I can’t say I’ve ever had my breath actually taken away by a vista, or been left speechless by a stunning landscape, but the closest I’ve ever come was at the end of the week I spent exploring Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks last summer.
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After five days spent trying to check out all the accessible attractions and lodging spots, I was enjoying my last sunset in Yellowstone on a boardwalk alongside the LeHardy Rapids. On a day where I’d watched a herd of bison ford a river and rolled among some of the most unique hot springs and geysers in the world, it would have been easy to be underwhelmed by the view; there were no animals and no identifiable landmarks in sight, just the steam rising off the crystal-clear water and the fresh smell of wet earth and pine left behind by the thunderstorm that had just passed through.
For the first time all day, I couldn’t see any other tourists and the sounds of the nearest road were drowned out by the crashing rapids. Sitting alone in my power chair, breathing in the fresh air and listening to nature’s cacophony around me, I struggled to find the words to express my surroundings. My attendant and I had a running understanding that if I slipped into saying, ‘It’s so pretty,” one more time, he was free to hit me, but sitting there, all I could do was laugh and say, “Damn, it is so pretty.”
I have no doubt that Yellowstone and Grand Teton have been causing that same nature-induced aphasia in visitors since long before they received those names, and long before they became national parks, in 1872 and 1929 respectively.
Today, thanks to the efforts of the National Park Service, both parks are more accessible than ever to visitors with disabilities. If you want to watch Old Faithful erupt or roll through the superheated Mammoth Hot Springs, you are in luck. Lengthy boardwalks give wheelers the same access as everybody else to these and many other famous spots. A growing number of accessible overnight options lets you choose how you want to experience the parks, whether it’s camping under the stars or living it up in one of the parks’ high-end lodges, like the famed Lake Yellowstone Hotel. But access has its limitations.
Obviously, there is no way to provide access to every inch of the often-extreme terrain while preserving the inherent natural beauty, but watching walking visitors explore the hundreds of diverse trails throughout each park, with surprisingly few wheelchair accessible trails, it can be hard not to feel left out. The immersive satisfaction in nature I enjoyed at LeHardy Rapids is available for wheelers, it’s just not as easy to find.
With almost 2.5 million acres between the two parks, it makes sense to have a robust plan before embarking, even if your only desire is to lose yourself in nature. Each park has a unique vibe and distinct character, but the beauty of visiting is that, since they are right next to each other, it’s easy to go back and forth as much as you want until you figure out what fits you best (especially if you have an Access Pass, see below).
Getting Set Up at Majestic Grand Teton
Grand Teton Park is the younger, less famous sibling of the two national parks, but you’d be foolish to judge it based on those two qualities. Situated just north of Jackson, Wyoming, and just south of Yellowstone, Grand Teton is bordered on the west by the majestic Teton Range and on the east by the Bridger-Teton National Forest. In between those boundaries, a series of pristine lakes reflect the snow-capped peaks as the Snake River makes its way south. If it sounds idyllic, that’s because it is; once you descend into the park there is not a bad view in sight.
There are seven lodging options inside Grand Teton, each offering some combination of campgrounds, RV hookups and cabins, and each with some accessible offerings. Unlike Yellowstone, where all the lodging options are run by a private company, the concessions in Grand Teton are split between different concessionaires, leading to more diversity in experience. Randy Duchesneau, a quad from Maryland, stayed in a cabin at Colter Bay Village. The village is one of four lodging options in the park run by the Grand Teton Lodge Company and offers two “fully accessible” cabins.
All of the accessible options tend to get reserved months in advance, and everyone I spoke with suggested calling up to 17 months in advance. Duchesneau wasn’t able to snag a fully accessible cabin, but made do. “I had one step to get in, which was OK with the manual wheelchair,” he says. “The cabins were pretty old and rustic, so it wasn’t the most accessible, but you could make it work if you had to.”
As a C5 quad, I wanted a comfortable room that could accommodate my caregiver and I, and had a roll-in shower. The roll-in shower ended up being the decisive factor and I booked one of the two accessible cabins at Signal Mountain Lodge, the only property in the park run by Forever Resorts.
