BLAZING A TRAIL; Pennsylvania: The Delaware Canal towpath leads bicyclists on an easy ride, despite the summer heat, past a string of quaint villages and straight down the middle of history.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Just south of Riegelsville, Pa., the Delaware Canal towpath we were biking swept close enough to Route 611 to see the yellow numbers on the big digital sign outside First Savings Bank.

The time flashed: 11:30 in the morning. Then the temperature: 95 degrees.

We'd picked an early June day for our 35-mile, mountain-bike ride between Easton and New Hope, and we were getting the worst kind of August weather. Still, the three of us agreed, as hot as it was -- and we'd already sweated at least a quart of Gatorade apiece -- the riding thus far had been pleasant.

The tree canopy had kept us in shade for most of the way, preserving a hint of coolness in what remained of the early morning mist. The air was heavily scented with honeysuckle and wild roses, a fragrance that, despite the heat, bespoke late spring. And, because this was an old canal towpath, the riding was not that arduous -- all flat and on grass or a dirt path.

Best of all, we were biking what is certainly one of the most historic routes in America, riding through quaint villages and towns and past old stone homes and barns that were built well back into the 18th century, even before the canal was conceived. The towpath itself dates to 1834, when the canal opened to carry anthracite coal to market in Philadelphia.

Today, almost all of its 23 locks are intact, as are most of its aqueducts and other engineering features, including the shanties, called "wickets," where lock tenders operated the lock gates, and the nearby homes where they lived. Most of the latter are now private dwellings that have been restored.

The canal and towpath constitute a 60-mile state park that meanders in a ribbon of green south along the Delaware River to tidewater at the borough of Bristol. This is "the only surviving canal of the 19th Century building era to remain intact" in America, says the author C.P. "Bill" Yoder in his "Delaware Canal Journal, A Definitive History." It's also a great place to spend a weekend, whether by car, bike or canoe on the adjacent river, which follows the canal for much of its length.

Following the canal

The three of us -- Don, Jim and myself -- had met 90 minutes earlier south of Easton, where the canal begins at the juncture of the Lehigh and Delaware rivers.

After the Erie Canal opened in 1825, a frenzy of canal construction followed in America. When the Delaware Canal began operating in 1834, it was a link to the Lehigh Navigation Canal, which was already carrying coal from upstate anthracite fields. At Easton, that coal would now head down the Delaware Canal to Philadelphia, or up the Morris Canal -- which began across the river in New Jersey -- to Central Jersey and then east to the New York market.

The narrow but sturdy canal boats could carry up to 70 tons of coal at a time; on the return voyage, they brought provisions from Philadelphia to settlements along the canal and upstate in the anthracite coal fields.

Shortly after 10 a.m., we started pedaling southward, spooking within 100 yards the first of what would be dozens of gaggles of Canada geese and their goslings. Wildlife is plentiful along the canal -- we'd see turtles and catfish, muskrats, groundhogs and deer, and bird life that included a stunning Baltimore oriole and a kestrel being chased by starlings. But the geese are definitely in the majority, and their droppings constitute something of a hazard, spattering not just onto legs but onto the mouths of water bottles bolted to bicycle frames.

The towpath essentially follows two scenic highways, first Route 611, then Route 32, making the canal and its historic features almost as accessible from the road as from the towpath for weekend automobile wanderers.

The first village, Raubsville, has one of the most interesting locks on the canal, a double one that permitted two boats to be "locked through" at the same time, side by side. There's also the remains of an old stone hydroelectric generating station, complete with precipitous, tumbling waterfall, that was generating electricity as late as 1954. Because of the water power available here, there was a sawmill, paper mill and distillery operating even before the Civil War.

We rode on, over the first of 10 aqueducts outside Riegelsville, then through the back of town and out the other side, with a brief stop for granola-bar snacks and water in the mounting heat. Past the bank sign that registered 95 degrees, we came upon Trauger's Farm Market, and with strawberries in season, we stopped and bought a quart then split it under the shade of an old maple whose enormous girth had undoubtedly propped many a weary traveler's backside.

