Dismal or Not?

Dismal Swamp State Park: Featured Park of the Month


Just the name—Dismal—seems to make many people shy away. Those of us who take care of this hidden gem hear it all the time: “Must be pretty dreary out here!” Or especially on rainy days, “Well, the name is fitting.” But come and wander around, spend time out here and really get to know the place, and you’ll find that it is actually the precise opposite of the dictionary definition of “dismal”: “causing gloom or dejection; gloomy; dreary; cheerless; melancholy.” The Dismal Swamp is vibrant and very much alive. Once you discover the facts behind the myths, the names of the vines that shroud much of the forest, which small and usually innocuous animals make the strange sounds emanating from the heart of the Swamp…not only is it not a scary place but an inviting one.

Let’s start with the name itself. Early European settlers referred to low-lying, wet areas as “dismals.” Because of its vast original size of nearly 1.3 million acres, this “dismal” became known as the Great Dismal. Adding “Swamp” to the name is really a tad redundant, but nonetheless, that is what we call it today. Even its soil and water are unique. The Swamp is covered in a layer of peat soil, like what you might buy at a home improvement store for your vegetable garden. The peat can be anywhere from 3 to 15 deep and is rich in organic matter. In that soil today grow mainly pines; oaks and other hardwoods; and an assortment of small trees, shrubs, and colorful wildflowers.

Another aspect of the Swamp you will notice as soon as you arrive is the dark color of the water. All the water in the Swamp appears black at first glance but brown upon closer examination. It has been compared to coffee, Coca-Cola, sweet tea, and root beer, among other things. Many assume that it must be dirty and are surprised to learn that it is actually some of the cleanest water there is. The color comes not from dirt but tannins, compounds found in trees that leach into the water. As a result, the water has a very low pH—around 4-5—that helps to inhibit bacterial growth (and the growth of just about anything else, including fish. Only the hardiest species can be found here). Swamp water stays fresh for a very long time, which made it valuable to the early settlers, who used it for drinking on transatlantic crossings.


Many of those same settlers certainly did fear the place, though—they also saw no value in swampland and set about trying to drain it so that it could be farmed instead. Consequently, over 100 miles of ditches crisscross the area today, and parts of it are so dry it doesn’t even look like a swamp. Farming efforts, however, failed, as the land did not get dry enough, so the focus shifted to timber. The Swamp’s stands of bald cypress and Atlantic White-Cedar—a tree that is now endangered—came down and out in the form of shingles and other valuable products. Tour the trails today and the woods will give you the impression of longevity and a pristine wilderness, when in reality signs of human influence are rampant. Today’s trees are relatively young, as every portion of the Swamp has been logged at least once.

Beyond timber, people have found myriad uses for the Swamp over the years. The park’s eastern border is the historic Dismal Swamp Canal, opened in 1805 and the longest, continuously operating manmade waterway in the country. In its heyday, lighter boats hauled shingles and other goods up and down the 22-mile long Canal. Just as fascinating as the Canal itself is the story of the people who built it. Enslaved people labored for 12 years to construct the arrow-straight canal linking the Albemarle Sound and the Chesapeake Bay. They progressed perhaps 10 feet a day under conditions that no one would want to bear: waist-deep muck, swarms of biting insects, and of course the risk of encountering a venomous snake. Some were able to earn the freedom through the wages they were credited for their work; others could not and bravely set out seek freedom for themselves. The Dismal Swamp became an integral part of the Underground Railroad and even a permanent home to previously enslaved people who became known as “maroons.” The myths and tall tales about swamp creatures and ghosts provided excellent protection, as few were willing to venture in to pursue the fugitives, and the Swamp produced many food sources, including small game and a variety of edible fruits and berries.

Later on, moonshiners found the Swamp to be the perfect place to hide illegal stills. You can see a replica just a quarter mile hike from the visitor center, and the remains of real stills along the Supplejack Trail. Moonshining here began during the Prohibition era and continued possibly into the 1960s. It’s easy to see what made the Swamp so appealing to these lawbreakers and how challenging it must have been for the federal agents tasked with finding and destroying those stills!


