Accessibility Across America’s Public Lands

9/5/2018
Public lands are for everyone, regardless of ability. For decades, Interior and its bureaus have worked to improve access to public lands, as well as create new and innovative ways for participation and inclusion. Today, many of the epicenters of the disability rights movement are protected by the National Park Service and serve as inspiration for other public lands to improve the options available to disabled people. Thanks to extensive road projects and scenic parkways, anyone with mobility issues can enjoy some of the best drives in America.
 
Whether it’s hearing the powerful story of the fight for disability rights or visiting a natural area that is now more accessible to everyone, public lands are ready and welcoming. Check out some of these areas and experiences that are accessible to visitors with varying abilities.

Wheeling through the Wilderness: Glacier National Park

When people think of parks filled with gorgeous mountains and unparalleled wild beauty, a place like Glacier National Park in Montana comes to mind. While many might believe the park’s rugged terrain and wilderness would be inaccessible for people with disabilities, quite the contrary is true for those who are adventurous. Most Glacier shuttles have wheelchair lifts, so park visitors with disabilities can enjoy many scenic destinations along the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Glacier also offers large-print, Braille and audio versions of some of its park brochures. Park staff produced audio-described videos with closed captions featuring many Glacier locations and subjects. American Sign Language interpreters and assistive-listening devices are available upon advance request. Accessible evening and ranger-led programs are specially marked, and accessibility information is provided at numerous locations within the park. 

A bald caucasian man carefully maneuvers an offroad wheelchair over rocks on a trail through the forest.
A park visitor uses an off-road wheelchair in Glacier National Park. Photo by Jacob W. Frank, National Park Service.

Partnerships with Advocates

The Bureau of Land Management and other Interior agencies work with Disabled Sports USA and their 120 community-based chapters located in more than 40 states nationwide. This network offers adaptive access to a broad array of outdoor adventures ranging from quiet flyfishing or horseback riding to adrenaline pumping whitewater and rock climbing. The U.S. Forest Service also partners with Outdoors for All to improve recreational opportunities for people with disabilities in national forests. Everyone deserves to enjoy the great outdoors -- especially our wounded warriors.

A smiling caucasian man sits in a boat and uses his one arm to fish in a river while another man rows the boat.
A triple amputee wounded warrior doesn’t let anything get in the way of hooking the big one. Photo by Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management.

Accessibility among the Arches

Massive stone arches, landscapes of contrasting colors and exquisite sunsets all make Arches National Park unlike any other place in the world. To ensure all can enjoy its natural beauty, the park’s staff works to ensure that it is accessible to people of varying abilities. An audio brochure of the park is available for blind visitors, and Delicate Arch, a stone icon of Utah, has a wheelchair-accessible viewing point. All audio-visual programs are close-captioned, and the visitor center exhibits include tactile models and maps. In 2017, the park renovated some trails, adding additional wheelchair ramps and widening existing sidewalks for easier access. Additionally, rangers add touch-ups to accessible trails every year.

A young man with a disability sits in a modified wheelchair pulled up a stone plateau by an older man in outdoor gear.
Retired Law Enforcement Officer James Geier hiked his eighteen-year-old son Jonah Geier three miles over slickrock trails and up red rock steps to enjoy this view of Delicate Arch together. Photo by Laura Geier (www.sharetheexperience.com).

Healing while Hunting: National Wildlife Refuges

For two days each year, hunters travel from across America to the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge. The refuge offers a unique deer hunting program that is accessible for people with a range of disabilities, from those with missing limbs to individuals with quadriplegia. The hunt is wheelchair-accessible and offers drive-up ready hunting blinds and locations that are adapted for the needs of hunters with disabilities. Similar programs exist at Clarence Cannon National Wildlife Refuge in Missouri, Crane Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Minnesota and Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana. These incredibly popular programs provide an accessible opportunity for people with disabilities to connect with the outdoors and experience the thrill of hunting.

An older caucasian man in a wheelchair wears camouflage hunting gear and points his rifle out of a hunting blind toward a grassy field.
This hunter with a disability is using a wheelchair accessible blind at Crane Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Tina Shaw, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Stigma and Hope: Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial

Like over 50 million modern Americans, several U.S. presidents had disabilities. Dwight Eisenhower had a learning disability and James Madison had seizures. Franklin Delano Roosevelt is perhaps the most well-known political figure with a disability. At 39, he contracted a disease similar to polio and became partially paralyzed. For the rest of his life, Roosevelt grappled with the stigma associated with people with disabilities. He was careful to never let the public see him in his wheelchair. With the support of disability advocates, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C., included a statue of Roosevelt in his wheelchair. The memorial is one of the most-accessible locations in the nation’s capital and has Braille brochures.
A young caucasian girl stands on a step and reaches up to touch the hand of a large green-bronze statue of FDR seated in a chair with his dog by his side.
A young visitor holds hands with history at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial. Photo by Kathi Isserman (www.sharetheexperience.com).

Enduring Spirit and Sacred Ground: Hawaii’s Historic Leper Settlement

Behind the stunning beauty of Kalaupapa National Historical Park in Hawaii lies a little-known story of a nation in crisis and a community thrown into isolation. When leprosy was mysteriously introduced to the Hawaiian Islands in 1866, all those who contracted it were banished to a remote peninsula on the island of Molokai that became their prison. More than 8,000 people died at Kalaupapa. Many of those who were exiled were left without food or shelter, and the few who recovered remained disfigured and rebuked by society. Leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, is now treatable and has receded into the past. Today, Kalaupapa remains a place for education and reflection. It stands as a place where past suffering has given way to pride in accomplishments and where we can reconsider our responses to people with disfiguring disabilities or illnesses.

