November cycling at Delaware’s Cape Henlopen State Park

Last November, David drove to Cape Henlopen State Park, Delaware, for a two-night stay of camping, cycling, and beach walking along the Atlantic shore. He almost had the place to himself.

Bicycle Adventurers: Just me and my Trek 520. Find David’s Bike Walk Drive blog here.

When: November 2015

Accommodations: I camped at the state park and a few cabins are also available. Few of the 154 campsites were occupied, so I had my pick of sites, and even after a Boy Scout troop moved in nearby, the campground remained peaceful and quiet. (My only complaint: floodlights on the restroom/shower buildings blazed outward in every direction, illuminating nearby campsites.)

Distance: I rode throughout this large state park and beyond. My longest ride was along a 15-mile loop route connecting the park, Rehoboth Beach, and the town of Lewes. Exploring along way added another eight miles.

Bonus tip for this adventure: You can use Cape Henlopen State Park as a base for longer excursions.

Maps: The map below is helpful for the big picture, but follow this link for a little gold mine of great bicycle travel maps for the State of Delaware.

Day One

I decided to take advantage of an unusually warm spell in early November to visit Cape Henlopen State Park for some relaxation and exploration. Delaware’s Cape Henlopen is the closest Atlantic beach to my home near Washington, D.C., about a three-hour drive. I had visited the park only a couple of times and had never spent much time there, so it seemed like the perfect destination for an overnight getaway. 

The cost of a campsite was $25 per night, plus a $4 “transaction fee.” Since it was midweek and off-season, only about a dozen campsites were occupied, so I took my time scouting for the perfect site. I finally settled on a large wooded site away from everyone else.

I spent much of the day exploring the park by bicycle and on foot. A 3-mile paved loop trail, the Bike Loop Trail, links the campground, beach, nature center, trails, and other sites. Using this loop, four other cycling/hiking trails (more details below), and roads, you can get to anywhere in the park by bike. 

History at Cape Henlopen

Cape Henlopen State Park was developed on land that had been Fort Miles, part of the U.S. Army’s coastal defense system during World War II. Throughout the park, you’ll find ghostly remains of artillery bunkers, observation towers, and other structures, all built to protect Delaware Bay and the cities of Wilmington and Philadelphia from enemy attack. The guns embedded among the sandy dunes of Fort Miles could fire 25 miles out to sea. 

At one point, Fort Miles housed 2,300 soldiers. After the war, the Army eventually converted the fort into a recreation center for soldiers and their families. In 1964, the Army began transferring the land to Delaware to create the state park.

The Fort Miles Historic Area, adjacent to the campground, is a complex of mostly abandoned buildings that formed the core of Fort Miles. 

The state is developing an artillery museum here. Several cannons and other artillery relics rest outside, including the huge barrel of a 16-inch gun. 

Mounted in front of the 16-inch gun barrel is the kind of shell it fired, along with a vivid illustration of the armor-piercing shell’s power: a massive metal plate 18 inches thick with a hole punched through it. 

I climbed to the top of the concrete observation tower here, one of several in the park, for a panoramic view. The Army built 11 observation towers along the Delaware shore for spotting enemy ships and directing artillery fire. 

The adjacent town of Lewes (pronounced Lewis) has plenty of good restaurants, so I decided to eat out for dinner. Although I could have easily and safely biked, even after dark, I chose to drive. Striper Bites, a pub/restaurant, proved to be a good choice: not too noisy, Jimmy Buffet and Nora Jones songs in the air, local draft beers on tap, and good fish and chips.

Day Two

My routine on both mornings was the same: breakfast followed by hopping on my bike and heading for the two beach access points within a mile ride of my campsite. I didn’t run across another person either time, and only my footprints marred the sand. 

About six miles of beach rim the park from Delaware Bay to Rehoboth Beach. Cars and trucks are allowed to drive on the sand, but in my several strolls I ran across more horses, two, than vehicles.

I spent most of this day exploring the 15-mile cycling route linking the park, the resort town of Rehoboth Beach, and Lewes. I veered off the park’s loop trail onto the Gordons Pond Trail, which links the park with the community of Henlopen Acres and Rehoboth Beach. This 2.65-mile trail is the park’s most beautiful biking route. Partly fine gravel and partly a boardwalk, it passes through saltwater marshes and past Gordons Pond, which lies between the trail and the beach. In the distance, I spotted two more observation towers along the shore, abandoned sentinels from another time.

I spent quite a while exploring the neighborhood streets in Henlopen Acres and Rehoboth Beach and rode down the one-mile boardwalk and back. Packed with sun and sea lovers for much of the year, the boardwalk and beach on this overcast but warm and humid November morning were mostly empty.

On the outskirts of Rehoboth Beach, I got on the Junction and Breakwater Trail, a five-mile rail trail that runs along the western edge of Cape Henlopen State Park and connects Rehoboth and Lewes. The mostly crushed-stone and paved trail passes through neighborhoods, marshes, farms, and forests. The most scenic section crosses the coastal wetlands on an 80-foot-long railroad bridge, from which you can spot yet another World War II observation tower.

I detoured into Lewes to explore the town and chose another restaurant for dinner. The site of the first European settlement in Delaware, Lewes, was founded by Dutch settlers in 1631. Nestled against Delaware Bay, it has a long bay-front beach and an attractive and thriving main street lined with shops, restaurants, and beautiful historic homes. The Cape May–Lewes ferry terminal lies between the main part of town and the state park entrance. 

By the time I returned to my campsite, with all my detours and dallying, I had logged 23 miles and biked for several hours. 

It rained for a while just after I returned, so I hunkered down in my tent until it was over and worked on my trip notes. Before I headed out to the Rose and Crown pub for dinner, I took a short bike ride on a spur of the Bike Loop Trail to The Great Dune overlook. This beachside dune rises about 80 feet and provides a sweeping view of the shore. 

When I returned from dinner, I took one more bike ride, back down to the beach in the dark to explore by flashlight. I was rewarded by finding two types of live crabs near the waterline. And back at camp, the chirping of crickets and the distant rushing sound of surf lulled me to sleep.

Important note: I had hoped to return to Cape Henlopen this fall, but the park website states that the campground will close September 11, 2016, for major improvements. It is expected to reopen in the spring of 2017.

Your favorite local bike shop? City Bikes, 8401 Connecticut Ave, Chevy Chase, MD

Bike overnight tips and tricks? Go during the week if you can. Do things out of sync with everyone else.

HOW ABOUT YOU? Inspire others by submitting your own bike overnight adventure!

2 responses so far ↓

bikepedaler - Oct 19, 2016 at 5:03 PM

Really enjoyed reading about your great cycle,hiking,exploration on your adventure! thanks for sharing pictures,makes me want to do another overnighter before winter sets in!

David Romanowski - Jan 26, 2017 at 3:37 PM

A belated thank you for your comment! I hope to do another bike overnight at Cape Henlopen one of these days, maybe with a side trip via ferry to Cape May, New Jersey. Happy trails!


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