A few miles west of me lies a river valley that's been my weekend haunt for 20 years. On Friday nights I used to drive to a mill town where the movie house ran triple features: Bergman, Fellini and free coffee. On later trips I stayed at inns, places with flowers and sherry on the night stand, or I pitched a tent at campgrounds on the river.

In this valley I can hike in mountains and bike along back roads; on the river I have run rapids for hours, then drifted down lazy oxbow bends. In summer the water is calm and full of long-nosed garfish -- called "river sharks," but in spirit they resemble driftwood.

On Sunday drives I stop at roadside stands for apples, sweet corn and eggs, all from valley farms. Shops in river towns sell wine and croissants; the galleries display antiques or recent paintings. If I went nowhere else, I could still travel far upon these river banks.

I speak of the Delaware, a stream that runs through the mid-Atlantic but avoids most of its crowded cities. Rising in the Catskills, the Delaware flows along the New Jersey-Pennsylvania border and into Delaware Bay. The water follows an Appalachian seam, cutting a U-shaped valley of rounded bluffs and wide flood plains. One of the last free-flowing eastern rivers, the Delaware has no dams for 185 miles, a stretch of mostly wild or rural land.

For centuries this valley has served as a waterway of history. First came the Lenni-Lenape, Indians who fished the river and raised crops on bottom land. Whites followed them, then built grist and saw mills on tributary streams. Ferries appeared at the fording points, and around them fathered villages. Soon they had inns and taverns to serve the growing highway trade.

Into the valley came shrewd mechanics, Quakers and Moravians who founded early industries. Irishmen dug the canal systems that linked the river to coal and iron mines. Then railroads arrived, and the Delaware slipped into a long, peaceful hiatus. Attracted by the small, low-rent towns, artists and writers clustered here in happy thrift until the 1950s.

Today the Delaware has been "discovered" by tourism, and development is moving apace. Towns that were seedy five years ago now sport cafe's and bed-and-breakfasts, a gentrifying process that has reclaimed many early homes. But farm land has given way to condos and town populations are rising. So are property values, and with them a concern for preserving the valley's past.

The seasons also change, but in a constant order. Fall presents its bright tints into November, and skiing lasts until April in the north. Spring is all wildflowers and leaf bud, a great forest waking. Summer brings on campers and boaters, then fall again sweeps the river clean.

It takes two days to drive the valley from Trenton, N.J., to Port Jervis, N.Y., and return; but four days will make a better journey. Better yet, pick out one area and settle in; then explore both river banks on loop trips, crossing the frequent bridges.

Recently I drove up the Jersey side and down through Pennsylvania, pausing at stops of interest. The days were perfect, sunny with a light breeze, the river swollen by rains from Hurricane Gloria. I passed through eight counties, each with its own look and feel.

This trip went from low-lying terrain, the outwash of recent glaciers, to granite mountains veined with marble -- old, hard rocks of the Precambrian Era. Upstream the ancient country rises, yet there the fall comes early. Go downstream and summer returns, as water finds its way to the sea.

Above Trenton, the river flanks Mercer County and the Delaware-Raritan Canal, once the main waterway between Philadelphia and New York. Now the canal and its towpath offer a 60-mile corridor across New Jersey for foot, bike and boat traffic -- motors not allowed.

In Hunterdon County, a brisk pace prevails at Lambertville. Old houses now wear fresh paint; new shops seem to open every week. They sell antiques or items made by local artists, who have formed a growing colony. Pubs and restaurants also abound, recently joined by Lambertville Station, a Victorian restoration of the old railroad depot.

Up the river lie Stockton, Frenchtown and Milford -- towns with no parking meters but many signs of growth. Stockton Inn, which inspired Richard Rodgers' "There's a Small Hotel," has redecorated; and in Frenchtown the National Hotel is converting rooms into luxury suites.

"We started this renovation last December," Tom Erkes explains, "the day a diesel fuel truck crashed through our front door." Down on Race Street, the door of Jeanine Allen's tiny antique shop is open, but only on weekends. Born in Paris, she has the best French accent in Frenchtown: "I always pass a bargain on to my customers, but they must find it for themselves."

On a walk around Milford I decide to assemble a picnic. There are cheese and fruit from the Little Shop in the restored railway staion; moist, dense sourdough bread from The Baker, who ships to over 200 outlets; and a white Alba Primavera from the Milford Liquor Store. Deb Ettinger knows the wine, a local vintage: "It has a light, buttery flavor." Several wine estates now line the valley slopes, where soil and climate are nearly ideal for grape harvests.

At the Olde Mill Ford Oyster House, Edna Cochran is resting up for her dinner crowd, due to arrive at 4 p.m. "We're small but don't take reservations, so as not to turn our regulars away." They come in loyal droves for her oyster stew and mussels poached in wine, her grilled salmon and shellfish stew. She closes on Tuesday, not the traditional Monday, "to give other chefs somewhere to go."

