Delaware’s Cape Henlopen State Park Bike Loop
Trail of the Month: January 2021
“It’s never boring. There’s always something to see, whether it’s wildlife or the scenery that changes with every season.”
—John Bracco, Friends of Cape Henlopen State Park
Trail users roll past sand dunes and beaches, the Delaware Bay to the north and the Atlantic Ocean to the east. Cooper’s hawks and ospreys are frequently spotted in the sky, while red foxes are known to dart across the trail occasionally. These are but some of the glimpses of natural beauty to be found along the trails that wind through Delaware’s Cape Henlopen State Park.
You may never have visited the Cape Henlopen State Park Bike Loop, but you’ve almost certainly seen it on the news when President-Elect Joe Biden pedaled on this Delaware state park bike path. Biden, who owns a home within a few pedal strokes of the 3.3-mile trail, is one of an estimated 100,000 people who use the path each year. The bike loop is part of an interconnected trail network that includes the Gordons Pond, Walking Dunes and Pinelands Nature trails (the latter of which is hiking only). Two rail-trails can also be experienced here; the Junction & Breakwater Trail sits on the western edge of the park, connecting the towns of Lewes and Rehoboth Beach, while the growing Georgetown-Lewes Trail begins just outside the park in Lewes and extends 6 miles southwest toward its eventual end in Georgetown.
“Lots of locals are retired and use the trail to get their daily exercise,” said Grant Melville, the former superintendent of Cape Henlopen State Park and current operations director of the entire Delaware State Parks system. Some, including Lewes residents Jay Tomlinson and Ian Friedland, moved to the area specifically for the trail. The two friends typically ride with an informal group at least three times a week.
“Prior to moving here, a bike ride of 5 or 10 miles was about my typical limit,” said Friedland, who now serves as vice president of the local Friends of Cape Henlopen State Park group. Thanks to the “incredible network of trails available, I started expanding that to about 20 miles on a typical morning, and as much as 35 to 40 miles some days.”
But the trail offers more than exercise.
“It’s never boring, said John Bracco, president of the Friends group. “There’s always something to see, whether it’s wildlife or the scenery that changes with every season.”
One of Friedland’s favorite spots to catch a breather is Herring Point, which he calls a “breathtaking overlook on the Atlantic Ocean.”
“On a clear day,” Friedland said, “we can see across to Cape May, and we regularly spot dolphins and harbor seals frolicking along the shoreline.”
Trails inside the state park are mostly paved, turning to crushed limestone as they head out of the park. Melville calls the trail network a true “collaborative effort,” with several groups helping to take care of the trail. The Friends group often assists with trail maintenance, as well as larger projects. They’ve built pavilions, bought beach-accessible wheelchairs, and operate a popular free loaner bike program that allowed nearly 15,000 visitors last year to borrow a single-speed cruiser bike for a couple of hours. (They also offer loaner helmets and tagalong trailers.)
A Long History
According to the Lewes Chamber of Commerce, the Junction & Breakwater Trail is built on the remnants of a former Penn Central Rail Line that once transported passengers to resort camps up and down the Atlantic coast. One of the trail’s highlights is an 80-foot-long former railroad bridge over Holland Glade that provides views of coastal marshland and migrating seabirds. The trail also passes a hand-cranked bridge that’s sadly out-of-service.
But the history of the area goes even deeper than the former rail bed. The famed William Penn (founder of Pennsylvania) once owned much of the land that’s now known as Cape Henlopen State Park, but in 1682, through local resident Edmund Warner, he gave the local community free rein to use it for recreation and fishing. Even after his death, it remained open for public use for centuries.
Over the years, lighthouses were built to help keep ships from crashing into the surrounding rocks. Land slowly crumbled from underneath Cape Henlopen Lighthouse for years until it finally crashed into the waves in 1926. Luckily a replacement had already been built. Around the turn of the 20th century, Cape Henlopen was used to assess the health of newly arriving immigrants before they entered the country, Melville said.
In the early days of World War II, Fort Miles was hastily constructed to help protect the East Coast from the potential invasion of German forces. Along the bike loop, trail users can see the remnants of the fort, including an orientation building, several barracks and a fire-control tower that would have located and coordinated attacks against enemy ships. That history is recounted in a refurbished gun battery that now serves as the Fort Miles Museum.
(While no enemy planes were ever shot down at Cape Henlopen, Tomlinson said that a single-engine Cessna aircraft did recently encounter some engine trouble and had to make an emergency landing on Gordons Pond Beach.)
After the Axis forces were defeated, the military turned its eye—or rather its ear—toward the Russians; Fort Miles was used as a listening post for Soviet submarines off the eastern seaboard. In 1964, the U.S. began transferring the base and surrounding area to Delaware to create a state park. The land transfer was completed in 1996.
Plans for Future
Since cycling became the official state sport in 2014, Delaware has gone all-in on bike paths, according to Melville. At least two of the trails linking to Cape Henlopen State Park are slated to double in size over the next few years, taking the overall network mileage from around 21 to upwards of 40, Melville said.
Designed by state and Sussex County professionals, a 6-mile outer loop of the Junction & Breakwater Trail will include a wildlife-viewing platform overlooking the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal. Sussex County will contribute $1 million to the project, while the natural-surface trail will be built and maintained by the state. As part of the plan, nearly 400 acres of farmland will be reforested, “returning the land to a natural state and providing public access to parts of Cape Henlopen State Park that have been closed for two decades,” according to a recent article in the Cape Gazette. The nearby wastewater facility will provide fertilizer to encourage more rapid growth of the trees and forest vegetation.
Further north, the Georgetown-Lewes Trail will be expanded from its current terminus at the town of Cool Spring to the Sussex County seat of Georgetown. Local rider Tomlinson said the expanded 16-mile trail will pass through multiple residential developments, marshlands, forests and retail establishments, connecting Lewes with Georgetown’s business and entertainment districts. He envisions the trail becoming an essential part of the two communities, serving as a commuting route and economic driver.
While catching a glimpse of incoming President Biden on the trail is a longshot—the new job means he’ll likely be too busy to spend as much time on his bike—there may be an uptick in visitors hoping to see the park’s most famed rider. Most believe the expanded trail will also bring in even more users and allow them to see more of the Delaware they love.