How to Enjoy Northeast Tennessee as a Wheelchair User

I’ve lived in northwest Georgia, near the Tennessee state line, for the majority of my life. Nashville, Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, and Memphis are all places that I visit frequently because they aren’t that far of a drive from me. Tennessee has some really special places and to be honest, I thought that I’d seen the best parts of the state until I headed to northeast Tennessee for the first time recently. 

Over the course of a few days, I experienced the charm of Johnson City and the surrounding area. From seeing hundreds of animals at a zoo to taking in phenomenal mountain views and more, my trip in wheelchair accessible northeast Tennessee showed me that there’s always more to explore. And this part of the state has certainly stolen a piece of my heart. 

Below, I’ll cover all of the wheelchair accessible attractions and experiences that I enjoyed in northeast Tennessee, my recommendations for where to eat during any trip to the area, and I’ll share where I stayed during my trip. By the time you get to the end of this blog post, I’m pretty sure you’ll be itching to book a trip to northeast Tennessee as much as I’m wanting to book another trip to the region! Without further ado, here’s how to enjoy northeast Tennessee as a wheelchair user –

Wheelchair Accessible Northeast Tennessee Attractions & Things to Do

Enjoy nature (and the sky) at Bays Mountain Park & Planetarium

The first stop on my itinerary was Bays Mountain Park and Planetarium, where I spent a couple hours. I had such a great time here and it was a perfect start to my time in northeast Tennessee. Bays Mountain Park is 3,750 acres large, so there’s certainly a lot to experience! 

I planned to ride the wheelchair accessible barge, but it was raining during my visit, unfortunately. The boat was not covered when I visited, but the staff did tell me that they’re going to add a cover very soon. While I couldn’t actually do the barge ride, I did see the boat and the ramp leading to it, and it looked completely wheelchair accessible. If you’ll be visiting on a nice non-rainy day, this would be a fun activity.

Next to the barge area is the Herpetarium. Here, you can buy your tickets for the barge ride and see lots of creatures that call the area home. I saw more snakes in here than I desired, but it was good knowing that they were all behind glass. Inside the Herpetarium, you can also grab souvenirs to commemorate your trip.

While here, you can’t miss a visit to the Planetarium. It’s just a short walk/roll from the Herpetarium and I honestly felt like I was fully immersed in an outdoor experience, even though I was inside, reclined back in my wheelchair, viewing a screen. I have only been to Planetariums a couple other times in different cities, but this one was easily my favorite one yet.

In the Planetarium, I watched a show called “Totality”, which was all about eclipses. It was fascinating and I learned so much. The film also talked about constellations and via the screen, we were able to view the actual sky of northeast Tennessee. I’m usually not the type of person that’s super into things like this, but this Planetarium was really cool and the highlight of my visit to Bays Mountain Park. 

It’s also worth noting that Bays Mountain Park and Planetarium is a stop on the Tennessee Night Sky Trail. I was actually able to visit several stops on the Night Sky Trail, and I’ll cover them below. If you want to observe the beautiful Tennessee sky, definitely be sure to check out the trail online and plan your stops. Eight out of the nine stops on the Tennessee Night Sky Trail are wheelchair accessible! 

See hundreds of animals at Brights Zoo

This private family-owned zoo is located on US-11E in Limestone, Tennessee. Brights Zoo is home to hundreds of animals, but its most famous resident is a spotless giraffe named Kipekee. She’s the only known spotless giraffe in the world! 


The zoo is vast in size, so if you have difficulty walking, you may opt to rent one of their many wheelchairs or scooters on-site. I had no problem at all rolling around the zoo in my powered wheelchair. The pathways throughout Brights Zoo were all paved and smooth. Some of the sections were a bit steep, but I was able to enjoy my visit with ease. 

Several times throughout the day, you can pay an extra fee and feed some of the animals. I was happy to see that the giraffe feeding was wheelchair accessible, but unfortunately the time of my visit didn’t coincide with the giraffe feeding times. Be sure to check their schedule before your arrival, so that you can better plan. 

Other animals that I was able to see included monkeys, capybaras, zebras, penguins, and many more. I was tremendously impressed with how many animals were at Brights Zoo and how large their living spaces were. This is one of the better zoos that I’ve visited and I’d highly encourage you to visit during any trip to wheelchair accessible northeast Tennessee! 