"Edna is the best," says Linda Castagna, as she takes me through her home, surely the town's best bed-and-breakfast. Chestnut Hill is a living Victorian album, furnished with authentic pieces but in bright, contemporary colors. Each room has a name and decorative theme -- "Pineapple" is the favorite, a servant's quarters with narrow back stairs. My favorite spot is the front porch, where a long file of rockers faces the slow, ever-rolling Delaware.

Farther north stand Phillipsburg and Belvidere, the river towns of Warren County. Visitors come here to fish, staying in cabins that line the shore. Fields of hay and soybeans crowd the bluffs. Some roads are so quiet that cows look up at my passing car. Soon the hills lift, and before me rise the tall, flared heights of Delaware Water Gap.

Two mountain ranges touch here, Pocono and Kittatinny, once drained by rivers that eroded upstream to a point of capture. The Delaware won, and its doubled force cut a deep, twisting gorge through these rock walls. They resemble a river, with layers flowing in downward curves and tumbled into broken rubble.

I once brought a group of friends here, students who were strung out from weeks of steady writing. In early April we hiked to a ridge overlooking the Water Gap and stopped to rest. No one talked, just felt the sun and looked out at the valley. An hour passed. Eagles soared above us; the river ran below. At sunset we finally stirred, and some said: "Are you sure I'm still in Jersey?"

Yes, and to the north lies New Jersey's high country, preserved as wilderness in forest and recreation lands. Visitors may camp, hike on miles of trails, shoot the river rapids, or fish and swim in slow stretches. Many come to the history and craft exhibits at Millbrook, Wallpack and Peters Valley. Farther north the bow hunters are skulking about, dressed in war paint and motley. Most of the deer survive -- their camouflage is better.

Above New Jersey lies the upper Delaware River, another 150 miles to explore one day. For now I'll cross to Pennsylvania and head south through Pike County. Tributary streams here pour off the Pocono Plateau and carve its soft shale into elaborate waterfalls.

To see Dingmans Falls I take a brief walk through a cool, dim forest of beech and hemlock. Water slides by, falling in rills and columns, always moving yet oddly static. I climb up long flights of wooden stairs, the railings polished smooth by many hands before me. It's hard not to think of time when standing by a waterfall. At the top is a small cascade, perfect in shape and color: It drops down terraces and black walls until the plunge point, then instantly it becomes a white tangled sheet of foam. The air smells of damp peat; the rhododendron leaves are a slick, shining green.

If I could stay longer, my hotel would be the Pocono Environmental Educational Center near Dingmans Ferry. Offering a yearlong calendar of events, from photography workshops to family weekends, the center provides meals, cabins and programs that stress outdoor education. On Hawk Watch weekends, visitors climb the ridges to see migrating birds of prey soar and glide nearby.

For the less hardy, the Poconos of Monroe County offer several luxury resorts. Fernwood and Shawnee, both near the Delaware, have the usual splendid amenities for golf, tennis, riding and skiing, plus dining and dancing. Singles frequent Fernwood; families may prefer Shawnee, which also rents time-sharing villas.

Time drifts by slowly aboard the Josiah White, a mule-drawn barge that rides on the Lehigh Canal at Easton. Two mules plod along the towpath, dragging our blunt-nosed tub at the stately pace of four miles an hour. Passengers are drawn back 150 years to the great canal era, now preserved in locks, dams and a museum at Hugh Moore Park.

A canal follows the river bank from Northampton County to Bucks County, where I stop in Upper Black Eddy. Bridgeton House, rescued from sad disrepair by Bea and Charley Briggs, is my kind of country inn: plank floors and white walls, windows on the river and warm apple cake in the kitchen. Here I could relax, when not running around to see the area's attractions.

Bucks County may have some rundown sections, but I've never seen any. Rich in history, culture and just plain money, the region is famous for its understated elegance -- typified by great estate manors built in the Quaker style, of sober gray field stone. Along the Delaware these colors blend with the trees and water, especially at sunset.

The lights are on in New Hope, busiest town in the valley -- even on Sunday night. Tourists crowd the trendy little shops, buying clothes, decorator art, designer ice cream. It's hard to see the old village anymore, for New Hope has joined the ranks of Provincetown and Newport, a place to tour and gawk at the tourists. And I'm like any other Delaware Valley tourist -- shake my head, go home and come back again another weekend.

Heading south in darkness, I watch the lights of Jersey race along the black Delaware surface. Soon I reach Washington Crossing, a narrow bridge that points toward home. It's a long way back to that Christmas Eve in 1776, when the man from the Potomac made his desperate gamble at McConkey's Ferry. Against all odds, Gen. George Washington led 2,400 Americans across the river on a bitter, snowy night. On the other side, they marched to Trenton -- and into all our memories.William Howarth lives and works in Princeton, N.J