Delaware Water Gap national recreation area, Pennsylvania
The Delaware river forms part of the border between Pennsylvania and New Jersey. In the 1960s the Army Corps of Engineers proposed building a dam along the flood-prone section of river between the New York state line and the coal mining town of East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. This would have created a 37-mile lake between Pennsylvania and New Jersey to be called Tocks Island national recreation area. In preparation for flooding the valley, more than 15,000 people were displaced from their homes. Then a geologic study revealed that the proposed dam was on top of several active fault lines and the project was scrapped. In 1978, the property was transferred to the National Park Service and renamed the Delaware Water Gap national recreation area. Today, the park protects 70,000 acres of forest and farmland, 40 miles of the Delaware river and 28 miles of the Appalachian Trail.
Top tip Many picturesque hamlets and villages that stood along the Delaware river were lost to the dam project but some historic buildings remain. The quaint village of Bevans now stands as the Peters Valley School of Craft, where blacksmithing, woodworking and weaving are taught and practised. Take a tour of the historic grounds on summer weekends or sign up for a two- to five-day workshop between May and September.
Ricketts Glen state park, Pennsylvania
Ricketts Glen is famous for its 24 named waterfalls along Kitchen Creek, ranging in height from three feet to to 94ft. Nearly all of them can be seen along the Falls Trail, a 7.1-mile loop that follows Kitchen Creek as it flows through the park’s three main river valleys: Ricketts Glen, Glen Leigh and Ganoga Glen. As Kitchen Creek drops over the steep cliffs of the Allegheny Front and over the edge of the Allegheny plateau, it loses nearly 1,000 feet of elevation in 2.25 miles, creating the series of picturesque waterfalls. Geologists sort the waterfalls into two types: wedding-cake falls, which descend in multiple tiers, and bridal-veil falls, that plunge over a ledge into a pool. Each of the named falls, along with 10 more unnamed falls, has its own personality, and visitors delight in picking their favourites along the trail. In addition to hiking trails, the park has 10 cabins, a campsite and horse riding, and Jean Lake is open for swimming, fishing, canoeing and kayaking. In the winter, snowsports enthusiasts enjoy skiing cross-country on the Falls Trail, and ice-climbers ascend the frozen falls.
Top tip Ricketts Glen, near Scranton, is beautiful (and open year-round) but the autumn foliage colours add a spectacular dimension to the old-growth woods and moss-covered rocks that line Kitchen Creek.
Presque Isle state park, Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania has no coast except for a 50-mile stretch that borders Lake Erie, the smallest of the five Great Lakes. One of the best places to experience Pennsylvania’s only shoreline is at Presque Isle state park, a sandy peninsula that juts out into the lake and provides a haven for migrating birds. It sits on the remains of a glacial moraine: a pile of rocks and debris left behind by a retreating glacier at the end of the last ice age. The arc is constantly reshaped by wind and waves but generally occupies around 3,000 acres of land, surrounded on three sides by the waters of Lake Erie. The park reports the greatest numbers of endangered, threatened and rare species in Pennsylvania, with Gull Point natural area usually the best place to birdwatch. The park also offers swimming, boating, fishing, scuba diving, hiking, biking and rollerskating along its 14 miles of paved waterside trails. No camping is offered in the park.
Top tip The best way to experience Lake Erie is on the Lady Kate, a 65-foot vessel that leaves from Presque Isle and takes visitors on a tour of three lighthouses. The 90-minute tours depart several times a day from mid-May to the end of September. Reservations recommended.
Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania: Colton Point and Leonard Harrison state parks
The Grand Canyon is 277 miles long, 6,000ft deep and more than 17 miles wide. The Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania is 47 miles long, 1,450ft deep and one mile wide. It’s ridiculous to compare one place with the other but the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon, also known as the Pine Creek Gorge, is definitely worth a look – and a hike, horseback or bike ride. The Pine Creek Gorge is accessed from Colton Point state park on the west side of the canyon and Leonard Harrison state park on the east side. Both parks offer hiking, camping and other activities. Trails drop into the gorge from the rim on either side, descending for a little over a mile to the river. You can also enjoy the gorge from the Pine Creek Rail Trail: a 62-mile biking and horseback riding path that runs from the town of Jersey Shore in the south to Stokesdale in the north, passing through the heart of the gorge in the middle. The trail follows the river on mostly level ground throughout its length, making for a pleasant trip for all.
Top tip Ride a bike through the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania by leaving from the Darling Run access area near Ansonia and cycle 16 miles south on a gentle downhill gradient to the Blackwell access area, near the town of Blackwell.
• pacanyon.com, visitpa.com
Bombay Hook national wildlife refuge, Delaware
The Atlantic Flyway is the main migratory route for hundreds of species of birds as they trek between summer breeding grounds in the Arctic and winter homes along the Gulf of Mexico. In the middle of the 5,000-mile route is Bombay Hook national wildlife refuge, an important stopover for migrating birds on the coast of northern Delaware. There are no sandy beaches here; instead the refuge is made up of mostly tidal marshes, mud flats, tidal pools, brushy fields and swamps. While that combination of habitats isn’t desirable for beachgoers, it’s a nutrient buffet for birds and a refuge from most predators. Five walking trails, a 12-mile wildlife-viewing drive and three observation towers make this one of the best places to observe migrating birds throughout the spring, summer and autumn.
