These Are Delaware's Top Outdoor Attractions
Hundreds of adventures await in the First State's natural landscapes.
Go Ape! at Lums Pond in Bear.//photo provided by dnrec/go ape!
The best part of Delaware, cynical locals tell visitors or newcomers, is how close it is to its more exciting neighbors. But those in the know, like Delaware Greenways Executive Director Mary Roth, will disagree.
Roth likes to tell the story of a health fair she attended in North Wilmington on the AstraZeneca campus, advocating for Delaware Greenways’ mission of connecting people and places through trails and scenic corridors. People kept coming up to her and asking where they could find the nearest trail. “It’s right out that window,” she’d reply, pointing to the woods at the edge of the campus. No, they would respond, where is a trail that connects to stuff? Mary would point out the window again, toward Alapocas Run State Park, “If you got on that trail, you could walk or run or ride your bike for six or seven miles.” The problem, she says, is that people don’t realize how connected Delaware is, and how close they are to adventure.
The Delaware Byway Initiative aims to highlight those connections. The Byway program has created a system of “byways” or transportation routes which run along areas that hold certain intrinsic qualities and to protect and enhance those qualities while encouraging tourism. Just like those North Wilmington trails, Delaware Byways maps and recognizes paths to adventure throughout the state, each marked by unique themes and experiences to make four seasons full of outdoor fun without leaving the First State.
Six byways connect hundreds of outdoor adventures for groups of all sizes and ages. Each has its own story to tell and helps to build experiences that can last from an afternoon to a weekend or more.
DELAWARE BAYSHORE BYWAY
The Delaware Bayshore Byway stretches 100 miles by and through big cities, tiny villages, and more than half of the state’s wildlife areas. Otherwise known as “the road that takes you to Rehoboth and Lewes beaches,” this scenic byway alone is packed full of outdoor adventures.
Whether you like biking, hiking, fishing, hunting, birding, camping, swimming, or taking a break from the activity and laying around on a quiet beach to read a book, the Delaware Bayshore Byway has got you covered.
For the first time, members of Delaware Greenways have begun a catalog of every secluded beach, small-town pub and hidden fishing spot along the Bayshore coast. Here’s some of what they’ve found.
LIVING THE HIGH LIFE
Just a few miles west from the Bayshore Byway in Bear’s Lum’s Pond State Park, visitors have the opportunity to not just get out into the woods, but also up into the trees. Go Ape Zip Line & Treetop Adventures operates a zipline and high-ropes course that will test your endurance, agility and tolerance for heights. Imagine the coolest treehouse you and your friends ever envisioned as kids, then turn it all the way up to 11—complete with swings, aerial obstacles and, of course, the chance to ride through the treetops on the site’s signature zip lines.
Looking for something not quite so … aerial? Keep yourself on the ground or the water with plenty of other activities at the park, including camping at the newly renovated campground, hiking, horseback riding (you provide the horse), fishing, boating and facilities for sports like football, baseball, softball, soccer, basketball, tennis, disc golf and cricket.
The Delaware Bayshore is home to more than half of Delaware’s 20 wildlife areas, some of which stretch for thousands of acres. These patches of protected wilderness include vast expanses of marsh crisscrossed with trails, campsites, hunting grounds and fishing spots, many of which can serve as a day trip or a weekend getaway.
The Bayshore is also internationally known as the shorebird capital of the world, where hundreds of thousands flock to Delaware’s beaches each spring as a stop on their migration path to Canada. The entirety of Delaware’s bird-watching hotspots is connected by the 27 stops along the Delaware Birding Trail, but most of the stops are along the Bayshore Byway.
Augustine Wildlife Area
Six large tracts of land totaling more than 3,000 acres make up this stop. Augustine combines marshland—including the Thousand Acre Marsh—forests, and farmland, as well as Port Penn Interpretive Center for an educational experience for the whole family.
Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge
Bombay Hook was founded in 1937 as a thousand-acre rest stop for migratory birds. Today it has swelled to more than 1,500 acres of pristine salt marshes that protect more than 300 species of birds, including the bald eagle. Rent a kayak or canoe and explore the refuge by water to see the park from a whole new perspective.
Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge
If you suffer from FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) but can only visit one of Delaware’s natural landscapes, Prime Hook is the destination for you. This 10,000-acre refuge has every Delaware habitat, from fresh and saltwater marshes to forests and beaches. It’s a major destination for both Delaware shorebirds and horseshoe crabs. There are no overnight stays on the refuge, but you won’t be far from other campgrounds and amenities to use as a base camp for a weekend getaway.
(FROM LEFT): Beach access is a huge attraction at Cape Henlopen State Park.//photo by maria deforrest
Beach season is big in Delaware. Our tiny state swells with millions of tourists from Pennsylvania; Washington, D.C.; and Maryland, most of whom are headed to Delaware’s big-name beach towns. This summer take a break from the rush and visit some of the small-town beaches.
A small, quiet, beach with a permanent population pushing 400. The waters off the coast are shallow and perfect for swimming or wading. It still has some of the amenities of larger beaches (restaurants, bars, boat rentals). Bowers also has three parks and a museum.
Brandywine Creek State Park
Once part of the Winterthur estate, the park is now 900 acres of interconnecting trails, with an 18-hole disc golf course, and the Tulip Tree Woods Nature Preserve. It’s also a popular site for geocaching, where participants use GPS to hide and seek weatherproof containers all over the world.
Does a small town feel like way too many people? Just south of Bowers Beach is Bennett’s Pier beach. There are no piers, no shops, no houses; the Bennett’s Pier road just ends, and there is the beach.
(FROM LEFT: Yurts are available for rent at Lums Pond State Park in Bear; Camping is also a major attraction at Cape Henlopen State Park.// Photos by maria deforrest
Cape Henlopen State Park
Comfortably close to Lewes, Cape Henlopen is a beach where you can do it all: swim, fish, hike, bike, camp and ride horses (if you have a horse to ride). You can even go clamming. Yep. It’s what it sounds like: pick a location, grab some trusty tools, and dig for fresh clams. Like all DIY endeavors, you should do some research before you go. While you’re there, check out the Seaside Nature Center for exhibits, activities and educational events. The center has huge fish tanks, “please touch” exhibits and free bike rentals for visitors. The park is also home of the old stockade at Fort Miles, the remnants of the United States’ coastal defense system established during World War II.
Horseshoe Crab Migration
Crabs ready to mate flock to Delaware beaches in the late spring and early summer. People can go to Slaughter, Broadkill, Fowler, Kitts Hummock, Pickering and Prime Hook beaches to witness thousands of Delaware’s state marine animal emerge from the bay and lay eggs on the beach.
Don’t let the name fool you: Slaughter Beach is all charm. With a permanent population hovering around 200 and more than 300 years of history, Slaughter Beach gives you the best parts of the beach experience without the traffic. If you decide you really need that shopping spree or miss the press of crowds, don’t sweat; Rehoboth Beach is only 15-20 minutes away.
BRANDYWINE VALLEY NATIONAL SCENIC BYWAY
The Brandywine Valley National Scenic Byway was the first recognized byway in the state of Delaware, appropriately focusing on the valley’s rich state and national history. The valley was home to some of America’s first successful industrialists, including the du Ponts, and features so many glorious mansions and estates that the area is referred to as Chateau Country.
(FROM LEFT): The sheer rock wall at Alapocas Run State Park has
The byway itself stretches a little over 12 miles from Rodney Square in Wilmington up to the Delaware-Pennsylvania border. It traces early American industry along a circuitous route, revealing left-behind mills, factories, and estates, many of which have become museums and galleries where tour guides and employees are eager to help visitors explore 300 years of life and growth.
CHATEAUS AND GARDENS
The Brandywine Valley Scenic Byway hosts some of the most stunning gardens in the state. True to the byway’s Chateau Country airs, these gardens are dramatic and larger than life. Whether you’re looking for a scenic stroll, a botanical education, an evening of entertainment or just a beautiful backdrop, these gardens are designed to impress.
