To sit in the massiveness of any natural landscape brings about a healing perspective everyone deserves and needs. To be surrounded by cycles and beauty that function independently from human touch is disorienting and grounding at the same time. These sacred spaces remind us how insignificant we are to the workings of this planet, but also how significant it is that we get to be a part of her rhythms. The U.S. national park system offers boundless opportunities for these moments for wheelchair users with accessible trails.

Because of the way our society is oriented, wheelchair travel is no easy feat, but with some extra research and preparation, everybody can enjoy the national parks.

According to the national park website, the most-visited national parks in 2019 were as followed:

  1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
  2. Grand Canyon National Park
  3. Rocky Mountain National Park
  4. Zion National Park
  5. Yosemite National Park

Each of these parks contain opportunities for wheelchair hiking that combine accessibility with that wondrous disorienting/grounding feeling of being in an expansive natural space. Below I have listed some of the most accessible trails in each of these 5 parks along with their milage, elevation variance, and trail quality. Some of these trails may be hiked best with off-road wheels while some are completely flat and usable with an everyday chair. Regardless, I hope you’ll find a park and trail you can enjoy!

All national parks in the U.S. offer a free access pass (with a $10 processing fee) to anyone with a medically determined and permanent disability. These passes grant free entrance into any national park as well as other sites. Be sure to get your access pass online or at the entrance kiosk (double check that the park is distributing access passes at its entrance point) instead of paying the entry fee.

Note: This article is research-based and not written from personal experience. We have included a plethora of links leading to more information so that you can glean as many details as possible before arriving to the park(s).

Great Smoky Mountains National Park. (Photo Credit: Kevin Lu)

Great Smoky Mountains

Cades Cove Loop Road

Length: 10.5 mile loop
Total Elevation gain: 734 ft and steepest at miles 2.0 and 4.6 where the grade is between 10% and 15%
Trail quality: paved road at least 5ft wide at all times
Accessible Bathroom(s): located at the Cades Cove Visitor Center

The Cades Cove Loop Road will guide you through a lush, hilly landscape with plenty of opportunities to view local wildlife such as black bears, coyotes, ground hogs, turkeys, raccoons, and skunks. With little elevation gain and a paved surface, the whole road should be safe with a manual wheelchair. If you hope to complete the loop, however, just make sure you are prepared for the 10.5 miles by bringing plenty of snacks, water, and sunscreen. From May-September, enjoy the road vehicle-free on Wednesdays, otherwise be aware of oncoming vehicle traffic.

Though Cades Cove was originally the home of the Cherokee Nation, there is little evidence left of Cherokee habitation. There are many European structures, however, which were built in the 1800’s when the Cherokees were forced to Oklahoma on the perilous Trail of Tears.To support and learn more about the Cherokee nation’s history, visit the Cherokee Nation website here.The settler structures include churches, a grist mill, barns, and houses. Most of these are not accessible via wheelchair as they are surrounded by gravel or dirt.

Click here for the park’s comprehensive accessibility guide.

sun casting shadows on grand canyon

Grand Canyon

Mules to Mather Point

Length: 5.3 miles out and back
Total Elevation gain: 367 ft., steepest at miles 1.6 and 4.o where the grade is 8%
Trail quality: paved and at least 5ft wide at all times
Accessible Bathroom(s): Grand Canyon Visitor Center

One of the world’s seven wonders, the Grand Canyon is a national park that cannot be fully appreciated until visited in person. The depth and layers of the canyon are so complex, every angle is starkly different from the next. While there are many opportunities for intense hikes that dive toward the Colorado River, the park also has wonderfully accessible and flat trails that trace the canyon rim. One could perch in one spot for an entire day and never tire of the mind-blowing color palette the rocks create as the sun progresses over the canyon.

Near the south entrance, the Mules to Mather Point trail is smooth, paved, and very close to the visitor’s center. The trail offers spectacular scenery and occasionally turns out to designated viewpoints where you experience the height of the canyons walls up close. If you don’t wish to commit to a longer roll along the rim, the trail is scattered with parking lots that accompany the lookouts. There are also accessible shuttle buses which drop off visitors at various points along the rim. If you are visiting in colder months, be aware that the trails can get icy so additional equipment may be necessary to make sure your wheels can maintain a solid grip. As always, stay hydrated, wear sunscreen, and keep plenty of snacks on hand. The UV index is pretty high.

