The Top 3 Scenic Byways in Delaware

Travel Inspiration

Delaware is the second smallest state and it’s also The First State. Delaware ratified the Constitution in 1776, just two months after the Declaration of Independence was signed. So, it offers a wealth of historical attractions. And despite its small size, Delaware’s location along the Atlantic Ocean means it’s also naturally beautiful, with many outdoor activities and a coastline stretching along its entire eastern shore.

  1. Delaware Bayshore Byway – National Scenic Byway
  2. Brandywine Valley Scenic Byway – National Scenic Byway
  3. Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway – All-American Road

Delaware Bayshore Byway – National Scenic Byway – 110 miles

This byway hits many of the major highlights in Delaware so think history, water views and sandy beaches. From Wilmington, take Delaware Route 9 south to New Castle. Along the way, the Delaware Memorial Bridge looms to your left, crossing the Delaware River to New Jersey. Although New Jersey and Delaware don’t share a border, their histories are intertwined because of the river and bay that separates them, navigable north past Philadelphia to Trenton.

Founded in 1651, New Castle’s strategic location has meant the flags of the Netherlands, Sweden and Great Britain have flown over the town. It was also Delaware’s colonial capital and first state capital. Built in 1732, the New Castle Court House is one of America’s oldest government buildings and an important Underground Railroad site (see article below). One of six sites that are part of First State National Historical Park, you can tour New Castle Court House Museum. A five-minute walk leads to another aged brick gem, Read House & Gardens, a 14,000-square-foot mansion built in the early 1800s.

Continuing south on DE 9, it’s 10 miles to Delaware City where a ferry leads to Pea Island, in the middle of the Delaware River. Most of the island is home to herons, egrets, ibis, osprey and bald eagles. Another section is occupied by Fort Delaware, built in the mid-1800s to protect Wilmington and Philadelphia from enemy attack. Now a living history museum, you can tour the parade ground, officers’ quarters, barracks, kitchen and blacksmith shop.

Back on the mainland, it’s five miles south on DE 9 to another historical attraction. At the Port Penn Interpretive Center, the stories of wetland communities along Delaware’s shoreline are told through exhibits and programs.

Farms and a string of salt marshes and wildlife preserves – Augustine, Cedar Swamp, Bombay Hook and Little Creek – extend south along DE 9 as the Delaware River flows into Delaware Bay. A drive to Woodland Beach is particularly pretty with forest, tidal marsh and a beach. It’s a favorite with birders, hunters and fishermen.

It’s 16 more miles to Dover, one of America’s smallest state capitals with a charming 300-year-old historic area. Dover Green is the centerpiece, another one of the six sites comprising First State National Historical Park. In 1787, delegates ratified the U.S. Constitution, making Delaware The First State. There are many streets and buildings to explore including The Old State House, important to the history of the Underground Railroad (see article below).

Shifting from colonial to more contemporary, drive seven miles south to Dover Air Force Base and the Air Mobility Command Museum. Here, exhibits and more than 30 aircraft tell the history of air refueling and airlift, such as humanitarian evacuations during the Vietnam War.

Across the road from Dover Air Force Base is the John Dickinson Plantation, the third First State National Historical Park site on this byway. Dickinson was a Founding Father who wrote about freedom and liberty for everyone. But he was also a slave holder, a conundrum for many of the men who established the United States. You can tour the mansion and a reconstruction of slave housing. There’s also an African Burial Ground which isn’t open to the public.

Heading south on DE 1, it’s about 40 minutes to the boutiques, waterfront dining and sandy beach of Lewes. The town sits adjacent to Cape Henlopen State Park with more beaches, dunes, camping and a fishing pier. This is where Delaware Bay meets the Atlantic and New Jersey is just a ferry ride away. The park’s elevated boardwalk is a favorite of hikers and bikers, and Seaside Nature Center features five large viewing tanks with local fish as well as stingrays, horseshoe crabs and other species in a two-level touch tank.

Another popular and charming Delaware destination, Rehoboth Beach, lies south of Cape Henlopen and eight miles from Lewes on the Atlantic Ocean.

Brandywine Valley – National Scenic Byway – 30 miles

Located between Washington, DC and New York City, Baltimore and Philadelphia are frequently overlooked. And then there’s little Wilmington, tucked between Baltimore and Philadelphia. But lately, Delaware’s largest city is anything but forgotten. It’s creating some buzz! Citing a “wave of new restaurants transforming the city into a bona fide food destination,” Condé Nast Traveler named Wilmington one of the 23 Best Places to Go in the U.S. in 2023. And if you’re a fan of historic brick buildings, museums and gardens, then Wilmington has a lot to offer. Plus, it’s a lot easier to navigate in an RV than any of those much larger cities.

