7 Scenic Hikes in the Brandywine Valley
The region has thousands of acres boasting hundreds of miles of trails to explore.
The rain of the night before has gone away, but there are still puddles lingering across the trail as it snakes along a century-old stone wall. We’re in the parking lot of Brandywine Creek State Park, located on a hillside near where Adams Dam and Thompson Bridge roads intersect just outside of Greenville, Del. While clearly marked, the path—Tulip Tree Trail, named for the Tulip Tree Woods Natural Preserve—has a natural base and is strewn with leaves and stones.
Gradually, the wall and meadow are left behind, and a connector path links us to Hidden Pond Trail, and we start our descent through the dense woods toward the Brandywine Creek. Wallace, my walking friend’s golden retriever, strains at his leash as a squirrel dashes across the trail. As we near the creek, he lets Wallace slip the leash, and the dog dives into the Brandywine, which is running fast and high after recent rains.
The current is fairly strong for flat water. It’s the reason to why E.I. du Pont built his gunpowder mill downstream, and why other entrepreneurs of the day also utilized the waterway for their woolen and grist mills. But Wallace is a strong swimmer, and when my friend throws a tennis ball into the water several yards upstream, the dog times his paddling to intercept it as he nears midstream.
Back on solid ground, Wallace returns to the leash—but not before he shakes off the water, fairly drenching us. Soon enough, we’re back on our way, walking north between the stream and a freshwater marsh.
With its streams, woods and hillside meadows, the Brandywine Valley is one of the most placid and attractive natural areas in the Mid-Atlantic region. Fortunately for us, several areas have escaped development and boast a variety of trails for hiking. None are walks lengthy enough for backpacking, but several trails do make for good workouts.
The most-bucolic trails are in four parks: Brandywine Creek State Park, Alapocas Run State Park, First State National Park and ChesLen Preserve. With the exception of the latter, all are in Delaware. Generally speaking, Pennsylvania’s Chester County—which shares Brandywine Creek with Delaware— has more open space that’s accessible only to riders chasing foxes.
Much of the open space in northern Delaware was originally owned by members of the du Pont and Bancroft families. And most of Brandywine Creek’s parkland of woods and meadows was once part of the Winterthur Estate. At one time, it covered 2,400 acres. Henry Francis du Pont inherited the property in 1927, reducing that number to 962 acres.
Of the land he sold to relatives, 433 acres straddling Brandywine Creek eventually became the core of the park, which was established in 1965. In 1981, an additional 500 acres were donated to the state by William Poole Bancroft’s Woodlawn Trustees.
The park has about 10 trails, most named and marked. They range from a gentle half-mile to almost three miles. Some are relatively flat, while others require uphill walking. The longest are on the east side of the creek and extend into the national park, located just upstream in both Delaware and Pennsylvania.
Parking is $4 daily. There’s a lot on the west side of the creek at the park’s main entrance, two on the east side at Rockford Road to the south, and one at Thompsons Bridge Road to the north. The park opens at 8 a.m. daily.
First State was originally designated a national monument in 2013 by President Obama and later declared a national park. While it does include various state historical sites, the major part of it is the 1,105-acre tract that allows for trails within Brandywine Creek State Park to continue north into the national park on the eastern side of the creek.
As with part of the state tract, almost all the land in the national park came from Bancroft’s Woodlawn Trustees, although the trust retained title to some major property farther away from the Brandywine and nearer to Route 202.
The Creekside Trail, which runs along the stream, and the nearby Brandywine Trail, which parallels both, extend through both parks and are accessible from the parking lot at Smithbridge Road. There are three additional trails in First State—two of which are more than a mile in length—as well as some unmarked paths. It’s open sunrise to sunset.
Located just north of Unionville in Chester County, ChesLen’s 1,282 acres— with nine miles of trails—provide the most diverse walking and hiking in the region. Its beautiful open vistas can be seen as you pass through meadows, woodlands, corn and soybean fields and stretches along the creek. Though privately owned, it’s open to the public. Some of the trails are shared with horseback riders.
Located along the West Branch of the Brandywine, ChesLen is part of what was once the vast eastern segment of Texas’ King Ranch. It was used to fatten beef cattle shipped east by rail from the ranch’s western operation. In addition to a potter’s field—or poorhouse cemetery—ChesLen also contains Star Gazers Stone, used by the surveyors Mason and Dixon, who laid out the borders between Delaware and Pennsylvania and Maryland and West Virginia. There are parking lots off Route 162 and along Cannery Road.
Alapocas was another land gift from Bancroft. This one was originally offered to the city of Wilmington, and it became a state park in 2002. It’s relatively small, with limited trail work within woodlands that run between the Brandywine and Route 141.
Alapocas has the advantage of being a nearby walking alternative for Wilmington residents. Parking is accessible from Alapocas Drive.
Among the other local options, the Northern Delaware Greenway Trail runs from the Washington Street Bridge in downtown Wilmington almost to the Delaware River. The walkway goes north along the eastern side of the creek, through Alapocas Park, then into Bellevue Park, with views of the Delaware River. It terminates at I-495. Some of it is along public streets. “We’re working on filling in the missing links that would take the trail from river to river,” says Mary Roth, who heads Greenway. Visit delawaregreenways.org.
Another recently opened Delaware Greenways project is the Jack A. Markell Trail, which extends from the Wilmington Riverfront across a newly constructed bridge above the Christina River and ends eight miles later in New Castle’s Battery Park. The trail is also open to bikers. Visit delawaregreenways.org/portfolio_page/ jackamarkell-trail.
And if you’re willing to stray from the Brandywine, there are the trails through White Clay Creek State Park, extending from Newark to Landenberg, Pa.
Back at Brandywine Creek, we follow the trail’s loop back up the hill from the stream and glimpse the morning traffic along Thompsons Bridge Road before plunging back into the denser woods on the hill’s flank. Soon we’re at the top, making our way past the stone wall to the parking lot.
Such walks are a great morning respite, a chance to mainly get away from civilization’s noise while experiencing the meadows, woods, marshes and creek. Then it’s on to the rest of the day’s work.