Loop the Delaware! Camden-Palmyra-Philly

Daniel Paschall's recent tour alongside partnering organizations demonstrated the growing network of trails and green space enveloping the Delaware River waterfront in Philadelphia and neighboring New Jersey.

Loop the Delaware! Camden-Palmyra-Philly
Overlooking Coopers Poynt Waterfront Park and Trail in Camden, a scenic trail link in the 76-mile Delaware River Heritage Trail loop in development along both sides of the river between Philadelphia and Trenton. Photo by Daniel Paschall.

Introducing the Delaware River Heritage Trail

It can take years to build a greenway. Often decades. But once the asphalt is laid, the trees are planted, and the benches and lighting are installed, we have one more foothold from which we can climb into the world around us.

Those trails are what we set out to highlight on the "Loop the Delaware River! Camden-Palmyra-Philadelphia Ride." It was part one of two rides to showcase the steady, unrelenting growth of a riverfront trail loop known as the Delaware River Heritage Trail (DRHT). This 76-mile trail loop will eventually connect walkers, runners, and bikers between Philly and Trenton along both sides of the river. The DRHT is also a major piece of two larger trail networks in development: one regional – the 800+ mile Circuit Trails in the 9-county greater Philly area, and one national – the 3,000 mile East Coast Greenway growing to connect cities from Calais, Maine to Key West, Florida. Our second ride along the DRHT on October 28th will take riders to explore the northern portion of the loop with even more trails from Bristol to Morrisville in PA and from Trenton to Roebling in NJ.

With the ride, we wanted to help the public collectively experience that moment during the making of a puzzle when you stop seeing pieces and start seeing the larger image you're piecing together. For those looking for a deep dive into the future of Camden’s portion of the DRHT, see this plan, North Camden and Cramer Hill Waterfront Trails Project (2021).

Camden's Evolving Waterfront

Kicking off the first ride, we gathered everyone in Camden at Wiggins Waterfront Park by the Jersey Joe Walcott Statue. Riders made their way to the starting point, navigating through the Delaware River Festival, a simultaneous event that day celebrating Philly’s and Camden's collective waterfront. Over the past decade, the City of Camden has undertaken a massive transformation of its public spaces adding trails, parks, playgrounds, and boat launches along the waterfront and in the neighborhoods of North Camden and Cramer Hill.

Camden's Wiggins Waterfront Park Promenade and Coopers Poynt Park Trail on either side of the Ben Franklin Bridge are peaceful, linear waterfront parks featuring plenty of places to sit and relax, bike, jog, and find countless unique views of the Philly skyline, especially picturesque at sunset and at night when the skyscrapers' lights come to life. Coopers Poynt Park is actually the former site of the Riverfront State Prison, and it also still has "CAMDEN'' painted across the industrial cylindrical tank prominently marking the site. Throughout the year the "Connect the Lots'' initiative lights up the waterfront with music, art, and cultural celebrations of all kinds.

After some easy riding through blocks of lovely North Camden rowhouses, waving at residents on their porches, our group crossed the historic State Street Bridge (rehabbed and converted to use by only bike and pedestrians in 2013) and rolled into the stunning Cramer Hill Waterfront Park. The park sits on top of a converted landfill that the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection invested $48 million into transforming to a green space with half a dozen spiraling trails to link together all the new amenities, including a boat launch, a pollinator meadow, a playground, and scenic vista points to relax and gaze out onto the Delaware River, Philly, and the surrounding region.

Heading north from the park, our mass of riders regrouped by the Cramer Hill Nature Preserve to discuss the miniature network of hiking trails there, where nature had reclaimed the site of a wastewater treatment plant. The preserve is adjacent to 36th Street, which is the only access road to Petty's Island, which riders learned is in the process of being restored for public use as a nature reserve after its former use as a CITGO petroleum storage site.

Heading North Toward Palmyra

North of Camden, we tackled the medium-stress River Road that included at least a generous shoulder to ride in as the reduced, weekend truck traffic volumes passed with notable caution. The last stop before lunch was the historic Griffith Morgan House, one of the oldest houses in Camden County, built in 1693, where a volunteer with the Pennsauken Historical Society took riders time-traveling to learn about life in the Delaware River Valley centuries ago.

Shortly after the historical lesson, we braved the cloverleaf interchange of New River Rd and NJ-73 before winding our way through some quiet neighborhood streets of Palmyra Township, where we found lunch at Wawa or The FastBreak, a local sandwich spot. Mr. Bill from Mr. Bill's Bicycles even kindly met up with us to offer his nearby shop's services to anyone in need of a quick fix. From there, we biked over to our last stop in Jersey, the incredibly underrated Palmyra Nature Cove Park, which includes 9.5 miles of walking trails "for wildlife watching, hiking, fishing, cross-country skiing, and even geocaching." They seemed to have missed the fabled "Turtletopia" as labeled on Google Maps.