Click here for the park’s comprehensive accessibility guide.

Rocky Mountain National Park

Bear Lake Nature Trail

Length: 0.7 mile loop
Total Elevation gain: 49ft.
Trail quality: packed dirt with occasional roots and rocks
Accessible Bathroom(s): at the trailhead

Though this trial is not fully accessible, there is a significant portion near the parking lot that is. On other sections, the trail grade can be as steep as 16% and may contain significant roots and rocks. Fortunately, the trail loops around Bear Lake so you can still see the beauty from the accessible portion. It’s important to note that this trail is not paved, but made with packed dirt. Depending on your equipment and comfortability, it may be trickier to navigate. No matter how much of the trail you decide to explore, it is worth visiting just to look out on the still lake reflecting the iconic Rocky Mountains.

Click here for the park’s comprehensive accessibility guide.

Zion National Park

Pa’rus Trail

Length: 3.4 miles out and back
Total Elevation gain: 157ft with small sections of 2, 5, and 10% grade slopes
Trail quality: asphalt and concrete with some cracked spots by the Visitor Center
Accessible Bathroom(s): Watchman Campground near the start of the trail

A visit to Zion National Park is like landing on a different planet. It’s bright red rock formations set against deep green trees and flowing water are beautifully alien. Along the Pa’rus trail, you’ll feel your smallness as you roll along bubbling streams and tall swishing grasses sandwiched between towering rock. This trail is very convenient with a wheelchair as the trail is completely paved in either asphalt or concrete, 8-10 ft. wide at all times, and mostly flat aside from sections of 2, 5, and 10% grade slopes. It’s also the only dog-friendly trail in the park making it the perfect adventure to bring along your furry companion. Aside from a few resting plazas that provide an escape from heat, be sure to prepare for a sunny and potentially hot roll along the trail. Zion can get incredibly hot in summer months. In cooler months, be prepared for more frigid weather (it can even snow!).

Click here for the park’s comprehensive accessibility guide.

beginner hikes in the united states
Photo by Treat Erwin.

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite Valley Loop Trail

Length: 11.5 mile loop
Total Elevation gain: relatively flat throughout
Trail quality: dirt, rock, sand, wooden pathways, and pavement
Accessible Bathroom(s): near the start of Lower Yosemite Falls Trail

My personal favorite, Yosemite National Park is the hub of professional climbers, PCT thru hikers, family campers, river floaters, and day hikers. The way the valley is naturally and structurally organized makes it highly accessible to anyone looking for an incredible view of the infamous Half Dome, El Capitan, and misty waterfalls. Whether you want a view from above or below, there are so many opportunities for diverse views of this iconic valley.

To get a tour of the valley, take the Yosemite Loop Trail. You can access the trail from multiple shuttle stops, or park in one of the many parking lots and join the nearest access point. The loop trail will guide you through the peaceful meadows, river segments, and offer a variety of perspectives on the surrounding rock formations. Be sure to pick up a map on your way into the park so that you can orient yourself as you navigate the trail. The entire loop is 11.5 miles, so be sure to bring plenty of water and snacks with you.

For a bonus experience, I recommend taking Glacier Point road to Glacier Point where there is a parking lot and accessible pathway that leads to an invigorating lookout point. From here you can see the valley you just explored (it’s similar to looking out an airplane window), as well as Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, and the high country beyond. Glacier Point also has a gift shop and accessible restrooms. Note that Glacier Point closes from October or November to April due to snow and ice in the park.

Click here for the park’s comprehensive accessibility guide.

I hope you’ll find a park where you can exercise your adventure bug while experiencing the addictive rejuvenation of wild spaces. Whether you’re a wheelchair hiking veteran or are new to venturing into national parks on wheels, you belong on these trails. Let us know what trip you’re planning for the fall, or what trips you’ve already taken on wheels this summer in the comments below!