The dead of winter might not seem like the best time to be thinking about your next domestic adventure but with 62 national parks and over 10,000 state parks spread across the U.S., there is bound to be somewhere you want to visit to escape the cold weather doldrums. It’s also a perfect time to book your spring and summer trips before the accessible lodging options fill up. With that in mind, we turned to some of our trusty travel correspondents to turn up some destinations that may be off your radar, but in your wheelhouse.

Explore the Forts of Savannah

Explore the Forts of Savannah

by Ashley Lyn Olson

It’s said that during his March to the Sea, Union General Sherman spared Savannah, Georgia, because the city was too beautiful to burn. Still, it’s hard to go anywhere in Savannah without passing some kind of monument or plaque commemorating the hardships of the Civil War.  Large outdoor spaces that were once battlefields today remain open as reminders of what was gained and lost. On the banks of the Savannah shoreline, you can visit the still-standing Fort McAllister, Old Fort Jackson and Fort Pulaski and experience their eerie, ghostly vibes.

It’s funny to say that I have a favorite fort, but of the three, Fort Pulaski National Monument really has great accessibility. If you only have time to visit one, this should be it. Located on Cockspur Island, between Savannah and Tybee Island, Fort Pulaski offers a lot to explore, starting with the prisoner burial ground you’ll see as you leave the parking lot and head toward the fort.

You’ll navigate over a moat on a chained, wooden bridge, and then pass through a short, dark, stone hallway that opens into a piercing bright light, like entering a sports arena. The magnitude of the space is impressive, as the fort is larger than it appears from the outside.

Ashley Lyn Olson enjoyed Fort Pulaski’s eerie, ghostly vibe.

Ashley Lyn Olson enjoyed Fort Pulaski’s eerie, ghostly vibe.

You won’t find an elevator to take you to the second floor, where the gun deck is located. But then again, you may not care because completing the loop around Fort Pulaski will take time. Watch out for the deep tracks in the pathway that are used for irrigation and ventilation.

While meandering, it is impossible not to imagine the lives of the people who lived here and the realities they experienced. The architecture of the building alone is incredibly impressive, but don’t forget there is a whole system of trails on the other side of the parking lot. A pedestrian path takes you from the paved Nature Trail to Battery Hambright, Old North Pier and the Wesley Memorial. All are camouflaged by palm trees and dense with Georgia wildlife.

Old Fort Jackson National Landmark is smaller and a little less accessible, but certainly should not be overlooked or underestimated. Constructed between 1801 and 1812, Old Fort Jackson was in charge of protecting Savannah from being attacked by sea. The fort has no inclines, and portable wooden ramps are placed along the pathway of travel. Reenactors are often there, sporting traditional attire and weaponry. Furthermore, every day throughout the spring and summer a Dahlgren cannon is fired. With a 9-inch smooth bore and weighing 9,000 pounds, this cannon was designed to take on wooden warships but was powerful enough to be effective against the ironclad vessels introduced during the Civil War.

Fort McAllister Historic State Park rests on Savage Island, just 10 miles south of Savannah, and the fort itself is situated on the banks of the Ogeechee River. Thick wetland brush and intricate waterways made this location harder for the Union Army to defeat during the Civil War.

At Fort McAllister you can see the best-preserved earthwork fortifications of the Confederacy. My first thought when I saw them was that they would also make incredible hobbit holes for denizens of the Lord of the Rings’ Shire, and I had a little laugh, but the seriousness of their past was heavy. It was also a little painful that I couldn’t get down to the entrance of the earthwork fortifications, and I wished the park offered a wooden ramp instead of a wooden staircase. But I could see them just fine and feel their impact.

Since Fort McAllister is a Georgia State Park, a fee is required and there’s no discount for disabled visitors, despite limited access. The property is at sea level and the trail involves wheeling over dirt, crushed rock and grass. When the weather is wet, the trail gets muddy, and the accessible bathroom is across a thick, large lawn. Otherwise, plan ahead and use the one just outside the museum/office. The Magnolia Trail is pretty flat but rocky and connects with a mile-long nature trail. There is accessible camping and a fishing pier as well.

The Not-Bad-at-All Lands

The Badlands boast a stark beauty, such as that seen in its striated rock formations.

The Badlands boast a stark beauty, such as that seen in its striated rock formations. Photo courtesy of the National Park Services.

by Matt Tilford

When most people think of taking a trip to South Dakota, the first thing that comes to mind is Mount Rushmore. The famed sculpture is definitely worth a stop, but to really connect with nature you can’t miss Badlands National Park. Not only is the landscape diverse and astonishing, but the land’s history is also fascinating. The native Lakota tribe originally named Badlands “mako sica,” which translates to “land bad” because of its high temperatures, exposed terrain and lack of water sources. What’s not lacking is wildlife.

As you drive into the park, you’re happily greeted by hundreds of prairie dogs standing over their burrows. Don’t be surprised if you run into a traffic jam! Sometimes herds of bison take over the road. Bighorn sheep can be spotted climbing the breathtaking rock formations. As the sun sets, open your ears to hear the coyotes howl.