Located on the southeast bank of Jackson Lake, the largest lake in the park, Signal Mountain Lodge gets its name from the adjacent mountain, which offers 360-degree views of the valley floor and the scope of the park. With a cozy bar, the best affordable restaurant in either park, a gas station and a well-outfitted store, Signal Mountain is perhaps the best situated base from which to explore both parks. Bill Peace, a manual wheelchair user from Denver, has visited Grand Teton around 30 times and has always stayed at the Lodge. “It’s just the only normal place,” he says. “You see families, you see locals. You’ve got the camp ground. You’ve got good food.”
On top of all that, the two accessible cabins are on par with the nicest accommodations I have seen in any high-end hotel. Completely remodeled in 2014, the interiors are lovely and very spacious, but what put it over the top for me was the roll-in shower. Beautifully tiled and large enough for my power chair to completely turn around while my shower chair was in the shower stall, I honestly can’t say I’ve seen a nicer setup.
Tackling the Trails
When I asked a ranger to tell me what differentiates Grand Teton from Yellowstone, he said that Grand Teton was the better park for hiking and wildlife viewing. The website and free trail maps available in the lodge listed too many trails to count, but disappointingly only seven trails were listed on the Accessibility guide, with only two receiving the “fully accessible” endorsement and only one measuring more than half-a-mile.
That one longer trail is 20-miles of paved heaven that runs from nearby Jackson, Wyoming, all the way to Jenny Lake. Duchesneau regrets not having his handcycle in tow and missing the chance to cycle through the park. “It’s nice and flat and paved and it would be perfect for handcycling,” he says.
While there is nowhere in the park to rent handcycles, visitors can rent adaptive gear through Teton Adaptive Sports in nearby Jackson. The 12-year-old nonprofit offers classes and events for locals but is also a great adaptive resource for visitors looking for help planning adaptive excursions. Christy Fox, executive director of TAS, says TAS is happy to help in any way it can.
“We recommend visitors look at everything that’s available and see what the rest of your travel group and your family wants to do and then call us before you book anything so we can direct you a little bit,” says Fox. “Sometimes when you call outfitters trying to get the help or equipment you need, you get the wrong person and they’ll turn you away. We don’t do that.”
Years of experience and working with local outfitters give TAS the knowledge to make informed recommendations tailored to visitors’ needs. Rafting, boat trips, climbing assistance, hay rides — you name it, they know who can help and are happy to connect you.
Of the other trails listed as accessible, the intermittent paved paths and boardwalk around Jenny Lake are the cream of an underwhelming crop. My power chair had no trouble navigating alongside the shores of the glacial lake, and the boardwalks are lovely, but there was no more than 30 minutes of trail to explore. An accessible boat can take you across the lake to more trails, but it wasn’t working the day I was there and the ranger said he didn’t think the trails would be manageable in my chair. Still, Jenny Lake is ideal for canoeing and kayaking, and worth visiting if for nothing more than to see the reflections of the Teton Range in the crystal-clear water.
Another can’t miss is the relatively new Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve. Located a few miles south of Signal Mountain, the 1,106 acres preserve was privately owned for almost 100 years before the Rockefellers donated it in 2007. The Preserve encompasses a striking, modern interpretation center, 8 miles of trails and some of the better wildlife viewing in Grand Teton. I was content exploring the center and taking in the views, while Duchesneau ventured on the trails and found them to be mostly accessible and worth tackling.
The Colter Bay Marina and Menors Ferry also offer short accessible paths, with Menors Ferry perhaps the more interesting of the two, while Colter Bay has more accessible trails. Built around the first ferry to port passengers across the Snake River, the Menors Ferry Historic District consists of a few remaining buildings, including a general store, a cabin and a barn. All are stocked with historical artifacts and pictures and info, making for a fun and informative, if brief, stop. Colter Bay Marina is another good place to put in for any sort of accessible water sports. A gravel-paved path rings the smaller part of the bay and serves as the starting point for a number of the more manageable unpaved trails. As lacking as the park is in fully accessible trails, there are a number of trailheads that looked wheelable under the right conditions. I started down a few, only to turn back because of a root or log that my power chair couldn’t handle.
