Great Dismal Swamp: Hike the Washington Ditch Trail to Lake Drummond in Southeast Virginia

For some time, I’ve wanted to visit Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in Chesapeake and Suffolk, Virginia. Those bald cypress trees. They called to me.

You can also see bald cypress trees on the Bald Cypress Trail at First Landing State Park, but there was something different about the Great Dismal Swamp.  

Bald Cypress Trees on Lake Drummond

I mean, the name alone – Great Dismal Swamp – draws you in. I was eager to drink up what there was to know and see about this scenic wildlife refuge.

Since I was in Virginia Beach for a writers’ conference, I made a side trip to Chesapeake to hike along the Washington Ditch Road (a gravel trail, really).

Trail Stats
Length9.7 miles
Trail TypeOut-and-Back
Elevation Gain36 feet
Duration3-4 hours
TerrainMostly dirt & gravel trails, some boardwalk
Driving DirectionsClick Here

Great Dismal Swamp

Before I dig into this hike, let me first note that the Great Dismal Swamp is split between Virginia and North Carolina.

In Virginia, it’s part of the 113,000-acre Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. In North Carolina, it’s set in 14,000-acre Dismal Swamp State Park.

Bald Cypress Trees at Great Dismal Swamp

The wildlife refuge is the largest intact remains of a marshy swamp that at one time covered more than one million acres.

Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge was created in 1974 to protect what’s left of this habitat that’s home to river otters, deer, even black bears.

There are four vehicle entrances to the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge: Railroad Ditch, Jericho Lane, Washington Ditch and Portsmouth Ditch.

Washington Ditch Entrance

By boat, you can also access the Great Dismal Swamp by way of the Feeder Ditch. From here, you can take the Dismal Swamp Canal to Lake Drummond.

Both motorized (up to 25 hp) and non-motorized boats are allowed year-round in the canal and lake. Fishing is also allowed with a freshwater fishing license.

Washington Ditch

Washington Ditch is the only entrance with a hiking trail to 3,142-acre Lake Drummond. From the parking area, it’s a 4.5-mile (one-way) hike to the lake.

Great Dismal Swamp Boardwalk Trail

Steps from the parking lot, there is also a .9-mile boardwalk trail that leads into the swamp for views of bald cypress trees and ferns from two overlooks.

Placards all along this easy-going walk educate on the swamp’s history, forest communities and wildlife you may see in each season.  

Great Dismal Swamp Sign

Note that the sign at the trailhead says the hike is .75-mile, but that is one-way. An extra .15-mile on a gravel trail returns you to the parking lot.

Bikes are not allowed on the boardwalk trail through the forested wetlands. Also of note, there are two vault toilets at the far end of the parking area.

Great Dismal Swamp Boardwalk Trail

The boardwalk trail is nice and kid-friendly, but I really wanted to see Lake Drummond. At 3:45 (mind you, sunset was at 5:45), I set off for the lake.

Washington Ditch Trail

It was a run/walk to Lake Drummond. My pace for miles four and five was 8:57 (with a daypack). Clearly, I just wanted to get to Lake Drummond.

Great Dismal Swamp Lake Drummond Sign

The Washington Ditch Trail is essentially a wide, gravel road that runs alongside a water-filled ditch that is home to numerous bald cypress trees.

Every .5-mile you will see a mile marker so you know how far you’ve hiked (and, of course, how far you still have to go).

Great Dismal Swamp Mile Marker Sign

At the 4.5-mile mark, you will arrive at a wooden fishing pier at the north end of Lake Drummond. There is a bench as well as a metal viewfinder.

A placard educates visitors on Lake Drummond, which was discovered in 1755 by William Drummond, the first colonial governor of North Carolina.

Lake Drummond

Lake Drummond is the largest of just two natural lakes in Virginia. The 50-acre Mountain Lake in Pembroke is the other natural lake in the state.

From the fishing pier, you can see a handful of bald cypress trees that appear to sprout right out of Lake Drummond.

Fishing Pier at Lake Drummond

I would have loved to sit on the bench and stare out into the lake, but I was chasing the sun. The park closed at sunset and I had 4.5 miles ahead of me.

I made it back to the parking lot in time. My car was the only one left in the lot. The entrance gate was already closed, but thankfully it lifted as I approached.

Lake Drummond

It’s worth nothing that bikes are allowed on the Washington Ditch Trail, which is nearly flat all the way to the fishing pier. Biking would be a very good choice.

History of Washington Ditch

In case you’re wondering, Washington Ditch is in fact named after George Washington. He surveyed the area in 1763.

A cart road was built along this 4.5-mile stretch. The ditch was dug by slave labor to drain the swamp for logging and farming.

Washington Ditch Sign

There are two historical markers near the parking area that offer a brief history of Washington Ditch and “Dismal Town.” There is also a covered picnic table.

From the Washington Ditch entrance, there is no fee to enter the Great Dismal Swamp Wildlife Refuge.

Railroad Ditch

The Railroad Ditch entrance allows visitors to reach Lake Drummond by car. This is also called the Lake Drummond Wildlife Drive entrance.

There is a $5/car fee to enter the wildlife refuge at this entrance, which leads visitors along a six-mile gravel road to Lake Drummond.

Lake Drummond Sign

Along the way to the lake, there are a couple of short boardwalk trails, including Cypress Marsh (.4-mile) and West Ditch (.1-mile).

There is also a .2-mile boardwalk trail that leads to the Underground Railroad Pavilion, a small outdoor classroom with benches and educational placards.

Here visitors can learn more about the Great Dismal Swamp maroons, a community of escaped slaves who lived freely within the Great Dismal Swamp.

Great Dismal Swamp Boardwalk

For some, this swamp was also a stop on the Underground Railroad as they made their way north to freedom.

At the end of Wildlife Drive (technically, Railroad Ditch, West Ditch and Interior Ditch) you will reach a fishing pier as well as a boat launch.

The are no boat rentals at Lake Drummond, but if you bring your own, you can drop in at this point for a day on the lake.

Great Dismal Swamp

However, you can rent a kayak or SUP, or sign up for a guided paddle, with Adventure Kayak & SUP Tours, which set off from the Great Dismal Canal.

This man made canal is reached by way of the Feeder Ditch entrance. From here, it’s a four-mile paddle to reach Lake Drummond.

Great Dismal Swamp tours last six hours, but enable you to get very close to the bald cypress trees. I will be back to see the cypress trees from the water.

Wrap-Up Notes

The hike to Lake Drummond on the Washington Ditch Trail is scenic and relaxing, but quite long. It’s about 9.1-miles as an out-and-back hike.

Since I tacked on the boardwalk trail, my hike was closer to 9.7-miles. The scenery is the same all the way to the lake, so I would go by bike next time.

Great Dismal Swamp

I think Lake Drummond is definitely worth seeing, especially in spring once the trees have greened up, but it’s a long walk to this large natural lake.

Several other dirt roads and trails can be accessed by way of the Jericho Lane and Portsmouth Ditch entrances. I think these would be best by bike, too.

Great Dismal Swamp Virginia Hiking Trail

I would definitely go back to see Lake Drummond by way of the Railroad Ditch entrance, which allows you to drive all the way to the wooden fishing pier.

A guided paddle on Lake Drummond is in order, too. This way you can really get up close to bald cypress trees. I am absolutely adding this to my bucket list.