Today, we have come full circle and realize that Dismal has much to offer and great value in its natural state. It catches and holds water like a sponge and also helps filter pollutants out of that water before it reaches the river and ultimately the ocean. It offers the largest undeveloped tract of habitat in the eastern US to animals like black bear, fox, bobcat, raccoon, and more. Park staff have documented more than 160 species of birds and 69 species of butterfly. Snakes, turtles, frogs, and salamanders abound if one knows where and how to look. Where early Europeans cut down timber, we now hold annual tree planting events in an attempt to reestablish the cypress and Atlantic White-Cedars. Where the settlers tried to drain the Swamp, we now build water control structures to keep more water in it. University researchers check monitoring wells and vegetation plots to track the progress of these efforts. So much more happens in this place than first meets the eye.

Perhaps most importantly, however, the Swamp offers us people an escape…hike into the heart of the park and close your eyes. The silence is so overpowering you can hear it, loud and clear. Despite the centuries of human influence, it is and always will be a wild, special place. 

Dismal Swamp State Park is located off U.S. Route 17 south of South Mills in the northeastern part of North Carolina.

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~Written by Ranger Katie Sanford, Dismal Swamp State Park.  Katie has been a ranger since 2013 and is graduate of Virginia Tech where she studied Wildlife Sciences.  She lives in Newland, NC (Pasquotank County) where she has what she calls a “Homestead Zoo “consisting of poultry, waterfowl, goats, dogs and cats as well as her garden where she grows ornamental and edible plants and flowers. When she is not tending to the land, either at home or the state park, she loves riding her Tennessee Walking Horse.


Photograph in the spirit of Ansel Adams in NC State Parks

To gaze at a gallery image by Ansel Adams, the acknowledged master of landscape photography, is to be inspired. The average viewer cannot help but look and be inspired by nature. For photographers, the inspiration is to attempt to express his/her own vision of nature and the outdoors.

Half Dome, Merced River by Ansel Adams, Winter, Yosemite National Park, circa 1938.

North Carolina State Parks offer the opportunities to act on that inspiration. The state parks system is partnering with the NC Museum of Art to co-mingle art and nature in the spirit of Adams and its current Ansel Adams: Masterworks exhibition. (Details here) Four state parks are offering guided photo hikes in February and March to introduce more people to a rewarding outdoor activity that celebrates North Carolina’s landscape. They’ll be held at William B. Umstead State Park Feb. 12, at Morrow Mountain State Park Feb. 18, at Weymouth Woods-Sandhills Nature Preserve March 11 and at Raven Rock State Park March 25. Visitors of all skill levels are welcome to share advice and inspiration with rangers and seasoned outdoor photographers. To get you thinking, here are a few basic tips about photographing in state parks.

State parks are perfect photography destinations, offering easy and safe access to the region’s most alluring landscapes with trail systems that present nature in every season and every mood. The best outdoor photography starts with the best information. Our website is where to get started with trail maps and insight into what a photographer will find in each park. Begin a visit to a park by exploring the visitor center with its detailed information about scenery, habitats and wildlife species you’ll encounter. If the opportunity presents itself, talk to a park ranger. They see the park in all its phases, and many of them are photographers as well.

Access is easy in parks. View of Mt. Craig from a parking area at Mount Mitchell State Park.

The impulse is to plan visits to faraway, exotic state parks perhaps in the mountains or at the coast. But don’t overlook parks close by that you can visit repeatedly. Most landscape photographers will tell you that’s how to get beyond the obvious cliché photos in favor of a stunning interpretation that’s all your own. Some of Adams’ most famous images were captured in Yosemite – an awe-inspiring place to be sure, but it helped that Adams lived there for a time and knew it intimately.

Travel light; remember you’ll be hiking, and equipment quickly gets heavy on the trail. Experienced photographers often carry only a small camera, a couple of small prime lenses (wide angle and medium telephoto are good), and maybe a tripod if shooting in low light or if slow shutter speeds are desired for water features. Too much equipment makes it too much like work. Initially if possible, keep your photo hikes shorter. It’s not mileage you’re after, but rather deliberate study of the scenery.

Winter scene of the pond at Carvers Creek State Park.

Landscape photography is usually best early or late in the day when light is usually more interesting, and happily that’s when crowds at scenic spots are smaller. Just allow time to get off the trails before dark and out of the park before the gates close. Be patient with other visitors who may photobomb your shot occasionally; you can often make new friends by offering to help with those selfies. Permits aren’t needed for photography in North Carolina State Parks except in the case of commercial photography, where models, lights and other equipment and special access may be involved.

One last, important bit of advice for landscape photography. Take a few moments to put the camera down, relax and take in the experience. It’s all about inspiration, right?

