Dismal Swamp State Park, North Carolina's north-easternmost state park, is located just a few miles south of the Virginia border about a half hour from Norfolk. Protecting a 14,000-acre chunk of the region known as the Great Dismal Swamp, the park adjoins the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge which protects a further 112,000-acres in both North Carolina and Virginia. The area's modern history goes back to the Colonial era when, shortly after the boundary between North Carolina and Virginia was surveyed in 1728, interest in the swamps timber resources increased. George Washington himself visited the Great Dismal in the early 1760's and, contrary to many folks views, considered it a "glorious paradise." The problem of transporting harvested timber from the swamp was solved by the construction of the Great Dismal Canal, completed in 1805 after 12-years of construction. The canal provided an important avenue for commerce in the region right through the 19th Century despite extensive damage caused during the Civil War. By the mid-20th Century usage of the canal had pretty much completely switched over to use by recreational watercraft which remains the primary activity to this day. The Great Dismal Canal is the oldest continually operational man-made canal in the United States.
Unfortunately the commerce which the construction of the canal aided has, over the course of its 200-year existence, done considerable damage to the ecology of the Great Dismal Swamp. Aside from the obvious harm of clear cutting, the swamp was also drained to provide better access. In addition to loss of habitat for the creatures of the swamp this also made the region more prone to devastating wildfires. Just recently, in 2011, a 6,500 acre blaze burned here that was so intense it not only consumed the forest but the upper 5 FEET of topsoil as well! Originally on the order of 1,000,000 acres in size, the Dismal Swamp in its natural state now comprises only some 126,000-acres split between Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge and Dismal Swamp State Park. The park was originally formed as a State Natural Area. Though interest in making it a State Park was almost immediate it wasn't until 2007 until it gained that designation. Today, access to the park is strictly non-motorized. Parking at the adjacent Dismal Swamp Visitor Center along US-17, you enter the park via a unique floating swing bridge across the canal. Aside from a very nice visitor center there are no other developed facilities in the park. Somewhere on the order of 20-miles of multi-use trails provide the only access to the park's interior. The visitor center offers kayak and bike rentals which for this trip I took advantage of. Due to the flat landscape and the fact that I wanted to see as much of the park as possible I traded my pair of hiking boots this day for a set of wheels. Covering some 17-miles I was able to experience each of the parks unique environments (including the burn zone from the 2011 fire) and discover a part of North Carolina I hadn't previously visited...
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 36.505678, -76.355049
Mileage Biked: 17.0 miles Biking Duration: 3:00
Trailhead Temp: 75'F
Min. Elevation: 4' Max. Elevation: 15'