For years, I put the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia at the top of my home state travel list. I never knew why I had such a desire to visit but perhaps that region of Virginia was so unexplored by me and I knew my state like the back of my hand when it came to traveling around it.
I finally made it there recently and it, to my surprise, lived up to my expectations and then some.
I wasn’t sure why I assumed I would be disappointed… perhaps because I had built up the park so much in my head that it was inevitable that it would fail me. But I was wrong!
This guide will detail a bit about how to visit the Great Dismal Swamp, a bit about its sad history, and why I think you should take a trip there if you’re in Virginia.
About the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia
One of Virginia’s best-hidden treasures is the Great Dismal Swamp. Though it is widely known in Virginia, most people I have met have never actually been.
I didn’t even personally visit the wildlife refuge and state park until I returned to Virginia as an adult and decided to head there on a whim since I had a reliable rental car.
The Great Dismal Swamp is located on Virginia’s southeastern border with North Carolina, between the cities of Norfolk, Virginia and Elizabeth City, North Carolina.
The wildlife refuge consists of 112,000 acres of wetland forests, waterways, a large circular lake in the center called Lake Drummond, and an incredible range of fauna and flora.
The Great Dismal Swamp wildlife refuge was written into law in the 1970s after large swathes of the swamp were donated to the government by a logging company.
The area the Great Dismal Swamp covers today is vastly smaller than the original swamp, which is believed to have covered over 1,000,000,000 acres.
Much of the land was destroyed due to deforestation during the Industrial Age when a canal and railroad were built through the swamp allowing for the easier extraction of resources from the area.
The encroachment of the Industrial Age destroyed much of the ecosystem contained within the swamp, unfortunately.
However, the swamp’s history is a long and fascinating one, with the first records of human settlements dating back 13,000 years.
The first people to settle in the area were Native Americans and over history, several different cultures called the swamps home until the arrival of European settlers in the region.
During the early years of modern American history, the swamp provided a sanctuary for slaves who managed to escape their captors. These settlements of Great Dismal Swamp maroons lasted up until the Civil War.
After the Civil War, the swamp suffered at the hands of humans as it was to be drained and used for a settlement. However, logging proved to be a more viable option and over time, it decimated the swamp.
The swamp was first fully explored by William Drummond in 1655. He discovered the lake in the middle of the swamp which was subsequently named after him.
Lake Drummond is unique in Virginia as it is one of only two naturally occurring lakes and it has dumbfounded people to how it formed as there are no streams or rivers that feed into the lake.
Great Dismal Swamp Today
Today, the swamp is a thriving ecosystem and one of the most beautiful places to visit in Virginia. There is plenty to see and do within the swamp- from nature trails to thrilling activities in and around Lake Drummond.
Unfortunately, the swamp also suffers from fires during droughts and drier seasons in recent years. It is not uncommon for the swamp to catch on fire and you can even see the smoke from Richmond (and up in space!).
Sadly, with climate change, this may continue to happen… so be sure to research before you go to ensure the area is safe to visit.
While other parks in the US can be a challenge to get to, the Great Dismal Swamp makes an amazing day trip and can easily be reached from much of the state.
This guide will take you through everything you need to know to visit the Great Dismal Swamp.
Is Visiting the Great Dismal Swamp Worth It?
When I think of the nature in Virginia, I rarely think of swamps, yet the mysterious swamp covers a lot of our land in the southeast.
For me, if you’re looking for something different than mountains and beaches, it definitely can offer a taste of nature in a different form. Visiting the Great Dismal Swamp made me realize just how diverse the nature in Virginia truly is!
The Great Dismal Swamp is a fantastic day trip (or overnighter) for those traveling solo, as a pair, or exploring Virginia as a family. It is located close to the beaches in Virginia and North Carolina and I think planning an extra day on your trip to see it is totally worthwhile.
There are two main ways to explore the swamp: either on foot or by car.
If you plan to visit the swamp by car as I did, you can only access the swamp via the Lake Drummond Wildlife Drive.
While the drive limits you to a single route, it is well worth it as you travel along a dirt path to the large lake you can stop off at many points and explore the Great Dismal Swamp using purpose-built wooden walkways.
As you make your way down the road, keep an eye out for larger animals crashing out of the swamp as they momentarily break cover, I was fortunate enough to see a black bear rush across the path! It moved along too quickly and I wasn’t able to grab a photo, but stay alert!
The drive ends at Lake Drummond, where you can park and admire the views out over the water before heading back down the same road.