Top tip The second Saturday in May is International Migratory Bird Day, intended to bring awareness to long-distance bird migration. This year, Bombay Hook will host a migratory bird count on 14 May from 7am-noon, with teams surveying sections of the refuge in an effort to count as many species of bird as possible. The park also offers regular guided bird walks for beginner birders of all ages.
• fws.gov, friendsofbombayhook.org
Cape Henlopen state park, Delaware
This beachfront park on the Delaware Bay became the US’s first designated public land space in 1692. The 5,000-acre beach is open year-round, with a campsite and a fishing pier that’s open 24/7. Surfing is popular off Herring Point, and the park also has a disc-golf course (frisbee golf), hiking trails and bike paths, with free bike hire at the Nature Center. Herring Point is one of the most popular spots for surf fishing – where fishermen stand on the beach and cast into the waves just offshore. Stripers and blue fish migrate past the cape in early summer, and flounder and dogfish are plentiful along this section of coast through the summer. In the late summer into autumn, mackerel and croakers pass through, and stripers and blue fish reappear as they migrate south again for the winter. Cape Henlopen is the starting point for the American Discovery Trail, a 5,000-mile path that leads from Delaware to Point Reyes, California. The park also has 20 miles of hiking trails, ranging from seaside walks to forest treks.
Top tip The park’s Nature Center is open daily year-round and its museum has five 1,000-gallon fish tanks of local species, and a marine invertebrate touch tank.
New Jersey Pinelands national reserve
New Jersey, the Garden State, is often better known for its turnpikes and suburban sprawl than its green spaces. But Jersey does have the Pine Barrens, a million-acre forest that is the largest surviving open space on the eastern seaboard between the forests of northern Maine and the Florida Everglades. The Pine Barrens covers more than 20% of New Jersey, and is vast enough to supposedly hide the elusive Jersey Devil, a mythical creature with the hooves of a horse, the wings of a bat and the head of a goat. The Pine Barrens gets its name from its dense forests and sandy soil that’s too nutrient-poor for growing crops. The most distinctive tree is the pygmy pine, which tops out around 4ft tall, with taller cedars and oaks thriving as well. Historically, the Pine Barrens were home to many rural, independent families, who scratched a living off the land, mainly by hunting and fishing. The ruins of some of these isolated homesteads can still be seen throughout the reserve.
Top tip One of the best ways to see the Barrens is by canoe or kayak. Several privately owned canoe and kayak rental agencies offerguided and independent trips down the Mullica, Batsto, Oswego and Wading rivers.
Gateway national recreation area, New Jersey
North-eastern New Jersey is very urbanised, with New York City just across the water, but there are a few open spaces. One of the most historic and picturesque is Gateway national recreation area at Sandy Hook, a spit of land jutting into the Atlantic Ocean, directly opposite Coney Island. This barrier peninsula forms the gateway to New York Harbor and was home to Fort Hancock, part of the coastal defence system, until 1974. Today, Sandy Hook has seven beaches, which make up the very northern end of the Jersey Shore. The most infamous of these is Gunnison Beach, one of the few legal nudist beaches on the eastern seaboard. The scenery across the water is the real draw, of course: Brooklyn and the Verrazano-Narrows bridge are across the bay.
Top tip Skip the often bumper-to-bumper drive to Sandy Hook and take a ferry from Manhattan instead. Between Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day weekend a ride ferry makes the 40-minute trip from the pier at East 35th Street to Sandy Hook several times a day.
Gunpowder Falls state park, Maryland
The Big Gunpowder and Little Gunpowder rivers run for 56 miles and 25 miles, respectively, though the state of Maryland, past Baltimore, before joining and emptying into Chesapeake Bay. A series of public green spaces along the waterways add up to Maryland’s largest state park: Gunpowder Falls. Throughout their lengths, the rivers run through forested river valleys and rolling agricultural land. Trout fishing is excellent in both, and after they fall over the edge of the Piedmont Plateau to the Atlantic Coastal Plain, the lower stretches of both waterways boil into class-2 and -3 whitewater for kayakers and canoeists. The park system also offers over 100 miles of trails in terrain ranging from deep woods to tidal marshes.
Top tip The Dundee Creek Marina offers motorboat and rowing boat for hire on an hourly basis ($15 an hour or $60 for four hours). The Ultimate Watersports shop also rents kayaks, windsurfing boards and stand-up paddleboards.
Assateague Island national seashore and Assateague state park, Maryland
For the horse-crazy, Assateague Island is a place of legend, where wild ponies roam the beaches. The inspiration for the popular children’s book Misty of Chincoteague, this 37-mile long barrier island off the coasts of Maryland and Virginia has had a population of feral horses since colonial times. Camping is allowed at Assateague state park, at the northern tip of the island, but Assateague national seashore in Maryland and Chincoteague national wildlife refuge, in Virginia, are designated as day-use only. Sightseeing boat cruises, kayak touring, crabbing and fishing are also popular.
Top tip Once a year, on Pony Penning Day, the wild ponies are rounded up by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department and swum across the channel from Assateague Island to Chincoteague Island, where the foals are auctioned off to the public to raise money for managing the herd and keeping the pony population at sustainable numbers. This year, the 91st annual swim will take place on 27 July and the auction on 28 July.
• nps.gov/asis, assateagueisland.com
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