Public land doesn’t feel very public when you’ve been marginalized
We’re dedicating our May features to the outdoors and adventure. In 2020, we saw more people get outside, eager for a breath of fresh air after challenging spring, taking up new activities and blazing new trails. Now, in 2021, read our features to learn more about 15 outdoor skills you should master, the best state parks across the country, a new trend of hotels opening near formerly remote national parks, and one person’s quest to make outdoor experiences accessible for all.
America’s national parks are places of natural wonder, cultural significance, and world-renowned outdoor recreation. The history of the parks system is definitely complicated, and I can’t write about the parks without first acknowledging the history of violence and exclusion towards the Indigenous peoples of this land. Unfortunately, that history of exclusion continues today as many First Nations continue to fight for their rights to the land, people of color feel unsafe in the parks, and people with disabilities don’t have the same access as non-disabled people.
Public land doesn’t feel very public when you’ve been marginalized. Thanks to the work of many advocates and organizations that is starting to change. Everyone deserves access to nature and the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of being outdoors, including disabled people.
There are 423 national park sites in the national park system, 63 of which have "National Park" in their name. As federally-managed lands, the parks must meet Architectural Barriers Act (ABA) and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accessibility guidelines. However, the age of many of the sites predates these laws. The National Park Service created an Accessibility Task Force in 2012 to develop a strategic plan on improving accessibility from 2015 to 2020. In the meantime, there are still plenty of ways that you can enjoy visiting the national parks if you have a disability.
One of the things that I love the most about the parks is the variety of available options: You can have an incredible experience without even leaving your car, rent adaptive equipment or use a pack animal, or sign up for a guided program that suits your needs.
Planning and Prepping for Your National Park Trip
There is a trip for you with a little research and planning. Here's how to get started.
Do Your Research on the National Park Service Website
Get inspiration from the National Park Service website's "Trip Ideas" page, then stop by the "Plan Your Visit" section for more ideas. The website also includes a map of all the parks with accessible features, along with pages about the kind of information they can provide for people who have physical/mobility limitations, are blind or have low vision, are deaf or have hearing loss, or have an intellectual disability. There is also a section explaining the types of mobility devices that are allowed in national parks (any device that is designed for use by a disabled person is allowed, including power-driven devices), and another sharing the rules regarding service animals (they’re allowed everywhere their handler can go).
Get an Access Pass
Formally called the America the Beautiful Interagency Access Pass, the Access Pass is available for all U.S. citizens or permanent residents who have any permanent disability—you don’t have to be 100 percent disabled to qualify. The pass provides lifetime free entrance to more than 2,000 Federal recreation sites, including the national parks! You can also receive a discount on some additional amenities, such as camping and guided tours.
You can apply for the pass online or by mail with a $10 processing fee or get it for free at a Federal recreation site that issues the passes. To apply, you just need to provide a valid form of identification and documentation that proves you have a permanent disability. Acceptable documentation includes—but isn’t limited to—a statement from your doctor, a document from a Federal agency (e.g., the Veteran’s Administration or Social Security Administration), or a document from a State agency such as vocational rehabilitation. In my experience, staff at the Federal recreation sites are pretty flexible about the types of documentation that they accept, so please don’t let concerns about having the right documents stop you from applying! I received mine in just a couple of minutes from an entrance booth at a national park.
Rent or Buy Adaptive Gear
Most parks provide standard wheelchair rentals that can be used inside buildings, but some even offer adaptive equipment to be used outdoors! For example, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan offers free Track Chair rentals, while Redwood National and State Parks have beach wheelchairs available at select locations.
If you are an ambulatory disabled hiker, I highly recommend trying out hiking poles. Learning how to properly use poles made a huge difference in my ability to hike; I can hike longer and on trails with more elevation changes, with less pain and fatigue when I use them. Wearing good hiking shoes, appropriate clothing, and using additional supports and braces helps a lot.
