Do you like challenging hikes in the hills? Then head south towards Limburg province and go hiking in the Dutch mountains. Southern Limburg offers many possibilities for hiking. After your hike enjoy local cuisine, beers and wines. In this blog I describe a hiking trail from Valkenburg to Gulpen in the south of Limburg province. I will tell you where to download the GPS track for this hike, how to reach Valkenburg and Gulpen, and what to expect along the way.
Why visit southern Limburg?
The south of Limburg differs from other parts of the Netherlands. So if you’re done with the polders, windmills and canals jump on a train and head south to explore Limburg province.
To many Dutch people the south of Limburg province is an exotic place. It’s wedged in between Belgium and Germany and many of us would describe it as foreign. Contrary to the rest of the Netherlands, landscapes in the south of Limburg are hilly. Dutch people tend to call these hills, the highest of which is 322 meters, mountains. It’s all about perspective…
Apart from its different look, Limburg seems exotic too because its inhabitants speak dialects that may be hard to understand for other Dutch speaking people. And if you thought the Dutch were a bunch of sober Calvinists you haven’t met someone from Limburg yet. This area is largely Catholic and people pride themselves on their joie de vivre and burgundian lifestyle, which includes abundant meals and the celebration of carnival for example.
Avoiding the crowds
Southern Limburg is pretty popular with Dutch tourists and in a lesser extent so with tourists from neighboring Belgium and Germany. This is especially so in the summer months. If you enjoy the silence I would advice you to avoid the area in July and August. Still, if you go hiking in Southern Limburg you’ll always find quiet stretches.
Hiking around Valkenburg in southern Limburg
There are many hiking trails available in southern Limburg. Good starting points for hikes are Valkenburg and Schin op Geul, because they have train stations and are pretty easy to reach by public transport. If you have a car you could also consider heading to Vaals for example.
The hike I describe in this blog is the 13,7 km Geuldal-track that starts at Valkenburg train station and ends in the village of Gulpen, more or less following the river Geul. You can download the GPS track and pdf’s of the map and the route description (only in Dutch) at the Wandelnet website.
Though the “official” description of this hike is in Dutch, the maps provided are detailed so even if you can’t use the GPS track you will be able to follow the trail easily. Part of it has white/red markings along the way. Actually, the official description lets you start in Gulpen and end in Valkenburg. It’s up to you where you’d like to end. Gulpen is smaller and less touristic than Valkenburg.
Valkenburg may be the most (in)famous tourist town in southern Limburg. It has a bit of a reputation for attracting people who drink too much beer. The convenient thing about Valkenburg is its train station with good connections to southern Limburg’s main cities: Maastricht and Heerlen. This makes it into an ideal starting point for hiking in southern Limburg. If you’d like to spend the night here depends on your preferences. On the one hand there are many accommodations to choose from in Valkenburg, on the other hand, it can get noisy at night.
I think Valkenburg is a cute town. It’s situated along the river Geul that meanders through the Limburg landscapes. Attractions are the ruins of a castle, caves, a mining museum, watermills and a casino.
Hiking from Valkenburg to Gulpen
Our hiking trail starts at the Valkenburg railway station, the oldest Dutch train station still in use. It dates back to 1853! From here it’s about 10 minutes hiking to Valkenburg town where you can have coffee or lunch in one of its many café’s, lunchrooms and restaurants. Don’t hang out in Valkenburg for too long though. Despite the fact that this hike isn’t long, it does go up and down and is more strenuous than most hikes in Holland!
Along the river Geul
After leaving Valkenburg town the trail follows the river Geul through a park and then into a forest where the first climb awaits. Uphill it crosses the railroad track and passes by the Kluis (literally: the safe) a former hermit’s residence that has recently been renovated. It looks a bit like a chapel. After the Kluis, the trail goes downhill again.
Once downhill the trail more or less follows the railroad track towards the village of Schin op Geul. Pay attention to the former limestone quarry on your left hand side. A lot of buildings in southern Limburg are built with limestone.
