The gateway communities surrounding the Great Smoky Mountains National Park offer plenty of handicap-accessible locations.  Restaurants, hotels, dinner shows, and major attractions provide the most inclusive environment they can.

With the passing of the Architectural Boundaries Act in 1968 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, all government agencies were tasked with making facilities accessible to all people.  The National Park Service is a bureau of the Department of the Interior, which is a federal agency.  Over the years, the national parks have had to comply with the set standards of making areas accessible.

The park's natural environment, however, provided challenges for making areas accessible. Paving trails and adding ramps to historic sites conflicted with the National Park Service's initial plan of preserving wilderness areas just the way they were for future generations to enjoy. Every park superintendent takes this into consideration when planning to develop an accessible area. Anything that would cause damage to the environment or alter the experience for other guests is left alone, but any new buildings or remodeled structures must all be made accessible for people with disabilities, as required by law.

Accessibility for all persons is one of main goals of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. To make sure improvements for everyone are made, the park incorporates "universal design" in all of its new projects. Universal design not only considers those with disabilities now, but also those who may develop disabilities in the future and need accessible facilities.

Buildings are designed for all visitors, picnic tables are built where they can be approachable by wheelchair, drinking fountains are constructed at two heights, and every door is made 36 inches wide (A standard doorway is 32 inches wide.). The park also boasts one of the only paved accessible wilderness trails in the nation - the Sugarlands Trail. Almost every campground or visitor center offers accessible parking, restrooms, and outside water fountains.

In addition Cades Cove, Elmont, and Smokemont campgrounds have accessible camping sites, and all picnic areas have accessible tables. To reserve an accessible unit for your group, call 1-877-444-6777.

Temporary accessible parking is available to park visitors with a temporary disability. Permits for this can be picked up at either the Sugarlands or Oconaluftee visitor centers. Permits are only given to vehicles that have at least one person with a temporary disability. An example of a temporary disability is someone with a broken leg.

It is difficult to make everything in the park accessible to people with disabilities because of the desire to protect the environment and not alter the historic structures. For anything that cannot be made accessible, the park applies for waivers specifying the reasons why. The following areas have multiple handicap-accessible opportunities:

Sugarlands Visitor Center

  • Ranger-led programs
  • Captioned movie for the hearing impaired
  • Sugarlands Trail - a 0.5-mile accessible trail along the West Prong

Oconaluftee Visitor Center

  • Mountain Farm Museum accessible path
  • Notebooks with pictures of interiors
  • Mingus Mill accessible 100-yard path

Cades Cove

  • Accessible camping with electricity (5 amps maximum)
  • Auto Tour booklet that explains the history, historic buildings, and other information
  • While most buildings and sites in Cades Cove are not accessible, the following are:
    > Cable Mill
    > Becky Cable House
    > Visitor Center
    > Amphitheater