Great Dismal Swamp Admission Fee
Taking your car into the park costs $5.00 and the refuge can be entered via the Railroad Ditch Entrance which can be found off of Desert Road which heads south out of Suffolk and travels along the western edge of the swamp.
Great Dismal Swamp Hours
The drive is only open for set hours of the day which vary depending on the season. From the beginning of April until the end of September you can drive to the lake between 7 am and 7 pm. However, the gates will stop admitting people through an hour before closing.
Throughout the rest of the year, the drive is accessible from 7 am to 5 pm.
If you are wanting to boat on Lake Drummond you will have to use this route to reach the boat ramp.
For those looking to head to the swamp for hiking and bike riding, the refuge is open from sunrise to sunset and there are miles upon miles of amazing trails and walkways through the swamp. I recommend this and regret not doing this myself!
Unlike the wildlife drive, the other routes are free to enter as cars are not permitted past the entrance. Walking and biking through the park is an amazing option but make sure you have water with you and the correct gear (mosquitos in Virginia are absolutely terrible).
Swamp Rules & Regulations
While exploring the park, you will need to abide by a strict set of rules and regulations that are geared at protecting the fragile ecosystem contained within the refuge.
First of all, you will need to ensure that you leave the park in a perfect state by leaving no trace of your visit. If you bring your pet with you, they must remain on a leash at all times.
Most importantly, you should not touch or interact with the wildlife. Keep a safe distance between yourself and any wildlife. No animals should be removed from the refuge.
These rules are in place to protect the fragile ecosystems contained within the swamp as well as protecting you and the wildlife within (there are bears here!).
For some activities, you need to obtain special permits to partake.
Things to Do
The beauty of the refuge brings all kinds of visitors, from those looking to take a scenic drive to those seeking a more high paced experience.
I, personally, simply drove along the wildlife drive and enjoyed the scenery, taking frequent stops to explore the surrounding nature where permitted.
Throughout the entire park, there are plenty of hiking trails that wind through the swamp with boardwalks that traverse over the wetlands. The dirt paths that carve their way through the swamp make for excellent biking paths and you can easily cover miles of the swamp just by cycling.
During certain seasons, keep an eye out for migratory birds that breed in the woodlands and wetlands throughout the great dismal swamp. For those interested in photography, the swamp is a fantastic place to test out your skills as they swarm with life and beauty.
The pathways make an amazing vantage point for photography since they take you up close to nature while still remaining at a respectful distance.
Fishing in Lake Drummond
With a special permit, it is allowed to fish in Lake Drummond either from the shoreline or via a boat trip. Alternatively, you can simply head out into the lake on your boat and enjoy the tranquility.
During fall, there are several days throughout October and November when hunting for black bears and white-tailed dear is legal with a special permit and under strict rules and regulations.
Hunting only happens in special areas of the refuge and during the period, walking and bike routes are slightly more limited.
Great Dismal Swamp Tours
If you want to gain further insight into this magnificent refuge, you can take a tour of the Great Dismal Swamp through the Suffolk Tourism Board. These are guided bus tours. Please do check with them for further details and to confirm dates, times, and information.
All tours depart from the Suffolk Visitor Center located at 524 N. Main Street in Suffolk. Be there at least 15 minutes early. To reserve your spot, you can check out the Suffolk Tourism Board website or call (757) 514-4130.
The Great Dismal Swamp tour lasts for 4 hours. Don’t wear flip-flops! The prices are as follows: $10 adults; $8 seniors (60+), military, and children ages 8-12. Not recommended for children under 8.
Dates for the excursion to the swamp are pre-determined. You can see the 2020 dates on the website linked above.
Lake Drummond Kayak Excursion
Another option of what to do at Lake Drummond and the Great Dismal Swamp is to join a kayak excursion on Lake Drummond. This is also offered through the Suffolk Tourism Board’s website. The price is $40.
There are also many other options for tours and walks you can participate in at the website, so be sure to scour it and see what fits you best!
Wildlife at the Great Dismal Swamp
The swamp is home to a diverse ecosystem that, thanks to preservation efforts, is now flourishing.
As you explore the swamp, there is an array of flora present, with over 300 different types of plants throughout the refuge that creates a foundation that supports a vast array of animal life.
When you walk through the swamp, keep an eye for one of the many species of animals that call the refuge their home. These can range from fierce black bears to cute otters that swim through the water systems.
