There are a few things that you might think about when you think of Arizona. The seemingly endless ridges, cliffs and ravines of the Grand Canyon. The red rocks of Sedona and the saguaro cacti of the Sonoran Desert. The long and winding road trips that show you the best of what Arizona has to offer.
Something that’s less likely to spring to mind? Wheelchair accessibility. That’s of course if you aren’t one of the 2.7 million Americans that use wheels to get around. For those who are, it’s a hot topic.
On our most recent trip to the Copper State, we teamed up with YouTubers Cole Syndor and Charisma Jamison of Roll With Cole & Charisma to figure out what is the best wheelchair accessible city in Arizona, as well as explore a few not-to-be-missed sights that provide easy access for wheelchair users.
The verdict? For accommodating people with physical disabilities, Phoenix passes with flying colors. From transportation and dining to trails and even a one-of-a-kind fitness center, the nation’s fifth-largest city has it all.
“We loved how pretty much everywhere we went had pretty large … accessible spaces,” Cole said. “It’s so nice to have some extra space when we’re using a ramp to get in and out of our accessible vehicle … it was refreshing to see that larger area in Phoenix.”
When it comes to space, Phoenix has plenty and providing more for those who require it makes traveling through the city in a wheelchair a breeze. “On top of the hash marks [striped areas], the entire parking spaces were wider, which just meant that we never had to worry about if we had enough space,” Charisma added.
Besides more space, an essential element for wheelchair accessibility is hardscape. Hardscape is the architectural structures, including paths and paving, that complement the natural elements of outdoor spaces. And it’s plentiful in Phoenix.
On our visit to the Desert Botanical Garden, Cole had an up-close and personal Sonoran Desert experience that he otherwise might not have been able to access. Here, a few hard-packed dirt pathways complement the mostly-concrete walkways that wind past displays of the world’s finest collection of arid plants from deserts of the world.
“The accessibility was great. There was so much hardscape and packed-down ground that it was easy to roll around,” Cole noted. “Also, the staff treated us like we were normal, just like everybody else, which is not always the case when you need to interact with people. The comfort that provided was great.”
In a city known for its hiking trails and mountain vistas, heading up the Judith Tunell Trail for sunrise at South Mountain Park and Preserve was a highlight for Cole.
“In my experience, there aren’t a ton of trails that have hardscape. So it was really nice that there was a lot of ground for me to cover in my chair and get more of a lay of the landscape than I would otherwise have. Plus, the sunrise was spectacular!”
With the wheels of his chair covered in the unmistakable Sonoran Desert dust—a telltale sign of an epic adventure—we headed back for some more urban exploration.
Up next: the Musical Instrument Museum, home to more than 8,000 instruments that pay homage to auditory traditions from around the globe. As the top-rated attraction in Phoenix we knew we were in for a one-of-a kind, immersive experience.
“It was nice how they worked the interactive audio portion of the museum,” Cole explained. “You just roll up to an exhibit and it would pick up the sound that was playing in the video based on proximity. I didn’t have to hit any buttons or use a remote, so it was a barrier-free experience to view all the exhibits in the museum.”
Having treated their eardrums to the sounds of the world, Cole and Charisma were keen to work up a sweat, so we headed to Ability360. A sports, recreation and training center that’s been empowering people with disabilities for more than 40 years, Ability360’s all-encompassing services are true to its name and inclusive ethos.
“What struck me the most, and has made a long-lasting impression on me, was that Ability360 was the most inclusive facility I’ve ever been in,” Cole said. “Not only was it set up for me and everything I’d need, but able-bodied people were also working out there, and that’s rare. It was a place that felt like a community for me, even though I was visiting.”
Here, guests will find everything you’d expect from a gym—and then some—all modified for accessibility. Of particular note, is the rock-climbing wall and the center’s sport-specific wheelchair collection. Cole and Charisma took to the weight room, where every machine could be customized for each of them.
“I liked the fact that we could work out together and Cole was able to get in certain workouts while I was doing something else,” Charisma said. “And the pool was really cool, there are so many ways people of all abilities could get into the pool.”
Before departing, we had to check out the Valley Metro Rail station that sits right outside Ability360. Going well beyond the features required for accessibility, this stop was enhanced for the center’s patrons with a pedestrian detection crosswalk signal, wider platforms and gently sloped entries. The rail system is a car-free transportation option for navigating downtown Phoenix and beyond.
Our final stop—and thankfully so, with the appetite we’d worked up—was The Churchill in downtown Phoenix.
This open-air, mixed-use space is home to restaurants as well as retail spaces, surrounding a massive courtyard with picnic tables, games and TVs. Located in the heart of the Roosevelt Row Art District, this unique building is constructed entirely from shipping containers—and the result is surprisingly accessible for all.
“I get the sense a lot of establishments find accessibility to be something that’s ugly, but at The Churchill, the ramp was a main feature,” Cole noted. “It was right in the middle, with landscaping around it. It felt nice to use a primary entrance that was elegant and beautiful, rather than a service entrance with brooms and mops.”
Before leaving, we rolled around to the back of the building for a glimpse of the neighborhood’s famous murals. The paved 1½ Street, also known as Mural Alley, features the work of nearly a dozen artists and is one of the city’s largest street art canvases and most-popular photo op stops.
With our bellies and our hearts full, we were happy to conclude that Phoenix offers an impressive, all-access itinerary for anyone looking to explore this city in a wheelchair.