Trip reports

Afoot in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area

I recently spent three weeks as a scholar-in-residence at Grey Towers National Historic Site in Milford, Pennsylvania. Although I spent most of my time there in a garret working on my North Cascades book, I did set aside one clear weekend morning to explore on foot. My destination was the Milford Knob, a promontory above town with views of the village and the Delaware River. I thought it would be a good place to get some perspective on the area. It’s also close enough that I could walk through town to the trail system at the north end of the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, which is exactly what I did. 

Forest Hall Milford PA
Forest Hall, built by Gifford Pinchot’s father in 1904. (Lauren Danner photo)

Milford, a popular vacation spot for more than a century, sits at the northern end of the 40-mile-long National Recreation Area and is a gateway to the Pocono Mountains to the west. About 25 blocks of the town lie within a national historic district, and my walk skirted its southern edge. I passed massive Forest Hall, commissioned in 1904 by Gifford Pinchot’s father, James, as the summer school for the Yale School of Forestry.

Community House & Pike County Library, Milford PA
Community House & Pike County Library. (Lauren Danner photo)

Just across the street is the Greek Revival style Community House & Pike County Library, built circa 1820 by Gifford Pinchot’s grandfather Cyrille.

The Egg House, Milford PA
The Egg House, 1861. (Lauren Danner photo)

And in the next block, yet another Pinchot building, the Italianate villa known as the Egg House (look closely at the detail work), also built by Cyrille Pinchot, this one in 1862. All in all, plenty of Pinchot architecture in the first few blocks.

Sasquatch in Milford PA
Sasquatch apparently vacations in Milford. (Lauren Danner photo)

I also met this hirsute fellow outside The Craft Show, a funky shop on Milford’s main drag. When I went inside to politely inform the owner that Sasquatch was a Washington state resident, it started an hour-long conversation about national parks, which just goes to show that park lovers are indeed everywhere. In fact, the shop owner was about to leave for a stint as a volunteer in Dry Tortugas National Park, which sounded awfully good given the 25-degree temperature that day.

After a few more blocks, the road curves south and crosses a bridge over Sawkill Creek. Dutch placenames are common throughout New Jersey, New York, and eastern Pennsylvania. Kill is an old Dutch word for creek, so this name translates as Saw or Sawmill Creek Creek. The Sawkill runs along one edge of the Grey Towers property, and it’s easy to imagine the Pinchots wandering along its banks.

Sawkill Creek, Milford PA
Sawkill Creek. (Lauren Danner photo)


Entrance to Milford Cemetery and Pinchot historical marker, Milford
Entrance to the Milford Cemetery. (Lauren Danner photo)

In about a quarter-mile, I passed the Milford Cemetery, with its requisite Pinchot interpretive marker; Gifford is buried here.

Pinchot family mausoleum, Milford Cemetery
Pinchot family mausoleum, situated to take advantage of sweeping area views. (Lauren Danner photo)

I had explored the cemetery on my first afternoon in Milford, climbing the hill to the gloomily somber Pinchot mausoleum, so I passed the entrance and continued on to the trailhead for the Milford Knob and Cliff Park area.

About two miles from Grey Towers, I passed the entrance sign for the national recreation area.

Entrance sign for Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area
(Lauren Danner photo)

The Delaware Water Gap is simply the place where the Delaware River cuts through the easternmost ridge of the Appalachian Mountains, forming part of the border between New Jersey and Pennsylvania. In fact, 27 miles of the Appalachian Trail goes through the New Jersey side of the national recreation area along the Kittatinny Ridge. Most people probably don’t think of New Jersey as mountainous, but the northern part of the state has some rugged areas.

The gap itself, found at the southern end of the national recreation area, is quite dramatic. It’s bounded by Mount Tammany in New Jersey and Mount Minsi in Pennsylvania, the summits of which stand one mile apart and about 1,200 feet above the river’s surface. Interstate 80 runs through the gap, signaling eastbound travelers that New York City isn’t far away and westbound travelers that they’ve reached the Appalachians. Heading north from the gap, cliff rise steeply on both sides and extend for miles upriver, creating beautiful vistas.