Mountains rise above an ocean shoreline at sunset.
The sun rises on the shoreline of Kalaupapa National Historical Park. Photo by National Park Service. 

Rolling through Red Rock Canyon

The towering red sandstone peaks and petroglyphs of Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area in Nevada attract nearly 2 million visitors each year, many of whom have disabilities. Red Rock offers a 13-mile scenic drive that allows visitors to view the entire canyon at their own pace. High Point, Red Rock and Wash Overlook are three of the most accessible viewpoints along the drive. The viewpoints are wonderful opportunities for observation, but visitors should be aware of their own mobility limitations since the trails down from the overlooks are paved with gravel. In 2017, Red Spring in the conservation area updated its boardwalks, which allow visitors to meander through the long, lush grass. Red Spring also offers an accessible picnic area with views of the surrounding mountains.
A concrete platform with a map drawn on it is surrounded by a low fence holding up several information plaques describing the views in the distance of red rock mountains.
A wheelchair accessible platform offers stunning views and informational waysides next to the Visitor’s Center at Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. Photo by Bureau of Land Management.

An Inspiration to All: Helen Keller’s Birthplace

Explore the childhood home -- Ivy Green in Alabama -- of one of America’s most-interesting historical figures. Before Helen Keller’s second birthday, she contracted an unknown disease that left her deaf and blind. Although she was able to minimally use sign language with her family, she later learned to fully communicate through signs from her governess and lifelong companion, Anne Sullivan. Keller became an influential author and activist for disability rights, revolutionizing political advocacy in various fields. Her incredible journey was captured in the 1962 movie about her life, The Miracle Worker. In 1991, Ivy Green was designated as a National Historic Landmark. The home is wheelchair-accessible, and unlike most historic homes, blind guests can feel the furniture. Perhaps the most well-known disability advocate in history, Helen Keller’s legacy continues to impact modern-day America.
A bronze statue of a little girl in a dress standing next to a water pump.
A statue of Helen Keller at the well where she first understood the meaning of water now stands in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

Serenity Near the City: Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge

There are few things more relaxing than spending a lovely day fishing. Calm water, blue skies and the rustle of the wind in the reeds soothe the soul. At Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Colorado, platforms adjacent to the Lake Mary floating boardwalk trail are a peaceful place for all visitors to let go of their worries and concentrate on their lines. Just 12 miles from downtown Denver, the refuge is a perfect to introduce someone to nature, to listen to the natural world and, on the auto tour route, to see bison and mule deer.
Two caucasian men in wheelchairs fish from a wooden dock next to a lake.
A fishing pier near a floating boardwalk at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Colorado is a great place to relax. Photo by Michael D'Agostino, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Disabilities and the Outdoors: Denali National Park

Denali National Park in Alaska is known for its pristine wilderness and secluded beauty, but many people don’t realize it’s also one of the most-accessible national parks. Denali is an excellent example of seamlessly blending nature with accessibility for visitors with disabilities. The park only has one road -- the Denali Park Road -- open to private vehicles for the first 15 miles, with the remaining 92 miles carrying visitors via wheelchair-accessible buses. Each of the park’s campgrounds and trails are rated for accessibility. American Sign Language interpreters are available upon advance request for ranger programs and bus trips. Visitors with hearing loss can also use assistive-listening devices. A group of visitors who are Deaf created a video detailing their experience in Denali to show how everyone can enjoy this amazing place.

Two tour buses parked next to a road with people standing in the field next to them looking up at a huge snow covered mountain.
Visitors enjoy a view of the “High One” along the road in Denali National Park. Photo by Jacob Frank, National Park Service.

Boardwalks through Nature: Wildwood Recreation Site

Mount Hood, Oregon’s tallest mountain, beckons travelers through a forested corridor to Wildwood Recreation Site in Oregon. Paved interpretive trails allow visitors to explore the site’s abundance of natural streams, wetland ecosystems, and its unique, underwater fish viewing chamber. The Cascade Streamwatch Trail is a ¾-mile fully paved loop trail with picturesque views of the Salmon River. The site’s picnic areas also have additional paved, accessible trails for those in wheelchairs, with short-term injuries or who have young kids in strollers. Once visitors pass a small section of gravel, they can also wind through the dense, forested vegetation on boardwalks.  
A smooth wooden bridge with tall handrails leads straight into woods.
Boardwalks and paved trails provide access to the many beautiful acres of Wildwood Recreation Site. Photo by Bureau of Land Management.

Continuous improvements at Golden Gate National Recreation Area

Golden Gate National Recreation Area in California is a prime example of how national parks are continually improving accessibility to our public lands. The park recently committed to providing access routes and wheelchair-accessible mats at popular beaches, as well as accessibility training for park staff, and Braille, audio and tactile guides for visitors with disabilities. Visitors can also request a sign language interpreter or beach wheelchairs designed to travel in the sand.
An older blond woman in a wheelchair is pushed on a flat mat laid on the beach by two younger women with a view of the golden gate bridge in the background.
An accessible beach mat at Golden Gate National Recreation Area allows everyone to enjoy the beach together. Photo by National Park Service.

All public lands allow service animals and provide a free, lifetime Access Pass for people with disabilities. The pass provides admittance to thousands of recreation sites and national parks across the nation. Don’t wait, start planning your adventure to these beautiful lands today!