Cape Henlopen State Park on the eastern shores of Delaware has a long and colorful history. In 1631 the Dutch made the first settlement close to what is now modern day Lewes, just northwest of the park entrance. Local Indians killed the settlers and the fledgling settlement was burned to the ground. As time went by European settlement continued to expand around the region. In 1682 William Penn declared that Cape Henlopen would be for, "the usage of the citizens of Lewes and Sussex County," making it one of the first public lands established in the United States. Despite several forts being built as recently as 1942 on the strategic site overlooking Delaware Bay, and a lighthouse constructed in 1765 (which collapsed in 1926) the region was never heavily developed.
In 1964 543 acre Cape Henlopen State Park was formed and over the last 35 years has grown into 3,769 acres on the Delaware coast. Attached to the mainland Cape Henlopen is a combination of pitch pine and hardwood forest, salt marshes, salt ponds, 4 miles of beach, and vast expanses of sand dunes, some rising almost 100 feet high.
Despite the region's lack of development, William Penn wouldn't recognize the area today. The forces of wind and water are constantly reshaping Cape Henlopen. The park itself is very slowly shrinking, with the shoreline moving further westward. The park is also moving to the north with Sand Point growing as much as 50 feet in a single year!
The park offers a wide variety of activity to meet a broad range of tastes. Located along the Atlantic flyway, a superhighway for migrating birds, Cape Henlopen is a bird watching paradise. Brown pelicans, bald eagles, ospreys, ducks, geese, red crossbills, terns and the very rare peregrine falcon can all be spotted in the park. In April the piping plover nests along the dunes of Cape Henlopen and sections of the park are closed to protect this endangered species.
The most incredible spectacle at Cape Henlopen comes in May close to the time of the full moon. It is during this time that endangered horseshoe crabs, prehistoric arthropods that have remained unchanged for 360 million years, come to the beaches to mate and lay their eggs. The small green eggs are laid in nests between the high tide and low tide lines and a single female can lay 80,000 eggs during the mating season. It is around this time that hungry shorebirds flying north arrive along the shores of Delaware to the waiting feast just a short distance under the sand. By the end of June the birds have doubled their weight and the horseshoe crabs have returned to the bottom of Delaware Bay.
If you want to be able to see the entire park from a single location be sure to visit the Observation Tower. Built on top of a long abandoned bunker from Fort Miles, the tower offers an incredible view of dunes and pine forest to the west, and the Atlantic Ocean to the east. Other remnants of Fort Miles can be found throughout the park that is peppered with old bunkers hidden in the dunes.
Cape Henlopen State Park has an excellent nature center located close to the northern entrance of the park. The Seaside Nature Center has several aquarium exhibits that allows close up views and even touching of the marine life that call Cape Henlopen home. The center is also an ideal place to sign up for an incredible array of ranger led activities. Guided canoe trips, bird watching, moonlight hikes, seining (net fishing), dolphin watches, surf rescue demonstrations, tours of the bunkers of World War II Fort Miles, beachcombing, and children's programs are just some of the daily programs that the park offers.
The Park also offers 7.6 miles of maintained hiking trails. Two trails start at the park's Nature Center and combined make a 1.8 mile figure eight. The Seaside Nature Trail is a 6/10 of a mile loop that heads north from the nature center where an interpretive brochure is available. The trail passes through dunes and forest of pitch pine, cherry and oak. After a short distance the trail reaches the shores of Breakwater Harbor before turning back toward the nature center. If you take the trail in the early morning be on the lookout for the tracks of wolf spiders, mice, voles, and raccoons that call the park home.
The 1.2 mile Pinelands Nature Trail heads south from the Nature Center and passes through pine forest and cranberry bogs before looping back to the north. While passing through the bogs be on the lookout for sundew plants. The sundew is a carnivorous plant that uses beads of sugary mucous to attract and digest insects. Insects unfortunate enough to land on the red and green leaves of the plant become trapped in the sticky fluid and are slowly digested before their shriveled bodies fall to the ground.
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