Access Nature at U.S. National Parks

Explore the great outdoors with your special needs child at several accessible national parks.

When Jane Anderson traveled with her 3-year-old son Jonathan to the Badlands National Park in South Dakota this spring, she was pleased with the new boardwalks along the fossil beds. Unlike older boardwalks that had splinters and could be difficult to manage with a stroller, these were smooth with a few wide steps that Jonathan, who has mild cerebral palsy that makes walking difficult, could tackle carefully. Jonathan had breathing concerns at the time, remembers Jane, and “the clean good air was good for him.” For his part, Jonathan loved the animals, pointing out each “neigh” (horse-like animal) he saw. Later this year, Anderson is planning to hit more national parks with her family to go even farther into the great outdoors.

The United States’ national parks with steep, rocky mountain paths, narrow wooded trails, and mile-long sandy shores, aren’t naturally accessible, but the National Park Service is working to make sure that every American, regardless of ability level, can access the country’s natural wonders. Large parks, like Yosemite and Yellowstone, are improving accessibility each year, especially at their top sites. Doug Madsen, outdoor recreation planner with Yellowstone National Park, encourages families to visit the hot springs, geysers and mud pots using boardwalks with wheelstops that get you as close as you’d ever want to be to a boiling hot pond. 

Visiting the national parks can be tricky—you have to plan ahead, pack extra of everything, and be flexible—but looking out from the top of a mountain, staring into a deep canyon or watching wildlife in their natural habitat is worth the trip. Here’s how to handle your next national park adventure.

Where to Stay: Accessible Campground or Park Lodge

Some national parks have accessible campgrounds (reserve ahead of time at The three accessible campgrounds at Great Sand Dunes National Park in Mosca, Colo., have larger parking areas, are on flatter ground and are closer to the bathrooms than other sites. Out of the other 85 campsites, says Visitor’s Center staff member Tess Morin, some are semi-accessible and may be an option for groups of mixed ability levels. Yosemite has accessible campgrounds with electrical outlets to recharge power wheelchairs and picnic tables with extended tops, as well as accessible cabins at the Ahwahnee cottages and Curry Village cabins.

Hotels at the national parks are in various stages of accessibility; many were built before Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards were set. Look for newer hotels, like the Old Faithful Snow Lodge at Yellowstone, which will have better upgrades and be more accessible overall. Madsen recommends working with Xanterra Parks & Resorts, a company that manages hotels near major national parks, including Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon.

National Park Travel Tips

Expect to get up close with nature. The National Parks Service is committed to giving every visitor a good experience, so don’t assume anything is or isn’t accessible—though the larger and more popular the park, the more accessible options you’ll find. At Acadia National Park in Bar Harbor, Maine, accessible carriage rides from Wildwood Stables take visitors around the island. The Great Sand Dunes National Park has accessible wheelchairs for touring the dunes (call ahead to reserve). Yosemite has accessible trail rides, sign language interpreters and assisted listening devices for programs, Braille publications, and paved trails to many of its best-known overlooks and waterfalls. 

Take advantage of scenic drives. The 20-mile Park Loop Road takes visitors around Acadia National Park to see ocean, mountains and forest views, with a four-and-a-half-mile side route up Cadillac Mountain. Expect 10-minute delays on Park Loop Road, which is currently under construction. Cadillac Mountain opens each season on April 15. Yellowstone’s figure-eight road system is a great way to see this huge park and an opportunity to see wildlife close-up. Anderson had no trouble accessing the scenic overlooks along the Badlands’ main road.

Have a back-up plan. You can’t make reservations for all accessible camp sites, so make sure that you have info for accessible hotel options just in case the site you wanted is taken. Be flexible: Some activities might not be fully accessible, maps don’t always tell you where the boardwalks end, and there’s always the weather.

Get an Access Pass. Families who are traveling with someone who is permanently disabled can purchase an Access Pass that will provide lifelong access to national parks, federal recreational lands and historic sites at discount rates, including public camping, boat launching and other amenities. You have to provide proof of disability and make sure that you allow a few weeks for the pass to arrive before your trip. (For more information visit or

Destinations: Great Sand Dunes National Park, Everglades National Park, Acadia National Park, Badlands National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, Yosemite National Park

Themes: Family Travel, Outdoor Adventures

Activities: Camping, Sightseeing