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Riding the D&R

A 19th-century towpath provides the perfect trail for riverside biking, hiking, and more.

Posted September 13, 2010 by Ken Schlager

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The Delaware and Raritan Canal
Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park near Stockton.
Photo by Scott Barrow.

Prallsville Mills in Stockton
Near Prallsville Mills in Stockton.
Photo by Colin Archer/Agency New Jersey.

Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park
Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex, Somerset, and Burlington counties
609-924-5705
Size of park: 70 Miles

For bicyclists of all levels, the D&R Canal State Park is something of a paradise. It’s also a haven for runners and nature walkers—and a corridor for wildlife to move among forests and preserves.

Virtually all state parks are wide expanses of acreage; the D&R is a linear park, a narrow strip about 70 miles long that follows a man-made nineteenth-century path where mule teams once towed barges on canals cut alongside the Delaware River and inland to New Brunswick along the Millstone and Raritan rivers. Nicely maintained for its entire length, the towpath is perfectly flat and, other than the occasional road crossing, allows bikers and hikers to ply their way through central Jersey in safe and peaceful isolation from automobile traffic.

The park follows two connected paths. One takes you for 32 miles along the Delaware River, from Frenchtown in Hunterdon County to Trenton; this is called the Feeder Canal. The second, the Main Canal, runs inland from Trenton to New Brunswick for 34 miles. There is also a newly improved section that extends about three miles from Trenton south to Bordentown.

You can enter the park at almost any road crossing; small parking areas are provided at ample points for its entire length. Ride, run, or walk any comfortable distance, trying different sections on different outings. You will always have to retrace your path back to your parking area—or buddy up and use two cars, depositing one at a starting point and one at the finish to allow for a longer, one-way trek.

Most of the trail is smoothly surfaced with light gravel, although some sections are rougher than others; almost none of it is paved. That means the trail is best suited for mountain or hybrid bikes, rather than thin-tire road bikes. Kids on small two-wheelers will do fine anywhere on the path, as will tandem bikes and parents towing kiddie trailers. At most points the trail is wide enough for bikes to pass in opposite directions. Road crossings are generally well marked and local drivers tend to yield to bicycle and foot traffic.
Here are two recommended rides:

For the Feeder Canal along the Delaware, park at Washington’s Crossing, about eight miles north of Trenton on Route 29. From here you can ride north, first passing through Titusville, with its quaint cottages along the river, and on to Lambertville, Stockton, and Frenchtown—a total of 22.5 miles. All three of the towns are attractions in themselves. You can hop off the towpath for lunch or a snack, explore the local streets by bike or on foot, even stop to shop at an antique store or boutique (and come back later by car to pick up your finds).

Just north of Stockton, the trail runs adjacent to Bull’s Island State Park (609-397-2949). There are ample picnic tables and play areas here, making it an ideal spot to use as home base for a family ride. You can also venture onto the footbridge over the Delaware and watch the current carry canoes and tubes downstream. Nearby, back on the trail, is the historic Prallsville Mills, a cluster of preserved nineteenth-century buildings used today mostly for special events.

For most of the ride north, the path is thinly forested, with the broad expanse of the Delaware to your left and the narrow canal alongside. Take your time and enjoy the scenery, which is especially gorgeous in the fall. For families, the ride can be educational, too. Signs along the entire length of the park explain the history and technology of the canal; at several points the path runs dramatically over the original locks and spillways. Observant riders will also spot abundant wildlife, from turtles sunning themselves along the canal to small four-legged critters hunting on the riverbank and birds swooping among the trees.

At a leisurely pace, it shouldn’t take much more than two hours to ride from Washington Crossing to Frenchtown, depending on the number of stops. (On weekends, the trail can get fairly crowded with riders and runners, particularly between Lambertville and Stockton.) At the northern end of the ride, you simply turn around and head back, or you can cross the Uhlerstown-Frenchtown Bridge into Pennsylvania and ride south on a similar towpath on the western side of the river. However, the best advice is to resist this temptation. The Pennsylvania side is less scenic and not as well maintained as the Jersey trail; it’s more bridle path than biking trail and the horses leave abundant reminders of this fact.

To ride the Main Canal, a good starting point is Millstone Causeway, just south of the confluence of the Millstone and Raritan rivers. Parking is provided in a designated area on Amwell Avenue (Route 514, just east of Route 533). From there, travel southwest through a lush landscape, often riding just on the edge of the Millstone River to your right. Within a few miles you reach Blackstone Mills and just beyond that the Griggstown lock. Both historic sites have well-preserved nineteenth-century buildings; at Griggstown, canoe and kayak rentals are available from a private concession.

There are frequent road crossings on this section of the trail; most have parking areas that provide alternative starting points for the ride. A few miles south of the Griggstown lock, watch carefully on the right for an unmarked trail that takes you to a tunnel under Route 27 in Kingston; the darkness of the tunnel is a fun diversion. At Kingston, the river opens up into Carnegie Lake, a manmade body of water where the Princeton University crew team trains. At the south end of the lake is Turning Brook Basin Park (Alexander Road), 14.4 miles from Millstone. Here too, canoe and kayak rentals are available. You can turn back here, or go another three miles to the Port Mercer Canal House. (Tours of this historic site can be arranged in advance; call 609-895-1728).

A round trip between Millstone and Turning Brook should run about four hours. Unlike the Feeder Canal ride, there are no towns along this inland ride, so be sure to pack sufficient water and snacks. Also, the surface of the Main Canal path has some rough spots and some narrow areas. The northern end of the path was damaged by flooding earlier this year, but has been meticulously restored. However, below Blackstone Mills there are some bumpy patches with thick gravel or loose sand. There also are several spillways that can leave the trail wet and treacherous at spots. None of this is terribly serious and should not deter anyone from riding.

Beyond these two recommended sections, there is plenty more riding. At the extreme northern end of the trail, you can start at Landing Lane Bridge (near Rutgers Stadium), but parking is limited. A better starting spot is Demott Lane in Somerset, where you can find parking just off Easton Avenue. This first section tends to be less forested than the rest of the trail. The truly ambitious can connect the two rides described here into a daylong 70-mile trek. However, the section from Port Mercer to Trenton tends to run alongside Route 1 and is less bucolic than most of the path. Through Trenton itself, there is a new connector path over an old rail line that steers you clear of the city streets.

Whichever chunk of the D&R you choose, go first to the website (dandrcanal.com) to print a detailed map and don’t hesitate to call the park’s main office for updates on trail conditions or directions to parking areas.

Click here to read our round-up of state parks.


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