Dismal Swamp State Park sits on the North Carolina side of the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge that spans two states. The park itself is only about five minutes from the border of Virginia and twenty minutes from the Atlantic. Despite the less than cheery name, Dismal comes with a lush swamp forest, mountain biking trails, and much more across over 14,000 acres.
Get your walking shoes on because we're about to explore all that Dismal Park has to offer!
History of Dismal Swamp State Park
Before we get going, let's get to know the park better by understanding its past. These wetlands were first trodden upon by European settlers in the latter part of the 17th century. Prior to that, Native Americans took advantage of the cover of the swamp to become one with it. They became experts in the area and used their knowledge to be successful hunters and fishermen of the swamp.
Unlike those who decided to put a White House in Washington DC, an area also described as swampland, the Natives did not attempt to live there. That might have changed had William Byrd II had his way. He didn't find the land particularly lucrative in its natural state. So, he wanted to drain the swamp and turn it into farmland. The attempt mostly failed and it was Byrd who gave it the dreary moniker in 1728.
Shortly after, it was the trees that caught the eyes of businessmen. For over a century, the cypress and cedar trees were consistently being removed and sold as logs. By the end of the 1800s, the area was almost completely logged out. However, it would be another 80 years before the practice halted for good.
Since 1972, the land has belonged to the Nature Conservancy. No longer viewed as a glorious paradise, a place to stash moonshine during prohibition, it was going to be an official state park.
Of course, by stopping over at the Visitor Center you'll learn all that and more about what's going on at Dismal today. To get here, you must pass over a hydraulic arm bridge that goes across the Dismal Swamp Canal. Remember to have patience because you might have to wait a moment. Boaters going by get to pass through first.
Once inside, you have access to restrooms, a gift shop, and an exhibit hall where you get to learn about the variety of wildlife at the park. Visitor Center hours are Monday to Friday, 8 am through 4:30 pm, as well as Saturday and Sunday from 9:30 am to 4:30 pm. Park hours are 8 am to 5 or 6 pm, depending on the time of year. Christmas is the only day the park is closed.
Things to Do and See
Okay, now you're in and you've picked up a complimentary park map. Where to now? Well, the top things to do at Dismal Swamp State Park are:
Picking a Trail
There are 10 trails to choose from. If you want to bike but haven't brought one, you can rent one from the park. Bikes for all ages are available with helmets, too! Whether you have a limited time or not, it helps to have a rundown of trails to plan your day. All the trails are labeled as easy hikes but vary in surface materials and accessibility. Below is a list of trails broken up by what your hiking priorities might be:
Biking friendly: Bull, Canal, Corapeake, Forest Line, Kim Saunders, Laurel, S Martha Washington, Western Boundary
In the Swamp
If you want to get on the water for a leisurely paddle, there are a few things to remember.
Reeling in the Swamp
If you want to go fishing while visiting, focus on coming in the late spring and summer. That's when there will be an abundance of freshwater fish. There are multiple areas designated by signage around the park that will give you good access to the water. In order to fish at Dismal Park, be sure to bring your fishing license.
What You Can Expect to See
Extra Park Info
There is no entrance fee to the park, so enjoy a free day! If you want to rent a bike, kayak, or canoe, the fee is $10 an hour and it can be picked up from the Visitor Center. You are encouraged to plan an event in the park. Common events people host at Dismal are weddings, field days, and corporate parties. All you need is to get a permit, if necessary.
It's not every day you can take in the sights and sounds of a swampland-turned state park. As one visitor gushed, "The trails are kept up, the park rangers are friendly, and the outdoor options were really great for my whole family. Stop by the Visitor Center and learn a thing or two!" With an endorsement like that, you know it will be a good time.