The Great Outdoors: 5 Park Trails that are Accessible to All
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Wheelchair Accessible Trails
People of all abilities love the outdoors, and there is nothing like going out into nature, especially during the warm summer months. Being outside has shown numerous benefits for health including mental health, lowering blood pressure, and decreasing anxiety.
Unfortunately, for people with mobility issues, it can be a challenge to find trails that are accessible. We’ve taken the time to put together a list of some of the most accessible trails in America’s most beloved parks.
While we did our best to verify that these trails are wheelchair accessible, please be sure to research the hike before trying it! Everyone has different hiking and mobility capabilities, and what is accessible for one person may not be for another. Please use your best judgment!
Please also make sure to look into any passes, reservations, or parking permits that your family might need to visit a given park. Summer is the peak time for national park visitors, and many parks require families to select an entry time to prevent overcrowding and to allow everyone space to relax and enjoy nature.
Lastly, remember to pack appropriately for any hike. Later in this article, we will discuss important wilderness safety tips and what to bring to hike safely.
Rocky Mountain National Park is one of America’s most visited national parks. Here, visitors are treated to views of mountains, lakes, and forests in the heart of the Rockies. The most popular spot is Bear Lake Area, where visitors will find the 0.5-mile Bear Lake Loop. This trail is wheelchair accessible and allows people of all abilities to experience views of Bear Lake against a backdrop of snowy peaks and Ponderosa pines. Please be aware that RMNP does require reservations May-October and that a shuttle may need to be used for transportation to the trailhead if parking is full.
Yosemite is another well-loved national park, and this trail offers excellent views of the 320-foot lower portion of Yosemite Falls. Visitors begin their hike at the Lower Yosemite Falls Trailhead and are able to walk to different vantage points along a paved loop, including the Upper and Lower Falls. The eastern portion of this loop is wheelchair accessible. There is no on-site parking, but there is a free Valleywide Visitor Shuttle that transports visitors from parking areas to the trailhead.
This paved 0.5-mile nature trail is located in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It winds through a forested area where visitors can hike alongside the river and explore the ruins of the Sugarlands settlement. There are plenty of benches to stop, relax, and enjoy the view. There are also several driveable nature trails throughout the Smokies, including Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail and Cades Cove.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park is lesser-known compared to Rocky Mountain and Great Smoky Mountain, but it still has a lot of hiking to offer those in the Midwest. This trail, of which the upper portion of the boardwalk is wheelchair accessible, gives hikers a look at the beautiful Brandywine Falls. It also offers access to the Summit County Hike & Bike Trail, a paved path that is also wheelchair accessible, for those who want to continue on their adventure!
This trail loop, located in Acadia National Park, winds through a white birch forest and through the park’s Great Meadow. The Jesup path is a wooden boardwalk wide enough for a single wheelchair, and the Hemlock Path is a wide, gravel road. This trail does include a road crossing. Further accessible attractions at Acadia include the Nature Center and Wild Gardens of Acadia, which open in late May of each year.
Going outdoors is a fun adventure, but it is also important to be prepared for any hike. Click here for the National Park Service’s list of ten hiking essentials.The park service is an excellent resource to learn about safety in the wilderness.
Take some time to talk with your child before starting on a hike. Let them know where you’ll be going, and take a moment to show them pictures of the hike so that they know what to expect. Like the list above says, always bring a map with you and know where you are going. Paper maps are best, as many parks have poor cell phone service, and using your phone frequently can drain the battery. Make sure you have planned for enough time to complete your hike before dark, as many parks close at dusk.
Dressing for a hike can be difficult since the weather can change quickly. For hot summer days, breathable T-shirts made of sweat-wicking material, a hat for sun protection, and shorts are a good start to keep your kids comfortable. If you will be deep in the woods, wear long pants to prevent bites from ticks and other insects. Footwear should be sturdy sneakers or hiking boots.
Sandals may feel more comfortable in hot weather, but they can cause ankle injuries on steep and slippery hikes. Be sure to bring bug spray and sunblock, and make sure to reapply!
We also recommend bringing a first aid kit, as well as plenty of snacks and water along on your hike. A good rule of thumb is one liter of water for each person for every two hours you will be hiking. On hot days, you may want to drink even more. Snacks can be whatever foods your child likes to eat, but energy dense foods like trail mix and fruit are best. Some people like to have a picnic during their hike to enjoy the beautiful view!
When you’re hiking, remember that wild plants and animals are very valuable to our planet, and exploring nature respectfully is important. Please follow Leave No Trace principles Video while you are out on a hike. Pack out all garbage when you leave and dispose of it in trash cans found at the trailhead. Leave rocks, plants, and artifacts where you found them so that other people get to see them too. Do not approach wildlife, as this is dangerous for you and for the animals. Lastly, be considerate of others trying to use the trail so that everyone can have a nice time! Happy hiking!
If you and your children are separated while hiking, reach out immediately to park staff and emergency responders so that they can help you as soon as possible. Teach your child how important it is to stay put. It is easier for rangers and rescuers to find them if they are staying in one place. Search and rescue teams now endorse “Hug-A-Tree,” which teaches children to stay still when they are lost and “hug a tree” until help arrives.
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This post originally appeared on our May/June 2023 Magazine