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Accessibility in the National Park System


The National Mall in Washington, D.C., is one of the more accessible areas of the National Park System, but efforts are being made across the system to make parks more accessible.

The other day I read a story about efforts at Cape Lookout National Seashore to install an ADA accessible ramp. And that got me to wondering about how accessible the National Park System is.

Part of the problem at Cape Lookout is that park managers directed that rocks be hauled in and lined along some sections of shore to prevent erosion. Those rocks, of course, make it hard for elderly and handicapped visitors to make their way down to the shores for fishing, or strolling, or simply enjoying the views. So now there are talks under way to build a ramp so those folks can reach the shore without clambering over and around the rocks.

But what's going on elsewhere in the National Park System to accommodate those who use wheelchairs, canes, or crutches to get around? I was surprised to find out just how much has been done. True, not all 17,000 miles of trails in the parks are ADA accessible. But there have been strides to improve access.

Attached below is a 40-page document (or you can visit this site for the same information) that points out the accessible trails across the park system. The document also explains how to obtain a free "Access Pass" to the parks for permanently disabled individuals. This pass not only gains the holder entrance to national parks, but also provides some discounts on "amenity fees" charged in parks, such as for camping or interpretive programs.

Now, in many cases the document simply refers you to an individual park's web site for information on accessible trails in that particular park. But it does provide some detailed information. For instance:

Denali National Park and Preserve

All of Denali’s ADA trails have a compacted gravel surface, 3 to 10 feet wide. No matter how close to the road visitors are, they may encounter wildlife on any trail, from songbirds and ground squirrels to bear and moose. Be alert and leave no trace.

The Denali Bike Trail serves as the main pedestrian artery connecting the park entrance with the Denali Visitor Center. It parallels the Park Road for 1.6 miles, providing access to the Riley Creek Campground and Mercantile, the Wilderness Access Center, the Bus & Train Depots, and the Visitor Center Campus. 5%
maximum grade, 10 feet wide.

The Jonesville Trail is a 0.4-mile, forested shortcut between the Riley Creek Mercantile and the paved Canyon bike trail west of the Parks Highway. 8% maximum grade, 3 feet wide.

A 1.5-mile, scenic hike through diverse taiga forest, the McKinley Station Trail connects the Riley Creek Campground with the visitor center. The trail affords great views of cultural sites, Hines Creek, the railroad trestle, and the Alaska Range. 8-10% maximum grade, 6 feet wide.

Originating from behind the Denali Visitor Center, the 0.2-mile Spruce Forest Trail is a great option for a short, flat jaunt through taiga forest. Visitors can follow the McKinley Station Trail 0.2 mile from the visitor center to reach the 0.2-mile Morino Loop Trail, which includes interpretive historical sites. 2-3% maximum grade, 6 feet wide.

The Taiga Trail from the visitor center to the Healy Overlook Junction is 0.5 mile long and passes through mixed taiga forest with views of the surrounding mountains. 8% maximum grade, 3 feet wide.


Grand Canyon National Park

The Rim Trail extends from the village area to Hermits Rest. Users can begin from any viewpoint in the village or along Hermit Road. Rim trails offer excellent walking and quiet views of the inner canyon for visitors who desire an easy hike. By using the shuttle buses, visitors can customize their hikes to meet their needs. Part of the trail is paved and accessible.


Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve
The Bottomland Nature Trail is wheelchair accessible. It is in a prairie restoration area with interpretive waysides, an information kiosk, benches, and a comfort station. It is on the southern edge of the preserve, not far from the historic ranch headquarters on K-177. The trail includes two loops. One is .75 mile, and the second is .5 mile. Visitors may see deer, wild turkey, insects, and many other animals common to the preserve. All areas, including the picnic area, are wheelchair accessible.


Shenandoah National Park
The Limberlost Trail is an accessible trail, a gently sloping, 1.3-mile loop with a 5 foot-wide greenstone surface. The trail circles through forest and mountain laurel and includes a 65-foot bridge and a 150-foot boardwalk.