‘Take a Spin’ this year to learn about spiders in state parks

Why spiders?

For several years, North Carolina State Parks has had an annual theme for many of its interpretive programs to systematically explore the natural world. And, the theme is celebrated with a special bandana. This year’s theme is “Spiders!”

bandana-proofAlthough some will find this theme to be downright creepy, there is so much about spiders that makes them fascinating. Did you know that all spiders spin silk, but not all spiders spin webs. Wolf spiders leave “drag lines” behind when they walk as a way to communicate and find a mate. Trapdoor spiders dig burrows and cover them with doors of soil and silk, then swing the door open to grab prey. To keep from getting stuck in their silk, special oils cover spiders’ bodies, and their hairy feet often have special web-walking hooks.

Spiders are a valuable food source for many small mammals, birds, and fish. In fact, they are vital to maintaining healthy ecosystems by eating insect pests, by pollinating plants and by recycling dead animals and plants back into the earth. Spiders eat more insects than birds and bats combined. There’s even a species of spider in Central America that’s a vegetarian.

funnel-webDespite their nasty reputation, spiders are just as cool and important to the ecosystems of North Carolina State Parks as any other animals. The spruce-fir moss spider, one of the few federally endangered spiders, is known to live only in high elevation forests like those on Mount Mitchell and Grandfather Mountain. With hundreds of spider species in North Carolina – and dozens yet to be discovered – these amazing arachnids are among the most diverse animals around. It is our hope this year to help others ‘take a spin’ to see just how cool spiders can be!

NC state parks had record visitation of 18.8 million in Centennial year.

In its 2016 Centennial year, North Carolina State Parks enjoyed record visitation of 18.8 million, a nine percent increase over the 17.3 million visitors the previous year.

“North Carolina’s state parks are a treasured resource that belongs to all of us,” Governor Roy Cooper said. “I want to encourage even more North Carolinians to visit and enjoy our wonderful state parks.”

Among 39 state parks and state recreation areas, 31 reported increases in visitation in 2016. William B. Umstead State Park in Wake County reported the highest visitation at 1.84 million, a 38 percent increase over 2015, and was among six state park units logging more than a million visitors. The others were Fort Macon and Jockey’s Ridge state parks and Falls Lake, Jordan Lake and Kerr Lake state recreation areas.

“Our Centennial year in 2016 was a time of celebration and reconnection with state parks, and record visitation suggests that North Carolinians participated fully,” said Mike Murphy, state parks director. “Visitors have come to rely on the state parks as a valuable resource for recreation, conservation and education.”

A Centennial event at Hanging Rock State Park drew hundreds of visitors.

Visitation at state parks and state recreation areas has increased more than 49 percent in the past 10 years. In 2006, 12.6 million people visited state park units.

During the system’s Centennial year, North Carolina State Parks initiated its passport program, where prizes can be earned for visiting at least 10 state parks, and 100-Mile Challenge in partnership with Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina, which promotes a healthy, active lifestyle.

The state parks system achieved the record attendance despite closings due to Hurricane Matthew in early October and wildfires in western parks a month later. In the aftermath of the hurricane, 25 state parks were at least temporarily closed, and in November eight state parks were closed to allow personnel to help contain wildfires at Chimney Rock and South Mountains state parks.

State parks reporting significant increases in visitation included Pilot Mountain State Park in Surry County (51 percent), Pettigrew State Park in Washington/Tyrell counties (38 percent), Lake Norman State Park in Iredell County (24 percent) and Mount Mitchell State Park in Yancey County (26 percent).

Hikers brave chilly, wet weather for First Day Hikes

Despite chilly, soggy New Year’s Day weather, 2,049 visitors collectively hiked 4,952 miles on the 2017 First Day Hikes event, with guided hikes offered Jan. 1 in every state park and state recreation area.

Throughout the system, 55 hikes were arranged by park rangers and volunteers, many offering the distinctive flair of the state park.

Hikers at Weymouth Woods.

Chimney Rock State Park earned the distinction of the “first” First Day Hike with 75 visitors making the 6.5-mile trek up and down the park’s entrance road starting at 12:01 a.m. Carolina Beach State Park attracted 190 hikers for a two-mile stroll, and 125 runners joined the 2nd Annual First Day 5K run at Haw River State Park. One dedicated family joined both the Goose Creek State Park hike at 10 a.m. and the Medoc Mountain State Park hike at 2 p.m.

