A Touch of Nature: Accessing Our National Parks

By Ashley Lyn Olson, New Mobility, October 01, 2015

Pictures is a woman in a wheelchair rolling down an accessible boardwall in the forest.

Like many Americans, I grew up going on annual family camping trips. While my friends were traveling to cities by the beach and on cruises, I was in the wilderness somewhere playing in the dirt and climbing trees. These are some of my most cherished memories. Both my parents had a deep appreciation and respect for nature, something they instilled in all their children. My father was a ranger who had a dream to visit all the U.S. National Parks. His dream came to an end when he was killed in the car accident that also paralyzed me. I was 14. My family’s life changed forever.

Immediately after my accident, it was clear to me that a life indoors was not for me. Wilderness preservation pioneer John Muir said, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.” Several years after the accident I started wheelchairtraveling.com to help people looking for accessibility information because what was provided by the tourism industry and government entities was often insufficient or nonexistent.

One of the factors that motivated me to create the website in the first place was wanting to know where I could go and what I could still do and see. Though I couldn’t fully grasp it as a child, I know now how revitalizing and nurturing nature is for me and many others. Access to the outdoors is essential, and it consists of more than just a breath of fresh air — it’s also being immersed in nature and letting it soak into your being.

Inspired by my dad’s dream and the 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, I launched the Access to Parks Project (#Access2Parks) to improve available access knowledge about our national parks. My plan is to visit parks, survey accessibility and share what I find on my website and with the national parks. I will choose which parks to visit based on a combination of access potential and need of accessibility information.

Prior to launching, I knew I needed the support of park rangers, so I reached out to Jeremy Buzzell, branch chief for the Accessibility Management Program at the National Park Service. He has 14 years of experience working on disability policy, civil rights and accessibility at several federal agencies. Buzzell understands the importance of access. “Anyone can become disabled by age or injury, and anyone could have a loved one or friend with a disability,” he says. “The parks are treasures being protected and preserved for the world to enjoy, so there shouldn’t be a segment of our population that doesn’t get to experience them.”

I explained to Buzzell my intentions and strategy for the Access to Parks Project and he agreed to connect me to the right people in the parks. Everything else was up to me, including funding. The biggest support came from R&R Mobility in Atlanta, Ga., which provided an accessible rental van for me to drive to my first review sites: Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, Shenandoah National Park in Virginia and Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio.

The launch of the Access to Parks Project was particularly exciting for me because I would be traveling through states that I had never been to. I began my journey in Atlanta, and after a little time exploring a few of the many plantations in the area, I headed to Nashville for a brief stop and then to the first park on my agenda, Mammoth Cave. What drew me there was the possibility of exploring an underground cave, something I thought was no longer an option now that I use a wheelchair.

Mammoth Cave National Park (Kentucky)

It has been 10 years since anyone in a wheelchair plunged into the dark, damp caverns of Mammoth Cave National Park, but this is all about to change. Starting in summer 2016, Mammoth Cave will once again offer an accessible tour that explores a section of the world’s longest known cave system. Thought your underground dwelling days mingling with bats were over? Never! While all 400-plus miles of caves in the park are not accessible, there are more than enough for you to get a whiff of that thick, earthy, cool air — the caves are calling.

The cave tour is only one aspect to the whole park picture; many historical buildings and sites can be viewed roadside, like the grave of Floyd Collins, “the greatest cave explorer ever known,” who died in the Sand Cave. As park ranger Leslie Price describes, “Once you are here, it is more than just the cave itself. Visitors learn the stories of the people who lived here surrounded by a beautiful eastern hardwood forest. The quiet of the birds and beauty of the Green River that flows and makes the cave — all come together in a magical stew. You have to see a little bit of all of it to understand.”

At some point, be sure to take your vehicle across the Green River using the small, three-car ferry; it’s a unique trip and a way to really see the river that creates this park. From there you can continue the scenic drive into backcountry.

The Mammoth Cave Railroad Bike and Hike Trail runs adjacent to Mammoth Cave Parkway from Park City to the visitor center. A few small roadside parking areas have access points to this firm 9-mile compacted gravel trail. Doyel Valley Overlook is a recommendation, which also has access to a lovely picnic table setting. Right before the bike and hike trail ends at the visitor center, it passes the historic “Dinkey Train” that took passengers and their luggage to the park for 40 years starting in the late 19th century.

A short boardwalk pathway with a 2-to-5 degree grade allows access to view the Sand Cave opening, for which visibility varies depending on foliage. Right next to the Mammoth Cave Hotel and across from the visitor center is the Heritage Trail. It begins as a boardwalk and then becomes one of the nicest paved trails I’ve ever rolled on at a park. The trail loops around an old small cemetery to Sunset Point, named for the beautiful views it offers as the sun dips below the horizon.