If you are looking for more adventure and demand access to more difficult trails, Peace has a solution. Years ago, he bought a satellite phone, got a four-wheel drive car and approached the Park Service about a permit that would allow him to drive on their roads and trails. “I told them exactly what I wanted to do. I explained that my car had a GPS, that I could navigate, you know, I gave them a route, told them when I was going, how long I would be gone,” he says. The approach worked, and Peace and his son were able to access a number of trails most wheelers would only dream of. “If you’re mister hard-core back-packer you can get off the beaten trail real easily, especially for somebody who’s in a manual wheelchair,” says Peace. His favorite of the extreme trails: Teton Crest Trail. “It’s very difficult,” he says, “I just exploited my son. He was young and strapping. We couldn’t make it all the way around, but together there was maybe 30 percent of it we could navigate. It’s just awe inspiring.”
I asked the Park Service if there was an official policy regarding allowing visitors with disabilities to petition for extended access permits, but their answer was rather vague: “Wheelchair users, whether using a manual or power wheelchair, may access any of the hiking trails or boardwalks in the park, unless there is a closure for wildlife or other safety issue. Bicycle trails may be an option, too.”
Yellowstone Lodging: A Mixed Bag
If you spend any amount of time in Grand Teton, transitioning into Yellowstone is like cresting the peak of a rollercoaster. Leaving behind the tranquil shadow of the Teton Range, the increased traffic as you head north is the first sign things are changing. The topography follows suit. Whereas nearly every view in Teton is framed by the Teton Range, every corner in Yellowstone holds the promise of completely different terrain. Over the course of a short afternoon drive, you can go from the moon-like flats of Mammoth Hot Springs to the grizzly-filled forests near the park’s northern border to the placid calm of Lake Yellowstone — and that’s only covering a few of the park’s diverse regions. Unlike driving through the mostly flat confines of Teton, a trip through Yellowstone turns your car into a four-wheeled mountain climber, with elevations varying from 6,000 to 11,000 feet.
With nearly eight times the acreage of Grand Teton, Yellowstone is truly massive, making where you stay all the more important. The park’s attractions are laid out around Grand Loop Road, a 142-mile loop with a connecting road in the middle that creates two shorter loops — the north and the south loop. Five park entrances feed into the loop — the south entrance from Grand Teton, the west entrance from West Yellowstone, the north entrance from Montana and the lesser used northeast and east entrances. One hundred and forty-two miles may not seem that long, but the terrain and traffic often make for slow going and you should figure at least four to seven hours to drive the entire loop. And that’s without stopping to take in the sights.
The south loop has more of the park’s tourist attractions, including Old Faithful, Lake Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. It also has seven of the nine lodging options that have accessible accommodations. The north loop is home to the famed Mammoth Hot Springs, Tower Fall and some of the park’s highest elevations.
Peace recommends basing your adventures toward the south. “The challenges just get bigger and bigger the further north you go,” he says. “The southern loop is the way to go. It really is. You will see more animal life along the northern loop, but it’s really, really remote.”
All of the lodging and concessions in the park are run by the same company, Xanterra Parks & Resorts, and there are a number of accessible options — none cheap — ranging from the extravagant Lake Yellowstone Hotel to the more basic cabins at Lake Lodge. Finding an accessible room with two beds and a roll-in shower proved more difficult than I had anticipated, and I ended up settling on one of the 10 accessible cabins at Lake Lodge, located just down the road from Lake Yellowstone and the Hotel, in the southeast quadrant of the loop.
I regretted my decision as soon as I pulled up. While the old wooden lodge was attractive, there were no disabled parking spots where I could unload my ramp and the access road from the lodge, where I checked in, to my cabin would have been impassable for even the heartiest of track chairs thanks to poor maintenance and a steep incline. The net effect was I had to drive the 1,050 feet from the lodge to the cabin in my van every time I wanted to go there. On top of that, there were no accessible trails I could roll to, and no safe way to roll down the road to the hotel. The staff said the lack of accessible parking and road conditions were a result of construction, but that seemed a poor excuse. Regardless, it was frustrating to be staying so close to so much beauty and have no means to really experience it other than through a car window.
It’s also worth noting that the food throughout the park is pedestrian at best, disappointingly bad more regularly. Apparently, everyone knew this but me. “Oh, that’s a real problem,” says Peace. “There is a boatload of really bad food throughout the park.” Fox described the offerings as “horrendous.”