This was the sixth year that North Carolina State Parks staged First Day Hikes, although the tradition began at Eno River State Park in the early 1970s.

For 2017, hikers enjoyed an added bonus by adding their mileage to the North Carolina State Parks 100-Mile Challenge – to walk, hike, paddle, cycle or otherwise explore 100 miles in the state parks. Details about the 100-Mile Challenge can be found here.

Nationally, First Day Hikes is promoted by America’s State Parks and the National Association of State Park Directors, with more than 400 hikes scheduled in state parks across the country.

Haw River State Park included a 5k run in its event.

High-quality Carolina bay may be added to state parks system

A forested Carolina bay in Robeson County could be preserved within the state parks system, thanks to a partnership with Audubon North Carolina and The Conservation Fund. The 977 acres of Warwick Mill Bay near Lumberton is a significant nesting site for the federally-threatened wood stork and other wading birds.

Warwick Mill Bay has the distinctive oval shape of all Carolina bays and is covered by forest and wetlands.

The Conservation Fund recently purchased the property in the Lumber River Basin and will transfer it to North Carolina State Parks for possible designation as a state natural area once a grant from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund is available. Significant funding for the $1.3 million acquisition has been provided by the North Carolina Environmental Enhancement Grants Program, the Cleanwater Management Trust Fund, and generous private support from Fred and Alice Stanback.

Warwick Mill Bay is one of the state’s few remaining large, relatively undisturbed Carolina bays. Several state parks are located on Carolina bays including Lake Waccamaw, Singletary Lake and Jones Lake, and some smaller, dry bays are located within southeastern parks.

“The size and diversity of Warwick Mill Bay makes it important alone,” said Walker Golder of the National Audubon Society. “Few large Carolina bays remain in a relatively undisturbed state. Protecting this large Carolina bay will preserve this unique natural feature along with its wetlands, many species of birds, and other wildlife that occur in the bay.”

Audubon NC plans to work closely with North Carolina State Parks to develop a long-term conservation and management plan for the property to preserve its ecology, water quality and cultural values.

Wood stork, a federally-threatened wading bird species.

“A recent survey of wading birds revealed this land is far more important for bird conservation than we thought,” said Curtis Smalling of Audubon North Carolina. “An overflight of the property by the NC Wildlife Resources Commission revealed an estimated 250 breeding pairs of federally-threatened wood storks, making it one of the largest wood stork colonies in North Carolina and one of the most significant in the southeastern US. Protecting this land will go a long way in helping preserve this species.”

 “The Warwick Mill Bay has been a conservation priority for the state for the last three years because of the high quality breeding habitat it provides, and we are honored to help facilitate its purchase to meet the needs and the goals of North Carolina State Parks and Audubon NC,” said Bill Holman, The Conservation Fund’s North Carolina state director.

Warwick Mill Bay was famous in the mid-20th Century for its very large wading bird colony. Along with the wood stork, the colony consists of white ibis, great egret, little blue heron, cattle egret, snowy egret, great blue heron and green heron.

Repairs at South Mountains after the wildfire will take time

The wildfire at South Mountains State Park still smolders, but rangers, foresters and other officials are quickly making plans to repair trails, remove hazards and return the landscape to its natural state. The goal is to reopen the park as soon as practical, though no date has been set and some areas may be off-limits for quite some time.

Firefighters, with the help of infrared technology, are still searching for hotspots that need attention in the 6,435-acre fire zone. Technically the fire is 90 percent contained.

Chestnut Knob Trail sustained considerable damage.

Fourteen trails (27.3 miles, nearly 60 percent of the park’s trail system) were affected by the wildfire to varying degrees. Each mile must be carefully inspected for dangerous limbs, trees that might topple, severe erosion and other hazards, as well as trail signs and gates that were damaged or destroyed. After that inspection, rangers must set priorities for restoring the trails and determine the cost and manpower necessary.

The blaze started Nov. 6 near the Chestnut Knob Trail, which sustained considerable damage. It’s likely that when the park reopens, that trail and some others will remain closed until proper repairs can be made. Aside from possible dangers, hikers could further damage trails that are fragile after the fire.

The specific trails that were affected by the wildfire are: Lower CCC, Upper CCC, Horse Ridge, Sawtooth, Little River, Chestnut Knob, Upper Falls, Shinny, Possum, Fox, Headquarters, High Shoals Falls, Turkey Ridge and Benn Knob.