The world-class Kentucky Horse Park is a must-visit and only two hours from Mammoth Cave.
After being shut in at home for months during the COVID-19 pandemic, I found myself dreaming of taking tantalizing vacations to distant destinations. I want to get back to enjoying recreational travel, but as a wheelchair user with a medically at-risk family, it’s imperative to stay safe and healthy. Traveling internationally is too much of a gamble, but domestic road trips allow me to control my circumstances. As I pondered where to go, I realized that there is a way to simulate some of the joys and experiences of traveling abroad without leaving the lower 48.
During my travels to all 50 of the U.S. states and Puerto Rico, plus 24 different countries, I have noticed similarities between domestic and European destinations. For example, when I was in Bavaria, Germany, going from Rothenburg ob der Tauber to Munich, I kept thinking, wow, this looks just like southern Ohio. And it really did — green rolling hills covered with species of deciduous trees like oaks, maples, chestnuts and birch stretched as far as I could see, just like in Ohio. After thinking about it for a while, I realized I shouldn’t be surprised. Both areas are along similar latitudes, have similar weather, similar seasons and are in the foothills of large mountain ranges — the Appalachians in Ohio and the Alps in Bavaria.
In addition to Bavaria and southern Ohio, other prominent parallels between America and Europe are the Postojna Cave of Slovenia and Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, the tulip fields of the Netherlands and Skagit Valley in Washington, and the Dingle Peninsula in Ireland and the Oregon coast. With these almost-doppelgangers, road trippers can save a lot of money, time and energy by visiting America’s European-ish counterparts, and in a more self-contained manner. One can get a taste of old-world charm without ever leaving the country. Plus, the American versions are often more wheelchair-friendly. These road trips are not the same as traveling abroad, but they’re a lot better than nothing, and right now that sounds divine.
Ohio Amish Country is a great place to start if you’re looking for a taste of German-Swiss architecture and culture. The Amish originated in what is present-day Switzerland and they brought aspects of their language and culture with them to the New World. Many German-speaking Amish settled in Holmes County, which is now home to one of the world’s largest Amish communities. They also live in neighboring Wayne and Tuscarawas Counties.
The region’s topography and flora remind me of my visits to Germany and Switzerland. German is commonly spoken in the stores, restaurants and streets, and the Swiss architectural influence is obvious in shops like Heini’s Cheese Chalet, and Sugarcreek’s Broad Run Cheesehouse and Swiss Heritage Winery. Sugarcreek has been dubbed “the Little Switzerland of Ohio” and is famous for its huge Ohio Swiss Festival each fall that draws thousands of visitors. Catering to tourists, the area restaurants have excellent and abundant home-style food.
My favorite wheelchair-friendly Amish restaurants are the Farmstead Restaurant in Berlin, Ohio, Der Dutchman in Walnut Creek and the AmishDoor in Wilmot. These are all nicely accessible with level entrances and wide aisles. Among the many shops that provide easy wheeling and great fun are Carlisle Gifts in Walnut Creek, Sol’s Craft Mall in Berlin and Lehman’s General Store in Kidron. Like some other nearby small towns, Berlin has upgraded its streetscape’s accessibility. The new, wide sidewalks and curb cuts have made access even better. It’s still hilly, but that’s part of the beauty of southern Ohio — and Bavaria.
Elements of German-Swiss culture endure in the quality clock shops and cheese markets found throughout Ohio Amish Country. Sugarcreek shares a claim to the world’s largest cuckoo clock with the town of Schonach im Schwarzwald in Germany. At almost 24 feet tall, Sugarcreek’s clock stands at the city’s entrance in a small, wheelchair-friendly park. On the hour, a band emerges from within the clock and plays a happy tune while two dancers dressed in traditional style spin around. It is a must-see, along with the town’s famous cheese stores.
Courtesy of National Park Service
Karst Caves and Horses
Like the friendly fight over cuckoo clocks, another cross-Atlantic rivalry gave me another deja vu moment when I visited Mammoth Cave in Kentucky the same year that I visited the Postojna Cave in Slovenia. Among the two destinations’ many similarities, they both claim to have the largest cave system in the world.