Like the little market, the strawberry fields in the fertile bottomland were immediately beside the towpath and canal, accessed from a bridge off the highway. In fact, we often found that we were pretty much riding through people's back yards at points, so we did what others also seemed to have done, and left not a trace behind.

At Kintnersville, settled by German immigrants in the 1730s, Route 611 splits off toward Doylestown and Philadelphia and the towpath follows the river and canal along Route 32, commonly known as River Road. We passed over Gallows Run on another aqueduct, then followed the high Nockamixon Palisades downriver for several miles. From here down, for decades after the canal opened, a lucrative business was conducted collecting cobblestones -- deposited by glaciers and rounded by the river's flow -- which were shipped down the canal and used to pave the streets in Philadelphia.

It was really getting hot. A thermometer on Jim's fancy metric odometer read 37 degrees Celsius -- almost 99 degrees. Just at the point where we were debating a ride across a bridge and into Frenchtown, N.J., for lunch, we came upon a small porch draped in potted flowers and a few adjacent white plastic tables and chairs -- the rear of a general store in Upper Black Eddy, said to be the only general store remaining on the canal.

Fortunately for us, the store had a deli that provided excellent sandwiches made and served by a friendly woman who joked about us picking such a hot day to ride. We consumed the sandwiches, along with a huge bag of salty potato chips, beneath what had now become the sauna-like shade of a couple canalside trees. Two mooching dalmatians finished the scraps.

It was hot

We'd already gone by a couple inns near the towpath, and there would be at least a dozen more, many of them dating to the canal era. Today, however, most are fancy places with excellent restaurants that cater not to canal boatmen but to Philadelphia and New York yuppies who can afford to pay $50 or more for a meal and $100 to $300 for an overnight stay.

At the red covered bridge in Uhlerstown, in continuous use since it was built in 1832, Don dropped out and rode to nearby Frenchtown, where he'd parked his car. It was pre-arranged -- he had to get back to Philadelphia -- but he wasn't weeping about quitting, given the heat.

Despite staying hydrated, I was starting to get chills because my rapidly aging body was not yet conditioned for heavy exercise in extreme heat, and it wasn't long before I was clambering down the riverbank to wipe the cool water over my arms and head and face. (At this point, the canal was looking downright stagnant.)

Shortly thereafter, we came upon a towpath back yard where a little boy splashed about in a small plastic pool, watched over by a teen-ager and a man who identified himself as Michel Faure. Darned if we hadn't stumbled upon the backside of the Golden Pheasant Inn, long accepted as one of the river's best restaurants (country French) and hostelries, and the owner-chef, Faure, his grandson, Rhoads, and a daughter, Blake.

We chatted a bit, but declined his invitation to see the inside. The afternoon heat had become beyond oppressive. My body, I knew, was in the danger zone.

At Point Pleasant, the water disappeared from the canal. The state has been working to repair a three-mile section between here and Centre Bridge for years and is still a year away from finishing, with millions of dollars already spent on the project. At the same time, the state is embarking on a five-year, $7.6 million project to improve the bed of the towpath for bike riding and hiking, and to add parking and toilets and picnic areas and generally "make recreation a priority in the park," said park manager Ken Lewis.

The next few miles were rough riding over recently graded and reconstructed parts of the canal, at times over stone ballast, at other times over dirt patches so soft that even the knobby mountain bike tires had trouble pulling us through. We'd already registered at the 1740 House in Lumberville, and I figured that when we saw it, I'd just drop out and let Jim ride on to New Hope, where he'd parked his car (mine was at Easton).

A charming village But, with Lumberville looking more like the backside of a few houses along the canal than the absolutely charming riverside village it is, we rode right by. Only two tough miles later did I realize the error.

