Summer is a time for road trips and exploring the natural wonders of the United States — including 63 magnificent national parks.
Many popular outdoor spaces and activities, however, are inaccessible or poorly designed for visitors that use wheelchairs or have other disabilities. Several National Parks have implemented design choices that allow visitors of all abilities to experience the beauty of the parks, including paved paths, scenic drives with overlooks, interpretive exhibits or auditory aids. The Interagency Access Pass also provides free, lifetime admission to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites in the U.S. for those with permanent disabilities, including all of the National Parks. Here are few parks with the greatest accessibility (but, before hitting the road, note that several National Parks are requiring visitors to obtain advance permits this summer in order to visit).
Along the Atlantic coastline of Maine lies this iconic National Park of the Northeast. While Acadia’s rocky headlands might not look accessible at first glance, the park is among the most wheelchair-friendly in the country.
In addition to a fleet of accessible shuttles that run from the nearby village centers to the park, the park’s Nature Center displays exhibits about the natural and cultural history of the area at wheelchair height. In the Wild Gardens of Acadia, wheelchair users can view native plants along a short, packed-gravel path lined with benches. Several trails are also usable by wheelchair; Jesup Path is made of a boardwalk that goes through a white birch forest, and Echo Lake features an accessible beach with wheelchair-accessible parking, bathrooms and a path right down to the water. If hiking isn’t your style, take a carriage ride along the park’s 45 miles of paved carriage roads in a wheelchair-accessible carriage from Wildwood Stables.
On the surface, the Chihuahuan Desert is home to cacti and desert fauna, but even more wonders lie beneath. This National Park is home to 119 caves carved in the limestone of the Guadalupe Mountains of New Mexico.
A wheelchair-accessible elevator transports visitors 750 feet underground to the “Big Room” cave chamber, from which there are more than a mile of paved trails to roll through and view limestone formations. The trail might be wet from the dripping water in the caves, and some sections are rather steep and narrow, so it’s recommended that you visit with someone who can offer assistance during a self-guided tour. Visitors can also stop by the Bat Flight Amphitheater at sunset to view the swarming colony of bats each night. From late May through October, a ranger gives a talk in the evening (the time varies depending on the time of sunset), and there is a reserved area for visitors who use wheelchairs to watch.
To see even more of the park, take your car down Walnut Canyon Desert Drive for a slow, one-hour, 10-mile drive through the desert to view wildlife and pull off at several (unpaved) viewpoints along the way.
This iconic Arizona National Park encompasses 278 miles of the Colorado River and its adjacent uplands, and is a spectacular sight from both above and within. According to a study by Aging in Place, Grand Canyon National Park has 24 wheelchair-friendly trails, which accounts for 10.5% of all of the park’s trails.
Visit the South Rim, which has accessible shuttle buses, bus tours, a visitor center, and viewpoints, several of which are barrier-free so the canyon views can be enjoyed from wheelchair height. Other accessible viewpoints include Mohave Point along Hermit Road, Grandview Point along Desert View Drive, the Arizona Room on the South Rim, and the view room at Thunderbird Lodge. Visitors can request a scenic drive accessibility permit at the entrance gate and visitor centers, which allows access to some drivable areas that are usually closed to visitors.
For hikers, the 1.3-mile fully paved Trail of Time runs between the Verkamp Visitor Center and the Yavapai Geology Museum, with beautiful views and information along the trail. Companies like Arizona Raft Adventures provide other accessible experiences for visitors, including tours on boats with wheelchair ramps.
Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park is home to mountains, glaciers, faults, forests, rivers, lakes, wetlands and more, rising from 6,320 feet along the valley floor to nearly 14,000 feet in the Teton Range. The park’s recent Self Evaluation Transition Plan focuses on upgrading 17 areas of the park in order to make them accessible to all visitors.
Fifteen miles of paved pathways run throughout the park, and several have appropriate grades for wheelchair use, such as Colter Bay headwall, Jackson Lake Dam overview and Menors Ferry Historic District. Around the 1,200-acre Jenny Lake, there is even a wheelchair-accessible path that allows visitors to roll into the water. Several campgrounds — including Gros Ventre, Jenny Lake and Colter Bay — have partially accessible restrooms, as well as eight others along Grassy Lake Road. Accessible camping and RV sites are also available at Headwater Lodge & Cabins and Flagg Ranch.
