Adaptive equipment is making national parks more inclusive

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New resources available at Great Smoky Mountains National Park help visitors with disabilities explore hiking trails, go mountain biking, paddle kayaks and camp overnight in the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee.

After launching a program of free, adaptive activities last year, the country’s most-visited national park will expand the number and type of excursions this summer.

“The programs allow individuals with disabilities and their families and community to move beyond the pavement to explore and enjoy the Smokies,” said Emily Davis, a public affairs specialist with the national park.

For its inaugural year, the national park and its partners organized three hikes and one mountain bike outing for parkgoers who use adaptive gear. This year, the program will feature three hikes, two mountain bike rides, one kayak trip and one night of backcountry camping. The outings are scheduled for select dates in June, July, September and October.

Davis said the staff receives daily emails and phone calls from people inquiring about the special excursions and adaptive equipment, which the park loans out through a separate program. She said the messages come from locals and out-of-town guests planning to vacation in the popular park. Last year, more than 13 million people visited, according to National Park Service data.

Eric Gray, founder and executive director of Catalyst Sports, one of the program’s key partners, said the nonprofit will provide three hiking chairs (plus two from the park), seven adaptive kayaks and a dozen mountain bikes, in addition to snacks and drinks. Experienced staff members and volunteers will help with the fit and handling of the gear.

“We’re trying to remove as many barriers as possible,” Gray said. “All they need to do is show up.”

Types of adaptive equipment

Catalyst’s equipment is available to anyone with a physical disability and caters to a range of special needs. Some of the kayaks and bikes are built for two, ideal for people with visual impairments.

  • The organization uses three-wheel off-road trikes for people who can move their legs but have poor balance, and handcycle mountain bikes for cyclists without leg mobility. The bikes come with e-assist for powering through tough or steep terrain.
  • The hiking chairs have levers (easier to push than dirt-encrusted wheels) and a front wheel for steamrolling over large obstacles.
  • The kayaks have outriggers to prevent tipping, and a custom seat supports people with limited abdominal functions. Hand adaptations are tailored for amputees and others with restricted capabilities.

Participants can also bring their own gear. Folks who don’t require special assistance are invited, too.

It’s not just about making something accessible. It’s about making it inclusive, so that the entire family and friends can be part of it,” said Mark Bogosian, the director of engagement at the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation. “By offering these kinds of programs, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is really making sure that everybody in the community has the opportunity to participate and enjoy nature and be active.”

National parks are becoming increasingly more welcoming to outdoor enthusiasts with mobility issues. In addition to its adaptive-friendly excursions, the Great Smoky national park has three adult-size off-road wheelchairs (and one junior chair) available for use on accessible trails. NPS volunteers meet the guest at the trailhead for a safety overview and quick tutorial. The volunteer can accompany the hikers or wait at the trailhead. Davis said the park plans to expand its fleet as well as train more volunteers for this service.

The movement is also flourishing on the state and regional levels. All-Terrain Georgia supplies all-terrain wheelchairs to more than a dozen destinations in the Peach State, including Cloudland Canyon, Panola Mountain and Cumberland Island. Tennessee State Parks and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources provide the trailblazing equipment in 13 parks each. A number of other state park departments are also onboard, including Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Oklahoma and Wyoming.

“I do see the domino effect,” said Carly Pearson, the ADA coordinator in Knox County, Tenn. “Other parks are catching on.”

Pearson, a former NPS wildland firefighter who suffered a spinal cord injury in 2002, said she assisted the Knoxville nonprofit Legacy Parks Foundation in creating one of the first adaptive mountain bike trails in East Tennessee. The Independence and Freedom Trail was completed in spring 2020. She said a number of local partners have since collaborated to develop more outdoor sites that can accommodate adaptive equipment.

People with mobility issues said one of the biggest obstacles to exploring the outdoors is acquiring or accessing the specialized gear. The equipment can be prohibitively expensive. Pearson said a fully kitted-out adaptive mountain bike can cost $22,000.

“Do I want to pay for my son’s college, or do I go and selfishly buy myself a recreational piece of equipment?” she said. “I’m going to take care of my kid, of course.”

Though loaner programs help adventurers overcome that hurdle, availability isn’t always enough. Depending on the individual’s capabilities, the visitor might need help settling into the equipment and navigating the unfamiliar trail or body of water. That’s where the support team comes in.

For the Great Smoky Mountains program, Gray said guests will be accompanied by experts from his team, including an adaptive mountain bike director who lives in Asheville, N.C., a hiking director who will oversee the day treks and backcountry camping trip, and an adaptive kayaking specialist from Knoxville. Park rangers will cover the educational portion of the outings, sharing ecological and historical tidbits with the group.

For backcountry camping, Gray said guests will hike for about 1½ miles, cook over a fire and sleep in tents. They will rough it — to a point. Instead of digging a hole for a toilet, they will have access to a portable commode.

“We’re going to make it easier for them for their first experience in the backcountry,” he said.

Each national park shares information about its accessible trails and adaptive programs on its website and in its visitor center. For a broader scope, the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation created a search tool to help people locate accessible and adaptable programs, events and resources around the country. The organization also has a team of advisers who can help with trip planning and other recreational advice. The service is free.

“The information specialists are trained to help people locate areas for adaptive activities,” Bogosian said. “They help them think about the questions they need to ask as they plan their trips.”

‘Healing and restorative’ exercise

Matt Lee, a 43-year-old Asheville resident, suffered a spinal cord injury the summer after he graduated high school. He uses a wheelchair, which restricts his outdoor activities. Several years ago, he upgraded to a power-assisted device with off-road tires and a free wheel attachment. His range of exploration improved, but he still runs into stumbling blocks.

“You can get to a certain point,” he said, “but there might be a creek or a stream or some uprooted areas or lots of rocks that are just too challenging to navigate.”

In 2022, he attended an adaptive mountain bike clinic hosted by Catalyst Sports. He said it was the first time he had biked that hard and that deep into nature since his accident. He learned about the Great Smoky program during the clinic and signed up for two hikes last year. For the first trek, he borrowed a “passive” Joëlette all-terrain wheelchair from the North Carolina Spinal Cord Injury Association. He brought his own equipment for the second excursion on Deep Creek Trail.

“To venture off and experience being out in nature — it’s very healing and restorative,” he said. “Now that I’ve been able to get out there, I feel better. I’m happier. My overall well-being has improved.”

This year, he is considering the kayak outing and the backcountry trip, an adventure that is long overdue.

“I haven’t really done overnight camping in over 20 years,” he said. “So that would be a new experience for me since my injury.”

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