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Using Trails

New Jersey’s Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park Trail

By: Monica Cardoza
February 7, 2024

New Jersey's D&R Canal State Park Trail is part of the Circuit Trails network | Photo courtesy Daniel Paschall
New Jersey's D&R Canal State Park Trail is part of the Circuit Trails network | Photo courtesy Daniel Paschall

Trail of the Month: February 2024

“The rigors and cares and stresses of ordinary life melt away.”

—Gilbert Honigfeld

Branching out from Trenton, the Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park Trail takes a V-shaped route across central New Jersey, connecting vibrant historic towns that played important roles in the American Revolution, and traversing a wildlife corridor where you can find turtles basking on logs, spot beavers paddling through the water and watch for the park’s 160 species of birds.

“We have so many unique areas along the park’s multiuse trail,” said Lauren Rojewski, the superintendent for D&R Canal State Park. “It runs through four different counties and is available to such a large population in central Jersey. We want the public to know these areas exist and are available to them.”

Girl Scouts walk along New Jersey's D&R Canal State Park Trail | Photo by Vicki Chirco, historian, D&R Canal State Park
Girl Scouts walk along New Jersey’s D&R Canal State Park Trail | Photo by Vicki Chirco, historian, D&R Canal State Park

Gilbert Honigfeld has been kayaking here for years and appreciates the sense of solitude, especially considering the park is in the most densely populated state in the country. Save for a face-to-face encounter with a great blue heron as he turned a bend in the river, most paddles are uneventful, and he likes it that way.

“The rigors and cares and stresses of ordinary life melt away, and I’m reliving what life was like 100 years before,” Honigfeld enthused. “I love the sense of being at one with nature, just you and the kayak and whatever birds fly by.”

A Story to Tell

Griggstown bridgetender's house circa 1910 | Photo courtesy D&R Canal State Park, New Jersey Division of Parks, Forestry & Historic Sites
Griggstown bridgetender’s house circa 1910 | Photo courtesy D&R Canal State Park, New Jersey Division of Parks, Forestry & Historic Sites

Fifty years ago, the state of New Jersey took over a canal system built in the 1800s by mostly Irish immigrants to carry mule-drawn cargo and turned it into a state park. Today, kayaks and canoes have replaced vessels laden with crops, livestock and coal, and outdoor recreationists now tread the towpath.

“The trail is the history in this park,” said Vicki Chirco, historic resources interpretive specialist for the park. “The towpath is historic, the canal is historic, the wooden bridges are historic, the houses are historic. They all have a story to tell.”

Though the idea for a canal to connect Philadelphia and New York had long been proposed to shorten the time it took to move goods between the two cities, it wasn’t until 1830 when construction of the Delaware & Raritan Canal began and was completed four years later. Initially, boats drawn by mules on the canal towpath carried goods; later, steam-powered vessels plied the waters. Though the canal remained open until 1932, it had long been losing business to the railroads, and eventually fell into disuse. It was turned over to the state in 1936.

In its heyday, whole communities grew around the canal. The D&R Canal Company provided tenders and their families houses close to the locks and swinging bridges. By 1839, 33 such houses were built. Today, thanks to canal partner groups, several of those houses have been restored and are listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places. These groups, along with D&R Canal Watch, offer walks and events to connect residents and visitors with the unique history of the corridor.

Bridgetender's house in Blackwells Mills along New Jersey's D&R Canal State Park Trail | Photo by Tom Egan
Bridgetender’s house in Blackwells Mills along New Jersey’s D&R Canal State Park Trail | Photo by Tom Egan

In addition to the original tender houses and wood bridges, trail users are likely to pass cobblestone spillways, stone bridges, rail depots, hand-built stone-arched culverts and historical railroad markers.

Access to these historical and natural assets is continuing to expand to more people through the trail’s integral role in the developing 800-mile Circuit Trails, a regional network connecting communities in Greater Philadelphia and New Jersey, and its place in the 3,000-mile East Coast Greenway connecting Maine to Florida by trail. 

“The Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park Trail is one of the major spine trails in the Circuit,” explained Anya Saretzky, Circuit Trails project manager for Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. “If you live near the D&R, you’re familiar with that trail, but you might not realize it’s part of this larger network. We’re trying to educate the public about the network, including community grant programs to make the trail more inclusive and welcoming to trail users in underserved areas.”

Connections to History and Nature

New Jersey's D&R Canal State Park Trail | Photo courtesy Daniel Paschall
New Jersey’s D&R Canal State Park Trail | Photo courtesy Daniel Paschall

Branching northwest from the center of the trail’s “V” is the 31-mile feeder canal trail segment, so named because it was built to supply water to the main canal. Here, the trail follows the Delaware River from Trenton through the historic towns of Lambertville, Stockton and Frenchtown to its end in Milford.

“Lambertville is a great location to not only enjoy the canal, but also the town, which is a time capsule of 19th-century architecture,” said Chirco.

Other popular sites along this stretch include the 80-acre Bulls Island Recreation Area, which offers a boat launch, fishing and a nature trail. Barbara McKee monitors an eagle nest for the state’s Endangered and Nongame Species Program at Bulls Island. “I’ll observe the nest for a while, then ride the path to Frenchtown and back to have another look at the eagles. That way, I get my exercise in and watch the eagles at two different times during the day.”

Eagles along New Jersey's D&R Canal State Park Trail | Photo courtesy Barb McKee
Eagles along New Jersey’s D&R Canal State Park Trail | Photo courtesy Barb McKee

McKee also monitors a peregrine falcon nest near the towpath north of Titusville. She and her husband occasionally combine her nest observation with his bike riding. “He starts riding from our home, and I drive out to the nest. He rides most of the towpath, meets me at the peregrine’s nest and rides home with me in the car. It’s such an easy path to get on and it’s level. It’s a perfect path to walk, run or bike. Plus, it’s just so beautiful.”

