Road Tripping through the Delaware Valley

If road tripping through the Delaware Valley isn’t on your summer travel plans, it definitely should be. Today, Cheryl Rodewig is here to tell us all about the beautiful things you can find while exploring this vibrant part of the country.

The Delaware Valley is a patchwork of storybook Americana: gardens, bucolic pastures, iconic cities. It’s the perfect place, especially in warmer months, to scratch that travel itch with a road trip through the country’s historic heartland.

Getting Started

The valley is easily accessible from major tourist hubs like Philadelphia and Wilmington, but don’t overlook the small towns as a place to begin your journey. I decided to begin mine in New Castle, Delaware. With only 5,000-odd residents, the city sits on the southern banks of the Delaware River. Its historic center dates back to the 1600s,and is a peaceful start to a trip filled with activity.

The new pier, just two blocks from the Historic New Castle courthouse, sits at the end of Battery Park along the Delaware River. (Photo by B. Burk)

As you drive north, follow the river into Pennsylvania. It’s less than an hour, but there are plenty of stop-off points along the way for sightseers. Downtown Wilmington is great for lunch, and both Fox Point State Park and the Scott Arboretum offer plenty of room to stretch your legs in the great outdoors.

Staying in Delco

Delaware County, affectionately ​called Delco, sits in the heart of the Delaware Valley, a convenient home base for a few days of your trip. You’re close to tourist hotspots like the 6-million-square-foot King of Prussia Mall, Valley Forge, and Philadelphia.

I settled for a couple nights at the Radnor Hotel, a quiet, upscale establishment that’s played host to stars like Susan Sarandon. Just because I was on the road and often eating lunch from a cooler doesn’t mean I object to a little luxury. The Radnor has a stately charm, traditional style decor and attentive service.

With an on-site spa and 171 guest rooms, the Radnor Hotel is just 15 miles outside of Philadelphia but a world away.

Amenities, like free WiFi and a 24/7 gym, were convenient, but it was the breakfast with cheese blintzes, berries and French toast that won my heart. Outdoors, the brick-paved courtyard is a welcoming retreat. In their award-winning formal gardens, I spotted roses, marigolds, pansies, peonies and tulips.

Popular with brides, the gardens are a nice place to relax with a book or a drink in the afternoon.

Garden Country

As it happens, gardens are the theme of the Delaware Valley. The region boasts more than 30, including the famous Longwood Gardens. Although some are near each other, I found you don’t want to do more than two in a day to allow time to explore.

The closest is Chanticleer, just five minutes from the hotel. If you’re staying at the Radnor, you can take advantage of their garden package that includes admission to Chanticleer, but either way, you don’t want to miss this one.

Once the lavish estate of an early 20th century pharmaceutical magnate, Chanticleer is now a pleasure garden for all to enjoy.

Most of the other area gardens I visited had more of an emphasis on formal design. At Chanticleer, there was scarcely a boxwood hedge in sight. Instead, I spent the afternoon rambling the 35 acres and discovering ponds, woodlands, terraces and arbors. The centerpiece is the Ruin and Gravel Garden. The ruin is an illusion, made to look like a derelict stone house overgrown with ivy and dripping in wisteria. The effect is enchanting.

Save time, if you can, for the Jenkins Arboretum & Gardens, just 10 minutes away in Devon, Pennsylvania, a world of wildflowers and azaleas, open daily till sunset for free.

The Best of Philly

I took a day away from the countryside to see the big city. Philadelphia has it all: museums, monuments, parks and theaters.

Check the Liberty Bell off your bucket list if you must, but there’s so much more to do. The Philadelphia Zoo, opened in 1874, is America’s oldest and a must when you’re visiting. Expect crowds, especially on weekends, but bring your camera. I loved photographing the toddler gorilla riding around on her mother’s legs, as young often do, a zoo guide explained.

Siberian tigers are the largest cats in the world, and the Philadelphia Zoo has four of them. At Big Cat Crossing, you can glimpse lions, pumas, jaguars and other felines as they walk through a mesh tunnel right over your head.

If you go this summer, they’ll be hosting winter — yes, the season — with all the cold-weather activities you can dream of: snow angels, tubing, and hot chocolate.

While I love doing the traditional touristy things, I always try to visit at least one local hangout. In Philly, that’s the downtown Kawaii Kitty Cafe. Cat cafes are popping up all over the country, but this one in the City of Brotherly Love is a little different. It has cute Japanese Kawaii decor, pastel snacks and some of the most mellow, well-groomed cool cats around.

From there, it’s a pleasant walk to the Delaware River. On summer nights, cross the boardwalk and see the changing colored lights at Spruce Street Harbor Park.

Dining On The Go

Almost any kind of cuisine you can imagine, it’s in the Delaware Valley. Microbreweries abound as do cafes serving up cheesesteaks and soft pretzels, even outside Philly.

With so much to see in the area, the best tip I can offer is to dine at places already on your itinerary. At the zoo, there’s healthy, chef-inspired options at the 34th Street Market and drinks in the open-air beer garden.

For something fancier away from the city, Paramour in suburban Wayne, Pennsylvania, dishes up new American cuisine with a seasonal menu. I never order a salad, but the seafood-laden North East Louis was so fresh, I had no regrets. Their seasonal flatbread and soup left just enough room for dessert.

Paramour is less than two blocks from the train station, making it an easy stop if you’re opting to take transit into Philadelphia.

As a fan of historic architecture, I fell in love with the Wayne Hotel which houses Paramour. The turn-of-the-century brick building is modernized inside with up-to-date rooms and a contemporary lobby but historic accents peek through. Save time after dinner to soak up the atmosphere on the veranda or stroll the quaint downtown.

Either way, it’s time to savor the last of city pleasures as you head north for the final leg of your trip. The Delaware Water Gap is a national recreation area with no entrance fee and over a half dozen waterfalls. It begins in Pennsylvania and ends in New Jersey, but most of the falls are on the Pennsylvania side. One of the most popular, Dingmans Falls, is ADA accessible by a level boardwalk. The more adventurous should try Raymondskill Falls, a moderate hike to the tallest waterfall in the state.

If you have an extra day, as I did, you can take advantage of Pennsylvania’s free state parks. They feature waterfalls, gorges, boulder fields and miles of trails. It’s a perfect ending to a scenic road trip.

Nay Aug Park, a city park in Scranton, PA, is a bit of a detour, but it includes a beautiful waterfall and a “treehouse” overlooking the gorge.

Disclaimer: The Radnor and Wayne hotels hosted my visit, but all opinions expressed here are my own.

Have you ever explored Delaware Valley on a roadtrip? Come join the conversation at the My Itchy Travel Feet page on Facebook. Or send us an email with your thoughts.