Passing High Point : A Three-Day Ride from Philadelphia to Port Jervis
For many cyclists in the Northeast, there was no off season this year. With the mildest winter in over a decade, we simply had no reason to stop riding. These unusual climatic conditions coincided with the final spring break of my college years, leading me to escape the urban confines of Philadelphia and seek tranquility (maybe even some guidance), cycling along the Delaware River. My friend Arthur joined me for the roughly 150-mile journey north.
We left my red row home on a windy morning in early March. As we pedaled into Manyunk, a quaint neighborhood in the northeast corner of the city, we were passed by dozens of cyclists out for their Sunday morning joyrides. After stopping for a bagel and coffee we got on the Schuylkill River Trail. In Manyunk, the trail is a towpath that runs along one of the country’s oldest canals. But it soon becomes a paved surface, which led us for 15 miles to Valley Forge National Historical Park. There we said farewell to the Schuylkill River and continued on the Perkiomen Trail along the muddy waters of Perkiomen Creek.
It was a peaceful ride through the woods as we heard tree branches scrape against one another and the occasional bird call. Mostly, though, I enjoyed listening to the crunching noise our tires made as they rolled over the gravel. Fifteen miles later, in Schwenksville, we got off the trail and considered a variety of roads to take towards Nockamixon State Park. With some advice from a local EMT volunteer, we decided on the route and continued on for another 20 miles.
Nockamixon State Park is a beautiful wooded area surrounding Lake Nockamixon. In the summertime, it is likely full of folks hiking, biking, swimming, fishing, and enjoying various other outdoor activities; in the late winter, however, it was practically empty. When we arrived, the moon was already out. It was almost full and kept the night illuminated even when the sun went down. After eating a couple of sandwiches and building a small fire for warmth, we set up a tent and went to sleep early.
Though the night brought freezing temperatures, we slept fairly well and awoke with the sun. Around 6:45 a.m. we were walking in the woods, traversing stones alongside a brook. An hour later we were breaking camp and packing our bags. By 8:30 a.m. we were on our bikes again.
It was a wonderful ride leaving the park on Mountain View Drive. Though the wind wasn’t exactly on our side, the sun was out in full force and kept our spirits high. When the trees opened up and we were afforded a scenic view of the lake, it was the reflection of the light that first caught my eye. Carrying on, we rode Route 611 north and quickly found ourselves beside the Delaware River. Approximately 80 miles upstream from Philadelphia, the river appears much calmer and a bit more intimate. Now the route-finding was simple: just keep the river on our right.
The day warmed even more. There weren’t many cars going by. We had beautiful views of the river. The mood became more free and easy. Just past the abandoned Alpha cement plant, we came around a bend and crossed over the Lehigh River into Easton, Pennsylvania, where the Lehigh flows into the Delaware. In a waterfront park downtown I noticed a pine tree with a sign posted in front. The sign boasted “America’s First Christmas Tree," a bold claim by all accounts. Nevertheless, I won’t bother to look that one up.
Not long after we passed through the small city, the road strayed from the river and began ascending. We climbed a long, steep hill and soon found ourselves riding atop a ridge. Up there the wind was blowing in all directions and much stronger than before. Nonetheless, we experienced the sense of confidence that seems to come with being able to see many miles into the distance.
Just before our inevitable descent back down to water level, I could see it beckoning; the gap appeared on the horizon, clearcut in the mountains. Our destination for the night. Finding the river again, we followed it until we saw a sign for Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. We arrived at a roadside pull-off with a tremendous scenic view. Elation! Here the Delaware River cuts through the Kittatinny Mountains, separating New Jersey and Pennsylvania. We crossed over the river on a pedestrian walkway beside Interstate 80, with cars, trucks, and busses zooming by.
On the Jersey side, we met a hiker who directed us to a terrific campground right on the riverbank. With the sun soon setting and temperatures quickly dropping we wasted no time in setting up the tent. Then I cocooned myself in my sleeping bag and shut my eyes. The temperature kept dropping.
I slept for about four hours, tossed and turned for six. It was a long night, but just after 6 a.m. the light finally came as the sun began rising. It shone on Pennsylvania and the river, too; however, that early in the morning it was still too low to make its way over the mountain’s ridgeline and warm Arthur and me. In a freezing frenzy we broke down camp, packed our bags, loaded the bikes, and rode off.
First stop of the day, back over the bridge, was the Water Gap Diner. As a town on the Appalachian Trail and Adventure Cycling Association’s Atlantic Coast Bicycle Route, Delaware Water Gap is well accustomed to a constant stream of outdoor travellers. Even in the 30-degree weather we didn’t stick out. At the diner we took our time warming up with some hot tea and a good breakfast.
Leaving town, we could tell it would be the most scenic day of riding we’d have on the trip. For miles, our ribbon of road gracefully climbed and descended modest hills. To our left was a cliff maybe 250 feet high; to our right, the Delaware River with the Garden State beyond. The sunshine was delicious.
Through the bare trees we could see a trail that paralleled the road. We decided to take it and began riding a bit slower on its cobbly surface. At some points tree branches arched over the trail to form a sort of canopy, making it feel like we were pedaling through a tunnel. At other times, clearings provided awesome views of the water. A few miles later, a path led us to park headquarters. There we met Herb Meyerson, president of the organization Friends of the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. We also met a park ranger who gave us maps of the area and informed us that the trail we had been riding on is called the McDade Trail -- and, when complete, it will span 32 miles through the park along the Pennsylvania side of the river. Most of it is complete already, but there are still a few missing links.
After taking a rest outside, admiring our surroundings and fueling up on some nuts and raisins, we continued on our way. It was a quiet day for Route 209, and Arthur and I were reaping the benefits. With practically no traffic that afternoon, we had plenty of space for cycling. We were kings of the road and took the lane for ourselves. With the best riding conditions we had enjoyed yet, we covered the final section quickly.
Our trip was coming to an end. It was the same bittersweet feeling I’d felt before. The same feeling I always get when I accomplish a fun and exciting, but difficult adventure. As happy as the ride made me, it also pained me. In terms of proper camping gear, I wasn’t exactly equipped for sleeping outside in freezing temperatures, and due to a lack of physical preparation, my Achilles tendons were feeling overstrained.
In the final miles, we approached the center of the universe -- the point where Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey meet. To my right, across the river in the distance, I could see a monolith atop the mountains. “High Point -- New Jersey," a voice in my head said. I recognized the monument from photos I have seen. I had always wanted to reach the highest point of my home state (even at a mere 1,800 feet). But seeing it from afar was good enough, really. It was a sign of accomplishment. It marked the end of our journey.
Passing High Point, the Delaware River curves northwest. Arthur and I crossed the river on a steel-grated bridge, entering Port Jervis, New York. That was it. We found a restaurant and went in for our victory meal. A burger and some beer. Afterwards, we were so sleepy that we had to struggle to stay awake and catch the 9:30 p.m. train home.
Tip for this adventure: Mueller’s Too Restaurant is an amazing lunch spot!
Favorite local bike shop: Trophy Bikes in Philly.