Nestled in the mountains of western North Carolina, Jackson County has some of the most scenic mountain vistas in the United States. With endless mountain views, towering waterfalls, and the cool mountain air, everyone deserves the opportunity to enjoy the great outdoor activities that make Jackson County so unique. According to the CDC, in the southeast, nearly a quarter of people live with a disability. However, many activities in Jackson County are ideal for people and families with mixed mobility. We partnered with a local wheelchair user, Wendy Ford, to ask about some of her favorite activities that she enjoys as a local. Our complete accessibility guide can be found here for even more options.
Tuckasegee River Greenway
The Tuckasegee River Greenway is a cool oasis on warm summer days. Located only minutes from downtown Sylva, the Greenway is a very mild grade along a paved trail – only about 40 feet along the full two-mile down and back path. There are two van-accessible parking spaces near the Old Cullowhee Road entrance, one located at the beginning of the path and the other closer to the restrooms. The Greenway is one of the best ways to enjoy the sights and sounds of nature without strenuous effort.
Western Carolina University Fine Arts Museum & Auditorium
Western Carolina University is located in Cullowhee, NC, and is home to several accessible activities, including sporting events, museums, and performances. The Fine Art Museum is open year-round and is best enjoyed when student crowds thin out during the summer months. The museum offers rotating student art exhibits and is entirely ADA accessible. The entrance to the museum has fully automatic doors and wide entry space, and ample handicap-accessible parking. Additionally, the Belcher Auditorium is also located in the same building with rotating events throughout the year. See a complete list of activities here.
Jackson County Library & Historic Courthouse
Towering over the town of Sylva is the Historic Jackson County Courthouse. Initially constructed in 1914, the structure was fully redesigned in 2011 and now serves as both the library and the History Museum. Now fully ADA compliant, visitors enjoy the stunning views of Sylva and the surrounding Plott Balsam Mountains. Learn about the history of Jackson County or relax with a good book on the accessible outdoor patio. There is a large parking lot with ample van parking close to the main entrance outside, and the parking area can be found via Keener Street or Savannah Drive. There is also a complete list of community events that can be found here.
Oconaluftee Visitors Center & Mountain Farm Museum
With over 850,000 acres of preserved public lands, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is shared with North Carolina and Tennessee. The Cherokee Entrance to the Smokies starts at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, an ideal location for people with limited mobility. With ample van parking and accessible restrooms on-site, the Visitor Center is ADA accessible, and visitors can learn about the plants and animals that call the Smokies home. Behind the visitor center is a large observation deck overlooking the fields where elk graze frequently and is a great spot to enjoy some time in the shade. Explore the walkway behind the visitor center, the Oconaluftee River Trail, and head to the Mountain Farm Museum, a full-size replica of 18th-century structures of the early Appalachian settlers. The path is flat and paved and chat gravel, ideal for many mobility devices, and many structures have a ramp leading to the viewing platform in the buildings. Continue your adventure through the smokies with a leisurely and scenic drive, as entry to the park is free.
Blue Ridge Parkway & Waterrock Knob
Taking a drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway is one of the best ways to enjoy scenic views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Known as America’s favorite motor route, the Parkway extends 469 miles through Virginia and North Carolina. Over 45 miles of the Parkway are in Jackson County from Cherokee to Balsam. Along that route at Milepost 451.2 is Waterrock Knob. With both East and West facing views, Waterrock Knob is a great spot to enjoy golden hour sunrises and sunsets. There are several hiking trails ascending a steep short walk from the parking area with a paved ascent for families with mixed mobility. For those who use wheelchairs, there is excellent access to parking and views, as the viewing areas are paved with wheelchair-access ramps throughout. Waterrock Knob also has the highest visitor center along the Parkway at 5,820 feet and is open April – November daily from 10 am to 5 pm with a ranger on sight to assist with information or purchase an item from the gift shop.
Located in the Nantahala National Forest, only a short drive from the Cashiers’ Crossroads, is one of the tallest waterfalls in the eastern US. At 411 feet tall, this majestic cascade offers convenient amenities and access for wheelchairs at the first viewing platform. The path is paved but steep, with a couple of speed bumps along the quarter-mile stretch. Additionally, there are some scenic mountain views along the way, looking into neighboring South Carolina and Lake Jocassee, so relax and take in the views. There is ample van parking; however, this site does require a $3 parking fee.
Lakes & Fishing
Jackson County is home to several pristine lakes, many of which have accessible fishing docks. The largest of these lakes is Lake Glenville, located between Cullowhee and Cashiers, and offers the best access point at the Pines Recreation Area. Not only is there an ADA fishing pier, but there are also wheelchair-accessible picnic tables, latrines, access to the beach, and van parking. Lake Glenville is the most popular of the Jackson County Lakes, so we always recommend visiting during the week or earlier in the day when it is less crowded.
One of Jackson County’s top hidden gems, Balsam Lake, offers a full range of accessible facilities. Tucked away in the Roy Taylor National Forest, Balsam Lake is about a 45-minute drive from downtown Sylva. Due to its rural location, preload the Google Map Location on your phone before you venture out. Balsam Lake has two trails on site. The first is the Mallonee Trail which takes you alongside a portion of the lake. The path is chat gravel, but it does lead to a wheelchair-accessible fishing dock. The other option is to the right of the parking area and offers fully accessible river fishing along the creek that feeds Balsam Lake. Exclusively for wheelchair users, the concrete path goes up to a small wooden fishing dock and several other wheelchair-accessible fishing spots. These pristine waters are a great place to reel in small wild trout.
Many events rotate seasonally in Jackson County, providing access for individuals who use wheelchairs. In Dillsboro, the Front Street Arts & Crafts Show is a great way to enjoy the warmth of summer and interact with renowned local artisans. Enjoy live entertainment and food from locally sourced accessible restaurants such as Foragers Canteen or Haywood Smokehouse while you visit. Western Carolina University hosts the Summertime Mountain Artisans Arts & Crafts Show. Over a hundred artisans gather in the fully accessible Ramsey Regional Activity Center to display their crafts ranging from pottery to homemade soaps. Other accessible events include the weekly Concert on the Creek series in downtown Sylva and Groovin’ on the Green in Cashiers, which are fun for the whole family.
Our hotels all offer accessible amenities, rooms, and exceptional staff. In Dillsboro, options include the Best Western Plus River Escape, Microtel Inn & Suites, and Holiday Inn Express & Suites. In Sylva, the newly renovated Clarion Pointe is only minutes from the Blue Ridge Parkway and downtown Sylva & Dillsboro, and the award-winning Comfort Inn offers stunning views of the surrounding mountains. For accessible stays in Cashiers, the newly renovated boutique, Hotel Cashiers, provides single-level access to wheelchair users. The Hampton Inn Sapphire Valley is another great option on the plateau. Check out our complete Accessibility Guide for even more options when exploring the North Carolina Mountains and use our Trip Planner for more inspiration.