Hikes, birds and history. 10 reasons to visit Delaware State Parks this winter

While cold weather months might not be the time you think about visiting a park, the winter scenery features sights, sounds and experiences not available during other seasons, according to park staff and hikers.

“More of the landscape is exposed because the foliage has died back and you can see topography and features more clearly than any other time of the year,” said Teresa Pierce, interpretive programs manager at Auburn Valley State Park. “The great historical ruins stand out more – the stone foundations of old buildings, little barns and outbuildings or stone steps from a home that’s no longer there.”

A cross country skier glides along at Brandywine Creek State Park in this photo from 2017.
A cross country skier glides along at Brandywine Creek State Park in this photo from 2017.

Bird watching is a highlight for many visitors in the sparse winter landscape, said Angel Burns, Delaware State Parks chief of interpretation.

“I love birding year round, but in the winter, the colors, especially the reds, really pop out – the cardinals, the woodpeckers. It’s really striking,” Burns said. “Some people may see cold weather and snow as a challenge, but those are also some of the reasons people come out this time of year – to explore the beauty of winter, the frosty mornings, the animal prints in snow.”

We’ve picked 10 reasons to visit a state park this winter, but there are dozens of programs available. For the complete schedule, see the website destateparks.com.

In case of bad weather, to see if a program will still be held, call that park’s office or check that park’s Facebook page.

1. Save on entrance fees.

Park entrance fees are waived from Dec. 1 until March 1, a savings of $4 per car for in-state residents or $8 for out-of-state residents. However, some special programs do have fees, as noted.

2. Start the year on the right foot.

“First Day” hikes are offered at all parks Saturday, Jan. 1 from 8 a.m. until dusk.

“It’s the big event that kicks off the winter season,” said Pierce. “New Year’s Day is a great time to get outdoors, and it’s part of a national movement that encourages fitness.”

The hikes are self-guided, but there’s a check-in station at each park where visitors are encouraged to register to be part of the national program, and park staff members will be available to answer questions.

For details or to offer comments about the park and even include a photo after your hike, see the website destateparks.com/firstday.

One of the hikers who enjoys the special qualities of parks in the winter is Kathy Kresko, president of First State Webfooters which promotes non-competitive sports and fitness activities.

“Wintertime gives a person a chance to see what they have not seen before,” said Kresko. “As the leaves fall and the ground is covered, the sunlight peeps in through the trees and lights the ground. Suddenly, you hear the crunching of the leaves and look over to see the birds looking for food. Bird watchers can look to the sky and see the nest in the trees, where before the leaves and branches covered it. The winter views during a walk take on a different expression of colors.”

3. Find out about feathered friends.

As mentioned by Burns and Kresko, bird watching is a popular pastime at the parks in the winter, and here are samples of the guided events:

“Birds of Bellevue” at Bellevue State Park Friday, Jan. 7 at 8 a.m., with an expert birder offering advice. Meet at the Arts Center. To register, call 302-761-6964.

“Saturday Morning Bird Walk” at Trap Pond State Park Saturday, Jan. 8 at 8 a.m. Meet at the nature center for a walk around the picnic area and spillway to learn the basics of birding. Call 302-875-5163 for more information.

“Eastern Bluebird Nest Box Monitoring” at Lums Pond State Park Saturday, Jan. 8 at 1 p.m. The park is recruiting volunteers for nest box monitoring throughout the year. This program is an introduction to bluebirds and what will be expected in the monitoring program, so visitors can decide if they'd like to participate.

"Winter Bird Walk" at Cape Henlopen State Park Tuesday, January 18 at 9 a.m. These monthly walks are for all birding abilities including ages 10 and older accompanied by an adult. Binoculars are available to borrow. Free, but registration is required by calling 302-645-6852.

MORE ON BIRDS: Why are songbirds dropping dead in Maryland, Delaware and West Virginia?

4. Learn about African American history.

“Winter Tavern Tales: African Americans in the Civil War” will be held at Alapocas Run State Park Wednesday, Jan. 12 at 6:30 p.m.

Historian Kathy Trusty leads the presentation on free and enslaved Black men and women and their role in the Civil War including soldiers who fought for the Union cause as well as civilians who assisted the Union efforts.

On Saturday, Feb. 5 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., First State Heritage Park hosts a program on Frederick Douglass, a slave who fled from an Eastern Shore plantation through Delaware to freedom in the north, and became a famous advocate for the abolition of slavery. Presentations start at the top of each hour, with Joel Cook portraying Douglass, bringing this historical figure to life.

5. Tour a mansion.

Delaware’s newest state park, Auburn Valley, hosts the Auburn Heights mansion tour Thursdays and Fridays at 1 p.m. The Queen Anne-style Victorian mansion is the former home of the Marshall family which included relatives involved in steam technology including selling and collecting Stanley Steamer cars.

