A wheelchair-accessible trip to the Great Smokies

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
Week of June 25-July 1, 1998
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A wheelchair-accessible trip to the Great Smokies
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A wheelchair-accessible trip to the Great Smokies
Question: Greetings! I am a paraplegic who is interested in vacationing in the Great Smoky Mountains. I am always in search of places that are accessible, but I don't like most of the places I find. They are to heavily used and busy. Can you recommend anywhere that has some accessible activities that are more secluded? Thanks.

Greg Morris
Atlanta, Georgia

Adventure Adviser: With nine million visitors per year, it’s virtually impossible to find anywhere within Great Smoky Mountain National Park that is utter remote wilderness, but you’d be surprised at how much of it is still relatively pristine. Most visitors tend to quickly motor through, and rare is the visitor who actually hikes into the backcountry sites. Unfortunately, however, the good folks at the National Park Service still have a ways to go to make these backcountry areas truly accessible to all. One great thing in the Smokies, though, is that every Wednesday and Saturday morning, the 11-mile Cades Cove paved loop — one of the most scenic in the entire park — is closed to traffic. There’s probably no better time to freely roll amongst haze-shrouded ridges and deep valleys. For more information on this mass closing, call the main park headquarters at 423-436-1200. Another option, if you have knobby tires on your wheelchair, is to find the Road to Nowhere, a nine-mile dirt spur road built in the 1940s that dead ends and, I believe, is closed to traffic. To get there, go to Bryson City, North Carolina, go north on Everett St., which will eventually turn into the Road to Nowhere. Follow it until it ends. (For more information on the Road to Nowhere, call the Deep Creek Ranger Station: 704-488-3184). In addition to these two options, the park also has the Sugarlands Valley Nature Trail, a five-foot wide paved and level half-mile trail, which can be accessed a quarter-mile south of the Sugarlands Visitor Center. If you feel like camping, wheelchair accessible facilities, including restrooms, are available at three of the parks’ major campgrounds. Cades Cove and Elkmont in Tennessee, and Smokemont in North Carolina. All the visitor centers and many of the picnic areas are also wheelchair accessible. For reservations, call 800-365-2267. Last but not least, consider staying at the Great Smoky Mountain Institute (423-448-6709), a wonderful organization that offers all kinds of photography, natural history, environmental, and natural history study classes within the park. Located seven miles from Cades Cove and accessible through Townsend, Tennessee, the institute offers wheelchair accessible bathrooms, dorm rooms, and a dining hall. The only bummer is that all the buildings are on a hill, so you may have to use considerable muscle power on days when you’re really hungry. Call the above number and the institute will help you work on an itinerary to fit your needs.

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