Steve Hagen, a board member of the bike safety nonprofit West Windsor Bicycle and Pedestrian Alliance, regularly bikes the feeder trail and appreciates the absence of cars, among other things. “The trail’s long and wide, it’s rarely crowded, and nobody goes that fast. I’ve seen Boy and Girl Scouts leaders with 10 to 12 kids on bikes,” he said, adding that in summer the tree canopy makes it feel 10 degrees cooler.

Along the route is the Prallsville Mills site, listed in the National Register of Historic Places with buildings dating back to the late 1700s. And accessible via a bridge 11 miles south is Washington Crossing State Park, where General George Washington famously crossed the icy Delaware River on Christmas night in 1776.

New Jersey's D&R Canal State Park Trail | Photo by Chuck Whitmore
New Jersey’s D&R Canal State Park Trail | Photo by Chuck Whitmore

Several bridges allow trail users to cross the Delaware River to the Pennsylvania side and explore the paralleling D&L Trail, spanning over 140 miles. “You can go up the Jersey side and down the Pennsylvania side, so you don’t see the same thing twice on one ride,” said Hagen.

RELATED: Trail of the Month: Pennsylvania’s D&L Trail (January 2018)

On the other leg of the “V”—heading northeast from Trenton to New Brunswick—the main canal trail runs past Princeton and historical sites, such as the Kingston locktender’s house and the Rockingham State Historic Site, which served as a final wartime headquarters for Washington in 1783. Today, the bridgetender house in Griggstown serves as the Millstone Valley National Scenic Byway Visitor Center, which distributes maps and brochures of the trail on weekends from May through October. Visitors can also rent canoes and kayaks here to access the water; boating from five launch sites is available from sunrise to sunset year round.

Washington Crossing State Park along New Jersey's D&R Canal State Park Trail | Photo by Chuck Whitmore
Washington Crossing State Park along New Jersey’s D&R Canal State Park Trail | Photo by Chuck Whitmore

South of Trenton, a disconnected section of the D&R canal trail runs 3.5 miles from the western edge of Hamilton Township through the wetlands of Duck Island and a wooded tract of the 3,000-acre Abbott Marshlands to Bordentown.

Already estimated to be the second-most visited state park in New Jersey, the D&R Canal State Park’s popularity may get a major boost from a new law passed last year calling for a redrawing of the state’s official tourism map to promote central New Jersey as a visitor destination. More than a million people use the trail each year and, as the park hits its half-century milestone, superintendent Rojewski reminisces on the value that the trail has brought to the area.

“It’s a special occasion to look back on the past decades and see how much work our staff has put into the park,” she said. “For the future, I want to grow the connections we have with the surrounding communities and our partner groups. The DNR canal runs through so many communities, and we have so much to offer.”

RELATED: Top 10 Trails in New Jersey

RELATED: Trail of the Month: Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park Trail (February 2024)

Trail Jam event along the D&R Canal State Park Trail in Trenton | Photo courtesy Daniel Paschall
Trail Jam event along the D&R Canal State Park Trail in Trenton | Photo courtesy Daniel Paschall
2016 Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Youth Sojourn on the Circuit Trails along the Camden waterfront | Photo by Kyle McIntyre
Circuit Trails along the Camden waterfront | Photo by Kyle McIntyre

The Circuit Trails is an innovative, regional urban trail network connecting people of all ages to jobs, communities and parks in Greater Philadelphia and New Jersey. Currently in progress, the project will eventually encompass 800 miles of trails on both sides of the Delaware River, building upon the region’s existing active transportation infrastructure.

Related Links

Trail Facts

Name: Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park Trail

Used railroad corridor: Belvidere Delaware Railroad

Trail website: D&R Canal State Park

Length: 73.6 miles

County: Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex, Somerset

Start point/end point: The V-shaped trail begins at the Battle Monument in Trenton with a branch extending northwest to 500 Frenchtown Road in Milford and a branch heading northeast to 0.2 miles east of George Street and Landing Lane in New Brunswick.

A short, disconnected section of the trail also runs from Canal Boulevard, 450 feet north of Lamberton Road, in Hamilton Township to Bordentown Beach in Bordentown.

Surface type: Most of the trail runs along the canal, where it is a well-maintained surface of finely crushed stone over hard-packed dirt.

Grade: Less than 5%

Uses: Walking, biking (hybrid or mountain bikes recommended), fishing, cross-country skiing and horseback riding (Note: Horses are not permitted on the feeder canal trail.)

Difficulty: With a relatively level grade and hard-packed surface, the trail is considered an easy experience for most.

Getting there: The closet airport, Newark Liberty International Airport (3 Brewster Road, Newark), is about a 60-minute drive from the trail’s beginning in Trenton.

Access and parking: Visit the D&R Canal State Park website for a listing of more than 40 parking areas along the trail.

To navigate the area with an interactive GIS map, and to see more photos, user reviews and ratings, plus loads of other trip-planning information, visit TrailLink.com, RTC’s free trail-finder website.

Rentals: Bike rentals are available along the northwest branch of the trail in Lambertville at Pure Energy Cycling (201 South Main St.; phone: 609.397.7008) and Big Bear Gear (1874 River Road; phone: 609.460.4784), as well as along the northeast branch of the trail in Princeton at Jay’s Cycles (249 Nassau St.; phone: 609.924.7233).

Monica Cardoza
Monica Cardoza

Monica Cardoza is a freelance writer covering outdoor recreation and conservation. She lives in northern New Jersey where she gardens with native plants, and hikes and bikes local trails. View her work at monicacardoza.com.

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