DELAWARE WATER GAP, Pa. -- After the lukewarm weather of early summer, it had turned hot and sticky in New York City. I wanted out.
I had heard about the sweeping views and sylvan refuge of the Delaware Water Gap at the edge of the Pocono plateau -- where we could lose ourselves in the languor of the Delaware River. Where we could hide in cool hemlock forests exploding with white and pale pink rhododendron blossoms.
So against all instincts to head to Long Island or the Jersey Shore, my fiance and I went west.
But after an hour-long sprint down I-80 to get into Dingmans campground before the gates closed at 11 p.m., we arrived at what looked like the outdoors section of a giant sporting goods store.
Blinding fluorescent lights bounced off sports utility vehicles flanked by tent cities, dining canopies and antennae.
The humid night was pierced with the buzz of our neighbor's bug zapper and the squeals of children at play.
In the morning, we realized we were next to the playground.
Still determined to get our fill of chlorophyll, we met ranger Bill Halainen for a sneak preview of the just-reopened, quarter-mile trail to the 130-foot-high Dingmans Falls and its little sister -- Silver Thread Falls.
The wheelchair-accessible boardwalk took us into a lush microclime of somber hemlocks and verdant ferns, mosses and maples.
The ranger suggests coming the day after a heavy rain -- and before the area becomes another Central Park "with all the people moving out here."
We even found a measure of solitude at the popular Milford Beach, where the major activity is gazing upon the canoes and inflatable dinosaurs that float down the lazy river.
When we got too hot, we'd cool ourselves in the green water framed by sandstone ridges and more thick groves.
Despite the earlier irritations, we had discovered the Valium-like magic of the river. We mellowed.
Almost imperceptibly, afternoon became evening, and we decided to try a hike. The Pocono and Walpack Valley environmental education centers offered maps of trails in the area. But we thought if we were going to expend some energy, we'd make a big deal of it and head up to ominous-sounding High Point State Park on the Kittatinny Ridge just a short jaunt north.
Run by the National Park Service, the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area straddles 40 miles of the Delaware River in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
The area was almost transformed in 1960 by Army Corps of Engineer plans to build a dam at Tocks Island just north of the Gap for a 37-mile lake.
In 1978, the project was scrapped, and today the 70,000-acre park draws about four million visitors annually but still offers enough seclusion sometimes not found in other national parks.
Wildlife, including black bears, whitetail deer, osprey and beaver, flourish, and bald eagles spend the winter here. It's also a good place to see raptors and hawks during their migrations.
At 1,803 feet, Kittatinny Ridge is the highest point in New Jersey. Here there are rare white cedar bogs, scattered wildflowers, stunning views of the upper Delaware Valley and, of course, the Gap.
That night, we slept 11 hours.
Heading south, we passed swaying stalks of corn, red barns, and gravelly backroads, including one of America's oldest commercial roads -- Old Mine Road.
Along the way, I suggested a stop at Peters Valley Craft Center. My companion, hesitant at first, actually enjoyed it. It was refreshing that the store did not sell one piece of merchandise that had been chiseled, carved, emblazoned, engraved or embroidered with the words, "Delaware Water Gap."
Instead, we found a showcase for local talent and innovative affordable art.
The other hard sell was Millbrook Village, which promised a living history tour of a late 19th-century rural community.
Except for a lovely trio of elderly women who insisted on explaining the finer points of rag rug-making, this free and worthwhile stop was ours to explore.
We sat in the same uncomfortable church pews and listened to the same awful organ music that the 19 families who lived there did. We also wondered if the tonics advertised on the antique bottles in the general store really worked.
And we thumbed through the old Sear's catalog to see if we needed anything.
Soon, it was late afternoon, and we hadn't even seen the star attraction -- The Gap. But we finally got there, after a stop at Kittatinny Visitor Center for a trail map and a detour in the quiet borough of Delaware Water Gap, Pa., for a mean apple pie a la mode at the local bakery/ice cream shop.
"Where is it?" I kept asking, knowing it was somewhere among the hillsides that hover over I-80 snaking through the Gap's celebrated "S" curve.
It took a hike up a rocky section of the Appalachian Trail to see how the river plain lifted and folded and created a nice place for us to mountain bike.
John McPhee describes the phenomenon from a lookout near Allamuchy, N.J., in In Suspect Terrain:
"The eye was drawn 18 miles west across a gulf of air to the forested wall of Kittatinny Mountain, filling the skyline of two states, its apparently endless flat ridgeline broken only by one deep notch, which centered and arrested the view and was as sharply defined as a notch in a gunsight: the Delaware Water Gap, where the big river comes obliquely through the mountain, like a thief through a gap in a fence."
The traffic was less than tranquil, but the noise faded as we made our way up the rhododendron-lined walkway. And there were great lookout points to view the 1,200-foot rock faces of Mount Minsi and Tammany, illuminated by the sunset.
GETTING THERE: Driving from Augusta, take I-20 east to I-95 north at Florence, S.C., to I-476 in Philadelphia, to I-80 eastbound at Bridgeport, Pa, then travel east toward Stroudsburg, Pa. From New York City, take I-80 west through New Jersey. From Scranton and Bethlehem, Pa., take I-80 east.
ACCOMMODATIONS: For the ground-bound, Dingmans Campground on the river off Pennsylvania Route 209 in Dingmans Ferry, Pa., features 125 wooded tent and RV sites. Run as a National Park Service concession, it offers showers, flush toilets and a general store that sells ice, wood and propane. Dingmans accepts reservations but fills up fast for weekends. Phone (717) 828-2266.
Also in the park are River Beach Campsites, Milford, Pa., (800) 356-2852, which caters to overnighting boaters, and Worthington State Forest, N.J., (908) 841-9575.
Bed-and-breakfasts abound in country charm-laden Milford, Pa. Lodging is also available in Delaware Water Gap and Stroudsburg, Pa.
ACTIVITIES: Canoes, kayaks and inner tubes can be rented at Kittatinny Canoes, (800) 356-2852 or Portland Outfitters, (717) 897-6717.
For anglers, the Delaware River and tributaries are home to more than 50 species, including trout, pike, sunfish and small-mouth bass. Several lakes and ponds are popular for panfish, bass and pickerel. A New Jersey or Pennsylvania license is required.
The park is one of few federally run areas to allow big game hunting and follows state regulations and seasons.
Mountain bikers should head to Blue Mountain Lakes with its 11 miles of easy to moderate trails.
In addition to 25 miles of the Appalachian Trail, the park has 60 miles of hiking trails. Maps are available at the visitor or environmental education centers.
Climbers can tackle 200 feet of quartzite and sandstone conglomerate rock on the faces of Mount Minsi and Mount Tammany.
Don't forget about the Gap during the rest of the year, especially for the fall foliage season and cross-country skiing and snowmobiling in winter.
Sept. 11-13 -- Celebration of the Arts Jazz Festival, Delaware Water Gap, Pa.
Oct. 3-4 -- Millbrook Days, Millbrook Village.
Oct. 16-18 -- 14th annual Fall Foliage Balloon Festival, Shawnee-on-Delaware, Pa.
INFORMATION: Park Headquarters (River Road in Bushkill, Pa.), (717) 588-2451; Kittatinny Point Visitor Center, (off I-80, N.J.), (908) 496-4458; Millbrook Village (Old Mine Road, 12 miles north of I-80, N.J.), (908) 841-9531; and Bushkill Visitor Center (Pennsylvania Route 209), (717) 588-7044.
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