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Exploring the Adirondacks

Located in upstate New York, the Adirondack Mountain region offers a wide range of accessible trails, recreational activities and lodging options. Known collectively as the Adirondacks, this area includes a patchwork of public and private lands dotted with backcountry trails, state parks, forest service lands, private homes, lodges and quaint villages. Diversity is the key word in the Adirondacks, where you can hike along a backcountry trail in the morning, and spend the evening exploring Main Street shops and eateries. Truly, there’s something for everyone in the Adirondacks.

Although many area parks offer some accessible campsites and trails, the shining star for accessibility is John Dillion Park, where all the trails, campsites and recreational areas are accessible. Located just 15 miles from Tupper Lake, this 200-acre accessible camping and recreation development is the result of a unique partnership between Paul Smith’s College and International Paper. Named for the former International Paper CEO and Paul Smith’s College alumni, the park features nine Adirondack lean-tos, over three miles of hiking trails, a fishing pier, kayak and canoe docks, picnic areas and even a pontoon boat. And all of it is accessible.

Best of all, it’s located approximately 1.5 miles off the main road, so it gives campers a real chance to get away from the maddening crowds. Composting toilets and potable water are available at each lean-to and the welcome center has a flush toilet and a refrigerator for medication storage. Additionally, solar powered battery chargers can be wheeled to the lean-tos upon request.

All of the lean-tos are either ramped or built at the appropriate wheelchair-transfer height and they come equipped with a fold-down bed, a fireplace and a picnic table. Bear Cub is the closest one to the welcome center, and it’s the only lean-to you can drive to. The others are built in pairs along the accessible trail; with the farthest one located 1.5 miles from the welcome center.

There is no charge to use John Dillon Park, but it’s only open to people with disabilities and their companions. Proof of disability, such as a Golden Access Passport or a doctor’s note is required at registration. The maximum stay is 10 days and reservations are recommended. The park is open daily in the summer and on weekends after Labor Day. It’s also open for day use during these times.

If you’d prefer a few more creature comforts while exploring the Adirondacks, then head on over to The Wawbeek, located on Upper Saranac Lake, approximately 20 miles from John Dillon Park. This turn-of-the-century Great Camp property has been lovingly restored by owners Nancy and Norman Howard; and features all the amenities of an upscale resort on 40 acres of prime Adirondack forest. In short, it’s the best of both worlds.

The resort features two accessible rooms; Room 2 in the Lake House and Room 3 in the Carriage House. The Lake House is closer to The Wawbeek Restaurant and it also serves as the central reception center; while the Carriage House features larger rooms. Both accessible rooms have wide doorways and excellent pathway access; and the bathrooms are equipped with a tub/shower combination with grab bars, a hand-held showerhead, grab bars around the toilet and a roll-under sink. A portable shower chair is available upon advance request.

As an added bonus the Lake House room features a private deck with a fantastic view of the lake. Alternatively there is a large public deck in the Lake House, which can be used by all guests. And if you’d like a closer look at the lake, then sign up for the daily pontoon boat cruise. This hour-long cruise departs at 4 P.M. and the boat features roll-on access.

No stay at the Wawbeek is complete without dinner at The Wawbeek Restaurant. Housed in the original eating cabin of the Great Camp, the restaurant building is on the National Register of Historic Places. There is accessible parking near the door and ramp access to the restaurant; however some wheelers may have problems with the tight turn in the L-shaped entryway. Says Nancy, “We did what we could to make the restaurant accessible, but because of the historical status of the building, we could not make major structural changes. Still, we do have regular dinner guests who are wheelchair-users.”

Another historic lodging choice with good accessibility is located just up the road in the town of Lake Saranac. Appropriately named the Hotel Saranac, this 88-room property was built in 1924. Today it’s owned and operated by Paul Smith’s College, as a training ground for students enrolled in their hotel management and tourism programs.

