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In the 1800’s, America relied upon canals (and the towpaths that ran alongside them) as a vital link in our transportation infrastructure. Until they were made obsolete by the rise of the railroad, canals provided one of the best ways to move goods (in our region that was often coal) from one area to another.
Two historical canals flank the Delaware River, and each has been turned into a state park (Pennsylvania’s Delaware Canal State Park and NJ’s Delaware & Raritan Canal State Park). They have gravel towpaths along the entire way, making for easy and beautiful cycling (provided you are on a mountain bike or hybrid–it will be harder on a road bike). That’s 130 miles of canal towpath, all intersecting in Trenton or Morrisville. It’s an utterly incredible local resource. My favorite trip is this lovely ride from Trenton/Morrisville to Lambertville/New Hope and back. The ride can be about 33 miles long, or about half that if you cross at Washington Crossing State Park instead of continuing all the way.
The two sides of the canal couldn’t be more different. Pennsylvania’s canal boasts wide paths (even paved ones in some sections) and rides past stately homes and charming backyards. In Pennsylvania, roads that cross over the canal have bridges that the tow-path runs under, and so you rarely have to cross a street. In New Jersey, the canal isn’t quite as wide (and in sections has thicker gravel which is harder to navigate), and stays closer to the Delaware, offering tantalizing glimpses of the river once you get past Washington Crossing. Unfortunately, since the NJ canal seems to have a higher elevation, the bridges in NJ don’t afford room for the towpath underneath. You will more often need to carefully cross a street as you wend your way along the path.
Both sides are beautiful, and there are multiple places to switch from one canal to another. Both the Trenton Makes Bridge and the Calhoun Street Bridge take you back and forth in Trenton/Morrisville. You can also cross at the Washington Crossing Bridge. You can cross at the New Hope/Lambertville Bridge, and if you keep going for an even longer ride, there is a Pedestrian Bridge at Bull’s Island, and another bridge in Frenchtown. All bridges require you to dismount and walk your bike.
If you’re going to New Hope/Lambertville, I think the most scenic version (and the version with the most well-maintained sections of towpath) is this one:
- From Trenton, cycle over the Trenton Makes Bridge to Morrisville.
- Make a right after the bridge to ride the levees to Trenton Ave.
- Get onto the canal at Trenton ave and ride until you get to Washington Crossing Park (PA). There is excellent signage for the park.
- Cross on the Washington Crossing Bridge to NJ and make a left to continue on the canal.
- Ride to Lambertville.
- Cross the Lambertville/New Hope Bridge.
- Get a drink in New Hope. You deserve it. That was a lot of cycling. I like getting a cider at Fran’s Pub. If you prefer, you can get a drink in Lambertville.
- Reverse the trip to get home.
Of course, you can avoid having to cross three times if you just ride up on one side and ride back on the other. Or you can ride up and back on one side and never cross state lines, but what’s the fun in that?
It’s easy to find your way onto the towpath. If you choose to start in Morrisville, the easiest entrance is just beyond the Calhoun Street Bridge. (If you prefer to cross at the Trenton Makes Bridge, you can ride along the levees to get to the Calhoun Street Bridge, which is a charming short ride). From the Calhoun Street Bridge, you can see the canal and get access to the towpath on either side of East Trenton Ave. If you choose to start the ride in Trenton, you can follow the Delaware & Raritan State Canal Path (which is reasonably well-signed) from the Battle Monument. Here’s a map that shows it fairly well. But there are a lot of twists and turns in that path, and I think the easiest way to do it is to take W. State Street to Prospect Street. Head North on Prospect Street and you’ll see the towpath entrance at the intersection of Prospect, Spring, and West Hanover (it’s a 5 way intersection). In Lambertville the best place to start on the towpath is behind Marhaba Middle Eastern (Mt. Hope Street and S Union Street). In New Hope the best place is on River Road and Dock Street.
Pennsylvania’s canal runs from Bristol all the way to Easton (60 miles). In New Jersey, you’ll be riding along what is historically the “feeder” canal, which runs from Frenchtown to Trenton. It was built to make sure that the proper canal (which ran from Bordentown to New Brunswick) always had water, though as soon as the feeder was built, boats started using it for transportation as well. If you wish to ride the canal proper, there is a section that runs from Bordentown to Trenton (through the Abbott Marshlands), as well as a much longer section that runs from Trenton to Princeton and then New Brunswick. All told, there are 70 miles of canal towpath in NJ. So between those three legs of the canal in NJ, and the two legs in PA, you have 130 miles of canal to ride on, all within easy access from Trenton. The only shame is that the NJ canals are mostly covered inside of the city of Trenton. Though the Delaware & Raritan Canal State Park has been working to improve signage and bicycle pathways along the original canal paths through the city (and right now you can navigate the feeder canal to New Brunswick with relative ease), it’s still a shame that this beautiful and historic resource isn’t fully available to us anymore. Still, the easy access to all five legs of these canals is one of the things that makes Trenton a great place to live. So get on that bike and go check them out!