Years ago in an effort to make a local county park more accessible, our local park officials disfigured acres of vast and beautiful farmland by laying down miles of asphalt-paved access paths.
Fields of tall grasses that at one time seemed to go on forever were now artificially slashed and scored with smooth, 4-foot wide black paths that seemed totally out of place in nature.
Years later our son was born with cerebral palsy and, of course, the paved trails at the park are one of his favorite places to ride his adaptive tricycle.
Still though, when I walk behind him on those paved trails I struggle to reconcile the need for accessibility with the destruction and disruption of the landscape.
I’m never able to put my finger on exactly what makes the paved paths seem out of place, perhaps because I was without a good frame of reference for accessibility in nature.
Until, that is, this summer when we stumbled on John Dillon Park in the Adirondacks and I got to see first hand what a good model of accessibility in nature looks like.
When planning the Adirondack leg of our summer road trip for 2015 we wanted to stop at The Wild Center and try the new Rail Explorers rail bikes in Saranac. While looking for campgrounds in that area we came across John Dillon Park. Checking the website for the park I learned it was designed as an “accessible” campground and that it was centrally located right near Long Lake, NY. I reserved a site for two nights.
As we were putting the finishing touches on our plan some friends asked if they could join us with their two kids for the Adirondacks leg of our trip. Their son also has developmental disabilities and is a classmate of our son, Jack.
Both our son and our friends’ son are capable of walking short distances, so wheelchair access at campgrounds isn’t crucial for us though it certainly makes things easier. When we need to get someplace of any distance while camping, we either ride our son on the back of our Xtracycle or — now that we can bring his bike along on our new trailer — he rides his adaptive trike.
Unlike our local park’s trails though, the trails at John Dillon are not some kind of cosmetically painted-on, ecologically inappropriate after-thought.
The great thing about John Dillon Park is that their network of trails is wheelchair accessible. That means that there are no really steep grades and the paths are smooth (though not paved) and easy to navigate. And while our son may not need a wheelchair, those paths just so happen to be perfect terrain for our son to ride his adaptive trike.
John Dillon Park has several miles of trails that take visitors (whether on foot or wheelchair or adaptive trike) through the dense Adirondack forest around 255 acre Grampus Lake. Unlike our local park’s trails though, the trails at John Dillon are not some kind of cosmetically painted-on, ecologically inappropriate after-thought.
Instead, the well-manicured, crushed stone paths at John Dillon Park thoughtfully weave their way through the trees, over streams and around the fern and moss-covered undergrowth of the Adirondacks with minimal visual impact.
From the layout of the paths that take circuitous routes to avoid steep grades but also to minimize the visual disruption of the paths, to the materials used — natural stone for the paths, wood for the bridges, etc — everything about John Dillon Park seems to stress integration as well as accessibility.
And it’s not just the paths that have this harmony of integration and accessibility the campsites look like they belong there, too.
There are only a handful of campsites at John Dillon and they all feature lean-tos. Our family camps in our VW camper and we were able to secure the only campsite that is accessible by car so that we could use both the VW and the lean-to.
The other lean-to sites are accessible only by the network of trails (though the amazing staff at John Dillon is happy to help get campers’ stuff from the car to the campsite).
I’ve never seen lean-to’s like the ones at John Dillon Park campground. Well-constructed and made of hand-hewn logs, they feature wheelchair ramps built of natural materials to make the sleeping quarters accessible by wheelchair. Additionally, the wood picnic tables at each site are positioned to be accessible via wheelchair as well.
Each campsite also features an outhouse that is wheelchair accessible. The outhouses could be hit or miss depending on how clean they were. I didn’t mind the facilities but my wife and our friends preferred to use the pristine, modern toilets in the welcome center.
The campground does not have showers but does have an arrangement with a park that is just a few miles away to use their showers. Depending on the time of year and how long you stay, this may not be an issue. We spent several hours every day swimming at the Long Lake public beach so didn’t exactly stink too much.