The must-do trail at Mammoth Cave is the Sloan’s Crossing Pond Trail, and the best time is in the morning and evening when the wildlife is most active. You can hear everything stirring from the parking lot where you will also find access to picnic tables. The boardwalk trail is less than a half-mile, but very colorful with a number of pullouts or resting pads for onlookers so other hikers can safely pass — a superb design for the wetland.

The many horse trails throughout Mammoth Cave National Park offer power wheelchair users an abundance of exploration options. If you have your own horse, bring it, because the park has an adapted horse mount that makes getting on easier. Across the way is a dirt road that leads to the old Good Spring Baptist Church and Cemetery that was built in 1900.

With so much to do, staying in the park, or near it, is almost necessary. At the Mammoth Cave Hotel, two rooms have been modified with roll-in showers, and around the corner are 1970s-style bungalows, one of which is scheduled to be modified with a roll-in shower by the summer of 2016. Not too far from these bungalows is a picnic area and rental facility for private events; both with modifications for more access, including raised cooking grills. On the other side of the visitor center and up the road a little ways is the campground. Two sites have power outlets for RVs and are highly sought after, so sharing is often necessary. Sites 37 and 38 have been modified with raised cooking grills, paved pads and a pathway to the restrooms. The camp store, post office and laundry room have access, but there are no showers.

I could have spent a few more days relaxing and leisurely enjoying the area, but I was on a specific mission and had other rangers at others parks to meet up with. However, I didn’t want my trip to be all business and totally mapped out, so I decided to take the longer route to Shenandoah. Meandering the backroads through little scenic towns was a treat, and though I was exhausted from the added hours of stopping to take pictures, I regret nothing.

Shenandoah National Park (Virginia)

When I reached Shenandoah National Park, it was drizzling and foggy. Not knowing what to expect, I was mesmerized by what I saw — a fairytale forest. It’s only a short drive from our nation’s capital, but Shenandoah’s nearly 200,000 acres felt like a magical foreign land. The spring green trees shimmered against the smoky white air with just a sprinkling of sunshine. I pulled off to one of the 69 overlooks Shenandoah is famous for, but saw nothing but fog somersaulting across the road.

Big Meadows Lodge has been a staple of Shenandoah National Park since it was built in 1939. A row of rocking chairs inside the rock-and-timber retreat welcomes visitors to rest while they gaze out into the Shenandoah Valley. I melted into the comfortable rustic ambiance as an elevator charmed me into riding it to the saloon on the ground floor before dinner. The dining hall was grand and the company fulfilling. On the first night, I asked a man with white hair sitting alone if I could join him. His name was Jeff Manser, and he has been coming to this park for over 30 years. “Of all my years coming here, I have never seen the park so foggy,” he confessed.

I met ranger Steve Herzog early on the next day. It was the only full day I had at the park, so we got right to it. Unlike the previous day, there were bright blue skies with just enough clouds to accent the landscape. Herzog pointed out a nearby deer nursing a newborn fawn. Deer are a common sight at the park, but I enjoyed each one as if it was the first I ever saw. What I really wanted to see was what most visitors to Shenandoah want to see: a black bear. I’d bought a park T-shirt the previous day with a bear on it, but I wouldn’t feel worthy of wearing it unless I saw one. You can imagine how thrilled I was to unexpectedly see two cubs in different locations the following day on my way out of the park.

I didn’t need any assistance checking out the many overlooks that stretched for over 100 miles on Skyline Drive — I needed a strategy. Skyline Drive is a national scenic byway that cuts through the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains and reaches as high as 3,680 feet. Herzog estimates it would take 3.5 hours of continuous driving to traverse the entire length of the park. Each area was unique, providing a piece to the whole park story. About a quarter of the overlooks had one van accessible parking space coupled with a designated pathway and ramp (if needed) to the ledge.

After investigating access to the main routes of travel around the central hub of Big Meadows, Herzog wanted to take me on a little adventure to Rapidan Camp, the first complex specifically designed to serve as a presidential retreat. President Hoover bought the land in 1929 and built it up over the following years. He entertained luminaries of the Great Depression era, such as Thomas Edison, Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, and Edsel and Eleanor Ford.

To get to the historical site requires traveling down a 7-mile service road. Fortunately for all visitors, the park provides a daily shuttle at 2 p.m. that can safely transport two wheelchairs at once. Pickup is at the Byrd Visitor Center and reservations are required. The tour is led by a park expert who explains anything and everything you wish to know, and then some. No access modifications have been made in order to preserve the original foundation, but some visitors with power and manual wheelchairs will still be able to get inside the original cabin where President Hoover and his wife slept, depending on their chair’s width. The majority of the tour is outside, highlighting the lifestyle of the times. I pictured President Hoover casting his fishing line at his favorite hole as armed guards hid in the forest, ready at a moment’s notice.

