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How to Enjoy Dismal Swamp State Park (10+ Fun Things to Do)

Published by Carl Hedinger. Last Updated on January 30, 2024.

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There’s no place else that North Carolina‘s beauty and biodiversity shine through than at Dismal Swamp State Park. The state park is a cherished site that provides access to the Great Dismal Swamp, the largest remaining swamp in the Eastern United States.

The state park comprises the 113,000-acre swamp and surrounding hiking and biking trails. In addition to its status as a state park, it’s also a National Wildlife Refuge with hundreds of species that call it home.

The swamp sits at the North Carolina-Virginia border and is so unique in its nature and beauty that it’s a must-visit!

If you’re curious about visiting this wonderful state park, we’ve created this guide for you!

Here’s how we have organized this article:

  • Where is Dismal Swamp State Park?
  • Facts About Dismal Swamp State Park
  • Open Hours
  • Leave No Trace Reminder
  • Safety Reminder
  • Things to Do
  • Nearby Places

Skip ahead to any section or continue reading about how to reach Dismal State Park and more info.

Read More: 100+ Unique Things to Do In North Carolina (Your NC Bucket List)

Where is Dismal Swamp State Park?

Address: 2294 US Hwy 17 N, South Mills, NC

Dismal Swamp State Park NC

Dismal Swamp State Park consists of 14,000+ acres surrounding the Great Dismal Swamp. It’s located in Camden County at the northeastern border of North Carolina and Virginia.

The North Carolina side of Dismal Swamp features 20 miles of trails, a 2,000-foot boardwalk, and ample space to scope out the wildlife.

Dismal Swamp State Park is also under an hour’s drive from many popular beach towns and coastal escapes, including:

  • Chesapeake, Virginia (25 minutes)
  • Elizabeth City (25 minutes)
  • Norfolk, Virginia (30 minutes)
  • Edenton (45 minutes)
  • Virginia Beach (45 minutes)
  • Duck (1 hour 15 minutes)
  • Kill Devil Hills (1 hour 15 minutes)
  • Nags Head (1 hour 30 minutes)
  • Corolla (1 hour 40 minutes)
  • Greenville NC (1 hour 55 minutes)
  • Rocky Mount NC (2 hours)

You can visually travel to Dismal Swamp State Park via the following maps:

Facts About Dismal Swamp State Park

  • The Great Dismal Swamp is the largest remaining swamp in the Eastern US. It is estimated that the swamp covered over a million acres at one point.
  • Colonel William Byrd II explored it in 1728 and provided the first extensive description of the swamp. He suggested draining the swamp and building a canal to connect the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia and Albemarle Sound in North Carolina.
  • While attempts to drain the swamp have been unsuccessful, a canal was built that decreased its size considerably. Years of deforestation and logging during the Industrial Revolution also contributed to its reduction.
  • The swamp also has an exciting history that intersects with the times of George Washington, the Underground Railroad, and Prohibition.
  • The swamp’s name likely results from great meaning large and that dismal commonly referred to swamps back in the day.
  • The swamp is now designated as a Wildlife Refuge with 113,000 acres of wetland forests and waterways surrounding Lake Drummond, a nearby crater lake.
  • Dismal Swamp State Park gained NC State Park status in 2007 and opened in 2008, marking the first time the public could easily access the swamp.

Read More: 125+ Important Facts About North Carolina You Should Know (History, Geography, and More!)

When is Dismal Swamp State Park Open?

Dismal Swamp State Park is wonderful throughout the year (except for Christmas Day).

The park is open from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm from March to October. Between November and February, the park stays open from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm.

Before You Go (Leave No Trace Reminder)

Before visiting Dismal Swamp State Park (and all public spaces in North Carolina), we want to remind you to leave no trace.

Pack in, pack out, and please do not litter. If you’d like to lend a helping hand, bring a grocery bag of your own and pick up any trash you see!

Let’s keep North Carolina beautiful and clean!

Safety Reminder

Safety is your responsibility at Dismal Swamp State Park, and here are a couple of reminders:

  • Venomous snakes and bears call the park “home,” so please proceed cautiously, especially during warmer months and if you’re traveling with young children or pets.
  • Stay hydrated while exploring Dismal Swamp State Park. Hot and humid days are abundant from late spring through early fall, so please bring as much water as possible.
  • Also, if you’re bringing a dog along for your hike, North Carolina State Parks rules require them to be kept on a leash.

