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The Outdoors Is for Everyone: How U.S. National Parks Are Becoming More Accessible

There is no limit to the beauty of America’s National Parks. For some visitors, though, many of these sights—from cascading waterfalls to historical monuments and countless panoramic vistas—have been off-limits.

In recent years, this has been starting to change. The National Park Service (NPS) is tasked with sharing places of significance with as many people as possible, including visitors with accessibility needs, but what does this mean exactly for the great outdoors?

The word “accessibility” has several definitions in the outdoors community. It can refer to implementing wheelchair ramps and disabled parking, providing information for those with visual or hearing impairments, or simply giving better access to information. There is no one solution to fix this broad issue of providing accessibility.

Elizabeth Stuckwarth, communications fellow (public affairs) for the NPS, says the service is dedicated to ensuring trail equity “through improving accessibility of trails and allowing the use of adaptive equipment on trails.” Sometimes, though, simply finding information on accessibility is the trickiest part for visitors. 

“Every park has a portion of its website dedicated to accessibility,” Stuckwarth explains. “In recent years, there has been a focus to increase the sophistication and detail of information provided to help visitors with disabilities make informed choices.” 

Across the country, accessibility is on the agenda for the future, and many parks are already doing their best to improve the visitor experience. Here are a few highlights.

Scenic Trails

Image by Robin Nardone

For wheelchair users or families with strollers, trails that are flat, wide, sturdy, and free of obstacles are highly desirable when planning an outing in nature.

The Echo River Springs Trail at Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky is a 2.8-mile circular route through the forest that passes springs, has accessible waysides, and offers a view of the Green River and its ferry.

At Yosemite National Park in California, there are several accessible trails in the front-country, including the trail to Lower Yosemite Falls. The team is currently working on a project to increase ease of access to Bridalveil Falls, too. 

Just 75 miles from Washington D.C., Shenandoah National Park‘s Limberlost Trail is a 1.3-mile circuit hike that passes through a beautiful section of forest. Since 1996, several organizations have donated labor, equipment, supplies, and funding to help Shenandoah staff make the trail fully accessible to everyone, regardless of abilities. There are plenty of benches along the way, so you can stop and enjoy a rest in the relaxing woodlands.

Unique Experiences 

Image by Dan Smith/500 px

Challenging terrain and steep inclines are usually unattainable for people with mobility issues, but at some parks, the NPS’s efforts have paved the way for new experiences.

The Devil’s Tower National Monument in Crook County, Wyoming has completed a new accessible route from the visitor center area to the base of the tower. This includes three plazas, an overlook, as well as a pavilion with tactile models for blind visitors.

Earlier this year, the launch of the adaptive climbing pilot program was announced in Tennessee’s Obed Wild and Scenic River. This will allow visitors with limb differences and amputations the chance to experience rock climbing in a safe environment with specialized climbing equipment. 

Across the U.S. National Parks, access to all-terrain wheelchairs is becoming more widely available, making it easier for people of all abilities to enjoy beaches and overcome uneven grounds while out and about. The NPS is also carefully considering the mobility requirements for their other recreation spaces, including campsite accommodation and public facilities.

The Way Forward

America’s National Parks offer outdoor lovers endless adventures. The NPS has an ongoing task to create a more inclusive future at its parks whilst preserving history and maintaining natural beauty across the nation. As the NPS Management Policy (2006) states: “National parks belong to all Americans, and the National Park Service will welcome all Americans to experience their parks.” 

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