MENTION THE EASTERN seaboard and most people think of urban sprawl, where a “wilderness” outing means a wary walk through Central Park. This image is not the whole truth.
Take, for example, Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, straddling the Pennsylvania-New Jersey border. A two-hour drive from the heart of New York City or Philadelphia, this unit of the National Park System boasts more than 70,000 acres.
Within this natural enclave, you can discover low-forested mountains, ponds, swift-flowing streams, waterfalls, one of the Northeast’s most interesting geological formations and a stretch of the Middle Delaware National Scenic River — nearly 40 miles of free-flowing fun. Although some 5 million visitors flock to the gap each year, which makes it one of our most-visited national recreation areas, you can, indeed, find solitude at the same time.
Launch a canoe, raft or even an inner tube for a float down the Delaware’s shallow riffles and quiet pools. Find access points about every 8 miles within the recreation area, and choose from scores of river campsites.
To quickly reach one of the river’s more remote sections, put in at Bushkill Access off U.S. 209. Less than an hour into your run, you’ll come to a big loop in the river called Wallpack Bend. On the right bank, there’s a cluster of secluded canoe-access campsites. You’ll be in one of the widest parts of the park here, where the calls of barred owls and whippoorwills don’t compete with the whine of road traffic at night.
The next day, cruise on down to Kittatinny Point access, making for a 16-mile run in all; or go another 4 miles to the Portland take-out, where there are a few small rapids to spice things up.
Hiking is another popular pursuit in the Delaware Water Gap, where there are more than 100 miles of trails to discover, including a segment of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail that traverses the park for more than 25 miles.
A terrific all-day hike starts from the Dunnfield parking lot near the Kittatinny Point Visitor Center. Follow the Appalachian Trail north to Sunfish Pond, not quite 4 miles away with a 1,000-foot elevation gain.
Pause on the ridgetop and look back for a tantalizing vista of the 1,000-foot-deep Delaware Water Gap. Bounded by 1,463-foot Mount Minsi in Pennsylvania and 1,527-foot Mount Tammany in New Jersey, this mile-wide pass in the Kittatinny Mountains through which the Delaware River flows was once touted as a Scenic Wonder of the World.
Road bikers can enjoy up to 50 miles of paved biking with little traffic, moderate hills, and exceptional rural and historical scenery by following Old Mine Road on the New Jersey side of the park. The road dates from before the French and Indian War of the 1750s. With mountain bikes, you can go off-road on the designated trails at Blue Mountain Lake in New Jersey or head to Hemlock Pond for a 5-mile loop.
The gap is the premier place to rock climb in New Jersey. The 200-foot-high cliff faces in this area offer several good routes for novice and experienced climbers.
There are two campgrounds in the park, plus two group campsites. Both group sites — Rivers Bend Campsite and Valley View Campsite — are on the river, allowing for overnight canoe camping of an entire group together. Reservations required. Primitive canoe campsites are available for those on overnight river trips, and require no fees or permits. Backpack camping along the Appalachian Trail is permitted only for thru-hikers.
The Delaware is one of the cleanest and most scenic rivers in the East. Take your swimsuits. And if you’re interested in a fish fry, don’t forget your rod. The river is noted for summer smallmouth bass and the spring shad run. Brook and brown trout are found in most tributaries.
When to Go
Year-round. Spring is often ideal for a visit, though the river is still a little too chilly for swimming. The rhododendron bloom around the first of July, making this an especially nice time to arrive. Fall colors make the gap extra photogenic, and in late fall, when the leaves are down, some of the best vistas along the hiking trails will emerge.
Did You Know?
Between 1928 and 1972, an estimated 250,000 Boy Scouts camped along the Delaware River on land that is now part of Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. Of the recreation area’s 70,000 acres, more than 6 percent — or about 4,600 acres — once belonged to five New Jersey Scout camps. Thanks to these camps, many boys from nearby cities were able to view a clear sky for the first time, free of air and light pollution.
Bring your binoculars and field guides! The wildlife-watching is fantastic here. The park is home to whitetail deer, beavers, foxes, river otters and, yes, hundreds of black bears. The area is also one of the best places in the East to watch for hawks and other raptors during their semiannual migrations.
The water gap area begins at the last exit on Interstate 80 (Millbook/Flatbrookville) in New Jersey. Farther north, there are numerous trailheads and places to visit along the 40-mile stretch of the recreation area. For the Pennsylvania side, cross the river on I-80, stay to the right and take Exit 310 just after the toll.
Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, 570-426-2452, nps.gov/dewa. Admission to the area is free, though day-use and access fees may apply. Some 20 liveries operate within or near the park that rent canoes, kayaks, tubes and rafts. All are listed on the park website, along with Delaware River maps that identify put-in and take-out areas.
An avid backpacker, canoeist and traveler, LARRY RICE resides in Buena Vista, Colo., and is a contributing editor for Canoe & Kayak magazine and a former contributing editor for Backpacker magazine.