By Maureen C. Bruschi
Lewes, Delaware’s Cape Henlopen State Park is a year-round get-a-way. If you visit over the summer and the Delaware beaches get a bit overcrowded and overwhelming, or if your need a break from shopping at the Rehoboth Beach Boardwalk, head over to Cape Henlopen State Park. In addition to ample parking and swimming at a less crowded beach, the park is packed with kayaking, fishing, hawk watching, nature walks, camping, ultimate Frisbee and basketball. Ranger tours are available throughout the year. If you’re a history buff, Cape Henlopen State Park is also home to the Fort Miles Historical Area, a former World War II military base that defended our nation’s coast during World War II.
How It All Began
Few Americans know that near the end of WW II, Germany launched submarines to attack our East Coast. Germany’s U-853 and U-858 were part of this attack. When the U-853 sank the US merchant ship Black Point near Block Island off the coast of Rhode Island, American war ships attacked and sunk the German submarine. The U-853’s sister ship, the U-858 surrendered soon after at the Fort Miles Pier.
During World War II, the U.S. Army built Fort Miles at Cape Henlopen. Cape Henlopen didn’t become a state park until the mid-1960s, but during the Second World War the cape played a major role in the country’s coastal defense. Home to over 2,200 soldiers, bunkers were built to house artillery guns, a large mine field was positioned in the waters off Lewes, Delaware, and control towers were constructed to spot enemy ships approaching.
Today, you can tour or stroll around the Fort Miles Museum, six barracks, fire control towers, an orientation building and an artillery park. During one of my first visits to the park, I biked to a control tower, Observation Tower 7. A set of spiral steel stairs with grab rails on each side took me to three observation levels and the roof where I had a spectacular view of Fort Miles and Cape Henlopen State Park under a cloudless blue sky.
Don’t miss the Fort Miles Museum surrounded by Artillery Park, which tells you everything you need to know about life at Fort Miles during World War II. At the museum, an “Eisenhower or Ike” jacket, part of the WWII army dress olive drab uniforms, hangs next to a bed originally located in one of the barrack buildings. A PBX switchboard ensured that soldiers could communicate by telephone with each other on base. The reality of a coastal wartime invasion hits home when you take a look at an underwater ground mine that carried a 3,000 pound TNT charge and was placed directly on the floor of Delaware Bay. Artillery Park guns display representations of the artillery that was at the fort during WW II.
In 1964, the army turned over a section of Fort Miles to the State of Delaware, creating Cape Henlopen State Park. The army continued to turn over land and in 1991 Fort Miles ceased operation as a military facility. Since the United States was never invaded, a shot was never fired from Fort Miles.
Kids Rule at the Seaside Nature Center
Kids get hands-on experience at Cape Henlopen’s Seaside Nature Center. Five 1,000-gallon tanks with local fish and a touch tank with marine invertebrates and exhibits explain the park’s different habitats. If you’re there during a scheduled event, you might get a chance to handle a horseshoe crab.
Bird and Fish Lovers Unite
The Cape Henlopen Hawk Watch operates every spring and fall reporting the numbers of passing raptors. In between counting the various hawks including Red-Tailed Hawks, Broad Winged Hawks and Bald and Golden Eagles, you might catch seabirds and ducks migrating south along the coast or dolphins swimming just past the waves.
A quarter-mile-long pier provides you access to the Delaware Bay and a great fishing adventure. Stop at the bait and tackle concession by the pier for supplies and a license.
And There’s More…
Trails are everywhere. Feel like you’re walking through a desert when you stroll the 2.6 mile Walking Dunes Trail passing through woodlands and tidal marshlands. The 1 mile Salt Marsh Spur treats you to the area’s flora and fauna.
If you’re really adventurous, a six-mile hike to Rehoboth Beach might be just what you’re looking for. Take a boardwalk over preserved marshlands and stroll along Gordon’s Pond Trail as you head toward Rehoboth Beach. If you’re lucky, you may catch sight of a blue heron.
Or borrow a free bike from Friends Park Pedal program located near the Seaside Nature Center and pedal around the 3.5 mile paved bike loop. Explore marshes, dunes, a natural habitat of a resident deer population and panoramic views of the Atlantic Ocean, including a lighthouse.
If you go:
Cape Henlopen State Park: https://destateparks.com/Beaches/CapeHenlopen
Where to Eat and Stay: www.visitdelaware.com/beaches/lewes/restaurants