Maybe it’s not as long as U.S. Route 1—running from Ft. Kent, Maine to Key West, Florida—or as dramatic as the Pacific Coast Highway—with views of Big Sur—or as storied as Route 66—inspiring a song and TV show. But Route 52 spans two states in its scenic 20-mile journey through the bucolic Brandywine Valley and is worth exploring this summer.
Travel blogs, books and magazines gush over it. Commuters appreciate how seldom it’s congested. Cyclists love the wide bicycle lanes in the southern part. And while it’s often been called one of the most scenic routes in Pennsylvania, there’s no such official designation—yet. Maybe it’s a little misunderstood, like a talented but attractive child.
That’s PA Route 52. You may know its southern sibling, DE Route 52. This may be the time to get to know them both better.
Barely 20-miles long, Route 52 connects West Chester to Wilmington and provides easy access to over two dozen attractions and points-of-interest—a handy regional self-drive guide to area highlights. The entire route, designated as Route 52 in 1928, has been realigned on occasion.
An adjustment was made most recently in 2011 when a new portion of the road was constructed—paid for by Longwood Gardens—to shift traffic to the east side of the Gardens between Route 926 and Route 1. Maybe you remember.
The southern portion of the highway is in Delaware where it’s designated the Brandywine Valley National Scenic Byway—part of the National Scenic Byways system. North of the Pennsylvania border, the roadway is no less attractive or historic, yet it’s not currently part of the scenic byways. A local conservation group is working hard to gain that recognition, though. In the meantime, I’ll call it The Scenic 52.
There are two great ways to access The Scenic 52, to the north or the south. In West Chester, the official northern entry onto the route is at the intersection of High and Price Streets—by the Burger King. However, local advocates would have the route extend north along High Street into downtown West Chester, then west on Gay Street to Bradford Avenue.
Beginning at this point puts you at the Chester County Art Center, 100 N. Bradford Ave. in West Chester. Here visitors can view exhibits from a growing group of regional artists, take an art workshop, and even network through outreach programs. Why not start your trip inspired by art?
Heading toward the center of downtown West Chester, you’ll find the Chester County Historical Society, 225 N. High St., for a bit of culture. It’s currently featuring an exhibit from more recent history, “The 1960s Pop Culture: Movies, Memorabilia and The Media.” Movie posters and promotional materials collected over a lifetime by Steve Friedman, known in his day as Mr. Movie, span mainstream Hollywood hits plus edgy, independent movies and demonstrate how influential the movie industry was in shaping 1960s culture.
Since you’re already downtown, why not grab a meal, browse the boutiques, and enjoy the historic streetscape with structures dating back to the 1770s? On weekdays, the Chester County Community Foundation allows visitors to peek inside the 1833 Lincoln Building, 28 W. Market St., the site where the first biography of Abraham Lincoln was written and published in February 1860. This is one of the town’s most historic structures and the original façade, floors and windows makes it easy to imagine being in West Chester 150 years ago.
For more opportunities for self-guided tours, follow along in West Chester, Six Walking Tours by Bruce Mowday, available at Chester County Historical Society. The book takes you on six tours visiting over 75 sites with 152 color photos.
South on the Scenic 52
Once you’re back on the road, heading south on Route 52, Baldwin’s Book Barn, 865 Lenape Rd., is a landmark just outside West Chester. The charming five-story stone barn dates from 1822 and is now a treasure trove where you can wander room-to-room discovering books, maps and prints of every kind. Books are bought and sold here, and the atmosphere creates a wonderland for bookworms.
Farther down the road sits Strodes Mill Gallery, 1000 Lenape Rd., where once in the stone and shake-roof buildings corn was ground, cider was pressed and trees were turned into lumber. Though the building itself is quaint, it now houses an extensive collection of art from regional and national artists, including new print releases by Andrew Wyeth and works by Bollinger, Scarborough and Sculthorpe. Don’t miss the old billboard for the pork products plant.
Continuing south, you’ll eventually cross Brandywine Creek, the site of the Brandywine Picnic Park, 690 S. Creek Rd. This scenic picnic ground is the largest in the region, offering activities from canoeing to midway games to rock walls and miniature golf plus catered picnics and roasted pigs—from piglets to 100-pound whole pigs!
Sidetrips from the junction of Route 52 and Route 1 let you visit top attractions including Longwood Gardens, Brandywine River Museum of Art, the Sanderson Museum and the Brandywine Battlefield. Read more in the Daytrips section of this guide.
And as you cross Route 1 heading for Delaware, you’ll see the Hamorton Historic District, with stone, brick and frame residences constructed between 1780 and 1930 as a company town by Pierre du Pont. These Colonial Revival dwellings, of impeccable integrity and high quality construction, represent an unusually large collection of this style of architecture.
From the southern end of the route, if you’re traveling north from, say, Washington D.C. on Interstate 95, take Exit 7 and head north on Route 52. Soon you’re beyond the city of Wilmington and into the bucolic Brandywine Valley where you’ll find the DuPont Historic Corridor. As the name suggests, it’s an area rich with the history of the du Pont family and their companies. While not as famous as the premier attraction near the Route 52/Route 1 intersection, the Delaware attractions are well worth your time.
You’ll be traveling upstream near the Brandywine Creek, which flows through the grounds of the Hagley Museum and Library, 200 Hagley Creek Rd., where the legacy of the du Pont family begins. There water wheels powered the mills of the first du Pont company as it made gun powder used for munitions and construction, and you’ll see one of the best interpretations of early American manufacturing.
Next stop is Nemours Mansion and Gardens, 850 Alapocas Dr., to the east on Route 141. One of the most opulent mansions anywhere, it was built to resemble a 70-room château in the style of Louis XVI, complete with Rococo French architecture and giant golden statue. Guided tours are open to the public (reservations required).
For a nature experience for the whole family, visit the Delaware Museum of Natural History, 4840 Kennett Pk. (aka Route 52). This summer there’s a truly icky exhibit of freakish bugs at “Dr. Entomo’s Palace of Exotic Wonders,” including the “Devil with Two Heads,” scorpions that glow in the dark, and the offending stench of the Giant Vinegaroon. It’s just like an old-fashioned circus sideshow, and many of the curious creatures are indeed alive.
As you approach the DE/PA line, it may be time to wet your whistle. Try Buckley’s Tavern, 5812 Kennett Pk., which has been around since 1817, functioning as a residence, tollgate, taproom and ice cream store during its nearly two centuries. Today it still serves as a meeting place for all kinds of folks—from world-renowned artists and professional athletes to local residents and passing travelers.
Whether you’re visiting the Brandywine Valley for the first time or are a lifetime resident, scenic Route 52 takes you to the best that the Brandywine Valley has to offer. I hope you enjoy the ride.