Now?” my nephew Kyle asks, sounding anxious.
Peering into the water, I can just make out the pebble-strewn bottom down below. “Yep,” I reply. “Ready?”
Without a word, he slips from his board and plunges into the clear, temperate Delaware River. Snorkel mask on, I follow him beneath the surface. And with that, we exchange worlds, leaving behind the forest that rolls right up to the riverbank and the fishermen wading about. We join the aquatic realm—for a few minutes, at least.
We see smallmouth bass, flowing beds of eelgrass and waterweed, and mussels scattered about. The current increases as the river slopes shallower, from 6 feet to 4 to 2. I stand up to pause and turn upstream. In the distance, I can see the Eshback access point, where we launched our stand-up paddleboards more than an hour ago. We have 4 miles to go to reach the Bushkill access before dark.
In our final few minutes on the Delaware, we spot an eagle, prey dangling from its talons. Hungry for dinner of our own, we clamber out of the water. I hope my nephew won’t forget this, his first river trip. I’ve been paddling the river for 15 years, and I remember every time.
The Delaware River is sewn to the history of America: a fertile home for the Lenape, a path of independence for a nation, a transporter of fuel for industrialization. Today a densely populated watershed in four abutting states—New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware—relies on the river as an economic, ecological, and recreational resource, with the upper two-thirds of the waterway’s 330 miles protected. The river’s source in Hancock, N.Y., is preserved by the National Park Service (the Upper Delaware Scenic & Recreational River), as is its midsection (Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area). From there, the Lower Delaware flows into Delaware Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.
For outdoor lovers, the river’s most remarkable attribute may be that every one of these miles is accessible, flowing through the backyards of some 15 million Americans. The question, then, is not whether there’s a Delaware for each of us, but where each of us should dive in.
1. BEST CHANCE TO CATCH A RAINBOW
Junction Pool (New York) | Upper Delaware Scenic & Recreational River
The cold waters of the Delaware’s East and West branches converge at Junction Pool, where the main stem of the river—and the hopes and dreams of generations of fly fishers—heads south. One of the most storied trout fisheries in the eastern United States, these swirling eddies challenge even advanced casters in search of rainbows. As with most fish tales, the consensus on which fly works best in any given month (or moment) is up for argument, but a green drake is worth a try on pleasant June days.
2. BEST PLACE TO SWIM THROUGH TIME
Skinners Falls (New York) | Upper Delaware Scenic & Recreational River
On sunny days, visitors flock to the expansive shale bedrock of Skinners Falls. Some stick to sunbathing, but eager citizen scientists wade in to explore the eternally evolving fluvial geomorphology of the Upper Delaware up close. Carrying sediment, the river grinds away at the shale, cutting miniature chasms (a.k.a. swimming chutes) and boring away at pot holes, some more than 6 feet deep (a.k.a. spots to practice your cannonball). Bring a mask and a snorkel.
3. BEST CANOE CAMPING THAT ALMOST WASN’T
Peters at Walpack Bend (Pennsylvania) | Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area
This 20-mile stretch of the Delaware has it all: an abundance of primitive, riverside campsites; endless tributaries for exploring; and waterfall-riddled ravines on either side of the riverbank. It’s hard to fathom that all of this natural beauty nearly vanished—even more reason to celebrate its free-flowing state.
In the 1960s and ’70s, the farms and homes along the shore were acquired by the federal government for the ambitious Tocks Island Dam project, which would have dammed the river and inundated the region. Pressure to save the river and its landscape, along with trouble securing financing, led to the project’s demise in 1975.
Instead, 70,000 acres of land and 40 miles of river became what is now the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. For a paddle-in campsite, you can’t beat solitary Walpack Bend, near the Water Gap’s midpoint. Here, on the New Jersey bank, the National Park Service maintains a collection of 12 tent sites known collectively as “Peters.” With each site sleeping six, there should be plenty of room for your crew. Camping is free, nonreservable, and comes with no amenities—other than unforgettable views.
Access & parking: Dingmans Access, Delaware Township, Pa. (41° 13.106’ N, 74° 51.364’ W), to Smithfield Beach National Recreation Area, River Road, East Stroudsburg, Pa. (41° 01.455’ N, 75° 03.109’ W), both free for drop-off only; parking fee for both April–October: $10 per car, $1 per pedestrian; open year-round
More info: NPS River Camping
Outfitter: Kittatinny Canoes
4. BEST REASON TO SKIP THE SECOND CAR
McDade Trail (Pennsylvania) | Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area
A 31-mile multiuse path, McDade Trail runs nearly the full length of the Delaware Water Gap and crosses all five of the park’s river-access points on the Pennsylvania side. In other words, it’s the perfect excuse to paddle and pedal, leaving the second car at home.