Over millions of years, both cave systems were carved from limestone by water, primarily the Green River in Kentucky and the Pivka River in Slovenia. This type of geologic activity where water dissolves and carves limestone is known as karst geology. Karst is distinguished by sink holes, swallow holes, underground caverns and solutional caves. This entire area of geologic study is named “karst” after the Karst Plateau in Slovenia where these unique features are extremely prominent. As limestone caves age, beautiful calcite formations can form, such as stalactites, stalagmites, curtains and columns. These formations are often coated with sparkling crystals.
On a 2.2-mile electric train journey, I saw a very old portion of the Postojna cave system. The age means incredible calcite structures are everywhere. They sparkle like glitter under the artfully placed lights distributed throughout the train route. There is no way of sitting in any wheelchair while on the train, so I transferred into my seat at the beginning of my trip, and the tour staff met me at the ride’s end with my manual wheelchair.
At Mammoth Cave, the newer part of the cave system is wheelchair-friendly via an elevator that takes visitors 300 feet below ground. I used my powerchair on this trip. We left the elevator and entered the Snowball Room, which is named that because of the white gypsum deposits all over the ceiling. Picnic tables, a cafeteria line and a kitchen are still in this room from the days when one could have lunch in the bowels of the earth. A wide, easy-to-wheel, dimly-lit half-mile-long path leads visitors from the Snowball Room into the cave. The gypsum deposits are the distinguishing feature here, as this portion of Mammoth Cave is too new for glittering calcite formations.
Both Postojna and Mammoth cave systems are home to bats and other unique critters that live in the dark, wet clime. Postojna is known for an olm, a white unpigmented amphibian, that lives in the cave. Mammoth Cave has eyeless albino fish, crayfish and crickets among its fauna.
Since Mammoth Cave is a national park, it also has wheelchair accessible trails above ground, like the half-mile Heritage Trail. This level trail begins just outside of Mammoth Cave Hotel and is either packed dirt or boardwalk. Meandering through a wooded area, it provides a view of the historic cave entrance and overlooks an old cemetery.
A two-hour drive from Mammoth Cave takes you to the fabulous, world-class Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, where many beautiful Derby and Breeders’ Cup race-winning thoroughbreds are retired. It is absolutely worth the drive. The paths are wide, smooth, mostly level and either paved or packed dirt. The barns — if they can be classified as that — are spotless, spacious and very wheelchair-friendly. What a delight it is to watch and pet these elite creatures!
Slovenia has its marvelous horses, too. Only 23 miles from Postojna is Lipica, Slovenia, where their magnificent Lipizzaner horse farm has bred horses for over 400 years. The wide, paved main path lined with chestnut trees is easy to wheel. The outdoor show arena is up a slight hill along a packed dirt road, but it is so worth it to see these gorgeous horses prancing and dancing in competitive shows.
Why caves and horses ended up together like this, I don’t know. But both Slovenia and Kentucky share these similarities that are thrilling to see.
The tulip fields in Skagit Valley, Washington, rival those in the Netherlands. Photo courtesy of Tulip Town.
Fields of Color
After wandering through the packed gravel paths and firm grassy areas of the Roozengarde Display Garden in Mount Vernon, Washington, my sister and I found ourselves looking out over never-ending tulip fields. “This looks just like the Netherlands,” she said. “Except there are no windmills.” Really, there is at least one big windmill — it was right behind me in the middle of the garden. But not rows of them. Beyond that, though, there are definite similarities.
Tulips flourish in maritime climates that are cool — but not too cool — with pleasant, breezy summers and no freezing winters. They like soil with good drainage. Two places on earth that nicely fit these criteria are the Netherlands and Skagit Valley, Washington.
Every April, Skagit Valley becomes an array of colors when the tulips take over in time for the annual Skagit Valley Tulip Festival. As we drove through the tulip fields, we passed wave after wave of vibrant hues, all offset against the majestic North Cascade Mountains in the distance — a background that rivals the Netherlands’ rows of windmills.
I have been to the Netherlands, but not to their tulip fields. So I called Jeannette DeGoede, who until last year co-owned Tulip Town in Mount Vernon with her husband, Tom, a native of the Netherlands. As a tulip grower, she has been to the Dutch tulip fields dozens of times and has participated in the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival since it began in 1984. She confirmed that the two regions’ similar climates make for world class tulips, while also noting some differences.