In Teton Village nearby, Teton Adaptive Sports leads adaptive climbing trips and other experiences for those with accessibility needs.
Great Sand Dunes
While it’s one of the lesser visited national parks, Great Sand Dunes features spectacular natural sand dunes against a backdrop of snow capped mountains in Colorado. Rolling waves of slippery sand might not look accessible for all visitors, but the park offers special sand wheelchairs in both child and adult sizes. The chairs have inflatable wheels to traverse the landscape, and can be reserved in advance. The gap between the paved Dunes Parking Area and visitor center has an accessible mat, too. Campers who use wheelchairs can enjoy three accessible campsites at Piñon Flats Campground (one can be reserved, the other two are first come first serve), which have a hard surface and accessible bathrooms. The park even has a backcountry campsite at Sawmill Canyon that’s wheelchair-accessible from the parking area. But even if you don’t trek through the dunes, evening programs in the amphitheaters are the perfect place for visitors to view the iconic dark, clear skies over the park.
Located just 75 miles from Washington, DC, Shenandoah National Park is a haven of woods, waterfalls and vistas across more than 200,000 acres of land. The iconic 105-mile Skyline Drive — the park’s only public road — can be driven in 2 hours and features 69 overlooks, about a quarter of which have wheelchair-accessible parking spots.
To get deeper into the park, try Limberlost Trail — a 1.3 mile loop made of crushed greenstone that’s smooth and flat — or see Dark Hollow Falls along Rose River Trail, which is accessible to motorized wheelchairs, but is made of dirt and gravel, so scooters and manual wheelchairs will have more difficulty. Lewis Mountain, Skyland Resort and Big Meadows Lodge all have accessible lodging, and all picnic grounds and campgrounds within the park have accessible sites.
For the deaf and hard-of-hearing, assistance listening devices are available for loan to learn about exhibits and follow along with films at the park, or try a virtual tour of the park.
Stretching across swaths of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, visitors flock to Yellowstone to marvel at its hydrothermal and geologic features. The park contains about half of the world’s active geysers, several of which which are accessible by wheelchair.
16 accessible trails traverse the park — which is a relatively small percentage of the total number of trails, given the sheer size of the 2.2 million-acre park — and the famous Old Faithful Geyser is accessible via a boardwalk system. The Mount Haynes Overlook on the Madison River has an accessible fishing area, too. From your car, view natural features along the Virginia Cascade grand loop and Firehold Lake drive.
If you’re planning an overnight, note that all campgrounds have a minimum of one wheelchair-accessible site, and both Goose Lake Backcountry Campsite and Ice Lake Backcountry Campsite can accommodate wheelchairs in the backcountry.
The park’s website has extensive information about accessibility in specific areas of the park for wheelchair users, including how to rent both manual and beach wheelchairs.
In the High Sierra, Yosemite National Park is known for its waterfalls, but there is so much to see for visitors of all abilities in this diverse landscape.
The park provides an in-depth accessibility guide on their website to plan your visit, including how to access various points of interest. The famous Yosemite Falls, for one, rises to 2,425 feet and has a paved trail in the lower section, along which are benches and exhibits. Glacier Point offers views of Yosemite Valley along a 300-yard paved trail, leading to a vista and a model of geological gestures. Tuolumne Grove also has a paved path through the trees (including 25 giant sequoias), although there is a 7.5 grade section that’s slightly steep. While not currently visitable, a major project is underway to make Bridalveil Falls more wheelchair-accessible with a path and viewing area.
Since the 1970s, Yosemite has maintained a Deaf Services program to assist deaf and hard-of-hearing visitors. The Deaf Services Coordinator can help you plan your visit beforehand, and then attend programs with you as an ASL interpreter. Visitors are also provided with public videophones and other items, like shake-awake alarm cloths and light-flasher smoke alarms inside the park lodge.