A bicyclist in a blue shirt riding on a trail near a canal.
A recent bike ride was organized to call attention to the Delaware River Heritage Trail, a project to build a 75-mile trail network from Trenton to Philadelphia’s Old City on both sides of the Delaware River. Photo by Kyle Bagenstose

Can a bike trail spur love for the Delaware River? These advocates think so.

| November 5, 2023

The golden glow of a late October morning still hovered over Bristol Lions Park in Lower Bucks County when the cow and banana came rolling in. 

Before their arrival, about a dozen bicyclists had gathered at the edge of the park’s parking lot. 

They now watched as a second contingent of riders made their way from the nearest stop on SEPTA’s Trenton regional rail line. Leading them was the banana — the East Coast Greenway Alliance’s Daniel Paschall, festively dressed for Halloween. 

Farther back in the mix was Korin Tangtrakul, program manager in Philadelphia’s Office of Sustainability and ungulate understudy for the day.

Now these two groups would share a new destination: Burlington City in New Jersey, just across the adjacent Delaware River and only about a mile as the crow flies. 

But by bicycle, the distance grows to 24 miles, up the Delaware Canal Towpath, across the “Trenton Makes” Bridge into New Jersey’s capital city, then down the Delaware and Raritan Canal trail to the stopping point.

Why take such a circuitous route?

On paper, so riders could pass by historic sites and grow familiar with development of the region’s Delaware River Heritage Trail, a more than 20-year-old effort to build out a larger, 75-mile trail network from Trenton to Philadelphia’s Old City on both sides of the river. 

But beneath the surface was another idea: Lead people to the water, and prompt them to think.

“If people are coming out to the area to recreate, they’re going to care about keeping [the river] clean and keeping it usable so they can continue recreating,” said Cindy Kunnas, projects coordinator for the Delaware River Greenway Partnership, nonprofit advocacy group based in Stockton, N.J.

A founding idea

The history of the Heritage Trail is far older than Kunnas’ two-year tenure at the Greenway Partnership.

A 2003 document on the organization’s website says the idea originated in the 1990s via “The Countrywide Exchange,” an initiative between the National Park Service and counterparts in the United Kingdom to visit each other’s lands and spur ideas.

Upon a visit in the ’90s, planners from across the pond liked what they saw around the waters of the Delaware, an essential river to both the area’s original inhabitants — the Lenape — as well as early European settlers.

“The Delaware River Valley has supported over 10,000 years of human settlement and is unparalleled in the importance of its communities in the formation of the United States,” the partnership said.

Planners envisioned a multi-use trail running through the area to explore the “natural and cultural heritage of the Delaware River,” linking riverside communities and also housing a leg of the East Coast Greenway, a 3,000-mile trail network linking 15 states, from Florida to Maine.

Originally led by the Park Service, the Heritage Trail idea got off to a hot start, winning the support of state agencies, nonprofits and 24 municipalities along the route, along with funding for feasibility studies and signage. In 2000, the Park Service passed off coordination duties to the Greenway Partnership.

More than two decades later, the full vision of the trail has yet to come to fruition. 

While some segments of the trail, such as those following the old canal towpaths, are well developed, other segments remain purely paper exercises, forcing riders across busy intersections and onto roadways.

Thus came a fresh impetus this year to gather bicyclists and travel the loop, which advocates hoped will garner more public support. 

Patrick Monahan, regional organizer with the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, said a collection of groups is pushing to fully build out the trail. 

In the throes of the Covid pandemic, the coalition — East Coast Greenway Alliance, New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Rails to Trails Conservancy, Circuit Trails Coalition and others — created something called the “Circuit Citizens.” 

“While we were kind of locked indoors, we did these virtual meetings,” Monahan said. “We rallied folks together… asking to prioritize segments.”

Suddenly, trail advocates in the region had a dynamic infrastructure where they could identify opportunities to build out new trails and throw their combined weight behind it.

A major victory came in Burlington County, where the group successfully lobbied for $19 million in federal funds to build out the Rancocas Creek Greenway — including a bridge crossing over busy Route 130 — that will connect to the Delaware River Heritage Trail.

But there’s plenty of work left to do, Monahan said, leading to the idea to hold two “Loop the Delaware” rides to highlight the successes and challenges of the Heritage Trail. 

The first, held in September, took riders along the southern end of the loop, through Camden, Pennsauken, Palmyra and Philadelphia, and crossing over the Ben Franklin and Tacony-Palmyra Bridges.

The second, held Oct. 28, took riders from Bristol to Burlington.

“The purpose of the rides was to raise awareness of the network and the green space enveloping the Delaware River,” Monahan said. “People don’t realize these trails are in their backyard.”

Said one organizer: “The purpose of the rides was to raise awareness of the network and the green space enveloping the Delaware River. People don’t realize these trails are in their backyard.” Photo by Kyle Bagenstose

From green to blue?

Ultimately, Monahan sees potential for the Heritage Trail as something akin to Pennsylvania’s Schuylkill River Trail, a highly trafficked route linking Philadelphia to popular destinations in the city’s collar counties and beyond, successfully raising the river’s profile. 

Kunnas has a similar vision. 

While popular Delaware River destinations north of Trenton, stretching to Northeast Pennsylvania, can suffer from overuse from river recreators, she said points closer to Philadelphia lack access and public use. 

The Heritage Trail could help with that. While many points of interest are currently historical in nature — an online map of the circuit calls attention to destinations such as the Battleship New Jersey, Bordentown’s Point Breeze Historic District, and Revolutionary War barracks in Trenton — the route also takes riders past hidden natural gems.

During the Philly-area ride, Kunnas discovered beautiful vistas of the river in Camden’s Wiggins Waterfront Park and Palmyra Cove Nature Park at the foot of the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge.

“It was really beautiful starting out along the river on the Camden side. I had no idea,” Kunnas said. “It was just picturesque.”

In October, the ride from Bristol started just a stone’s throw from the Bristol Marsh, a rare freshwater tidal marsh in Lower Bucks County. Heading north through heavily developed Levittown, riders enjoyed a hidden strip of green slicing through it in the form of the towpath, where blue herons rested and hunted. 

Riders also saw the flaws: a gap in the trail across the treacherous, four-lane Route 13. But that was the point. 

A sampling of the natural delights already present for those who care to look, and a vision of what still could come for this urbanized stretch of the Delaware.

“Once it’s fully developed, it’s going to be like, ‘Why didn’t we always have this?’” Monahan said.

Kyle Bagenstose

Kyle Bagenstose

Kyle Bagenstose is a freelance environmental reporter based in Philadelphia. Previously, he was a national investigative and environmental reporter for USA TODAY, and before that, an environmental and investigative reporter for the Bucks County Courier Times and Intelligencer newspapers in the Philadelphia suburbs. He specializes in water, chemicals, climate change and environmental justice topics, and has won numerous national and state awards for his work. He received his BA in journalism from Temple University.

Leave a Comment