As an aside, the public beach in the town of Long Lake (less than 2-miles from John Dillon) is a must-visit. We’ve swam in many lakes over the years but the floating dock at Long Lake with its rope swings, trampoline and slide puts Long Lake way up on the list of awesome lake spots.
The black velvety darkness of the night was matched only by the silence: no cicadas, no birds, no cars, no RV generators.
The accessibility of John Dillon Park means an immersive Adirondack experience is available to anyone, regardless of mobility issues. While the sites do not have electricity, the park has a battery cart that campers can use to recharge wheelchairs or power other necessary medical equipment.
For me, the immersive experience at John Dillon Park was most palpable at night. If you look at a map of the Adirondacks, John Dillon park is pretty close to dead center. So, at around 10pm in August the stars in the sky seemed to be floating just above the trees. The black velvety darkness of the night was matched only by the silence: no cicadas, no birds, no cars, no RV generators.
I’ve never experienced anything like night time at John Dillon in any other woods in any other part of the north east, and knowing that the park made this kind of experience open to people who might not otherwise get to experience it made it even more satisfying.
But for all of its wonderfully integrated and well-groomed trails, John Dillon park wouldn’t work without the staff.
The manager of John Dillon park, Steve, was helpful in answering emails before we arrived and helped us find a good camping location and made sure that Jack’s trike would be allowed on the park’s network of trails.
Once at the campground, Steve made us feel immediately welcomed and comfortable. While our family has accumulated some pretty decent camping skills, those skills certainly weren’t necessary at John Dillon Park.
Can’t get your campfire started? They got that covered.
Steve told us how it’s not uncommon for him to get a call for help with a campfire or to set up a tent. When guests arrive late, he’s been known to bring a blow torch to get a last-minute campfire going. It’s really like camping with a concierge, a great experience.
What’s particular special though is that all of this assistance and helpfulness comes without any hint of judgement.
Whether you’ve got a disability yourself or you are the parent of a kid with a disability, you are certain to have developed a pretty sensitive internal device for measuring when people are judging you or helping you out of pity or feeling sorry for you. This kind of judgement comes from people all the time. But, amazingly, not from the staff at John Dillon Park.
We immediately got the feeling that everyone belongs at John Dillon park.
That pristine silence of the heart of the Adirondacks shattered by kids screaming and yelling at 6AM for more cereal? No biggie.
Can’t get your campfire started? They got that covered.
Need help charging a wheelchair out in the middle of the woods? No prob.
As a parent of a kid with special needs, judgement from other people is just part of the air we breath. It was a relief to be at John Dillon Park and not have to deal with that, to be around people who seemed to have a more empathic understanding of disability. As a result we were all able to really immerse ourselves in the experience more deeply.
The visit, of course, was not without stress — the kids misbehaved often, didn’t listen, complained more than they probably needed to. In other words, they acted exactly like they behave at home most of the time.
One of the nights called for rain, so rather than prepare dinner at the campsite we decided to go out to dinner. The wait for our food at the Long Lake Hotel was mind-boggling and filled with screaming and whining and not enough wine to drown out the kids’ (completely justified) complaining or the other diners’ stares.
Did I mention that it never ended up raining?
Sure, that kind of stress happens anywhere though. Even at home.
But at home you can’t wear the kids out with a day-long swim at Long Lake, put them to bed in the camper and spend a few moments gazing up at the kind of night sky that comes from a campsite at John Dillon Park letting all that stress just melt into the darkness.
One more thing, though. Did I mention this place is free?
That’s right. It costs nothing to stay at John Dillon Park. Unbelievable.
Given the cost, the location, the great staff and the convenience of the accommodations I was surprised with how few people were staying at the campground during our visit. Steve told us that this is because people book the sites on the internet and then never show up and don’t call to cancel.
John Dillon Park offers such a special opportunity, especially for people who never thought that camping in the heart of the Adirondacks could be this easy. Hopefully going forward the park will find a way to encourage no-shows to be a bit more considerate and cancel their reservations ahead of time and give the opportunity to someone who can use it.