Dismal Swamp Canal Trail (VA)

Virginia

At a Glance

Name: Dismal Swamp Canal Trail (VA)
Length: 8.5 Miles
Trail activities: Bike, Inline Skating, Wheelchair Accessible, Horseback Riding, Walking
Counties: Chesapeake
Surfaces: Asphalt
State: Virginia

About this Itinerary

For anyone who enjoys biking on roads, but is fearful of passing cars, the Dismal Swamp Canal Trail (DSCT) is for you. The trail follows 8.5 miles of wide, flat asphalt that was formerly a state highway. Bicycles may truly use ‘the full lane’ on this trail. Perfect for families or for those looking for an easy, leisurely route, the DSCT skirts the easternmost portion of the Great Dismal Swamp Refuge. Home to a wide diversity of wildlife and with a rich history, the DSCT is a great introduction to a fascinating and often overlooked natural wonder in southeastern Virginia.

The Great Dismal Swamp is considered geologically significant since for millions of years it lay under the sea. In 1763, George Washington surveyed these grounds and suggested that it be drained to clear the way for a north-south canal connecting the Chesapeake Bay and Albemarle Sound, and that the land be utilized for farming. Washington, and other partners, purchased the land for $20,000 in 1763 and harvested the cypress trees for shipbuilding and the cedars for shingles. Construction of the canal began thereafter, although the enormous task of actually draining the swamp was soon abandoned. Lumbering continued until the 1950’s by which point all of the remaining timber was removed. In 1973, the Nature Conservancy was deeded the land, and in turn donated it to the Department of the Interior for creation of the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. Today, the swamp is a magnet for migratory birds and home to a large number of animal species.

Our itinerary begins at the northern trailhead of the DSCT. We recommend staying at The Country Villa Inn, located in nearby Virginia Beach. Approximately 30 minutes from the Norfolk airport, the property features an on-site spa with several massage options, a three-course gourmet breakfast and four acres of beautifully landscaped grounds. To reach it from the airport, take US-64S to route 603/Indian River Road. The property receives high praise as a place for utter rest and relaxation, and is located about 40 minutes away from the northern trailhead of the DSCT. We recommend this inn due to its unique offerings, proximity to the Virginia Beach oceanfront and the enthusiastic reviews of former guests; however, many well-known chain hotels are available closer to the DSCT in Chesapeake. The Hampton Inn Chesapeake is located about 15 minutes away from the trailhead (take 64W to 17S) and is a great budget-friendly alternative.

Bicycle rentals are not available near the DSCT; however, Virginia Beach has a number of oceanfront bike rental shops offering basic cruiser bikes. Closest to Country Villa is Ocean Rentals. Unfortunately, road bike and hybrid bike rentals are not available in the area.

Day 1

From the Country Villa, head west to route 165 and follow that west until it intersects with US-17. Follow US-17 B/George Washington Highway south and look for the DSCT parking lot on your right just before the road curves toward US-17’s main alignment. There are facilities about 5 miles along the trail, but be prepared and be sure to pack enough water. If you need to pick up food or water enroute to the trailhead, there are a number of options in Chesapeake along route 165 and along US-17. Local market Farm Fresh is located in the Dominion Plaza at the intersection with US-17 and offers fresh prepared foods in addition to the usual grocery store fare.

As you head south on the trail, the refuge will be on your right. At more than 107,000 acres, the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge is the largest intact tract of what once covered more than a million acres of southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina. At its center lies Lake Drummond, whose unusually pure water was prized by native people for its restorative properties and by sailors because the water stayed fresh for long periods of time.. The purity is a result of tannic acids from the bark of juniper, gum and cypress tress which prohibit the growth of bacteria.

Also running parallel to the trail is the Dismal Swamp Canal from which the bike trail took its name. Opened in 1805, the 22-mile canal is the oldest continuously operated man-made canal in the U.S. It is part of the Intracoastal Waterway, a 3,000-mile inland waterway that travels along the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts. During World War II, this canal became an important means of avoiding enemy submarines along the Atlantic coast, and continues to play a role in commercial traffic serving Norfolk and areas north.

