A World War II Army base, a pristine beach with a lighthouse view, a hip restaurant and a daredevil zipline course — what do they have in common? They’re all features within the Delaware State Parks systems, which recently won the prestigious 2021 National Gold Medal Award for Excellence in Park and Recreation Management.
Delaware and Florida are the only repeat recipients of the award given by the American Academy for Park and Recreation Administration with the National and Recreation and Park Association. Delaware, which is 20 times smaller than any other finalists, last received the honor in 2015.
The award is timely. This year is the 70th anniversary of Delaware State Parks, part of the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC). While the division does not know the factors that set Delaware apart for the award, many of the 6 million annual guests can attest to the parks’ appeal.
On the genteel side, Bellevue State Park was once the property of the du Pont family, and the elegant mansion still graces the grounds. Nearby, the stables remain occupied by horses that trot around the indoor training facility.
At Auburn Valley State Park, the Marshall family’s Queen Anne-style Auburn Heights Mansion looks down on an old paper mill site. The former owner collected Stanley Steamers cars, and his impressive collection is in a museum next to the mansion. Rides are often available.
In Delaware City, Fort Delaware, located on Pea Patch Island, dominates the Fort Delaware State Park. The stone-and-brick fortress is formidable, but the wildlife and bird refuges are just as awe-inspiring — albeit in a different way.
Dover’s First State Heritage Park is a happy amalgam of historic sites, including the Biggs Museum of American Art, the Delaware Public Archives, the Johnson Victrola Museum and Legislative Hall.
To the south, Cape Henlopen State Park is on the former Fort Miles Army base. Remnants are readily visible, from the concrete fire control towers to the bunkers under the dunes to the Fort Miles Museum, which has hunted down and displayed many types of the big guns once on the grounds.
The Delaware State Seashore Park and Fenwick Island State Park share the Atlantic coastline with Cape Henlopen State Park, which consistently receive praise for their pristine views and amenities, including the opportunity to surf fish with a license.
Parks like Holts Landing are known for crabbing, fishing, and clamming.
Most of the parks near the sea and back bays have boating ramps. But so does Fort Delaware State Park, which rests against the Delaware River and the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal.
The park system has two marinas: Indian River Marina and Summit North Marina
No kidding. The Big Chill Surf Club sits atop the concession stand at Delaware Seashore State Park. Dine alfresco with breathtaking ocean views on one side and the Indian River Inlet Bridge on the other.
Just over the inlet is Hammerhead Dockside, which is next to the Indian River Marina.
There is no shortage of campgrounds in the First State’s parks, and bookings jumped nearly 60% from 2012 to 2020, contributing to $319 million in spending.
For back-to-nature “primitive” camping, head to Brandywine Creek State Park, where 19th-century blue gneiss stone walls crisscross the landscape.
Full hook-up sites are available at Lums Pond State Park, which offers cabins, cottages and yurts.
For a complete list of options, visit Delaware State Parks RV and Tent Camping.
Delaware’s parks are laced with so many trails that a website is dedicated to them: https://destateparks.com/Trails. Select the type (hiking, biking, equestrian, water or accessible) and the park.
Tip: the Gordons Pond and Junction and Breakwater trails have won local and national awards for the scenery — don’t forget your camera.
Climb Delaware’s only natural rock wall at Alapocas Run State Park or roll across the mountain-biking trails in Brandywine Creek State Park or White Clay Creek State Park.
Lums Pond boasts the Go Ape zipline course, which includes rope ladders, treetop crossings, a Tarzan swing and, of course, ziplines.
In Kent County, Killens Pond State Park has bragging rights to a waterpark with four-speed slides, a tot lot, and a leisure pool. In Laurel, Delaware, board a pontoon boat for a tour around Trap Pond.
The division thinks outside the box, and historic buildings, ponds, coastlines and trails aren’t the only draws. Delaware State Park amenities include the Brandywine Zoo in downtown Wilmington, Deerfield Golf & Tennis and Garrisons Lake Golf Course.
To learn more about the awards, visit aapra.org. To see the list of Delaware state parks and amenities, visit destateparks.com.