The fee is $8 per adult, $4 per child. Tours of the Marshall Steam Museum are also available, with a combined tour ticket of $14 for adults and $7 for children. For reservations, call 302-729-4280.

6. Bike with a “GOAT.”

The "Go Out And Tour” winter bike series at Auburn Valley State Park is a monthly program with the next ride Friday, Jan. 7 at 9 a.m., starting at the Oversee Farm parking lot on Snuff Mill Road.

The park's extra-wide paved trails, created for historic steam cars in the Marshall family's collection, are great for cyclists. Bring your bike for a leisurely ride with occasional stops, where a guide will talk about the history of the property.

The rides are free, but reservations are requested by calling 302-729-4280.

7. Brush up on military history.

While Fort Delaware, a former Civil War prison, is closed during the winter, other parks with ties to military history will feature tours this season, including:

“Discover Battery 519” at the Fort Miles Historical Area at Cape Henlopen State Park at 11 a.m., Friday, Jan. 7 and Friday, Jan. 21. Construction of the artillery battery began in 1941 under the threat of war. Learn the plans for Fort Miles to defend Delaware's coast and the United States. The fee is $5 and registration is required. Online registration ends 24 hours before the program. After that, call 302-655-5007.

At Fort DuPont State Park, a one-hour guided walking tour is offered Saturday, Jan. 22 at 10 a.m., highlighting the history and architecture of this military post, built to protect port cities along the Delaware River from enemy ships. The rifle, mortar and rapid-fire batteries can still be seen. The free tour starts in the parking lot at the river end of Old Battery Lane.

MORE MILITARY HISTORY: On the 80th anniversary, a 100-year-old Delaware veteran recalls attack on Pearl Harbor

8. Take an educational coffee break.

“Coffee, Tea and Pastries with Sides of History and Nature” are held the first and third Wednesdays of each month at 10 a.m. at Bellevue State Park, with the next programs Wednesday, Jan. 5 and Wednesday, Jan. 19. There’s an $8 fee.

Join guides on the Arts Center patio for refreshments and a discussion about nature and Bellevue's history. Then enjoy a stroll through the park to visit different historic and natural sites, weather permitting.

Registration is required online or by calling 1-302-761-6963.

9. Explore Native American history.

Learn about the lives of Native Americans on Thompson Island during a guided hike at Delaware Seashore State Park Saturday, Jan. 8 at 9 a.m. The fee is $5, and registration is required. Online registration ends 24 hours before the program. After that, call 302-227-6991.

10. Talk about trees, if you please.

See how to identify a tree without its leaves Saturday, Jan. 8 at 11 a.m., during “Winter Tree ID” at Brandywine Creek State Park. Naturalists will point out distinguishing characteristics of different species. The program is free, but registration is required by calling 302-655-5740.

The “American Holly Hike” at Trap Pond State Park will be Saturday, Jan. 22 at 1 p.m. Learn about Delaware's state tree and its importance in forests and in the state's history. For more on the free program, call the park's nature center at 302-875-5163.

MORE PARKS TO SEE: Delaware park adventures: The most Instagram-worthy places to explore before the decade ends

Park locations and hours

Most parks are open 7 days a week from 8 a.m. to sunset, but in the winter months the park offices are only open weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., except for some special events.

Alapocas Run State Park, 1914 W. Park Drive, near Wilmington, (302) 577-1164

Auburn Valley State Park, 630 Benge Road, Yorklyn, (302) 729-4280

Bellevue State Park, 800 Carr Road, near Wilmington, (302) 761-6963

Brandywine Creek State Park, 41 Adams Dam Road, near Wilmington, (302) 577-3534

Cape Henlopen State Park, 15099 Cape Henlopen Drive, Lewes, (302) 645-8983

Delaware Seashore State Park, 39415 Inlet Road, Rehoboth Beach, (302) 227-2800

First State Heritage Park, 102 S. State St., Dover, (302) 739-9194

Fenwick Island State Park, Route 1, Fenwick Island, (302) 227-2800

Fort Delaware State Park, closed for the season

Fort DuPont State Park, 108 N. Reedy Point Road, Delaware City, (302) 834-7941

Fox Point State Park, Lighthouse Road, near Wilmington, (302) 761-6963

Holts Landing State Park, 27046 Holts Landing Road, Dagsboro, (302) 227-2800

Killens Pond State Park, 5025 Killens Pond, Felton, (302) 284-4526

Lums Pond State Park, 1068 Howell School Road, near Glasgow, (302) 368-6989

Trap Pond State Park, 33587 Baldcypress Lane, Laurel, (302) 875-5153

White Clay Creek State Park, 750 Thompson Station Road, near Newark, (302) 368-6900

Wilmington State Parks: Brandywine Park and Zoo, H. Fletcher Brown Park and Rockford Park, (302) 577-7020

Reach reporter Ben Mace at rmace@gannett.com.

This article originally appeared on Delaware News Journal: 10 reasons to visit Delaware State Parks this winter