If you live in Delaware, the southeastern part of Pennsylvania, or southern New Jersey, you have the opportunity to experience one of the most beautiful, relaxing, hikeable and bikeable wildlife refuges in the country—all near a major city center.
Situated along the Riverfront in Wilmington, Delaware, the Russell W. Peterson Urban Wildlife Refuge offers you an enriching experience amidst an environment filled with a diverse array of animals, birds, fish, and plants. Here’s what you need to know about this amazing urban wilderness.
Beavers, otters, turtles, ducks, red-winged blackbirds, birds of prey, and more make up the wildlife population of the refuge. Bright green leaves, tall grasses, and cattail-encircled ponds line the trails that traverse the freshwater tidal ecosystem. You can catch a glimpse of the Wilmington skyline through all the green, but it—and the sound of the occasional truck barreling along the nearby I-95—barely registers.
Sturdy footbridges and boardwalks pass over the marshes and bodies of water, and you can also just enjoy strolling along the riverfront. A skein of Canada geese might be flying overhead, on their way to quiet nesting grounds. This is one of only a few urban wildlife sanctuaries in the United States, and it remains a place of quiet beauty, seemingly created just to bring you into closer contact with nature, and with your own thoughts.
The late 1990s saw the start of a large-scale program designed to restore much of the lost marshlands of the region. Since then, wild creatures whose habitats had previously been threatened by encroaching human development have been able to flourish within the refuge. Related restoration work over the years has established nesting structures for bald eagles, ospreys, and other birds, built out a trail network, redirected past water channels to their original configurations, and provided greater stability to the shoreline tidal ecosystem.
A boardwalk connects one end of the wildlife refuge with the Wilmington Riverwalk trail, which provides a scenery-filled backdrop for walkers, runners, and cyclists along the Christina River.
Nearby is the DuPont Environmental Education Center. The Delaware Nature Society runs the center, providing a wealth of free activities and opportunities to learn more about local biodiversity. The Environmental Education Center also makes bicycle rentals available.
Programming in the refuge includes instruction in canoeing, classes in photography, river cruises, and much more. Next to the center is an additional 10 acres of botanic gardens.
Another 2,300-foot-long boardwalk section leads west along the border of the refuge, and then turns south to become the 5.5-mile Jack A. Markell Trail, which follows the tracks of an old industrial railroad. The trail winds over a largely flat terrain, providing a comfortable ramble, ride, skate, or rollerblade run from the Riverwalk through the wetlands and all the way to the city of New Castle.
For hikers and cyclists, it’s a breeze. This trail received a ranking as one of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s “Top 10 Trails in Delaware” for 2021, and it is a consistent local favorite overall.
The Markell Trail also gets glowing social media reviews from visitors, who have praised its smooth, easy stretch, beautiful views that include the occasional deer sighting, and even the rollercoaster-like experience of zipping over its boardwalk on a skateboard.
Governor of Delaware from 1969 to 1973, Russell W. Peterson (1916 – 2011) was also one of the foremost environmentalists of his day. Today, the Russell W. Peterson Urban Wildlife Refuge serves as a fitting and lasting memorial to his work.
Peterson was originally a research chemist with DuPont. He served as chairman of President Richard Nixon’s Council on Environmental Quality, chairman of the Center on the Long-Term Biological Consequences of Nuclear War, and president of both the National Audubon Society and the International Council for Bird Preservation.
As governor, Peterson was perhaps the central driving force behind passage of the 1971 Delaware Coastal Zone Act. This legislation blocked any new build-out of heavy industry along more than 100 miles of coastline stretching along the Christina River and Delaware Bay, and along the waters of the state’s barrier islands.
It was likely his strong support for this legislation, narrowly passed after rancorous political infighting, that cost Peterson any chance at future elected office. But the Coastal Zone Act went on to form a basis for other states’ efforts to protect their ecologically sensitive lands, and for similar legislation at the federal level.
Reclaiming the marshlands south of Wilmington was a long-time dream of Governor Peterson, one that he spent much of his later life working to make a reality.