Cross over into Pennsylvania to visit this formerly private passion project by Pierre du Pont. Longwood Gardens lives on as a thousand-acre monument to the horticultural arts. With knowledgeable staff and continually changing exhibits, the gardens aim to inspire and awe even the most frequent visitors.
Built by Alfred du Pont as a gift for his wife, Nemours Mansion and Garden was made in the image of a pre-revolutionary French chateau. Stroll through history across 300 acres of French gardens and an homage to the long-gone days of the French aristocracy.
Hagley is both the former home of the du Pont family and the birthplace of their enterprise. Walk the grounds and see the heart of New Castle County industry and the expressions of the wealth it created. Like every other du Pont property, it is also host to beautiful gardens and forests designed with expert care by the mansion’s former inhabitants and preserved by a dedicated staff.
Taking a break from the du Ponts, Rockwood Museum is a mansion at the heart of a sprawling park. Perfect for short walks, Rockwood Park’s trails also connect to other parks for miles of hiking or biking.
PARKS AND TRAILS
The Brandywine Valley is also home to beautiful parks that stand alone without the weight of a mansion-turned-museum. If the idea of navigating historic exhibits makes you antsy, this part of the list is for you.
(FROM LEFT): The Jack A. Markell Trail (the JAM) connects downtown Wilmington to the city's surrounding wetlands;Bike trails through the Brandywine Valley offer rugged challenges.//photos by joe del tufo
Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library
Yet another example of du Pont-designed natural glory, Winterthur’s grounds stretch across 1,000 acres including hills, meadows, streams and forests. The paths around the 175-room country-mansion-turned-museum and visitor center are full of surprises for those eager to spend hours strolling through the well-maintained landscapes, including an “enchanted garden” for the young and young at heart.
Alapocas Run State Park
This is the trail that Delaware Greenways’ Mary Roth was talking about, adjacent to the AstraZeneca property. Those trails weave for miles through Wilmington and are perfect for hiking or biking. Alapocas Run also boasts beautiful views, rock climbing, three sports fields, a playground and a folk-art collection.
Jack A. Markell Trail (the JAM)
Named after former Gov. Jack Markell, the trail is a 6-mile walk, hike, or bike ride from the Wilmington Riverfront to historic New Castle’s Battery Park and passes by some of New Castle County’s natural marshes and rivers. The trail is part of an effort by the state to provide more intercity commute options for bikers and walkers, so look out for more projects in the future.
NORTHERN DELAWARE GREENWAY
The Northern Delaware Greenway is a 10-mile long trail connecting the city of Wilmington to many of its surrounding parks. Hikers and bikers can take the trail end-to-end or stop along the way for recreational sites, scenic stops and historical sites. A map and some forward planning can turn this 10-mile trail into an all-day expedition.
Wilderness Canoe Trips
Explore the Brandywine Valley from a whole new angle. Rent a canoe or kayak and set out on a water-bound expedition or rent a tube and go with the flow as you float by and relax. Tours range from a short float to a 12-mile paddle.
LOOKING FOR A LAUNCH WITHOUT DROWNING IN DEBT? WE'LL TELL YOU HOW.
BY DAN LINEHAN
Whether you’re looking for a serene sunset paddle, a frothy whitewater adventure or some of both, getting on the water is in closer reach than you may think.
We went to Delaware’s longest-running outfitter and guide, Jay Poole at Wilderness Canoe Trips on Concord Pike, to help you find your aquatic Zen on a budget. With their help, we break down your expenses into two elements—the boat itself and the tools to get it to the water—with cost estimates for each.
First, a brief caveat: We’ll be talking about owning your own kayak or canoe, though going for a test run first makes for good preparation. Wilderness Canoe Trips, though not the only game in town, offers two- and four-hour expeditions in which they provide everything you’ll need.
