Accessible beauty: A guide to national parks for travelers with sensory and mobility needs

accessiblego national parks for travelers
By Diane Bair and Pamela Wright Globe Correspondent

Imagine traveling to a national park that you’ve always dreamed of seeing, super-excited … and then discovering that it’s off limits to you. If you’re a traveler with a disability, you’ve experienced this. “All the parks that I’ve visited are not fully accessible,” says Alice Lopez of Austin, Texas, a self-described “proud blind mom” with mobility issues. “I always have a hard time.”

She’s in good company. According to the Centers for Disease Control, approximately 25 percent of Americans have some sort of disability. As our population ages, that number will continue to grow. To address this issue, the National Park Service ( launched a program in 2015 to make the nation’s premier parks and historic sites more accessible for travelers with sensory and mobility needs.

The result: You can admire Yosemite’s Giant Sequoias or gaze at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in a wheelchair, ride fat-tire beach buggies on national seashores, and more. In addition, the NPS offers an access pass to all parks for $10 for people with disabilities. They have also added enhancements for visitors with vision issues and other conditions.

Alas, it’s not a perfect system. “While the national parks are supposed to be accessible, reality on the ground isn’t always the case,” says Miriam Eljas Goldman, cofounder and CEO of, a New York-based travel booking website designed for people with accessibility needs. (Alice Lopez, mentioned above, is one of’s travel forum experts.) Ask about accessible accommodations, tours, walkways, and infrastructure before you go to avoid disappointment.

Check each park’s website under “Plan Your Visit,” and “Accessibility,” to see what’s offered, advises Wiener Russell of Chapel Hill, N.C., on the accessibleGO forum. “My wife is confined to a wheelchair but we have been to many national parks and have used trails and done other activities together.” Communities like accessibleGO, with 120,000 users, are a great resource. “By asking others who might share the same disability concerns, you will be much more likely to get the information you need,” Eljas says.

Even then, you may not get a real wilderness experience, just a taste of the park’s glories. travel forum expert Paul Choquette of Coatesville, Pa., has visited the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Everglades, and other big parks. “There is always at least one ‘accessible’ trail that is indicative of the area and surroundings,” he notes, but for his tastes, they’re too tame: “They tend to be short, flat, and paved, and don’t really get you out into nature.” Just another factor to consider as you make your plans.

Among the services offered at NPS sites — in addition to accessible restrooms, visitor centers, food concessions, and parking — are wheelchair-accessible trails, boardwalks to attractions, beach entrances with wheelchair-and-assistive-device-friendly surfaces, along with accessible picnic areas and campsites, and some loaner devices including beach wheelchairs (typically available on a first-come, first-served basis). Some visitor centers have audio-enhanced exhibits, tactile features for the blind, and captioned and audio-aided videos, plus assistive-listening devices in theaters and exhibits. Braille, large-print, and audio versions of print materials may also be available. These features vary among parks.

Also, look beyond the gear the parks offer if you want to go exploring, or want to make sure equipment is available for you. Some rental outfits deliver scooters and off-road, ATV-type wheelchairs. Choquette offered another tip for manual wheelchair-using explorers: “Get a fifth-wheel attachment. It makes unpacked nature trails easier to navigate.”

A few parks stand out as especially user-friendly for those with accessibility issues. Here’s a look:


Congaree National Park, Hopkins, S.C.

This bio-diverse park claims the largest intact expanse of old growth, bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern United States. Think massive “champion” trees, set within more than 26,000 acres of wilderness, and a 50-mile paddling trail. “It’s a surprising one for accessibility,” Russell says. An elevated walkway in the lowlands forest offers a window into this enchanting environment. The park’s visitor center offers a standard wheelchair, two large wheelchairs, three all-terrain wheelchairs, and Braille brochures upon request; call ahead to inquire about availability. There’s an accessible campsite at Longleaf Campground, with packed dirt and fine gravel, and accessible vault toilets. Paddling on Cedar Creek is a great way to see the park, but expect uneven terrain at canoe launches. The park offers free kayak adaptations for those who BYO boat. These devices allow users with a weak grip, no grip, or only one arm to paddle.

Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona

Brian Kelly, The Points Guy ( called the Grand Canyon “one of the most wheelchair-accessible NPs in the country.” Glenn Ratzel of Livingston, Texas, a forum travel member at agrees. The South Rim is the most accessible area, guests say. Accessible shuttle buses, visitor center, and wheelchair-friendly viewpoints and trails get love from mobility-challenged visitors.

And, there’s this: “Show the ranger at the entrance booth (use the left lane) your handicap placard. They will give you a pass and a daily gate code that will allow you to park right next to the sites,” Ratzel notes. You’ll gain access to drivable areas that aren’t typically open to visitors. Some park outfitters offer accessible mule rides, and some rafting companies offer wheelchair access to rafts.

Yellowstone National Park in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming

Within its 2.2 million acres, Yellowstone is a wonderland of dramatic canyons, dense forests, alpine rivers, hot springs, and gushing geysers. Residents include bears, wolves, bison, elk, and antelope, among hundreds of species. Yellowstone is surprisingly accessible; an extended system of boardwalks provides access to popular attractions such as the Old Faithful geyser.

Yellowstone offers multiple accessible paths, complimentary use of wheelchairs, and accessible fishing on the Madison River at the Mount Haynes Overlook. The park’s website spells out exactly what to expect, accessibility-wise, at all of its major beauty spots (we checked — it’s up-to-date). “Yellowstone is my first choice due to its size and accessibility. Every activity I encountered there was accommodating for wheelchair, mobility vision and hearing challenges,” writes Aileen Joy Walsh of Las Vegas in a recent post on This park-lover also recommends the boat tour at Everglades National Park, and the numerous accessibility features of Sequoia National Park.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Empire, Mich.

Picture 450-foot-tall sandy bluffs rising alongside 65 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, with a backdrop of forest. No wonder Sleeping Bear Dunes is considered one of the most beautiful parks in America. Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, a 7.4-mile loop, offers stellar views (at 12 overlooks) of Lake Michigan, the Glen Lakes, and the dunes.

Mobility aids are available for guests’ use, including sand wheelchairs and a track chair, an all-terrain, electric powered chair suitable for the Bay View Trail in Port Oneida, and the Railroad Grade Trail in Platte River Campground. To make reservations, visit the Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes website. Other features include an accessible campsite at D.H. Day Campground, and accessible canoe and kayak transfers and launching on Loon Lake. Accessible parking and toilets are available at four locations within the park; a hard-surfaced, wheelchair-adapted picnic area is also available.

Deep, loose sand makes traversing the beach a difficult proposition, though. The park offers a hard-surfaced beach deck with benches at the Cannery Beach in Glen Haven. To assist guests who have experienced some degree of hearing loss, the park has installed a permanent Assistive Listening Device at the visitor center. The park’s 25-minute film is close-captioned. Portable wireless FM Assistive Listening Devices are available for use with interpretive programs in the visitor center and ranger-led trail walks.

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