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  • Writer's pictureAri Betof

Walking Back in Time Along the Delaware Canal Towpath

Outdoor enthusiasts in Bucks County have a daily quandary—whether to walk, run, or bike the many scenic paths in this beautiful corner of Pennsylvania. It’s a good problem to have.

The towpath in Delaware Canal State Park provides an opportunity for all three and even horse riding. The canal itself is also suitable for canoeing and kayaking. In winter months, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing can be enjoyed.

The Delaware Canal is an artificial canal stretching 60 miles from Bristol in the south to Easton in the north, along the Delaware River's Pennsylvania side. It drops 165 feet over its course, and its original 23 locks and many aqueducts remain. The towpath runs alongside the canal—it is so named because it was originally created for mules to pull barges along the canal.

History of the Delaware Canal Towpath

The early 19th century was a boom time for the young American nation. Its large size, incomplete road system, and unnavigable rivers proved inadequate for the transport of goods necessary to power the industrial revolution taking place across the country. A series of canals were constructed to facilitate commerce.

Built in 1825, New York State’s Erie Canal is probably the most famous of these industrial canals. Stretching 363 miles from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes, it powered the development of cities in upstate New York, including Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo.

Pennsylvania followed suit by launching construction of a 1,200-mile canal system that would connect Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Lake Erie. The Delaware Canal was part of this network and was completed in 1832. It was primarily built to carry coal from mines in northeastern Pennsylvania to cities along the Eastern Seaboard. In its heyday, more than a million tons of coal were moved annually by 3,000 mule-drawn boats. Other goods transported via the canal included fresh produce and building materials such as lumber, building stone, and lime.

After the advent of rail transport made the Delaware Canal less cost-effective, the state sold it to private operators. However, by 1940 it was back in the hands of the Commonwealth, and in 1978, the Delaware Canal was designated a National Historic Landmark. The towpath is a National Recreation Trail.

Towpath Trail Sights

Delaware Canal State Park is open every day of the year, sunrise to sunset. The park property is only a 60-foot-wide corridor encompassing the towpath and canal, so visitors are requested to respect adjoining private properties. There are several entries and exit points along the 60-mile course.

A trip down the towpath will show you historic canal features such as locks and aqueducts. You’ll also get views of the Delaware River shoreline, several river islands, and the 90-acre Giving Pond. The canal and pond contain a variety of warmwater game fish, and the pond is a popular spot for families with children who want to practice paddling.

To learn more about the history of the canal, visit the Locktender’s House in the village of New Hope. This restored early 19th-century home features several exhibits and artifacts. Nearby, Lock 11 on the canal has been restored to working order, though flows in the canal aren’t sufficient to operate the lock.

Along their 60-mile journey, the canal and towpath pass through woodlands, farms, and historic towns like New Hope, where you can stop for a bite to eat. Birdwatchers will be rewarded by a variety of songbirds, and perhaps even spot a bald eagle or osprey.

Loop Trails

On the New Jersey side of the river is Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park, which features a 70-mile trail. Together the two trails provide a total of 130 miles for hikers, runners, and cyclists to enjoy. Loops between the two trails can be created by using connecting bridges in Morrisville, Washington Crossing, New Hope, Center Bridge, Lumberville, and Uhlerstown. Details of the loop trails can be found on the Friends of the Delaware Canal website.

Park Etiquette

The Delaware Canal State Park has a “carry in-carry out” policy. Don’t bring in anything you’re not prepared to carry out with you. Cleaning up after dogs is compulsory.

Keep in mind that the trails are multi-use, and they can get crowded. Never allow your party (including pets) to take up more than half the path. Always pass on the left. Hikers and joggers should give way to equestrians, while cyclists should give way to all other trail users and give a clear warning signal before passing.

The Official Muleskinner Races

The Delaware Canal towpath is a popular location for several local running and cycling events. Endurance runners may be particularly interested in the official MuleSkinner Endurance Series. The event is scheduled for October 16 this year and includes a marathon, 50k, 100k, and 50-mile race. All races remain entirely on the towpath, which means the course is flat.

For everyone else, the Delaware Canal towpath can be enjoyed at the leisurely pace of your choice. It’s a fun activity for the whole family throughout the year.

Featured Image courtesy Steve Guttman NYC | Flickr

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