But, if you’re after the freedom to get on the river at a moment’s notice, read on.
FINDING THE RIGHT STUFF
First: canoe, kayak or tube? If you’re bringing a family, you’re likely going to want a canoe, which can carry two adults and two children.
If it’s just the one or two of you, a pair of kayaks or a tandem kayak might be a good bet. Kayaks have two practical advantages: size and price. As they weigh about 30 pounds, they’re easier to heave on and off a vehicle. Tandem kayaks can fit two or more, but they’re often heavier than canoes.
Kayaks and their prices have undergone huge changes in recent years, says Poole, who has been in the business for about 50 years. First, they’re more widely available—you can get a new, if basic, hard-sided kayak at any retailer for $200. Inflatable kayaks, which are easier to store and often less expensive, have also become more common.
One of the biggest differences is how they feel. You settle into a kayak, like a pilot in a cockpit, inches from the water. In a canoe, you’re sitting higher up, above the waterline. Coming into a shop and getting a feel for their differences is a good idea.
Finally, a lackadaisical ride on an inner tube, the fun uncle of the water sports family, is the least expensive and easiest to organize. If you’re a tube fan, just about the only thing you need to remember is to bring an extra one for the cooler.
The last choice is new or used. At the lower price range, a used canoe or kayak may have been patched or need a repair. But modern fiberglass patches are both reliable and easy to apply.
Cost new: Canoes generally start at about $700, hard-shelled kayaks at about $200. Inflatable kayaks can be cheaper, starting around $100.
Cost used: At Wilderness Canoe Trips, used kayaks start at around $200 and canoes around $300.
Also: Don’t forget to figure the cost for safety equipment, including life vests.
GETTING IT ALL THERE
It might seem odd to elevate mere transportation to the same level as the actual watercraft, but it can cost more to move a canoe than to buy it.
The cheap way is to buy foam blocks for the boat to rest on and straps to tie it down, which will set you back perhaps $50. If you’re not careful—and, really, even if you are—it’s easy to scratch or bend your car’s roof, which wasn’t made to carry weight like this, Poole says.
The expensive way is to get a rack system that’s specific to a vehicle’s make and model. There are several options for rack systems, and they usually include bars running over the roof along with straps or clamps to anchor the boat. You can find used options at Amazon or eBay, but new ones will cost at least several hundred dollars.
Poole sells both racks and foam pads, and they’re also available at most sporting goods retailers. Cost: $50 to $1,000+
Now you’re ready to hit the water, but if you just go out paddles blazing, you’re going to have a bad time.
First, consider a destination. A lake is obviously a good place for beginners, but without a current the paddler does the work. Lum’s Pond State Park is a great spot in New Castle County.
In southern Delaware, Poole recommends the inland bays and the Nanticoke River, a Chesapeake Bay tributary.
HISTORIC LEWES BYWAY
The Historic Lewes Byway connects with the Bayshore Byway at the edge of the city of Lewes and extends to the surrounding beaches and natural environment. In addition to the popular Lewes Beach, visitors have access to beautiful wildlife reserves, hiking and biking trails, and tons of opportunities to get out on the water.
The town of Lewes itself is nearly 400 years old, making it the earliest European settlement in Delaware. It still shares a common architecture and has a historic district full of specialty shops, restaurants and historical landmarks including the Cannonball House, a 250-year-old house-turned-museum that still has its eponymous cannonball wedged in its foundation from the War of 1812.
Beach Plum Island State Park
A sliver of an island and only two miles long, Beach Plum Island makes a great fishing spot for those with the proper permits.
Nassau Valley Vineyards
Delaware’s first and only award-winning vineyard is only a short trip from the heart of Lewes. Tour the grounds, taste the wines, and enjoy plenty of indoor spaces in case you need a rainy-day alternative. They host a farmers market every Sunday for the whole summer, complete with live music, local produce and a full sangria bar.
If you do get into town, you’re going to want to get out on the water. Here are a couple of local options.
