This national park just expanded its adaptive excursions, allowing disabled visitors to bike, camp & kayak

Left: A diverse group of disabled and non-disabled people mountain bike through the Great Smoky Mountains; Right: Two women hold up an adaptive hiking chair for another woman

There are few American pleasures as delightful as exploring one of the country’s 400+ national parks — but disabled visitors often find themselves excluded from the adventures so many outdoorists love most.

Slowly but surely, things are changing.

Two women hold up an adaptive hiking chair for another woman
Photo courtesy of Catalyst Sports

Last year, Great Smoky Mountains National Park — one of the most popular destinations in the NPS — launched a program of free, adaptive activities. And this year, the park is expanding its offerings.

Last year, the park and its partners hosted three hikes and one mountain bike outing with adaptive gear. But this year, between June and October, visitors can expect seven engaging events: Three hikes, two mountain bike rides, one kayak trip, and one night of camping in the beloved park.

“The programs allow individuals with disabilities and their families and community to move beyond the pavement to explore and enjoy the Smokies,” Emily Davis, a public affairs specialist with the national park, told the Washington Post.

A group of mountain bikers using accessible trikes smiles with a group of volunteers in the Great Smoky Mountains
Photo courtesy of Catalyst Sports

Adaptive excursions like these are made possible by programs with experts, like the folks at Catalyst Sports, who provide equipment and knowledge to park-goers.

“These ranger-led tours promise an enriching experience for visitors of all abilities and their families, allowing them to immerse themselves in the natural and cultural treasures of this magnificent park,” Catalyst Sports shared on its website.

Here are the planned adventures for the 2024 season:

Folks who are interested in any of these events can register for free through Catalyst Sports’ website. 

Making the outdoors more accessible

While Great Smoky Mountains National Park is contained in Tennessee and North Carolina, Catalyst Sports offers its services and programming in 11 cities, including Atlanta, Washington D.C., Birmingham, and more.

The organization’s equipment includes three-wheel off-road trikes for mountain biking, which come with e-assist for powering through steep terrain. Hiking chairs have levers and a front wheel for pushing through obstacles. And kayaks have adaptations that prevent tipping, custom seat supports, and modifications that are tailored for people with limb differences or limited mobility. 

Two volunteers outfit an adaptive kayak for a participant
Photo courtesy of Catalyst Sports

Participants are also welcome to bring their own gear — and their other friends and loved ones who don’t require additional assistance.

“It’s not just about making something accessible. It’s about making it inclusive, so that the entire family and friends can be part of it,” Mark Bogosian, of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation told the Washington Post.

The Christoper and Dana Reeve Foundation is another integral part of making the outdoors more accessible; the organization created an Accessible Outdoor Checklist, which helps parks, trails, and organizations adopt inclusive practices.

These days, that assistance is needed more than ever, as other NPS sites begin to expand their accessibility offerings, including all-terrain wheelchairs, beach wheelchairs, and more. 

A man sits in a hiking wheelchair next to a standing woman in front of a waterfall at Great Smoky Mountain National Park
Photo courtesy of Catalyst Sports

Many of these parks, like Rocky Mountain National Park or the Great Sand Dunes National Park, still have limited supplies, meaning folks are encouraged to make reservations if they want to get in on the action. 

Despite the logistical hurdles, disabled adventurers and their advocates know it’s worth the challenge.

“Today’s hike gave me hope for [the] future,” one of last year’s Great Smoky Mountains participants said in Catalyst Sports’ annual report. “Now I know there are options for me.”

A man helps get an adaptive biker settled in his trike
Matt Kirby helps a participant get securely fastened into their adaptive mountain bike. Photo courtesy of Catalyst Sports

And volunteers — who can be trained easily online — say that these accessible excursions enrich their own experience in the outdoors.

“My experiences with Catalyst have always been rewarding,” North Carolina volunteer and Mountain Bike Coordinator Matt Kirby shared in a blog post for the organization.

“Not only are we providing access for people to enjoy adventure sports, but I get to share things that I’ve accessed throughout my life with people who are in the forest for the first time. It tugs at my heartstrings.”

Header images courtesy of Catalyst Sports

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May 6, 2024 9:20 AM
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