Schin op Geul
Schin of Geul is a medieval village with a couple of interesting buildings to see such as timbered farmhouses and a roman style church. It’s not as touristic as Valkenburg. Still, it has plenty of bars, restaurants and hotels. The hiking track leads you right through Schin op Geul.
Back to the river Geul
After leaving Schin op Geul you’ll enter farmland on a road that makes the impression of being rather steep. The good news is that you’ll leave this road just before it goes uphill. There is a narrow footpath a bit hidden between two houses that leads back towards the Geul river. It looks more like a creek or stream here.
When we hiked this trail, in early spring, there had been a lot of rain, so the next bit of our hike was challenging. It went through rather muddy fields and I was happy to be wearing my hiking boots. I guess that in dryer periods of the year this is a lovely part of the hike.
Suddenly you’re back in town (the village Wijlre) passing by a water mill and a brewery called Brand. This is one of the smaller “big” breweries of the Netherlands. You have definitely left Heineken country here. (Note that actually Heineken has taken over Brand brewery!) Brand used to brew mostly pilsener beers. As a result of the craft beer revolution they have recently started to brew other styles too, such as an IPA and a weizen. If you’re interested: they do tours, even in English. Check out their website.
We didn’t visit the Brand brewery because we wanted to hike on towards Gulpen (that has a brewery too). So we left the beer crates behind us and hiked on past a pool filled with frogs. The past kilometers were not too strenuous at all, despite the muddy fields and you may think you are now almost at your destination, the village of Gulpen.
The final part of the hike: towards Gulpen
You thought you were almost there? True, only 3 more kilometers, but you do have to pass a rather steep hill before you arrive in Gulpen. It’s worth the climb though, because you’ll get to see the village of Gulpen from above before you arrive there. And you’ll walk through a forest for a bit.
Gulpen is a lovely village along the river Gulp (which is a tributary to the Geul river that you’ve seen before). Gulpen has about 3,500 inhabitants and is a lot smaller than Valkenburg. It’s a bit quieter too. Despite all of that I would still call this a tourist town with its many hotels, apartments for rent, bars and restaurants.
Things to do in Gulpen
Gulpen is the kind of village where you could hang out for ever, especially after a long hike. There are plenty of bars and restaurants where you can try the local beers of the Gulpener brewery. If you’re interested you could even book a tour in the brewery or have dinner in the Gulpener brewery bistro. If you’re in for some more physical activity: they have a nice swimming pool here too with water slides, whirlpools etc.
We spent the night in Gulpen in Gasterij de Poort , a small family style B&B/hotel in a historical building that I would certainly recommend. There are many hiking routes around Gulpen, enough to justify spending a couple of extra days in this town if you have time.
How to reach Valkenburg and Gulpen by public transport?
Coming from the west of the Netherlands you will first need to catch a train to either Heerlen or Maastricht, the capital of Limburg. There are direct trains from Amsterdam and from Utrecht to both cities. Coming from Rotterdam or The Hague you’ll have to change in Eindhoven.
Valkenburg has a train station. It’s on the Maastricht-Heerlen railway line. There are 4 trains every hour from both cities to Valkenburg. This will take you about 15 minutes. The train station of Schin op Geul is on the same railway line.
Gulpen has no train station. There are 2 buses each hour from Gulpen bus station to Maastricht and to Heerlen. This will take you about half an hour.
What to explore next?
The hills of southern Limburg are not exactly a next door destination if you’re staying in the west of the Netherlands and therefore not extremely suitable as a day trip. I would advice you to spend at least one night in this area if you wish to visit it. Depending on what you enjoy most (nature or cities) you could either stay in one of the villages in the hills, such as Valkenburg, Schin op Geul or Gulpen or in the charming city of Maastricht.
From Maastricht there are regional trains towards Aachen in Germany and Liège in Belgium. If you prefer to head back north why not visit modern Eindhoven or classic Den Bosch, the capital of Brabant province?