Pick a paddleboard or kayak and join one of Quest Kayak’s themed tours or skip them and set out on your own. Either way, you can’t go wrong.
Cape May-Lewes Ferry
Less of an adventure than it is a waterborne taxi ride, the ferry is still an excellent opportunity to get out on the water for those who typically prefer to spend their beachside vacation on dry land. It’s also a great way to get from Lewes to Cape May, New Jersey, and back.
RED CLAY SCENIC BYWAY
The Red Clay Scenic Byway is unique among Delaware’s byways and a precedent for the national byway program. Instead of focusing on one road, Red Clay is made up of 28 secondary roads between Del. 52 and Del. 48 which crisscross the Red Clay Creek and the surrounding watershed. The Byway’s “watershed model” focuses efforts on conservation and many of the attractions along the route reflect that focus.
Those looking to leave civilization behind can find miles of trails that thread woodlands, rolling hills and farmland. The diverse landscape and preservation efforts also mean that the Red Clay Scenic Byway is host to a wealth of flora and fauna, offering visitors a chance to learn about and see Delaware’s wildlife.
Ashland Nature Center
Ashland combines education with 150 acres of woodlands, meadows, and marshland, providing four miles of nature trails to explore. Open to the public year-round, Ashland hosts educational programs, an outdoor picnic area, visitors center and overnight lodge. It is also a significant area for birding enthusiasts. Staff leaders offer guided programs and educational sessions, and continuously update their self-guided trails with booklets and signs to help visitors notice and understand the environment around them.
Mt. Cuba Center
Once a lavish du Pont mansion, the center is now a privately-owned horticultural center featuring gardens full of native and exotic plants. The center is open to the public and, of course, offers guided and self-guided tours, but it also provides single-session classes on everything from gardening to mead-making to ethnobotany.
Coverdale Farm Preserve
A nature preserve and farm dedicated to agriculture education, Coverdale offers programming Wednesdays and Sundays teaching children and adults alike about where their food comes from. Participants gain access to Coverdale’s 200 acres of hiking trails, which the staff use for many of their classes and programs. As the name suggests, a third of the preserve is dedicated to growing food for consumption. Members of their CSA (community-supported agriculture) program get a box of fresh vegetables every week. If you’re not a member but still like the idea of fresh veggies, Coverdale runs its own open market from the farm on Wednesdays and Sundays.
Auburn Valley State Park and Auburn Heights
Built around the Auburn Heights mansion and Auburn Mill, the state park also has 6 miles of hiking trails which explore the grounds and history. For those car junkies among you (you know who you are), Auburn Heights houses the Marshall Steam Museum. A steam museum for cars? You bet; Marshall has the world’s biggest collection of operating steam cars in the world. Check the schedule for chances to ride the steam cars and a miniature steam train.
NANTICOKE HERITAGE BYWAY
The Nanticoke Heritage Byway, which traces the Nanticoke River, is a gem set in western Sussex County. It runs through Seaford, Bethel, Woodland, and Laurel, each a hub of trade and shipbuilding from the early days of the United States. Each town is still marked by those boom times, preserving much of the architecture and feel of a time when they grew rich on trade between Baltimore, Wilmington and Philadelphia.
The areas around the towns, once busy with ships and traffic, have become some of the most pristine wildlife areas in Delaware. The land around the Nanticoke is filled with hiking and biking trails, as well as fishing and hunting. The Nanticoke itself is one of the Mid-Atlantic’s best-preserved waterways and trips along the river in kayaks, paddleboards or canoes reveal some of the best views on the river’s upper portion.
One of the oldest surviving cable ferries in the country, it connects Seaford to Bethel. If you want to explore three towns in one day, the ferry is your best bet. Start in Seaford, then let it take you and your car across to Bethel for free. Then head over to Laurel for dinner.
Kayaking, Paddleboarding and Canoeing
Most state parks along the Nanticoke will have rental opportunities, and most towns have canoe launching points. Grab a boat and head down the upper Nanticoke, called Deep Creek, for some of the best views along the river’s pristine banks. For an in-town rental, try Delmarva Adventure Sports in Laurel.