Read Blogs and Websites for Travelers With Disabilities
There are many blogs and websites for disabled travelers, but it can take some time and research to find good information. I often search for recent hashtags on social media to find photos and videos and get an idea of trail conditions. Joining online hiking groups—especially if they are for disabled people—is another way to find information and connect with people who understand your experience.
Questions to Ask Before You Go
For accessibility information on a specific park, go to that park’s website and click on "accessibility" under the "Plan Your Visit" menu. Unfortunately, the information that each park provides is not consistent across the system, and some provide more information than others. Don’t be afraid to call the park for more. If the first person you talk to doesn’t have enough information, ask to speak with the accessibility coordinator, trails manager, or facilities manager.
I honestly didn’t know what kind of information I needed when I started visiting the National Parks. Outdoor recreation was new to me, and I didn’t know what to expect or look for. If you’re like me, that’s ok! You can’t know what you don’t know. Here are a few things you may want to ask about:
Parking and Transportation Options
How many disabled parking spots are available? Are they van-accessible? How far are they from the trails or buildings you want to visit? Where are the curb cuts? If the park uses shuttles, are they on a reservation system, are they accessible, and is there a way to secure a spot for mobility devices?
Buildings and Services
Where are the restrooms, what type of toilets (flush, pit, vault), and how many accessible stalls? Are the buildings climate controlled? Are there places to sit inside away from crowds? Are exhibits and interpretive signs accessible, available in braille and audio description, and plain language? How far away are medical services? Are food and water available in the park? Is there cell service?
Are the wheelchair-accessible trails actually ADA-accessible? What is the length, grade, elevation change, and surface on the trails? Are there any steep drop-offs, how exposed to the sun are you, and are benches available? Are there maps, signs, and brochures with detailed trail information? Are park staff or volunteers available to answer questions or show you the trails most suitable for your needs?
My Favorite National Parks As a Person With a Disability
I’ve had the privilege of visiting a few dozen parks, preserves, monuments, historic sites, and parkways. Here are four of my favorites:
Redwood National and State Parks
Located in northwestern California on the traditional lands of the Yurok and Tolowa, Redwood National Park has made a lot of effort towards improving accessibility. There are audio-described and braille or tactile exhibits, several accessible trails and campsites, and Trail Access Information signs at many trailheads that provide statistics such as length and grade.
Olympic National Park
Olympic is in the northwestern peninsula of Washington State and encompasses traditional lands of the S’Klallam, Quileute, Quinault, and many others. This park doesn’t have many accessible features, but what they do provide is thorough information. You can find detailed trail descriptions on their accessibility page. I highly recommend a drive up to Hurricane Ridge for incredible views.
Yosemite National Park
The land of the Southern Sierra Miwok, or Ahwahneechee people, Yosemite is one of the most heavily visited parks in the system, and some of the crowd mitigation efforts have created more barriers for disabled people; reservations are now required to enter the park. I was only able to go for a scenic drive and stop for a picnic when I visited the park, which was stunning. The park does provide a lengthy accessibility guide on the website. They also host a Deaf Services Program.
Great Smoky Mountain National Park
The traditional home of the Cherokee, the Smokies is the first national park I visited and will always hold a special place in my heart for that reason. Spanning 500,000 acres in western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee, the park has plenty of options, and there are several auto touring routes that are designed to get you up close to nature without leaving the car. However, they do not provide good accessibility information on their website, and when I visited, it was difficult to find knowledgeable people to answer my questions. I also recommend a visit to the Blue Ridge Parkway, which has incredible viewpoints and vistas.
Visiting a national park when you are disabled definitely requires a little more effort and planning, which shouldn’t be the case. These are some of the most special natural, cultural, and historical sites in the country, and you deserve access to them as much as anyone else. But the effort is worth it. Some of the best memories I have are of my time in national parks; they have inspired me, comforted me, and excited me for years. I hope they do the same for you.