Now, those are just some of the examples. And, true enough, the offerings are limited. But, as the matter at Cape Lookout indicates, park officials are aware of the needs for accessible trails and, money-allowing, are willing to create them.


I am really happy with just how accessible the parks are. My dad is elderly, with double knee replacements, permanent back injury, hip replacement, shoulder replacement, the list goes on and on. Bottom line, he and his scooter still use the National Parks year round. My parents travel the country and camp in their RV, and he hasn't complained about any of the campground facilities. He still is able to enjoy the parks, from Yellowstone (his personal favorite) to the Everglades (my mom's favorite) and all of those inbetween. Sure, he isn't off hiking up mountains anymore but he still really enjoys the parks. I am really impressed with how much has been done so that people like my Dad can still actively enjoy our National Parks.

I require the full time use of a wheelchair. My family and I love the National Parks. From Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Denali and many more.... we've found the park system to be as wheelchair friendly as possible. They are always improving trails, lookouts, restrooms, ect. The park maps and websites make it easy to determine just what is accessible. They really do a great job balancing the need for accessibility while not hurting the natural beauty.

If you're interested in wheelchair accessible portions of the Appalachian Trail, be sure to read the Traveler posting on that topic. You'll find it at /2008/09/section-appalachian-trail-designed-wheelchair-accessibility-opens-vermont. If you're interested in the National Accessibility Achievement Awards for access-related projects and programs in the parks, see our Traveler posting on that topic at /2008/09/national-accessibility-achievement-awards-recognize-accomplishment-area-vital-concern-nation.

My favorite park for accessible access is the Cape Cod National Seashore and the Coast Guard Beach located in Eastham on the Cape. During the summer months between June to Labor Day, the parkink lot is closed to all but the park staff and visitors who are disabled. All other access to this beach is by shuttle bus from the Little Creak Area. This beach area includes ample bathroom and shower facilities. A nice wood ramp down to the beach, with a side ramp to a viewing area. For those that are wheel chair dependent, the life gaurds can provide a specially designed wheelchair with flotation tires that you can use to get you over the sand reach the waters edge.

Semper Fi

I'd like to know what you travelers consider the LEAST accessible parks. I have polio, which is only getting worse as I get older, so I'd like to see some of the more challenging parks before it's too late.

I figure I can see the grand ones -- Yellowstone, Yosemite -- anytime, because I assume they are fairly accessible. But while I can still hike an unpaved, ungraveled trail, climb a (small) moutain, etc., I'd like to see some of the less-user-friendly parks. For example, hiking out to see the lava flow at Hawaii Volcanoes; exploring the fort at Dry Tortugas...

Any ideas?


Some quick thoughts:

Canyonlands National Park just might be the most rugged in the Lower 48 (though I'm sure there are other candidates for this distinction). Hiking down to the Great Gallery isn't quite as difficult as the drive out to the trailhead, yet the payoff is incredible. Another great hike in Canyonlands is the Joint Trail in the Chesler Park area.

If you make it to Canyonlands, then you should hike out to Landscape and Double O arches in Arches National Park, and return to your car via the "Primitive Trail." Walking along the top of fins and through sandy washes is a great way to insert yourself into the landscape. It's not a long hike, but it is spectacular.

The Kolob Canyon area of Zion National Park also is worth a look and, if the road ever reopens, the hike to the Carbon Glacier in northwestern Mount Rainier National Park is worthy.

I also love the Avalanche Creek Trail in Glacier.

There's a start for your list, and that's all it is, just a start.

In terms of "least accessible" I would nominate Gates of the Arctic Nat. Park & Preserve. It is a vast wilderness park in the central Brooks Range in northern Alaska. Most of it is only accessible by small bush aircraft. It offers some truly rewarding personal or guided float trips that can be combined with short day hikes. I haven't checked lately, but it may be possible to travel into the park in the spring via dog team out of Bettles. Kinda makes me homesick to write about it.

Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, Tennessee/Kentucky has accessible boardwalks and trails along the river at Leatherwood Ford day use area.

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