Through history, the Brandywine Valley has meant many things to many people. Its waters gather in the Pennsylvania countryside, flowing south through the woodland hills of Delaware, where they meet the tidal Christina River. For Native Americans, the area was both home and hunting grounds. For land-hungry immigrants from Europe, it was farmland. Later, the valley transitioned into a water-powered manufacturing juggernaut before falling into a period of decline as mills were abandoned and many farms lay fallow.
Today, the Brandywine Valley, with its harmonious blend of private and public lands, has taken on a new persona as a recreational hub for the Mid-Atlantic region, its waters available to everyone. “Dozens of recreational activities take place here,” says Shawn Heacock, superintendent of Brandywine Creek State Park, the nexus of outdoor activities in the Delaware section of the valley.
“It’s a great place for people to learn how to fly fish because of the low gradient. Everywhere is safe to wade, except around the dams.”
Dozens indeed. Among the activities available this summer between Wilmington and the Brandywine’s headwaters 50 miles upstream near Honey Brook: fishing, canoeing, tubing, hiking, running, camping, picnicking, foraging, bird watching, yoga, disc golf, museum tours and more. In addition to Brandywine Creek State Park, sections of First State National Historical Park are located along the main section of the creek, not to mention Natural Lands ChesLen Preserve on the West Branch and Natural Lands Stroud Preserve on the East Branch. And many smaller city and township parks serve both as recreational areas and primary access points to the creek itself.
Brandywine Creek State Park is open to the public 24/7, and there are periods during the winter when no fees are collected. So establishing an exact number of annual visitors isn’t easy. Heacock offers low estimates of about 125,000 in 2020 and 150,000 in 2021. And while the pandemic drove people outside and into the park, many of its programs had to be temporarily suspended or scaled back.
The most popular activities at Brandywine Creek State Park include hiking, running and biking. Another is fishing. Wilson Run, the tributary that drains Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library, has been stocked as a trout stream. “There’s tremendous access to the Brandywine,” says Terry Peach, owner of a Marblehead Flyfisher, a Centreville shop that provides fishing gear, fly-tieing and fly-casting lessons, and guide service. “As long as you’re in the water, you’re fishing on public property.”
And the season keeps getting extended. “Normally, fishing is good from May until September,” Peach says. “But the last two years, you could fish from April into October.”
While the main stem isn’t stocked with trout, sometimes one will wash down from the West Branch. Other than that, most of the fishing in the Brandywine is for small-mouth bass and “a gazillion sun fish,” Peach says. “And spring shad has been amazing the last three years.”
But that’s only near the stream’s mouth in Wilmington. The migratory fish comes up the Brandywine from the ocean to spawn—though only as far as the first dam in Delaware. “Sometimes you’ll get muskie and tiger muskie under the I-95 bridge,” Peach says. “And sometimes you’ll get striped bass in brackish water below [the second dam].”
The Brandywine is also navigable by canoe, kayak or inner tube. The experience is mainly for the scenery and paddling, as there are no serious rapids.
Fishing licenses are required in both Delaware and Pennsylvania, and a special federal trout stamp is needed where stocking takes place. Peach provides half-day and full-day guide service. “It’s a great place for people to learn how to fly fish because of the low gradient,” he says. “Everywhere is safe to wade, except around the dams.”
While the creek is popular for wading, active swimming is more diﬃcult. The Brandywine isn’t very deep—especially in the summer. It’s also navigable by canoe, kayak or inner tube. The experience is mainly for the scenery and paddling, as there are no serious rapids. As long as you put in and take out on public property and have transportation, you don’t need a guide.
Brandywine Outfitters, Wilderness Canoe Trips and Northbrook Canoe Co. provide vessels, a shuttle and safety equipment. Northbrook has been on the creek for 45 years and offers a variety of canoe experiences ranging from an hour to more than two. Inner tubes may take a little longer. All come out of the water at the Northbrook camp. “Family groups are our biggest draw, and we’re the busiest June through August,” says Susan Soderberg, whose family owns Northbrook.
Every trip is weather dependent, and guests are required to wear shoes to protect against sharp rocks or debris in the creek bed. “Flip-flops are not good,” Soderberg says. “They’re notorious for floating away.”
Beyond the purely recreational options, there are some noted cultural and educational attractions along the banks. Once the home of DuPont’s original powder mills, Hagley Museum & Library has evolved into a formidable source of historical inspiration, with a variety of events that play on the complex’s past and its future. Less than five minutes away, Somerville Manning Gallery is the arguably the region’s most noted independent art space, with a rich storehouse of regional and international work. And the Brandywine River Museum of Art remains a major showcase for the works of the prolific Wyeth family and of other regional luminaries.
Brandywine Creek State Park
41 Adams Dam Road, Wilmington, (302) 577-3534, destateparks.com/brandywinecreek
2096 Strasburg Road, Coatesville, Pa., (610) 486-6141, canoepa.com
Brandywine River Museum of Art
1 Hoffmans Mill Road, Chadds Ford, Pa., (610) 388-2700, brandywine.org/museum
First State National Historical Park
211 Delaware St., New Castle, Del., (302) 544-6363, nps.gov/frst
Hagley Museum & Library
200 Hagley Creek Road, Wilmington, (302) 658-2400, hagley.org
5716 Kennett Pike, Suite D, Wilmington, (302) 654-6515, amarbleheadflyfisher.com
Natural Lands ChesLen Preserve
1199 Cannery Road, Coatesville, Pa., (610) 353-5587, natlands.org/cheslen-preserve
Natural Lands Stroud Preserve
454 N Creek Road, West Chester, Pa., (610) 353-5587, natlands.org/stroud-preserve
Northbrook Canoe Co.
1810 Beagle Road, West Chester, Pa., (610) 793-2279, northbrookcanoe.com
Somerville Manning Gallery
101 Stone Block Row, Greenville, Del., (302) 652-0271, somervillemanning.com
Wilderness Canoe Trips
2111 Concord Pike, Wilmington, (302) 654-2227, wildernesscanoetrips.com