Looking south down the Delaware River
Looking south down the Delaware River from the Pennsylvania side. Broad bottomlands provide attractive farmland along the river. (Lauren Danner photo)

Congress established the national recreation area in 1978 after the Army Corps of Engineers scrapped a proposed dam near the gap. The dam would have created a 37-mile-long reservoir behind it, reaching to Milford and beyond, that was to be part of a national recreation area. Beginning in the early 1950s, the Corps displaced thousands of people and destroyed thousands of buildings in preparation for dam construction, but increasing protests by environmentalists and locals concerned about the loss of history and heritage, as well as a lack of funding, forced the Corps to kill the project in the 1970s. The National Park Service acquired the lands and the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area was created.

National recreation areas have been around since the 1930s, when they were conceived as recreation zones around manmade reservoirs. In general, national recreation areas allow activities prohibited in national parks, including hunting, and they don’t quite meet the scenic standards of national parks. In the mid-1960s, a presidential task force on recreation defined national recreation areas as having “natural endowments that are well above the ordinary in quality and recreation appeal, being of lesser significance than the unique scenic and historic elements of the National Park System, but affording a quality of recreation experience which transcends” that of state- or locally managed areas. They are created by act of Congress.

The Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area certainly prioritizes water-based recreation, although there is no reservoir. It is one of the cleanest rivers in the country, and thousands of people enjoy swimming, boating, canoeing, rafting, and inner-tubing on the Delaware during the warmer months. When I was there, the river had huge chunks of ice floating down it.

Ice on Delaware River
Ice floats on the Delaware River near Milford. No swimming today. (Lauren Danner photo)

My explorations were limited to the very northern end of the national recreation area, in what is called the Cliff Park area. The trailhead parking lot was empty, and I headed into the woods. The first mile sloped gently uphill, wandering along a stream through the open hardwood forest characteristic of this area. Although I have lived in the dense maritime forests of the Pacific Northwest for half my life, I retain a deep fondness for these Eastern deciduous woods, which remind me of my neighborhood growing up.

Milford Knob trail
Heading up to the ridge on the Milford Knob trail. (Lauren Danner photo)

The last quarter-mile leading to the ridge was impressively steep, with snow patches in places. From the ridgetop it was another quarter-mile to the Milford Knob, with its giant star (illuminated at night and visible from the town) and cross (lit, I assume, around Christmas). The view of the Delaware River flowing right next to the town provided the geographical perspective I’d hoped for.

It was a beautiful day and I had plenty of energy, so I backtracked along the ridge and headed south. Several viewpoints along the cliffs revealed the river and bottomlands, some of which are still farmed, and the Kittatinny Ridge on the opposite side. I carefully walked through icy packed snow on the ridgetop, turning around after about a mile. I took the Quarry Trail cutoff back down to the lower part of the Milford Knob trail, then walked the last mile along a small creek.

Milford Knob
The Milford Knob, adorned by a giant star-crossed something or other, offers terrific views into Milford and the Delaware River valley to the north. (Lauren Danner photo)
Cliff Park overlook, Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area
View from an overlook along the Ridge Trail in Cliff Park, Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. (Lauren Danner photo)
Eastern hardwood forest, Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area
Eastern hardwood forests hold a special place in my New Jersey-raised heart. (Lauren Danner photo)

From there, it was a straight shot along the road, back over the bridge, through town, and on to Grey Towers. As a native New Jerseyan, I’m somewhat abashed that I’d never been to this area before. When my folks came up to take me to the airport about a week later, we drove down through the national recreation area and through the Delaware Water Gap proper, vowing to return to this beautiful area and explore it more thoroughly. It deserves no less.

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About Lauren Danner

When I’m not out hiking on our public lands, I'm either buried in a book or writing about Pacific Northwest and environmental history, outdoor recreation, and public lands policy from my home near Puget Sound.
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1 thought on “Afoot in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area

  1. I really enjoyed the time I got at Delaware Water Gap last year—I hadn’t arrived with high expectations, but left wishing I had more time there.

    I also totally forgot about Pinchot’s grave. /:

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