“The focus in the Netherlands is more on growing and not tourism,” DeGoede points out. “In Skagit Valley, we try to do all we can to promote inclusive tourism. We have some truly great events during the Tulip Festival, too.” Tulip Town has a wheelchair-friendly indoor area full of flowers, a waterwheel and huge wall murals.
I attended the Kiwanis Salmon BBQ at Hillcrest Lodge in Mount Vernon and stopped by multiple shops. The popular Downtown Mount Vernon Street Fair, normally held each April, is nicely accessible, too. Cindy Verge, executive director of the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival, pointed out a number of events and venues that are wheelchair accessible, including Art in a Pickle Barn, Art Bash, Art in the Schoolhouse and Garage Sale and Antiques and More at the Fairgrounds. “But I would be careful about going into the agricultural fields with mobility aids,” she cautioned. I heeded her advice and stayed out of the mud, but I was awed by what I did see from gardens and roads edging the many blooming fields.
Although the Netherlands’ tulip growers may not focus on wheelchair accessibility, Keukenhof Park and Gardens are wheelchair-friendly. Flat, wide paths, wheelchair-friendly restrooms, a restaurant and exhibition hall all make this attraction available to wheelchair users. Because the Netherlands is a bit farther north, its tulips bloom throughout most of May.
Photo by Meredith Matherly/Bureau of Land Management Oregon and Washington
Sea Cliffs and Marine Critters
The view from my tour bus atop the rocky cliffs of Ireland’s Dingle Peninsula was gorgeous. As I leaned toward the seaside window to catch a glimpse of Fungie, the local bottlenose dolphin that inhabits Dingle Bay, I looked at the sudden, rocky drop-off at the edge of the road. I was struck by how much the scene reminded me of Newport, Oregon, and the central Oregon coast. Although Dingle is on the Atlantic Ocean and Oregon is on the Pacific, the average high and low seawater temperatures are within a few degrees Fahrenheit of each other. This lends itself to supporting the same types of sea creatures, like seals, dolphins, whales and seabirds. Add that to the rocky islands and crags that sea mammals and birds love to hang around and — voila — another twin.
The species vary a bit — grey and common seals in Dingle and northern fur and Pacific harbor seals in Newport — but the similarity is clearly there. On the inland side, Dingle offers beautiful, unusual green hedgerows extending across emerald, rolling fields. Hedgerows developed as natural fences and are unique here. Newport counters with lighthouses, a cobble beach, a wheelchair accessible intertidal zone and a wonderful historic bay front with barking, entertaining sea lions.
Of my favorite wheelchair-friendly places in Newport, I love Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area, which is owned by the Bureau of Land Management. Within this one park, there is much to see and do from my wheelchair. I sat above a cobble beach where wave action caused rounded cobbles to clatter against each other. I could spot harbor seals farther out on the nearby rocks. A woman next to me saw an elephant seal, but I wasn’t so lucky. Behind me, the Yaquina lighthouse stood on a tall bluff, and behind it rose wheelchair accessible whale watching platforms, from which I could see a myriad of sea birds like cormorants, murres and gulls — similar to the species that live in Dingle.
On the other side of Yaquina Head, one of the only wheelchair accessible intertidal zones in the world allows access all the way to the edge of the sea. There’s a great visitors center in the park, too. I met a man in its parking lot who was looking through a long, fancy telescope at a cliff. “I’m watching a peregrine falcon,” he told me. Then he lowered the scope to my level, and I saw it, too. The falcon, perched on a cliff, seemed to be looking right back at me.
Another Newport must-see is the Hatfield Marine Science Center. It is part of Oregon State University’s marine research program and is admission-free. It is nicely accessible and provides family fun and educational opportunities, including a wave machine, an octopus display and a marine “touching tank.”
Newport Historic Bayfront offers many wheelchair-friendly shops like Newport Candle Company and Wax Works gift shop. Restaurants include Mo’s Original restaurant and Rogue Ales’ Public House, and there are also wheelchair-friendly boat excursions around the bay with Marine Discovery Tours.
When it comes to seeing some marvelous sights, incredible nature and unique cultures, I really don’t have to go that far. I don’t even have to leave my own country — or my own state — for fabulous adventures. I can take my own vehicle on a road trip, control my circumstances and go as near or as far as I want.