The Great Dismal Swamp does not live up to its name—making it a delightful place to visit with pets!

If you’re planning to visit Virginia Beach, Hampton Roads, or even North Carolina’s Outer Banks, add the Great Dismal Swamp to your itinerary. Its unique history and natural setting make it an ideal place to explore with your dog, adventure cat, or other pet.

Let me tell you why …

Honey the Golden Retriever dog on the boardwalk at the pet friendly Great Dismal Swamp

How I Discovered The Great Dismal Swamp

The Great Dismal Swamp canal connects the Chesapeake Bay to the Albemarle Sound. It’s one of two routes on the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) used by hundreds of boaters (like us) in the spring or fall as they head to or from Florida and the Caribbean. 

Last spring, we traveled the canal on our way to the Chesapeake Bay. It looked so appealing, that when we headed back south, we set aside five days to explore the canal, national wildlife refuge, and North Carolina state park that make up the Great Dismal Swamp. 

While there, we humans learned about history and nature. And our pup, Honey, enjoyed exploring by nose. 

Honey the dog on a free dock on the Great Dismal Swamp canal
Boaters can tie up to free docks overnight so they can explore the swamp.

A Place In History

Humans are believed to have lived in the area for over 13,000 years. In 1650, its residents spoke Algonquin. And it was Europeans who applied the name “dismal.” George Washington created a plan to drain the Dismal Swamp, but when that scheme was determined to be unprofitable, the land’s owners decided to build 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) lived on the highest ground in the swamp. Historians and archaeologists are still learning about these remarkable people who carved out a life for themselves in 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 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 dogs and their people.


The Dismal Swamp has miles of hiking trails between the national wildlife refuge in Virginia and the state park in North Carolina.


You can find 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)

Runner on trail in pet friendly Great Dismal Swamp State Park
Packed trails are good for running with a stroller. Other trails are more rustic.

North Carolina

There are also several miles of trails you can access from the Great Dismal Swamp State Park. The park removes the bridge across the canal so boats can pass after the park closes, 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 lots to see although it is only a 1/2 mile long.

Honey the Golden Retriever dog on a pet friendly boardwalk trail in Great Dismal Swamp State Park
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.

North Carolina

Bikes are allowed on most trails. 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.

Bikes on Dismal Swamp path
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.


Use the small craft boat launch at 3825 Dismal Swamp Canal Trail, Chesapeake, VA to drop your kayak or canoe.

North Carolina

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

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The only camping in the entire Dismal Swamp area is a primitive campground near Lake Drummond. 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!

Honey the Golden Retriever dog in the cockpit of a boat in the Dismal Swamp canal
Conditions are so calm in the canal that Honey gets lots of time to doze with her favorite stick.

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 tell you what to do.

The Dismal Swamp provides free overnight dockage, first-come first-served, at both locks, at the Douglas Road free dock, and the Dismal Swamp Welcome Center.

Dismal Swamp lock master, Robert, blowing a conch shell
The lock master at Deep Creek lock shares the history of the Dismal Swamp with visiting boaters. They, in turn, bring him conch shells from the Caribbean.

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 you can’t access the primitive camping area because you don’t have a boat, you’ll find pet-friendly campgrounds 30 minutes away in Chesapeake, Virginia.
Honey the dog with a bear warning sign in the Great Dismal Swamp
We didn’t see bears this time. But we kept our eyes open!

Returning To The Great Dismal Swamp With My Dog

As I write this, we’re traveling the Intracoastal Waterway on our sailboat headed for the Great Dismal Swamp. Honey and I only got to hike a few of the trails on our last visit, so I’m looking forward to seeing more. And maybe even spotting a bear!

Red and white boat passing through the Bascule Bridge in the Great Dismal Swamp
The lock master lifts the bridge so boats can pass through.

If you enjoy watching boaters as much as I enjoy being one, you’ll love the Dismal Swamp. I bet your pet will too.

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Category: Travel Destinations / Tagged with: Hiking, North Carolina, Virginia