In downtown, Fort Christina and Old Swedes Historic Site are part of First State National Historical Park (as mentioned in the Delaware Bayshore Byway article, above). They date back to 1638, when Swedish and Finnish settlers arrived in what is now Delaware. The Delaware History Museum gives a comprehensive look into the First State’s heritage and then it’s onto a series of attractions that fan out north of the city and into neighboring Pennsylvania. 

Known as Brandywine Valley, its rolling hills were home to the Lenape Indians and then Swedish settlers. In 1777, the Battle of Brandywine was fought during the Revolutionary War. And the Du Ponts, one of America’s oldest and most successful families, started their company here in 1802. 

Triangular-shaped, Brandywine Valley National Scenic Byway follows DE 52 northwest. Then, 3.5 miles from the Delaware History Museum, DE 100 splits off, heading north. You can follow either route, but staying on DE 100, it’s eight miles to the Brandywine Museum of Art in Chadds Ford, PA. Then, go west on US 1 to Longwood Gardens, also in Pennsylvania. After that, return about one mile east on US 1 and then go eight miles south on PA 52/DE 52, where you’ll complete the triangle back at DE 100. The whole loop is 22 miles.

Now it’s time to pick what to see. There are five mansions with gardens, two art museums, a natural history museum and a state park scattered along the triangle. The Brandywine Museum of Art is at the north end of PA 100. Longwood Gardens are the northwestern-most point, off US 1 and near PA 52.

Mansions & Gardens:

  • Located closest to downtown on the University of Delaware’s Wilmington campus, Goodstay Gardens are free and open year-round. Continuously kept since the 1700s, the gardens sit beside the  Goodstay Center Mansion, a home to generations of the Du Pont family. 
  • The Du Pont legacy began in 1802 when E. I. du Pont started a gunpowder factory on the banks of Brandywine Creek. Called the Hagley Museum and Library, it includes restored mills, a workers’ community and the ancestral home and gardens of the du Pont family.
  • With 77 lavishly decorated rooms and a Chauffeur’s Garage with vintage automobiles, Nemours Estate is surrounded by 200-acres of French-inspired formal gardens, grounds, and woodlands. Inspired by Versailles, Nemours has the largest French-style formal gardens in North America.
  • Meadows, woodlands and ponds make up 1,000-acre Winterthur. There’s also a 60-acre garden, designed by H. F. du Pont, who was born here in 1880. Winterthur’s 175-room mansion is one of the nation’s premier decorative arts museums, housing some 90,000 objects made or used in America since 1640.
  • With all the mansions and gardens, it’s easy to forget the Lenape Indians lived in the Brandywine Valley before Europeans arrived. Located in Pennsylvania, Longwood Gardens sits on land that was also a Quaker farmstead and arboretum. In the early 1900s, Pierre S. du Pont began turning his newly purchased property into a showplace with nearly 200 acres of formal gardens, fountains, a conservatory and bell tower. Longwood also hosts musical and theater events.

Museums & Nature:

The Delaware Art Museum is closest to downtown Wilmington. Its 12,000-piece collection includes historical and contemporary American art, British Pre-Raphaelite art, American illustration and a sculpture garden.

From gardeners to painters, the area’s natural beauty has always attracted creative types. The Brandywine Museum of Art features 19th and 20th century landscapes, portraits and still life paintings as well as prominent works of American illustration. Many visitors come to see the galleries presenting three generations of artwork by the renowned Wyeth family: father N.C., son Andrew and grandson Jamie.

With exhibits spanning the ages, from dinosaurs to the fish currently swimming in Brandywine Creek, the Delaware Museum of Nature and Science is quite different from the byway’s other attractions. Displays range globally from Arctic tundra to African savanna. Meanwhile, the more local Delaware exhibit explores the small state’s mighty ecosystem of deciduous forests, sand dunes, salt marshes and even the Great Cypress Swamp.

Just east of Winterthur lies Brandywine Creek State Park, a respite from all the history and art. Fishing, canoeing, kayaking, birding, biking and simply walking are popular along its 14 miles of trails.

Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway – All-American Road – 100 miles

For African Americans seeking freedom, the Underground Railroad was a way out of the fifteen Slave States. A network of routes and safe havens, it mostly involved ordinary people of different faiths and backgrounds: teachers, farmers, shop owners and ministers. Guides, called conductors, helped slaves navigate the routes. Harriet Tubman is the best-known Underground Railroad conductor. She was born in neighboring Maryland around 1820. Traveling by herself and mostly at night, Tubman escaped to Philadelphia in 1849. Then, she spent more than a decade rescuing about 70 family and friends on some 13 secret return trips to Maryland. 

This byway and most of its 46 designated sites are in Maryland, including two Harriet Tubman museums. A good chunk of Tubman’s secret missions happened in Delaware and this part picks up after Red Bridges, the last stop in Maryland. From here, the byway goes north to Goldsboro and then crosses into Delaware, which was also a slave-holding state, meaning freedom was still 75 miles north in Pennsylvania.

Follow Delaware Route 10 east to the Norman G. Wilder Wildlife Management Area. An historic sign tells the story of the abolitionists and Underground Railroad conductor, Samuel D. Burris, who helped freedom seekers here. Today, the Norman G. Wilder Wildlife Area is popular for wildlife and bird watching, hunting and horseback riding. 

Then, continue 12 miles northeast to Dover and the First State Heritage Park Welcome Center where Samuel D. Burris’ story continues. The state’s capital city has a particularly fascinating and attractive colonial district, centered around Dover Green. For his role in helping slaves to freedom, Burris was arrested, tried and convicted at the Old State House. In 2015, nearly 170 years later, Burris was pardoned in the same courtroom by Delaware’s governor.

In 1857, another dramatic scene took place next door to the Old State House. The “Dover Eight” were freedom seekers and friends of Harriet Tubman. Betrayed by an Underground Railroad conductor whom Tubman trusted, the group broke out of jail. The Dover Eight eventually made it to Pennsylvania and onto Canada. The jail no longer exists.

Leaving Dover and heading northwest about 20 miles, Blackbird State Forest is home to oaks, yellow poplar, maple, gums and hickories. The fall colors are obviously gorgeous. The forest was also one of Harriet Tubman’s landmarks on her perilous treks. It’s a visual reminder of some of the natural challenges freedom seekers faced. Today, Blackbird’s 40 miles of trails provide access for hikers, runners, bikers and cross-country skiers. There are also camping and picnic sites, and hunting and fishing are popular, too. 

From Blackbird State Forest, it’s a short drive north to Middletown and Odessa, two important towns along the Underground Railroad. Located three miles apart, they feature historic buildings, shops and restaurants. To see the inside of a beautiful mansion furnished as it was in the early 1800s, go to the Corbit-Sharp House in Odessa. This National Historic Landmark was Daniel and Mary Corbit’s home, Quaker abolitionists who provided refuge to a fugitive slave, Sam. Throughout Delaware and Maryland, Quakers and a large free black population helped hide and lead freedom seekers as they pushed northward to Pennsylvania.

Another 20 minutes north is one of the oldest courthouses in the U.S. Built in 1732, the New Castle Court House Museum was also Delaware’s first capitol building. In 1848, Thomas Garrett was found guilty of violating the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 after he and another prominent abolitionist, John Hunn, helped a family escape in 1845. Hunn had already pled guilty. Notably, Judge Roger Taney presided over their cases. He was a slave owner and the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court at the time. In 1857, Taney delivered the Dred Scott opinion, denying both slaves and free black men citizenship. The Dred Scott decision was later overturned by the 13th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution.

Over 40 years, it’s estimated that Thomas Garrett helped 2,700 slaves escape to freedom. On several occasions, he also collaborated with Harriet Tubman. It’s fitting the two are honored together six miles north in downtown Wilmington. Lying on the banks of the Christina River, the Tubman-Garrett Riverfront Park is less than nine miles from Pennsylvania. A place for walks, picnics, festivals and concerts, the park’s most important feature is a nine-foot-tall bronze sculpture of the two, Unwavering Courage in the Pursuit of Freedom.

From the park, it’s a ten-minute walk up Market Street to the Delaware History Museum, where Tubman, Garrett and the stories of other heroes are part of “Journey to Freedom.” This exhibit is just one of several documenting Delaware’s African American heritage through artifacts, oral history interviews, art and music from 1639 to present day. Next door, captured freedom seekers were held in the Old Town Hall’s jail cells before being returned to slave holders.

The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway continues 30 miles to downtown Philadelphia with two more stops at Independence Hall and William Still’s Last Residence. Click here more information and specific byway maps and directions in Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania.

Learn more about the thought, research, planning and promotion that goes into the designation of our beautiful Scenic Byways.