Biking the C & D Trail, AKA Mike Castle Trail, AKA Ben Cardin Trail
East or west?
We were sitting on our bikes in the Summit North Marina, an access point (without parking) for the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal Trail. But the problem was, neither direction looked like a trail. To the east was an “Authorized Vehicles Only” maintenance road up a steep hill. And to the west was a sidewalk linking parking lots.
I looked at my watch – it was almost 4 pm (another one of our reliable late starts). The western leg was the shorter of the two. So we chose to head west to Chesapeake City via parking lots.
We’d ridden the 1.7 miles to the marina from our campsite at Lums Pond State Park. The C&D Canal Trail is only two-hours from our house. It would have been an easy day trip. But we needed to take our Big Foot out of hiding so we turned it into an overnighter. And since I haven’t been riding much lately, I don’t think I could have done the entire trail at once anyway.
The western section of the trail looked exactly like a bike trail should once we got past the last parking lot of the Grain H2O Restaurant (situated perfectly for us to enjoy a beverage after our ride). The trail was surprisingly lovely – smoothly paved, rising and falling along the bluff, going through curvy wooded areas and then alongside the canal. I say ‘surprisingly’ because we were picturing a fairly monotonous route – flat and straight with always the same view. But it wasn’t boring at all.
After a little over 4 miles we came to the Maryland-Delaware state line, meaning we were leaving the Mike Castle Trail and entering the Ben Cardin Trail. I’m not quite sure why this trail needs three names. But I guess if some ego-massaging is required to get a great trail like this made, I’m all for it!
About two miles further the Ben Cardin Trail ended in Chesapeake City, about a block from a waterfront restaurant called Shaefer’s and directly in front of the Chesapeake City Ferry which, had we come on a weekend, would have whisked us across the canal to the south side of Chesapeake City with their cute shops and restaurants and beautiful old houses. We’d been to the south side on a previous trip so I wasn’t too disappointed. However, had the ferry been running, we would have had to do it. For some reason, I love taking my bike on ferries. I guess it’s the slower, old-fashioned, “scenic route” feel of it.
On an informational placard alongside the trail I read a condensed history on the building of the canal. As with so many of these early, huge, human-made infrastructure projects, I can’t fathom the audacity required to go from, “It’d sure be nice if there was a way to get a boat from the Chesapeake Bay to the Delaware River without going out in the ocean,” to “Hey, want a job? We’re digging a really, really big ditch.”
With 2,600 workers using pick axes and shovels, it took 5 years to dig the canal, from 1824 to 1829. When it opened, it was 14 miles long, 10 feet deep, 66 feet wide, and cost $3.5 million. In contrast, construction began on the new Indian River Inlet bridge in 2006 and finished in 2012 with a total length of 2600 feet at a cost of $150 million. Progress?
Although I feel like I shirked my responsibility to you, after riding only 8 miles we didn’t think we deserved a major break so I can’t file a report on Shaefer’s restaurant. However, we did make it back to Grain H2O in time for happy hour! The $4 craft beer drafts went down very smoothly as we sat on their elevated deck and enjoyed the views of the old railroad bridge over the canal before riding back to our camper.
Brandi needs a little exercise before leaving her alone in the camper so, the next morning, before heading out to do the eastern section of the trail, I took her for a short run at Lums Pond. We did a portion of the Swamp Trail, following the contours of the pond, and then cut over to the Little Jersey Trail to make a loop. It was a beautiful.
This day, instead of starting at the marina, we accessed the trail at the brand-spankin’-new trail head in the C&D Canal Wildlife Area. To get there we rode west on Red Lion Road for a little over a tenth of a mile and then turned left on Old Summit Road which dead-ended at some cement parking bumpers in front of a large wooden sign with a list of rules for the Wildlife Area but no mention of a trail head. However, to the left was a newly paved road that leads to the trailhead parking area. It was a shorter distance to the trail and a lot less time on busy Red Lion Road.
The trail took us back past Grain H2O and the marina, then up a steep hill over a headland, and then we curved down to the canal and stayed there all the way to Delaware City. It was the flat monotonous trail we’d pictured. And it didn’t help that we had a headwind and overcast skies and were racing the rain. However, we were alongside the water, and we got to watch sailboats and motorboats making their way one direction or the other, and I will take a slightly less interesting bike trail any day over a death-defying ride on busy roads.
Shortly after coming down from the headland we rode under the railroad bridge that we’d admired over the rims of our beers the evening before. It was another huge project that some creative soul dreamed up. Instead of just building the approaches to the canal super high or having a turntable or a big draw bridge, the entire section spanning the water is on a enormous elevator. There is no information about the bridge on the trail so we had no idea if it’s still in use. But it turns out that it is. It is called the Conrail Bridge and it raises to a height of 138 feet and is controlled remotely by someone in Philadelphia. How crazy is that?? (Info from John A Weeks.)
After about an hour we reached the end of the canal section, took the connector into Delaware City, and rode to Battery Park on the bank of the Delaware River where they had preserved one of the original locks from the canal. In 1927, after deepening the entire canal to 12 feet sea level and widening it to 90 feet, the lock system became obsolete and all but this one were destroyed. It was shocking to see how narrow the original lock was and I had a hard time picturing any vessel that would fit in it. It looked like our 15′ Boston Whaler would be a tight squeeze.
Before leaving for our ride I’d eaten breakfast but had, of course, saved some room for a bagel/muffin/roll in Delaware City. We couldn’t find anything open, though (it was about 10:00 am). So, with a growling stomach, we retraced our steps back to the trail. We now had a tail wind so we made great time back to the camper, even overtaking a few boats motoring down the canal.
End to end (Chesapeake City to Delaware City) the trail is 14.3 miles. From the campground, with a little meandering on either end, we did around 16 miles the first day and 21 on the second day. Nothing crazy but all Tour de France competitors have to start somewhere!