After dropping your paddling gear at the Eshback Access, drive to the Bushkill Access. Pull your bike off the car and ride 4 miles north through gently rolling terrain—farms, dense forest, old settlements—back to your watercraft. The grade along this section of trail is gradual enough for most cyclists. From here, paddle back to Bushkill. Can’t fit your bike in your boat? No worries: Eshback is equipped with bike racks. Bring an extra chain and lock, and you can secure your canoe to a nearby tree while cycling the first leg of your journey.
Access & parking: Eshback Access, off Federal Road/Rte. 209, Lehman Twp., Pa. (41° 08.172’ N, 74° 55.375’ W), free, open year-round; to Bushkill Access, Bushkill Recreation Area, Lehman Twp., Pa. (41° 06.251’ N, 74° 59.028’ W), free for drop-off only; parking fee April–October: $10 per car, $1 per pedestrian; open year-round
More info: McDade Recreational Trail
Outfitters: Shawnee Inn; Edge of the Woods
5. BEST BREATHTAKING SUMMIT VISTA
Mount Tammany (New Jersey) | Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area
The Delaware Valley has no shortage of spectacular hikes, but for a trek that combines a summit, sparkling river views, and a section of the iconic Appalachian Trail, it’s Mount Tammany (1,527 feet) for the win. This 3.5-mile loop ranks as moderately difficult, but it’s regularly traveled by a range of skill levels, including families.
From the Dunnfield Creek Trailhead, follow Red Dot Trail 1.2 miles to the scenic overlook, gaining 1,200 feet in elevation as you go. Up top, pines and laurels fringe a rocky overlook towering high above the Delaware, giving you a remarkably different look at the spot where you’ll launch your sunrise paddle (see number 6). Across your field of view, the river snakes past Mount Minsi to the southwest (1,463 feet). Beyond, to the west and northwest, you can see the Pocono plateau on the far horizon and, to the east, the smaller rolling mountains of northern New Jersey.
Once you’ve soaked up the scenery, take Red Dot Trail to its junction with Blue Dot Trail. Blue Dot briefly overlaps with Dunnfield Creek Trail before both merge with the Appalachian Trail, your return route to the trailhead. Give yourself four hours to complete the loop—enough time to take in the views and enjoy the cool cascades of Dunnfield Creek on your descent.
Access & parking: Dunnfield Creek Natural Area, N.J.; look for sign, “Dunnfield Creek, Appalachian Trail,” near mile marker 1 on I-80 (40° 58.180’ N, 75° 07.319’ W); park in Sunfish Pond lot; Red Dot Trail is to the right; free and open year-round
More info: Red Dot Trail
Outfitter: Edge of the Woods
6. BEST SPOT TO SEE THE SUNRISE
Kittatinny Point (New Jersey) | Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area
Just after dawn, the rising sun picks out the Delaware as it carves a cleft deep between Mount Tammany on its eastern bank and Mount Minsi to the west. Paddling this golden thread as it weaves between two Appalachian massifs is worth the early wake-up call. (For anglers, so is the shot at perch, chub, bass, and, if you’re lucky, walleye or muskellunge. Get up early enough, and you’ll even miss peak commuter traffic on nearby Interstate 80.) Put in at the visitor center, and upon your return at a more reasonable hour, head inside for an interpretive exhibit on the area.
Access & parking: Kittatinny Point Visitor Center, 1 I-80, Columbia, N.J. (40° 58.109’ N, 75° 07.421’ W), free, center and parking lot open Memorial Day–Labor Day
More info: Delaware Water Gap Visitor Centers
Outfitter: Chamberlain canoes
7. BEST ARCHIPELAGO FOR FAMILY ADVENTURES
South of Frenchtown (New Jersey)
The secret on this stretch has long been out, thanks to its proximity to Allentown and Trenton, not to mention New York City and Philadelphia. And yet, its shoreline has remained largely underdeveloped, making it a prime paddling and tubing destination for families.
Kids will delight in the islands that come thick and fast, starting with Pennington at your launch site and continuing through the labyrinth of Marshall, Treasure, and Shyhawks. Each island and channel deserves its own day of exploration, but if you’re thru-paddling, make sure to stop midway—nope, that’s not a river mirage—at a local institution. The Famous River Hot Dog Man has been feeding paddlers for 30 years from his barge midriver and has no beef with soggy dollar bills.
