10 Accessible Adventures in National Parks

by Victoria Godwin, Girls Who Hike Tennessee Ambassador

One of my favorite things about the National Park system is that it offers something for everybody, no matter one’s background, interests, age, or abilities. While many parks have facilities that were built before the creation of the ADA act in 1990, the National Park Service strives to create parks and facilities that can be enjoyed by all, including those with permanent or temporary disabilities, limited mobility, hearing/visual impairments, and their companions. This list is by no means exhaustive, but provides a snapshot of some of the diverse experiences the parks have to offer!

1. Take a leisurely drive along Skyline Drive.

Located in the rolling Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia, Skyline Drive runs 105 miles along the spine of Shenandoah National Park, providing spectacular views of mountains, valleys, and wildlife. With a speed limit of 35 mph and 75 overlooks, the drive almost brings one back to a simpler time. The park is beautiful any time of the year, but is especially breathtaking in the fall as the leaves turn. If you’re wanting to explore off the drive, check out the Limberlost Trail about halfway down the drive, a level 1.3 mi loop trail on crushed gravel. Keep your eye out for some of the 400+ black bears that reside in the park! 

Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National Park

Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National Park

2. Wander among the giants at Sequoia National Park.

One can’t visit Sequoia National Park without visiting General Sherman, the largest tree in the world! From the parking area, the tree is accessible via a short, hard-packed path with benches that invite you to sit and relax as you crane your neck up towards the sky. Next, head over to the Big Trees Trail. For ⅔ mi along paved and wooden boardwalk, it winds around a meadow to make for an awe-inspiring hike among some of the best sequoias in the park. Want to extend your adventure? Head to the nearby Kings Canyon National Park and pay homage to John Muir via the short path to Muir Rock.

3. Explore Yosemite Valley by bike.

When thinking of Yosemite, death-defying rock climbers and cable-gripping hikers often come to mind. But did you know you can rent bikes to explore the valley? Yosemite Valley offers over 12 miles of bike paths that offer fantastic views of the iconic Half Dome and Yosemite Falls. Hand-crank bikes and tandem bikes are available for the physically and visually-impaired, as well as tag-alongs and trailers for young kids. Bike rentals are available seasonally at the Yosemite Valley and Half Dome bike stations.

4. Go sand sledding at White Sands National Monument.

While especially fun for kids, people of all ages will love sledding down the sand dunes in New Mexico! The dunes range from tiny to fairly large, and are comprised of gypsum sand so it stays cool to the touch, even in the middle of the day. Along the drive, you’ll find the Interdune Boardwalk, a 0.4 mi roundtrip wheelchair-accessible trail that winds through sand dunes and is lined with interpretive plaques. For those wanting to avoid the crowds, head further down Dunes Drive. Sled rentals are available at the visitor center.

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

5. Be the first to see the sunrise in the United States on top of Cadillac Mountain.

Between Oct. 7th and March 6th, the first place the light touches in the United States is Cadillac Mountain. You can drive up to the summit, but make sure you arrive early to find parking. At the top is the mostly-paved Cadillac Summit Loop Trail, which wraps around the mountain for ½ mi to provide stunning 360-degree views. Despite the crowds, this is a must-do experience!

6. Get up close to wildlife in the Everglades.

The Everglades is truly a nature lover’s paradise, and with many wheelchair-accessible trails to choose from, there is something for everyone. Starting from the Royal Palm Visitor Center, the Anhinga Trail is known for its wildlife, which is especially abundant in the winter (bonus: fewer mosquitos!). Along this 0.8 mi roundtrip trail through a sawgrass marsh, you may encounter alligators, turtles, many species of birds, and other aquatic wildlife.

7. Go underground in the longest cave system on Earth.

With over 400 mapped miles, Mammoth Cave National Park is home to the longest known cave system in the world. Join the Mammoth Cave Accessible Tour to see gypsum formations, cave writing, and other historic areas on this 2 hour, ½ mile tour. For those with some, but limited, mobility, the Frozen Niagara Tour may be a good option. It’s a 1.25 hour, ¼ mile tour that involves 12 stairs (plus an optional 98) and takes visitors through a decorated portion of the cave. For an above-ground adventure, check out the paved Heritage Trail, a ¾ mile trail with historic sites and overlooks. Tours can be reserved via www.recreation.gov.

Mammoth Caves National Park

Mammoth Caves National Park

8. Admire the Alaska Range in Denali National Park

Home to the tallest mountain in the US, Denali National Park is known for its large expanse of wilderness and abundant wildlife, including grizzlies, moose, and red foxes. The 3.2 mi roundtrip McKinley Station Trail is frequently quoted as a park favorite as it leads to a picturesque stream with views of the mountains along the way. In addition to several wheelchair-accessible trails, Denali also offers bus tours to the further reaches of the park that offer great wildlife watching.

9. Learn about and explore a tallgrass prairie.

Tallgrass prairies used to cover around 170 million acres of the US; unfortunately, development has reduced this number to just a fraction of the original size. At the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Kansas, nearly 11,000 acres have been preserved. Explore the incredible diversity of flora and fauna in this ecosystem along the Bottomland Trail, which is level and wheelchair-accessible when dry, and offers interpretive signs and benches along the ½ mi and ¾ mi loops.

10. Attend a Ranger Program.

One of my favorite parts about visiting national parks is attending the ranger talks and watching park films. Topics range anywhere from geology to wildlife to history, and I always walk away having learned something new and interesting. If you have kids, check out a Junior Ranger program if it’s offered. These often involve hands-on activities that employ multiple senses, and can help them earn their Junior Ranger badge. For those who are hard of hearing, most if not all parks have assistive listening devices available for ranger programs and films. American Sign Language interpreters are also available at several “big ticket” parks such as Yellowstone and Yosemite, although may require advance notice. Park films typically have closed captioning, and devices providing audio descriptions of films are often available upon request. 

A ranger talk in Shenandoah National Park

A ranger talk in Shenandoah National Park

Bonus tips: 

*Service animals as defined by the ADA are permitted on most trails and areas within the parks. Some parks require that you obtain a service animal permit either before or upon arrival. It may be a good idea to call ahead to check what the park’s policies are as well as to learn of any trails closed to service animals for protection of park resources.
*Visitor centers usually have large print and braille versions of the park brochures available by request. 
*If you are a US citizen and have a permanent disability, you can apply for an America the Beautiful - Access Passport which gives you free entry into nearly all public lands and reduces fees for activities such as camping and tours. For more information, check out: https://store.usgs.gov/access-pass

What are some of your favorite accessible activities in the national parks? Let us know in the comments!

Victoria is the Ambassador for our Tennessee chapter. You can join her local meetups and discussions through the Tennessee chapter by clicking here. To become a member of Girls Who Hike, click here.