The property features level access to the front lobby, an automatic door opener and accessible parking in the side parking lot. There is ramp access to the upper lobby (where the elevator is located) but it’s a bit steep, so some folks may need assistance. The restaurant and part of the lobby bar have barrier-free access and an accessible family restroom is located on the second floor.

One accessible room has a roll-in shower (317) and the other (612) has a tub/shower combination. Both rooms have good pathway access and wide doorways. Access features in the bathrooms include a hand-held showerhead, a transfer bench, grab bars in the shower and around the toilet and a roll-under sink. As an added feature, a removable lip for the roll-in shower keeps the water in the shower pan, yet allows for wheelchair access. All in all it’s very nicely done.

No visit to the Adirondacks is complete without a stop at the Adirondack Visitor Interpretive Center, located 15 miles from Saranac Lake on Route 30, near Paul Smith’s College. There is accessible parking near the visitors center and level access to the building and the nearby picnic area. Inside you’ll find interpretive exhibits about the wildlife and natural history of the Adirondacks.

Outside, the Barnum Brook Trail is a good choice for power wheelchair-users and slow walkers, however some manual wheelchair-users may require assistance with the uphill sections of the trail. The trail winds through a stand of white pines and out to a boardwalk viewing platform over the marsh. From there it follows Barnum Brook, crosses over a fish dam and circles back up to the beginning. The .8 mile trail is rated as ‥accessible with assistance”, and because of the dirt surface it’s not a good choice in wet weather. Still, if you can manage it, it’s worth the effort, as it’s a good introduction to Adirondack habitat.

For a good primer of Adirondack wildlife, check out the Wild Center in Tupper Lake. This natural history museum of the Adirondacks features interpretive exhibits, live animals and educational programs about the flora and fauna of the region. There is excellent access throughout the museum with a level entry, barrier-free access to all exhibits and accessible restrooms.

Highlights of the permanent collection include an authentic Adirondack lean-to, a glacial wall and a gaggle of playful otters in the Living River Trail exhibit. Visitors are exposed to the full range of Adirondack habitats as they travel from the lean-to through bogs, streams, lakes and forests, up to the summit of a high peak.

Outside, you can experience a real slice of Adirondack life on one of the three trails that dot the 31-acre campus. The interpretive trail that leads to the boardwalk over Blue Pond is wheelchair-accessible, so save some time to enjoy it.

Finally, if you’d like to relax and enjoy the scenery, head on over to the Veterans Memorial Highway for a drive to the top of Whiteface Mountain. This five-mile drive offers spectacular views of the Adirondacks and features several turnouts along the way. At 4,867 feet, Whiteface Mountain is New York’s fifth highest peak, and the journey up the mountain is as memorable as the view from the top.

Whiteface Castle sits on the top of the mountain, and there are two ways to get up there; the trail and the elevator. The trail has a lot of steps and a very steep grade; however there is wheelchair-access to the elevator which is located deep inside the mountain. Just follow the tunnel from the parking area and wait for the attendant to operate the platform lift up the five steps to the elevator. Up on top there are viewing platforms located around the perimeter of the castle. The flagstone pathways that circle the castle are bumpy and uneven in places, but it’s still possible to access most of the viewing platforms. The view is great and it’s the perfect way to top off an Adirondack visit.

If You Go

John Dillon Park
(518) 524-6226 (summer)
(518) 327-6266 (winter)

The Wawbeek
(518) 359-2656

Hotel Saranac
(800) 937-0211

Wild Center
(518) 359-7800

Adirondack Visitor Interpretive Center
(518) 327-3000

Lake Placid Essex County Visitors Bureau
(518) 523-2445

Candy Harrington is the editor of Emerging Horizons and the author of Barrier-Free Travel: A Nuts and Bolts Guide for Wheelers and Slow Walkers. Her newest book, There is Room at the Inn, features detailed access information on 117 inns and B&Bs across the US. Visit Candy's blog at for access news, resources and industry updates.