Wheelchair-accessible paths on the Appalachian Trail
For some hikers and backpackers, bringing up the "Americans With Disabilities Act" in the same sentence as the Appalachian Trail stirs up controversy and fears of a 2,000-mile-long paved pathway. In reality, to date a mere four sections of the trail — about 3 miles out of the AT's 2,178 — are designated as wheelchair-accessible. A fifth section should add another half mile-in the next year or so.
Federal enforcers of the ADA —the legislation designed to ensure access to public spaces for people with wheelchairs, seeing-eye dogs, and other ways to help them get around — recognize the rigorous-recreation focus of the trail and are not insisting it be paved from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to Mount Katahdin, Maine. Furthermore, making even tiny stretches of the trail accessible to wheelchairs requires a rare combination of skill, drive, and dollars.
Here's a quick look at what's available for the wheelchair-bound, gleaned from a host of Web sites. Share your own tips and accessible hikes below.
Thundering Falls, Vermont
Distance: 900 feet
Grade: Mostly flat boardwalk, short climb to viewing platform at foot of waterfall
Description: Boardwalk and bridge over Ottauquechee River ends at the base of Thundering Falls in Killington. The Green Mountain Club spearheaded building the project with help from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and Green Mountain National Forest. The wheelchair-accessible section opened to the public in September 2009, as part of a larger trail relocation project that moved the AT off a local road and through a wetland along the Ottauquechee.
Falls Village, Connecticut
Distance: 3/4 mile
Grade: Mostly flat through field and forest
Description: Flat section of the AT passing through the hamlet of Falls Village, which used to be the site of a large ironworks. AT tracks a road past a hydroelectric station, crosses the span of a historic iron bridge, and rises along the Housatonic River before heading back up into the woods.
Pochuck Creek, New Jersey
Distance: 2/3 mile
Grade: Flat boardwalk
Description: Boardwalk crosses nearly a mile of New Jersey wetlands surrounding the Pochuck Creek in countryside near the New York-New Jersey border. Accessible trail ends at a suspension bridge crossing the creek; boardwalk continues for another third of a mile on the other side of the bridge.
Osborne Tract, Tennessee
Distance: 0.7 mile
Grade: 100 feet of elevation gain/loss passing through former pasture
Description: This trail was built to replace a stretch of the Appalachian Trail that tracked along an old, decaying farm road. The accessible section ends at a sweeping overlook of nearby Shady Valley, Tennessee. This by far the most remote accessible section of the trail.
Bear Mountain Summit, New York
(Proposed: Current plans aim for construction beginning in late summer or early fall of this year and completion in spring of 2011.)
Distance: 0.5 mile
Grade: Mostly flat
Description: Short trail to allow panoramic views of the area around Bear Mountain State Park, which is about 30 miles up the Hudson River from New York City. The accessible section is a small part of a much larger project creating a new 3-mile section of the AT up to the Bear Mountain Summit; it will replace a 2-mile summit route that suffered chronic erosion from overuse.
Toward greater access
The scant "accessible" mileage on the AT reflects the daunting bureaucratic and logistical challenge of building trails to ADA guidelines while preserving the AT's wild character. But the officially designated trails are hardly the last word for disabled hikers.
In 2007, I tagged along as wheelchair hiker Bob Coomber summited California's White Mountain (elevation 14,252 feet). The experience recalibrated my concept of accessibility; Coomber can hike just about any path wide enough for his wheels.
Afterward, I found myself scouting trails and passing along tips to Coomber on trails I thought he might want to try. This never would've happened if I didn't know the guy. The first step in boosting trail access might be as easy as able-bodied hikers taking the time to help folks with disabilities find trails they can handle.