Cycling through Belgium

I liked cycling. I liked Belgium (from what I knew of it). I figured I’d like cycling through Belgium. And I did. With a friend’s wedding scheduled in the low countries, it seemed like the perfect excuse to do some exploring by bicycle. We say exploring, but due to Schengen Visa requirements, exploring was relegated to the brief time spent each day getting from our planned start to our planned end.

Many people cycle around Europe every day. Some of them even do it for fun. Belgium makes this even easier, regardless of cycling proficiency, by being pretty flat, and having all its towns very close together. This is not necessarily specific to Belgium, but that’s where our friends were getting married, so it was convenient.

Belgium has windmills too

There are a number of companies which offer various packages for doing cycle tours throughout Europe. Some can be in groups, others can be self-guided. There’s also great variety of choice in the location, distance, support and accommodation packages on offer. And one day I’d love to try some of them, however we were limited.

We didn’t have a lot of time. We wanted to do 3 or 4 days of cycling max. My wife and I also wanted to do this trip by ourselves. We also wanted to start in Brussels and end somewhere else. Ultimately we were too picky. While there are lots of one-way routes on offer, they were generally longer. So we were left to our own devices.

If you’re hiring bicycles, not from a tour group, you’re required to return your bike to the start location. With train systems as they are in Europe this isn’t a major issue, as you can schedule your last day to be a train trip back to where you started, and just chuck your bike on the train. This also allows you to leave baggage at a hotel, in case you have something, like a suit, that you don’t want to cram into your panniers.

Avenues all to ourselves

Because of our time restriction, and for simplicity’s sake, we eventually decided to do a short 3 day tour. Starting and ending in Brussels, our first day we cycled to Ghent, second day on to Antwerp, and on day three returned to Brussels. We used Cyclo, a Brussels based cycling organisation with several locations, to obtain a bike, and were overall happy with the experience.

The three cities we chose were all roughly 50km apart in a nice triangular formation, which for regular cyclists is not a terribly long distance. In fact it’s a pretty comfortable distance. It’s far enough to convince you’ve done some work and deserve that delicious Belgian beer and waffle, while also getting you to a completely different place in the country, and also not taking the entire day to do it. So what did we do.

The Bike

You may notice the term ‘the bike’ and not ‘bikes’. This is because we decided to save a bit of money and hire a single tandem, as opposed to two bicycles. I also cycle more than my wife, and figured the trip would be more enjoyable for both of us if we shared a tandem, instead of having individual bicycles.

Sometimes we only got a path to ourselves, and not a whole road

This was not the wrong decision. But we’re not sure if we’d do it again. Cyclo were able to provide us a perfectly decent tandem (it even had front suspension). There were one or two niggly things on the bike which we only picked up once we were far away from Brussels. It didn’t stop us, and the problems weren’t tandem specific, but it slightly affected our experience.

Firstly, I am not short, and rental bikes are not made for not short people, particularly one-size-fits-all tandems. The gears on our bike weren’t properly tuned, and the rear seat kept sliding down, no matter how we tried to tighten it. It also had a kick stand which loosened, and due to the length of the tandem would often scrape things while riding. The routes we ended up riding also involved more ‘rustic’ paths than we had anticipated, for which a tandem is not ideal. Also cobblestones. However this is perhaps again, no a tandem specific issue.

Our bike looked something like this

The tandem was fun though. It was fun to be together the whole time. It was fun to ride at the back at times. It was fun to have someone taking photos and navigating while the person in front could continue focusing on the cycling. We didn’t get upset with each other, or have any specific bad experience on the tandem, but at the end we both agreed we’d rather have been on our own bikes.

But wow, as flat as Belgium is, it’s a different ballgame climbing a hill with another person, panniers, bike locks and a (allegedly) 23kg bike.

Route Planning

Because this is Belgium, you can get away with Google Maps, and for getting out of cities, this is definitely what I’d recommend. Our first day we left later than we would have liked, and had to get to Ghent by a specific time, as such we decided to just follow Google Maps. And it works. But Google Maps takes you on the straightest easiest route. Also the least interesting, and least pretty route. We finished the first day and were a bit disappointed. We were hoping for some nice Belgian countryside, but we mostly just rode next to a B-road for 50km.

Thankfully there’s fietsroute.org. They are an amazing resource for all things cycling in Belgium (fiets is Dutch is for bicycle). Along with general information and suggested themed routes, they also just have a route planner letting you select a start and finish point, while it generates the best route.