There’s more fun ahead. Pull over on the New Jersey side near Prahls Island and hike up to view the cascades known as Tumble Falls. Or, following big rains, prepare for a few Class I bumps in the river where Tumble Creek feeds in.
Access & parking: Tinicum Park, 963 River Rd., Upper Black Eddy, Pa. (40° 30.243’ N, 75° 04.069’ W), free year-round; to Bryam Access, Bull’s Island Recreation Area, Stompf Tavern Road, Stockton, N.J. (40° 24.558’ N, 75° 02.524’ W); parking fee Memorial Day–Labor Day: $12 residents, $20 out-of-state; open year-round
More info: Delaware River Water Trail
Outfitter: Bucks County River Country
8. BEST RAPIDS FOR ADVANCED RIDERS
Tohickon Creek (Pennsylvania)
A tributary of the Delaware, Tohickon Creek carves an impressive whitewater course of its own, cutting 11 miles through the hills of colonial Bucks County, from Lake Nockamixon to the village of Point Pleasant, where it meets the Delaware. The best section—4 miles of Class III rapids beginning in Ralph Stover State Park and featuring the Green Monster, Race Course, and Hat’s Rock—plummets over ledges and around boulders. Pilgrim paddlers rely on scheduled releases from Lake Nockamixon on the third weekend of March and the first weekend of November, but locals know the water rises to exciting levels following most major rains, when they often have the creek to themselves. Some whitewater experience is required, as no outfitters run trips on this stretch. First-timers should partner with Tohickon vets and take the time to scout lines beforehand.
Access & parking: Ralph Stover State Park (40° 26.048’ N, 75° 05.515’ W) to Point Pleasant Community Park (40° 25.223’ N, 75° 04.013’ W); both in Pipersville, Pa.; both free and open year-round
More info: American Whitewater; DCNR Bureau of State Parks
9. BEST WAY TO EXPERIENCE AN ENGINEERING MARVEL
D&R Canal (New Jersey)
Laborers broke ground on the Delaware & Raritan (D&R) Canal, a freight-shipping route linking Philadelphia and New York, in 1830. To ensure an adequate volume of water flowed through the 44-mile-long wonder, workers also dug a secondary canal from Bull’s Island to Trenton, channeling a portion of the Delaware. Today this earthen-banked feeder—22 miles long, 50 feet wide, 6 feet deep—makes for an awesome paddle back in time. Although designed as an aqueduct, even this smaller channel hosted mule- and later steam-powered barges, thanks to unceasing traffic to and from New York City.
You’ll see evidence of the industrial past in remains lining the canal, including the Prallsville Mill, which processed everything from linseed to timber in the 18th and 19th centuries. Portage past the mill locks then let the current carry you onward for a 7-mile one-way drift ending in Lambertville. Grab a bite before giving your muscles a workout back upstream or picking up your second car.
Access & parking: Bull’s Island Recreation Area, 2185 Daniel Bray Hwy., Stockton, N.J. (40° 24.351’ N, 75° 02.113’ W); to Lambertville Boat Ramp, 3 Station Ct., Lambertville, N.J. (40° 21.391’ N, 74° 56.423’ W); both free and open year-round
More info: Delaware & Raritan (D&R) Canal; Bull’s Island Recreation Area
Outfitters: Griggstown Canoe Rental; Princeton Canoe Rental
10. BEST CHANCE TO CATCH A WAVE
Scudders Falls Recreation Area (New Jersey)
The standing wave at Scudders Falls—basically, an everpresent rapid—is a go-to destination for any human-powered vessel capable of balancing atop it: surfboard, kayak, raft, you name it. Just 5 miles upstream from Trenton, this surf spot is an after-work, on-the-weekends, just-about-anytime favorite, all year long. The primary wave is feet from shore, making it accessible to riders and spectators alike. Expect a line.
Access & parking: Scudders Falls Access, Ewing Township, N.J. (40° 16.006’ N, 74° 50.577’ W), free, park in lower lot, open year-round
More info: American Whitewater
Outfitter: None nearby; REI in Princeton
11. BEST PLACE TO SEE THE LAND SHIFT
Palmyra Cove Nature Park (New Jersey)
In a heavily industrialized area 10 miles upstream from the tidal boundary in Philadelphia, this freshwater wetland is both a manmade problem and its own solution. The result of river dredging and dumping on the New Jersey shoreline, 250-acre Palmyra Cove provides a fascinating look at the stages of ecological succession.
