you can drive to the swamp, of course, but if possible, sail a boat down the James River in autumn. You’ll pass William Byrd’s stately mansion, Westover, near Charles City. Farther downstream you’ll find the cruciform, triple-chimneyed Jacobean manor called Bacon’s Castle that Nathaniel Bacon’s revolutionaries seized in 1676. From there head south to the Elizabeth River, where your charts will take you to the stone-and-wood lock at Deep Creek, gateway to the Great Dismal Swamp Canal. Your craft should draw no more than six feet. Both the Deep Creek Lock and the one at South Mills open four times a day, at 8:30 and 11:00 A.M. and at 1:30 and 3:30 P.M.
There is a 150-foot dockage at the Dismal Swamp Canal Visitor Center (252-771-8333), just below the state line in North Carolina off Route 17. The center is open seven days a week from 9:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M. , Memorial Day through October 31, and Tuesday through Saturday after November 1. The state-funded facility does not provide boats, but you can overnight on your own there, with potable water available but no electricity. If you are coming north from Elizabeth City, follow the Pasquotank River north to the lock at South Mills. You can rent canoes for $15 a day at Chesapeake Campgrounds, about eight miles north of the Feeder Ditch entrance. Call 757-485-0149 for information.
The swamp is easy to reach by car. It lies just south of the Newport News-Norfolk-Portsmouth cluster of cities. From Interstate 64 take Route 17 south to the Dismal Swamp Canal Visitor Center or head 15 miles southwest to Suffolk and take Route 642 to the entrance to the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge (757-986-3705). Its headquarters are staffed from 7:00 A.M. to 3:30 P.M. , Monday through Friday, and the refuge itself opens a half-hour after sunrise and closes a half-hour after sunset. Rangers can provide information on hiking along the smaller ditches, and you can walk or bike the large towpaths of the Washington Ditch (4.5 miles) and the Jericho Ditch (9 miles).
For those who prefer to rough it, the Army Corps of Engineers maintains a rustic campground at the Feeder Ditch Spillway, with grills, picnic tables, campfire areas, and two screened dining areas, but no drinking water. Camping is free; call 757-421-7401. It is the only campground in the Great Dismal Swamp.