“I tell everybody to bring your own food,” she says, “or starve until you get back.”
This may seem like a snobby complaint, but the reality is, visiting remote Wyoming isn’t cheap, and if you’re staying in the park it is even more expensive. I expected I would at least be able to eat a healthy, decent tasting meal at all the in-park dining options. What I found was menus mostly filled with hot dogs, hamburgers and heavy grilled fare.
A Bounty of Attractions
Once you’re set up with lodging, you can turn your attention to the park’s bounty of attractions. This is one of the rare cases where the normally-handy maps the rangers give you when you enter a national park may actually hinder your decision making. There are just too many options. To help people with disabilities, the Park Service has a free 40-page accessibility guide that breaks down all the lodging, concessions and attractions. I picked up a copy at Grant Village, home of the southernmost visitor center, and in doing so saw that Old Faithful was scheduled to erupt in less than an hour. At the time, I didn’t realize that it erupts every hour, but in my ignorance, my attendant and I hopped in the car and made a beeline for the famous geyser.
The first thing you notice upon pulling into the never-ending parking lots at Old Faithful are the hordes. Every hour, as the predicted eruption time nears, waves of humanity descend on the viewing areas around Old Faithful. The actual eruption was cool, if slightly underwhelming, but the area around the geyser offers way more to see. From where we watched Old Faithful blow, we could see and hear two other eruptions, and were less than a mile from a number of hot springs so rich in color that they have to be seen to be believed.
Thanks to its unique geologic background, Yellowstone is home to almost 60 percent of the world’s geysers and in the square-mile around Old Faithful there are at least 150 hydrothermal events. In part for accessibility and in part because of the fragility of the terrain, the park service has built a lengthy network of boardwalks for visitors. All of the boardwalks were doable in my power chair, but there were steep sections that would try even the hardiest of manual chair users. There is also a wide, paved path running alongside the main boardwalk from the lodge. The path was one of the better (and few) spots I saw for handcycling in the entire park.
Another can’t miss path is the lengthy boardwalk to and encircling Grand Prismatic Spring. A few miles down the road from Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic is the largest and arguably the most stunning of all the springs — offering a tableau of colors unseen elsewhere in nature. Again, the boardwalk was easily doable in my power chair but had steeper sections that might be tough for a lone manual chair user.
The entire southwest quadrant of the park is dotted with geysers and springs, and if the crowds at the big-name destinations are too much there are plenty of quieter options. “You could not find a more touristy spot than Old Faithful,” says Duchesneau, “but if you go one mile away, say to Lone Star Geyser or even just to the end of the boardwalks, there is no one there.”
There are sure to be plenty of people at Mammoth Hot Springs, but the 50-mile drive north is a must. Divided into upper and lower terraces, Mammoth Hot Springs is the only major thermal area in the park outside the caldera and offers otherworldly landscapes and views that look like the work of a mad scientist with an eye for art. It’s easy to see most of the highlights on two short roundabout drives, but it’s worth getting out at all of the boardwalks to explore the full panorama.
Beyond the geyser basins and hot springs, there are plenty of roadside attractions worthy of stopping at: waterfalls like Tower Fall and Gibbon Falls, short scenic detours like Firehole Canyon Drive, and self-guided tours like Forces of the Northern Range. Almost every one offers some degree of accessibility and stunning views, but don’t expect more than a short roll. It was frustrating watching people enjoy access at prime locations like the lush swimming hole and waterfall at Firehole Canyon and knowing there was no way to get there in my chair.
Access, With Limits
If you spend any amount of time in Grand Teton or Yellowstone, you are sure to come away with a number of unforgettable memories. Yet even with all the boardwalks and accessible areas that have been built, after a few days spent mostly driving around, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t really experiencing the parks. Much of the time, despite my best efforts to get out and explore, it felt like I was on a safari.
Looking back on my trip, I find that the moments that have stuck with me most are the ones where I went off the paths and found my own slices of nature. Like when I dropped my ramp over a curb in a small pullout on the Virginia Cascade Scenic Drive in Yellowstone. I rolled a few hundred feet over some packed dirt to the side of a small creek and just sat there, enjoying the faint sounds of a trickling creek and the eerie smoke-tinged sunset. It was one of the only moments of anything near solitude I had in the park. In those minutes, I felt transported back in time, before the cars and tourists flooded the park.
