Monthly Archives: August 2021

The best national parks for persons with disabilities

One July evening last year on my first trip to Yosemite National Park, my partner and I took a leisurely swim in Mirror Lake. As warm orange alpenglow from the setting sun lit up the face of Half Dome, we waded into the small but deep pool, the imposing peak towering directly above us. The lake was emptying quickly, as other travelers hurried to hike back to their cars before dark. Soon, it was just us and the glowing mountaintops. The sounds of evening settled around us, and I felt a surge of awe and gratitude to be there to witness night falling on this utterly remarkable place.

Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t have been able to visit Mirror Lake at all. Most Yosemite visitors access it via a two-mile hike. My fibromyalgia, a systemic connective tissue disorder, makes that impossible; more than 20 minutes of walking is just too painful under most circumstances. But the day before, on a whim, I had asked at the park gate if they ever gave out temporary disability placards for people like me – someone with mobility limitations that don’t qualify for a government placard but who could use some help in order to experience the park fully. To my surprise, the woman at the gate said yes.

That placard transformed my visit to Yosemite, giving me access to whole swaths of the park (like Happy Isles) that would otherwise be accessible only by foot, allowing me to more easily admire the stunning alpine scenery and have my sunset alone with Half Dome. Anyone can ask for a placard if they need it. And, as it turns out, Yosemite is not the only park to give them out. Many national parks are looking for ways to better serve travelers with disabilities these days. Here are just a few of the parks that are doing it right.

A man in a wheelchair fishing at a lake within a mountain range
The national parks continue to expand their accessibility programs © 24K-Production / Shutterstock

  1. Yosemite National Park, California
    The temporary placard that made so much possible for me is only the beginning of the thoughtful and thorough accessibility measures in place here. A brand-new path and viewing area under construction at towering Bridalveil Fall will be wheelchair accessible. And Mariposa Grove, a wonderful place to see giant sequoias, recently got a new wheelchair-accessible boardwalk, plus tactile maps and displays throughout the Grove for low vision visitors. Sadly, the Grove sustained major storm damage in winter 2021. Visitors with permanent and temporary placards can still drive the restricted road to the Mariposa Grove Arrival Area, but the accessible parking area near the 3000-year-old Grizzly Giant tree is closed. Check the Yosemite website for up-to-date information.

Plus, Yosemite provides a panoply of disability-friendly programming for people of all kinds of access needs. With enough notice, the accessibility team can provide tours, presentations and hikes for visitors with low vision, with mobility issues or who are on the autism spectrum. They’ve also sprinkled a collection of tactile maps of Yosemite Valley and popular viewpoints throughout the park, so blind visitors can experience the landscape everyone else is enjoying.

But Yosemite’s crown access jewel is its Deaf Services program, which dates back to the 1970s. Deaf and hard-of-hearing travelers have access to a public videophone and to specialized kits providing items like a shake-awake alarm clock and a smoke alarm light flasher if they’re staying in a park lodge. They also can request personalized help from the park’s dedicated Deaf Services Coordinator, who is available to help plan their visits beforehand, meet them when they arrive, attend programs with them as an ASL interpreter and lead private talks and walks for Deaf groups in ASL. This kind of attention to the Deaf community has not escaped notice, and the park sees a notably high number of Deaf and hard of hearing visitors. It celebrates that community and its history every five years with a celebration that includes campfires, storytelling and tram tours of the valley – all in ASL.