Annual Events

Now that you’re ready to visit, we think these two huge events are the perfect introduction to Dismal Swamp State Park.

Paddle for the Border

Dismal Swamp State Park Paddle for the Border Chesapeake Virginia

Paddle for the Border is an annual event that has occurred for 18 years and counting. If you’re visiting the area in May, this is a must-see event at Dismal Swamp State Park.

At the event, 375 paddlers take to the water and paddle 7.5 miles (2-3 hours) to cross the border into Virginia. The event commemorates the rich history of this waterway, all the way back to 1763 when it was first constructed after George Washington’s land company surveyed the swamp.

I was invited to join recently and was impressed by the organization required to launch many boaters, feed us all afterward, and keep us safe throughout the event.

If you’re a paddler (or not) and want to paddle for the border, keep an eye out for this event at the beginning of each year. It sells out quickly!

Read More: Spring in North Carolina (80+ Great Events and Things to Do)

Dismal Day Annual Event

Every October, Dismal Swamp State Park hosts Dismal Day, a festive event highlighting the state park’s history and beauty. The event draws visitors each year to enjoy food, live animal shows, bounce houses, and more.

Partake in scavenger hunts, wagon rides that display the park’s scenery, and a 5K Walk/Run for Run on the Dismal Swamp Canal Trail. The fun-filled day is a great way to admire the park’s beauty with the rest of the community.

Read More: The NC Tripping Events Calendar

Things to Do at Dismal Swamp State Park This Weekend (and All Year!)

These places and activities are open and available if you’re wanting to explore the state park and its immediate surroundings throughout the year.

Dismal Swamp Canal Welcome Center

Address: 2356 US Hwy 17 North South Mills, NC

The Welcome Center is located across the Dismal Swamp Canal from the state park entrance and is a great place to stop and check out.

Inside, you’ll find brochures and information about pretty much everywhere in North Carolina, from the mountains to the sea. During open hours, staff are on hand to help you travel around this wonderful state.

There’s also a gift shop with souvenirs and NC-based products for sale.

Read More: 40+ North Carolina Gifts from Amazing Local Businesses

Dismal Swamp State Park Visitor Center

Dismal Swamp State Park Visitor Center

A lock connects the Welcome Center and the parking lot to the Dismal Swamp State Park Visitor Center.

Restrooms are on two sides of the building and there’s also a walkway that surrounds the facility. You can overlook the river and wait for the lock to open for passing boats or admire the gorgeous scenery.

Inside the Visitor Center, you’ll find the staff ready to help or answer any questions. There’s also a small gift shop to buy a Dismal Swamp State Park sticker or other NC State Parks-related gear.

Another thing we love about the Visitor Center is the exhibit hall, which tells the story of Dismal Swamp Canal, from its origins through today.

Read More: Nantahala Outdoor Center in Bryson City (10 Essential Things to Do)

The Boardwalk

Dismal Swamp State Park Boardwalk

Outside the Visitor Center is the park’s 2,000-foot accessible Boardwalk. Walk the half-mile loop over the Dismal Swamp, with occasional places to sit down, relax, and soak in the unique beauty of the place.

Read More: Goose Creek State Park near Washington (10 Things that We Really Love About It!)

Hiking/Biking Trails

Dismal Swamp State Park Trails

Including the Boardwalk, Dismal Swamp State Park has 21.5 miles of interconnected trails. All but 3 (including the boardwalk) are for hiking and the rest allow biking and hiking.

Ten trails range from 5.4 miles one-way to easy 0.5-mile loops. Using these trails, you can make your own route since they’re connected.

