As I’ve been researching wheelchair-friendly destinations in the US, it’s been interesting to see which ones earn a spot on my list. As I discussed in previous posts, plenty of big cities (such as Chicago, Boston, Washington DC, and Las Vegas) qualify, with their well-developed transportation systems and many cultural attractions. I’ve been pleasantly surprised, however, to discover a number of wheelchair-friendly national parks, too! Most people think of those places as suitable only for strenuous hiking and camping, but there are quite a number of wheelchair-friendly national parks out there! And that list isn’t restricted only to urban parks: many of even the wildest parks offer plenty of not-so-strenuous activities that are great options for anyone who wants to travel with aging parents to less-urban settings.
In recent years, the National Park Service has been working harder than ever to make it easier for people of all ages and mobility levels to visit beautiful, meaningful spaces. Start at the National Park Service website, where you can search its database by park name, location, activity, or topic. Once you’ve found the web page for a park that interests you, select “Plan Your Visit” to see a list of things to do there.
The National Park Service has a strong commitment to accessibility. That said, parks vary in what accessibility they offer. To find details on a park’s accessibility options, you have to visit that park’s website and look under “Plan Your Visit. “ If you aren’t already targeting a particular park and want to narrow down your search by seeing what parks offer the accessibility you need, your best bet is to type “accessibility” in the search box at the top of the National Park Service home page to get a list of links that lead directly to different parks’ pages on accessibility.
To give you an idea of what accessibility options are available in some national parks, I’ve done some research on two amazing places (one on the East Coast and one on the West Coast) that both offer great accommodations for people with varying mobility levels.
ACADIA NATIONAL PARK, MAINE
Each year, over two million visitors flock to Acadia to experience its vast forests, crisp blue waters, and rocky mountaintops. Fortunately, its rugged beauty is accessible to everyone, and the park’s access guide contains a wealth of information to help you plan a trip there.
Acadia National Park shares Mount Desert Island with several towns, the largest of which is Bar Harbor. The Island Explorer shuttle system connects the park with towns and other destinations (including campgrounds) on the island. All of the system’s vehicles are wheelchair accessible and free to ride! The shuttles run seasonally, from late June until Columbus Day. Further details (including schedules) can be found on the Island Explorer website.
Things to Do
Both the park’s access guide and the Island Explorer website offer plenty of suggestions for things to do in and around Acadia National Park. Here are just a few of the places that are wheelchair accessible.
- At Acadia National Park’s five information centers, you can learn about the park and talk with a ranger about activity possibilities.
- While you’re in Acadia National Park, don’t miss a chance to participate in an experience that’s been a park tradition since the 1890s: enjoying tea and freshly baked popovers on the shores of Jordan Pond.
- With locations in both Bar Harbor and Sieur de Monts Spring, the Abbe Museum is dedicated to preserving the history of Maine’s indigenous peoples in exhibits that include more than 50,000 objects spanning 10,000 years.
- At the heart of the collections at the Wendell Gilley Museum in Southwest Harbor are over 100 wooden birds carved by the museum’s namesake over a half century. Celebrating art, education, and the natural world, the museum also offers carving classes.
- The Echo Lake Beach in Acadia National Park has wheelchair access all the way to the water.
- From late May to late September, the Cranberry Cove Ferry offers great views of Acadia National Park on its route between Southwest Harbor and the Cranberry Isles (a group of small inhabited islands located 30 miles south of Acadia National Park). The ferry is wheelchair accessible, but call ahead for individual needs.
I’m hoping to take mom to Acadia National Park this summer.
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, CALIFORNIA
Each year, about four million people visit Yosemite National Park to admire its breathtaking waterfalls, towering granite formations, and majestic sequoias. Encompassing 1,169 miles (about the size of Rhode Island), Yosemite is, in a word, magnificent.
The National Park Service has done some serious heavy lifting to make the Yosemite’s natural beauty accessible to most visitors. Take a look at the park’s access guide for more details on accessibility options in the park.
Free shuttle buses provide access to many of the park’s most popular spots, including Yosemite Valley, Wawona, the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias, and Tuolumne Meadows. A number of fee-based buses can take you to other parts of the park. (Be sure to check the park’s website for details about times and locations.)
You can reserve manual wheelchairs and electric scooters at the bicycle rental stand at Yosemite Lodge and Curry Village (209-372-8319).
Things to Do
Yosemite has both great scenery and great history. There’s something for everyone in this park. On the park’s website and in the access guide, you’ll find plenty of ideas for wheelchair-friendly activities. Here are a few ideas to get you started.
- Visit the Yosemite Museum, which highlights the culture of Yosemite’s native Miwok and Paiute people and hosts changing art exhibits. It also features a cross-section of a giant sequoia tree that visitors can touch!
- Take in the sights from an open-air tram on one of the many tours offered by DNC Parks and Resorts.
- The stables in Yosemite Valley, Wawona, and Tuolumne Meadows all offer mule and horseback rides and cater to specific needs. Contact DNC Parks and Resorts directly for more information.
- The Ansel Adams Gallery features work by both Ansel Adams (whose images of Yosemite and many other scenic places helped introduce the U.S. national parks to people throughout the world) and other photographers.
- If you want to sleep in the great outdoors at Yosemite, you’re in luck: 3 of the park’s 13 campgrounds have wheelchair-accessible sites. Most of the park’s campgrounds use a reservation system (and spots fill up fast!), so you’ll want to make arrangements well in advance (877-444-6777 or recreation.gov).
- If roughing it isn’t your style (it’s certainly not my mom’s!) and you prefer more comfortable lodging, consider a stay in one of the park’s historic lodges and hotels. Their accessibility options vary, so contact the vendor to find out what suits your needs. And don’t put this off to the last minute: like the campgrounds, the hotels are booked up quickly, and you may have to plan a year in advance to get a room.
If you’ve ever wanted to visit a national park with your parent but worried that his or her mobility issues would make such a trip difficult (if not impossible), I hope that this post has put your mind at ease. Although not every park is wheelchair accessible, a great number of them are—and with parks located throughout the country and covering almost every topic and activity you can imagine, you’re bound to find one that works for you and your parent!
Have you visited a national park with someone who uses a wheelchair? Do you have any tips for other readers? Please share them in the comments!