"I'm heading back," I told Jim, and took to the narrow, but paved, Route 32 and backtracked into Lumberville and found the 1740 House, right there beside the river and canal. I registered, went to the room and cranked the air conditioner on high, then trotted 100 yards up the road to the venerable Lumberville store and bought a six-pack of Gatorade.

Jim arrived about an hour later. We killed the six-pack, showered, then drove to Easton to get my car. Later, we had an enormous, if not gourmet, meal in New Hope, walked the streets there and in Lambertville, then enjoyed a cramp-free sleep, thanks to extra doses of Advil, which I consider the companion drug to Gatorade.

Next day, the 1740 House served a nice continental breakfast as part of its $89 nightly rate, and in a sunny room that looked out to the canal and river. An air-conditioned room. A new and eager-to-please hostess chatted us up and added to the pleasant surroundings. We had a second cup of coffee (or was that a third?), and took our time.

We'd thought, perhaps, that we'd do some biking this day, too.

But when we walked out the door, and hit another heat wall, we knew without exchanging a word that bicycling was out of the question. We'd ride, all right. But in the air-conditioned comfort of our cars.

WHEN YOU GO

Getting there: To get to Easton, Pa., where the Delaware Canal begins, take Interstate 83 north to Interstate 81 at Harrisburg and then take I-81 northeast to Interstate 78 and follow I-78 east through the Lehigh Valley to the Easton exit. Follow the signs from there; the trip takes about three and a half hours from Baltimore.

Logistics: It's possible to bicycle north from New Hope to Easton -- the towpath is flat, so the exertion is the same in either direction -- but inadvisable, because accommodations are more plentiful and superior in the New Hope area. Those who want to position one vehicle in New Hope and then drive north to Easton in the other should take Interstate 95 north through Philadelphia to the New Hope/Yardley exit in Bucks County, then follow Route 32 (River Road) north from there.

Lodging

New Hope and its sister borough across the Delaware River, Lambertville, N.J., have an abundance of bed and breakfasts and small inns, and there are others strung out on both sides of the river going north. For information about accommodations on the Pennsylvania side, contact the New Hope Information Center, 215-862-5880. For information about the New Jersey side, call the Lambertville Area Chamber of Commerce, 609-397-0055.

A few suggestions with range of rates (weekend rates are higher):

n For Pennsylvania: Historic Logan Inn in downtown New Hope, 16 rooms, $95-$145 a night double occupancy, 215-862-2300.

New Hope Inn, just off New Hope's Main Street, 33 rooms, $95-$160 double, 215-862-2078.

1740 House, a few miles upriver from New Hope at Lumberville, 24 rooms, $90-$131, 215-297-5661.

Black Bass Inn, also in Lumberville, nine rooms, $65-$175, 215-297-5770.

n For New Jersey: Inn at Lambertville Station, just across the bridge from New Hope, with 45 rooms the largest in either New Hope or Lambertville, $95-$235 a night double, 800-524-1091 or 609-397-4400.

York Street House B&B;, old mansion on a quiet side street, six rooms, $65-$150 a night.

Hunterdon House, 12 miles upriver at Frenchtown, 7 rooms in a Victorian B&B;, $85-$165, 800-382-0375 or 908-996-3632.

Places to eat

Select from a few dozen in New Hope and Lambertville, from the relatively cheap and casual to the very expensive, plus more north along the river, particularly on the Pennsylvania side.

Pennsylvania: Moderately priced old standbys in New Hope include Mother's, entrees $12-$20, 215-862-9354, or Havana, $9-$22, 215-862-9897.

More expensive dining spots are La Bonne Auberge, $30-$35, 215-862-2462; Odette's, $18-$29, 215-862-2432; and Hotel du Village, $16-$21, 215-862-9911.