The 2.2-mile Canal Road will take you to the rest of the park’s trails, which are all rated as “easy” and include the following:

  • Corapeake Road (4.8 miles one-way)
  • Kim Saunders Road (5.4 miles one-way)
  • Forest Line Road (2.3 miles one-way)
  • Bull Boulevard (2.25 miles one-way)
  • Western Boundary Trail (1 mile one-way)
  • Laurel Trail (1 mile one-way)
  • S. Martha Washington Trail (1.2 miles one-way)
  • Supple-Jack Trail (hiking only, 0.5 miles one-way)

Read More: 100+ of the Best Hiking Trails in North Carolina

Boating on Dismal Swamp Canal

Dismal Swamp Canal North Carolina Virginia

The park’s main feature is the Dismal Swamp Canal, a 22-mile-long canal parallel to US Highway 17.

Paddling, canoeing, and kayaking on the canal are popular at Dismal Swamp State Park. There is a boat launch near the Visitors Center and boat rentals for prospective boaters to rent a canoe, kayak, or paddleboat.

While paddling the canal, there will be times when you’ll feel all alone on your stretch of water. That feeling is possible even during busy events like Paddle for the Border.

Fishing

Fishing is allowed in Dismal Swamp State Park, as long as you have a valid North Carolina fishing license.

Bream, bullhead, and largemouth bass are a few of the fish that have been caught here. Hopefully, you’ll have the best of luck in these waters.

Picnic

Dismal Swamp State Park NC Picnic Table

Picnic tables are throughout Dismal Swamp State Park at the Visitor Center and along trails. On hot days, it’s important to stop and drink water as often as possible; a picnic table is a perfect reminder.

Wildlife Watching

Dismal Swamp State Park is a haven for all kinds of wildlife found nowhere else. The area is designated as a Wildlife Refuge home to 47 species of mammals, 200 birds, and 96 species of butterflies.

Some notable creatures to look for include turtles, deer, egrets, woodpeckers, and more. While most of the animals you’ll see are relatively safe, be aware that the area is also home to black bears, bobcats, and snakes, including cottonmouths.

Things to Do Near Dismal Swamp State Park

If you’re staying in the area for a while, here are some things to do near Dismal Swamp State Park, starting with the rest of Camden County.

Camden County

Treasure Point Camden NC
Treasure Point.

Dismal Swamp State Park is in Camden County, one of the state’s least populous counties. However, there are still plenty of things to do here.

Camden County has many historic sites, such as the Camden County Heritage Museum and Historic Jail, and driving tours of African-American and Civil War-era landmarks. Beautiful waterside overlooks are here, too, including Treasure Point and One Mill Park.

The state park is also surrounded by rich farmland, as evidenced by farmer’s markets like Little Riddle Market and Poor Boys Market.

Elizabeth City

25 minutes away from Dismal Swamp State Park

Paradiso Roma Elizabeth City NC
Paradiso Roma.

A small portion of Elizabeth City is in Camden County, and the city hugs the Pasquotank River. Popular attractions include the scenic George M Wood Memorial Park and Paradiso Roma, an excellent eatery we’ll touch upon shortly.

Among the many things to do in Elizabeth City, you should check out the Museum of the Albemarle. This is the northeastern branch of the NC Museum of History.

Enjoy the waterfront from Charles Creek Park or hire a boat to take you fishing or just out on the water.

Merchants Millpond State Park

35 minutes from Dismal Swamp State Park

Merchants Millpond State Park is one of our northernmost parks, filled with bald cypress trees, Spanish moss, and still waters. Alligators inhabit this park, a rare phenomenon in this part of the state and this far north along the East Coast.

The park is great for paddling and you can rent canoes from the visitor’s center.

There are also several canoe campsites and 11 miles of trails at Merchants Millpond State Park. The Coleman Trail (2-mile loop) is great for kids, and the Lassiter Trail (6 miles) allows bicycles for some portions.

The Outer Banks

Outer Banks Sunrise Duck NC Beach

The Outer Banks is within a reasonable drive from Dismal Swamp State Park, with Currituck County bordering Camden County to the east.

Our favorite is Weeping Radish in Grandy, NC’s first (and oldest!) microbrewery.

Here’s a breakdown of places and things to do across the Currituck Sound from Dismal Swamp State Park:

Read More: 20+ of the Best Things to Do in Corolla (A Lighthouse, Wild Horses, and More!)

More Things to Do in Dismal Swamp State Park and Nearby

We’ve featured Dismal Swamp State Park and nearby attractions in our huge NC Travel Guides collection. Here are a few of them:

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