National parks have been called “America’s Best Idea,” and in truth, the idea that we as a country have set aside pristine lands, fascinating landmarks, and amazing natural formations for anyone to visit and discover is pretty amazing.
However, national parks aren’t necessarily equally accessible to everyone. A variety of challenges can prevent many people from being able to visit national parks. Today, we’re going to look at parks that are accessible to people who have greater physical challenges, and at the National Parks Service’s plans to continue making parks more accessible.
National parks can be a challenge for many people. The National Park Service says an estimated 1 in 5 Americans has a disability, and they want to make parks more inclusive for those people. Thus, in 2012 the National Park Service Accessibility Task Force was formed to address many challenges faced by park visitors.
What Makes a National Park “Accessible”
The three main challenges many visitors with special needs say they face are accessible restrooms, accessible parking, and customer service for those with service animals. The Accessibility Task Force is looking at those elements, as well as several others.
Along with ensuring that people with wheelchairs or walkers can access trails, beaches, campgrounds, and more, the task force is considering the fact that many parks don’t have printed materials like brochures available in formats for the visually impaired. Many visitor center exhibits are enclosed in cases, and maps aren’t available in a tactile form. Often, audio elements of ranger programs and exhibits aren’t available for those with hearing loss.
The task force is also working to train staff and volunteers to work with visitors and to offer appropriate services rather than denying access to programs or areas – especially in the case of those with service animals.
The NPS had many goals they wanted to accomplish by 2020 regarding accessibility at parks, but the process of upgrading facilities and training staff will be an ongoing one. If you want to see more specifics, you can read their plan here.
Although there is much to do to make parks more accessible, there are some national parks with handicap accessible trails and other features. Here are a few of the handicap accessible national parks.
Yellowstone National Park has made improvements to accessibility in many areas. A boardwalk system allows anyone walking or using a wheelchair to view Old Faithful and other park geysers, and there are plans to build more. The visitor center has been renovated and many campgrounds and picnic areas have accessible picnic tables and fire rings. There are also wheelchair-accessible spots to fish along the Madison River.
The park is continually adding and updating, so be sure to check the park guide as you plan your visit.
Grand Canyon National Park features park shuttle busses, all of which are wheelchair accessible although it’s important to note that many motorized scooters won’t fit. The park has several lookouts over the canyon that are wheelchair accessible, and visitors can obtain a scenic drive accessibility permit that allows them access to some areas that are closed to other visitors. Mule rides into the canyon can often accommodate those with special accessibility needs, and river rafting companies have wheelchair-accessible ramps so visitors can board.
Check ahead of time with vendors about any accommodations you need for things like mule rides and river rafting trips, and be sure to check the park guide for other handicap-accessible features.
Acadia has a wheelchair-friendly shuttle connecting the park to nearby villages and the park has some accessible trails as well. A boardwalk trail through the park’s white birch forest and the provides beautiful scenery, and the Thunder Hole trail is another great option. Wildwood Stables also has accessible horse-drawn carriages that allow visitors to tour the park in a unique way.
Glacier National Park tops many people’s bucket lists, with its towering mountains and pristine lakes. An accessible shuttle travels Going-to-the-Sun Road and stops at several overlooks for sweeping vistas and sparkling waterfalls. Paved paths at Glacier Overlook, McDonald Falls, and other spots allow visitors to explore more, and Running Eagle Falls and Swiftcurrent Nature Trails are also accessible. The park also has many handicap-accessible campgrounds and lodges for guests.
Yosemite has so many different attractions that it’s certain to satisfy just about any national park traveler. Giant domes rise from the valley floor, a rushing river winds its way through the park, wildflowers sprinkle meadows, and breathtaking waterfalls plummet down granite rock faces. The park has many accessible areas as well. Visitors can request a temporary accessible parking placard at the entrance to the park, and historic lodges like the Ahwahnee Hotel and Yosemite Valley Lodge have fully accessible facilities including wider doors. Guests can rent manual and electric scooters at Yosemite Lodge or in Curry Village and Yosemite’s outdoor amphitheater has accessible seating.
Be sure to check the park’s guide to see all of the other accommodations Yosemite has to offer travelers.
Colorado has several innovative programs at various parks throughout the state. At Great Sand Dunes National Park, guests can rent a sand wheelchair to climb the park’s famous dunes for a view of the unique landscape. You can also check out the park’s web page on accessibility for more information and a phone number to call for any special requests.
If you’re going to be in other parts of Colorado, Staunton State Park has a track-chair program. Guests can ride the all-terrain track-chair on three trails in the park and visit grassy meadows, see spectacular views of Pikes Peak and Mount Rosalie, and explore geological and water features while looking for wildlife.
Rocky Mountain National Park is another handicap-accessible national park. Wheelchairs are welcomed on every trail in the park, and Braille and large-print brochures are available at the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center. Be sure to check out the trove of information on the park’s website under “Accessibility” to help you plan your visit.
If you’re planning a trip to a national park and want to know what kinds of services the park offers, check the National Park Service website for your chosen destination. Under “Plan Your Visit,” many parks have a section labeled “Accessibility” that can provide you with information for your visit. If you have a permanent disability, you can also apply for a Lifetime Access Pass to national parks. The pass is free, although there is a $10 processing fee.
Finally, if you’re traveling to these parks, consider renting an accessible RV or motorhome for your trip. RVshare can help you find the perfect rental to fit your needs, and you can narrow your search to find the best fit for you.