exploring the big green blob at the heart of the little red dot

This route tries to make the most of the central catchment/Bukit Timah nature reserves and their buffers.  It doesn’t try to cover everything, ignoring the rail corridor on the West (which in future deserves a route description of its own), and various ‘stand alone’ parks in the East (see my thoughts on the need for unimpeded connectivity here). This green blob is Singapore’s trailrunning epicentre. It dwarfs the other two designated nature reserves in size. My aim was to design a route without too much retracing your steps over the same section, and to include some segments that are either less-known or at least less used by runners. Not all is trails, but that a 70k green circuit like this in Singapore is possible at all is amazing.  

All parts of this route are especially popular on weekend mornings. You may want to avoid them. Afternoons are better, but be aware that dual use walking/MTB trails still have way more mountain bikers than on weekdays. The route uses approx. 1.5k of single use MTB trail (from the Bukit Timah entrance to and parallel to riffle range road) that you really shouldn’t use at any time during weekends and during the week enter only with your senses wide open for signs of approaching mountainbikers. I may have opinions about making these kinda trails single use (as opposed to e.g. many of the Chestnut park trails that are objectively unfit to be dual use) but those are basically irrelevant: once something is signed single use, MTBers will tend to expect pedestrian-free passage. You being on their turf may create a dangerous situation for the both of you, and piss them off on top of that. I advise you to consider Riffle Range Rd as the safe alternative. Until recently, the Kampong trail and then the Durian loop would have been the way to go here but the Riffle Range Nature park (re)development (expected finishing date sometime 2020) make that impossible.

The route also includes a trail that has been technically off-limits since 2016 (and provides an alternative). I’m not promoting use of closed trails/entrance of closed areas. I do however feel that the growing need for nature trails is not sufficiently met by current Singaporian planning.

Route specs: approx. 70.5k and 1430 altitude meters

The above track was made by merging several tracks I made with my handheld. If you zoom in, you’ll see that its accuracy has some limitations caused by the GPS loosing connection etc. So at detailed level it may not always be accurate but for those who want to download it, be my guest: GPS-track of the big green blob at the heart of the little red dot.

route sections

Caldecot MRT-MacRitchie reservoir trail-Windsor park-Treetop walk-Bukit Timah-Dairy Farm-Chestnut park-Central catchment park connector-Mandai Lake Rd. (23.5k, 500 altitude meters)

The route starts and ends at Caldecot MRT station, about 1k from the MacRitchie reservoir nature park visitor centre (toilets/showers, luggage storage, mushroom cafe). The first part takes the route around MacRitchie reservoir as its basis, including all possible extensions. So right at the start it takes the shore-hugging boardwalk (Prunus and Petai trails) rather than the ‘main’ forest trail (adds 1.5k, but be considerate when encountering walkers!). When you come to where the Venus link connects with the main trail, turn right/East and soon after onto the boardwalk (Drongo trail), follow the Venus loop through the Windsor nature park in a counterclock-wise direction, and on the way back take the squirrel trail to connect back to the Venus link. (the Windsor park visitor centre has toilets/water.

Back in MacRitchie the route continues to the treetop walk, a 250mlong freestanding suspension bridge between the two highest points in the nature reserve. Part of this bit is on road, some of which you can avoid by taking the Terentang trail to the ranger station (toilet). After the suspension bridge the trail is mostly wooden board walk and stairs all the way to the Petaling hut. Be aware that the bridge can only be crossed from the East side. In case you run/walk this (part of the) route from the opposite direction, at the Petaling hut: continue on the (Sime) track you’re on to the ranger station, then only go North to the suspension bridge, and when getting back to the Petaling hut, retrace your steps, less than 1k, to the ranger station. Also be aware that access to the bridge is time limited and it is closed on Mondays.

From the Petaling hut the route heads West, then turns North and then West again to reach Riffle Range Rd (water available from a tap next to the gate). The road is an unavoidable 1.5k of low traffic tarmac to connect from Central Catchment nature reserve to Bukit Timah nature reserve, which were seperated in the 80s by the BT expressway. Soon after the BTE overpass the route turns into the forest and down onto the  pipeline trail, goes North and after a couple of 100 undulating grassland meters heads up the forested BT hill on a paved staircase. Close to the Summit this trail hits the road, then another staircase brings you to the summit. On the North side, take the first trail going down and at a fork take a right (Dairy Farm loop). All paths on the Northside side of Bukit Timah summit go (often steeply) down into Dairy Farm nature park. When you hit the road going to the Wallace Education centre, cross it and follow the Wallace trail that runs parallel to the road before joing it again beyond the centre, turn back – have a look around the interesting exhibit in the centre (water/toilets), and continue to just beyond where you crossed over into the Wallace trail for the right turn to the Zenghua park connector.

