DISMAL SWAMP STATE PARK
Feel your daily stresses melt away as you cross the historic Dismal Swamp Canal and walk along the 2000-foot boardwalk into this geological wonder. Experience first hand the lush swamp forest and get up-close and personal with the wide variety of wildlife.
For the adventurer, there are over 20 miles of hiking and mountain biking trails. Or, enjoy a leisurely paddle down the Dismal Swamp Canal in your canoe or kayak.
Learn why George Washington called the Dismal Swamp a glorious paradise, how the swamp was important in the Underground Railroad and the ecological importance of wetlands in the visitor center and exhibit hall. All of this and more can be found just 3 miles south of the NC/VA border on US Hwy 17.
The park protects 22 square miles of forested wetland in the Great Dismal Swamp, the largest remaining swamp in the eastern United States. Historically, the swamp was much wetter than what you see today. Extensive ditching and logging have changed its character over the past 200 years. Today's Dismal is dominated by red maple in place of the bald cypress and tupelos that once flourished here. But make no mistake the Dismal Swamp is still an area of great natural significance.
Butterflies abound in the Dismal. Forty-three species have been identified in the park so far. Huge numbers of Palamedes and zebra swallowtails can be found 'puddling' along the roads during certain times of the year. Tiger swallowtails, Atlantic holly azures, and variegated fritillaries are also present in large numbers.
Early European settlers encountered a very different Great Dismal Swamp than the one we see today. In the late 1600s, the Dismal was a vast wetland, covering about 1.28 million acres. It stretched from the James River in Virginia to the Albemarle Sound in North Carolina. For centuries, Native Americans used the Swamp as hunting and fishing grounds but found it too wet to make homes there.
Some early explorers, such as William Byrd II, saw no value in swampland and thought it should be drained and converted to agricultural uses. The system of ditches criss-crossing Dismal was intended to carry water out, but this endeavor was only partially successful. Although the water table dropped significantly, the Swamp remained unsuitable as farmland, and so efforts then turned to harvesting timber. Cypress and cedar both could be used to make durable products with exceptional resistance to moisture. Cedar shingles were a very common product of the Swamp in the 1800s. By the 1880s, most hardwood trees had been logged out, but commercial logging continued into the 1960s. In 1972, the Nature Conservancy purchased land from timber companies and sold over 14,000 acres of that land to the State of North Carolina in 1974. For many years, the area was managed as the Dismal Swamp State Natural Area. Landlocked on three sides and bordered by the Canal on the fourth, access for the general public was limited. Following construction of the $1 million unique hydraulic swing bridge over the Canal and the Visitor Center, the Dismal Swamp State Park opened in 2008.
The Dismal Swamp Canal itself represents an important piece of American history. While the idea of a canal originated in the early 1700s, construction did not begin until 1793. Dug almost entirely by slaves, the Canal stretches 22 miles, from Deep Creek in Chesapeake, VA, to the town of South Mills, NC. The slaves forced to dig the channel by hand faced terrible working conditions waist-deep muck and peat, extreme summer heat, biting insects, and venomous snakes. On average, they were able to complete about 10 feet of the Canal each day, while their masters collected their wages for the work. In 1805, 12 years later, the Canal opened to boat traffic, but it was so narrow and shallow that only flat-bottomed barges called lighter boats or gondolas were able to traverse it. These lighter boats, however, were used extensively to move timber products out of the Swamp and off to market. You can see a replica lighter boat exhibit along Canal Road, about 0.7 miles from the Visitor Center.
The Dismal Swamp Canal changed private hands several times and fell into disrepair during the Civil War, while the Union and the Confederacy each fought to control this vital means of transporting supplies. Finally, in 1929, the United States government purchased the Canal for $500,000 and the Army Corps of Engineers widened and dredged it to its current width of about 50 feet and depth of about 9-12 feet.