Great Smoky Mountains National Park — This is the time of year when many people start hitting the trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Greg Tipton has especially been looking forward to it after investing in an all-terrain motorized wheelchair with tank-like tracks.
"I bought it in February because it can go over most terrain, on the beach, and a lot of trails in the Smokies," said Tipton. "I was born with spina bifida, but walked for a long time. I eventually required some surgery on my spinal cord and that was the end of walking. Before that, I had hiked several of the trails in the Smokies and would kind of like to get back in there and go on the trails."
Tipton’s heavy-duty chair may be able to physically navigate many areas of the national park. However, his ATV-like ride hit another potential obstacle because motorized vehicles are not allowed on the trails.
"We asked around and got some conflicting information. One person [with the National Park Service] had said you can take it on the paved trails. And then somebody else said you can't have it anywhere in the Smokies. People just were not sure," said Tipton.
The team at Great Smoky Mountains National Park headquarters did some digging to help clarify the rules. Interestingly, the wheelchairs allowed outside on the trails must be suitable for use indoors.
Park spokesperson Dana Soehn told 10News, "If it is a motorized wheelchair or mobility device that is suitable for use in an indoor pedestrian area, the use of it is allowed by regulation in any pedestrian area across the park including trails."
To put it oversimply, wheelchairs with gas engines are not allowed on the trails. Tipton’s chair is both battery-powered and has rubber tracks that allow it to be used indoors.
"There is a chair made by the same company that is larger and runs on gas. I understand they don't want something up there that's going to tear up the trails, but thankfully mine is within the rules," said Tipton.
The GSMNP public affairs team and the back-country specialists also worked with Tipton to determine which trails would work best with his chair-design. Many of the recommendations included trails that were once roadbeds because they are usually wide with a moderate slope. They are also not typically riddled with obstacles such as foot-logs.
"I realize there is a difference between what you are allowed to do and what you actually should do. Safety is most important. Some of the trails have narrow foot-bridges and water crossings. You would not want to waste your time getting back there and finding out you can’t go any farther. There are also some very narrow and steep paved trails where I would not feel comfortable going safely," said Tipton. "This chair will not go everywhere. But it will go anywhere I feel like I would want to go."
As for his first hike, Tipton plans to go on a Saturday stroll along Middle Prong at Tremont.
"It will be nice. It will be relaxing to get to see things I haven't seen in a long time. It's just something I've always enjoyed doing," said Tipton.
Some state parks and national recreation areas allow motorized vehicles. Because the rules and trails can vary widely at each park, rangers recommend contacting the headquarters of the park you plan to visit for recommendations based on your wheelchair design.
10News spoke to some people with experience using wheelchairs in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Again, you should contact the park for personal recommendations, but some of the trails mentioned include:
- Little River Trail at Elkmont
- Jakes Creek at Elkmont
- Middle Prong at Tremont
- The first mile of Porters Creek Trail in Greenbrier
- Sugarlands Trail
- Gatlinburg Trail
- Oconaluftee Trail
- Cades Cove