Open main menu

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.


Galehead and Zealand Falls Huts in New Hampshire are wheelchair accessible.

The one mile trial into Zealand is fairly flat, but there are bog walks where the boards are narrow. Access trails to Galehead are steep so assistance would be necessary. It has been done.

I think this is a great thing. As long as they are not in wilderness areas where wheels are illegal, or should wheels be legalised in wilderness areas for "special" users? Paved trail would prevent the tires from causing the same kind of erosion as mountain bikes cause.

Too many of the thousands of square miles of federal lands are accessible only to unemployed dirty long hair hippies who never shave, because they're the only ones with the time to hike into these areas. Are we protecting our best wilderness areas for these low life's? I say pave more trails and allow golf carts into wilderness areas as long as they stay on the trail.

I also would like to see an elevator on EL Capitan to some easy climbing spots so newbies can join in, maybe with safe preplaced protection.

A couple of animated stuffed animals would ensure that everyone gets to witness "real" wildlife in a natural setting.

just my $.02 worth.

Jim S

.....Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

Just because your handicapped does in no way mean that you suddenly have no desire to enrich your life, or to make the most of it.

We should offer handicapped persons areas where they can safely experience nature. I don't think a handicap reduces the splendor of such experiences, those kinds of experiences may be relative to them with regards to the type of handicap they have.

One could argue that all humans enter the wilderness with a handicap when compared to the abilities of the four legged furry critters that thrive there, all doing so with nothing more than they were born with.

Yeah, I don't mind sharing.

I am with Trout,

Im sure we all have been places where you know there is no way anyone in a wheel chair could get to and I am not for roads being cut into the forrest to make them more accesible. But I do think that there are also many areas that can be made more accessible to hadicaped people without taking away from its grandure.

I suspect the three-miles-out-of-two-thousand set aside for the disabled will be with us for some time, as the top priority for people trying to improve access is to make our cities and towns more livable for the disabled.

Recreation comes after jobs, workplaces, and more immediate needs. That's why I think it's up to those of us who know people with disabilities to encourage them to get out in nature more. It starts with recognition.

A great story I read about last year: a guy was hiking in Yosemite and came upon this big group of young guys who physically carried another young guy up to one of the most scenic places in the park (not Half Dome; it was Cloud's Rest). Very inspiring, and no ramps were installed, nor were any trails paved. (here's an account of it).

Balance, grasshopper.

Tom, I KNEW you'd be making a mark elsewhere! Glad to see you're getting out at least as much. We'll be doing another White Mtn summit in August, accompanied by others with disabilities who've decided they don't want to sit around and let their disability dictate their activity level. I'll keep you posted. Coe is as gorgeous as ever after a wet winter, by the way.

JimS, just to clear up a little, very common misconception - if wheels are the only way you can get around (i.e. my chair) those wheels are not prohibited in federal wilderness areas. Both the ADA and the Wilderness Act contain that clause. I'm not out there doing what I do asking for ramps and flat, paved paths all over federal land. I am a fan of living as full a life as possible, for everyone. I joined Trailspace today after I found Tom's byline - it must be a cool place if he's hanging around, eh?:-)

Welcome 4wheelbob,

I was born with Epilepsy, I was not allowed to play contact sports as a kid, the military didn't want me, I have no doubt it doesn't look good to an employer either. The other kids never wanted me to come over to spend the night, etc, etc.

Fortunately, after adolescence the meds started to control the seizures. Then I was able to get a drivers license. I still have minor problems with tremors, mostly in my hands when I'm tired.

Don't tell no one, but somebody messed up and let me have a backpack and fishing license.

Welcome to Trailspace, 4wheelbob.

I remember reading Tom's blog account of your wheelchair ascent of White Mountain. Very impressive! Good luck on your next attempt.


Would it be too much to ask for some photos or a trip report of your next trip in August?

I would thoroughly enjoy that!

Alicia, thank you! I kinda popped in rather than a formal intro after a mutual friend of Tom's and myself pointed me to this thread. Looks like a fine place to spend some time - my own ramblings are chronicled here:

It's my write ups of local (SF Bay / East Bay) hikes, one fully accessible and one 4wheelbob accessible each month. Kinda fun to roll on trails for a living, eh?

Trouthunter, consider it done. It's a prelude to a planned unassisted summit of Kilimanjaro late 2010. We still seek sponsors with big corporate names, as the trip will be centered around a donation of at least 200 wheelchairs in Tanzania and Kenya. Then I'll summit. Hopefully, I'll be the first to go up without anyone pushing or carrying me. They tell me it's not so bad....take care, so nice to make everyone's acquaintence!

I have always mused why we, as a society, have chosen to tailor our infrastructure to accommodate wheel chairs, at tremendous expense, when intuitively it seems more effective and less costly, not to mention grant greater automomy, to design chariots for these folks that are capable of ascending stairs, surmounting curbs, perhaps even getting along gentle trails?

I wish I could get in touch with Rambler. As a person who is going to need to use a wheelchair for mobility for the rest of his life I would love to try both Zealand Falls and Galehead. During the few years that my legs were strong enough to be able to hike I visited Zealand Falls and have always wanted to go back there. However, until about 20 minutes ago I thought I would never make it. Thanks rambler you really made my day and gave hope to an middleaged man in a wheelchair

to 4wheelbob:

If your still planning on Killimanjaroo check out Chris Waddell's web site. He did the same hike within the last year. It is my understanding that he has become the first person to summit killmanjaroo without the use of his legs but he might be able to give you some info.

Bern summited in a wheelchair in 2007, and a woman did it shortly after, with Waddell in 2009. In all cases, they were carried through some short passages that involved very narrow trail sections (there is one just a short distance below the summit when traversing along the rim of the crater) and some big "steps" over rocks. None so far have done it entirely under their own power in wheelchairs.

In any case, by Tanzanian law, all "foreigners" have to hire local guide, porters, and cook and are restricted to carrying no more than 10 kg of their gear (allowed gear presumably being rain gear, warm layers, lunch, and water - and I got them to let me carry my own camera gear in addition to my 10 kg).

Shenandoah National Park has a number of accessible trails (purpose built) as well as a number of trails that the more adventurous 4 wheelers would enjoy.

This post has been locked and is not accepting new comments