I Took My Dog To The Dismal Swamp

You probably think visiting the Dismal Swamp with your dog sounds pretty awful. Sort of like staying in a gloomy hovel, hiking through the dreary landfill, or playing in the dog park from hell.

But you’d be wrong.

Stay Away From The Dismal Swamp

We had heard terrible things from other sailors about the Dismal Swamp.

It’s too shallow. You have to watch out for mud-buried logs under your keel and low-hanging tree branches on your mast. And don’t forget to clean the duckweed out of your raw water strainer to keep your engine from overheating.

Green water in a swamp.
No, that’s not algae. It’s duckweed. Millions of tiny little plants matted together on the surface of the water.

But when the Dismal Swamp canal was closed to boaters for over a year thanks to hurricane damage (Matthew), we heard other things. 

Some boaters were talking about how much they missed the canal. They hoped it would reopen again.

And when the Army Corps of Engineers got the canal back in shape for boaters, it seemed like the best time to travel the Dismal Swamp. After all, it would never be in better shape than after months of work.

Boats in a canal.
It’s a good idea to pick a pretty boat to follow in the Dismal Swamp. You’ll be looking at their bum for a long time.

Boy, was I glad we did. Because Honey and I love the Dismal Swamp.

Meandering Through The Dismal Swamp

We took a quick pass through the Dismal Swamp on our way back to the Chesapeake Bay in Spring 2018. 

But it seemed worth another look. So when we headed south in the fall, we decided to take our time and see what the swamp had to offer. 

We left Hampton, Virginia with a small craft advisory on the weather report. In the protected waters of the Hampton River, the wind didn’t kick up much wave action. But the open waters of Hampton Roads handed our butts to us. 

We were glad to get shelter in the lee of an island. And when we turned off into the Dismal Swamp route, conditions were so calm it was easy to forget how rough the water was just a few miles away.

No one was more relieved than Honey. She has trouble settling down when the water is rough. Seeing her asleep in the cockpit is the best way to know she’s comfortable. 

Golden retriever in sailboat cockpit with stick.
I’m also comfortable when I have a nice stick.

The Dismal Swamp Canal is only 22 miles long. It has a lock at each end. With a top motoring speed of about 6 miles per hour, Meander could transit the Dismal Swamp in about 5 hours at the most.

This last time, we gave ourselves 5 days to explore. We could have stayed longer.

Trawler waiting at a lock gate on canal.
Waiting in line to get into the lock.

Deep Creek Lock

The Deep Creek Lock is quite the destination for boaters—mostly thanks to the informative and entertaining lock keeper, Robert.

Man blowing into a conch shell.
Robert demonstrating how to play a conch shell.

While you’re tied up to the wall waiting for the water to rise or fall before the lock gates open, you can admire the dozens of conch shells brought back from the Caribbean by cruisers. And the graffiti scratched into the metal lock walls.

Man holding line on bow of a sailboat in a lock.
Mike sure makes going through a lock look like hard work, doesn’t he?

After transiting the lock, we tied up to the dock just on the other side with several other boats. It was right on the edge of a park and a lovely place to let Honey stretch her legs. 

Golden retriever in front of sign for Deep Creek Lock Park.

Robert invited the half dozen boat crew to the lock house for breakfast the next morning. Along with being chef, Robert is also the unofficial historian of the Great Dismal Swamp. 

We learned that the Great Dismal Swamp is home to the only active peat beds anywhere in North America. And that before developing reverse osmosis, NASA planned to fill their moon landing water tanks with water from the Dismal Swamp (the high tannin levels keep the water fresh indefinitely).

When Robert had to tend to the first locking of the day, the captains and crew hurried back to their boats to travel down the canal.

Bull the puppy is a lock dog in training. Honey would like to have his job.

Rather than follow the floating convoy all the way to North Carolina, we stopped off at the Douglas Road Free Dock.

Douglas Road Free Dock

Douglas Road allows bikers and hikers to access a paved trail that runs along the canal. All day long bikes and joggers raced past.

