We travel up and down the east coast a lot. Although I currently hang my hat in Vermont, I have lived in Maine, New York, Maryland, and Florida. In each ephemeral landing spot, I’ve left behind a little bit of myself, not to mention countless friends and family members. This means that we spend lots of time traipsing around visiting loved ones — one of my favorite pastimes! The downside of course, is that with all the hustle and bustle in this part of the country, we have trouble finding back road adventures away from the elaborate interstate highway system. We keep trying though, and our special find for this week was definitely Cape Henlopen State Park in Lewes, Delaware.
Welcome to Cape Henlopen State Park
When the thermometer maxed out at 96 degrees Fahrenheit, we were a little nervous. We drove our little car slowly through Lewes, DE and wondered if we should just keep driving. We had heard that Vermont was a balmy 75 degrees and we were just a day’s drive from home. In the end, the draw of the ocean was too strong and we passed by the ferry launch that would take us into New Jersey, and headed into the wilds of Cape Henlopen State park.
The park ranger who checked us in asked if we had brought an air conditioner for our tent. Was he kidding? Apparently there are such things. Have you used one? Instead, we bought a bag of ice for our tiny cooler. The ranger wished us luck, and we headed out to our campsite. We took it nice and slow through the park, making use of the air conditioner we did have and the first thing we noticed was the amazing bike path that meandered through forest, field, and dune. Not only that, there were people using it — people who embrace the heat as summer’s best feature. I was sure we could do it too.
Camping in Cape Henlopen State Park
The campground at Cape Henlopen is not our favorite part of the park, but I want to give you a brief overview so you know what to expect, because really, to make the most of this special place, you have to stay a few days.
The campground area is divided into three sections. There’s the RV area, which is really most of the campground. You’ll also find a loop just for tenters and a row of cute cabins. We opted for a tent site, thinking it would be more peaceful, but the park doesn’t allow generators and quiet time is strictly enforced after 10 pm, so all was good in that department. The campsites are flat and sandy with a good mix of shady and sunny sites, but they are packed pretty tightly together and offer very little in the way of privacy. The restrooms are clean and spacious, with hot showers (cold showers are better than air conditioning in your tent). The bugs, however, might send you over the edge, or at least to the beach. Biting flies harassed us during the day and mosquitoes came on duty in the evening. I know, it’s camping. We love it, really we do.
The Beach at Cape Henlopen
This part of the beach was totally empty.
By the time we had lunch, fended off a million biting insects, and changed into swimwear, the temperature had soared to 104 degrees. Time to chill out in the Atlantic. The park is big enough that you have to drive from your campsite to the beach. Okay, you don’t actually have to, but if you’re a northerner suffering through a sweltering summer day, take the car and don’t feel guilty.
So the beach — it’s pretty much perfect. It can be busy right by the concession and shower area, with good lifeguard coverage, but the expansive strip of sand quickly fades into serenity as you walk either north or south along the shore. The water was blissfully cold at the end of June, a good 10 degrees colder than the same ocean three hours south in Virginia Beach. When we were there, the waves stayed small, even during a pretty spectacular thunderstorm, but some of the other campers mentioned that the little waves were unusual. We watched lots of shorebirds and frolicking dolphins in the surf, and hundreds of horseshoe crabs chillin’ in the quiet bayside waters. What’s more, there’s a special surfing beach, a beach just for fishing, and a lovely bayside beach with quiet water for the families with littles.
With so much room to spread out, the beach never feels crowded and the grass covered dunes add a touch of wild to the rugged shore. It’s got to be one of my new favorite places to beat the heat, and that’s coming from someone who usually dreads an oceanside vacation.
Cape Henlopen State Park Hiking Trails
Walking Dunes Trail — Hiking wasn’t really on our minds during our sizzling stay at Cape Henlopen, but we did get to explore a bit in the wee hours of the morning before the sun had baked the world beyond our ability to withstand anything but water. We meandered along the Walking Dunes Trail, hoping to catch the sunrise over the east coast. The clouds thwarted our plans, but the trail didn’t disappoint.The huge diversity of birds made quite a ruckus in the tidal marsh and we didn’t see a single human for more than two hours. This is an easy hike — through dunes, woods, and a bit of pavement. The only downside is the limited shade and the some poison ivy.
Bike Loop — Did I tell you that bike rentals are free? The trails, the roads, and even the nearby town of Lewes are all very bike friendly. It’s a great way to explore this huge park, and there’s nothing like letting the waves wash your sweat away after a grueling ride from the campground to the sea. The bike loop trail is an awesome way to get around the park. You can stop off at the nature center, the fishing pier, the kayak rental shop, and the observation tower. The trail itself is flat and paved, perfect for seasoned riders and training wheels alike.
Pinelands Nature Trail — Thanks to a raging storm, we didn’t have time to check out this trail, but all the park rangers recommended it to us. It’s a two-mile path through the woods, where you’ll glimpse the old military bunkers and a cranberry bog without even breaking a sweat. Please let us know about your hike if you decide to give it a go.
More Fun at Cape Henlopen State Park
As if the crashing waves, meandering trails, and absolute beauty weren’t enough, there’s even more to Cape Henlopen. If you’re a family that needs options, here are a few more ways to wile away the day.
- Climb the observation tower – Part of Fort Miles, the tower sits right on the bike loop. It offers 360 degree views of the surrounding park, and is a great spot to watch the sun come up.
- Visit the bunkers at Fort Miles – Fort Miles was a key piece of our nation’s coastal defense during World War II. The fort was in operation until 1958, when long-range missiles brought an end to harbor defense strategies. You can get a guided tour of the fort Monday through Friday from 8 to 4.
- Rent kayaks – Tour the bay on your own, or take part in a seriously fabulous guided tour. The park rangers and naturalists know so much and they love to share their knowledge with visitors. You’ll learn about the birds, fish, and mammals that live here, plus you’ll experience the park from a whole new perspective. The sunset tour promised to be amazing when we were there, but a giant storm kept everyone out of the water. Now we have an excuse to go back.
- Watch the sunrise – Nothing like a sweet Atlantic sunrise to make the rest of your day fabulous.
- Watch the sunset – Over the bay as the tide goes out, you’ll likely spot dolphins frolicking, pelicans fishing, and awesome people enjoying the world just as much as you are.
- Check out the Nature Center – It’s a mini-aquarium, complete with a touch tank, local fish, and lots of cool info about this special ecosystem.
- Play disc golf – 18 “holes” of Frisbee fun. I’m having trouble learning the sport, but the courses seem to be popping up in parks and campgrounds everywhere, so I’m giving it a go.
Cape Henlopen is a huge park on the Atlantic Ocean that kept us captivated from the moment we arrived. If you like a side of rugged and wild with your beach vacation, you won’t be disappointed. You’ve got a sweet little beach town nearby with shopping and dining if that’s your thing; the beach is as lovely as any on the Atlantic Coast, and there’s plenty of room to spread out and explore. Have you been to this magical place? We’d love to hear about your experiences.