The Belgian cycling routes are set out in nodes (an intersection where multiple routes meet). At each node there are signs pointing in the direction of the next node. And along each stretch, there are additional signs keeping you on track to the node you want. Fietsroute generates a route for you based on these nodes. It explicitly does not make use of main roads, as you can see in the below image, where the bicycle routes are overlaid on the normal street map.

Fietsroute generated route in yellow. Google Maps route shown in dashed-red.

Inevitably these routes end up being 20%+ further than the direct Google Maps option. But it’s well worth it. The routes it generates are far more enjoyable. Taking you through the countryside. On old farm roads, cobbled streets, and generally less trafficked and prettier areas. If you’re on a road bike, you may want to do a bit more work to ensure you stick to paved roads, as the first route you get may take you on some less than desirable paths (although these sections can be short).

Fietsroute provides a list of all the nodes (knooppunten) that you need to follow to get to your destination, and you can technically just follow road signs to these destinations. We found however it safer to download the GPX output and track those on a GPS. Most GPSs support this functionality, and there are several cellphone apps as well. We ended up using BikeGPX, which was sufficient for our purposes, if not perfect.

Below is the route we ended up taking. You can see on day one the route is fairly smooth as we followed Google Maps, and day two and three are more jagged, as we traced the Fietsroute suggested path.

Our route in white, leading us from Brussels to Ghent to Antwerp

Accommodation

You have many choices when it comes to accommodation. There are hotels everywhere. There’s AirBnB and multiple similar services. We ended up selecting places off Fietsroute’s list of BnBs.

Regardless of where you stay you’ll be able to lock your bike up outside for a night relatively safely. However the more expensive your bike, the greater chance of theft. The list of places on Fietsroute are listed specifically to cater for cyclists. So the places we stayed in Ghent and Antwerp both had place for us to store our bike overnight. Even our double length tandem. They also end up being a bit cheaper than regular accomodation.

But accommodation is really a small concern. Places in Belgium are so close together that you’ll be able to find somewhere to stay, no matter how far you decide to cycle each day.

Cycling through the countryside

Helmets

I grew up wearing a helmet while cycling, and continue to do so. We planned on picking up helmets along with our rental bike. However, when collecting our bike, there were no helmets. Not to rent, not even to purchase. The shop cited some off-hand liability reasons.

And so we joined the throngs of helmetless Belgians, cycling through the cities, cycling on country paths. Sharing roads with cars, enjoying other roads completely devoid of any traffic. And being very careful not to crash.

In and around Brussels, probably only a quarter of people we saw cycling had helmets on. And cycling between the cities reduced even that. Arriving in Amsterdam (which easily had four times as many cyclists) revealed only 1 in 100 people wearing a helmet. Although the risk of an incident with a car is far less than say Los Angeles, or South Africa, I would have still expected helmets to be worn for for events not involving automobiles.

But we survived, without incident. The flat nature of the country, and heavy load kept our maximum speed at any point to under 20kmph. Which certainly worked in our favour.

Additionally, it was just wonderful to cycle around Belgium. Vehicle traffic is clearly aware of cyclists, and you never have to worry about being cutoff, or impatient drivers trying to squeeze past. This was true in the cities themselves, which had bike lanes laid out all over, as well as along more remote roads. People may be in a hurry, but they respect a cyclist’s place on the road

Final Thoughts

Cycling is fun and a great way to see a country. Especially if you choose to take the backroads. So many pretty tree-lined avenues, where it’s just you cycling along. So many unexpected ferry crossings.

We knew going in that we wouldn’t have much time to explore each city. Considering we were planning on traveling for 5 hours a day, this only left a few hours each evening to explore, and considering we only had one night in Ghent and Antwerp, we didn’t see much. We cycled and walked the towns, but rarely went in to places like museums. That being said, they both have a lot to see just from the perspective of a cyclist or pedestrian.

We made sure to cycle past the Atomium on the way back. It’s like the Eiffel Tower of Brussels

50-60km is not a lot to do each day. But considering how close cities are, it would be nice to plan shorter trips each day. This would also allow you to leave later and arrive earlier in each place, giving you more time to explore. Alternatively staying an extra night in each location.

Getting away from rental bikes is difficult, but we’d at least try switch to single bikes, allowing for a more comfortable riding experience. We’d also pack helmets.

In closing, we’d totally do this again. Everything worked out great, and for our first such trip I’m not unhappy with any of our decisions..

Three days, three mountains

A local outdoor supplies store puts on the A16 3-Peak Challenge every year. I first heard about it last year, but it was too late in the year to attempt. The challenge is to climb three of the highest peaks in Southern California within a certain self-defined time, either 24 hours, 3 days, 3 weeks, or 3 months. 3 days seemed like an achievable but tough goal, so at the beginning of the year already, my wife and I decided we should attempt it.