A route description is not the place for musings on nature reserve/park management policies but I have to admit that Nparks’ track record of closing off existing trails and infrastructurally ‘upgrading’ what remains has certainly triggered some thoughts. For those interested: look here.

Follow the park connector to the road, and take a right to the Chestnut park visitor centre (water/toilets). Chestnut is mostly mountainbiker territory and on the way out the route takes the Northern walking trail to get to the (dual use, weekends uncomfortably busy…) Gangsa trail going North to the Mandai lake (Singapore zoo) Rd. Shortly after the Expressway hugging part of this trail there is a fork and my route veers away to the right. When you hit a traffic-free tarmac Rd, continuing straight across the road brings you to Mandai Lake Rd and a busstop, which would be a way onto this route or your exit possibility.

Mandai Lake Rd-army cross-country driving instruction course-Mandai Lake Rd (8.5k, 100 altitude meters)

Take a right on the tarmac Rd and follow it through a lush former kampung area. Those in the know still seem to come here to harvest durians and other delicacies. The road soon veers back toward the South and brings you to an place where you can cross underneath the elevated expressway into what is a former quarry and kampung area and now serves as the cross country driving training ground for the army. If you want to skip the 6k around this area, go South staying underneath the expressway for maybe 100m and you can get back onto a trail that returns you to the fork in the gangsa trail you’ve passed earlier.

I am not really sure about the official accessibility of the cross country driving centre….The whole Eastern edge of this loop certainly is because this is part of the so-called pipeline trail, which goes all the way from Woodlands to the Murmane reservoir in the Riffle Range Nature park South of Riffle range road currently under reconstruction. But the actual cross country driving area….I came across many vehicles and plenty army people, all friendly waving me on. The area consist of a mix of dirt and former tarmac roads, and trails through former kampungs. You can bushwack your way to where you can have a view over a disused quarry (be careful!) The loop certainly falls into the category of ‘and now for something different’.

Mandai Lake Rd-Gangsa trail-Fishermen’s trail-Chestnut park-Dairy Farm-Bukit Timah visitor centre (18k if butterfly trail, 15k if Chestnut Southern hiking loop only, 500 altitude meters)

At the end follow the pipeline trail back to the expressway and retrace your steps to the gangsa trail and on that trail back to its expressway hugging bit. Alternatively, and shorter, take the earlier described expressway following trail directly South back to the fork in the Gangsa trail.

Approximately 1.5k South of the fork turn left into the forest on a very obvious trail (the so-called fishermen’s trail), that goes to the shore of the Upper Seletar reservoir, and follows it, winding its gnarly way South until it climbs to a gully which you then take right and up, back to the gangsa trail. Soon after, at the three-way junction, take the middle (hiking only) trail to a shelter close to the road, the track going up toward the left brings you to the viewing tower that you passed on your way. Retrace your steps on (Chestnut Northern walking route) to the road that comes from the visitor centre, and soon after take the trail going down to the left which emerges in front of the PUB pumping station and an entry to Chestnut’s Southern walking trail.

The point of my route is to get the max out of what is out there, which in my admittedly limited experience means that it includes all the bits of walking trail that many regulars know of but for mysterious reasons seem to ignore, apparently  prefering to run just a couple of habitual routes (and then complaining they get bored…).

The first of those in Chestnut is the is the Southern walking trail. The route on googlemaps goes from the Southern tip of the hiking trail briefly onto a gas pipeline track and then left along the shore of the Upper Peirce reservoir back to the same entrance of the hiking trail. This return North – a version of what is known as the buitterfly trail – is actually off-limits since 2016.  That the trail closure is widely being ignored seems to confirm my fears that the current policy of upgrading some into something not recognizable as ‘trail’ anymore, and closing others within a context of growing numbers of people craving access to trails is self-defeating. To stay withing the clear just keep following the Southern hiking loop to its exit opposite the Chestnut visitor centre. The second of those underutilized trails is the walking trail North of the visitor centre, which is less than 1.5k, but nice enough. So add those k’s before retracing your steps to Dairy Farm. Hillview mrt station is a possible entry/exit point not too far away. The railway mall has some food options.