You will find over 70 species of reptiles and amphibians at the Great Dismal Swamp. As you walk along the boardwalk and wamp, one of the most common creatures you will see are terrapins that float on the surface or sun themselves on rocks.
While the swamp is home to many predators, the alligator is not one of them. However, it is thought that they used to live there but over time, the swamp became inhabitable for them.
Don’t like snakes? Well, the Great Dismal Swamp is home to many of them so watch where you step!
How to Get to the Great Dismal Swamp
Located in the southeastern corner of Virginia, the swamp is directly south of the cities of Suffolk and Chesapeake and carries on down into North Carolina where much of the refuge has been declared a state park.
To reach the Great Dismal Swamp, you will need to drive to the area and either park at one of the many entrances for those looking to explore the swamp by foot or bike.
Alternatively, on the swamp’s western edge, you can drive through it via the Lake Drummond Wilderness Drive.
The swamp is serviced by Interstate 17 along the eastern edge and Interstate 58 to the north.
Along the western edge, the closest interstate is Interstate 13, but you will need to venture off it to reach the swamp and the entrance to the wildlife drive.
The areas around the swamp are fairly rural and you are unlikely to experience high levels of traffic.
What to Bring With You
There are a few essential items that you will need to bring with you to the Great Dismal Swamp, along with a couple of things that will enhance your experience.
The most important thing to pack is plenty of water! Inside the park, there are no restaurants or stores so you will need to carry any supplies you need with you.
I don’t travel anywhere without my Klean Kanteen and in the baking sun of the Great Dismal Swamp, it was perfect as it was able to keep my water ice cold throughout the whole day exploring.
Despite there being some shady boardwalks that meander through the swampy forests, many of the other trails will expose you to the fierce Virginian sun so bringing sunscreen is essential or you will quickly find yourself being burnt.
I also recommend bringing plenty of snacks and food with you, especially if you are planning to spend the whole day in the park. Along with a small packed lunch, I bought a bunch of Cliff Bars with me for a perfect energy boost.
I highly recommend bringing a camera with you to photograph the stunning wildlife, especially if you get the opportunity to see one of the swamp’s black bears. I took my trusty Canon DSLR camera – it is the perfect camera for those enthusiastic to start photography.
To go with the camera, I also bought a Tamron zoom lens, a great budget-friendly zoom lens with an awesome macro function for taking photographs of some of the amazing insect species found in the park.
Binoculars are also great for viewing the birds that inhabit or visit the swamp, as many will spend their time high up in the trees or out in the lake.
Where to Stay Near the Great Dismal Swamp
There are plenty of great options for places to stay around the swamp, although there are no locations to stay within the park.
If you wish to stay as close as possible to the Great Dismal Swamp, then I recommend bringing a tent with you and staying at the Chesapeake Campground, where you can pitch a tent and enjoy a night under the temperate Virginian night sky.
The campsite is located literally on the edge of the swamp and walking routes and trails can easily be reached by foot or bike from the campsite itself.
If you are looking to do the Lake Drummond Wildlife Drive, it is a 30-minute journey from the campsite, with the entrance to the drive being on the opposite side of the park.
Hotels in Suffolk
Alternatively, there are plenty of hotels in the Great Dismal Swamp area and the town of Suffolk is the perfect place to base yourself.
Located on the northwestern corner of the swamp, you can quickly reach the wildlife drive and the various other entrances to the park.
The Pinner House
The Pinner House in central Suffolk is one of the closest hotels to the park and offers fantastic rooms for an affordable rate. Each of the double rooms is immaculately finished with large comfortable beds and a fully equipped ensuite bathroom.
In the sprawling grounds of the hotel, there are plenty of places to sit and relax after a long day exploring the Great Dismal Swamp.
There is a shared kitchen available for those wanting to cook up a storm, with a large outdoor table available for dining. There are plenty of bars and restaurants in the surrounding area.
I hope that this guide gives you the basic information to help you visit the Great Dismal Swamp in southeastern Virginia. If you have additional questions or concerns, please reach out!
Megan is a travel blogger and writer with a background in digital marketing. Originally from Richmond, VA, she has lived all around the world (including Germany, Finland, Norway, etc) but her heart always finds its way back to Virginia. This blog is to help encourage travelers to explore the great state of VA… and its wonderful neighbors! Megan has written for or been featured by National Geographic, Forbes, Lonely Planet, Fodor’s Travel, the New York Times, and more. She has visited 45 US states and 100+ countries… and wholeheartedly believes that Brunswick Stew is probably the greatest food to ever exist.