The D&R Canal towpath was a mess after the one-two punch from Henri and Ida in late August and early September of 2021. Eight months later, it was time to check out how much repair work had been done and how rideable the route is. So we hopped New Jersey Transit to New Brunswick to find out.
The big picture: It’s a beautiful unpaved section of the bigger 3,000-mile East Coast Greenway, with water on one or both sides as you pedal (or hike). You’ll see turtles sunning themselves on logs, sometimes a blue heron taking flight. We saw ducklings scampering to their parents for protection; thankfully we didn’t get any hisses or worse.
Plus it’s car-free for about 27 miles (if you want more, you keep going all the way to Trenton). The pleasure of mindlessly pedaling and chatting more than compensates for the fact that you actualy go northwest for a bit before turning south. Yes, taking the road straight west would mean fewer miles, but you’d have to pay attention to motorists.
Here’s the route we took: From the New Brunswick train station at the edge of one of the Rutgers campuses, it’s a straight shot down Albany Street (Route 27) to the bridge over the Raritan and the path to Johnson Park in Highland Park. Unfortunately the bike path peters out before the bridge and then you have to deal with traffic merging onto the road. At least there’s a path on the bridge and a traffic light at River Road so you can cross Route 27 like a pedestrian if needed. Yup, we had to. But we were soon able to get on the path and into Johnson Park.
All good there. All good with the reopened Landing Lane bridge between Piscataway and New Brunswick and right before Rutgers’ football stadium. The bike/ped path on the southbound side is a bit narrow for two-way traffic, but hopefully that will change with the planned 2025 full bridge replacement.
We immediately picked up the D&R Canal towpath right after the bridge, sandwiched between the canal and the Raritan River. And we hit our first snag: that spillway. Not only were rocks jutting out but water was running through it from the canal to the river. So we had to carefully pick out way through it, trying to keep shoes dry and bikes upright. Thankfully we weren’t trying to maneuver bikes weighed down with touring gear.
I don’t remember anything this rough when I biked all the way to New Brunswick in 2018. Apparently repair work is slated for the spillway sometime soon. But for now, walk.
Our wet tires picked up lots of grit and stonedust as we resumed pedaling; I could see it spitting off my front tires and kept hoping it wouldn’t gunk up the gap between my frame and rear brake calipers. Once the tire was too dry (or too covered?) to pick up more, we thought all was good. Nope. We soon hit large stones put down by a contractor. Were these to be crushed into the ground with the roller we soon passed? And help crushed stone dust stay put? Hopefully it’s not permanent, because that was a slow and jarring 2 miles on my road bike (with 28 mm tires to better handle trails like this).
The good news: the surface turned to crushed stonedust after that, covering some of that red clay that I recall coating a bike and panniers several years ago. Well, at least until after Zerephath, home of a religious school with an uncomfortable Klan connection, and onto East Millstone. Even then, my bike did not turn brownish-red. And we could bike across some spillways, even if it sometimes was questionable. We did not ride if we saw jagged stones sticking out — we ran into one rider closer to Princeton who’d done it the week before and took a tumble the second time. He was still feeling it.
Eventually you’re on the outskirts of Princeton. Carnegie Lake, created on Andrew Carnegie’s orders, will be on your right. You might catch a view of Princeton rowers or a regatta. Amateur kayakers and canoers, maybe even stand-up paddleboaders, will be using the canal; the rental spots are at Griggstown and at Alexander Road in Princeton.
Overall, the surface was smooth with few ruts or holes now filled with large rocks — until we got closer to Princeton. But those sections were short, and the towpath is wide enough there that we could usually go around. Honestly, that’s nothing unusual. A bonus this time was that it hadn’t rained in a while, so the path was dry.
Unfortunately last year wasn’t the first time the Millstone River overflowed its banks and covered the towpath. Just be warned.
But wait — what about these trees? That’s a new sight. What’s gnawing on them? Because that’s not damage from someone who’s bad with an ax. My bet is beavers. I’ll have to start looking for signs of a lodge or a dam the next time I’m on the D&R canal towpath closer to Griggstown. And once the trees go, what does it mean for soil erosion?
Curious about the rest of the East Coast Greenway in New Jersey? We tested out the East Coast Greenway’s new route through Jersey City and Bayonne to Rahway, New Jersey — here’s what we found