Here, go back up Bukit Timah, but now take the other part of the Dairy Farm loop, and close to the top, take the right-hand option, which adds some altitude meters to the route.  When you hit the road at the top, cicle counter clockwise around the Summit and take the trail down left that you emerged from on the way out. About a third down, take a right and run the longest possible route back to just above the visitor centre (water/toilets).

BTMapNov2016

Bukit Timah visitor centre-Riffle Range Rd-Jelutong Tower-MacRitchie reservoir visitor centre-Bukit Brown cemetery-Caldecot mrt (20., 330 altitude meters)

Obviously, the nearby Beauty world mrt station is a possible entry/exit point with plenty food options around it. In the spirit of appreciating available options the route first takes in a short loop to Hindehede quarry, a relatively recent addition to the nature reserve. Then it enters a technically single use MTB track, going in left at the entrance of the car park. Be careful and certainly avoid during weekends (especially mornings). The better option, but currently closed off option is the kampung trail, crossing Riffle range road and then the Durian loop to the Murmane reservoir, but with all the trail closures associated with the Riffle Range Nature park revamp, and soon that of this section of the rail corridor, it’s either pissing off some mountainbikers or return the exact same way you came to Bukit Timah. The MTB track brings you to the pipeline trail, from there retrace your steps all the way to the sime track South of the treetop walk in MacRitchie. At the crossing go straight, make sure to climb the Jelutong tower for its great views (and free stairs work-out), follow the golf link, past the golf course. Get onto a boardwalk along the reservoir and follow it to close to MacRitchie park. The mushroom cafe and toilet/showers are a good place for a break, and if you’re done, Caldecot mrt station is exactly where you left it.

The route continues on the Lornie trail, running parallel to the boardwalk, back to where you started, then left to Lornie road, which can be crossed by a footbridge, then another footbridge across the newly build Lornie Highway, to get to the Kheam Hock Rd. You’re now in Bukit Brown cemetery. A couple of 100 meters South, just before the PIE underpass, take a left onto a trail hugging the expressway. Soon there is an interesting temple area to your left, the trail continuous, with off and on overgrown chines graves in the forest, until you hit a little creek. Keep following that inland on a very overgrown trail, a bit later you’ll see it once was a tarmac path. High Indiana Jones content here. There is lots to explore in this place. And you can find plenty info online. It seems activists have managed, for the time being, to ensure at least some of what used to be the largest Chinese cemetery complex outside China is not going to be exhumed and replaced by other developments (like Lornie Hwy).

The route through Bukit Brown is based on me going out with maps.me as my guide, as it shows trails. But the info is of variable quality and not everything on the map still exists (Singapore’s climate guarantees quick inaccessibility if a trail is not used). I suggest to explore Bukit Brown on itself before making it part of your running route to ensure you can find your way around. It is not particularly big (anymore – look here for how large the complex of adjoining cemetaries originally was). Leave the cemetery by way of Jalan Mashor, past a mosque,  past the national equestrian centre and the Polo club to Thompson Rd. Cross by the footbridge which brings you to a footpath leading to the Caldecot mrt station.

If you’ve done the whole of this, you’ve certainly been on your way!

4 thoughts on “exploring the big green blob at the heart of the little red dot

  1. Pingback: there are more trails than you think: MacRitchie reservoir | Pedestrian Singapore

  2. commonman

    Thanks for this post. Having just moved to the Central area after many years in the East side of Singapore, i had been trying to figure out the the East to Central commuting from my job in Loyang, and also how to best take advantage of the many trails, park connectors and other paths around Bukit Timah and MacRitchie.

    From Central to East, the most direct routes (by bike) need to past the industrial areas of Serangoon, Ubi, Kallang though there are a few park connectors to take advantage of.

    In the East, i rather like the route of Pasir Ris, Lorong Halus, Serangoon Island, Punggol Timor and Bharat Islands, then on to Yishun Dam and Yishuan MRT, and then its within the realm of possibility to reach T15 Trail in Mandai and down through to Bukit Timah and the Chestnut areas.

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    1. roger henke Post author

      thanks for your input! I’ll certainly ceck out the Lorung Halus-Yishun dam route. have done Pungol and the two reservoirs as a circuit but never the coastal connection.

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  3. Pingback: Pulau Ubin trails | Pedestrian Singapore

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