Learn about northeast Tennessee’s history at Hands On! Discovery Center

The Hands On! Discovery Center in Gray, Tennessee is one of the most interesting museums I’ve visited in quite a while. Not only is there an expansive indoor museum area, but you can also see an active archeological dig site called the Gray Fossil Site during your visit. 

The dig site is behind the museum and has a large, wheelchair accessible viewing platform, where you can watch the actual digging. Some of the fossils that have been found here can be dated back to 4.5 to 4.9 million years ago. It was cool to imagine the history in this exact spot in northeast Tennessee. 

Inside the Discovery Center, you can watch through a glass window into the paleontology labs, where the workers actually filter through the dirt that they have excavated from this site and make discoveries. Some fossils that have been unearthed are on display, such as a 10-ton mastodon, red panda, tapir, rhinoceros, and more! It is amazing to look the fossils over and daydream about the days that these animals were actually roaming these grounds. 

Paleo tours can be purchased at the main ticketing counter as you enter the Hands On! Discovery Center, but the wheelchair accessibility on the grounds is tricky. The ground is made of rugged dirt and rocky terrain. I opted not to go all the way to the digging site and remained on the viewing platform instead, but the tour was still extremely informative up until the point that the group walked out to the dig site. I’d recommend doing this tour though, even if you will be viewing the dig site from the viewing platform. 

I would plan to visit the Discovery Center for at least two hours, as there is so much to see inside and out. I opted for a visit to the Tesla Experience show and I will say that this is one show that you don’t want to miss. In this show, you will see a musical Tesla coil and actual lightning being transmitted. It is amazing and to be honest, I was probably more mesmerized by it than the many elementary school children that were on a field trip here! 

Throughout the rest of the attraction, there are many immersive and interactive exhibits that will certainly keep you busy exploring and learning. Check the Hands On! Discovery Center website before visiting, as the center is closed on some Mondays throughout the year. If you’ll be visiting during March, June, or July though, it’s open seven days per week. 

Take in the views from Roan Mountain State Park

Just a short drive from Johnson City (less than an hour!), Roan Mountain State Park offered an unforgettable experience. This state park is over 2,000 acres large and sits in the beautiful Appalachian Mountains. 

The road to the top of Roan Mountain State Park was a bit curvy and winding, but my mom handled it like a pro while Taylor Swift provided the soundtrack to our adventure. The serenity was only enhanced by spotting a few deer grazing in the distance during our drive up.

Once we reached the top, we found a scenic pull-off and enjoyed a delicious picnic dinner as the sun dipped below the horizon. Our food was from The Shamrock in Johnson City, and it was really good. The sky exploded in a riot of colors – oranges, pinks, and purples – creating a breathtaking backdrop for our picnic.

Reaching the summit, we arrived at Carver’s Gap parking lot. This isn’t just any parking lot, though – it’s actually a designated stop on the Tennessee Night Sky Trail. On a clear night, after witnessing the sunset’s magic, you can stargaze right here and lose yourself in the vast tapestry of stars and constellations blanketing the black sky. It’s an experience that would leave anyone awestruck and if you get lucky with the weather during your visit, it’d certainly be worth staying for the night sky. 

Eat the best barbecue ever at Phil’s Dream Pit

I usually wouldn’t devote an entire section of a blog to one restaurant, but Phil’s Dream Pit is just that good. Chalked down as one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten, Phil’s Dream Pit is delicious! It’s located just minutes outside of Johnson City in Kingsport, Tennessee. 

Being a locally owned restaurant, you can tell that the owner really takes pride in the quality of the food he serves. I had a barbecue pork sandwich with macaroni salad and hash brown casserole. Although the meat was scrumptious on its own, the sauce was magical. As if I wasn’t full enough, I topped off my meal with some tasty banana pudding for dessert. 

Phil’s Dream Pit has wheelchair accessible parking spaces available and is accessible inside as well. This place should definitely be at the top of your list for a great meal while you’re in town.

Visit the Observation Deck at Tri-Cities Airport

Tri-Cities Airport (TRI) is in Blountville, Tennessee and just a short drive from Johnson City. My mom and I actually drove to northeast Tennessee from Georgia, but we still spent some time at this airport. If you’re wondering why, let me explain. 

Beyond its role in transportation, Tri-Cities Airport boasts a hidden gem for astronomy enthusiasts – the Observation Deck. This is a designated stop along the Tennessee Night Sky Trail and it allows visitors of all abilities to experience the breathtaking expanse of the night sky. You might even get to see a plane taking off!

