“It’s a moment that I’m after, a fleeting moment, but not a frozen moment”
~ Andrew Wyeth
Let me just start by saying that I have no idea if Andrew Wyeth ever trod the trails of Brandywine Creek State Park. What is known is that he was born, lived, and died in Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania just four miles north of the trailhead from which I was about to depart. Wyeth spent a great deal of time in the Brandywine Valley and painted many scenes from the area. It seems impossible that he didn’t wander these trails. These lands were part of the Du Pont family’s Winterthur estate until the establishment of Brandywine Creek State Park in 1965, but that still gave the American artist, who died in 2009, 33 years to get his hike on in the area. Wyeth definitely painted Brandywine Creek, one of the best examples being The Falls at Brandywine, dated 1943. Andrew Wyeth’s paintings have a comfortable, homespun realism about them that makes me want to step through the frame and stroll off into the scene. Absent that novelty, at Brandywine Creek I contented myself to set off into some of Mr. Wyeth’s favorite subject matter.
I pulled into the parking area at Brandywine Creek State Park at 1:30pm. Hopping out of the car, I realized that a fee was required for day use of the park. I grabbed an envelope from the kiosk and, having no cash, filled it out as an IOU, promising to send in my fee when I returned home. I intended to do so. I am always happy to pay the fee for a walk in the park – a donation to the preservation of our parks is always a worthy cause. I dropped the envelope in the self-payment box and turned back to the car to retrieve my daypack.
I wanted to head north on the other side of Brandywine Creek, so I cut across a grassy area and picked up the trail going south. I needed to cross the creek via the Pennington Bridge on West Rockland Road, about a hundred yards away. Before I reached the bridge, however, I took a short spur down to the water where a rocky jetty stretched two-thirds of the way across Brandywine Creek. Walking out on the jetty, I looked upstream. The creek flowed lazily southward flanked by dense foliage, looking as if it belonged significantly farther south than northern Delaware. Looking south was the Pennington Bridge and the Rockland Mill, a grist mill that dates back to 1724. From a nearby historical marker:
“The site of the Rockland Mill Village is one of the earliest and longest-functioning mill seats on the Brandywine. Grist milling commenced c.1724 and was replaced by a fulling and cotton mill c.1735. Paper was the primary product of the mill beginning in 1849 and the mill produced rag paper, fine book paper and tissue paper. The mill supported a population of 200 at its peak in 1880. The village that formed around the mill contained two churches, a hotel, a post office and twenty-eight company-owned houses in addition to the buildings on the mill complex. Operations ceased in 1973 when the mill was sold and developed into condominiums.“
After crossing the bridge, I veered back into the woods on the west side of Brandywine Creek and started north. The trail was narrow but well-maintained and snaked along the river’s edge through thick brush and under low-hanging branches. To my left, the ruins of a small structure jutted up from the loam, built from the same dark-grey stone as the Rockland Mill.
I crossed small, wooden bridges and passed all sorts of late-summer wildflowers. Broad-leaved goldenrod, snakeroot, low smartweed, and woodland sunflower reached out as I passed, be-speckling the trail with color. There also were berries – bright-red amur honeysuckle and yellow chinaberry dripped with diamond drops of rainwater in the damp, Delaware forest. Massive, old-growth trees stood at the water’s edge, their arching branches framing my views of the creek. After two miles on the banks of the Brandywine, I came to Thompson’s Bridge Road and crossed to the east side of the creek.
On the east side, heading south, I was walking directly into a main entrance to Brandywine Creek State Park. There was a manned kiosk at the gate and a large parking lot beyond. As I strode through the lot, I noticed automated machines for paying the day-use fee. I stopped at one, inserted a credit card, and paid for my time in the park. Then I hunted for the right trail.
I had two main choices: head downstream on the heavily trafficked Brandywine Creek Path or turn east into a rabbit’s warren of trails that criss-crossed the Rocky Run creek valley. I chose east and cut up a connector trail that climbed straight up a steep hill from the park lot. Ascending around a hundred feet in a tenth of a mile left me wheezing – the trail had been virtually flat up until that point. The best part (and by “best” I kinda mean “worst”) was that I immediately gave back all of that elevation as I descended towards Rocky Run, a tributary of Brandywine Creek.
I reached a junction with a sign.
VERY ACTIVE BEES NESTS IN THE AREA
PLEASE USE OTHER TRAILS
All caps, red text, and underlined. Curiously, there were no exclamation marks, but the warning was printed on a golden background of honeycomb with industrious-looking, and clearly active, honeybees on it to make sure all readers understood that we are talking about bees here. BEES! Look, I’m just as interested in avoiding marauding hoards of angry bees as the next hiker, but this sign seemed as if it might be overstating the danger, if only a little bit. As I stood, contemplating the consequences of ignoring this clear warning and hiking the trail I wanted to hike, a pair of elderly gentlemen strolled down the bee-infested trail toward me, lost in idle chat. They were not running, screaming, or flailing their arms. They were not covered in red welts. They were exhibiting exactly none of the internationally accepted distress signals for “bee attack”. They smiled and nodded as they passed me. I set off up the Rocky Run Trail into bee country.
I climbed northeast alongside Rocky Run for one mile. The trail passed through a forest of tall hardwoods and tunneled through areas of thick brush before returning to an open scape of tall tulip poplar, oak, and maple. The creek was my constant companion. Halfway through that mile, Rocky Run veered east, and I found myself traipsing alongside another creek: Hurricane Run. Despite its gale-force moniker, Hurricane Run gurgled serenely down the valley, providing a calming soundtrack to my hike. Aside from the two men near the junction, I met zero other hikers on my trip upstream. I didn’t see any bees. Not one. Didn’t even hear a buzz.
Eventually, I crossed the creek and headed south on the Hurricane Run Trail. This trail meandered through the Delaware forest, swinging east for a half mile before crossing Rocky Run and turning sharply west toward Brandywine Creek. As I made my way back, I trod a variety of trails (like the Left Anterior Descending Trail) and passed in and out of Brandywine Creek State Park. Five miles into my hike, I rejoined the Rocky Run Loop.
Following the loop clockwise brought me further south and delivered me to the Longwall Trail. This aptly named trail followed a tumble-down wall built of the same grey stone that I had seen all along Brandywine Creek. I was hiking parallel to the creek now, but far enough away that I couldn’t see it. I spent my last mile striding gently downhill before the Longwall met the wide, gravel Brandywine Creek Path. The BCP escorted me straight back to the parking area. Before I drove away, I was sure to drop a note in the self-payment box letting park administrators know I had paid at the north entrance.
It was easy to see why Andrew Wyeth was inspired by the Brandywine Valley. The river was serene, the woods sublime. All up and down the creek were pleasant vignettes just waiting to be captured on vellum and framed for posterity. That homepun comfort that exemplifies Mr. Wyeth’s work was abundant and Brandywine Creek State Park is keeping it safe for you and me to explore. These paths, particularly the ones along the water, are great for just about anyone, and the trail system connects with trails in First State National Historical Park (part of the National Park system) for miles of delightful hiking. Additional fees may apply. Visit Brandywine Creek State Park and, if you don’t feel like hiking, bring some paint. ♦
Date: September 27, 2020
Location: Rockland, DE
Trailhead: 39.797937, -75.573139
Distance: 7.0 miles
Elevation Gain: 564 feet
BIT|Hiker acknowledges the indigenous peoples who are the original inhabitants of the lands on which we hike. Our research for this post indicated we were on ancestral lands of the Lanape Haki-nk.