From the preserve’s main building, follow Cove Trail 1.25 miles to a footbridge, your platform for taking in the rich natural diversity: mink, painted turtles, ospreys, and maybe even a peregrine falcon, buzzing the wild rice in search of a snack. If the tide is out, make your return trip via the sandy beaches of neighboring River Trail. To paddle the preserve, launch your kayak from the beach behind the main building and continue south to the cove’s mouth; from there, explore the marsh’s many watery fingers.
Access & parking: Palmyra Cove Nature Park, 1335 Rte. 73 South, Palmyra, N.J. (40° 00.305’ N, 75° 02.293’ W), free and open year-round
More info: Palmyra Cove Nature Park
Outfitters: Pinelands Adventures; Eastern Mountain Sports
12. BEST SKYLINE SUP EXCURSION
Schuylkill River (Pennsylvania)
Skip the tour bus and take in Philly’s sights via stand-up paddleboard. To launch in the heart of the city, try the dock at Bartram’s Garden, a National Historic Landmark 5 miles upstream from where the feeder Schuylkill River meets the mighty Delaware. From here, ride the incoming tide beneath famous bridges while soaking up the skyline panorama overhead.
Four miles north of the put-in, you’ll find yourself at the foot of two beloved examples of 19th-century architecture, the Fairmount Water Works and the Philadelphia Art Museum. A few strokes farther is your turnaround, the Fairmount Dam, with its adjacent falls and pool. Or put in at St. Joseph’s to explore points north—most immediately, Boathouse Row. This fairytale block of 12 adjacent shelters is home to a variety of social and sporting clubs. Just keep one eye peeled for high-speed rowers: Not all craft on these waters are out for a Sunday paddle.
Access & parking: Bartram’s Garden Dock and Community Boathouse, 5400 Lindbergh Blvd., Philadelphia (39° 56.008’ N, 75° 12.293’ W), free and open year-round; or Gillin Boathouse, St. Joseph’s University, 220 Kelly Drive, Philadelphia, (39° 59.329’ N, 75° 11.423’ W), free and open except during regattas
More info: Schuylkill River; Bartram’s Garden
Outfitters: Standup Philly; Hidden River Outfitters
13. BEST WAY TO WITNESS THE CIRCLE OF LIFE
Bombay Hook Wildlife Refuge (Delaware)
Between late May and early June each year, hordes of horseshoe crabs hit the beaches of Delaware Bay to spawn, with the females leaving behind tens of thousands of eggs each. It’s an attempt to continue a lineage more than 400 million years in the making, but in this quest, the crabs are met by an opposing force. Upwards of 100,000 semipalmated sandpipers, red knots, ruddy turnstones, and other shorebirds amass to feast on the crabs’ egg clutches en route to their own summer nesting grounds in the arctic.
Bombay Hook, where you can paddle the twisting saltwater sloughs, provides a chance to see the food chain in action. For a closer look on foot, head about 30 miles south as the crow flies to the aptly named Slaughter Beach.
Access & parking: Port Mahon Boat Ramp, end of Port Mahon Road, Dover, Del. (39° 11.377’ N, 75° 24.121’ W); Bombay Hook NWR is free and open to paddlers year-round, but there is no onsite boat launch or foot traffic
More info: Bombay Hook NWR; Slaughter Beach
Outfitters: Quest Kayak; Wilderness Canoe Trips
LEARN MORE: MINDING THE GAP
The Delaware River watershed and AMC go way back. In the 1950s, AMC and like-minded organizations successfully blocked the proposed Tocks Island Dam on the Delaware River (see “Best Canoe Camping That Almost Wasn’t,” above). In place of a dam, the Delaware Water Gap was born: a 70,000-acre parcel of public land managed by the National Park Service.
In the decades since, AMC has remained active in regional conservation, including as a member of the Coalition for the Delaware River Watershed and in supporting the Delaware River Basin Conservation Act, as well as other public policy initiatives focused on improving public access to the river.
AMC’s interest in watershed conservation isn’t purely philanthropic. It’s also pragmatic: More than 15 million people, including the populations of New York City and Philadelphia, rely on the Delaware River basin as their source of drinking water. At 330 miles, the Delaware is the longest undammed river in the United States east of the Mississippi, providing exceptional habitat for animal and plant species. Its health directly impacts the health of the entire ecosystem around it.
The Water Gap is also home to AMC’s Mohican Outdoor Center, a frequent base for AMC’s outdoor leadership workshops (see “Golden Opportunity”). A 90-minute drive from New York City, Mohican offers front-porch access to the Water Gap, with self-service cabins, comfortable bunkrooms, and the river, wetlands, and Appalachian Trail a stroll away.