Duchesneau and Peace singled out similar moments as the highlights from their time in the parks. For Duchesneau, simply watching the light hit the Teton Range was unforgettable.
“I had never seen mountains like that and it was just mesmerizing,” says Duchesneau. “Every time I’d look at the mountains they looked different, because the light would change or my position would change. If you see a monument or something like that, it kind of looks the same all the time. But those mountains change all the time with the light and the time of day. It was really beautiful and really cool.”
Watching the sun set into the Teton Range left Peace with the same struggle to communicate I had at LeHardy’s Rapids. “I’ll never forget, my dad was still alive, and I remember he called me near sunset. And I remember telling my father, ‘It’s too beautiful outside. I really just can’t talk to you right now.’ You know, how many places are there in the world where you’re not gonna talk to your father because you want to watch the sunset?”
Not many. But Grand Teton and Yellowstone are just those kinds of places. Neither park succeeds in providing wheelchair users and people with limited mobility the same experience as the general population, but they have done enough to make visiting enjoyable and definitely worthwhile. The Park Service is conducting a Self-Evaluation and Transition Plan to identify and address areas where accessibility can be improved, and ongoing construction throughout the park can only continue to help everyone enjoy the majesty of some of the world’s most spectacular land. I’ll be back, and until then I will have the images and sounds from my trip replaying in my head.
Access Pass — Your Free Ticket to the Park System
Whether you are planning on visiting Grand Teton and Yellowstone or not, don’t wait to get an America the Beautiful Access Pass from the National Park System. The Access Pass gets you in free to every national park and is available at no cost to all U.S. citizens and permanent residents with a permanent disability. At $30 per car for a seven-day pass to get into Grand Teton or Yellowstone, or $50 for a joint pass, the savings add up quickly. The Access Pass is good for life and available at most federal recreation sites, or via mail with a $10 fee.
If you’re looking for a hearty adventure and don’t mind getting cold, a winter visit to Yellowstone promises a unique spectacle. While the main roads in Grand Teton remain open, all of its lodging options close for the winter. In Yellowstone many of the roads close, but two of the nine lodging options remain open — Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Old Faithful Snow Lodge. Mammoth has two accessible rooms and Snow Lodge has five. Just know that other than the northeast entrance road to Mammoth, the only way to move through Yellowstone is via snowcoach. Xanterra, the manager of all Yellowstone lodging, operates three accessible snowcoaches, each with one wheelchair slot.
Peace isn’t sure whether the adventure is worth the effort. “I’ve got to say I’ve been there once in the winter and I did not have fun,” he says. “It just made me nervous. If a blizzard moved in, you’re not going anywhere until the blizzard is over.” Should you decide to go, Fox says Teton Adaptive Sports would have your back. The organization has sit skis available and Fox says she’d be happy to connect visitors with outfitters who organize other trips, including sleigh rides.
If you’d like a taste of winter without the hassle, Peace recommends booking a room at Signal Mountain Lodge near its Mother’s Day opening, “If you’ve ever heard a mountain lake as it’s melting, it’s one of the weirdest sounds, like women crying, or like the most unusual groans you’ve ever heard. I mean, I can’t even describe what it sounds like.”
Planning Your Trip
Each spring and summer, over 7 million visitors flock to Wyoming’s northwest corner to experience the raw beauty Yellowstone and Grand Teton offer. The result is packed campgrounds, bumper-to-bumper traffic and crowds that wouldn’t seem out of place at Disneyland.
Assuming you are not just passing through, there are three main accessible options for overnighting: staying outside the park in one of the nearby towns, camping at one of the parks’ campgrounds or staying in one of the parks’ lodges or cabins.
Camping is the cheapest and most plentiful bet if you can handle it. Between Yellowstone and Grand Teton there are 18 campgrounds, 14 of which claim to have fully accessible sites, with prices ranging from $15 to nearly $50/night. Some allow reservations, some are first-come, first-served.
