Unofficially, Cape Henlopen State Park in Delaware is probably the oldest state park in the country. In 1682, William Penn declared that the picturesque oceanfront area should be forevermore public land for “the usage of the citizens of Lewes and Sussex County.” However, Cape Henlopen was also an asset due to its location at the southern entrance of Chesapeake Bay, both for military defense and commercial endeavors. So, lawmakers did not designate the area as a state park until almost three hundred years after Mr. Penn’s proclamation.
For much of the country’s history, Cape Henlopen was important for shipping. One of the first Atlantic coast lighthouses was built here in 1767. For about the next two hundred years, Cape Henlopen was also an important military location. From the Revolutionary War era to the Cold War era, the U.S. Navy maintained an extensive presence here. Even today, the extreme end of Cape Henlopen is a restricted area.
Today’s park visitors enjoy a wide range of activities. Fishing from the 24-hour pier and swimming at the open-twelve-months-a-year beach are just the beginning. There’s also hiking, boating or kayaking in the waves, an interesting military historical area, and a world-class aquarium.
RV Rentals in Cape Henlopen State Park
Transportation in Cape Henlopen State Park
From Dover, take the Coastal Highway (State Highway 1) south to Wescoats Center. There, the Coastal Highway turns into U.S. Highway 9, but just keep on going. Supplies can be obtained along the way on the south side of Highway 9. Just before you quite literally drive into Chesapeake Bay, go right on Cape Henlopen Drive and into the Park.
From Atlantic City, or at least the Atlantic City area, take either New Road (New Jersey’s name for U.S. Highway 9) or the Garden State Parkway south to North Cape May. There’s a pretty large mall if supplies are needed near the intersection of Lincoln Boulevard (Highway 9) and Bayshore Road. Then, take the Cape May-Lewes Ferry to the other side of the Bay. Continue south on Highway 9 until you hit Cape Henlopen drive and then turn east.
Like most other parts of Delaware, this Park is fairly compact. So, there’s little need for driving and parking. There is ample paved parking near the ferry stop, bait shop and pier, Fort Miles, nature center, and the environmental center.
Campgrounds and parking in Cape Henlopen State Park
Campsites in Cape Henlopen State Park
Cape Henlopen State Park Campground
Many of this campground’s 200-plus sites have both electric and water hookups. There are no sewer hookups but there is a dump station on site. You'll find plenty of amenities here like restroom and shower facilities as well as laundry. The kids will love the playground and the entire family can enjoy the easy access to recreational hiking trails.
Twelve, two-room cabins which share a communal bath house are available. Each cabin has a water spigot and a fire ring.
Seasonal activities in Cape Henlopen State Park
The water is certainly one of the main features of this State Park. The main swimming area is on the Atlantic Ocean side of Cape Henlopen. Lifeguards are usually on duty between Memorial Day and Labor Day. During other times of the year, it’s swim at your own risk. Fortunately, the waves coming into Cape Henlopen are not too rough, largely because of the natural and artificial harbors. The water is a bit choppier on the Atlantic side, but it’s certainly not too bad. Wheelchair-friendly Mobile Mats are available to take people from the boardwalk to the water’s edge.
Junction & Breakwater Trail
Most Cape Henlopen State Park trails are mixed-use hiking/mountain-biking trails. Junction & Breakwater is a 5.3-mile, stroller and wheelchair-friendly paved trail which follows the old Penn Central railroad line. Holland Glade and Wolfe Glade scenic overlooks provide a nice view of the ocean as well as the mixed forests, marshlands, sand dunes, and grasslands which make up Cape Henlopen State Park.
Imagine playing a round of disc golf to the sound of waves washing ashore nearby. You may even have to play around a deer or some other wildlife. Remember, these animals always have play-through rights. The course itself is rather challenging. Sand dunes and/or scruff pine trees visually obscure most of the holes. Players should also be mindful of the wind and be prepared for some overgrowth in the winter.
Pinelands Nature Trail
Delaware’s very first Natural Recreation Trail is a generally straight 1.5-mile loop that goes though a pine tree forest. Hikers and bikers also pass through some unique cranberry bogs. The trail itself is mostly sand. It’s very wide and almost entirely flat. Don’t miss the World War II-era artillery bunkers.
A quarter-mile pier juts into Delaware Bay. Or, if you prefer, you can surf-fish from the sand dunes. The tackle, bait, and snack shop is nearby and sells fishing licenses. Between April and November, the fishing pier is wheelchair-accessible. Flounder and small blues are almost always biting. Use FishBite or bloodworms to catch croaker and spot fish.
This installation became operational on December 4, 1941. That was just three days before Pearl Harbor. Back then, the German fleet was a legitimate threat to U.S. shipping and the U.S. coast. Indeed, in the first half of 1942 alone, marauding German U-Boats sank fourteen ships off the coast of New Jersey. After World War II, the military mostly used Fort Miles as a recreation area until the Fort officially closed in 1991. But some classified Cold War activities also took place here. To this day, no one is exactly sure what went on behind closed doors. Conspiracy theorists, start your engines.
Seaside Nature Center
The Seaside Nature Center isn’t much to look at on the outside, but it's never good to judge a book by its cover. The Cape Henlopen ecosystem is very diverse and visitors to the Nature Center can enjoy a hands-on experience at one of the fascinating touch tanks. Explore the many species of fish, stingrays, and horseshoe crabs right up close. This is a great activity for the whole family.
Bring your own bike or borrow one at the Nature Center. Then, hit this 3.5-mile asphalt-paved trail. Most people start at the World War II observation tower. Early spring is a good time to take this tour, as many migratory birds are nearby during this time of year. The bike loop branches off in several places, so there’s plenty of opportunities for exploring. Or, you can just relax and enjoy the ride. There are lots of trees, lots of sand dunes, and lots of deer.
American Discovery Trail
The entire American Discovery Trail runs from Cape Henlopen to San Francisco, so that’s probably a bit ambitious. But the Delaware portion basically bisects the state. The first major stop is Lewes, which many consider the first town in the first state. Then it’s off to the Victorian homes in Milton, birding in the Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge, and end your tour in charming Bridgeville. If you don't want to stop here, continue on to the tiny towns of Cocked Hat, Adamsville, and Hickman until you reach the Maryland state line. The Delaware portion of the ADT covers 44.6 miles along paved rural roads.
Seaside Nature Trail
This sandy 0.6-mile loop trail begins at the Seaside Nature Center. It leads directly to the beach, where you can leave the trail and literally walk for miles. The trail also goes past some forest remnants and offers good views of the ocean and shore side lighthouses.