Don’t dismiss the Great Dismal Swamp based on its name—it is a delightful place to visit with pets! If you’re planning a trip to Virginia Beach, Hampton Roads, or North Carolina’s Outer Banks, the Great Dismal Swamp makes a terrific addition to your itinerary.
Located on the border between Virginia and North Carolina, the Great Dismal Swamp encompasses a canal, national wildlife refuge, and a North Carolina state park. Best known by boaters using the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW), this hidden gem is often overlooked by other travelers.
A Place In History
It’s believed humans have lived here for over 13,000 years, which speaks to the fantastic abundance of natural resources found in the Great Dismal Swamp. Perhaps it was shortsightedness that caused the early Europeans to first apply the unfortunate name “dismal.”
In fact, George Washington created a plan to drain the Dismal Swamp! But when it was determined that scheme was unlikely to be profitable, the land’s owners decided on building a canal to move timber out of the forest.
The canal was dug by hand in terrible conditions. But the knowledge gained by enslaved people constructing the canal, and later by free black persons hauling timber, led to the Great Dismal Swamp becoming a refuge.
By the end of the Civil War, communities of maroons (black individuals who freed themselves) were living on the highest points in the swamp. And historians and archaeologists are still learning about these remarkable people who carved out a life for themselves where few dared visit.
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Boaters can tie up to free docks overnight so they can explore the swamp.
The Great Dismal Swamp was exploited for its natural resources until the early 1970s when a portion of it became a national wildlife refuge. The site of the only natural peat beds in North America, the Dismal Swamp is also the source of the purest drinking water. Before perfecting reverse osmosis, NASA planned to fill water tanks for the moon landing with water from Lake Drummond. The high tannin of the water keeps it pure indefinitely.
With new protections from development and exploitation, the plants and animals of the Dismal Swamp are flourishing. And there are several ways to explore it with your pet!
Things To Do
The Dismal Swamp offers plenty of fun for outdoorsy pets and their people.
The Dismal Swamp offers miles of pet friendly hiking trails — some in the national wildlife refuge in Virginia, and the rest in the state park in North Carolina.
You’ll find pet friendly trailheads at the following parking areas:
Jericho Ditch: 1330 White Marsh Road, Suffolk, VA (flat grass trail with ruts)
Washington Ditch: 3076 White March Road, Suffolk, VA (flat, boardwalk trail through woods)
Railroad Ditch (Wildlife Drive): 3120 Desert Road, Suffolk, VA (flat, with crushed stone)
Portsmouth Ditch: 3457 Martin Johnson Road, Chesapeake, VA (flat, with crushed stone)
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Packed trails are good for running with a stroller. Other trails are more rustic.
There are also several miles of trails you can access from the Great Dismal Swamp State Park. The park opens the bridge across the canal so boats can pass overnight, so be sure to leave enough time to get back to the entrance before closing!
My favorite trail was the Boardwalk trail going directly through the swamp. This trail is in deep shade and has a lot to see, although it is only a 1/2 mile long.
Boardwalk trails allow you to experience the swamp without getting your feet (or paws) wet.
Most trails are open to bikers as well as hikers.
Canal Trail – Paved and closed to cars, this trail follows the canal for over 8 miles and is perfect for bicycles.
The North trailhead is located at Dominion Boulevard and Old Route 17.
Bikes are allowed on most trails in the North Carolina State Park. If your pup likes to run by your side, or if you have a pet small enough to ride in a backpack, you can rent bicycles at the Dismal Swamp State Park Visitor Center.
With miles of paved road closed to traffic, the Dismal Swamp canal trail is great for biking.
The protection of the canal provides calm paddling for kayaks or canoes.
Paddlers can use the small craft boat launch at 3825 Dismal Swamp Canal Trail, Chesapeake, VA.
Your pet is welcome to join you if you rent a kayak at the state park. Rangers point out that they have human life jackets, but you must bring your own for your pet.
READ MORE ⇒ Tips for Canoeing or Kayaking with Dogs
The only camping available in the entire Dismal Swamp area is a primitive campground near Lake Drummond. And it is only accessible by shallow-draft boat (less than 3 feet).
If you can get to it, you will find fire pits, open grills, picnic tables, sheds with bug screens, and restrooms with non-potable water.
Of course, my favorite way to explore the swamp is by boat!
Recreational boats can center the canal at the Deep Creek Lock on the north end or the South Mills Lock on the south end. You will need to have a radio and lines on board that are at least 20 feet long to transit the locks. The lock masters will help instruct you what to do.
The Dismal Swamp provides free overnight dockage, on a first-come first-served basis, at both locks, at the Douglas Road free dock, and the Dismal Swamp Welcome Center.
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Conditions are so calm in the canal that Honey gets lots of time to doze with her favorite stick.
Know Before You Go
So, what do you think? Are you excited to be the first of your friends to check out the amazing Great Dismal Swamp?
Here’s what you need to know before visiting this region with your pet:
You’ll see plenty of nature in the area. That includes bears. So keep your pets leashed.
It’s a swamp, so be prepared for bugs. You’ll find fewer in the spring and fall than in the summer. And winter is your best bet for enjoying a bug-free visit.
If the primitive campground isn’t your thing, you’ll find plenty of pet friendly lodging 30 minutes away in Chesapeake, Virginia.
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The lock master lifts the bridge so boats can pass through.
If you enjoy watching boaters as much as I enjoyed being one, you’ll love the Dismal Swamp. And I bet your pet will, too!
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