Upriver, some of the old favorites include the Inn at Phillips Mill, just above New Hope, $15-$26, 215-862-9919; the Black Bass Inn, Lumberville, $20-$27, 215-297-5770; and the Golden Pheasant, Erwinna, $18-$24, 610-294-9595.

n New Jersey: In Lambertville, two upscale favorites are Anton's at the Swan, dinner entrees $23-$30, 609-397-1960, and the Yellow Brick Toad on Route 179 just out of town, $16-$26, 609-397-3100.

Upriver, the Stockton Inn is a favorite, with dinner entrees ranging from $17-$27, 609-397-1250; in Frenchtown, it's the Frenchtown Inn, $24-$28, 908-996-3300.

Tips

Only the most gung-ho biker will attempt the 70-mile Easton-New Hope round-trip.

Ride with friends, position cars in each town, and enjoy the excursion and the dining and ambience in New Hope and Lambertville.

Expect crowds and heavy traffic on weekends in the two towns.

Places to see

Those with time might want to visit Easton's small National Canal Museum, or the Crayola Factory, a tourist attraction operated by Binney & Smith, the folks who make the famous crayons.

Both New Hope and Lambertville are historic river towns with plenty to see and do. New Hope has a long history as an arts community. The village became known in the late 19th-century and early 20th century as an art colony for the Pennsylvania impressionists school, and has evolved into a tourist town that combines art, crafts, galleries and shopping.

Lambertville began attracting tourists about 25 years ago and now has its own collection of inns, restaurants and shops. The town also has become something of an antiques center in the past decade.

Another canal: Across the river in New Jersey, from Trenton north 70 miles, is Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park, with another canal towpath and old rail bed converted to a hiking and biking trail. It's possible to design biking or hiking loops that take in the towpaths on both sides of the river. Also, for those riding road bikes, the paved river road in New Jersey, Route 29, has a wide berm for a lot of its length and is much more suitable for biking than narrow Route 32 in Pennsylvania.

Information: For the Pennsylvania side, contact Delaware Canal State Park, 610-982-5560, or the New Hope Information Center, 215-862-5880. For information about the New Jersey side, contact Bull's Island Recreation Area, 609-397-2949, or the Lambertville Area Chamber of Commerce, 609-397-0055.

-- Michael Shoup

AN IDEAL DAY

9:30 a.m.: Arrive at the juncture of the Lehigh and Delaware rivers, where the Delaware Canal begins. Inhale that rich river aroma, enhanced by churning water spilling from the Lehigh into the Delaware. Put the bikes together, tinker a bit to make sure everything's OK, and pedal south on the grassy towpath.

10:15 a.m.: Take the first long pause at Lock 22-23 in Raubsville, commonly referred to as Groundhog Lock by 19th century canal boaters. See, still intact, not only the locks and gates, but also the locktender's home and the shanty that contains the mechanism for operating the locks. Beside an old mill, inhale sharp drafts of cool air spilling from a precipitous waterfall that dumps into the river.

11 a.m.: Having negotiated through at least a dozen gaggles of geese, stop again on the backside of Riegelsville for granola bar snacks.

11:30 a.m.: South of Riegelsville, find Trauger's Farm Market, have some fruit juice, and split a quart of strawberries picked that morning from an adjacent field. Fresh strawberries never tasted better.

1 p.m.: As hunger peaks, stumble upon the rear of a general store in Upper Black Eddy, with a few of those ubiquitous white plastic chairs and tables sitting beside the canal. An oasis! And one that makes excellent sandwiches, too!

2:45 p.m.: Stumble down the river bank to bathe arms and head in cool water as the temperature hits 99 degrees. Eat a couple of Advil to stave off leg cramps.

3:45 p.m.: Collapse in air-conditioned room of 1740 House and guzzle Gatorade purchased at nearby store.

5:30 p.m.: Drive back to Easton to pick up the car, then drive south again to New Hope for dinner. More Advil. Wonder whether we should ride the next day.

-- Michael Shoup

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