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A platform near the entrance to the western section of the Mehlinger Heide offers a view of the heath and nearby Sembach Kaserne, seen in the distance at the top left.

Matt Millham/Stars and Stripes

A platform near the entrance to the western section of the Mehlinger Heide offers a view of the heath and nearby Sembach Kaserne, seen in the distance at the top left. Matt Millham/Stars and Stripes (Matt Millham/Stars and Stripes)

A platform near the entrance to the western section of the Mehlinger Heide offers a view of the heath and nearby Sembach Kaserne, seen in the distance at the top left.

Matt Millham/Stars and Stripes

A platform near the entrance to the western section of the Mehlinger Heide offers a view of the heath and nearby Sembach Kaserne, seen in the distance at the top left. Matt Millham/Stars and Stripes (Matt Millham/Stars and Stripes)

A view from the information pavilion at Mehlinger Heide in Mehlingen, Germany, looks out on the largest heath in southern Germany. 

Matt Millham/Stars and Stripes

A view from the information pavilion at Mehlinger Heide in Mehlingen, Germany, looks out on the largest heath in southern Germany. Matt Millham/Stars and Stripes (Matt Millham/Stars and Stripes)

A dragonfly rests on a blade of grass in a small pool of water trapped along the path at Mehlinger Heide in Mehlingen, Germany.

Matt Millham/Stars and Stripes

A dragonfly rests on a blade of grass in a small pool of water trapped along the path at Mehlinger Heide in Mehlingen, Germany. Matt Millham/Stars and Stripes (Matt Millham/Stars and Stripes)

The eastern part of the Mehlinger Heide - or heath - in Mehlingen, Germany, is grassier and offers information and activities for children.

Matt Millham/Stars and Stripes

The eastern part of the Mehlinger Heide - or heath - in Mehlingen, Germany, is grassier and offers information and activities for children. Matt Millham/Stars and Stripes (Matt Millham/Stars and Stripes)

A sign near the start of the path at Mehlinger Heide offers information about wildlife.

Matt Millham/Stars and Stripes

A sign near the start of the path at Mehlinger Heide offers information about wildlife. Matt Millham/Stars and Stripes (Matt Millham/Stars and Stripes)

A pair of benches near the entrance to the western portion of the Mehlinger Heide is a good place to watch the sunset.

Matt Millham/Stars and Stripes

A pair of benches near the entrance to the western portion of the Mehlinger Heide is a good place to watch the sunset. Matt Millham/Stars and Stripes (Matt Millham/Stars and Stripes)

The Mehlinger Heide is split by the A63 autobahn. Two bridges connect the eastern and western portions of the nature preserve. 

Matt Millham/Stars and Stripes

The Mehlinger Heide is split by the A63 autobahn. Two bridges connect the eastern and western portions of the nature preserve. Matt Millham/Stars and Stripes (Matt Millham/Stars and Stripes)

A sandy path runs around the perimeter of the Mehlinger, Heide in Mehlingen, Germany, the largest heath in southern Germany.

Matt Millham/Stars and Stripes

A sandy path runs around the perimeter of the Mehlinger, Heide in Mehlingen, Germany, the largest heath in southern Germany. Matt Millham/Stars and Stripes (Matt Millham/Stars and Stripes)

An old bunker at Mehlinger Heide in Mehlingen, Germany, has been converted for use as a bat roost.

Matt Millham/Stars and Stripes

An old bunker at Mehlinger Heide in Mehlingen, Germany, has been converted for use as a bat roost. Matt Millham/Stars and Stripes (Matt Millham/Stars and Stripes)

A flagpole and platform near the entrance to the Mehlinger Heide, the largest heath in southern Germany.

Matt Millham/Stars and Stripes

A flagpole and platform near the entrance to the Mehlinger Heide, the largest heath in southern Germany. Matt Millham/Stars and Stripes (Matt Millham/Stars and Stripes)

There are a lot of beautiful hiking paths in the Palatinate forest. But to be honest, it can get a bit monotonous.

Conversation during an average hike here: “Look, a sandstone cliff bedazzled with dewy moss! A babbling brook with a cute little bridge! Trees! Another cliff! More moss! Another brook! More trees! Is that an old castle up this hill? Nope, just more sandstone!”

Blurgh.

Don’t get me wrong. I could hike around here every day and enjoy myself. But it’s nice to see something new and different from time to time.

And here it is: Mehlinger Heide.

For those whose German is shaky, a Heide is a heath, an open, scrubland habitat covered in low, woody plants. In this case, it’s man-made.

A century ago, the 410-acre Heide was a forest used by locals for firewood and building materials.

Then World War I happened. That’s supposedly when the Germans first used part of the area as a military training ground. Then, ahead of World War II, they stripped out the trees and really got down to business.

After the war, which, as we all know, the Germans lost, the French took over and used it for tank training. The Americans had a little corner as well, where they stationed ground-to-ground missiles during the Cold War.

When that ended, the French and Americans moved out and the Germans turned it into a nature preserve.

Years of military abuse devastated the landscape. But short shrubs and wildflowers quickly took over the sandy red soil.

Now, the bulk of the heath looks like a desert crater being reclaimed by life. It is the largest heath in southern Germany, and though it is man-made, the Germans plan to keep it this way.

While the autobahn is within earshot over much of its girth, songbirds are plentiful. Rarer birds, like the woodlark and nightjar, also call this home, while owls and hawks hunt here.

A sandy path runs around the perimeter of the main section of the Heide, which is on the west side of the A63 autobahn. Two bridges connect it to the eastern side, where there is a playground and various learning stations for children.

Old bunkers, concrete walls and military debris still scar the landscape, giving it an eerie character. The Army’s Sembach Kaserne is visible off in the distance to the northeast. But these are largely invisible along much of the path, which ducks into the forest on the western edge to give some relief from the occasional German sun.

millham.matt@stripes.com

DIRECTIONS: From Kaiserslautern, head north on the L401 toward Mehlingen. From Sembach, head south on the L401. Brown signs with white lettering mark the entrance for the Mehlinger Heide, which is on the left coming from Kaiserslautern. Park in the dirt parking lot and go through the walking gate just off the parking lot to get to the playground and children’s area. For a faster route to the main section, head down the paved path back toward Kaiserslautern and follow the signs right at the bottom of the hill and over the A63.

TIMES: Open all hours year-round.

COSTS: Free.

FOOD: Try the Irish House or the Barbarossahof Hotel on the L401, less than three miles southwest of the Heide near Kaiserslautern.

INFORMATION: Dogs should be leashed. Bring water and food if you plan to spend the day. No bikes allowed. Check signs at the parking lot for information on pony rides and other activities, or visit mehlinger-heide.de.


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