Dike and Boardwalk Trails

Submitted by Cindy Heffley

Since I enjoy sunrise walks year-round, the Dike Trail has become my favorite since moving to Delaware. The Refuge is open a half hour before sunrise, so it’s the perfect spot to catch the sun as it appears along the horizon. Even before the sun has started peeking in the east, wildlife can be heard getting ready to start their day.

Once the sun has risen, the light it casts on the trees, marsh, and water creates a great spotlight on any wildlife waking up and moving around. This is especially exciting when there is an orange glow from the sun. Even if it’s not sunny, birds and other wildlife will be going about their morning. It’s a great time to catch Great Blue Herons preening their feathers or Raccoons and White-tailed Deer moving across the Trail. I sometimes walk backwards to ensure not missing something that’s being illuminated since the lighting changes minute by minute.

Since the trail is wheel-chair and stroller accessible, it’s mostly flat with a smooth surface which means no roots sticking up creating tripping issues. The Trail is just a half mile one way and ends at the observation tower. If you’re able, climb up and enjoy the panoramic view of the marshes. You’ll be treated to being eye-level to birds flying by. As you make your return, notice how the light has changed. Look high and low since some birds may be pecking around on the ground while others are moving from tree to tree. You might see a Cottontail Rabbit or White-tailed Deer just off in the woods.

If you’re more of an evening person, the Sunset is also a nice time to visit since there is a clear view to the west. And if the timing is right, seeing the full moon rise or set can be spectacular.

Recently I was treated to a River Otter swimming and feeding in the ditch along the trail. In warmer months, Black Rat Snakes and Black Racers may be seen basking in the sun since the stone path warms up quickly. Also in warmer months, be aware that if the wind isn’t blowing, biting flies might be present! The water level in this area fluctuates depending on wind and rain, so sometimes you may see birds feeding on the mudflats while other times there may be waterfowl dipping to feed below the water. Always look across the marsh grasses since Northern Harriers and other raptors can often be seen hunting for prey. Listen for the sound of the Belted Kingfisher as it makes its way up and down the ditch before landing on a snag or diving into the ditch to catch a fish.

As you walk the trail, be sure to stop periodically to give wildlife a chance to adjust to your presence. Many times, they will continue with their day giving you a view into their world. Also be sure to listen quietly for crunching, pecking, and singing.

I always include the half-mile Boardwalk Trail loop in my route since it connects to the Dike Trail. This trail allows you to walk through the forested area and then onto a raised boardwalk overlooking marshlands. Be sure to look up as you walk the boardwalk section since many times you will see Bald Eagles roosting high above. There are many snags along the way which act as a great place for woodpeckers to nest and feed. If the boardwalk is wet, use caution since it tends to get slippery.

Once you are on the boardwalk overlooking the marsh, be sure to look for Clapper Rails in warmer months. Off in the distance, look for Bald Eagles and Northern Harriers on the hunt. There are a few benches along the way, so feel free to stop and relax. If you’re quiet, wildlife will go about their day giving you a closer view into their world.

We asked visitors and volunteers what they like about these trails.

Board member Carla Burton mentioned, “I like walking early morning though never get there at sunrise. The birds are most active, the smells most acute and the light can be interesting. There are fewer people. Pay attention to the sights, sounds and smells. I like spring, fall and winter to walk. It’s too hot in the summer most of the time for me and the bugs are ever present. I’ve been walking at the Refuge for 16 years. When I visited just before moving here. I was walking on the Dike Trail and a Northern Flicker flew down onto the path a bit in front of me! It’s one of my favorite birds I had them at my feeder on Cape Cod. So when that happened, I knew it was fine for me to move to Delaware and be close to Prime Hook.”

James Housten III tells us “Early morning on the Dike Trail as the sun comes up produces great light.’ He also mentioned walking backwards at times just as I do!

Ashley Norton reminds us, “Always keep an eye out for Bald Eagles in trees and Great Blue Herons and Rails in the spartina along the Dike Trail. We walk the dog and birdwatch on both trails so often that our dog, Bowie, preemptively stops and sits to wait for us to scan with binoculars at specific spots.”