Access Upgrades Abound in America’s National Parks

In celebration of the 100th birthday of the National Park Service, I’d like to share some of my favorite wheelchair-accessible upgrades to our national treasures.

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite Falls

Yosemite Falls

Even though the trail to Lower Yosemite Falls was originally rated as “accessible with assistance”, in reality a steep slippery section prevented most wheelchair-users and slow walkers from completing the hike. All that changed on April 18, 2005, when a new accessible trail was unveiled. The result of the 10-year $13.5 million Lower Yosemite Falls restoration project, the 3/4-mile paved level trail leads from the shuttle bus stop to the base of Lower Yosemite Falls. The gentle grade allows for wheelchair access; and numerous benches along the trail provide places to rest for slow walkers. Additionally, there’s good access in the viewing area at the base of the falls, where wheelchair-users can roll out to the edge, hear the roar of the water and even feel the mist of the falls.

Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon Rim Trail, which is the most accessible trail in the park, has been undergoing sectional access upgrades over the span of many years. The newest accessible section is the 1.3-mile Trail of Time, which runs from the Yavapai Geology Museum to Verkamp’s Visitor Center. The paved level trail winds along the rim of the canyon and helps visitors understand the magnitude of geologic time. The geologic timeline is marked by brass medallions embedded in the pavement; and interpretive exhibits and displays along the way encourage visitors to connect the visible rocks in the canyon to the geologic timeline. Wheelchair-height viewing scopes are available, and accessible pictograms clearly point out the wheelchair-accessible route.

Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon Shared Use Path

Bryce Canyon Shared Use Path

After many years of planning and construction, the Bryce Canyon Shared Use Path was completed near the end of the 2015 season. Although the primary purpose of this trail is to provide a safer route for cyclists, walkers and joggers, it’s also an excellent option for wheelchair-users and slow walkers. The trail begins outside of the park at the shuttle staging area at Ruby’s in Bryce Canyon City, and travels 2.4 miles to the park entrance, then continues another 2.6 miles to Inspiration Point. And the good news is, the entire five-mile length is paved, level and wheelchair-accessible. It also connects with the shuttle system at the visitor center, general store, lodge, Sunset Point, Sunset Campground and Inspiration Point, so you can do as much of the trail as you like, then hop on the shuttle to return to your car.

Rocky Mountain National Park

Lily Lake

Lily Lake

The Rocky Mountain Conservancy has raised funds for accessible trail improvements in Rocky Mountain National Park since 1985. At the top of their list of completed projects is the accessible Lily Lake Trail. The level ¾-mile trail, which is covered in decomposed granite, circles the lake and passes through the adjacent wetlands. There’s also an accessible vault toilet, picnic tables and a fishing pier there. The area is especially scenic in late spring and early summer, when you’ll find it filled with wildflowers. The conservancy is also credited with raising funds to repair the accessible mile-long Coyote Valley Trail. Due to harsh winters and an abundance of visitors the trail began to show the stains of time, but thanks to some repairs in 2014 it’s now back in pristine condition. The hard-packed dirt trail, which is covered in crushed gravel, winds along the river and offers a great place to see elk and moose in the early morning or evening.

Yellowstone National Park

Lake Yellowstone Hotel

Lake Yellowstone Hotel

After a two-year renovation project and a bill in excess of $28.5 million, a renovated Lake Yellowstone Hotel was unveiled in 2014. Built in 1889, this colonial revival property is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a member of Historic Hotels of America. And although the renovation wasn’t an easy task, the contractors managed to preserve the historic nature of the property, and add modern access features. Access upgrades include the installation of a wheelchair-accessible elevator, as well as the addition three accessible rooms — two with a tub/shower combination and one with a roll-in shower. Access to the public areas is equally good, with plenty of room to wheel around the magnificent first-floor sun room and the lobby bar. And for a real treat enjoy a meal at the Lake Hotel Dining Room, which features a magnificent view of Lake Yellowstone.

Everglades National Park

Anhinga Trail

Anhinga Trail

Last but not least, don’t miss the very accessible Anhinga Trail in Everglades National Park. This half-mile boardwalk, which was constructed after Hurricane Andrew, winds through sawgrass pines and Taylor Slough and is home to a wealth of bird life. You’ll see blue herons, white ibis and snowy egrets, along with the “namesake” anhinga there. The anhinga (also called water turkeys) can be seen in abundance drying their colorful wings in the sun, or perched peacefully in trees along the trail. The Anhinga Trail is also an excellent place to get a close look at alligators — sometimes closer that you would like — as they have been known to frequent the approach to the boardwalk.