Visiting NC’s Outdoors by Wheelchair

Dec. 20, 2012 @ 04:31 PM

Part I of IV, the Mountains

For some, the wheelchair has been a part of their life since childhood.  Others had the benefit of mobility for several years while others lived full and active lives until their older years.  For many that enjoyed some period of their lives exploring the outdoors by foot, the loss of that ability can be truly a doorway to depression.  While the loss of one’s physical ability to be self-reliant and independent is devastating to say the least, the loss of the ability to enjoy ones love and passion can be the final blow. 

Hunters and fishermen enjoy a close and special bond to nature and the ability move about at will in the great outdoors.  It is a unique love that often pits them against all levels of human and natural extremes.  To lose this ability to enjoy the outdoors their way is debilitating within itself.  For those that have never known the ability to be self-reliant, the call of the wild is still a rousing and appealing song.  Luckily for all those that are mobility impaired, the ability to enjoy the outdoors is more available that ever before.  Not only is there easy ways to get in and out of special vehicles for transportation along with access to shopping and restaurants, todays mobility impaired have an ever growing list of outdoor venues to choose from.  To help in locating these wonderful doorways to enjoying everything wild that our great state has to offer the mobility impaired, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services has released the sixth edition of “Access North Carolina”.  Billed as “A Vacation and Travel Guide for People with Disabilities”, at nearly 500 pages, the guide is a must have for those seeking the path of least resistance in exploring the Tarheel State.  To touch on some of the many opportunities that await those that seek, we will start in the mountains of the western end and move eastward over the next four weeks.

Known as the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, this pristine hunk of North Carolina and Tennessee has for years offered literally millions of visitors a chance to view the Appalachian Mountains the way our ancestors saw them.  With few exceptions, this large section of lofty mountains and crystal clear streams resembles an eco-system frozen in time.  Located within this immense track of land just off I-40 at Exit 20 is the entrance to Cataloochee Valley and one of the best opportunities in the state for the mobility impaired to see and feel nature.  Be it from the comfort of their vehicle or from the shade of a century old tree at the edge of a hidden forest meadow, the views are always breathtaking.  Open from mid-March through October the valley offers nature at its wildest, from elk, turkey, deer and more.  In the late summer, one only has to sit for a short time before hearing the bugle of a bull elk calling to his harem.  There is one accessible vault toilet within the valley.

At 6,643 feet above sea level, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Smokey’s Park.  Located 23 miles north of Cherokee off U.S. 421, the view from the observation tower is truly one to behold.  Visitors should check sky and weather conditions before going.  It is also advisable to use an electric wheelchair capable of accommodating them on the half mile trail on a relative steep grade.

While the Blue Ridge Parkway has limited handicapped accessible restrooms along its several hundred mile journey, it does offer one of the easiest and most breathtaking ways to surround yourself with nature that you would ever want.  Due to often icy conditions in the winter, certain sections may be closed; the rest of the year is a great time to plan a trip from one end to the other.  At 469 miles the Parkway is a long winding journey through the North Carolina and Virginia mountains.  However, it is relatively narrow with commercial amenities never more than a few miles away.  Potential anglers visiting the Parkway will find fishing available at both Prices Lake located at MP 297 and at the Moses Cone Memorial Park located at MP 292.7 along with accessible restrooms.  Before leaving the Parkway, be sure to visit the highest point in the eastern United States, Mount Mitchell at MP 355.4.  A free vehicle portage for the mobility impaired can put you high in the clouds.  While there, keep an eye out for the small and quick red squirrel and ruffed grouse. 

If native plants are your love then you will fall in love with the nearly 600 species located at the Botanical Gardens of Asheville.  Closed during the winter, this ten acre garden is located at the base of the UNC-Asheville campus.  Most of the paths are wheelchair accessible.  In addition, the North Carolina Arboretum is located in Asheville as well just off I-26 at exit 33.  The 434-acre site includes 65 acres of cultivated outdoor exhibit space and while not all paths are wheelchair accessible, many are.  Wheelchairs are available at the reception desk for visitor use.

A great western NC outing would not be complete without taking the time to visit the Pisgah Center for Wildlife Education located on the Davidson River at Pisgah Forest.  This NCWRC facility has both indoor and outdoor plant and wildlife exhibits and trails that are handicapped accessible.  In addition, a large cold water trout hatchery is located on the grounds as well with views of thousands of trout.

Located off of Old HWY 16, on Ashe County Park Road, just north of Jefferson, is the Ashe Park Pond.  Part of the NCWRC's Community Fishing Program, the accessible waterway also functions as a Tackle Loaner program for those forget their fishing gear.  For more information about fishing the pond, contact Ashe County Parks and Recreation Services at (336) 981-6185.  In addition, Lake Julian, located in Lake Julian Park near Skyland is also part of the NCWRC Community Fishing Program and operates as a Tackle Loaner partner as well.  For information on fishing here, contact the Buncombe County Parks and Recreation Services, (828) 684-0376.  Another Community Fishing Program site near Asheville is Lake Tomahawk.  From Asheville, take I-40 east to Exit 64. Turn left (north) on N. C. 9, turn left at the third light, turn right at the second light and go about 2 miles. The Black Mountain Parks and Recreation Area will be on the left.  They also participate in the Tackle Loaner Program.

To obtain a down loadable copy in PDF format of the access book, go to: http://www.ncdhhs.gov/dvrs/pdf/ACCESS-NC.pdf

• Tony Robinson can be reached at decoydoc@charter.net