My Unintentional “Ultra” (Navigationally Challenged Adventure) in Cape Henlopen State Park

Co-owner, Metro Run & Walk, Certified Pedorthist, and Runner Walker

Co-owner, Metro Run & Walk, Certified Pedorthist, and Runner

As I have been doing for the last several years, this past weekend was my annual trip to the beach with girlfriends.  If you read my blog articles last year as I was training for a sub 4:00 Marine Corps Marathon, the beach was where I injured my right hip flexor which took me out of the marathon.  All is healed and I’m working on a strong base so that I can start training for a spring 2015 marathon.  As you can probably imagine, I was going to be so, so careful this year.  No walking in the surf, no running on uneven terrain, just regular running.

As the ladies headed out for a shopping trip to Lewes, Delaware, I decided that I would go for a run at the Cape Henlopen State Park.  My friends had been there yesterday on a bike ride and shared that the new Gordons Pond Trail would be a great run.  It sounded great and not being interested in shopping, I made plans to go.

cape henlopen state parkBefore leaving the house, I looked at the map of the park just so I could see what the park offers.  I left the house at 11:00am with my 16oz water belt and a pack of sportbeans in the back pocket.  Knowing that the trail had a lot of shade, I didn’t even think to put sunscreen on, nor did I think to put bugspray on.  After all, I was only going on an established trail and I would be running.  Its been my experience, that the bugs pretty much leave you alone when you’re running.


I drove to the park and parked at the entrance closest to Henlopen Acres.  This is the southern entrance.  The parking area is the Herring Point parking area.  Remember that.  I didn’t.

I located the Gordons Pond Trail and off I went.

Gordons Pond Trail, description from

  • Mode: Hiking and Biking
  • Distance: 2.65 miles (one way)
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Accessible:Yes
  • Trailheads: Gordons Pond and Herring Point parking lots

From the Gordons Pond parking lot, the trail follows the edge of Gordons Pond for approximately 0.75 miles over a level packed crushed stone surface to a scenic overlook. The overlook provides a scenic vista and is popular among nature enthusiasts for bird watching. From the overlook, the trail takes users for another 1.2 miles around the pond, then transitions into an elevated boardwalk for 0.4 miles. Along the boardwalk are two additional scenic overlooks, allowing for views of the salt marsh and beach. The trail transitions back to packed crushed stone and continues through an upland pine forest for 0.3 miles before reaching the Herring Point parking area.

Cape Henlopen 3 miles inIt was everything the description said.  The day was absolutely beautiful with the sun shining bright.  The trail wasn’t overcrowded but there were a number of other bikers, runners, and walkers.  I was really enjoying myself.  I got to the end of the trail at what I later came to learn was just past the Bidens Center.  I should have just turned around and backtracked, but I didn’t.  When I said I looked at the map, I meant it.  I did look at it, but I didn’t commit it to memory and I didn’t have a copy with me.  From the end of the Gordons Pond Trail, I turned left.

There weren’t many signs but that didn’t worry me much.  A few hundred yards from where I turned left at the end of Gordons Pond Trail, there was a sign “Salt Marsh Spur.”  Oh, I thought, “I came through the salt marsh on the trail so the spur must be on the opposite side of the salt marsh and would bring me back to the parking lot.

Salt Marsh Spur

  • Mode: Hiking and Biking
  • Distance: 0.6 miles (one way)
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Accessible: No
  • Trailhead:

The trail intersects the Walking Dunes Trail approximately at its midpoint. This 0.6-mile spur offers opportunities to see plant and wildlife and views of tidal marsh along its gentle path of packed and loose sand.

The key words in the above description are “one way.” I headed down the Salt Marsh Spur and yes I did see lots of plantlife, not much wildlife though.  I came to the end of the Spur and I was not back at the parking lot.  Surely, I thought if I just keep going I would pick up the trail.  Nope.  The trail really did end.  I discovered this after trekking through knee-high underbrush for about 10 minutes.  Ok, not a problem, I’ll just turn around and go back.  On my way back, I ran into a couple on the Salt Marsh Spur enjoying the trail.   “Do you know how to get back to the parking area?” I asked.  “Oh sure, just go down this trail until you come to the intersection of another trail, turn left and when you get to the paved road, turn left again.”  At least I thought that was what they said.

So, I turn left at the trail intersection, and turn left again on the paved road, go past the campground and after a bit come to a sign “Walking Dunes Spur.”  Hmmm… the couple didn’t tell me about this but I guess this will return me to the parking lot and according to the description below, it should have.