The DSCT is popular with locals, but given its width and remote location, it does not get crowded. In fact, you may find yourself spotting more wildlife than people along the route. The refuge is home to about 300 black bear, and riders have reporting seeing them crossing the trail. In addition to bears, the swamp is also home to bobcat, river otter, grey fox, minks, beavers and more than 200 species of birds. Take time to read the signs posted at the beginning of the trail about what to do should you encounter a black bear or other wildlife. Needless to say, do not feed or attempt to engage any wild animals.

After your ride, consider heading 16 miles south on US-17 to the Great Dismal Swamp Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center to learn more about the swamp and canal, including how Washington’s efforts to drain the swamp and the continuation of this practice over time led to problems with the swamp’s hydrology that persist today. In addition to the DSCT, a number of well-maintained walking paths allow for further exploration, some of which are accessible from the visitor center.

As the swamp was part of the Underground Railroad, you’ll also learn how this inhospitable environment with its oppressive heat, bugs and snakes provided an ideal hiding place for slaves prior to the Civil War. In fact, evidence exists indicating that a community may have developed and that this was not just a stopover along the route.

Enroute to the visitor center, stop for some filling southern food at Cotton Southern Bistro. Try the chicken and dumplings; fried chicken; smokehouse ribs; or the house special, chicken-fried bacon. To reach the restaurant, retrace your path north on US-17 for about 4 miles and turn right into the shopping complex on Grassfield Parkkway before the intersection with Route 165. Back near your inn, for a sweet treat, stop by Pungo Pizza and Ice Cream and try a slice of the homemade pie, cinnamon knots or a refreshing milk shake.

Day 2

No trip to Virginia Beach is complete without spending time on the beach and swimming in the ocean, but there are many other ways to enjoy the region’s beautiful natural environment and diverse wildlife. Kayak Nature Tours will take you on a guided tour to a number of waterways in the area, including Lake Drummond or the Northwest River in the Dismal Swamp. Also popular are dolphin tours. Kayaking amongst dolphins is a truly magical way to experience these majestic animals up close in their natural environment and an opportunity not to miss. For a different perspective on the water, consider a stand-up paddleboard tour. Beach Eco Tours will take you on a guided tour on flat water and no experience is necessary. This could be the perfect time to try out this exciting sport!

Military Aviation Museum

Visit the Military Aviation Museum in Virginia Beach, which holds one of the largest private collections of World War I and World War II era military aircraft, each beautifully restored. Visitors can see the planes up close in one of three hangers, or for an even more exciting experience, actually fly with a pilot in an open or closed cockpit WWII aircraft. Air shows also take place several times a year. Reservations must be made in advance to fly in one of the planes.

Old Cape Henry Lighthouse

Climb to the top of Cape Henry Lighthouse, one of the oldest surviving lighthouses in the U.S. Completed in 1792 near the first landing where English settlers arrived in 1607, the structure was the first federally funded lighthouse and was authorized by George Washington. It was in active use for nearly a century before being replaced by a new cast iron lighthouse.

When you get hungry, Virginia Beach offers no shortage of restaurant options. Blue Seafood & Spirits focuses on high quality fresh seafood in a casual yet elegant setting. It’s one of the top restaurants in the area; try their crab cakes, tempura-fried shrimp or catch of the day. Terrapin, located in the north end of Virginia Beach, is a fine dining restaurant featuring American cuisine and farm-fresh ingredients. Try the rabbit gnudi, truffle macaroni and cheese, or fennel-dusted sea scallops. The chef focuses on locally produced food, and visitors to the restaurant’s website will find the exact source of many of the items on the menu. Tucked in to an out-of-the way neighborhood, and in the cellar of an 1860’s farmhouse, is The Cellars of Church Point Manor. The restaurant’s menu features “French country with a southern flare,”’ and offers dishes such as shrimp and grits, whiskey-roasted bone marrow, Old Virginia chowder and fondu.

Continue your explorations in nearby Norfolk, where you can visit Nauticus, a maritime-themed science center and museum. A highlight is the tour of the Battleship Wisconsin, one of the largest and last battleships built by the U.S. Navy. A number of multi-media presentations and interactive exhibits explore the various facets of naval power.

Attractions and Amenities

Museums, Attractions, Tours
Outfitters/Bike Shops

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