It’s not only the wildlife thriving in the park. During springtime in the prairie, your eyes are drawn to the vivid purple and yellow wildflowers. A few months later, the summer flowers are as incredible as the spring flowers. As the year winds down, fall is your last option to visit because winter, well, winter is cruel and unbearable.

Badlands Loop State Scenic Byway has multiple accessible trails or lookout points. Some aren’t marked as accessible on the park’s map but that doesn’t mean you can’t stop to explore. I was able to maneuver the terrain with minimal support using my lightweight TiLite wheelchair. I was also using the Freewheel attachment to make things a bit easier. For those who are new to the outdoors or don’t have good off-road mobility, there are multiple accessible trail options, many with accessible restrooms and parking.

accessible national parks

Matt Tilford enjoyed many of the park’s accessible trails.

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Fully Accessible Trails

Fossil Exhibit Trail: This is a half-mile accessible boardwalk loop trail with a 13 foot elevation gain. Along the trail, you’ll see evidence of fossils and signage to tell you all about it.

Window Trail:
This quarter-mile accessible boardwalk out-and-back trail has a 6-foot elevation gain. There is an amazing skyscraper window view at the end of the trail, hence the name.

Door Trail:
This out-and-back trail is a little under a mile long. The first section is on an accessible boardwalk, and after that your wheels touch the earth. The complete trail isn’t rated accessible but with the right mindset, equipment, and a spotter, I was able to accomplish it in my everyday wheelchair with my Freewheel and a nondisabled hiking companion.

Cliff Shelf Trail:
This is a half-mile loop with sections of boardwalk and 65 feet of elevation gain. It’s another trail to get your wheels dirty on.

One of my favorite trails at Badlands National park is the trail I created on my own. You can do the same because a lot of the park is a level hard surface. I wouldn’t suggest going off-trail alone unless you know the park and have that type of experience and the right resources/gear. Just know it’s possible, and remember to leave the land as you found it.

For those of you who want to stay overnight to experience the park when it’s most lively, there are a few accessible options. Badlands National Park has four accessible cabins: one single king, one duplex king and two double queens. Roll-in showers and lower bed heights are some of the ADA accommodations that come standard. Site 12 and 20 at Cedar Pass Campground are both ADA RV sites with electricity and water hookups.

If you’re not worried about accessibility and looking for an adventure, you’re in luck. Badlands has several established drive-up campgrounds with hard-packed, flat surfaces, and backcountry camping is allowed as long as you aren’t visible from the road and at least half a mile from the trail.

Badlands National Park is the perfect destination for all ability levels and truly offers something for everyone, no matter where your interests lie and what accessibility options you desire.

Hell’s Half Acre Lava Field

Hell’s Half Acre Lava Trail is a lot more inviting and accessible than the name makes it sound.

Hell’s Half Acre Lava Trail is a lot more inviting and accessible than the name makes it sound.

by Kary Wright

Hell’s Half Acre Lava Field covers about 150 square miles on the Snake River Plateau in Idaho. Geologists estimate this field, with its large lava chunks and deep holes and cracks, was created just over 5,000 years ago by a fissure vent that opened when the North American tectonic plate passed over a fixed hotspot in Earth’s mantle.

The name of the field is thought to have come from early fur traders who used the term Hell’s Half Acre to describe any rough terrain. The rocks are made of basalt, which can cool into different shapes and textures. Scientists say the heat that created this lava field is still close to the surface, and also fuels the Yellowstone geysers.

The easiest access to Hell’s Half Acre is via a rest stop, about 20 miles south of Idaho Falls and five miles east of Blackfoot, along Interstate 15. As my wife and I traveled along the freeway, the landscape suddenly changed from tillable farmland to huge rectangular boulders the size of houses as far as you can see. “What’s all that?” my wife asked, looking at the huge dark boulders that cover the land.

“Let’s pull over and see,” I said. We pulled into the rest stop, and with my dog in tow, we headed down the Lava Trail System. For the next hour, we were immersed in a totally foreign ecosystem. There was very little soil, and huge rocks were everywhere. The slow-growing junipers, grasses and lichens are small, hardy and can tolerate the extreme summer and winter temperatures.

Off to the side of the trail were deep holes where the lava drained away, and plants could be seen down in these. We saw very little wildlife, but it was daytime, and nightfall is usually much better for wildlife viewing. There were lots of interesting interpretive signs on the trail that shed some light onto the harsh life of plants and animals here.

There is a wheelchair-accessible trail that’s a quarter of a mile long, and another half-mile loop that was no problem in my power chair, but its 12% grade may be hard for manual chair users. The trail surface was solid and quite level. The rocks, crevasses and plants are very close as you wind between the ancient lava flow. You can imagine it being very hot and flowing like a river before cooling and breaking up.

There was even a geocache — essentially a GPS-based treasure hunt location — if you are into that.

Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon National Park

by Kary Wright

While we were camping and exploring some of the out-of-the-way places in Utah, a tip from a local led us to Bryce Canyon National Park. The drive to Bryce Canyon took us through Red Canyon, and we enjoyed spectacular views of the red cliffs and ancient formations. There was even an archway carved through rock that the highway followed.