On a clear evening, after a long day of exploring the surrounding region, stargazers can unwind and marvel at the stars and constellations, free from light pollution. Equipped with a comfortable viewing area, the Observation Deck at Tri-Cities Airport transforms into a mini-observatory, making it a perfectly accessible spot to view the night sky.

Enjoy downtown Johnson City

Nestled in the Appalachian foothills of Northeast Tennessee, Johnson City‘s downtown has a unique blend of history, Southern charm, and a modern edge. For wheelchair users, you can find yourself enjoying Founders Park, captivated by panoramic vistas at the Tannery Knobs Overlook, and enticed by the trendy shops and restaurants lining the downtown streets.

Founders Park is a meticulously landscaped green space in the heart of downtown. It’s spread across 5 acres and has paved paths throughout, so I had no problems rolling in the park. There are fantastic sculptures within Founders Park, so this is a wonderful place to visit if you enjoy art. The park often hosts community events, adding a lively atmosphere to the park as well. 

I loved that Founders Park is right in the middle of downtown. It isn’t often that downtown areas have a green space, and especially one as nice as this park. With a creek, accessible paths, over a dozen sculptures, and more, Founders Park is a must-visit in Johnson City. 

Just a 5 minute drive away from Founders Park, Tannery Knobs Overlook has breathtaking panoramas of downtown Johnson City and beyond. You can drive up to this scenic viewpoint, and be rewarded with great views. This spot is perfect for capturing picture-postcard moments or simply soaking in the beauty of northeast Tennessee.

Johnson City’s downtown isn’t all about parks and scenery though. The streets are brimming with locally-owned shops offering everything from handcrafted souvenirs and trendy apparel to unique home décor and specialty restaurants. Art galleries showcase the works of talented regional artists, while independent bookstores entice readers. 

When hunger strikes, you’ll have a diverse range of restaurants to choose from, offering everything from classic Southern comfort food to international cuisine and trendy gastropubs. One of my favorite eateries was White Duck Taco Shop, where I highly enjoyed deliciously unique tacos, including a Bangkok shrimp taco and a fish taco. This taco shop is connected to Yee-Haw Brewing Company as well, which frequently has live music. 

As a wheelchair user, I loved my time in downtown Johnson City and found it to be accessible. If you’re looking for a charming Southern town with rich history, stunning scenery, and a touch of modern flair, then plan to spend some time in downtown Johnson City during your adventure in northeast Tennessee. 

Where to Stay: Hampton Inn Johnson City

Throughout my trip in wheelchair accessible northeast Tennessee, I enjoyed my stay at the Hampton Inn by Hilton in Johnson City. The location was perfect since it was just a short drive from all of the excitement that I talked about above, and the accessibility of the hotel worked well for my needs. 

My wheelchair accessible room was on the ground floor, which is always what I prefer in the event of an emergency. I like going to sleep without having to worry about an escape plan in case of a fire in the night, so this was an ideal location for the accessible room. 

The room was spacious enough for my wheelchair and I to maneuver around the king sized bed. I was also happy to see that a hoyer lift/hoist could be used, as there was plenty of clearance underneath the bed. The bed was about 25 inches tall and very comfortable. 

In the bathroom, there was a roll-in shower with smooth entry and a shower chair was provided by the hotel. There was also a pull-under sink and grab bars by the toilet. The shower was lacking a hand-held shower wand, but I did discuss this with hotel staff and they said they will get one soon. They were friendly and accommodating throughout my stay. 

This was a great hotel with free breakfast and a small store for quick grab and go snacks. I would definitely recommend the Hampton Inn Johnson City and I look forward to staying here again next time I’m in the area. If you’d like to learn more about this hotel and book a stay of your own, just click here

My time in wheelchair accessible northeast Tennessee was truly exceptional. Over the course of just a few days, I fell in love with this area and realized that it’s one of the best destinations in Tennessee for wheelchair users. If you want to enjoy the great outdoors, see the beautiful night sky like never before, eat delicious food, have fun at various attractions, and more, consider northeast Tennessee for your next vacation! 


*Thank you to the Northeast Tennessee Tourism Association and Visit Johnson City for working with me on this trip and showing me the best of wheelchair accessible northeast Tennessee! While my experiences were complimentary, all opinions expressed are authentic and my own.



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