Just because you or someone you know has a disability doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy America’s national parks.
Because even before the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, the National Park Service campaigned for everyone to be able to experience a national park.
It was a long process. But as facilities are renovated, new programs premiered, and new technology introduced, the change is now widespread and dramatic.
If you haven’t looked at access lately, you might be surprised.
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I am a retired park ranger with 25 years of experience serving people in national parks. To get the latest update on park accessibility, I spoke to current NPS employees whose job it is to make sure parks provide an accessible experience for everyone.
Let’s go over some of the areas that challenge people’s ability to experience the parks and how parks respond to those challenges
Then I’ll tell you how to find parks with great accessibility programs to help you plan your next trip.
Finally, we’ll look at a few parks that are great examples of accessibility.
Free shuttle bus to Grand Canyon National Park (Photo Credit: OLOS / Shutterstock.com)
Mobility is an issue for many of us, be it in a wheelchair or simply not as good as it used to be. Parks have taken on the mobility challenges with what you’d expect, such as ADA-compliant buildings, restrooms, and shuttle buses, but there are also a growing number of accessible campsites, hiking trails, beaches, and fishing areas.
For people with hearing problems ranging from hearing impairment to deafness, more and more parks have American sign language interpreters, audio-assist technology, or audio presentations with subtitles or printed audio descriptions.
For the visually impaired, from blindness to low vision, more and more parks are offering audio tours of park streets and park exhibits that you can download to your own portable devices. Others have audio players to borrow. And parks expand exhibitions and presentations with tactile activities that allow you to experience the park through touch, and have added sounds and multi-sensory experiences.
Pro tip: Download the audio tours for driving and play them while driving, whether disabled or not. It’s like having a tour guide in the car. If you go to a park and want to see if an audio tour is available without searching the website, just search Google for “audio tour” followed by the park name.
Parks also help people with cognitive and emotional needs, be it through quiet places, information that draws your attention to possible environmental stimuli, or in designing exhibitions and presentations that take these needs into account.
Finally, many parks will provide additional information on housing trained service animals. Emotional support animals are not covered by the ADA, so they are usually not given access to areas where pets are not allowed.
The most important thing you can do for a successful trip when there are special accessibility requirements is your research. When planning your trip, view the park online or contact them about your needs.
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Every park website has accessibility information, either on the web or in the NPS mobile app. Select your park and look for accessibility under the heading “Plan your visit”.
Not all parks are equally good when it comes to accessibility. Here are some exceptionally notable examples. Also take a look at their accessible websites. So you know good examples when you see them.
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1. Channel Islands National Park
The park is accessed by boat, and the park provides advice on the limited transportation available and island trails for those with reduced mobility.
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However, the park’s visitor center is designed to create an environment similar to the islands themselves. There are tactile exhibits, sounds, surfaces, and live streaming videos from the islands. And because the visitor center in Ventura Harbor is surrounded on three sides by water, your visit will smell of the sea.
The website offers virtual tours of the islands with Google Trekker so you can take a virtual hike of the islands from home.
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2. National Monument of the Statue of Liberty
Don’t let mobility issues stop you from visiting the Crown of the Statue of Liberty. Wheelchairs are available to borrow in the park and an elevator will take you to the top. The website gives you advice on other options in the base and on the stairs.
The exhibits have tactile exhibits. ASL and assisted audio tours are available, and the grounds, restaurant, and boat operations are all designed for accessibility.
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3. Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks receive high marks from NPS accessibility experts. And for a good reason.
The park has released a number of films on the theme of park accessibility. You are on the park website. They are there to guide you to the many accessible trails, areas, and exhibits.
All of the films in the visitor center have some kind of audio assist technology to help people with hearing problems.
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The park highlights the Crystal Cave tour, which is accessible to the hearing impaired via loaner electronic tablets for the trip, including pre-recorded videos with an American sign language interpreter.
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4. Cape Cod National Seashore
Sand is an obvious barrier to mobility. Cape Cod is an example of a beach park that does an excellent job of negotiating it.
Beach mats are like portable taxiways that allow a wheelchair to reach the water.
Beach wheelchairs are available on the sand. As well as having accessible toilets, there are also accessible changing rooms and showers (not all, so do inquire before you go).
And if you want to do more than just a visit to the beach, the park offers a full range of resources to help people with visual and hearing impairments.
A unique feature – the park uses a cell phone tour that is accessed at different locations. A transcript is available online for the hearing impaired.
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5. Mesa Verde National Park
Like the Channel Islands, Mesa Verde has several challenges to reach. The park’s cliff dwellings have been designed to be inaccessible.
The park has an award-winning film that takes you virtually to the apartments (with subtitles, audio description and hearing aids).
Artifacts for tactile experiences are also available at the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum.
You can also download the Mesa Top Loop Drive audio tour and use it to take your journey down the most popular street in the park.
Jenny Lake (Photo: Krishna.Wu / Shutterstock.com)
6. Glacier National Park
The historic Going to the Sun Road is one of the highlights of a visit to Glacier. It’s even better if you’ve downloaded the audio tour.
Glacier is also the winner of the NPS National Accessibility Achievement Award for its design around the new Jenny Lake. The trails and lookouts are vastly improved in terms of access, and the exhibits include tactile features to enhance the experience for everyone.
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And if you want wheelchair-accessible access to a glacier lake, you’ve come to the right place. In the case of early summer lake stalls, the system is designed so that you can roll your wheelchair into the lake. (Be ready to roll out of the lake quickly once you learn what a glacial lake is like).
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7. Cabrillo National Monument
The Cabrillo National Monument is a past winner of the NPS National Accessibility Achievement Award – recognized for its use of tactile models, exhibits, and displays. The site of the monument is home to bronze sculptures with important features, be it the historic Point Loma lighthouse or blue whales, which can often be seen from the ocean views.
The park also has a tactile talking pen and tactile map that can be used throughout the park. There are 40 labels that provide information about the device. It gives you brief information and guides you to the next sign.
Pro tip: I’ll save the best news for last – a free pass that grants free entry and never expires for people with permanent disabilities.
The Access Pass, available in parks or online, gives free entry and can reduce some other fees like camping. If the park is charging with the vehicle, everyone in the vehicle has free entry.
To qualify, you must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident with a permanent disability. Even if it is a partial disability, as long as it restricts one or more aspects of your daily life or important life functions, you are entitled. Diabetes mellitus, hearing loss, visual disturbances, restricted mobility – these and other diseases are possible.
Get it in advance. You don’t want to queue up in a busy park on July 4th for that. If you live near a less busy, smaller NPS area, give them a call and ask if you can get a pass there instead of if you are in a rush to take an overland drive. Ask what to bring. You can be more accommodating than the online / mail system.
Here is some more information to help you enjoy national parks and other outdoor spaces: