A place called “Dismal Swamp” sounds like something to be avoided. But you’ll find that the Great Dismal Swamp, in northeastern North Carolina and southeastern Virginia, can actually be a fun place to visit. That’s exactly why North Carolina’s Dismal Swamp State Park was created.
From Raleigh, it’s about 165 miles, roughly a 3-hour drive.
To see and do
The park includes only a small portion of the Great Dismal Swamp that covers thousands of acres in Virginia and North Carolina. The park is bordered on the east by the Dismal Swamp Canal, which opened in 1805 and is the oldest continuously operated manmade canal in the country. It was of tremendous economic importance to the region, especially in the days before railroads, and is now an alternate route on the Intracoastal Waterway.
A name often connected with the Great Dismal Swamp is George Washington. His training as a surveyor helped him to recognize the financial rewards that could result from the creation of a waterway connecting North Carolina’s Albemarle Sound with the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia; he was an investor in two companies whose goals, in addition to building a canal, were to drain the swamp, harvest its trees, and farm its land. Washington’s investment in the project began in 1763 and lasted until his death in 1799.
The canal’s role in the Underground Railroad gives the place added historic significance. Before the Civil War, the Great Dismal offered a haven for many runaway slaves; small colonies were forged deep within the swamp. For other runaways, the swamp provided a resting place before they continued north. In 2003, The Great Dismal Swamp was recognized by the National Park Service as one of the sites on the National Underground Network to Freedom.
Today, the swamp’s wetland habitats give it huge ecological importance. Four-legged lodgers include black bears, bobcats, gray foxes, deer, raccoons and rabbits. Birds include warblers, wood ducks, woodpeckers and barred owls. The most easily spotted birds are usually the red hawks, seen soaring high above the forest.
For the casual visitor, the swamp can be a place of peaceful repose and unusual beauty. Take advantage of 18 miles of hiking and biking trails along former logging roads, or paddle the quiet waters of the canal in kayaks or canoes. The park has bike, kayak and canoe rentals available.
A handicap-accessible boardwalk makes a short loop through the swamp. Rangers hold regularly scheduled interpretive programs about the Great Dismal; the visitor center has a small exhibit room that interprets the changing roles of the Dismal through the years.