends with a long descent into Maastricht, bar a small rocky climb in the Eckelrade forest. On the descent, you’ll also pass an American cemetery for 8,000 fallen soldiers in WWII. Now that you’ve finished the ride, you can either rest and relax in Maastricht or take the train home from the route’s endpoint.
The route as a whole is rated as a 4.5 out of 10. Overall, logistics are simple, with the route starting and finishing at the train station in Maastricht. Resupply is easy, too, as you’ll pass several grocery stores and eateries along the way. The technical difficulty is moderate. It’s mostly hard-packed gravel, but the route also contains some non-technical singletrack, rocky or eroded forest tracks, and two or so short hike-a-bikes. Paved sections are mostly on separated bike lanes. Physically, the climbing can be tough, especially for us flatlanders, the Dutch. Climbs in the Netherlands are never prolonged, though, so there is ample time to catch your breath in between.
Route Development: The overnighter is inspired by numerous outings the route creator took in the Heuvelland on his ATB. Parts of the route follow or coincide with established mountain bike trails. Note that the MTB trails here are not necessarily singletrack, but can also consist of hard-packed gravel. For a full overview of the local MTB trails, check out VisitZuidLimburg.nl.
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- The hilly, cultured landscape of the Heuvelland makes you feel like you’re riding your bike in Italy or France.
- Enjoy a mix of fast gravel, eroded forest tracks, and MTB singletrack. Bring your ATB!
- The Geuldal is carved by the fastest-flowing river of the Netherlands. Due to the elevation, microclimate, and calcareous soil, it has a unique ecosystem. Plus, you can refresh here when it’s hot.
- The climbing. Some might disagree, but where else can you work your legs and get panoramic views as a bonus in the Netherlands? Plus, the descents!
- Savor the regional specialty pie from bakeries on route, or recharge with a hearty lunch in a boscafé.
- Taste a freshly brewed beer from the Gulpener brewery. It is produced with only local ingredients.
- Extend your overnighter by exploring the historic city of Maastricht before or after the ride.
- When to go: the route can be ridden year-round. There can be short stretches of oppressive heat in summer and freezing cold in winter, but the weather is generally mild. The best months are April to October. Note that some parts of the trail can get busy with tourists in the height of summer (especially the Geuldal). Planning you ride midweek is favorable that time of year.
- Logistics: route planning is straightforward, as the route starts and ends at the train station. An extra train ticket for your bike costs 7.5 euros. If arriving by car, you can park your car for free at the MVV stadium.
- Footpath in the Geuldal: as the POIs note, there is one section in the route that you’ll have to walk a footpath. It’s only 500 metres long and worth it to connect the route. Please respect the rules; do not bike here. You’ll have to carry your bike over two gates, but it’s manageable.
- Dangers and Annoyances: No wildlife to be concerned about, only ticks in summer. For the rest, be aware that the Netherlands can be a busy country. On sunny days, the region is popular with other cyclists, hikers, and equestrians. As always, be courteous, pass with a smile, and step off your bike when in doubt. When riding in the Vijlenerbos, please do not stray off route as it is not permitted to ride your bike outside of designated bike paths here.
- Ideal bike: to get the most fun out of the trip, especially the descents, I would recommend 2.1” tires or wider. A gravel bike (40mm+ tires) will be fine, but the route includes some MTB trails and rocky forest tracks. Even a front suspension wouldn’t be overkill. But in reality, any bike you have will do!
- The route is almost entirely ridable, except for two or three very short stretches of hike-a-bike, depending on your biking skills. One is when you descend into Belgium from Noorbeek. The others are some short and steep climbs in the Vijlener forest. Also, as mentioned before, you cannot bike the footpath in the Geuldal. Please walk this section!
- Wild camping is not permitted or advised in the Netherlands. There are ample camping grounds or accommodations on the route, as it’s a touristy area. See the POIs for some recommendations.
- Food and water is never an issue. There’s an opportunity to restock in most towns. Check Google Maps for opening hours.
- We recommend stopping at Boswachterij ‘t Hijgend Hert for lunch. Look out for bakeries in towns to get some regional specialty pie, “vlaai.”
- Before or after the ride, Maastricht is full of good restaurants and bars. Alley Cat Bikes & Coffee is a good specialty coffee annex bike shop to start with. Another good coffee shop is “Koffie” by Joost en Maartje.
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