Bicyclists on a road.
The road that runs along the Dismal Swamp canal in Virginia is closed to cars. It’s great for bikes.

Although it was a remote place, I did not give Honey much time to play off leash. The first sign that greeted us on the road warned us of bears. 

Golden retriever with bear warning sign.
I hope we see a bear. I’m ready to play.

Knowing how much Honey likes to make new friends, I didn’t think it was wise to unleash her. She might mistake a resident black bear for Paddington or Winnie the Pooh.

We were eventually joined on the dock by a catamaran towing an engine-less sailboat. 

The young sailor without a motor had sailed all over the world on his boat. And he had contributed to the development of an open source navigation system.

You never know who you’ll meet underway.

Since we work from the boat (well, my husband and I do; Honey’s a bit of a slacker), the quiet dock was a good place to get caught up on deadlines before arriving in a more social setting.

Golden retriever on dock.
C’mon, don’t you want to play? That work stuff you do is boring.

Dismal Swamp Welcome Center & State Park

The Dismal Swamp Welcome Center is party central for Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) boaters. It has flush toilets. And wifi. Ooooh.

Add an ice cream shop and it would be heaven.

As hundreds of boats travel south in the fall, the free dock at the welcome center gets packed. 

We calculated what time boats would need to leave to go through the first opening of the South Mills lock and planned to arrive shortly afterward. 

Honey insisted.

Why? Because on a busy day, boats rafted—one boat would tie to the dock, another would tie to them, another would tie to that boat, etc. 

Can you imagine how unhappy Honey would be if we had to carry her across 3 or 4 boats to get to dry land? 

Boats rafted together at a dock.
By the time all the boats had landed on the dock, it was too dark to take pictures. I think we had 16 boats in the massive raft plus a few boats anchored in the canal.

Arriving early, we got the spot on the dock. And the ability to use Honey’s ramp to get her to land.

The crew on the boat rafted to us had to walk through our cockpit to reach shore. As we watched 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8!!! people step out of the 40-foot sailboat, we realized it was the nautical version of a clown car.

Honey and I enjoyed walking the trails of the Dismal Swamp State Park across the waterway while Mike worked. 

I particularly love the boardwalks passing through the wetlands. They’re full of life (especially bug life) and scary and beautiful at the same time.

Golden retriever on board walk in swamp.
Make it quick, lady. I don’t want something to jump out of the swamp to eat me while you’re taking pictures.

Archaeologists and historians are currently studying the swamp to learn more about communities of maroons (black people who fled enslavement and lived on higher ground and supported themselves from the swamp). 

I can’t imagine how determined, desperate, and savvy someone would have to be to see the Dismal Swamp as a refuge. 

It humbles me.

The State Park rents out bicycles (yeah, long time readers know Honey is not a fan) and kayaks so you can explore more of the park. 

We didn’t rent a kayak this time. But I’d love to explore the waterway more closely with Honey. She’s particularly good at sniffing out interesting critters.

Golden retriever sniffing.
I smell something interesting and I’m hot on its trail. It’s either a mountain lion or a hamburger.

South Mills Lock

After informing the captain of the boat rafted to him that he had to be up by 7:00 a.m. to start his engine, our neighbor took charge of unrafting all the boats tied to the dock. If I had to guess, I’d say he was retired military.

We had to line up at the South Mills lock in time for an 8:30 a.m. opening. 

The lock tender at the South Mills lock is also a dog lover. He made so many happy noises to Honey that I began to worry that he might try to pick her off the deck with his boat hook.

Somehow I don’t think Honey would mind being a lock dog. Can you imagine how much fun she’d have greeting visitors?

Visiting The Dismal Swamp With Your Pup

I bet most of you reading this have never heard of the Dismal Swamp. Given that George Washington surveyed it and invested in the canal, it’s surprising how obscure a spot it is.

But the Dismal Swamp is a unique natural setting. And as long as you’re not on a boat, it’s remarkably uncrowded in the spring and fall—as well as being less buggy.