The year got busy and we didn’t. Running out of time, we identified the Labour Day long weekend as the perfect opportunity. With only two weeks to spare, we started planning. And realized how late we’d left it. While the peaks are all within viewing range of each other, depending on traffic, it could take us 4+ hours to get to some of the trailheads. It made sense to camp somewhere central for the weekend.

As we’ve come to realize though, Americans are far more active campers than South Africans, that or there are just more of them. Los Angelenos are anyway, as all 250ish of the campsites in the San Bernardino Forrest had already long been reserved. So we decided to chance it, and grab one of the first come, first serve campsites.

The next challenge is that San Gorgonio requires a permit to hike. The popular Vivian Creek Trail’s permits were all issued, for every day of the weekend. After a bit of digging, we found that an alternative route had recently opened, and still had permits available, turnaround time was 5 days though.

And so it was Friday afternoon that we set off to the San Bernardino Forest to camp in a site we didn’t yet have, and climb a mountain we had not yet acquired a permit for. But apparently it was meant to be. We arrived late on Friday evening, and after finding a full South Fork Campsite, we lucked out on an empty spot amongst the Yellow Post Sites.

As part of the challenge you are allowed to choose any order to do them in, and pick any route to the top. We wanted to do Baldy (San Antonio) last, as it was closest to home, and would allow us to go straight home, instead of returning back to camp, this meant it had to be done on Monday. We didn’t arrive early enough on Friday to pick up a permit from the ranger station, so that meant Gorgonio would have to be on Sunday. So our first hike was San Jacinto.

San Jacinto (via Palm Springs Aerial Tram) – 3,300m

SanJacinto

View from the top

We had previously attempted San Jacinto via Marion Mountain. It wasn’t really a planned attempt though; started far too late in the day (11am) and ended in the dark (8pm at the start of winter), without us having summited (me being ill being partially to blame).

The A16 challenge however encourages you to take the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway part (most) of the way. Although making it an easier climb, it still requires some effort. The tramway is something in itself; a cable-car setup identical to Table Mountain, but climbs from 805m all the way up to 2,600m. Cost is roughly $25 per person, and there was a $5 parking fee. This leaves an additional 700m (920m of climbing) to the summit.

San Jacinto Cablecar

There is a large area you can walk around if not intending to summit, but if you intend to enter the wilderness area, a permit is required. Permits are free of charge and can be collected at the ranger’s station at the top of the cable car. It’s a beautiful hike through the pine forests at the top. While fairly short, at only 8.8km, it’s still a tough hike. We were in a bit of a hurry, as we still wanted to get back to Gorgonio to pickup a permit, so pushed through to do 2ish hours to the summit. With a 20min lunch break at the top, it actually took us a bit longer to get back down. Mainly due to waiting to allow later ascenders to pass us by (mountain rules are you yield to those ascending), many of the higher paths only have space for one person at a time.

The weather at the top was cool but sunny, with thunderstorms forecast for the afternoon. It made for easy hiking, and the forest provides a lot of shade during the hike. Just before arriving back at the tram station, you’re forced to endure a short climb up again. This promptly necessitated a stop at the restaurant/cafeteria at the top to grab an ice-cream before our descent.

18.5km, 920m elevation
Tram up departed: 08h43
Summit: 11h15
Tram down arrived: 14h15

San Gorgonio (from South Fork) – 3,506m

SanGorgonio

View near the top

San Gorgonio, also known as Old Greyback, is the highest mountain in Southern California, topping out just over 3,500m. There are three main routes to travel it, but up until recently only the Vivian Creek route has been open. The South Fork and FIsh Creek options having been closed due to fire damage for the past year or two.

Vivian Creek is still the most popular route and results in its permits getting issued quickly. As such we resorted to the South Fork trail. It was conveniently located only a few miles from our campsite, which made a 7am start a bit easier, and you could still receive same day permits if you desired. While Vivian Creek is the shortest route to the top, the South Fork route doesn’t have as much climbing. We hiked up via Dry Lake, and after reaching the summit circled back via the Dollar Lake route.

SanGorgonioScarredThe fire damage has resulted in some truly spectacular scenery on this hike. The route takes you through vastly different landscapes, all very green for this late in the summer. The route has one of the most constant gradients I’ve ever experienced. There are very few extremely steep sections, and at the same time, almost no flat areas. This makes the hike quite a slog, and the hike back down can get very long. Many people prefer to do this route as a multi-day hike.

