At 5,620 kilometers, the Appalachian Trail is the longest national park in the world. It runs from the northern state of Maine, through the forests of the Appalachian Mountains and down to the southern state of Georgia.
The steep and winding paths are a hiker's dream, but make it virtually inaccessible to anyone with a serious physical disability, especially for those in wheelchairs. But that changed recently when a group of volunteers created a wheelchair-accessible path on a portion of the trail in the Green Mountains of Vermont.
Waterfalls, winding paths now accessible to people with physical disabilities
The trail now includes an 84-meter-long raised, wooden walkway, which winds along a riverbank and up the side of a mountain. At the end of the walkway is a place most people in wheelchairs rarely get to visit.
"If you're good, you can kind of serpentine in the wheelchair, and then we got to the waterfall, so that was nice," says Eric Rose, who has been in a wheelchair since a snowboarding accident two years ago and recently "hiked" the trail for the first time.
"It's really fun gliding on the boardwalk for that long. I thought it was a lot of freedom," Rose says. "Then the end is steep, and my friends had to kind of push me up the gravel part."
Eric Allen and his wife, Margaret Johnson, aren't far behind Rose. They recently came to the Appalachian Trail, or AT, as the trail is known, for the first time as well.
"To me, I think it's very good to have places that are wheelchair accessible," Allen says.
"Especially considering the fact that he used to be a pretty much daily or weekly hiker," Johnson says. "On the Long Trail and Adirondacks and everywhere. Since a traumatic brain injury in 1995, he hasn't hiked much because he can't go long periods."
While the trail may not go as far into the mountains as her husband used to hike, Johnson says it brings back a lot of good memories.
"And with a trail like this, you can get far enough away from a road that you don't see one and that you are truly in the thick of things, as you would be if you were able-bodied and could hike three miles up to a mountain peak," Johnson says.
Idea for walkway comes amid plans to relocate part of trail
Twenty years ago, the Appalachian Trail in this part of Vermont ran along a road, which wasn't safe for hikers. The volunteers who maintain the trail proposed moving the pathway to a better location.
Ben Rose, no relation to Eric Rose, is executive director of the Green Mountain Club, the group that coordinated the building effort and guided the project through the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act. The law directs land managers to look at different alternatives for any action on public land, as well as all the intended and unintended consequences.
"And as we looked at where to relocate the Appalachian Trail, we realized that not only could we build a boardwalk across the flood plain, we could do it in a way that would be accessible for people who use wheelchairs," Rose says. "That's very rare on the Appalachian Trail, which is a steep up-and-down trail over the mountains. This was sort of a unique opportunity, and once we added in that idea of accessibility, this alternative jumped to the top."
For three years, members of the Green Mountain Club, the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps, the National Park Service, the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and the Green Mountain National Forest worked together to bring the path to fruition.
"It's very gratifying, having been involved in the last 10 years of planning and walking around, looking at different routes and then seeing the plans that the Green Mountain Forest engineer put together, to bore piers down into the muck of the flood plain and to see crews out here working in the mud for three summers," Rose says. "There were definitely some low moments on this project, and to see people now actually using it in wheelchairs and coming out really excited is just a wonderful thing."
Organizers say project well worth the price tag
The cost for the entire project was $400,000. Ben Rose says it was well worth it.
"I don't think $400,000 is too much for moving half a mile of the longest linear park in the world onto a location that's not on a road and can be used by people in wheelchairs," he says.
Rose says the trail will mean different things to different people. Some will simply use it as part of a greater hike of the whole Appalachian Trail route, but he expects it will attract many local people.
"For the locals, it's a great amenity. People will come here as part of a jogging loop or to walk their dogs or to take a walk with people who are visiting," Rose says. "Obviously, this one is a little bit special because people can do that in wheelchairs."
Eric Rose agrees, saying while the Appalachian Trail has been a public treasure for a century, now it's truly open to everyone.
"It's here. Come check it out," he says. "It will be here for a long time, I'm pretty sure."