Looking out across the river, Patrick Starr of Pennsylvania Environmental Council shared some of the history of the northeast portion of the Delaware River Trail, which is being developed, managed, and activated by an incredibly dynamic nonprofit, Riverfront North Partnership. We were ready to get a closer look, but first we had to journey from NJ to PA via the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge Walkway.

Crossing the Delaware

We walked the 0.7 mile-long bridge walkway on the north side as required by the Burlington County Bridge Commission (note the south side walkway is closed). Walking honestly makes a lot of sense for a group of dozens of cyclists on a towering bridge with slopes that could easily lead to crashes if we were to all cruise the downhill side. But walking does bring a whole new experience to the journey, from the stressful – enduring many more minutes of screaming trucks flying by mere feet (or less) away from us in the travel lanes, and the inspiring – watching birds and sailboats fly and float across the Delaware River with Philly deep in the backdrop on the south side.

Waking us from our trance-like state walking the span of the river was a horribly placed traffic sign right in the middle of the already incredibly narrow walkway. Most of us were able to step with our bikes over the legs of the sign post and its sandbag, but our lone rider on a recumbent bicycle, Mike, met a different sort of challenge. This reminded me how often I take for granted my able-bodied privileges to navigate the ever-neglected needs of accessible, all-abilities infrastructure. Thankfully, John, one of our ride marshals, was able to perform the unreal task of dangling his bike out over the side of the bridge walkway, lifting the metal sign, and hurdling Mike, who crept by with the path momentarily cleared.

Finally, we had reached Philadelphia. Despite needing to navigate a few tricky turns and a short stint on New State Road’s sidewalk, we were able to find our way to the hidden and superb K&T portion of the Delaware River Trail in Tacony. Back to the fun part.

Trails allow for exploration through parts of a city long forgotten by the majority of the public. And when a new segment of trail opens, those darkened parts of the city are illuminated, like turning over a log in a forest to see it crawling with a world of insects. In this case, the K&T Trail showcases a gallery of industrial land uses, such as an expanse of crushed car carcasses, neatly piled along the newly opened 0.6-mile segment of trail. On the river side of the trail, we looked back at the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge to find we had narrowly missed a major delay as its drawbridge opened for a gargantuan ship slowly wading on down the river. With the new trail segment, the K&T Trail is now nearly 2 miles long and includes the lovely Lardner's Point Park as a destination. But alas, dead ends greeted our group on either end, so we were forced once again back onto the roads.

Our group pooled together enough mass to take the lane on State Road, but otherwise this option is not recommended for the faint of heart. Photo by Daniel Paschall.

Working our way south toward the Port Richmond Trail required us to share the road with cars until we arrived at Orthodox St and Delaware Ave. This intersection is currently the northern terminus of the Port Richmond Trail, but in a few years PennDOT will be extending Delaware Ave along with the trail all the way to the K&T Trail. More immediately at this site, on October 3rd, Riverfront North Partnership will be breaking ground on the brand new Robert A. Borski, Jr. Park. Although the piecemeal, long-term nature of trail and park development is difficult to stomach for how many years it takes, it creates many opportunities for celebration along the way.

Riding south on the Port Richmond Trail, we got to show off the Tioga Marine Terminal and a number of gas storage tanks before riding back into the dense street grid under the Lehigh Viaduct. Another gem awaited us in a brand new trail, this time designed to snake trail users through the columns holding up the towering ceiling of I-95 with a dull roar just above. We jumped off the trail to again go as close as we could get to the river, riding by the isolated Northbank housing development on our way back to the Delaware River Trail at Penn Treaty Park.

Closing Thoughts

With enormous gratitude we said goodbye to those riders who had short treks home in nearby Philly neighborhoods. The rest of us split into two groups. One headed down to Penn's Landing and across the river back to Camden by way of the RiverLink Ferry and the other returned to Wiggins Waterfront Park via the Ben Franklin Bridge North Walkway, stairs and all (the south side is sadly closed for construction until 2024, ramp and all). We returned to Camden in time for ice cream before the heavens opened up and a mighty downpour rained down.

We hoped to leverage the Loop the Delaware Ride to 1) inspire riders with the car-free, urban escapes into nature long tucked away along the river, and 2) motivate them to advocate for more trail connections by having riders experience first-hand the difference between peaceful trails and stressful roads that separate the trails.

I am incredibly thankful for all the amazing people and partner organizations that it takes to come together to put on such a ride. Multiply that group by generations of advocates, planners, elected leaders, and passionate people of all kinds in every part of this region, and you just might be able to put together a legacy trail system over the course of our lives.

Come join us for the next ride on October 28th! – Loop the Delaware! Bristol-Trenton-Roebling.