If you want a secluded spot to fish away from the Nanticoke, check out Concord, Hearns or Chipman ponds. The ponds are favorites of locals and feature sport boat ramps, though you’ll have to bring your own boat.
Governor Ross Plantation
A popular attraction just outside of Seaford, the Ross Plantation is a 20-acre historical landmark site featuring a pre-Civil-War plantation as well as the location of the original Seaford train station when the locomotive first reached the Nanticoke River.
A minimalist wildlife area, Phillips Landing grants access to Broad Creek and the Nanticoke River and is the terminating point of the Chesapeake Bay Historic Water Trail. It’s also the home of a monument to Capt. John Smith, who was believed to be the first European to come upon the Nanticoke River. Spoiler alert: He looks nothing like the big screen version in Disney’s “Pocahontas.”
Barnes Woods Nature Preserve
Don’t let the size of 23-acre Barnes Woods fool you. Hemmed in by tidal creeks and swamps, this preserve hasn’t seen a logger’s ax in close to 200 years, making it the only old-growth forest in the county and one of three in the state.
In sharp contrast to Barnes Woods’ old-growth forest, Woodland Park lived a very recent past life as a golf course. The county purchased the property less than a decade ago and turned it into a park with a wide recreation area and a mile of trails. This park is so secret that even the internet barely knows it exists.
Trap Pond State Park
Trap Pond is a park that almost wasn’t. Most of the trees were cut down for wood, and the wetland waters were dammed and redirected to power a lumber mill. Extreme restoration efforts starting in the 1930s were able to save a small part of those wetlands, including the 3,600-acre Trap Pond State Park. One of the state’s most popular parks, it’s perfect for camping, swimming, boating, fishing, hunting, horseback riding and miles of hiking and biking trails.
HARRIET TUBMAN UNDERGROUND RAILROAD BYWAY
Stretching from Maryland up to Philadelphia, the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway tells the tale of Delaware’s complicated relationship with slavery and freedom. The byway features dozens of historical sites including farms, parks and museums, a complete list of which can be found online.
Trail biking opportunities are everywhere throughout Delaware,
Below are some of the outdoor sites along the byway which are better suited for walking, hiking, biking and more. Take advantage of these outdoor opportunities to walk in the footsteps of America’s most famous Underground Railroad conductor.
Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park & Visitors Center
This state park is the centerpiece of the byway, and there isn’t a better place to start your journey. The relatively small state park offers an in-depth look at Tubman’s life, world and mission. Most of the park’s exhibits are indoors, but the programming links with the nearby Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. It’s the perfect place to put the rest of the byway in context.
Norman G. Wilder Wildlife Area
While the Wilder Wildlife Area is primarily maintained for hunting, spring and summer visitors have nothing to fear as they explore some of the largest intact forest blocks in Delaware. Spend hours wandering the area’s nine miles of dirt hiking and biking trails through forests and farmlands. If you are a hunter, those same trails will give you easy access through the park between September and December as you hunt deer and wild turkey.
First State Heritage Park in Dover’s Green House District
Calling itself an urban “park without boundaries,” First State Heritage Park is a great place to slow it down and walk among history. The park connects historical and cultural sites including the Biggs Museum of American Art and Woodburn, the Governor’s mansion. In fact, the entire Green House District is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Blackbird State Forest
Blackbird is home to more than 40 miles of hiking, biking and riding trails. The forest also allows camping, picnics, and catch-and-release fishing. If you’re looking for an outdoor camping adventure without leaving the First State, consider doing it here.
Tubman-Garrett Riverfront Park & Market Street Bridge
This small park, located in the back yard of many Wilmingtonians, has been the site of big summer fun. A sliver of grass overlooking the Christiana River, the park hosts multiple summer festivals including the Riverfront Blues Festival, Hispanic Festival, and the Bob Marley Festival, as well as the Riverfront’s Fourth of July fireworks display.