The trails in the Dismal Swamp State Park are quite varied. This one is wide and sandy–perfect for running but firm enough for a stroller or bike.

The Dismal Swamp is about 25 miles from Norfolk and Portsmouth in Virginia and 38 miles from Virginia Beach. 

Connecting the Chesapeake Bay to the Albemarle Sound makes it an interesting gateway to North Carolina’s Outer Banks. It’s only 63 miles from Kitty Hawk.

It’s a delightful place to hike and kayak with dogs. The only camping in the Dismal Swamp itself is primitive camping on the shores of Lake Drummond. You can reach it by shallow-draft boat. 

But there are private campgrounds in nearby Chesapeake, Virginia and North Carolina. 

If you’re looking to visit somewhere off the beaten path, or if you like how fun it sounds to tell people you went to the Dismal Swamp when they went to Disney World, visit the Dismal Swamp with your dog. 

Honey gives it her roll of approval. Maybe your dog will too.

Golden retriever rolling on her back.
Just making sure I smell like a Dismal Swamp when I get back onto the boat.

Your Turn: Just curious, have you ever heard of the Dismal Swamp? Would you check it out?


  1. If you want to keep a special place a secret then I don’t think you can go far wrong in calling it “Dismal”! 😀

    Seriously, I wish I could visit it – it sounds lovely.

    • Good point. 🙂

      Canals in the US are quite different from those in Europe. They often have many fewer towns nearby. It makes them a great place to look for wild animals.

  2. I’ve heard of the Dismal Swamp before; but until you wrote about it, I never had much interest in it. I think if she were younger – Ducky’s age – my sweet Shadow would really enjoy spending some time there with Honey. Ducky would, too, probably; but she’s a little demon around humans. And an instigator.

    • Sounds like the Dismal Swamp would be perfect for Ducky. Given how close it is to major population areas, there are relatively few people there. She could have all the demonic fun she wants!

  3. Wow, there’s a lot more to that place than the name implies, that’s for sure! I had never heard of it, but it’s definitely a place I would enjoy visiting. Nature, history…it seems to have it all!
    I really enjoyed this story, especially learning about boats “rafting” and that there are places where boating can be a very crowded endeavor. There has to be so much to learn about each place you visit so you know what to expect and prepare for.

    • It really is fascinating. I have about 6 pages of notes on the history and natural history of the area.

      This was our first time rafting our boat. There are places in Florida that are so crowded that they require 3 boats to raft up just to tie into a mooring anchor. At least now we know how to do it for the next time.

  4. The nautical version of a clown car statement really made us laugh! Mom has a fear of swamps because she thinks there are lots of reptiles which she can’t stand. Probably not the destination for us, but interesting to learn about.

    • Most of the critters we saw were turtles and frogs. Does your mom find them scary too?

      But yes, it’s a very interesting spot.

  5. It was very interesting to read of your visit to The Dismal Swamp! I had heard of it before but realize now, I never knew just where it was located. It looked beautiful in your photos but while we don’t travel much, I think I’d enjoy this place. Thanks for sharing this with us.

    • For people who don’t travel a lot, the quiet places can be the most interesting.

      Hope you enjoyed traveling “virtually” with us.

  6. I had heard of the Dismal Swamp before, it looks like a good place to ride your bike.

    • My bike is the one thing I miss the most on board the boat. But the rentals were very inexpensive. Hopefully the next time I can check out more of the area by bike.

  7. Gosh, what an interesting place. Generally I avoid places named swamp but this place looks like it might be a fun place to check out.

    • I must admit I have definitely seen the beauty of both swamps and mud flats since I’ve been traveling through them. I guess there’s beauty everywhere if you’re just willing to look.

  8. I have certainly heard the name but knew nothing about this place or where it was. I loved this post!

    Curiosity question….I know how limited space is on your boat, but have you ever considered having one of those bicycles that fold down into a more stowable shape? While Honey might not like it, it would give you quicker access to grocery stores, etc., as well as another form of stretching your legs.