After a speedy lunch at the Skyland Resort Grab’n Go, located in the Pollock Dining Room lobby, which also has a lift to the dining room, I was ready for some trails. The one-way, mile-long Rose River Fire Road Trail is an option for many power-assisted wheelchairs, starting from the parking lot at the Fish Gap Overlook. The firm, gravel road wanders down to a small, picturesque waterfall flowing into a babbling brook. The Forest Trail is another option for power wheelchair users and those willing to muscle over or around water-diverting mini dams along the way.

The trail that has seen the most access modifications is the Limberlost Trail, just south of the Skyland Resort. A specific group of young rangers joined me on this hike. According to the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968, this 1.3 mile-long looped trail is only partially accessible due to a small section that exceeds an 8 percent grade. Right before this point is a little blue sign reading “not recommended.” Still, it was obvious that a lot of thought went into making this firm gravel trail rollable. A map at the beginning of the trail shows all the trail details, including the exact grade and where 17 benches are located. Yes, 17 benches, along with five landing or rest pads for wheelchairs.

Besides the Big Meadows Lodge and the Skyland Resort, Shenandoah visitors can sleep under the stars at one of four campgrounds. The park’s campgrounds expert, ranger Hazel Mehne, estimates that more than a dozen sites at the four campgrounds are flat with raised fire pits, extended picnic tables and access to facilities. Roll-in showers are available at Big Meadows Lodge, Skyland Resort and the Big Meadows Campground. Furthermore, only a couple of sites at Big Meadows Campground have power outlets, like site 229, which means sharing is expected. Site 53 is tent-only and special, because it is more secluded than others yet still has access. It requires a 25-yard trek from the parking space to the site itself, but it’s worth it. I’d pick this spot every time.

Even if I am not staying overnight, I rely on campgrounds as places to rest, picnic and use the restroom, but Shenandoah also has several large picnic areas with access. Keep in mind that other than the Big Meadows Lodge and Skyland Resort, the only other place for food is in the northern region of the park at the Elkwallow Wayside Camp Store. Store food wisely, though, as you are in bear country.

I didn’t want to leave Shenandoah, as it meant that I had only one more park to go to before the end of my trip. Being able to get to know the parks so intimately, though rapidly, with the rangers was a unique experience. I felt bonded with many of them. One in particular happened to work at the park where my father was a ranger, which was a wonderful small-world coincidence. I felt my father’s presence a lot on the trip, as if I was seeing the parks through his eyes. These feelings were confirmed at Shenandoah when I purchased a toy ranger figurine as something fun and cute to take photos with. When I removed the ranger from his packaging, I noticed a small name card that read “Ranger Jim” in a few languages. I nearly stopped breathing — this is my father’s name. Needless to say, Ranger Jim will accompany me from now on to all my park visits.

Cuyahoga Valley National Park (Ohio)

Besides Ranger Jim, no other ranger on this trip spent more time with me than Arrye Rosser, my guide for exploring Cuyahoga Valley National Park. I have never been to a national park like CVNP. It was odd enough to not enter through an official admission gate, something I had only experienced for the first time at Mammoth Cave, but as I drove through the park and passed a winery, a theater, an art gallery, all kinds of homes and farms, concert venues, and even over a freeway, I thought, “This can’t be right.” But it was.

Cuyahoga Valley is one of America’s youngest national parks, earning the official title in 1974 when local citizens and their representatives sought to preserve this scenic greenspace nestled between the industrial cities of Cleveland and Akron, Ohio. The 33,000-acre park sits within the boundaries of the Ohio & Erie Canalway, a National Heritage Area dedicated to preserving and celebrating the story of the canal that helped Ohio and the country grow. Twenty miles of the canal’s historic route can be found in Cuyahoga Valley National Park. The blend of county and federal government lands, mixed with partner-run services and properties, creates a diverse range of entertainment at Cuyahoga Valley that somehow works.

The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad is an iconic symbol for the park and one of the best ways to get a feel for the whole park. It operates on weekends year-round and Wednesdays-Sundays from June through October. I would recommend purchasing a National Park Scenic Day Pass and requesting a seat in the car with a lift. Call for tickets and check www.cvsr.com for the train schedule. Start at the Boston Store Visitor Center to get maps and plan logistics. Food is available at partner-run Trail Mix stores in Boston and Peninsula and on the train; most passengers bring their own. Special events are often associated with this train and are particularly fun for children, like a visit from Thomas the Tank Engine and The Polar Express.