Staying outside the park is the next cheapest route, and the two best options are to the south, in Jackson, Wyoming, and to the west in West Yellowstone, Montana. Jackson, just below Grand Teton, has lodging options at every price range to go with an overwhelming number of fancy boutiques and restaurants. As Peace says, “The joke out there is, ‘the good news is all the millionaires moved out, but the bad news is the billionaires moved in.’” West Yellowstone offers a toned-down experience directly out the west entrance to Yellowstone.
The in-park lodges and cabins are all on the pricey side and vary in quality and amenities. The few accessible rooms go fast, especially in July and August. Check the official sites for prices and call early to reserve. Thanks to first-class accommodations and a good location, I would recommend Signal Mountain Lodge in Grand Teton, and one of the lodging options at Old Faithful or the Mammoth Hotel in Yellowstone. While those are two of the busiest areas of the park, there are a number of shorter accessible trails and things to do at both spots.
As far as getting to northwest Wyoming, if money is no object you can fly directly into Grand Teton via Jackson Hole Airport on United, Delta and American. Don’t expect jetways and do expect limited rental options. If you don’t mind a little road trip, you could follow Duchesneau’s lead and fly into Salt Lake City and then make the drive. “It was a very beautiful drive,” he says. “It went by really quickly, too, because there was no traffic or anything.”
Whichever you choose, remember that getting around both parks requires a lot of driving, and the potential for lots of transfers, as most of the attractions require getting out of your vehicle and walking or rolling a short distance. It’s worth having a vehicle that makes life easy for you, whether you take your own or rent one nearby.
Bison, Bears & More
The one area where both parks fully delivered was wildlife viewing. With millions of acres of designated wilderness abutting the parks, pretty much everywhere is a good place to see wildlife. The area is home to bears, moose, elk, bison, wolves, deer and countless other animals not commonly seen elsewhere.
In fact, there are so many large animals it can be slightly surreal. The night my attendant and I got to Signal Mountain Lodge, in our haste to be done driving after a long day on the road, we pulled out to pass two cars that were blocking the road with their lights on. As we quietly cursed them under our breath and passed them, we could see their headlights illuminating the enormous shape of a moose that had stopped for a twilight snack on the side of the road. The moose paid us no attention while the stopped passengers shook their heads and looked at us like idiots.
Over the rest of our trip the same scenario occurred too many times to count with every type of wildlife you can imagine: bison, deer, moose, and what I’m pretty sure was a bear, though I never saw it. You quickly learn to equate the brake lights of cars slightly pulled off the road to an impending wildlife sighting. The longer the line of brake lights, the bigger the animal, with the bison herds sometimes stopping traffic for as far you can see. There are pullouts scattered along all the main roads and rangers will help direct traffic and parking around some of the more major events, like bison herds or bears.
I stopped to watch bison herds and passing moose several times and came to appreciate the automatic wheelchair lockdown in my van more than I ever have. If you want to stop and watch the animals, be prepared for a lot of transfers and don’t expect accessible parking spaces alongside the busy roads. I learned to leave my ramp down to prevent over-eager sightseers from crowding into open spaces by my van.
Duchesneau didn’t have the luxury of an automatic lockdown in the van he rented, but he learned to adapt. “At a lot of these pit stops, we’d just position the van in a place where I could just look out the window at everything, and get the best view,” he says. “But if there’s something really nice, then I’ll get out for it.”
Despite the hassle, seeing the animals exist as they have there for thousands of years is worth it. Watching an aging male bison slowly swing his testicles over a large boulder as if to itch them is an image that will not soon leave my mind.
Access Pass, nps.gov/planyourvisit/passes.htm
Grand Teton National Park Service, nps.gov/grte/index.htm
Accessibility brochure for Grand Teton, nps.gov/grte/planyourvisit/accessibility.htm
Teton Adaptive Sports, 307/203-2223; tetonadaptivesports.com
Signal Mountain Lodge, 307/543-2831; signalmountainlodge.com
Yellowstone National Park Service, nps.gov/yell/index.htm
Accessibility Guide to Yellowstone, nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/accessibility.htm
Wilderness Inquiry, 612/676-9400; tetonadaptivesports.com
Xanterra, Yellowstone National Park Lodges, 307/344-7901; signalmountainlodge.com