Handicap Access in the Smokies

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Much of Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a wilderness sanctuary preserving the world's finest examples and animal diversity in a temperate deciduous forest. Some nine hundred miles of trails thread this mountainous domain providing a challenge for the able-bodied. What then, is available for the not-so-able-bodied? This outlines those facilities and programs available for those with physical disabilities, including the hearing and sight-impaired as well as the elderly and disabled.

In this guide, the word "accessible" will mean accessible to wheelchair users without assistance. Facilities described as accessible do not necessarily meet federal standards and are not always marked with the international symbol.

Surprisingly, there is much that can be seen and learned from your own car and from facilities and visitor activity programs that are accessible. You can get a sense of this wild landscape and the resourceful pioneers who carved a living from this wilderness without having to hike at all, or even any, of those nine hundred miles of trails.

Following is a description of facility and program accessibility by area of the park.

Temporary Parking Permit

If you are temporarily disabled or have in your company someone who needs the benefits of disabled parking privileges, you may get a temporary parking permit at a visitor center or ranger station. This will allow you to park in areas otherwise designated only for vehicles with a disabled person license plate.

Applies Parkwide

Campsite reservations for a "handicapped unit" (wheelchair) can be made through the Mistix reservation system for campsites In three major campgrounds, Cades Cove, Elkmont, and Smokemont, from May 15 through October. These are generally level sites located adjacent to accessible rest rooms. The campsites have been modified with paving, specialized tables and fire grills.

Accessible rest rooms can be found in three other campgrounds that assign campsites on a first-come, first-served basis. These are Cataloochee, Abrams Creek, and Big Creek. No campsite modifications have been made, but Abrams Creek and Cataloochee have flat terrain.

Sugarlands Visitor Center Area

Designated accessible parking spaces for the disabled are available in the Sugarlands Visitor Center parking lot, on the west side of the building. These spaces have ramps over the curbs. The rest rooms are accessible, with an accessible water fountain outside of the building.

The visitor center is fully accessible. Inside, the lobby, information desk, book sales area, exhibit room, and audiovisual room are all on one level and accessible.

For the hearing impaired, printed scripts of the orientation table program and movie are available on request at the information desk. For the sight impaired, an orientation audio cassette tape is available on request at the information desk.

Amy visitor services programs held in or near the visitor center, such as map talks and auditorium talks, are accessible. Telephones are accessible, but do not have amplifiers.

Cades Cove Visitor Center Area

Designated accessible parking spaces are available in the parking lot near the walkway to the rest rooms. A temporary parking permit is available on request at the visitor center. Designated accessible rest rooms are available via a short sidewalk from the parking lot.

There are three steps into the visitor center, making it wheelchair inaccessible. There is, however, a loose-leaf binder available at the information desk which contains photographs and a description of the visitor center exhibits. The binder also contains photographs and a description of the Becky Cable House in the Cable Mill area. Information, book and postcard sales are available in the visitor center.

The trail throughout the complex of historic buildings is hard-surfaced although rough and with some loose gravel. Most of the buildings can be viewed from the outside via doorways, with the exception of the Becky Cable House which has raised porches and half doors.

The loose-leaf binder previously mentioned and the Cades Cove Auto Tour booklet, available in the Mill area and a the start of the eleven-mile loop road provide a written history of the area. Guided tours are presented daily from mid-March through Thanksgiving and are generally accessible with the exceptions noted above.

The interior of the corn grinding mill is accessible. There are no telephones in the area. The historic buildings along the eleven-mile loop road are not accessible, due to steps, lack of hard-surfaced walkways, and distance. Many of the exteriors can be viewed from a vehicle, however; and the tour booklet provides a historical description.

Oconaluftee Visitor Center Area

Designated parking spaces are available in the parking lot near the visitor center building. Ramps provide access over the curb. A temporary parking permit is available on request at the information desk. The building is accessible through ramped doorways. Walkways to the building and the floor inside are of uneven flagstones. Care should be taken to avoid slipping and tripping. Inside, the exhibits, information desk and book sales areas are all on one level.

The trails within the Farmstead are hard-packed gravel and generally wheelchair accessible with assistance. Most of the buildings can be viewed from the outside via doorways with the exception of the farmhouse which has a raised porch and half doors. A printed guide booklet is available. Most visitor services programs, such as talks and living history demonstrations held outside the house are accessible.

Restrooms and telephones are accessible. Water fountains are not wheelchair accessible in the Oconaluftee Visitor Center area.

At Mingus Mill the rest rooms and the trail to the mill are accessible; but the interior of the mill itself is not accessible due to steps. A printed guide leaflet and loose-leaf binder containing photographs of the interior of the mill are available at the mill. The rest rooms at the Smokemont Riding Stable are accessible.


Accessible picnic sites and rest room facilities are available at the Cades Cove, Chimneys, Collins Creek, Cosby, and Metcalf Bottoms Picnic Areas.


The most accessible amphitheater is the one at Cades Cove. It is level and adjacent rest rooms are accessible. The amphitheaters at Elkmont and Smokemont have paved trails, but are steep and assistance is required. At Look Rock, there is a paved trail to the amphitheater from the campground road.


There are only three paved trails in the park and these are all steep and require assistance. The self-guided nature trail to Laurel Fails is the least steep, but also the longest at 2-112 miles round- trip. The trails to Clingmans Dome and Look Rock Tower are very steep and require considerable assistance.


The only wheelchair accessible telephones are located at Cades Cove Ranger Station and Ocoaluftee and Sugarlands Visitor Center. These do not have audio amplification.


There are four self-guided auto tour booklets available: Cades Cove, Tremont Logging, Roaring Fork, and Cataloochee, as well as a "Road Guide to the Smokies'; which should aid ambulatory and hearing impaired visitors.


The Cades Cove Campground Store and adjacent rest rooms are accessible.


With the exception of the above mentioned programs at Sugarlands Visitor Center, the Cable Mill area, Pioneer Farmstead, and limited amphitheater programs, many of the walks and talks are not available to disabled visitors. There is, however a quantity of sales publications specific to various park topics which are available at the visitor centers.

This information was created and reprinted from Access-Able Travel Source.

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