No Limits: National Parks are More Accessible than You Think

Senior-friendly features at the WWII Memorial

World War II Memorial – Washington, DC (Photo courtesy of NCA)

Summer is here, and a visit to a nearby national park is an easy way to combine the outdoors and history all in one trip. With 401 sites comprising the National Park System (NPS) across the United States, visiting a historic site, battlefield or national park is easier than most people realize. And a hike to the backcountry isn’t required to see the best views. Whether you use a scooter, cane or wheelchair, many national parks allow you the same experience and viewing delights as those without limited mobility.

Every visitor benefits from accessibility features in parks, says Kathy Kupper, a public affairs specialist at the NPS, and they are often in forms that people likely aren’t even aware of—such as benches spaced along a trail, little change in elevation along walking paths, scenic features spaced nearby, and accessible bathrooms. These can all impact the visiting experience, especially for people who can only stand for short periods of time without difficulty.

Hawaii National Park Boardwalk

The Hawaii Volcano boardwalk trail – Hawaii Volcanoes National Park was a 2005 Accessibility Award winner. (Photo courtesy of Ray Bloomer, NPS)

With the first parks designed initially for wagons and later automobiles, most parks have a scenic drive that allows visitors to see its features, Kupper explains, adding that overlooks are at the best place to see views that “take your breath away.” She says that after exploring the parks for better views, Ken Burns often returned to overlooks to film scenic vistas for his documentary The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. The nature trails around the visitor center also provide a “good thumbprint” of what the park holds. Since many people venture only a quarter mile or so down a trail before turning back, these shorter trails are designed so visitors can see features right away.

The NPS’s formal focus on accessibility started in 1979 with the creation of the Accessibility Office. It has remained a priority ever since, especially under the current director Jonathan B. Jarvis, who is a “strong proponent of accessibility,” says Ray Bloomer, an accessibility specialist for the NPS and director of education and technical assistance for the National Center on Accessibility. A national accessibility taskforce is currently developing a five-year strategy to improve accessibility in the NPS. The focus is on everything a visitor can benefit from, whether it is physical or programmatic accessibility, such as providing educational materials in large-print, Bloomer says.

Pearl Harbor

An example of programmatic accessibility at The World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument. (Photo courtesy of Ray Bloomer, NPS)

The agency also has an annual Accessibility Award program that serves the dual purpose of recognizing people and parks who have improved accessibility and encouraging employees to do more. Since the awards program started in 1998, Bloomer reports that “awareness has been increasing on a daily basis.” Past winners include Yosemite National Park and Cabrillo National Monument, along with the Gulf Islands National Seashore and World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument.

On each park’s website, the accessibility features are available under the Plan Your Visit tab. For example, on the Yosemite National Park web page, there is an accessibility guide and a visual guide for people with aphasia. “I’m still very proud of how the rangers and volunteers represent the NPS,” Bloomer says, adding that to create the best experience, he encourages people to contact the park prior to visiting, because the NPS “want[s] everyone to have a good visit.”

Broadmoor Seniros at Sutro Baths

Field trips to nearby National Parks are a favorite activity of residents at The Broadmoor in San Francisco. Here they are are at Sutro Baths, which is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. (Photo courtesy of Ken Johnson)

Good visits are always what the seniors at The Broadmoor, an independent living community for active seniors in San Francisco, experience. Along with his responsibilities of Property Manager, Ken Johnson also coordinates outside activities, and his residents enjoy trips to the nearby national parks, such as Yosemite, Sutro Baths at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and Muir Woods. “They tell me where they want to go,” he says, and adds that if he plans to bring a large group to the park, he will call in advance to book a tour. Johnson has always found NPS staff accommodating and helpful whenever his groups visit, always answering the questions his residents ask. And he always makes sure the gift shop is open before scheduling a visit, since his residents like to browse for souvenirs and purchase snacks.

It is not only accessibility features that make national parks an appealing destination for seniors, however. One enticing incentive is the lifetime pass, Kupper says. For only $10, seniors can purchase a pass that can be used for free entrance to sites administered by the NPS, the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. For an added bonus, the pass applies to people traveling with them.

Cumberland Gap National Historic Park

A tactile display at The Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, a 2004 Accessibility Award winner. (Photo courtesy of Ray Bloomer, NPS)

Every park has accessible features, not just the large parks, Kupper explains, and while Bloomer acknowledges that not every park is 100 percent accessible, the NPS is actively identifying deficiencies. What complicates the issue is the need to maintain a “balance [of] historic preservation and accessibility,” and he adds that staff also has to consider what can be sustained aesthetically within the natural surroundings.

When you plan your visit it is important to check the park’s accessibility features, and also consider the time of day and year. Bloomer says that while the Statute of Liberty is accessible, there are few places to sit if the lines are long. And when in doubt, do not hesitate to ask the NPS staff for advice.

So what are you waiting for: Find a park and head out!

If you are interested visiting parks that have many accessible features, Bloomer has provided this sample list of some parks.

Andrea Watts is content writer for SeniorHomes.com, and in addition to covering senior living, she also writes on sustainable forestry and agriculture issues. Her writings have appeared in publications that include TimberWest, The Forestry Source and Acres U.S.A.

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