Walking Dunes Trail

  • Mode: Hiking and Biking
  • Distance: 1.6 miles
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Accessible: No
  • Trailhea10 mild: Herring Point parking lot

The trail travels through wooded uplands, traverses tidal marsh, and terminates at The Great Dune. It follows a gentle grade, suitable for all levels of hiking fitness, over sand, crushed shells, or pavement for 1.6 miles. In late spring, look along the trail for blooming Pink Lady’s Slipper and Beach Heather, with its abundant, tiny yellow flowers. Nature enthusiasts will also enjoy views of the tidal marsh and of the many birding opportunities available.

Please note: In summer, be aware of poison ivy growing along the trail.dunes1

The Great Dunes are pretty impressive.   I must not have entered the Trail at the right place or must have turned right instead of turning left because I never saw, smelled, or heard the ocean.  I followed the footsteps and tire tracks of people and vehicles that traversed this part of the park before me.   By now, I had traveled pretty close to 5 miles according to my Garmin Vivofit which I have taken to wearing every day as I like to see the distance I’ve covered on a daily basis.  I was down to about 2 ounces of water which I thought I should save because I didn’t know how long the Dunes Walking Trail was.  Remember, I only looked at the map… I didn’t commit it to memory. I was pretty much operating on assumptions that trails in the park would connect with other trails.

I walked the length of the Great Dunes still following footsteps and tire tracks.  I followed them right into the forest thinking that now I was getting closer.  After maybe a quarter of a mile, the footsteps and tire tracks stopped.  Surely that can’t be right!  I’m not back at the parking lot!  I wander about the forest for a few minutes thinking that the trail is just a few steps away.  When I finally admitted what should have been obvious, I was completely turned around.  I could find no trail, no footsteps, no tire tracks — just forest.  I hike through the forest for another 20 minutes or so, probably a mile and come to what appears to be a causeway.  Great!  I can stay on the banks of the causeway and it will either take me to the ocean or the bay.  Not only that, but I could hear a car in the distance on the opposite side.  So, I hike along the banks of the causeway until it become impenetrable.  Can’t go that way so I turn around and walk in the opposite direction taking care to keep the water in sight.  By now its coming up on 2:00pm and I had been in the park for nearly 3 hours.

Now, in retrospect, as I’m writing this I figure that by this time I’ve traveled 10 miles — 3 on the Gordons Pond Trail, 1.5 out and back on the Salt Marsh Spur, 1.6 on the Great Dunes, and likely 2 miles in the forest.  I am starting to get a bit nervous.  The last time I saw anyone was when I passed by the campground and that was a long time ago.  It was also then that I realized that in pushing branches aside, my Garmin Vivofit must be gotten caught on a limb and dropped off my wrist.  I did for a split second think about trying to find it, but quickly realized the futility of that.

I just stood for a few minutes trying to think this out.  I looked one way and the forest was thick.  Another way and the forest was thick.  I just kept circling trying to see if the forest thinned out at all.  I got a sense of the forest thinning out in a particular direction so headed off.   Excellent!  After another 15-20 minutes of tramping about, I was starting to see sand so I figured I was heading back into the Great Dunes.  By now, I was pretty thirsty and hungry, so I ate my SportBeans and drank the last of my water.

I did come to the Dunes and was able to pick up footsteps and tire tracks again.  Once again, like a bloodhound, I started following the trail left behind by other.  Unfortunately, like before, the footsteps and tire tracks once again entered the forest.  Being a little smarter now, I didn’t go as deep into the forest as before and after 10-15 minutes was able to turn myself around where I was once again at the base of the Great Dunes.  dunes2

I start my return trip on the Dunes and pass a few landmarks that I recognize, so now I’m not worried about being lost, but I was definitely feeling thirsty. skeleton I kept having those stereotypical images of finding a skeleton in the sand; a poor soul who got lost in the desert, ran out of water, and died leaving only sunbleached bones in the sand.  Speaking of sun, it was bearing down on me pretty strong and I was most definitely hot and thirsty.

After walking the 1.6 miles back to the road, I came to the campground.  I approached the campers and asked if they had any running water.  “Sure do,” they said “you just need to climb the fence to get to it.”  Are you kidding me!  Over the fence I go, through their campsite and refill my water bottle.  I drink a lot and fill it again.  Alright, let me try this again.  “Can you tell me how to get to the park entrance?” I asked.  “Oh yes, its very easy, walk to the left out this driveway until you come to the main road and turn left.  In a short while, you’ll come to the Rangers Office.”

Off I went down the yellow brick road — oh wait that is another story — driveway, out to the main road and within 1/4 mile or so did indeed come to the Rangers Office.  There was a line of about 10 people waiting to talk to the Ranger, so I asked the people in line “How do I get back to my car?  I parked at the entrance by Henlopen Acres and came over the marsh trail.”  A woman told me to go talk to her husband who was sitting in the car and he could tell me.  He instructed me to continue down the main park road and when I got to the divided highway, I would turn left.  So I did.