Paralleling the Ohio & Erie Canalway is the Towpath Trail. Voted the best bike trail in Ohio by readers of Ohio Magazine, the Towpath is popular, so expect crowds. This scenic trail is an excellent option for those with access needs because it is wide, firm and, for the most part, flat; but since it is so long, route planning is recommended. The Station Road Bridge area, the section from Boston Store Visitor Center to Lock 29 (Peninsula), and the Hunt House area are all great places to explore the trail. The newly refurbished Canal Exploration Center has informative exhibits, gift shop, a very large accessible bathroom, and a lift to the second floor. If you visit on a summer weekend, catch the canal lock demonstrations.

Connecting to the Towpath Trail at Station Road Bridge Trailhead is a paved Cleveland Metroparks trail worth exploring that loops around Brecksville Nature Center through Harriet Keeler Memorial Woods and past a small meadow. Bald eagles are commonly seen along the river just north of this trailhead. Beaver Marsh, just north of the Ira Trailhead, is another favorite Towpath destination. It is most alive in the early mornings and evenings with beavers, otters and great blue herons.

A short, firm, flat trail leads to the Everett Covered Bridge, a photo favorite for visitors. Horseshoe Pond Trail leads to an accessible fishing pier before curving around to a picnic shelter. The park has over a dozen picnic areas; the biggest have more access and covered tables for groups. In the Bedford Reservation’s Hemlock Creek Picnic Area, there is a youth baseball field and access to a few playgrounds.

The 34-mile paved Bike and Hike Trail runs along the park’s east rim and is managed by Summit Metro Parks. Those with power-assisted wheelchairs will have no trouble with this trail, but those without will need to overcome many inclines. The rock ledges south of Boston Mills Road and Brandywine Falls offer the best scenery. Once again many horse trails offer options for power wheelchair users (and horse owners). There is a mounting platform at the stables in the Brecksville Reservation.

Not Just Trails and Nature

Exploring all the trails could keep you busy for months, but Cuyahoga Valley National Park has much more to offer. You can try archery at the accessible Hampton Hills range or making butter at the Hale Farm and Village. Hale Farm is a living history experience within the park boundaries where kids can learn about farm lifestyle. Afterward, head to the Hunt House, which offers family-friendly exhibits and drop-in summer activities.

One unique way to explore the area is through an activity called “Canalway Questing,” where you follow a series of rhyming clues that lead to a treasure box. Each “quest” weaves a story about what makes the place special. There are over 20 adventures within the national park, and more beyond. Details about the Ohio & Erie Canalway and questing in particular can be found at ohioanderiecanalway.com.

Live music is a special and unexpected feature of the park, and it comes in many forms. Howe Meadow doubles as a stage for musicians at the Countryside Farmers’ Market on Saturday mornings, and for free Music in the Meadow concerts on select Wednesday evenings from June to August. At the accessible Happy Days Lodge, Music by Nature runs during the summer months and the Cuyahoga Valley Heritage Concerts run from October to May; schedules are on the park website. What is not listed on the park website is the Cleveland Orchestra’s summer concert series at the Blossom Music Center, where some of the world’s finest musicians have performed since it opened in 1968.

More possible activities at the park include wintertime skiing, sledding and tubing. The Pine Hollow parking lot for sledding is at the top of the hill. In the winter or when fewer leaves are on the trees, you can get a lovely view of Kendall Lake. Nearby, off Truxell/Kendall Park Road, is the Ledges Overlook. The extra rocky terrain of this overlook creates access challenges, but glorious sunsets can still be seen from the parking lot.

When the sun goes down, most multi-day visitors will need to find accommodations outside the park. Cleveland and Akron are a short 20-30 minutes away with smaller towns in between. Only a few campsites exist, and none have access modifications. If you are adventurous (and lucky), stay at the historical Stanford House. Park-owned and partner-operated, this unique lodging has one modified room. The classic white house has rocking chairs on the porch and locally made wood furnishings that perfectly complement each other. Room 9 can sleep four and has the most access because of the ground level location and modified shower, although I found it to be too narrow for a lot of wheelchairs.

It was storming the night I stayed at the Stanford House, and I was the only reservation. I sat for a while on the porch listening to the storm’s symphony; rain bouncing off tree leaves, the loud crack of thunder exploding with rippling vibrations, vehicles swooshing by on the road, and the faint laughter of campers caught in the elements. Across the road, mist was beginning to rise from the meadow — illuminated by the moon. At one point I rolled out from the covered porch to let the warm rain wash over me. Lightning struck nearby many times that night, and I slept like a baby.

If you are able to contribute to this mission either as a writer (park scout) or with a tax-deductible donation — 501(c)3 status — to help pay for food and gas, please visit wheelchairtraveling.com or email info@wheelchairtraveling.com.



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