Not an option for us. We enjoyed being surrounded by various birds all the way along. After dry lake, you reach a first section of short switchbacks, followed by a long stretch to the Fish Creek turn-off. From there you have several sweeping switchbacks which gain you some elevation and take you past the remains of the a C-47 which crashed in the mountains in the 1950s. It’s remarkable how much of it is still left 60+ years later.

OldGreyback

After the switchbacks, it’s still a bit of walk as you swing around behind the mountain, meet up with the Vivian Creek trail and do the last stretch to the summit. From there you’ve got a long walk home. The Dollar Lake route may not have as many switch backs, but it is just as long.

We were once again blessed with ‘good’ weather. It was cool and pleasant on our hike up, but the clouds rolled in as we summited, leaving us with little view. On our way down the rain decided to pay us a visit, and while not terrible, we had to break out the rain jackets, and do some trudging. Would definitely like to give the Vivian Creek trail a try some time to see how it compares.

33.7km, 1,500m elevation
Started: 07h00
Summit: 12h33
Finished: 17h17

San Antonio (via Baldy Bowl) – 3,070m

SanAntonio

View from the top

Mt Baldy should really be done as a round trip, but we’d just spent our entire long weekend hiking, and opted to cut our final day short by heading up and down the same route (something we prefer to avoid), the shorter Baldy Bowl Trail, which passes the Ski Hut.

This being our last hike, we woke up at 05h30, packed up camp and drove halfway across LA, and followed the winding roads up to the ‘base’ of Baldy. As we were driving we were a bit concerned to see a big sign advertising a trail run on Mt Baldy. Things worked out quite well though, as the starting gun went off at 08h00, as we arrived. Giving them a good head-start, as we got our packs ready. In the end they took the longer fire break trails up the mountain, so wouldn’t really have been a problem.

LAInTheDistance

While we both enjoy hiking, it had been a long weekend, and we were a bit over it. The route is far steeper than our previous days’ hikes, even though it was just 3.3 miles. Regardless it was a slog. Along with some confusion as to where the top actually was, we were both slightly surprised to all of a sudden appear on top of the mountain, along with a bunch of runners who had just finished.

I’m sure the views from Baldy can be spectacular, but the normal LA haze had probably been exasperated by the recent fires, meaning our view was not particular amazing. Our hike up had been relatively cool, but as we descended the sun came out in full force, and we were very thankful to have already completed the hard section. The route down had us in much higher spirits, especially with the thoughts of a swimming pool and cold beer awaiting us at home.

10.6km, 1,190m elevation
Started: 08h21
Summit: 11h27
Finished: 13h40

Summary

It was a long 3 days, in which we did little other than hike and drive. By the end of the last day we were tired and ready to get home. That being said it was an awesome experience, and will probably be repeated some time. Each hike has its own unique draw, and (weather permitting) offers some spectacular views from the top.

Having completed it in 3 days, the next obvious step is the 24-hour challenge. While on paper our times would allow us to achieve this, a lot more training would be required to get it right without the luxury of sleep and full meals we ended each day with. Maybe not next year, but someday.

Camping California

The last few weeks have given us the opportunity to do some camping in and around LA, namely Monte Cristo in the Angeles Forest and a trip to Joshua Tree.joshuatree

Angeles Forest – Monte Cristo

Our first weekend we headed out to the Angeles Forest and spent a night at the Monte Cristo campsite. Campsites are all first come first serve. We got there midday on Saturday and about half the campsites were still available, but by the time sunset came around, the campground was pretty much full.

There’re no rangers at the campsite, so you buy yourself a permit at the entrance, and drop money in the drop-box. There are no ablution facilities besides a couple longdrop toilets which were surprisingly clean. Each site is quite large and has parking for two vehicles. Even though all the sites were full, there’s enough space that you don’t feel people are on top of you. Drinking water taps are shared between adjoining campsites.montecristoThe campsite is nestled nicely in one of the valleys with a river running through it. It is right next to the road, but traffic isn’t that heavy. While the Angeles Forest has plenty of hiking opportunities, none are close enough to the campsite to hike from there. You’ll have to drive to a trailhead before starting a hike.

It was nice to be able to quickly get out of the city and just relax with nothing going on. We didn’t get any cell reception at the campsite itself, adding to the quietness. Angeles Forest has a lot of other campsites which we’re keen to checkout, especially with summer on its way, opening up some of the campsites which were inaccessible during the winter.