In about a 1/2 mile, I came to the divided road and turned left.  I walked a 1/4 mile or so before I realized that it was definitely not the road I came in on.  Arghhh… I turned around and re-entered the park.  Finally there were signs!  Fishing Pier, Nature Center, Youth Center.  I walked to the Nature Center and entered.  My first question to the park employee was to determine if they sold food and water.  Of course not.  That could be found at the Fishing Pier — the one I just passed a 1/4 mile back.  I then asked how to get back to my car — the one at the parking lot by Henlopen Acres.  I described where I had been that day so far and she exclaimed that “Well, you’ve seen just about everything the park has to offer.  You just need to see The Point.”  Yes, indeed I had seen quite a lot of the park and No, I wasn’t interested The Point.  I looked at the clock and saw that it was 3:15.  Four hours after my adventure started.

I backtracked to the Fishing Pier and bought a bottle of cold water and a popsicle.  They didn’t really have much more, only a selection of chips but that was the last thing I was interested in.  After eating my Popsicle, I started walking again and passed the Nature Center again.  I kept straight until I came across a sign for the Bathhouse.  There must be someone there who could tell me how to get back to my car!  I approached the Bathhouse looking for a park ranger.  Not there but I ended up following a man going to his car.  I called out to him and explained that I was “lost” and could he tell me how to either get to the correct parking lot or how to get back to the trail that would take me to the parking lot.  After 5 minutes of discussion, we agreed that I was looking for the Biden Center where I could pick up Gordons Pond Trail.  He offered to drive me to the Biden Center but I insisted that if he could provide directions, that would be sufficient.  At that point, his wife approached and I repeated my recitation of where I had been and where I was looking to go.  “Absolutely not!  I insist that we will drive you to your car.”

Turns out that last year, she and a friend had a similar experience of getting turned around in this same Park and they spent 2 hours trying to get back to where they started, so she had a lot of empathy for my plight.  As we were driving back to my car, I asked them where they lived.

“We live in Fairfax.”

“Oh, I live in Herndon,” I said.  “Where in Fairfax ?”

“You’ve probably never heard of it.  Its a little subdivision called Franklin Glen, right next to Franklin Farm.”

“No kidding!  I live in Franklin Farm!”

We all had a good laugh about that and then talked running, barefoot running, and running and walking form for the remainder of the car ride.  I didn’t realize that we exited the park in Lewes, a few beach towns down the road from where I entered.  I finally got back to my car and then back to the house by 4:30 — 5 1/2 hours after I left.

In calculating the distance I covered that day, I figure I traveled somewhere between 13 and 15 miles.  Not an ultra in terms of distance but certainly in terms of the “route requiring some navigational abilities.”

UltraRunning is devoted to covering the sport of long distance running, also known as ultramarathoning, or, as we prefer, ultrarunning. How far is “a long distance”? The standard definition is anything past the marathon, or 26.2 miles. However, the shortest standard distance that is considered an ultra is the 50 kilometer distance, or 31.07 miles. Other standard distances are the 50 mile, 100 mile, 100 km, and a series of events that last for specified time periods such as 6 hour, 12 hour, 24 hour, 48 hour, and 6 days.

Occasionally, we extend our editorial coverage to include shorter distances if they merit the tag of “something different;” such races might involve considerable difficulty involving severe terrain, or perhaps a route requiring some navigational abilities.  from

cape henlopen ultra

I cleaned up, met my friends on the beach for a cocktail and shared my story.  I figured my adventure was over.  Not quite over…

chigger rashchigger2Later that night, I noticed some very small red/brown somethings moving on the skin around my ankles and knees.  Shortly after that I started itching like crazy.  Chiggers!  Nasty little buggers.  I picked them up traipsing around the forest and the undergrowth.   By the next day, I had the characteristic chigger rash which is still progressing.  Both legs — front and back, back of my arms, wrists, shoulders, and behind my left ear.

I sit here now at the kitchen table with my legs covered in a mixture of Vicks Vapo Rub and salt. It is definitely quelling the itch and drawing the moisture out of the rash.  I’m hopeful the swelling in my legs will go down in a few days so that I can comfortably wear pants and go for a run.

Lessons Learned:  take your phone when running in an unfamiliar area, put on sunscreen, put on bugspray, have a compass, get and keep a map with you, make sure you can read said map.

Note:  As I was getting ready to include this article in our monthly newsletter, Mark challenged me on the use of “ultra” in the article title.  As I said several paragraphs up, I readily admit that my adventure is NOT AN ULTRA distance run!  It was a “directionally challenged adventure.”

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