Cape Henlopen State Park in Delaware is probably one of the oldest pieces of public land 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, due to its strategic location at the southern entrance of Chesapeake Bay, Cape Henlopen was an important spot for both military defense and commercial endeavors. So, lawmakers did not designate the area as a state park until almost 300 years after Mr. Penn’s proclamation.
For much of the country’s early history, Cape Henlopen was important for shipping. One of the first Atlantic coast lighthouses was built here in 1767. For about the next 200 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. Even today, the extreme end of Cape Henlopen is a restricted area.
Today, park visitors can enjoy a wide range of activities at the Cape. Fishing from the 24-hour pier and swimming at the park's picturesque beach, which is open year-round, are just the beginning. There’s also hiking, boating or kayaking on the waves, an interesting military historical area, and a world-class aquarium. The park also features a lovely, RV-friendly 200-site campground that offers plenty of modern amenities, plus easy access to the beach.
Cape Henlopen is just under an hour from Dover, Deleware and is about two and a half hours from Atlantic City, New Jersey. To get to the park from the latter (or from anywhere along the Jersey coast), you can take a ferry that traverses Deleware Bay, going from North Cape May right to Cape Henlopen. Whichever route you take, you can expect flat, paved and unwinding roads. Even the largest rigs and trailers should have no problems getting to the park.
Keep an eye on the forecast before heading out. The area can get snow, though typically its winters are far milder than New England's. Hurricanes and tropical storms can also pose travel problems, though they are fairly rare.
Like most of Deleware's parks, Cape Henlopen State Park is rather small. Once you've parked at your site, there will be little need to drive anywhere else - just about everything can be reached on foot. There is, however, ample paved parking near the ferry stop, bait shop and pier, Fort Miles, the Nature Center, and the environmental center.
When you stay at Cape May KOA, you’ll be only a few minutes away from Cape May and the Wildwood beaches of New Jersey. Nearby, take a trolley tour of the town of Cape May, wander down the Wildwood Boardwalk, or sample fresh seafood at one of the many eateries the town has to offer. At the Cape May KOA, you can also enjoy time spent relaxing by the private lake and beach. There’s also a dog park, a swimming pool, playgrounds, and Wi-Fi. On-site amenities include laundry facilities, a dump station, golf cart rentals, tennis courts, and so much more.
Cape Henlopen's main campground is set in a sandy-floored forest just a stone's throw from the beach. Scraggly oaks and pines, though not terribly tall, nevertheless provide great summer shade and a wonderfully green setting. The fact that the campground is relatively sheltered also means that, although the ocean is just a few minutes away, you'll be protected from the strong winds and blowing sands that can sometimes whip the coast.
In total, Cape Henlopen's campground sports over 100 sites, most of which are suitable for RVs and trailers, and most of which also offer water and electric hookups. While there are no sewer hookups, there is a convenient dump station on-site. You'll also find plenty of modern amenities here, including flush-toilet restrooms, showers, laundry, and a recycling station. Each camping site offers a fire ring and a picnic table, too.
The campground's central location, and the park's small size, means just about everything is accessible by foot. The Tower #7 Observatory, the amphitheater, the Nature Center, Fort Miles, and several trailheads are all less than a quarter-mile from the campground.
The park is open year-round, and reservations can be made up to one year in advance. Although the campground is large, this park - one of Deleware's most popular - fills up fast, especially during the summer. Book well in advance if you are able! A note for winter travelers, though: water may not be available from November through March.
Cape Henlopen also has 12 charming cabins, each well-shaded by trees. All cabins have two bedrooms. Covered, screened-in porches offer a great place to relax or read. Each cabin also has a water spigot, a fire ring, and picnic tables. Cabins do not have their own restrooms; however, there is a communal bathhouse dedicated solely to the twelve cabins.
Each cabin can accommodate up to six guests. During the busy peak season, reservations must be for at least one week. Off-peak reservation minimums range from two to three days. Like the main campground, the cabins are available year-round with reservations. Unlike the main campground, pets are NOT allowed, and trailers and RVs cannot be accommodated.
Separate from its main campground, Cape Henlopen has three primitive (no electric, water or sewage hookups, and no RVs/trailers allowed) campgrounds dedicated solely to youth camping. These campsites are located just to the north of the main campground. Campers can choose to set up in large, open fields or in the wooded areas on the sites' fringes. Each site spots a large fire ring, a frost-free water spigot, and a sheltered picnic area. The inner beach, outer beach, the nature center, and several hiking trails are all within easy walking distance of the youth sites.
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 walk along the salty-aired coast for miles in either direction. The trail also goes past some forest remnants and offers good views of the ocean and of several shore-side lighthouses.
The entire American Discovery Trail runs from Cape Henlopen to San Francisco, and the Delaware portion of the trail basically bisects the state. The first major stop is Lewes, one of Deleware's oldest towns (founded way back in 1631, it lays claim to being "the First Town in the First State"). The trail then heads to the Victorian homes of Milton, offers great birding opportunities at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge, and ends its tour at the charming town of 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 American Discovery Trail covers 44.6 miles along paved rural roads.
Bring your own bike, or borrow one at the Nature Center, and 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 can be seen nearby. 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 (so make sure your brakes are working properly!).
The Cape Henlopen ecosystem is very diverse, and visitors to the Seaside Nature Center can learn all about it here. Enjoy a hands-on experience at one of the fascinating touch tanks, where you can explore many native species of fish, stingrays, and horseshoe crabs up close. This is a great activity for the whole family.
This fortified installation became operational on December 4, 1941, 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 14 ships off the coast of New Jersey. After World War II, the military used Fort Miles primarily as a recreation area, until the Fort officially closed in 1991.
There are plenty of great fishing opportunities at this maritime park. A quarter-mile pier juts into beautiful 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 (they can also be purchased online). Between April and November, the fishing pier is ADA-accessible. Flounder and small blues are almost always biting. Use FishBite or bloodworms to catch croaker and spot fish.
Delaware’s very first Natural Recreation Trail is an easygoing, 1.5-mile loop that cuts through a sandy pine forest. Conditions are open and the trees are scraggly (the soils are poor and all plants here have to endure lots of wind), but there's still enough shade to keep the trail from getting too hot in the summer.
Hikers and bikers on the trail also pass through some unique cranberry bogs. If you come by in autumn, you can see the massive, crimson collections of berries floating atop bogs flooded for the harvest season. Don’t miss the World War II-era artillery bunkers along the trail, too.
Henlopen's lovely course lets you play a round of disc golf to the sound of waves washing ashore nearby. You may even have to play around a deer, who are frequent visitors (remember, these animals always have play-through rights!) Though the setting is tranquil, the course itself is rather challenging. Sand dunes and scruffy 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.
Most of Cape Henlopen State Park trails are mixed-use, allowing for both hiking and mountain biking. The 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 lovely views of the ocean, as well as the mixed forests, marshlands, sand dunes, and grasslands which make up Cape Henlopen State Park. Hitting the trail is also a great way to spot some of the many birds that are drawn to the park's diverse habitats. Several dozen species of shorebirds, waterfowl, raptors, and songbirds can all be seen, especially during the busy spring and fall migration seasons.
This park's gorgeous beaches are undoubtedly one of its biggest attractions. For those who want to take a dip in the Atlantic's cool waters, there's a great swimming area is on the ocean side of Cape Henlopen. Lifeguards are usually on duty between Memorial Day and Labor Day. During other times of the year, however, 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 usually not too bad. You check weather reports ahead of time to get a good idea of conditions. Wheelchair-friendly Mobile Mats are available to take people from the boardwalk to the water’s edge.