One question we see visitors, interested parties and even some locals is where they can find special needs accessibility for themselves or their child, parent, grandparent, etc. Certainly the idea of spending a family reunion in the Smokies or getting out in the fresh air to enjoy the wonderful nature and events we have for Spring and Summer is universally appealing, but for those with special needs, they face challenges many of us who do not have special needs take for granted. We do not normally have to take into consideration whether a tourism area with extreme elevation differences is going to be a barrier or not.
Fortunately, technology advancement for special needs visitors of all ages has made leaps and bounds in the last decade alone and continues to do so. In this article, as of Spring 2022, we have the following recommendations to make for how our visitors can enjoy the many attractions, restaurants, events and more that Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg and the rest of Sevier County offer!
National Park Attractions
* Cades Cove *
Cades Cove is an 11-mile driveable loop near Townsend, TN, that does not require visitors to get out of their car or vehicle to enjoy the sights and atmosphere. Cades Cove is easily accessed via Little River Road or Wears Valley Road to Townsend. Cades Cove will provide opportunity to see a variety of past scenes from settlers in the Cove to wildlife that you can keep an eye out for such as turkeys, raccoons, white tailed deer, bears and even coyotes. Some establishments are accessible by wheelchair, but not all as a measure of preservation to the buildings. There are several pull-off locations, one with a visitors center that will be friendly to special needs.
See more on Cades Cove at https://wearsvalleyvisitorscenter.com/cades-cove-wears-valley/.
* Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail *
Roaring Fork is a 5.5-mile driveable loop that does not require visitors to get out of their car or vehicle to enjoy the sights and atmosphere. It is a one way loop that takes you through the Twin Creeks and Roaring Fork areas of the park. You will find pull-off locations and end the vehicle trail at Ely’s Mill, which is one of the most beautiful areas of Gatlinburg.
See more on Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail at https://gatlinburgrecovers.com/2019/07/08/gorgeous-roaring-fork-in-the-smokies/.
* Sugarlands Valley Nature Trail *
A walking nature trail near the Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg that is completely paved and accessible for people with wheelchairs, mobility scooters or similar special needs. It is a 0.5-mile trail that goes deep into the woods and features safely accessible terrain to get close to the water.
See more on Sugarlands at https://www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/visitorcenters.htm.
* Little River Trail *
Little River Trail is a 6-mile walking trail near Elkmont that can be accessed with wheelchairs and crutches, however it is not paved like Sugarlands Valley Nature Trail is and may not be a fit for all special needs visitors. The first mile of the trail is reported to be smooth enough for powered wheelchairs up to the first mile or mile and a half. Little River Trail is deep into the woods and has trail space next to water like Sugarlands Valley Nature Trail.
See more on Little River Trail at https://hikinginthesmokys.com/little-river-trail/.
* Clingman’s Dome *
Famously considered one of the steeper and more potentially difficult trails in the Smokies, Clingman’s Dome is nonetheless fully paved and some special needs visitors have reported being able to do the 0.5-mile trail and reach the Observation Tower. Curb Free With Cory Lee reports that he was able to reach the Observation Tower in his powered wheelchair. Visitors with a manual wheelchair or crutches may also be able to reach the Observation Tower with assistance. Discretion is advised. Special needs parking is also available and views across the Smokies are immediate just from the parking lot alone.
See more on Clingman’s Dome at https://themountainsarecallingyou.com/2022/03/26/get-to-know-clingmans-dome/.
* Mountain Farm Museum *
Mountain Farm Museum is at the Oconaluftee Visitor’s Center on the other side of Newfound Gap near Cherokee, NC, and both the farm museum and visitor’s center are accessible for special needs visitors. The path to the Mountain Farm Museum is hard-packed gravel and may require assistance under certain conditions (such as weather), but the historic house on the property has an access ramp. The visitor’s center is fully accessible.
See more on Mountain Farm Museum at https://www.greatsmokies.com/mtn-farm-museum/.
* Gatlinburg City Parks *
While not being (totally) within the boundaries of the official national park, the multiple city parks we have in Gatlinburg are all deeply surrounded by the same thick forestry and access to water streams and bodies that our hiking trails have. Gatlinburg has three parks: Mynatt, Miles, and Herbert Holt, each of which offer pavilions, stream access, bathroom facilities with special needs accessibility, and often wildlife can be spotted in the parks as well. City parks are also typically open during times when the National Park might not be (for weather or similar reasons) and may be considered a safer alternative for enjoying Smoky Mountain nature when other attractions may not be available.
See more on Gatlinburg City Parks at https://smokymountainwelcomeguide.com/free-area-parks/.
There are many other attractions and items of interest in our area that offer special needs accessibility, but these are the main ones we felt a decent list should start with.
More information can be found on these links:
– The Smoky Mountains For Special Needs Visitors Part 2
– Scooters And Wheelchair Rentals And Sales
– Cory Lee’s “A Wheelchair Accessible Great Smoky Mountains National Park Travel Guide”.
– Best Wheelchair Friendly In The Great Smoky Mountains National Park
“Who has special needs accessibility in our special needs [group member] be comfortable enjoying the Smoky Mountains? We are happy to report that the Great Smoky Mountains and the area around in its communities and attractions are indeed friendly to those with special needs. In our article we hope to provide you with helpful information for your special person to enjoy the Smoky Mountains.
Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is a 5.5 mile
Metcalf Bottoms is a picnic area in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park that is also located along Little River Road or accessible via Wears Valley Road. Metcalf Bottoms is a spacious area with a picnic pavilion that can be reserved through recreation.gov. We love Metcalf Bottoms as an accessible area in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
Attractions and Dining
There are several areas in the Smokies we would recommend for those who use a scooter or wheelchair as they offer special spacious areas and accommodations. The Island in Pigeon Forge would be a favorite. Offering drop off and parking locations specifically for those who are chair bound, The Island is a pleasant experience. Enjoy a meal, do some shopping, sit and watch the fountains (and the people!)
The Mountain Mile in Pigeon Forge is a spacious, multi experience area where they have set up space and activities for people of all kinds to enjoy. Some of today’s hottest names in retail are at the Mountain Mile. Enjoy a meal at Junction 35 or pick up some spirits to take to your cabin. Enjoy a spacious area for walking, riding, enjoying the beautiful area they have created. You will find The Mountain Mile at the corner of Teaster Lane and East Wears Valley Road in Pigeon Forge.
Walden’s Landing is a great choice for a good experience! Spacious parking with accommodating restaurants make this area a good choice if you have a chair bound member in your group. Shopping, attractions and restaurants will be fun and accommodating to all! Paula Deen’s Lumberjack Feud is a family favorite!
We know the Wonderworks, The Titanic, and the Alcatraz museum are also great stops. All of the larger attractions will have accommodations for those with scooters or wheelchairs where possible.
Those on the Autism Spectrum may find they need a sensory friendly area to enjoy the Smoky Mountains. Several of the attractions in the area provide a sensory friendly area for those who are especially sensitive to over stimulation. Dollywood is very friendly to special needs, just ask! Wonderworks hosts 10 Sensory Friendly days each year and Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies hosts a Sensory Friendly Night at the Aquarium for those who are interested. Don’t be afraid to ask! We want you to have a fantastic vacation as our guest.