Joshua Tree – Joshua Tree Lake

The next week, we headed out early on Friday and drove out to Joshua Tree. Joshua Tree has a mix of reservation and first come, first serve campgrounds. The reservations were full weeks before, and only arriving late on Friday afternoon, we decided to play it safe and camped just outside Joshua Tree at a private campground, Joshua Tree Lake.joshtreelakeThe campsite is quite close to the West Entrance Station of Joshua Tree, which never closes, so you can head into the park whenever it suits you. Joshua Tree Lake has a mixture of campsites and RV spots. The campsites aren’t demarcated, so you just find a spot where there’s space. It wasn’t particularly busy so we chose a spot without anyone nearby. Barrel fires and camping tables are provided, although if it gets very busy, I doubt there’re enough for everyone.

Being in a dessert environment, there’s no grass for camping, but even with a howling wind the whole time, dust was not an issue. Ablutions were clean and showers are also provided.joshtreelakepanoWe spent Saturday in the north end of the park, hiking Ryan Mountain and Lost Horse Mine. All the trailheads have limited parking, and in the busy spring, you’re not guaranteed a spot. We were lucky though, arriving early enough at Ryan Mountain that there were open spaces, and getting lucky at Lost Horse Mine that we arrived as another vehicle was leaving.

Neither hike was particularly difficult. Ryan Mountain is a straight up, straight back down route that is quite popular and offers good views from a central location. Lost Horse Mine was a flatter and longer loop. It goes past an old gold mine, and some of the buildings still remain there for you to see.

BeforeAndAfter

My wife has apparently been here before.

Before heading back to our campsite we decided to drive out to Keys View. It’s well worth it, with spectacular views into the Coachella Valley, spanning as far as the Salton Sea. We considered doing a section of the Geology Tour Road, but it’s marked 4×4 only, and although some of it is supposedly accessible to two wheel drive vehicles, we didn’t feel like risking getting stuck in the sand.

On Sunday we drove all the way through the park towards Cottonwood Springs. It was pretty amazing seeing the vegetation change from the Joshua Tree packed Mojave Desert in the North, to the Colorado Desert in the South. We did a short hike up to Mastodon Peak, which again offered good views.

losthorsemine

Lost Horse Mine

While we knew Joshua Tree was popular, we didn’t have major expectations, which resulted in an amazing trip. I don’t know if it was just the recent rains, but the park offers stunning scenery with many hikes and other points of interest to keep you busy. We stopped off at Hidden Valley to watch some of the rock climbers do their thing too at some of the world famous routes too.

California has camp grounds everywhere you look, so we’re looking forward to doing some more exploring in the future.

 

Angeles Snow

Apparently it snowed in LA in the early 1900s. I’m not so sure about that, but that’s what I’m told. However it definitely doesn’t snow in LA now. We have been blessed with a large amount of rain though in the last month, and LA has several 3,000m+ peaks surrounding it. This means that it does snow in the mountains around LA, and many people have completed the challenge of spending some time at the nearby ski slopes in the morning, and heading back to LA for a swim in the afternoon (it was 25degC last week, mid-winter).Angeles ForestSo last weekend we took a shortish drive out into the mountains to go play in some snow. The nearby Angeles National Forest has a highway going straight through it, so we packed in our snow chains and hiking boots and headed out. Within an hour we had snow around us, and shortly further down the road, a snow plough blocked our path. Apparently it’s too much work to plough whole highway.

We pulled off nearby in any case and climbed up a nearby hill through 3 feet of snow and played around a bit. A week later we decide to head out again and try find the Cooper Falls, also in the Angeles National Forest. A week later, even without any further storms, the snow was still holding out, and our entire hike took place on top of snow.Buckhart TrailThis was a lot of fun. While the city was covered in cloud, as we drove out of town we came out above the snow. We took the Buckhart Trail to Cooper Canyon Falls, and after a bit of wondering we realized the start was from the camp site and not the day site. The campsite is closed during winter, as is the road leading to it, so it adds another mile each way to get to the actual start and end of the hike.Buckhart TrailAll in all we did about 6.5 miles with 3,000ft of elevation, with our highest point around 6,300ft. The route is basically invisible with snow on it. The only way we were able to do this hike is because others had trodden the path before us. There are occasional signs, but if you haven’t done it before, and don’t have a GPS route to follow, definitely don’t do this after a fresh snow. You can see my tracking here.The route was pretty moderate. Some sections were a little scary, having to kick your shoes into the snow for grip on fairly steep hills. Not for someone who’s scared of heights. If you had snow shoes, those would definitely have helped. We saw about 4 other people on the route. But for the most of the time, our group of three was alone.We had a lot of fun exploring the Angeles forest a bit. now that we have a car and know about how many routes the forest holds, we’ll definitely be back for some more, maybe in the summer.

Cooper Canyon Falls

A permit is required to park anywhere in the park. Day permits were available at the Clear Creek Info Centre on the way in for $5 (cash only), but NPS permits are also valid.