Two recent vehicle purchases at Grandfather Mountain, the not-for-profit nature park run by the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation, further the organization’s mission to help all people explore, understand and value the wonders of the natural world.
The new ADA-compliant shuttle and utility terrain vehicle (UTV) allow the organization to make the park more accessible for school groups, other visiting groups, behind-the-scenes guests and special event participants.
The origin story of Linville, N.C.,’s Grandfather Mountain nature park is rooted in the desire for accessibility – the aspiration of Hugh Morton to make one of the East Coast’s most rugged mountains available to everyone.
When Morton, the late founder of Grandfather Mountain, inherited the mountain in 1952, he dreamed up the idea of the Mile High Swinging Bridge, connecting two of the mountain’s prominent peaks. Part of his vision came from the desire to give his grandmother access to the lofty heights and the unique vantage point they provide. Knowing that she and others would not be able to hike or climb to these magnificent views, he created another way to provide those with limited mobility with this opportunity.
With an immense vision and the help of architect Charles Hartmann Jr. of Greensboro, N.C., and others, the Mile High Swinging Bridge opened Sept. 2, 1952, and immediately started offering guests awe-inspiring views.
Fast forward to June 2010, and the reopening of Grandfather Mountain’s Top Shop. After a few different versions of the souvenir and snack shop, located just below the Swinging Bridge, served guests for nearly 60 years, the Top Shop was rebuilt with an elevator inside and a new outdoor ramp leading to the bridge. For the first time ever, individuals in wheelchairs were able to access and cross the Blue Ridge landmark, feeling the same joy, nerves and excitement of those who have crossed the bridge for decades before them.
Now in 2023, thanks to the North Carolina Science Museums Grant Program and funding made possible by the federal American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, Grandfather Mountain is able to offer more access to individuals with limited mobility. Darrell Stover, the head of the grant program, was able to visit Grandfather Mountain this past summer and meet with some of the park’s education staff.
The purchase of an ADA-compliant shuttle enables the nature park to transport wheelchair-bound individuals from a school group or other group with their classmates or party. In the past, these individuals had to be separated from their group in order to transport them up and down the mountain. The shuttle has seating for 14 that includes spaces for two wheelchair-bound passengers and a 1,000-pound Braun Lift. The new vehicle enables them to stay with their group, while being safely transported around the mountain, and expands their inclusion in the park’s programming.
The new shuttle will also be available during the mountain’s special events like Adult Field Courses and Grandfather by Night. To maximize the safety of participants during this programming, the organization provides transportation for attendees while in the park.
“It is very important for us to keep the group together, especially when traveling through the park at night,” said John Caveny, director of conservation and education at the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation. “This also optimizes the time that attendees can spend with an educator or staff member learning about the natural resources found in the park. This new shuttle allows us more options and flexibility in the logistical planning of events and programs.”
Grandfather Glows, an extremely popular firefly-viewing event that kicked off in 2022, will now be more accessible in its second year and open to attendees who require wheelchairs.
“Adding this vehicle to our lineup and being able to open up more programs and events to those with limited mobility is a great step toward our ongoing goal to provide inclusive, intimate experiences with nature,” said Caveny.
In addition to the shuttle, the mountain’s new UTV also has several important purposes. It increases access for individuals with limited mobility to participate in guided behind-the-scenes experiences at the nature park’s animal habitats. “Meet the Bears” and “Paint With an Otter” both require participants to go to off-display areas of the animal habitats and will now be more accessible. These programs allow participants to have up-close encounters with the habitat animals and learn in-depth information about them.
“Meet the Bears” grants guests the chance to meet some of the mountain’s resident black bears and learn all about them. The UTV will be utilized to get guests with limited mobility down the habitats’ service road to meet these animals. “Paint With an Otter,” a new experience in 2023, allows participants to meet an otter, choose nontoxic paint colors for the artwork and watch as a habitat keeper guides the animal through the painting enrichment. Participants are able to select the painting they like the best to take home. While the new UTV will allow those with limited mobility to get to the necessary behind-the-scenes area for “Paint With an Otter,” individuals will still need to be able to climb stairs.
The UTV will also be used in emergencies to transport ill or injured persons and provides the keeper staff with a new means of hauling animal food and supplies from one place to another.
“The new UTV is a win-win for Grandfather staff and guests,” said Christie Tipton, animal habitats curator at Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation. “It will be essential for efficiently completing the many tasks that keepers have to do on a daily basis, and it allows us to introduce guests with limited mobility to behind-the-scenes areas of the habitats they have not been able to access before.”
Individuals with limited mobility who are interested in booking special habitat experiences, offered on weekends April – October, should reach out to the mountain’s habitat staff. To find that contact information and learn more about special habitat experiences, visit www.grandfather.com/experiences.
Groups with individuals who are wheelchair bound should inquire about how Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation can help accommodate their visit. To find out how to get in touch with the park’s group tour coordinator and learn more about group bookings, visit www.grandfather.com/groups.
The nonprofit Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation strives to inspire conservation of the natural world by helping guests explore, understand and value the wonders of Grandfather Mountain.