Great Trips

'Live & Play' in a Refuge Gateway

Stretching inland from the shores of Delaware Bay lies Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge. This federal sanctuary is about 16,000 acres in size, most of which remains as unaltered today as it did when its nearest town — Smyrna, Delaware — was founded in 1716. Almost 300 years later, this gateway community of less than 8,000 souls is considered an adventure destination of great distinction in the First State.

In August of 2007, Smyrna was listed in the small-town category as one of the "50 Best Places to Live & Play" by National Geographic Adventure Magazine. A big reason for this honor is its close proximity to Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge. The salt marshes here afford residents and visitors alike with year-round opportunities to experience nature, and this includes one of the fast-growing pastimes around: wildlife watching.

More than 250 species of birds use the tidal marshes of Bombay Hook during their spring and fall migrations across the Atlantic flyway. This natural phenomenon is so celebrated, in fact, the refuge even hosts a Migratory Bird Festival every May. This event caters to families and birder watchers of all experience levels as they explore the sanctuary's five nature trails and three observation towers.

Incidentally, this event also coincides with the April-to-June spawning season for horseshoe crabs, the official state marine animal of Delaware. These prehistoric creatures can best be viewed at Woodland Beach nearby or at Bowers Beach to the south. But remember, if you see one these harmless critters on its back, lend a hand and "Just flip ‘em."

Combine this with the 40-mile network of trails at Blackbird State Forest and it's no wonder Smyrna serves as a modern-day magnet for ecotourists on adventure. However, if weather rains on your parade, another "eco-attraction" of note is the Environmental Outpost and Mountjoy Observatory located in Big Oak County Park. And the Delaware National Estuarine Research Reserve, with its boardwalk and marine-science programs, sits just 18 miles to the south in the historic capital of Dover. There you'll find the lion's share of lodgings, but the Best Western off Route 1 is perhaps the most modern hotel in Smyrna. And camping is available 28 miles to the south, at Killens Pond State Park and Water Park.

Visitors may also be happy to know that two legendary crab shacks await them on the outskirts of Smyrna: Sambos Tavern and The Boondocks. Between the summer months of April and September, both local favorites offer, among other things, fresh blue crabs served every which way. Sambos even offers waterfront seating alongside the Leipsic River, where professional fishermen haul in their catch. But only those 21 and older may enter. The family place is The Boondocks, though they do serve a drink called "Swamp Water" that will make Smyrna seem a little more like San Juan. And if you're feeling really adventurous, head over to the Wagon Wheel Restaurant during the January-to-March trapping season. It's one of the only places in the country where you can order par-boiled and fried muskrat, otherwise known as "marsh rabbit." They've been serving the same way since the 1960s.

Smyrna offers all the amenities one could need for an outdoor adventure at Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge. And it's not alone. This world-class bird sanctuary also serves as a terrific gateway to the Blue Hen State's 26 other birding sites, all of which are located along the newly created Delaware Birding Trail. To discover how you can see them all, simply visit www.DelawareBirdingTrail.org.

Photo by Derek Stoner


Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Photo by Derek Stoner

Photo by Gary Kreamer