Once at Bryce Canyon, you can choose to drive around the park yourself or take the shuttle that operates from April through October. The area is busy, and there are quite a few tour busses, especially on weekends, so some drivers may not want to brave the traffic. We chose to drive ourselves around the park for the handiness of loading and unloading my chair. Having a disability placard helped with the parking.

There are 13 viewpoints in total, with four main viewpoints within the first few miles of the park. You need to leave your vehicle to get close to the canyon, but when you do, the scenery is absolutely spectacular. Bryce Canyon is known for having the most stunning sandstone scenery in the American West. The viewpoints have accessible paved trails along the rim with fences for safety. As I wheeled along the trails, it was overwhelming to look out over the cliffs at the amphitheatres (or bowls) carved into the edge of the plateau, with their red, orange and white rock.

The Bryce amphitheater is 12 miles long, 3 miles wide and 800 feet deep. There are hundreds of hoodoos, or rock spires, everywhere. They are found on every continent, but Bryce has the highest concentration anywhere in the world. Hoodoos are formed when erosion wears away softer rock, leaving behind a thin layer of harder material.

There’s a lot of wildlife in the area including deer, elk, bears, foxes, coyotes, eagles and condors. Among the plant species are pine trees, junipers, aspen, blue spruce and Douglas fir, to name a few. There are two campgrounds in the park if you wish to stay, and part of the North campground is open year-round. The park also has one of the darkest skies in North America, making it perfect for stargazing, and clear air offers views ranging from 90 to 160 miles on most days.

Valley Forge

General Washington’s Headquarters

General Washington’s Headquarters

by Josie Byzek

Over the summer our family rented a cabin at French Creek State Park, located about an hour west of Philadelphia. We thought we’d spend the week hiking, kayaking or swimming, but found ourselves in a history hot spot, as we were close to Valley Forge National Park.

In December 1777, General Washington marched 12,000 tattered, undernourished and meagerly-equipped soldiers into Valley Forge. The war for independence wasn’t going so well, and our new nation had lost a string of battles and then its capital, Philadelphia, that fall.

The weather improved in February. In March, General Nathanael Greene became head of the commissary, and provisions started flowing into camp. April saw Prussian officer Friederich Wilhelm Baron von Steuben begin drilling the men into a fit fighting force. By the time the army marched out in June, it’s estimated close to 2,000 had died from disease, and more had stolen back to their home states. Those who remained were forged into a disciplined fighting force capable of winning against the British Army.

But on this cheery summer day, the sidewalk leading up to the Valley Forge Visitor’s Center has a street fair feel to it as docents in 18th century-themed costumes spin tales to children at story-telling benches and families wander by. The current facility is a temporary fill-in, while the original Visitor Center undergoes a $12 million upgrade that promises increased accessibility among other new benefits. It is slated to open this spring.

While at the Valley Forge Encampment Store, we purchased tickets for a 90-minute trolley tour. The lift-equipped trolley stops include the Muhlenberg Brigade huts, General Washington’s headquarters and the National Memorial Arch. There are parking lots at these sites, but we enjoy guided tours. The Arch was built in 1910 as a simplified version of the Arch of Titus in Rome, but we could see as much of it as we wanted to from the trolley, so we didn’t get out.

Muhlenberg Brigade Huts

Upon his arrival at Valley Forge, one of the first things Washington did was order a contest to see who could build huts the fastest. The finished products, smaller than most one-car garages, featured six bunks on each side wall and sheltered 12 men.

The originals are long gone but you’ll find replicas scattered throughout the park, and a few rows of them are open to the public at the Muhlenberg Brigade Area, which is named for the long-ago encampment of General Peter Muhlenberg. In addition to huts, you can see the field where the soldiers were drilled until they were no longer merely Pennsylvanians or Virginians or New Yorkers but Americans. If you come at the right time, you can catch reenactments of Revolutionary War-themed events (calendar at valleyforge.org).

This is my favorite place in Valley Forge to visit. I appreciate that although no battle was fought here, this is where the war was won. A sorry lot arrived at this site in December 1777, but a world-class Army marched out in April.

General Washington’s Headquarters

When we disembarked from the trolley, we weren’t exactly sure where General Washington’s Headquarters was, since all we saw was an early 20th-century train station, a few huts and a modestly-sized stone house across a broad field that we learned was called the Isaac Potts House. Potts’ tenant, Deborah Hewes, rented that stone house to Washington, who used it as his headquarters.

The house itself is not accessible and there’s probably no way that it could ever be. You can get close to it by rolling on the balcony past the train station to the very long ramp near the rear. Also, a virtual tour of the house is available at youtu.be/jJeY2rZINvI.

The house is humble, although not as humble as the Muhlenberg huts. A few years back our family toured Revolutionary War sites in Massachusetts, including Battle Road, and they were humble, too. And in Independence Hall in Philadelphia our early legislators sat at tiny round tables in unadorned surroundings. I wonder what the men at Valley Forge or their commander would think of our gargantuan military and superpower status today.