A Scenic Stroll on the Dismal Swamp Canal Trail

Dismal Swamp Canal
Photo by Peretz Partensky

After being stuck inside for several dreary days, the sunshine on a recent Sunday afternoon was the impetus to gather my family, put our weekend chores aside and take some time for hikes and bikes. For this trail trip, we headed to Chesapeake for a little stomp around the swamp.

Great Dismal Swamp Map

The Trail: Dismal Swamp Canal Trail

Route Rundown: This former section of Virginia State Route 17 begins with a northern trailhead located at the intersection of Dominion Boulevard and Old Route 17 in Chesapeake and travels 8.3 miles adjacent to the Dismal Swamp Canal, which is also the eastern border of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service’s Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. An additional 2.5-mile connection to the north connects to Deep Creek Park. The trail ends at the south trailhead at Ballahack Road/Great Dismal Swamp Boat Ramp near the North Carolina border.

Chesapeake's Dismal Swamp Canal Trail

History: The trail opened in 1974 when The Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge was established by an Act of Congress and now protects more than 112,000 acres and preserves fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats. The 22-mile Dismal Swamp Canal, opened to navigation in 1805, allowed trade between the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia and the Albemarle Sound in North Carolina. During the 1800s, the swamp harbored generations of freedom seekers under the veil of dense wetland forest. Thousands of runaway slaves moved north through these waterways. The Refuge and the Dismal Swamp Canal are now official sites of the National Park Service's Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.

Dismal Swamp Canal Trail in Chesapeake

Dismal Swamp Canal Trail Chesapeake hiking

Dismal Swamp Canal Trail hiking in Chesapeake

boating in the Great Dismal Swamp

Highlights: This multi-use trail, marked every 1/4 mile, is open to walking, running, biking, horseback riding and boating. Its flat, wide, paved path make it a haven for cyclists. The Ballahack Road/Great Dismal Swamp Boat Ramp provides easy access to launch your boat, canoe or kayak.

Amenities: Two restroom buildings, bicycle tire pumps, picnic areas, horse trails and ample free parking at both trailheads.

Chessie at Dismal Swamp Canal Trail

Diversions: The Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge is home to a myriad species of wildlife—bears, deer, bobcats, fox, snakes and more. It's also a resting spot for thousands of migratory birds in the fall and spring—more than 210 species have been identified. If you don't spot a real bear, stop for a visit with the statue of Chessie, "Chesapeake's Black Bear" near the north trailhead. Historical markers, signs and points of interest along the trail provide plenty of opportunities to stop and learn.

Events: The Dismal Swamp Stomp Running Festival, held in April, offers half marathon, 5K and Kids' Cub Run. Paddle for the Border in May invites paddlers to push off and navigate their own canoes or kayaks from South Mills, N.C. to Chesapeake along the Dismal Swamp Canal Trail, joining other paddlers for a picnic lunch.


For more information on the Dismal Swamp Canal Trail, visit here.

Melissa M. Stewart

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